Heart First

For from it flow the issues of life.

Buas i.e. full knowledge of poetic art: because science goes after poetic art...

  - Cormac, Glossary, Irish, 9th century[1]

Keep your heart with all diligence,
For out of it
spring the issues of life.

  - Proverbs 4.23

Late in the period of the Celtic revival, Cormac, an abbot and king, became concerned that many of the old Gaelic terms and words were falling into disuse, and so might be forgotten. And if the words were forgotten, the meanings they conveyed and the role they played in life might likewise fall into disuse.

Perhaps he was concerned this would hasten the decline of that great period of revival that was even in his day in its eclipse. For nearly four centuries Celtic Christians had brought revival, renewal, and awakening throughout Ireland, Scotland, and parts of Europe; and, as it happens, poetry played no small part in that great movement of God’s Spirit.

During the Celtic Revival (ca. 430-800 AD), Christian leaders employed poetry to aid in the work of making disciples, celebrating the goodness of God in creation, encouraging God’s servants in their work, remembering the achievements of their forebears, bringing identity and unity to their communities, and marking important days in the annual calendar. Poems from that period were carefully crafted to make them easy to understand and remember, delightful to sing or recite, and powerful to instruct.

Celtic Christians packed their poems with Biblical allusions, theological insights, and an abundance of local color and contemporary concerns. Among the scant literature surviving from this period, no small part of it is in the form of poetry.

Was poetry falling into disuse in Cormac’s day? Did he, at the very least, hope to remind his contemporaries of something they were about to lose?

Interesting, this word, buas. It indicates more than merely what its definition suggests. For Celtic people poetry was the highest form of learning, the greatest art, the most important cultural achievement of any tribe or people. No wonder Cormac was concerned.

Why was poetry so important to these folks?

Poetry speaks to the heart, bringing delight, creating wonder, provoking the imagination, and training the soul to love. With the heart thus engaged, poetry appeals to the mind. If the poetry is noble, virtuous, elevating, and spiritual, it fills the mind with thoughts of eternal verities and glory.

The heart is the heart of the matter in the life of faith, as Solomon – writing in poetry – knew very well. A heart neglected and not trained and disciplined to fulfill its proper role in the soul can easily be led astray by false ideas, corrupt values, and base emotions. Celtic Christians understood the importance of disciplining the heart, so that all our affections are properly tuned and focused to enable us to deal with the issues of life in a manner consistent with the heart of God.

One way to train the heart is to take up the study of poetry, especially the great spiritual poetry of the Bible, and that of the Celtic and English traditions. In poetry we can expect the saints of old to speak to our hearts, improving our affections and, with them, our thoughts, our priorities, and our lives.

So you’ve never had much time for poetry. Well, there’s no time like the present.

Before poetry and the idea and power of it completely disappear from your Kingdom experience, perhaps you ought to make an effort to benefit from this God-given art.

For Reflection
1. More than a third of the Bible is written in poetry. Why do you suppose God chose that form to reveal Himself and His will?

2. How do the heart and mind work together in the life of faith?

Psalm 49.1-6, 15 (Sagina: And Can It Be, That I Should Gain)
Hear this, you peoples, low and high; give ear as wisdom I proclaim:
My heart with understanding fills to hear and sing my Savior’s fame.
Why should I fear when foes arise, who trust in wealth and boast in lies?
    My God redeems my soul from hell!
    His grace and mercy let me tell!

Lord, let the poetry of Your Word shape my heart and mind for love, so that I…

God loves poetry, and so can you!
Have you discovered the InVerse Theology Project yet? We’re wedding theology and poetry in a new podcast, which you can access by clicking here.

Don’t forget to order your copies of The Church Captive while it’s on sale (click here).

Thank You
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T. M. Moore
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All Psalms for singing from The Ailbe Psalter. Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.


[1] O’Donovan, p. 22.

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