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Celtic Wisdom – Treasures from Ireland, by Cindy Thomson

by davesandel on August 28th, 2011

Celtic Wisdom: Treasures from Ireland, by Cindy Thomson, 2008

96 pages

            I found this at the Champaign Public Library (Dewey Decimal 274.15) right in the middle of the religion section.  Kind of a small coffee table book, it looked like, interspersed with beautiful photographs and illustrations.  But when I started reading, I kept on reading.  Both the more verifiable history and numerous descriptions of wondrous, outlandish miracles by the historical figures were fascinating.

Cindy Thomson fills the book with quotations from ancient writing, many of which are included below.  And in her last chapter, she addresses several aspects of prayer, inviting her readers to become more than a little Irish (those are my words) in their prayer life.  Not just because she’s Irish, not just because the history is so interesting, but because she finds God in what she does, she invites us along on the ancient path.

Outline of Celtic Wisdom:

  1. How the Ancient Irish Found the Christian Path
    1. The Path from Slave to Saint
    2. Shining Light on the Path
  2. Patrick
    1. Patrick’s Life
    2. Patrick’s Deeds
    3. Patrick’s Legacy
  3. Brigid
    1. Brigid’s Life
    2. Brigid’s Deeds
    3. Brigid’s Legacy
  4. Columcille
    1. Columcille’s Life
    2. Columcille’s Deeds
    3. Columcille’s Legacy
  5. The Apostles of Erin
    1. Early Monasticism
    2. The Fathers of Monasticism
    3. St. Finian
    4. St. Enda
    5. St. Ciaran of Saighir (Seir-Kieran)
    6. St. Ciaran of Conmacnoise
    7. St. Brendan of Clonfert
    8. St. Columba of Tir-da-glasí (Terryglas)
    9. St. Columba of Iona
    10. St. Mobhí of Glasnevin
    11. St. Ruadhan of Lorrha
    12. St. Senan of Iniscathay (Scattery Island)
    13. St. Ninnidh the Saintly of Loch Erne
    14. St. Lasserian mac Nadfraech
    15. St. Canice of Aghaboe
    16. The Thirteenth Apostle of Erin (St. Columban)
    17. The Irish Spiritual Pilgrimage (perigrinatio)
    18. St. Kevin
  6. Celtic Learning and Art
    1. The Tradition
    2. The Books
    3. The High Crosses
    4. Other Relics
    5. Non-Monastic Learning
    6. The Spiritual Blessing of Celtic Learning
  7. Celtic Prayer
    1. The Celtic Difference (faith had a monastic base)
    2. Christ Within and Without
    3. Christ Before, Christ Behind
    4. Spiritually Interwoven
    5. Praise Every Day
    6. Finding God in Nature
    7. Prayers of Longing
    8. Prayers that God Hears
    9. The Spiritual Blessing Celtic Prayer
  8. Bibliography

Some quotes from Celtic Wisdom:

Examples of triads that both reflect and invite the concept of God as Trinity, some from the Yellow Book of Lecan, 14th century:

Three candles that illumine every darkness: truth, nature, knowledge.

Three silences that are better than speech: silence during instruction, silence during music, silence during preaching.

Three excellences of dress: elegance, comfoet, lastingness.

Three clouds that most obscure wisdom’s glance: forgetfulness, half-knowledge, ignorance. (p. 8)

 “Free from the invading warfare Europe was enduring (5th century onward), Ireland was uniquely positioned to nourish the new religion – just at the time that writing was emerging there.  Utilizing the concept of an anamcara – what today would be called an accountability partner or a confessor – the early Irish Christians worked shoulder to shoulder with the common people and passed on their wisdom in stories and sayings.” – p. 10-11

“The words of ‘St. Patrick’s Breastplate’ are recorded in the ancient Book of Armagh, dating from the ninth century.  Following extracts are from a translation of the prayer by Cecil F. Alexander in 1889:

In bind unto myself today

The strong name of the Trinity

I bind unto myself the power

Of the great love of cherubim;

The sweet ‘Well done’ in judgment hour

The service of the seraphim,

Confessor’s faith, Apostles’ word,

The Patriarch’s prayers, the prophet’s scrolls …

Patrick wrote of the constant reminders of the greatness and majesty of God:

The virtues of the star lit heaven,

The glorious sun’s life giving ray,

The whiteness of the moon at even,

The flashing of the lighting free,

The whirling wind’s tempestuous shocks,

The stable earth, the deep salt sea

Around the old eternal rocks…


Against their fierce hostility

I bind to me these holy powers.

Against all Satan’s spells and eiles,

Against false words of heresy,

Against the knowledge that defiles,

Against the heart’s idolatry,

Against the wizard’s evil craft …


Christ be with me, Christ within me,

Christ behind me, Christ before me,

Christ beside me, Christ to win me,

Christ to comfort and restore me.

Christ beneath me, Christ above me,

Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,

Christ in hearts of all that love me,

Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.   (p. 20-22)

“As he brought new faith to Ireland so may he bring to you, a touch of Irish happiness in everything you do; and like the good St. Patrick may your home and life be blessed, with all God’s special favours which make you happiest.  – An Old Irish Blessing” (p. 23)

“The child of God can fear no ill,

his chosen dread no foe;

we leave our fate with thee, and wait

thy bidding when to go.

‘Tis not from chance our comfort springs,

thou art our trust, O King of kings.”

— Attributed to St. Columba (p. 22)

“Alone with none but Thee, my God,

I journey on my way;

What need I fear when Thou art near,

Oh King of night and day?

More safe am I within Thy hand

Than if a host did round me stand.”

