Monday, November 21, 2011

The Carmen Navale - The Boat Song

Columbanus was early Ireland’s greatest missionary. Together with a motley crew of pilgrims for Christ he traversed across modern day France, Germany, Switzerland and ended up in northern Italy where he spent the remaining years of his life correcting the heresies of the Arians of northern Italy with the cauterizing knife of the Scriptures. For Columbanus, life was a journey, a pilgrimage, a voyage of discovery and sometimes of hardship. Its final destination was union with Christ.

French historian Georges Goyau noted, the Celtic missionary genius had produced individuals of outstanding energy, it had given the world magnificent apostolic personalities. Of these Columbanus was probably the greatest. According to Léon Cathlin, Columbanus was together with Charlemagne the greatest figure of France in the early Middle Ages. Henri Petiot described him as a sort of prophet of Israel, brought back to live in the sixth century, as blunt in his speech as Isaiah or Jeremiah. And not to be outdone, Robert Schuman (former French Prime Minister and main architect of what would become the EU) lauded Columbanus as the patron saint of those who seek to construct a united Europe!

Journeying up the Rhine in 610, Columbanus and his disciples supposedly chanted his famous ‘boat song’. One can almost hear the Irish monks dig their oars into the Rhine’s formidable current as they struggle upstream. The poem compares the surging storm waters with the trials and struggles of the Christian life. Columbanus sees the tempests and storms of life overcome by the one who is in Christ. He frequently used the analogy of storms at sea as a picture for hardship and trials. The Carmen Navale is one of my favorite poems attributed to Columbanus. The translation is taken from Tomás Ó Fiaich's work 'Columbanus in his own words'.

Lo, little bark on twin-horned Rhine, From forest hewn to skim the brine, Heave, lads, and the echoes ring!

The tempests howl, the storms dismay, But manly strength can win the day, Heave, lads, and let the echoes ring!

For clouds and squalls will soon pass on, And victory lie with work well done, Heave, lads, and let the echoes ring!

Hold fast! Survive! And all is well, God sent you worse, he’ll calm this swell, Heave, lads, and let the echoes ring!

So Satan acts to tire the brain, And by temptation souls are slain, Think, lads, of Christ and echo Him!

Stand firm in mind ‘gainst Satan’s guile, Protect yourselves with virtues foil, Think, lads, of Christ and echo Him!

Strong faith and zeal will victory gain, The old foe breaks his lance in vain, Think, lads, of Christ and echo Him!

The King of virtues vowed a prize, For him who wins, for him who tries, Think, lads, of Christ and echo Him!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Mise agus Pangur Bán! I and white Pangur!

Learning Biblical Greek is like a cat hunting a mouse, plenty of concentration, some frustration, and then the delight of finally ‘getting it’; at least that’s how one medieval Irish monk described it! 

Greek paradigms in MS Stift St. Paul Cod. 86b/1
A fragmentary manuscript dating from around the year 800 preserves an Irish student’s study notes for his upcoming Greek exam. Filled with Greek paradigms and vocabulary it resonates with any student of the Biblical languages. The manuscript is famous for a humorous poem in Irish that compares the student’s study of Greek with his pet cat’s pursuit of mice. Pangur Bán, as his cat was called, was a diligent student of hunting mice. He was persistent, practiced every day and most importantly, he enjoyed it! I think those are good habits for any student. Stokes printed the original Irish text in volume II of Thesarus Paleohibernicus, Robin Flower’s translation is perhaps the most famous.
I and Pangur Bán, my cat
'Tis a like task we are at;
Hunting mice is his delight
Hunting words I sit all night.

Better far than praise of men
'Tis to sit with book and pen;
Pangur bears me no ill will,
He too plies his simple skill.

'Tis a merry thing to see
At our tasks how glad are we,
When at home we sit and find
Entertainment to our mind.

Oftentimes a mouse will stray
In the hero Pangur's way:
Oftentimes my keen thought set
Takes a meaning in its net.

'Gainst the wall he sets his eye
Full and fierce and sharp and sly;
'Gainst the wall of knowledge I
All my little wisdom try.

When a mouse darts from its den,
O how glad is Pangur then!
O what gladness do I prove
When I solve the problems I love!

So in peace our tasks we ply,
Pangur Bán, my cat, and I;
In our arts we find our bliss,
I have mine and he has his.

Practice every day has made
Pangur perfect in his trade;
I get wisdom day and night
Turning darkness into light.

Pangur Bán poem: MS Stift St. Paul Cod. 86b/1

Friday, June 10, 2011

The scribe in the woods

Codex Sangallensis no: 904, f.203

An Irish poem Dom-Farcai fidbaide fál, ("A hedge of trees overlooks me") was added by an Irish scribe in the margins of the Latin grammar manuscript he was writing sometime in the early ninth century. Copying a Latin grammar book was tedious but important work. Manuscripts like these allowed Irish Christians to learn and improve their Latin, which opened up for them the Scriptures and Patristic studies. The Irish church was unique in Western Europe as she had to learn Latin as a foreign language without ever having been part of the Roman Empire. It was a daunting struggle, but tackled with remarkable tenacity and excitement by Irish scholars, who saw the value of Biblical literacy. The little poem Dom-Farcai fidbaide fál records how the Irish scribe could enjoy God’s presence through the beauty of nature, even while working hard copying out a Latin grammatical work.

A hedge of trees overlooks me
A blackbird's lay sings to me
It is an announcement I won't conceal!
Above my lined book the bird's chanting sings to me.

A clear voiced cuckoo sings to me (godly speech!)
In a grey cloak from bramble fortresses
The Lord is indeed good to me
Well do I write beneath a forest of woodland

Monday, May 23, 2011

On the Flightiness of Thought

The famous Irish manuscript, an leabhar breac, (the 'speckled book') preserves an interesting poem written by an Irish monk who was struggling to pay attention during Church services. Irish monks would pray the Psalms during the six different 'hours', nocturns (at night), lauds (at dawn), three times during the day (third, sixth and ninth hours), and vespers (evening time). Some of the stricter monasteries (like at Tallaght) would recite the whole Psalter of 150 psalms during this cycle of prayer. Many a sleepy monk would struggle to keep up.

"Shame to my thoughts how they stray far from me! I dread great danger from it on the day of lasting doom.

During the Psalms they wander on a path that is not right; they run, they disturb, they misbehave before the great eyes of God

Through eager assemblies, through companies of foolish women, through woods, through cities – swifter than the wind

They run (not a course of great wisdom) near, afar, after roaming of great folly they visit their own home

Though one should set about binding them or putting shackles on their feet, they lack constancy and recollection for undertaking the task of remaining still

Neither edged weapon nor the sound of whip-blows keeps them down firmly; they are slippery as an eel’s tail gliding out of my grasp

Neither lock, nor firm vaulted dungeon, nor any bond at all, stronghold, nor sea, nor bleak fastness restrains them from their course

O beloved truly chaste Christ to whom every eye is clear, may the grace of the sevenfold Spirit come to keep and check them

Rule this heart of mine, o zealous God of creation, that thou may be my love, that I may do thy will

May I attain perfect companionship with thee, o Christ: may we be together; you are neither fickle nor inconstant - not as I am."