Postcards from the Pilgrim's Path

Postcards from the Pilgrim's Path

This week on the Celtic Calendar . . . Michaelmas

by Terri Lynn Simpson on 09/29/14

"On Michaelmas Eve and Christmas,    We will all taste of the bannock." ~ Scottish Reaping Blessing

September 29 is Michaelmas, one of the cross-quarter days on the Celtic calendar.  Ostensibly the feast day of Michael the archangel in the Christian church, in the British Isles the day was celebrated as a harvest festival marking the end of the growing year.  It was a time to celebrate the abundance of the fields and streams before the leaner, colder season shifted the focus from field to forest, from gathering to hunting. Like many harvest festivals, Michaelmas was celebrated with traditional foods.  So if you were a Celt in years gone by, what would have been on your table this evening?  

Instead of a Thanksgiving turkey, you'd be enjoying a stubble goose, a bird fattened on the grain that remained in the fields after the harvest.  And if you were too poor to buy a goose for yourself, never fear.  Chances are you'd be given a goose in payment for services from the local lord or food would be shared with you from the community.  To soak up your goose juice, you'd have a slice of struan, a bread made from the grains harvested from those same fields that fattened your goose.  If you lived in Ireland, your struan would be a yeast bread, baked in the oven.  In Scotland, you'd have a slice of bannock (unleavened bread) cooked on a griddle. The ingredients of your struan would depend upon what grains you grew, usually some combination of oats,barley, rye, wheat or maybe even corn. 

If you lived in the Hebrides you'd also get one of your five-a-day with a healthy serving of carrots. The Sunday before Michaelmas, the women would take a three prong tool (designed to look like the trident of St. Michael) into the field and dig up the wild carrots, tying them with a triple strand of red thread keeping them covered with sand until time for cooking.  If fruit is more your thing, there would be apples from the beginning of the apple harvest and the end of the season's blackberries. According to legend, when Michael threw Satan out of heaven, the deposed angel landed in a blackberry bush and from then on has "spit on the blackberries" on the feast of St. Michael, making fruit gathered after September 29 unpalatable.  

No matter what was on your plate, however, Michaelmas was an opportunity to not only offer blessings for the harvest and all that helped bring it to fruition, but also a time to share that bounty with those less fortunate in the community.  So no matter what is on your plate this evening . . . be it stubble goose or KFC, take a moment to remember all those who made your food possible and all those whose plates are empty.

From a Celtic Blessing for Michaelmas
O Michael the victorious,
     Jewel of my heart,
     O Michael the victorious,
     God's shepherd thou art.

Be the sacred Three of Glory
Aye at peace with me,
With my horses, with my cattle,
With my woolly sheep in flocks.
With the crops growing in the field
Or ripening in the sheaf,
On the machair, on the moor,
In cole, in heap, or stack.
     Every thing on high or low,
     Every furnishing and flock,
     Belong to the holy Triune of glory,
     And to Michael the victorious.

This Week on the Celtic Calendar . . . Lughnasadh

by Terri Lynn Simpson on 08/01/14

August 1 marks the beginning of the harvest season on the Celtic calendar.  Traditionally, Lughnasadh was celebrated mid-way between the Summer solstice and the Autumn equinox.  Like harvest festivals in many cultures, it was a time to celebrate the abundance of the land while bearing in mind that leaner times were soon to follow.  In the  Christian tradition, Lughnasadh was known as Lammas, derived from the old English word for half-loaf and the custom of taking half a loaf of bread baked from the first harvest to the church for consecration.  Whether celebrating Lughnasadh or Lammas, this is the time of year to practice gratitude for the abundance of the land while being mindful of the times and places of scarcity.

This Week on the Celtic Calendar: Ordinary Time

by Terri Lynn Simpson on 07/07/14

Ordinary time. It's that season on the church calendar between Pentecost and Advent when nothing much is going on. No feasting or fasting. No preparation or celebration. Liturgical life is just . . . ordinary.  

Daily life, however, is another story. Rarely are our lives just ordinary. The human condition seems to swing back and forth between activity and rest, strife and peace, sorrow and joy. It's a rhythm we see mirrored in the landscape around us, in the turning of the seasons, in the turning of the tide.

Perhaps that's why the concept of ebb and flow features so strongly in Celtic spirituality. Nature, that first book of revelation, reminds us that what is ordinary is change, movement.  