— Attributed to St. Columba (p. 36)

“St. Kevin became a hermit and lived for seven years in Glendalough.  Once when he was praying with arms outstretched, a blackbird built a nest in the palm of his hand.  Not wanting to disturb the bird’s eggs, he remained in that position until the baby birds hatched and flew away.  An otter brought him fish daily and even saved Kevin’s psalter when he dropped it into one of the lakes.” – p. 62

“The Book of Kells (9th century) best typifies what people think of an ancient Irish manuscript with its red, purple, black and yellow inks, its spiraling ornamentation and its animal designs.  Nearly every page is decorated and some are purely illustrations … Two more books cherished for their antiquity are the Book of Durrow and the Antiphonary of Bangor (both 7th century).” – p. 70-71

“The process of creating these books is almost as incredible as the works themselves … The monks wrote on vellum or parchment, animals skins that had been soaked in lime and scraped clean of fat and hair.  Calfskin was used, preferred for its white color.  For the Book of Kells it is estimated that around 180 calves were needed to make the book.

For the ink the monks had to gather bark, flowers and other materials, pound them with wooden hammers until they had liquid, add water, boil the liquid, add more ater, and repeat as necessary … Pens or quills were made from wood or metal and had to be sharpened continually.” – p 71-72

The following prayer is from a book dating from the 16th century:

God be in my head and in my understanding;

God be in my eyes and in my looking;

God be in my mouth and in my speaking;

God be in my heart and in my thinking;

God be at my end and at my departing.

The ancient belief was that the spiritual real was not far from humans even while they were still earthly bound.  In fact, nearly every ancient Irish Christian poem and hymn in some way reflects this.” – p. 80

“The Celts also prayed what were called Circling Prayers.  These prayers were appeals for protection and called for some things to be within the circle and some to be outside it.  For example:

Circle me, Lord.

keep peace within, keep harm without.

Circle me, Lord,

Keep love within, keep hate without.

(See St. Patrick’s Breastplate for examples of things to keep without the circle …)”  — p. 81

Deep peace, pure gold of the sun to you

Deep peace, pure white of the moon to you,

Deep peace, pure blue of the sky to you

Deep peace, pure green of the grass to you,

Deep peace, pure brown of the earth to you

Deep peace, pure gray of the dew to you,

Deep peace, of the running wave to you

Deep peace, of the whispering trees to you,

Deep pace, of the flowing air to you

Deep peace, of the quiet earth to you,

Deep peace, of the shining stars to you,

Deep peace, of the sun of Peace to you.

—an  ancient, much-repeated prayer (p. 84)

“Originally an 8th century Irish prayer, the hymn ‘Be Thou My Vision’ beautifully expresses the Celtic soul’s longing for God:

Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart

Naught be all else to me, save that thou art;

Thou my best thought in the day and the night,

Waking or sleeping, thy presence my light.


Be thou my wisdom, be thou my true word,

I ever with thee, and thou with me, Lord;

Thou my redeemer, my love thou hast won;

Thou in me dwelling, and I with thee one.


Riches I heed not, not vain empty praise,

Thou mine inheritance through all my days;

Thou, and thou only the first in my heart,

High King of heaven, my treasure thou art!


High King of heaven, thou heaven’s bright sun,

Grant me its joys after vict’ry is won;

Christ of my own heart, whatever befall,

Still be my vision, O Ruler of all.


We are all on a journey that takes us through this life and on toward the next.  The ancient Irish had a phrase for this: Slí na fírinne, or the path to truth.” – p. 89

“With the belief that life was a journey, an ever-changing adventure that they couldn’t possibly foresee or completely understand, it’s no wonder they were eager and ready to wander about the vast ocean in a rudderless boat.  St. Columban expressed the belief that in order for God to answer prayer, one has to search God out.  He said, ‘He must yet be besought by us, often besought; ever must we cling to God, to the deep, vast, hidden, lofty, and almighty God.’” – p. 89

Jesu, from to-day

Guide us on our way,

So shall we, no moment wasting,

Follow thee with holy hasting,

Led by Thy dear Hand

To the Blessed land.

— from the Celtic Psaltery by Alred Perceval Graves (p. 90)

“A wonderful example of the belief that God is not far away is found in Maelisu’s ‘Hymn to the Holy Spirit’. This hymn, or prayer, also echoes ‘St. Patrick’s Breastplate’ as a call for protection:

O Holy Spirit, hasten to us!

Move round about us, in us, through us!

All our deadened soul’s desires

Inflame anew with heavenly fires!


Yea! let each heart become a hostel

Of Thy bright Presence Pentecostal,

Whose power from pestilence and slaughter

Shall shield us still by land and water.


From bosom sins, seducing devils,

From Hell with all its hundred evils,

For Jesus’ only sake and merit,

Preserve us, Thou Almighty Spirit! (p. 91-92)

“The Celtic monk Pelagius said that God is visible, because everywhere ‘narrow shafts of divine light pierce the Veil that separates heaven from earth … The presence of God’s spirit in all living this is what makes them beautiful; and if we look with God’s eyes, nothing on the earth is ugly.’” – p. 92

My God, my life, my love, my light,

My strength, my joy, my treasure,

Let it be thought both day and night

In Thee to take my pleasure.

Increase my love, my sighs, my groans

My careless lips to move it,

And let my thoughts be fixed alone

On Jesus, Mary and Joseph.  (p. 94)

“The ancient path is illuminated for anyone who would fix their thoughts and learn from those who have traveled it.  By hearing their stories, attuning to their words of wisdom, and trusting that he who led them will lead others today, the listener, the seeker, the wayfarer can travel that same course and find God all along the way.  As the Irish say, Let ancient things prevail.’  Look for the ancient path.  Ask.  Listen.  Take up that road and find rest for your soul.” – p. 94 (concluding words of the book)

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