Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Celtic Stereotype: A Rant

It's the end of February and Chicago is still buried in snow. But recently I've seen a certain kind of green plant popping up in various places--usually on windows or walls of homes and storefronts, or plastered on posters and event announcements. It's the clover, and it's been making its annual appearance as the United States (prematurely, as usual) prepares to celebrate its absurd version of St. Patrick's Day.

I know St. Patrick's Day is still weeks away. And I know I should be used to how our secular culture trashes real holidays. But the diluting of this particular holiday touches one of my pet peeves--the romanticization of the Celtic.

I've always had a vague interest in Celtic culture, given my heritage. My grandmother's maiden name was Gallagher, and there is a family legend (mostly a joke, but who knows?) that our ancestors were Irish horse thieves. However, my family never put special emphasis on our Celtic background, so it wasn't until I read Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped that I began unearthing the Celtic riches for myself.

Kidnapped, of course, is set in Scotland, so the book left me obsessed with all things Scottish. Having quickly depleted the list of Scottish stories by Stevenson, I turned next to Walter Scott. In books like Waverly and Rob Roy I discovered more adventure, more romance, more delicious Scots dialect. Soon after I found myself writing a short story (very much inspired by Rob Roy) which featured an 18th century Highland village. Now, in Scott's story, the stereotypical Highland peasant, along with being ragged and uneducated, spoke an unintelligible language called Gaelic. So for fun, I thought I'd translate bits of my story's dialogue into Gaelic. It would give it that more foreign, romantic atmosphere, wouldn't it?

An internet search revealed no automatic translations tools for Scottish Gaelic. But it did turn up a truckload of resources for learning Scottish Gaelic. Curious, I tried out a few websites. (The first thing that boggled me--not surprisingly--was the phonetics. "You mean, mh sounds like v? And th sounds like h?? And what's with dh--it sounds like g???")

Despite my bewilderment, I was hooked. My study of modern Scottish Gaelic launched me into a whole new consideration of Celtic culture. It was more than romance. It was real. Its language was more than unintelligible babble--it was a poetic, expressive tongue, both liquid and edgy. Its people were more than the nostalgically uncivilized peasants portrayed by Scott--they were human beings, who lived, worked, prayed, loved, sang, mourned, rejoiced. Their lives were harsh and often primitive by our standards, but that did not reduce their humanity.

After discovering this nugget of true Celtic culture through the Gaelic, I found I could not return to my old obsession with romantic Scotland. Scott's portrayal of the primitive Highland life irritated me. On the other hand, movies like Brigadoon, with its over-idyllic Highland village (not to mention its Highland villagers who speak in Lowland Scots), annoyed me as well. The truth lay deeper than the bagpipes and plaids, the thatched roofs and hairy cattle. I don't mean to say that these things were not a real part of Highland culture. They were--but not in the picture-postcard way they're often presented.
Brigadoon, the musical
Perhaps I split hairs. But I insist the deeper study of a culture reveals beauties far more engaging than any romantic stereotype, because it reveals real human personalities. To prove it, I here share the English translation of an old Gaelic song, once sung by real Highland women while milking real Highland cows.

Come, Mary, and milk my cow,
Come, Bride, and encompass her,
Come Columba the benign,
And twine thine arms around my cow.
Ho my heifer, ho my gentle heifer,
Ho my heifer, ho my gentle heifer,
Ho my heifer, ho my gentle heifer,
My heifer dear, generous and kind,
For the sake of the High King take to thy calf.
Come, Mary Virgin, to my cow,
Come, great Bride, the beauteous,
Come, thou milkmaid of Jesus Christ,
And place thine arms beneath my cow.
Ho my heifer, my gentle heifer.
Lovely black cow, pride of the shieling,
First cow of the byre, choice mother of calves,
Wisps of straw round the cows of the townland,
A shackle of silk on my heifer beloved.
Ho my heifer, ho my gentle heifer.
My black cow, my black cow,
A like sorrow afflicts me and thee,
Thou grieving for thy lovely calf,
I for my beloved son under the sea,
My beloved only sun under the sea.
(From "Carmina Gadelica" Vol. 1, collected and translated by Alexander Carmichael)
This song is chock full of reality. It reflects the deep Christianity of the old Highland peasantry. It reveals their poetic love of nature and animals. And it hints, in that mournful last stanza, of the harsh and tragic side of their lives. No Broadway writer could have reproduced the glinting nuance of joy and sorrow in such a song. Only a real woman, who had prayed and milked cows and lost a son to the sea, ever could have composed it.

