Tunes for a Monday Morning: Songs for the Peregrini

Ynys Enlli, viewed from Mynydd Mawr - photograph by Alan Fryer (Creative Commons)

In his book The Wild Places, Robert Macfarlane writes about his journey to Yns Enlli (Bardsey Island), off the coast of the Llŷn Peninsula in Wales:

"Yns Enlli was among the many remote places of the west and north-west coasts of Britain and Ireland to be settled between around AD 500 and 1000," he tells us. "During those centuries, an extraordinary migration occurred. Monks, anchorites, solitaries and other devoted itinerants began to travel in their thousands to the bays, forests, promontories, mountain-tops and islands of the Atlantic littoral. In frail craft and with little experience of seamanship, they sailed out across dangerous seas, in search of something we might now call wilderness. Where they stopped, they build monasteries, cells and oratories, dug cemetaries for their dead and raised stone crosses to their God. These travelers were known as peregrini: the name derives from the Latin peregrinus and carries the idea of wandering over a distance, giving us our word 'pilgrim.' "

Enlii, The Blessed Isle - photograph by Eric Jones (Creative Commons)

"We can know very little for certain about the peregrini. We know few of their names. Yet, reading the accounts of their journeys and of their experiences on places like Enlli, I had encountered a dignity of motive and attitude that I found salutary. These men were in search not of material gain, but of a hallowed landscape: one that would sharpen their faith to its utmost point. They were, in the phrasing of their own theology, exiles looking for the Terra Repromissionis Sanctorum -- the Promised Land of Saints.

"A long Christian tradition exists that considers all individuals as peregrini, in that all human life is seen as exile. This idea was perpetuated in the Salve Regina, the chant often recited as a last night prayer. Post hoc exilium, the prayer declares: all will be resolved after this exile. The chant, when sung, sounds ancient and disquieting. It is unmistakably music about wilderness, an ancient vision of wildness, and it still has the capacity to move us.

"Antiphona: Salve Regina," medieval chant

"Much of what we know of the life of the monks of Enlli, and places like it, is inferred from the rich literature they left behind. Their poems speak eloquently of a passionate and precise relationship with nature, and the blend of receptivity and detachment which characterized their interactions with it. Some of the poems read like jotted lists, or field notes: 'Swarms of bees, beetles, soft music of the world, a gentle humming; brent geese, barnacle geese, shortly before All Hallows, music of the wild dark torrent.' Others record single charmed instants: a blackbird calling from a gorse branch near Belfast Loch, foxes at play in a glade. Marban, a ninth-century hermit who lived in a hut in a fir-grove near Druim Rolach, wrote of the 'wind's voice against a branchy wood on a day of grey cloud.' A nameless monk, responsible for drywalling on the island of North Rona in the ninth century, stopped his work to write a poem that spoke of the delight he felt  at standing on a 'clear headland,' looking over the 'smooth strand' to the 'calm sea,' and hearing the calls of 'the wondrous birds.' A tenth-century copyist, working in an island monastery, paused long enough to scribble a note in Gaelic beside his Latin text. 'Pleasant to me is the glittering of the sun today upon these margins.'

"Gleanings such as these give us glimpses of the nature of faith of the peregrini. They are recorded instants which carry purely over the long distances of history, as certain sounds carry with unusual clarity within water or across frozen land. For these writers, attention was a form of devotion and noticing continuous with worship. The art they left behind is among the earliest testimonies to human love of the wild."

"Salve Regina in C Minor" by Giovanni Battista Pergolesi

The music:

In the first video above, "Antiphona: Salve Regina" is performed by the Ensemble Organum at the Abbey of Fontevraud in Anjou, France in 2006. (The video was filmed by David Wilkes at Canterbury Cathedral, Holy Trinity Church in Coventry, Winchester Castle, and Windsor Castle.)

In the second video, "Salve Regina in C Minor," by the 18th century Italian composer Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, is performed by L'Arco Magico Chamber Orchestra at the Cathedral of Orvieto in Umbria, Italy in 2013. The director is Antonio Puccio, and the soprano is Silvia Frigato.

Below, an exquisitely beautiful "Salve Regina," by the great Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, is performed by the Coral Reyes Bartlet, the Coro de Cámara Mateo Guerra, the Coro Juvenil David Goldsmith, and the Orquesta del Encuentro de Música Religiosa de Canarias in Puerto de la Cruz, Tenerife in 2014.

"Salve Regina" by Arvo Pärt

Credits: The quote by Robert Macfarlane above is from The Wild Places (Granta, 2008), which I highly recommend reading in full. All rights reserved by the author. The photographs above are Creative Commons images, identified in the picture captions.


