Monday, June 11, 2007

The summerhouse of peace

Just over the hill from here at the end of Ireland's Dingle Peninsula, the Blasket Islands reach out toward America like stepping stones. Until the middle of the last century, a remarkable community of people lived on the Great Blasket, hardy, self-sufficient, and -- as evidenced by the body of literature in Irish that they gave us -- deeply spiritual, in a way that owed more to ancient Celtic tradition than to Christianity.

Here is Peig Sayers, in a typical passage from her book, An Old Woman's Reflections (1962):
I was up very early because I had a good lot of work to do. When I put my head to the door, it would be a good person the delight of that hour wouldn't lift the mist from his heart. The sea was smooth and slippery, and the dew heavy on the grass and this sun beating over the back of Eagle Mountain and red as a piece of old gold. If I had pen and ink then wouldn't I describe well the delight of that morning. Many a nice color I had to be seen with the rising of the sun -- the gulls on the beach, the lark above me singing his pure gentle song, and more, if I mention them.
Life on the island was not easy. A spell of bad weather might cut off the islanders from the mainland for weeks on end. Peig married into the Blasket, and made the best of it.
The golden mountains of Ireland are without mist before me. The sea is pouring itself against the rock and running up in dark ravines and caves where the seals live. We are not disturbed by the uproar and noise of the city. Here is a fine hedge around us and we are inside the Summerhouse of Peace.
The writer John O Riordain says that Celtic spirituality is characterized by a sense of the unity and harmony of the natural world -- sky, earth, the pounding sea, the phases of the moon, the changing seasons, the bird on the bush, sunrise and sunset -- woven into a timeless tradition that speaks continuously of the glory of the Creator. The Celts, by all accounts, had a hunger for wonder; they lived to be astonished. I suppose there is nothing particularly unique in that. We all have a need to be jolted out of the ordinary. For most of us in the developed world the required jolts become ever more artificial, ever more contrived. We need our natural catastrophes, our Anna Nicole Smiths and Paris Hiltons, our schoolroom massacres, our shock and awe. Reading Peig Sayers one has the sense of a person who has not lost the capacity to be astonished by the commonplace, who wakes each morning with a sense of gift, who stands in awe of a flower in a cut away bog. Peig's spirituality makes a sacrament of the ordinary; a sun as red as old gold can be (as the Church defines it) a visible sign of an invisible grace. She never loses sight of the miracle of the everyday. Her formal religion -- Catholic Christianity -- is rather an accident of where and when she was born. The religion that sustains her day by day on her wild, wet island is older and deeper than the formal trappings of any church.