In this country St. Patrick's Day is primarily an excuse for a party, featuring small three-leafed plants, small green-clothed men, and green beer. But I challenge my readers this year to treat it as a chance to explore real Celtic culture. Read the prayer of St. Patrick. Listen to a traditional Gaelic song. Never mind the cute cartoon leprechauns--read one of the ancient Irish myth cycles, like The Cattle-Raid of Cooley (a warning, though: Cu Chulainn and company are not for the faint of heart!).

Enjoy a bit of this true heritage. I bet you won't be able to go back to the stereotypes, either.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Arena of Virtues: Selections from Cheesefare Sunday

The Ladder of Divine Ascent
Yesterday, for Roman Catholics around the world, marked the official beginning of Lent. Ash Wednesday is a beautiful and solemn tradition in the West. But the Eastern lung of the Church offers its own unique set of services meditating on the beginning of (as we call it) the Great Fast. For us, the Fast began four days ago, on the evening of Cheesefare Sunday.

The name requires a bit of explanation. The Church, in her wisdom, realizes that the Fast has a tendency to sneak up on us all. So she lets us ease into the penitential season in stages--a sort of pre-preparation period. The Sunday Gospel readings for the weeks leading up to the beginning of the Fast features characters like Zaccheus and the Prodigal Son, who are called to repentance and reconciliation. The second-to-last Sunday before Lent is called Meatfare Sunday--for the very simple reason that it's the day we "say farewell" to eating meats until after Pascha. Similarly, the Sunday after that is labeled Cheesefare Sunday--the final day we can indulge in dairy products.

However, the focus of the liturgical prayers on Cheesefare Sunday is anything but food. Instead, the prayers for Vespers and Matins commemorate the Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise. Through the plethora of hymns we enter into the character of Adam, weeping "over the memory of what used to be". The these verses from Ode 4 the Matins Canon bemoan the sorrow of separation from the Creator:

I was filled with honors when I was with you in Eden, O Master. Woe is me! How was I deceived by the envy of the Devil and rejected far from your face?
Choirs of angels, pour out your tears for me, and also you beauties of Paradise, the magnificent trees; for I was led astray by my misfortune and chased far away from God.
O pleasant meadows, O sweetness of Paradise, you trees planted by God, let your leaves, as so many eyes, pour out tears for my nakedness and my estrangement from the glory of God.
The poetry brims with the tone of a funeral dirge, and forces us to confront our own state of sin. But the Church hardly leaves us to drown in despair. By the second half of Matins, the verses during the Psalms of Praise offer a stern but joyful encouragement for the spiritual struggle to come:
The arena of virtues is now open!
Let all who wish to begin training now enter!
Prepare yourselves for the struggle of the Fast;
Those who strive valiantly shall receive the crown!
Let us put on the armor of the Cross to combat the Enemy,
Taking faith as our unshakable rampart.
Let us put on prayer as our breastplate,
And charity as our helmet.
As our sword, let us use fasting, for it cuts out all evil from our hearts.
Those who do this shall truly receive the crown
From the hands of Christ, the almighty One, on the day of judgement.
(Because I am an incurable romantic, that particular verse has always held a special place in my heart. Being patient and charitable and not taking that extra helping of breakfast cereal become more endurable when viewed in terms of an epic quest.)
The most distinctive service of Cheesefare Sunday--Forgiveness Vespers--takes place after the Divine Liturgy. (Although it's technically an evening service, many parishes, for the sake of convenience, celebrate it directly after the morning Liturgy.) Forgiveness Vespers marks the official beginning of the Fast. During the service, the altar cloths and clergy vestments are changed from gold to the penitential red. The ordinary melodies for the psalms and litanies switch over to the plaintive Lenten tones. Finally, we recite the signature prayer of the Great Fast--the Prayer of St. Ephrem--complete with full-length prostrations after each stanza:
The Prayer of St. Ephrem
Lord and Master of my life,
spare me from the spirit of indifference, despair,
lust for power, and idle chatter. (Prostration)
Instead, bestow on me, your servant,
the spirit of integrity, humility,
patience, and love. (Prostration)
Yes, O Lord and King,
let me see my own sins
and not judge my brothers and sisters;
for you are blessed forever and ever. Amen. (Prostration)
The beautiful words combined with the physical action of humility make for an unforgettable experience of the solemnity of the season.
Finally, the service concludes with the profound Ceremony of Mutual Forgiveness. In it, the celebrant and the congregation ask each other for forgiveness, and then each person comes forward to embrace and ask forgiveness of every other individual. It's a moving tradition, which forces us to step out of our personal shells and commit to the Fast as a community. All the while, the cantor quietly intones the Canon for Resurrection Matins--giving us a tiny glimpse of our Lenten goal:
Let us cleanse our senses
that we may see the risen Christ
in the glory of his resurrection
and clearly hear him greeting us:
"Rejoice!" as we sing the hymn of victory.
Christ is risen from the dead!
(But, shhh! Not quite yet!)
Indeed, let us cleanse our senses, body, mind, and soul. A blessed Great Fast to you all!

