Monday, December 22, 2008

Oliver Davies + Fiona Bowie's: "Celtic Christian Spirituality": Book Review.

Separating fact from fable when it comes to the Celtic Church's independence or submission to Catholicism has long been a British fascination. Welsh, English and Scots reformers popularized their revisions as reversions to earlier, supposedly autonomous, manifestations of an insular church that did not bow the knee to Rome. Davies & Bowie seek to correct antiquarian, New Age, or theological exaggerations which also have followed suit. They show in their introduction how the Celtic spiritual teachings differed-- and where they matched dominant Catholicism. They carefully, if briefly, remind readers too of the historical and social difficulties in defining a distinct Celtic identity. This concept "based on a mythologized reading of the past" would not have been understood by the ancients, although as the editors also note, "it has its own exigencies, and should not be dismissed too lightly" for those who chose this interpretation in centuries nearer our own. (4)

They also, as this combines medieval prose and poetry with contemporary verse, illustrate how poets express the physicality, nature-based connections, imaginative creativity, communal roots, and Trinitarian fluidity of Celtic-centered qualities that many Christians, or perhaps post-Christians, now seek to renew and revive. Many of the medieval entries can be found, in expanded form, in Davies' 1999 "Celtic Spirituality" anthology published in 1999 by Paulist Press. These two collections by Davies may be confused (not to mention a 1996 compendium from medieval Welsh). The difference lies in the 1995 edition's subtitle of "modern sources"-- adding oral traditions gathered in from Scots Gaelic as "Carmina Gadelica" by Alexander Carmichael and from Irish as "Religious Songs of Connacht" by Douglas Hyde. Then, contemporary poetry from Celtic writers this past century brings the collection closer to the present.

It's an accessible anthology addressed more than the Paulist Press successor to the common reader, and I recommend it as an entry point. Bibliographies and sources used are both helpful, and I particularly value the translations of Welsh-language poet Euros Bowen.

His "Changing Government" stands out. "The government of the skies/ we have sent to hell,/ and so the throne of the sun is empty,/ there is a death mask on its face/ in a museum." (184) The whole poem's worthy of transcription. He ends "Tap Root": "There is no resurrection where there is no earth." (187) You might expect to have found instead the better-known vicar R.S. Thomas, but Davies & Bowen wisely try to welcome writers less-anthologized, and as deserving of attention.

As Irish-language representative (in translation), Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill's certainly expected, and her feminism's necessary. As Davies & Bowie in their introduction caution, the tendency by moderns to amplify the matriarchal Celtic presence does clash with the patriarchal norm practiced even by the Celts, one that deepened under the penitential and apocalyptic emphases instituted by the Church that harbor less appeal for seekers from our own time. Today's poets do tend to favor the feminine and the natural, regardless of the author's male or female identification. Medieval entries, by contrast, feature the need for renunciation, repentance, and asceticism.

Speaking of nature, Seán Ó Riordáin might have been entered as a second Gaelic counterpart to Bowen, equally meriting exposure. His existential attitude might, however, unsettle many. Mary O'Malley or Caitlín Maude may also be sought out by readers looking into spirituality expressed by Irish poets. A mismatch between the flesh and the spirit, and a longing to reconnect what's been sundered, enters many inclusions. Brendan Kennelly's "Sculpted from Darkness" watches worshippers returning from midnight Mass over a bridge; "House" considers the fragile body and the aging dwelling elegantly juxtaposed.

Ruth Bidwell observes in "Standing Stone" a Welsh parallel to Kennelly's mass-goers: "A mindless ritual is not empty. When the dark mind fails, faith lives in the supplication of hands, on prayer-wheel, rosary, stone." (198) For another rural poet, the simple lines of Anjela Duval translated from Breton recall a 20c Emily Dickinson, if she'd had four years of grade school and worked her life alone on a remote farm. In their diction, capitalization, and imagery, there are eloquent comparisons to the Belle of Amherst. In a poem that could stand alongside R.S. Thomas', Duval laments "The Song of the Foreigner," one that ravishes the trees, despoils the land, and erases the language. It ends:
"And soon...if we don't pay attention/ On the great organ/ Of their dark and sad forests/ --Fertilised with the ashes of our trees--/ The Atlantic Wind/ Will play while singing/ ...The Requiem of our Country." (228)

(Posted 12-22-08 to Amazon US.)

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