Celtic Spiritual Poetry (8)
The radiance of Christ’s face,
beautiful before all things,
let us seek more earnestly
than the frail flower of flesh…
From the things of earth, lift up
the eye of your heart, of faith:
love the most loving of hosts –
the company of angels.
- Columbanus, “Poem on the World’s Impermanence” (ca. 700 AD)
You are fairer than the sons of men;
Grace is poured upon Your lips;
Therefore God has blessed You forever.
- Psalm 45.2
Columbanus (ca. 543-615 AD) was the greatest of the Irish peregrini, those scholar/monks who took up the work of evangelizing beyond Ireland during the period of the Celtic Revival (ca. 430-800 AD). He founded four monasteries in Gaul and Italy as training grounds for missionaries and priests; and he was an accomplished writer of letters, sermons, rules of discipline, and poems. We’re going to examine some excerpts from his poetry, beginning with three selections from “Poem on the World’s Impermanence”.
This poem was probably meant for singing, although we do not know what melody or neume it used. The thrust of this poem is to compare the transitory things of earth with the glories of heaven, to encourage believers to set their minds on the things that are above, where Christ is seated in heavenly places, and where we have been seated with Him (Col. 3.1-3; Eph. 2.6).
This is an important theme in Celtic Christianity, as we see throughout the literature and artwork from the period. Faith depends on a clear and compelling vision of unseen things (Heb. 11.1); but we are surrounded every day by the things of earth and all the distractions and temptations those things present. Columbanus appears to have intended his poem as a kind of antidote to the lusts of the eyes. He urges us to see with the eye of the heart – the eye of faith (Eph. 1.18) – into the glories of the unseen realm. With these as our focus and north star, we can resist the allure of the world, the flesh, and the devil, and live in the fullness of eternal life here and now.
“Poem on the World’s Impermanence” contains 30 stanzas of 4 lines each, each line consisting of 7 syllables. The Latin accomplishes a fairly consistent rhyme scheme, which is almost impossible to translate into English. The excerpts above are stanzas 15 and 23. Let’s speculate a bit on what is suggested by this very specific form and numbering.
The 30 stanzas make 120 lines, the number of faithful believers who assembled in prayer to wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1.15). Already this structure invites us to identify with them and to look for the promise of God from on high (Acts 1.4). The 7-syllable lines combine the number of earth (4: 4 winds, 4 directions, etc.) with the number of heaven (3: the Trinity) to suggest a blending of the two. We are not creatures of earth merely, but the image-bearers of God; and we are being transformed in our human flesh (4) into the image of Christ and of God (3). The 4-line stanzas anchor us to the earth, and all our daily experience, while the 7-syllable lines urge us to seek the things that are above.
The two stanzas that introduce this article provide a focus not unlike what one can see on any cloudless night. The beautiful, radiant, and unmoving face of Jesus, from which the glory of God emanates with transforming power (2 Cor. 4.6), is like the North Star. He is our Focus, our Goal, our Touchstone, and the One Who gives us access to the Father in glory. Around Him the glorious company of angels – that “most loving of hosts” – celebrates His glory and awaits His command. Like the constellation Big Dipper orbits nightly around the North Star, the angels in glory hover around Jesus, and exist to serve Him in worship and in work. They are thus a fitting model for us, as we make our way through this life of varied distractions and temptations.
Look up to Jesus! Set your mind on Christ! Follow the example of the angels, and position yourself to serve Jesus by worship and work in all your relationships, roles, and responsibilities. This is the way to overcome the allure of the flesh and to avoid the pitfalls of temptation, and to experience the joy and power of our salvation by living in the there and then, here and now.
Columbanus encourages us to work at achieving a proper Christian mindset about our lives in this world. If we can see Jesus, live from His presence, and serve like the angels, His Kingdom will come on earth as it is in heaven in all the daily activities of our lives, and we will thus glorify our Father in all we do (1 Cor. 10.31).
Questions for Reflection
1. How might you improve your ability to see the radiant face of Jesus more clearly and consistently?
2. How can Christians encourage one another to nurture the mindset of seeking the things that are above?
Psalm 45.1, 2(Manoah: When All Your Mercies, O My God)
O my heart, let now a pleasing theme overflow to praise the Lord;
My song I pledge to You, my King, and dedicate my words.
You of all men are the fairest, Lord, and Your lips are flush with grace;
Thus God has blessed You evermore before His holy face.
O Lord, help me to take the time and make the effort to see Your face in glory, so that I…
See Jesus in Psalm 45
You can support and further our work
Share today’s Crosfigellwith a friend, and encourage your friend to subscribe by going to our website, www.ailbe.org. Pray for our work at The Fellowship of Ailbe, and, as the Lord leads, share in our work by your giving. It’s easy to give to The Fellowship of Ailbe, and all gifts are, of course, tax-deductible. You can click here to donate onlinethrough credit card or PayPal, or send your gift to The Fellowship of Ailbe, 19 Tyler Drive, Essex Junction, VT 05452.
T. M. Moore, Principal
All Psalms for singing from The Ailbe Psalter.Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
In this and subsequent quotations, I am in general following the translation in Sancti Columbani Opera, G. S. M. Walker, ed. (Dublin: The Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1957, pp. 183-185), although I make adjustments to capture more faithfully the Latin structure of the poem.