Wednesday, May 12, 2010

(a slightly delayed) Beltane Prayer All Families in the Gulf

I started this a few weeks ago, wanted to share but delayed by papers, one of which included it. The paper was meant to demonstrate ways these traditions can inspire worship today... also dealt with some of the imperfections of the Carmina text which I won't get into here. Please enjoy!

May 1st is Celebrated as Beltane, the Celtic holiday others people know as May Day. This day is a traditional “new fire” festival in both Scotland and Ireland, and especially associated with hills such as Tara, or more local bonfires celebrating the new year's fertility and life. Its one of many indigenous traditions from this part of the world that continued with the coming of Christianity, and I was blessed to read some beautiful descriptions from the Carmina Gadelica, a work that tried to preserve many of these traditions from the highlands of Scotland in the 19th Century.* I celebrated it privately at sundown the eve before, the traditional start of a new day by both Celtic and Jewish reckonings.

I chose a secluded rock outcropping in a local forest, overlooking a lovely lake. I had studied the Carmina Gadelica as well as older traditions, and was especially moved by his descriptions of bho baile gu beinn, the day of migrating that appeared on or near Beltane too. On this day, Catholics and Protestants in highland families would move from townland to moorland, leaving homesteads and winter barns to reach the summer pastures with their flocks. I was profoundly moved, as a scholar of indigenous traditions here to see how close their pastoral cycles were to the hunting and gathering of the local Wampanoag peoples, who maintained summer and winter homes in sites suited to their needs—indeed I had just been blessed to help some Native friends at the college erect one of these homes, a "Wetu" in Harvard yard. In these customs I saw a shared closeness to the land and sustenance we are so lacking today.

The migration to the hills was not a chore, but a chance for the entire community celebrate, reunite and lead even their animals in a special procession. They offer prayers, safeguarding their herds and the whole community with caim, or encircling prayers of protection (God before me, God behind me, etc.). These Christian prayers combined with the older Beltane ritual itself, passing one's flocks and, sometimes people between two fires for special protection and purification. As I read one particular Blessing recorded by Carmichael, I was deeply moved by the prayers of loving protection for family, house and animals, in the coming year. I'll quote a little here.

Bless, O Threefold true and bountiful,
Myself, my spouse and my children,
My tender children an their beloved mother at their head.
On the fragrant plain, on the gay mountain sheiling,
On the fragrant plain, on the gay mountain sheiling,

Everything within my dwelling or my possession,
All kine and crops, all flocks and corn,
From Hallow Eve to Beltane Eve,
With goodly progress and gentle blessing,
From sea to sea, and every river mouth,
From wave to wave, and base of waterfall.

Be the Three Persons taking possession of all to me belonging,
Be the sure Trinity protecting me in truth;
Oh! Satisfy my soul in the words of Paul,
And shield my loved ones beneath the wing of Thy glory,
Shield my loved ones beneath the wing of Thy glory.

Bless everything and every one,
Of this little household by my side;
Place the cross of Christ on us with the power of love,
Till we see the land of joy,
Till we see the land of joy.

What time the kine shall forsake the stalls,
What time the sheep shall forsake the folds,
What time the goats shall ascend the the mount of mist,
May the tending of the Triune follow them,
May the tending of the Triune follow them,

Thou Being who didst create me at the beginning,
Listen and attend me as I bend knee to Thee,
Morning and evening as is becoming in me,
In Thine own presence, O God of life,
In thine own presence, O God of life.

I read the prayer twice, once in English and once in a painful Gaelic attempt (I am trying to learn a little Irish!) I asked my ancestors' forgiveness for in advance, while lighting a very tiny, symbolic fire. I used a Pascal candle from an Easter vigil fire service, remembering Patrick's famous fire-challenge to an Irish king-at the time a religious conflict, but in my practice a harmony—I, as a Christian celebrate Easter first as it is my hope in the bursting of God's Life into the world, healing all pain, sorrow and sin in the end. But Easter hope does not conflict with continuing to honor the memories of my ancestors and rhythms of this world, in light of that hope.

I was especially moved by the loving care the farmer spoke for his animals, worrying after them nearly as his own family as mothers and young went off to the high, misty places. This was not some overly romantic, unrealistic love of nature since, of course the farmer would also eat some of these animals in the coming year. But it seemed a genuine, deeper love of the world and relationships with one's ecology, seen also in Native traditions which hunt animals, but also deeply respect them. Celtic peoples do not have a monopoly on this closeness, though we certainly lack it in our cold, industrial society, causing so much pain.

As I closed my little ritual, my heart especially ached for the Gulf Coast, where I had just learned dolphins were calving and sea turtle nests, too lay right in the line of the horrific oil spill our own broken human nature had created. I offered a final prayer, as the sun slipped below the horizon for those families, and all human families too for protection in that “high, misty place” in our time. The last three verses spoke esspecially deeply to me, as I prayed to God for our world in an uncertain future. (I'll add them in Gaelic in a few):


* Alexander Carmichael, a native-born highlander Scot gathered stories, prayers and poems for decades. Many have been used by people interested in Celtic spirituality, including the Iona community, though one has to be careful of the way he was known romanticize or simplify some things. Still, his work saved many beautiful traditions being pushed out by the forces of his time and I'm grateful for them.

No comments:

Post a Comment