Blessing the dark and the light

Woodland 3

The books of Irish poet and philospher John O'Donohue (1956 - 2008) are ones I return to again and again -- especially Anam Cara, Beauty, Four Elements, and Benedictus.

The latter volume is a collection of "blessings" poised somewhere between poetry and prayer, steeped in the ancient Celtic mythic tradition that informs all of O'Donohue's work. The audio tracks posted here contain two poems from the book read by O'Donohue himself, recorded for an American radio program in the autumn of 2007.

"Blessing for a Friend on the Arrival of Illness," above, resonates deeply for me, for obvious reasons; and I send it out to any of you for whom it might be relevant as well.

"Beannacht," below, is a blessing for those difficult days that we all go through, sooner or later.

Woodland 2

Woodland 3


The secret envoi of the earth

Churchyard 1

Daffodil King by Walter Crane

"The beauty of the earth is the first beauty," writes Irish poet and philosopher John O'Donohue, whose wise books I return to again and again. "Millions of years before us the earth lived in wild elegance. Landscape is the first-born of creation. Sculpted with huge patience over millenia, landscape has an enormous diversity of shape, presence, and memory. There is poignancy in beholding the beauty of landscape: it often feels as though it has been waiting for centuries for the recognition and witness of the human eye. In the ninth Duino Elgy, Rilke says:

Shakespeare's Garden illustrated by Walter CranePerhaps we are here in order to say: house,
bridge, fountain, gate, pitcher, fruit-tree, window...
To say them more intensely than the
Things  themselves

Ever dreamed of existing.

"How can we ever know the difference we make to the soul of the earth? Where the infinite stillness of the earth meets the passion of the human eye, invisible depths strain towards the mirror of the name. In the word, the earth breaks silence. It has waited a long time for the word. Concealed beneath familiarity and silence, the earth holds back and it never occurs to us to wonder how the earth sees us. Is it not possible that a place could have huge affection for those who dwell there? Perhaps your place loves having you there. It misses you when you are away and in its secret way rejoices when you return. Could it be possible that a landscape might have a deep friendship with you? that it could sense your presence and feel the care you extend towards it? Perhaps your favourite place feels proud of you. We tend to think of death as a return to clay, a victory for nature. But maybe it is the converse: that when you die, your native place will fill with sorrow. It will miss your voice, your breath and the bright waves of your thought, how you walked through the light and brought news of other places. Perhaps each day our lives undertake unknown tasks on behalf of the silent mind and vast soul of nature. During its millions of years of presence perhaps it was also waiting for us, for our eyes and our words. Each of us is a secret envoi of the earth.

Churchyard 2

Churchyard 3

Churchyard 4

"We were once enwombed in the earth and the silence of the body remembers that dark, inner longing. Fashioned from clay, we carry the memory of the earth. Ancient, forgotten things stir within our hearts, memories from the time before the mind was born. Within us are depths that keep watch. These are depths that no words can trawl or light unriddle. Our neon times have neglected and evaded the depth-kingdoms of interiority in favour of the ghost realms of cyberspace. Our world becomes reduced to an intense but transient foreground. We have unlearned the patience and attention of lingering at the thresholds where the unknown awaits us. "

"'We are here to abet creation and to witness it, to notice each thing so each thing gets noticed,"  Annie Dillard concurs. "Together we notice not only each mountain shadow and each stone on the beach but we notice each others beautiful face and complex nature so that creation need not play to an empty house.''

Churchyard 5

From A Flora Fantasy in an Old English Garden illustraed by Walter Crane

Tilly among the dafsPictures above: Daffodils in the village churchyard, and Tilly among the wild daffodils in our woods, spring 2013. The illustrations are by Walter Crane, published in Flowers from Shakespeare's Garden (1909). The John O'Donohue quotes are from Beauty: The Invisible Embrace (2004), the Annie Dillard quote is from an article in Life Magazine (1988), and the Robert Macfarlane quote is from The Old Ways (2012). This post first appeared on Myth & Moor in 2013, and is posted today with additional art and photos.


On Patience

Top of the hill

As Tilly and I climb the hill behind our house, the seasons re-wind with each step we take. We can feel Winter's touch in the cold, clear air; in the crunch of old bracken underfoot; in stillness and silence and skeletal trees motionless in the pale light of morning. But the seasons return to their rightful path as we turn and race downhill again, descending into the arms of Spring: a sun-dappled valley of scent and color...

Bottom of the hill

...of bird chatter and wildflowers....

Stitchwort in the early morning sun

...and of bluebells, marking where faery feet have trod these hills before us.

Bluebell path

The woodland behind my studio becomes Faerieland when the bluebells bloom. We'll go there tomorrow, Tilly and I. Right now we're walking the woodland's edge, its boundary wall of old tumbled stone. Magic must be approached slowly. Patiently. Or it disappears.

