Welcome to Celtic Legacy. I’m your host, T. M. Moore.
Each week we bring you insights from the period of the Celtic Revival (430-800) to demonstrate the continuing importance of that little-known period of Church history.
Christians today have little interest in our Christian past. We don’t read much, except online or in our social media platforms, and the primary way of learning about our Christian heritage is through reading. We are the heirs of a legacy of good works, profound thinking, beautiful art, wise social order, and remarkable creativity and ingenuity which remains as the unacknowledged foundation of Western civilization. To be ignorant of this, and to fail to celebrate and learn from those believers who made all this possible, seems an act of folly and disrespect, if not treachery. Celtic Christians loved their forebears and remembered them in a variety of ways. They worked hard to preserve the memory of those holy ones “who are in the earth”, as Psalm 16.3 has it. Our selection is from the Féilire Oengusso, The Martyrology of Oengus, a record of great Christian witnesses from the period of the Celtic Revival, written as a long poem by Oengus mac Oengobann in the 9th or 10th century. The translation is by John Carey from book, King of Mysteries. Today’s edition of Celtic Legacy is entitled, “Celebrating the Saints.”
“Consecrate my speech, Christ,
Lord of the seven heavens!
May the gift of exactitude be granted me,
King of the bright sun.
Bright Sun which illuminates
heaven with abundant holiness,
King who rules the angels,
Lord of men;
Lord of men,
righteous truly-good King:
may I have every good auspice
for praising your royal company!
It is your royal company that I praise,
for you are my Over-King:
I have made it my care
constantly to pray to them.
I pray a prayer to them;
may what I have recited protect me –
the fair folk of shining hue,
the royal company of whom I have spoken.
I have spoken of the royal company
surround the King above the clouds:
some ruling over radiant days,
others with showers of tears.
May it be to my advantage, for my comfort –
for I am weak and wretched –
following the commands of this King
to go the way that that multitude has gone.
They have cleared roadways
which are not smooth for fools:
before they came to the Kingdom
they suffered hardships.”
The ninth century saw an effort to revive the ancient glory and spiritual power of the early generations of the Celtic Revival. By the time of Oengus the Culdee, the author of this “martyrology,” the churches started under the impetus of Patrick, Colum Cille, Columbanus, and others had been absorbed into the rigid and mostly lifeless structure of the Roman Church. The missionary fervor of the movement had dried up; the spiritual vitality of the monastic communities had been replaced by rivalries that often resulted in violence; the great leaders of the past were no more; and to make matters worse, the Norsemen had begun to ravage the communities which had flourished and known peace for over three centuries. Many sound believers, such as Alcuin of York, believed the savagery of the Norseman to be the judgment of God against His compromised and listless Church.
During the ninth century a movement arose, sometimes called the céili dé – “servants of God” – to restore spiritual vitality of the Celtic churches. This was a movement of monks and spiritual leaders from various communities who recognized what had been lost and were determined to take steps to strengthen the things that remained and to create a fellowship within which revival could once again spring forth.
The céili dé were but one expression of this late-Celtic Revival sense of loss and longing for renewal. We see this same longing in the high crosses carved during this period to preserve the stories of Scripture and the legends of the Church for an illiterate and nominally-Christian age. We sense this feeling of loss in the Glossary of disappearing words compiled by Cormac, and in the formal Litanies written to guide monks in the discipline of prayer and devotion. And we see it as well in the Martyrology of Oengus, a calendar of saints’ days designed as a daily reminder of the current generation’s debt to its now-forgotten forebears.
The Féilire is a long poem in quatrains, including an introduction and an epilogue, with celebrates the achievements of the saints of the past and the glories of the earlier days of the Celtic Revival. Oengus contends that he wrote it for his own benefit – to be a breastplate and blessing for his daily walk with the Lord. However, its poetic structure, and the promises he holds out of great blessings for those who read it, suggest that he hoped it would be read, recited, and remembered by many. Like the book of James in the New Testament, we can see how Oengus linked the stanzas of his poem by connecting the last phrase of a stanza with first phrase of the next. The lines are in four trochee feet and command a rhythm that, like a locomotive, gathers power as it pulls us along.
From the prologue, from which the stanzas above are excerpted, we get a sense of the purpose of this amazing poem. It is first a work done in the name of King Jesus. We note that Oengus refers to Jesus as the “Bright Sun,” which immediately connects his work with a vision of Christ which Patrick recorded in his Confession at the beginning of the Celtic Revival, and which we see repeated on various high crosses of the 9th century and later. He calls on the Lord to help him in making a careful record of the work of the saints of Ireland past, those who are “in the earth” (Ps. 16.3) and in whom he would have his readers delight. They are the “royal company” of the Lord, and Oengus longs to “go the way that that multitude has gone.” He says that he makes it his business “constantly to pray to them.” What he probably means here is that he gave daily praise and thanks to God for them, and not that he actually supplicated them for anything. His poem would be a form of that prayer and a resource to guide others in thanksgiving and learning.
These are the ones who have cleared the path for his own generation, a path only the righteous and faithful can walk (“not smooth for fools”). They sought the Kingdom and suffered hardships, and it is the height of ingratitude to fail to remember their works. Oengus offers a saint for every day of the year, to stir up our remembrance of glories past, move us to gratitude and praise, and, perhaps, entice us to seek revival, renewal, and awakening in our own day.
The saints of the past are part of the communion of saints in which we participate. It is good for us to remember them and to take delight in their lives and works. Oengus’ effort to contribute to reviving the spirit of the Celtic Revival had but little effect in his day. Nevertheless, he reminds us of the importance of bearing always in mind that great company of witnesses who, having finished their course, now surround and, in some ways, support us as we travel ours.