Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Book Review: Celtic Devotional: Daily Prayers and Blessings

Celtic Devotional: Daily Prayers and Blessings
Caitlín Matthews

I bought this book because I'd heard good things about it, along the lines of it being good inspiration for prayers and so on. Having read a few of the Matthews' collective works over the year and having not been particularly impressed, I'd held off bothering with it, but a preview of it on Google Books coinciding with a fit of boredom piqued my interest. At a penny and change for postage, second hand, I figured even if it was awful I wouldn't be losing out on much.

It's not bad. I can't say I found it to be fantastic, either, though. There are some genuinely good bits and pieces in here, but there is also a lot in here that as poetry goes, is not so good. I'm no expert in poetry, but I can spot clumsy and strained attempts at maintaining a rhyme or rhythm a mile off. Those I am an expert at...

For the most part I found the way it was all framed and phrased to be very off-putting. The book is very New Ageish, and that might sound more than a little snobbish but what I really mean is that much of it articulates ideas and concepts that are just alien to my thinking: Lots of Lords and Ladies, Grandmothers and Grandfathers (of this, that and the other), soul-midwives, self-contemplation and self-realisation, and love, light and life (notes of, drops of, glows of, greetings of, gems of, etc)...Some of the terminology does make me cringe a little, in amongst a good smattering of jargon.

The book is set out season by season, with prayers and invocations to usher in and see out each season/Quarter Day, and then there are daily prayers and invocations given for each day throughout each quarter, along with activities, meditations or contemplations to concentrate on that are relative to the theme of the quarter. There are kindling prayers on rising, smooring prayers on going to rest, and so on, but they are all to do with the soul rather than any literal kindling or smooring. In that respect, I can't help but wonder if smooring the soul each night is rather ill-advised? Hmm...Smooring is also explained as a Scots Gàidhlig word - it's not. It's a minor mistake, but an unnecessary one. But anyway, the soul theme in general is consistent with the over-arching aim of the book - the first chapter is titled 'Opening the Soul Shrine.'

In spite of my reservations and the New Age phrasing a lot of the time there really is some genuinely beautiful work in here. Matthews has certainly managed to capture the general essence and tone of Irish and Scottish poetry in particular (to my eye) and that in itself gives good inspiration to see the kind of things she's picked up on. As you work through you can see that much of it is pretty formulaic, which will either seem nicely consistent or thoroughly repetitive. I don't see myself ever actually working my way through the book day-by-day, to be honest.

I think the main problem I have with the book is that it's a 'Celtic' devotional, but aside from being framed around the use of the Irish names for the Quarter Days and the general idea of daily prayers that echo what you find in the Carmina Gadelica, there's nothing that's really Celtic at all. For one, the main inspiration is clearly Gaelic, but there's nothing really Gaelic in there and so the whole thing comes across as more than a little bit superficial. A lot of the prayers address 'Grandmother' and 'Grandfather', 'Lord' and 'Lady', or the soul-friend or soul-mentor of your choosing. In general, when anything theological is touched on, it's framed in terms of 'the Divine', which seems to be a way of keeping everything as neutral as possible in order to appeal to a broad audience. It's not something that appeals to me, though, and over all the books is not something I find to be particularly workable or adaptable to my own circumstances. For me, the quibbles permeate the whole content, so even the bits I do like I don't think would be something I'd find myself looking back on or using in my own devotions (your mileage may vary, of course).

All in all, it's a beautifully presented book if nothing else. Ultimately I'm not sure I'd jump up and down raving about it and recommending it to anyone who might care to listen to the crazy lady.

"The Cailleach is milking her goats to-night; don't you hear the milking-lilt?"

The tail end of Hurricane Katia seems to have blown itself out now so this one's probably a little late, but, as a kind of tradition I've just decided to keep up with, it's times like this that sharing stories and lore about her seems like a good way to honour the Storm Hag. She was definitely singing her milking-lilt these past few nights.

This is another story from K.W. Grant's Myth, Tradition and Story from Western Argyll (1925, p10), and this time it's about the Cailleach Bheinn a' Bhric. Enjoy:

“Beinn a' Bhric” - Trout Mountain – is in Lochaber. It's presiding genius was a “Bean-shìdhe” - fairy woman. (Sìdh, the abode of the gods; not sìth, peace as so often rendered.)

The Cailleach tended her herds of deer in Glen Nevis, and often milked them there, especially in the “dead” months of winter. The huntsmen heard her song as she milked her deer; for all Highland milkmaids were wont, in times past, to charm the milk from the cattle by keeping time with their fingers to a ringing lilt. The song of the Cailleach was unlike that of every other milkmaid; it was peculiar to herself, and unique in every respect.

Sometimes the women folk accused her of driving her deer to the shore to feed on dulse, or upon the tender blades of their winter kale. This was no more than women's gossip; the herds of the Cailleach loved not such pasturage.

It was known among the huntsmen that, as certainly as any one of them caught a glimpse of the Cailleach he might stay at home for that day, for he should have no “shooting-luck.”

Once when the tempests of late Autumn marched down the hills, a young hunter of stout heart, on hearing that the Cailleach was abroad, determined to brave her. From dawn till sundown, he hunted in the deer forest of Loch Tréig, the chosen haunt of the Cailleach, but never a trace of deer or roe did he light upon. When twilight came he betook himself for shelter to a hut built for that purpose by the huntsmen. As he gathered wood and leaves wherewith to light a fire on the hearth, he began out of sheer bravado to rhyme a taunt against the Cailleach, imitating her peculiar tune as he hummed the stanzas:-

The grizzled Cailleach, tall and stern,
Tall and stern, tall and stern;
The grizzled Cailleach, tall and stern,
Swift she glides o'er peak and cairn.

Cailleach Bheinn a' Bhric horó!
Bhric horó! Bhric horó!
Cailleach Bheinn a' Bhric horó!
Warder of the mountain well, etc.

The hunter had completed but a few stanzas when the Cailleach, lilting as was her wont, approached and saluted him.

“I am aware,” said she, “that thou hast wandered far to-day in search of game. I have come all the way from “Lagan-nam-féith” - Quagmire Hollow – since the first spark of fire fell on thy tinder, to give thee sure luck in hunting. To-morrow, as I milk my deer, watch thou, and whichever of the deer becomes restive, I will strike with the knob of my fetter. (A fetter was made of plaited horse-hair with a loop at one end and a knob of hard wood at the other for fastening it.) Note it well; take good aim, and thou shalt have good luck.”

The hunter obeyed; and from that day forward he never hunted in vain.