And once again, I find myself thinking of words written by John O'Donohue, whose books were so often my woodland companions during the long, dark winter months just past:

"What you encounter, recognize or discover depends to a large degree on the quality of your approach," he points out. "Many of the ancient cultures practiced careful rituals of approach. An encounter of depth and spirit was preceded by careful preparation.

"When we approach with reverence," the poet continues, "great things decide to approach us. Our real life comes to the surface and its light awakens the concealed beauty in things. When we walk on the earth with reverence, beauty will decide to trust us. The rushed heart and arrogant mind lack the gentleness and patience to enter that embrace."

Approaching the bluebell wood.

Bluebells and stone

"Often we approach things with greed and urgency, we do not like to wait. As we wait at the vertical altar to go on-line, we become frustrated by the few extra seconds the machine needs to find its mind. Computer makers are constantly at work to cut the transition time; the flick from world to cyber-world must become seamless. We live under the imperative of the stand-alone digital instant; and it is uncanny how neatly that instant has become the measure not alone of time but of space."

At the edge of the bluebell woods

"Classically, the understanding of life, the unfolding of identity and creativity, the notion of growth and discovery were articulated through the metaphor of the journey. Virgil's Aeneid is the journey from fallen Troy to the glory of the new city of Rome. Homer's Odyssey is a great mystical journey home. Dante's Divine Comedy is an epic journey through hell and purgatory until the arrival in Paradise."

Bluebell wood boundary line

"Each human life is the journey from childhood to a realized adult life. Each day is a journey out of darkness into light. Each friendship and love is the intimate journey where the soul is born and grows. The journey is the drama of the heart's voyage into the tide of possibilities which open before it. Indeed, a book is a path of words which takes the heart in a new direction."

Tilly and the bluebells

Tilly sits at the threshold, waiting for me. Patience, I tell her. And tell myself. Tomorrow, or the next day, when the time is just right, we'll take that path, we'll enter the woods, we'll start that new story, begin that new painting, embark on that fresh new phase of life. No more racing downhill, pup. We move slowly now. Letting magic happen. Letting art happen. Letting life and health and stories unfold. And approaching all of these things with due reverence.

Patience, my little one, patience.

_________________________________________________________________________

Irish poet, theologian, and philospher John O'Donohue (1956-2008)  is quoted from his book Beauty: The Invisible Embrace (HarperCollins, 2004).


Reaching for the Light

My small black familiar

To make art and to recover from a long illness are two things that are never an easy mix...and yet, I remind myself, the philosophers and spiritual traditions that I trust the most do not prioritize "ease" in the living of an artist's life. It is often precisely from what is hard that our best work grows, our ideas deepen, and our spirits mature.

Woodland lightThe Irish Catholic poet/philosopher John O'Donohue (1956-2008) is a writer I've found myself re-reading often during these difficult months -- usually while sitting in the woods behind the studio, morning coffee in hand and Tilly close by. My little black familiar sits patiently, ears cocked and nose twitching in the rustling, breathing forest, as I turn the crackling pages and lose myself in O'Donohue's words . . . .

"When you become vulnerable," he says, "any ideal or perfect image of yourself falls away."

That's certainly true during periods of convalescence. Who am I during these long, quiet days when I can't write, or draw, or even think properly? What is left at the core; what is still me when the parts I value most are stripped away?

"Many people are addicted to perfection," he continues, " and in their pursuit of the ideal, they have no patience with vulnerability."

There's nothing wrong with ideals themselves, he hastens to add: "Every poet would like to write the ideal poem. Though they never achieve this, sometimes it glimmers through their best work. Ironically, the very beyondness of the idea is often the touch of presence that renders the work luminous. The beauty of the ideal awakens a passion and urgency that brings out the best in the person and calls forth the dream of excellence.Silent notebook

"The beauty of the true ideal is its hospitality towards woundedness, weakness, failure and fall-back. Yet so many people are infected with the virus of perfection. They cannot rest; they allow themselves no ease until they come close to the cleansed domain of perfection. This false notion of perfection does damage and puts their lives under great strain. It is a wonderful day in a life when one is finally able to stand before the long, deep mirror of one's own reflection and view oneself with appreciation, acceptance, and forgiveness. On that day one breaks through the falsity of images and expectations which have blinded one's spirit. One can only learn to see who one is when one learns to view oneself with the most intimate and forgiving compassion."

Who am I, then, when I glimpse into that mirror? A writer and artist still, on the days I can work and on the days when I can't. And also just a woman reading in the woods, a dog beside her. Healing. Healing.

Returning to earth,

returning to center

The text quoted comes from Beauty: The Invisible Embrace by John O'Donohue (HarperCollins, 2004).