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Call of the Wild

View of Sinks Canyon, near Wyoming Catholic College in Lander, WY
No, this is not a post about Jack London's sled dog adventure novel (although I did have a short obsession with that book when I was younger and could blog about it sometime). It's actually another ramble on my already-beloved school, Wyoming Catholic College.

Just over a year ago, I wrote the following in my journal:

How can I express my excitement reading the newsletters and brochures from Wyoming Catholic College? They speak of the Holy Spirit-filled joy of this community, the students challenging each other in their faith, their studies, and their adventures, the absolute immersion in beauty and sounds like a training ground for the Catholic equivalent of Marines, or maybe knights.

Shortly after this, in a burst of enthusiasm, I printed out an image of the College's gorgeous crest, which I taped to my closet door, bearing the caption, "Knight of Wyoming Catholic College". My heart was set.

Several months later found me and my journal on a grassy June hillside. I was "in training" for the mountain hiking I'd be doing at WCC's summer camp in just a few weeks. Sweating in the Midwestern humidity, I took refuge in daydreams, and then in reflection:
Sitting midst the clovers, looking at clouds, imagining mountains. The other day I re-watched WCC's latest video "Everything in Excellence." It moved me again.... Indeed the whole video reminded me again of the necessity of being both hardworking and joyful, if I want to be a part of WCC. And I think the fact that in this way the college is making me [want to be] a better person, even before I've enrolled or set foot on the place, is is not like other schools at all.
I carried a golden picture in my mind of Wyoming Catholic. And incredibly, my real experiences of the College did not dispel my idealism. They actually confirmed it.
Later on I discovered that the College had on its website a list of "attributes of the ideal WCC student". This I read, admired, and eventually taped up on either side of the eagle and shield on my closet, as a kind of knightly code. The list is a constant inspiration--and intimidation. You'll see what I mean.
The Ideal WCC Student
From Wyoming Catholic College's admissions webpage
"Wyoming Catholic College is focused on educating the whole person: mind, body, and spirit. Since our mission is different than the missions of other colleges, what we look for in an applicant is also different. While we expect certain levels of academic achievement on standardized tests and high school transcripts, we also look beyond scores to find the character of the student. Below is a list of intangible traits we are looking for in our students."
- Unwillingness to settle for the satisfactory, but always striving for excellence.
- More concerned with uncovering the truth than appearing right.
- Desire to know what is true for its own sake, not just to pass a test or get a job.
- Unafraid of the consequences of speaking out about what is true.
- Enjoys listening and asking questions, not just hearing oneself talk.
- Deep personal prayer life.
- Life aimed at becoming a saint.
- Desire to know our Lord through His marvelous creation.
- Willing to consistently break out of his or her comfort zone to grow as a person.
- Willing to work hard to improve in those areas where he or she is not naturally gifted.
- Willing to sacrifice to achieve greatness.
That's one heck of an admissions criteria. This is the call of the Wild, the divine adventure of sainthood. As an incoming freshman at Wyoming Catholic College this August, I am terrified--in absolutely the best way possible.