The tide comes in, the tide goes out. The lesson for us in ordinary time is to learn to live in the moment and go with the flow.

This week on the Celtic Calendar . . . The Feast of St. Columba

by Terri Lynn Simpson on 06/09/14

June 9 is the feast of St. Columba, also known as Columcille or "church dove."  Although most commonly associated with Scotland and the island of Iona, Columba began his life in northern Ireland and spent his first forty plus years in that country.  He studied under St. Finnian at Clonnard Abbey (along with St. Brendan) first becoming a monk and later a priest.   It was another Finnian, Finnian of Movilla, who was the catalyst in Columba's exile from Ireland and subsequent founding of the monastic community on Iona.

Columba was a poet at heart and lover of books.  While at Moville, Columba began secretly copying one of their psalters so he could have a copy of the book for himself.  Finnian discovered Columba's activity and, as books were such a rare and precious commodity, insisted that the copy must stay at Moville with the original text.   In what was probably the first battle over copyright issues, the conflict led to a literal battle in which many men were killed and the Irish proverb, "To every cow its calf, to every book its cop," was spawned.

Columba felt remorse over the deaths that followed his action and as others who had been held accountable were exiled from Ireland, he decided to submit himself to the same punishment.  Taking a dozen monks with him, they set forth in a coracle for a place where Columba could no longer see his beloved Ireland.  The monks first landed on the shores of southern Scotland but could still glimpse the green of Erin across the sea so they traveled farther north until they came to the island of Iona.  Columba spent the remaining decades of his life in Scotland, establishing a monastery on the island and continuing the work started by St. Ninian nearly two hundred years earlier in working among the Picts throughout the west and north of Scotland. 

The community on Iona was not only the heart of Celtic Christianity in Scotland and Northumbria in the sixth century, it also was key in the Celtic revival of the early twentieth century when the Rev. George MacLeod took a community from Glasgow to rebuild the monastery on Iona and established the ecumenical Iona Community that continues to welcome members and friends committed to justice and peace.   

A Prayer Attributed to St. Columba
Be Thou a bright flame before me.
Be Thou a guiding star above me.
Be Thou a smooth path beneath me.
Be Thou a kindly shepherd behind me.
Today and evermore.

This week on the Celtic calendar. . .

by Terri Lynn Simpson on 05/27/14

The Feast of St. Melangell

Now they reached Melangell’s lonely church:
Amid a grove of evergreens it stood,
A garden and a grove, 
where every grave
Was decked with flowers, 
or with unfading plants
O’ergrown,—sad rue 
and funeral rosemary.   
                            ~Robert Southey

May 27 is the fest of St. Melangell.  Despite her popularity in Wales where her story has inspired countless poets, the tale of Melangell and her hare isn't widely known in the rest of the world.  Born in Ireland of royal parentage, like so many of the women Celtic saints of her era she fled her homeland to escape an arranged marriage and ended up in a secluded valley nestled in the Berwyn mountains where she spent fifteen years living and praying among the creatures of the forest and field and avoiding human contact.  

One day as she was deep in prayer, she heard the distant horns of a hunter and soon a frightened hare, pursued by a pack of hounds, ran into the clearing and under Melangell's skirt, seeking shelter.  Rather than attacking Melangell in order to get to their prey, the hounds were brought up short, stopped by a force field of holiness that emanated from her.  Soon the owner of the dogs, the prince of Powys, rode up on his steed, furious that a 
trespasser interrupted his hunt. Brochwell tried to encourage his dogs to go for the hare, but when he blew his hunting horn, it stuck to his lips and didn't make a sound.  After hearing Melangell's story, Brochwell asked her if she'd be willing to accept the surrounding land as a gift and establish an abbey that would offer sanctuary to all who needed it.  Melangell agreed and spent the rest of her long life offering shelter and hospitality to those in need.  

In latter years the church and Melangell's shrine fell into disrepair.  The church and shrine were restored in the 1990s and the St. Melangell Centre was established to offer pastoral support for cancer patients and their loved ones.  In 2003 the Centre expanded their ministry to offer sanctuary to anyone in need by providing space and resources for quiet days, retreats, and educational programs.

Postcards from the Pilgrim's Path is the official blog of Anam Cara Retreats.  Postcards periodically offers insights on Celtic spirituality, glimpses of sacred sites, and reflections on what it means to be a pilgrim in the twenty-first century.  The archives of this blog can be found here.