A Poem to Teach: "Helper of Workers" (1)

Poetry gets to the heart in many ways.

Celtic Spiritual Poetry (2)

Helper of Workers

Ah! Helper of all workers and
Blessed Ruler of all good; You stand
Continuous guard throughout the land,
Defending every faithful man,
Extending lowly ones Your hand,
Frustrating those who in pride stand;
Great Ruler of the faithful and
Hosts who in sin prefer to stand,
In justice ruling every man,
Condemning sin by Your command;
Cascading light on every hand,
Light and the Father of lights, and
Magnificent throughout the land;
No one will You Your helping hand
Or strength deny, who in hope stand:
Please, Lord, though I am little and
Quail wretchedly before Your hand,
Rowing hard against harsh winds and
Strong tumults and temptations grand,
That Jesus may reach out His hand
Unto me, I implore – His land,
Verdant and lovely, be my land!
Yes, make my life a hymn to stand
Zealous against those You withstand.
Please grant that paradise my land
  In Jesus Christ by grace may be,
  Both now and in eternity.

  - Colum Cille (521-597 AD)[1]

I will incline my ear to a proverb;
I will disclose my dark saying on the harp.

- Psalm 49.4

The sons of Korah, who collaborated on Psalm 49, understood two things about composing poetry: First, you have to incline yourself to it. That is, a poet needs to listen for what he wants to write, so that he hears it as he wants others to hear it, with all the feeling, truth, and beauty the poet hopes to achieve in his verse. This requires thinking, prayer, meditating on your subject and how best to present it; and pondering words, images, poetic structure and other devices that he might include in his composition.

Second, the poet needs to translate those contemplations into written lines. He hopes to make those “dark sayings” – those deep poetic mysteries – come to light by dressing them up in the music of poetry. Many early poets, including Celtic Christian poets, accompanied themselves on the harp, to add more emotion and beauty to their verse, to make it more delightful to hear and easier to remembers.

Colum Cille’s poem “Helper of Workers” is a very carefully-crafted verse, written originally in Latin. Colum meant this poem to be enjoyed, learned, and used in the daily lives of his monks. It may originally have been set to music for singing.

This is a highly structured poem consisting of 27 lines divided into 3 sections. Each line is comprised of 8 syllables, and uses the same end-rhyme throughout (in the Latin, -ium or -um). Each line begins with the next letter of the Latin alphabet, except for lines 10 and 11, which both begin with C, and the concluding triplet, lines 25-27. The alphabetic structure is an aid to memory with which Biblical writers, such as the psalmists and Jeremiah, were quite familiar. The CC beginning of lines 10 and 11 departs from the pattern and may have been put there to help keep the one reciting the poem on track, or to signal a passing of the recitation to another co-worker. At the first C the next reciter would have been cued, and could have joined the first reciter for the next C, taking over at line 12. By changing the structure of the last three lines, Colum would have set them off as of special importance, at the same time signaling the end of the poem.

The poem begins with an address, lines 1 and 2, which shows that it is a prayer. God is the “Helper of all workers” to Whom this poem is addressed. The next section, lines 3-15, are the ascription, in which Colum heaps up lofty attributes of God, magnifying His purity, power, and mercy. The third part, lines 16-27, offers the petitions a worker might daily present to the Lord.

Three powerful images invite us to position ourselves before the Lord, first as a worker (lines 1, 2), next as one rowing against a continuous storm (lines 18, 19); finally, as a beautiful hymn and witness to the Lord (lines 23, 24) against all His enemies. In our next installment, we’ll look more closely at these images, and what they teach us about how to regard our time here.

All this careful structure has three purposes: First, to delight. Read the poem aloud several times, following the punctuation more than the line structure, until you feel the rhythm of it and experience the fun of letting your voice enter the lilt of the verse. Second, highly structured poems like this could be easily learned, so that, third, they could be recited during the normal course of life, thus offering encouragement to the one reciting the poem, as well as to any who might hear or participate in the recitation with him.

Poems can teach because they engage more than just the mind. They sneak into the heart by their rhythms, rhymes, and images, engaging the patterns and motions of our bodies – heartbeat, breathing, even swaying or bobbing the head – thus spritzing a bit of delight into the soul. The regularity of the line structure makes the content easy to learn and remember, and even to teach and share with someone else. 

Can you memorize this poem? See if you can, if only beginning with the petitions at line 16. Copy the poem and use it as a prayer throughout the day, to encourage you in your own work.

In our next installment, we’ll unpack the power of the “dark saying” Colum has brought to light in “Helper of Workers.”

Questions for Reflection
1. Read “Helper of Workers” aloud. Do you feel the rhythm of it? Do you begin to anticipate the end-rhymes, and maybe even to chuckle a bit as each one trickles out on your tongue? What is your overall impression of reading this poem?

2. Do you identify with the images the poet offers of his life in the Lord? In what ways?

Psalm 95.1, 2, 6 (Tidings: O Zion, Haste, Thy Mission High Fulfilling)
Come, let us sing with joy to God, our Savior! Let us with joy to Him, our Rock, bow down!
Come now before Him, grateful for His favor; let joyful psalms break forth from all around.
Come let us worship, kneel to our Lord; worship our Maker: Father, Holy Spirit, Word.

Help me, O Lord, for I have work to do today, and strong forces are arrayed against me. I look to You to…

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T. M. Moore, Principal
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All Psalms for singing from The Ailbe PsalterScripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[1]Amplified translation, T. M. Moore

T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in Essex Junction, VT.
Books by T. M. Moore