August 15 , 2006:
Reflections on the Celtic Psalter
by Mary C. Earle
late July a book of psalms dating from approximately 800 AD came
to light in a bog in Ireland. Its appearance delighted my heart
and evoked a sense of startled wonder.
For some years now I have been reading and studying the history and spirituality of the Christian faith in Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Brittany, Cornwall and the Isle of Man. One of the remarkable aspects of this expression of Christianity is the lively engagement with scripture. The Celtic emphasis on the Word was not heady or abstract. They exhibited a sheer love of the scriptures, a dedication to faithful copying of texts, and a passion for creating illuminated manuscripts—hand copied versions of scripture that are embellished with calligraphy and the bright primary colors so loved by the Celtic scribes.
This psalter is in that tradition of painstaking scribal work, each letter carefully crafted by hand on vellum, by day light or candlelight. The Book of Kells and the Book of Durrow (both exhibited at Trinity College Library in Dublin ) are but two examples of this prolific, exuberant incorporation of scripture into Christian life and practice.
We know that the Celtic men and women who traveled as far as Kiev to preach and teach carried their leather bound books of psalms and gospels with them. These were treasured as vital connections to the faith, as outward and visible signs of the Word made flesh, indwelling all creation. The illuminated, hand copied books of scripture were treasures in and of themselves, for books of any kind were rare. Those that existed were the fruit of long days of care and craft, the scribe often bent for hours over the vellum, slowly inscribing each letter and image.
A story about St. Columba, founder of the monastic community on the isle of Iona in the Hebrides gives us a hint of the value these books held. We are told that as a young man, Columba was known for his great love of learning. Like many of us moderns, his love of learning took concrete form in a love of books. Over time, that love unfortunately began to be a kind of coveting. He was accused of copying a book of psalms that belonged to another monk. The High King of Ireland ruled that the copy, done illegally, belonged to the owner of the original text. (This detail alone gives us a sense of the way in which these hand transcribed books of scripture were valued.)
Columba's supporters took up arms in support of his claim on the psalter. Battle ensued, and Columba won. Three thousand men died in the fight over a copy of the book of psalms. Though the victor of this battle, Columba was forced into exile by the king; he began to understand that his own greed and idolatry of the book had caused grievous loss of life and destruction. He set sail in a little circular leather boat with no oars, a boat known as a coracle, grieving that his actions had led to his exile from Ireland . Days later the sea currents washed him up on the shores of Iona off the coast of Scotland.
From his repentance for greed and for the need to be right came the beginnings of a monastic community. Some of his followers accompanied him, and began to create a home dedicated to the love of learning and to the love of neighbor. The Columban monks at Iona were known far and wide for sound teaching, and for making journeys to northern Britain and to the continent to speak the good news of Christ. Iona was also known as a literary center, for there Columba and his followers created copies of the books of scripture. It was believed that those copied by Columba, whose heart had been changed, were especially holy and even capable of offering healing to a person who touched them.
For the Celtic Christian mind, the scriptures were more than words on a page. The words on the page represented the living presence of God who utters every particle of the universe into being. And so, around the edges of the Book of Kells, for example, we see otters and mice, juxtaposed with images of Matthew and the Virgin Mary. The images of creatures, angels, saints, apostles, monks, nuns, all create a lively field of vision and place images of Jesus within a context of the whole created order and the community of saints.
In some ways, the Celtic book of psalms found in the bog is a metaphor—an invitation during this period of fierce arguing about the text and its meaning. The psalter was carried by hand by some unknown faithful man or woman who loved the psalms and used them as daily food for reflection and prayer. We do not know how the book landed in the bog. From an archaeological standpoint, it is a good thing that it did—for that allowed it to be preserved.
From a symbolic standpoint, the living Word emerges from the bog of our arguing and our opinions. The Word in whom all things hold together comes to us from this place of primal, dark earth, comes forth where we least expect it, comes forth speaking of both human devotion and art and of the strange mystery of Presence when we least expect it.
Celtic psalter will hopefully be on display eventually. In the
meantime, my imagination plays with the gift of faith from the
Celtic tradition, a Christian faith in which the words were
not confused with the Word, in which God's living presence in
all and through all could be stumbled upon by a bulldozer, some
1,200 years after the book had fallen into the bog. For some
reason, this gives me hope in a time when contentious and sometimes
spiteful opinions about scripture fill the newspapers and the
web. I think of Columba's greed being transformed into remarkable
generosity of goods, of learning, of wisdom, of books. Ultimately
the Presence who is Life and Light continues to speak in and
through the events and the scriptures.
©2006 Mary C. Earle
Earle is currently conducting an online seminar for the Episcopal
Theological Seminary of the Southwest entitled "We Give
You Greeting: The Celtic Christian Way of Prayer." Information
on the class and registration may be found here.