Cantre’r Gwaelod, The Welsh Atlantis?: Stories From The Heart(h)

island CANTRER GWAELOD THE WELSH ATLANTIS STORIES FROM THE HEARThWe live in a mysterious universe, and on an even more mysterious planet. That mystery opens up and yields its treasure to those who are fortunate to have eyes that see and ears that hear, as it says in ancient sacred text. Mystery is ‘shy’ and only the respectful may gaze upon her.

Hy Braesil, as mentioned recently in an article, is a mysterious island that appears and disappears, allegedly, off the coast of north-west Scotland. Rather like an oceanic Brigadoon – a Scottish village that is supposed to appear for one day per century in Scotland, and which was the theme of a 1947 musical and a movie some seven years later – it is an elusive place and is yet another mystery to encourage you to visit these ancient Celtic kingdoms.

And so, as I sit here in London, in my small ‘town garden’ (a backyard?) with a glass of cold mineral water in my hand (I really like the effervescent kind), and with my eyes half closing, I begin to relax even more.

My mind ‘circles’ around the idea of water, and my imagination starts to ‘dance’, and it’s as though I’m transported back in time to grandmother Rhianwen’s cottage. There, as a wee lad,  I would sit beside the hearth in the evening, and she would tell another story. She was a seanchie, a Celtic story-teller, and a good one at that. I loved hearing her timeless, mysterious and deep stories. Stories full of meaning. And, the memory of them, even today, is pure gold.

‘There are no rules of architecture for a castle in the clouds.’ G K Chesterton

‘There was a time’, my grandmother said, ‘when there was a great city off the western coast of Wales, an island-city, but it had sunk beneath the waves some time ago’. Perhaps seeing my alarm at this she added, that it all took place in the seventh century, and so allayed my fears.  Something like that, she assured me, wouldn’t happen to Capel Curig as we’re inland, and the sea is some twenty-eight miles away. That relieved my childhood concerns, and she continued.

Her rocking chair creaked as she gently rocked back and forth, the fire in the hearth was ‘baking’ one side of my face, and so I moved from the side of the rocking chair to face her. ‘The great city’s name was Cantre’r Gwaelod’, she said. ‘It was a good mile off the mainland coast, and could be reached on foot at low tide. Then it’s gates would open, only to close as high tide approached’.

O dan y môr â’i donnau
Mae llawer dinas dlôs

Beneath the sea and its waves
Are many cities fair

But, on that particular evening one of the watchmen, whose task it was to close one of the sluice gates as the tide came up, got careless’, she said. ‘His name was Seithennin. He was madly in love with the King’s daughter, and when she got married to someone else he couldn’t bear the thought, and spent too much time in a tavern, got even more careless, and got drunk.’

‘A storm arose that night, the sea crept higher and higher, and lapped at the city wall of Cantre’r Gwaelod, but Seithennin was unaware. All the other city sluice gates had been closed, except for one – the one that Seithinnin was in charge of. He was in a deep, drunken stupor in the tavern.’

‘He was awoken abruptly by screams, and staggering out into the street, he could see water rushing toward him at great force. Sadly, Seithinnin lost his life that night. Some of the city people made it to the mainland, but the city was flooded and sank beneath the waves.’

Aeth clychau Cantre’r Gwaelod
Ô’r golwg dan y dwr.

The bells of Cantre’r Gwaelod
Vanished beneath the water.

My grandmother could obviously see that such an unhappy ending was perhaps too much for me, and added, ‘But, the city of Cantre’r Gwaelod was, and is, a special place. And some say a magical place. Even now, especially when a storm arises off the western coast, there are some who say they have heard music and singing, much merriment, and churchbell sounds coming from Cantre’r Gwaelod, miles out to sea.

A chlychau Cantre’r Gwaelod
Yn canu dan y dwr.

And the bells of Cantre’r Gwaelod
Ringing beneath the water.

It seems’, she said and smiled, ‘that life goes on there and is eternal now, even though many on the mainland can’t see it or hear it. But some can! Yes, Cantre’r Gwaelod is a place of mystery, and some would say magic.’

Hyd fedd mi gofia’r tywod
Ar lawer nos ddi-stwr,
A chlychau Cantre’r Gwaelod
Yn canu dan y dwr.

On sand till the grave I’ll remember
Many a peaceful night
And the bells of Cantre’r Gwaelod
Ringing beneath the water.

Did Cantre’r Gwaelod actually exist? Was it a myth full of meaning? Does it matter if was a tangible place or is a spiritual place only? Sometimes, isn’t it enough to just accept mystery?

There is no solid, reliable evidence of the physical kind of this Welsh Atlantis ever having existed. But, we’re talking about Wales, and the whole of that realm is liminal, a place of mystery where anything can happen to those who look gently upon the landscape. Sometimes, the most we can hope for are imaginal-prompts, peripheral fleeting glances  or spiritual ‘glimpses’.

In 1770, a Welsh antiquarian scholar William Owen Pughe said that he witnessed sunken dwelling places about four miles off the coast of Ceredigion. And in 1846 The Topographical Dictionary of Wales described a feature of stone walls and causeways beneath the shallow waters off Cardigan Bay. Even today there are those who will tell you that they have heard the sound of many conversations on the wind that blows from that part of the sea, or have heard the bells of Cantre’r Gwaelod.

Years later, as I sit here, now, in my little garden on a balmy London evening, with my eyes now wide open and with a now empty glass in my hand, that story heartens me. It tells us that that life goes on, seen or unseen, it goes on in another realm – a place of eternal peace. Okay, Seithennin was distraught and got careless in that story, and perhaps one moral from it is that we should not neglect the day of small things (tasks), as it says in ancient sacred text, for such tasks may have the biggest effects.

‘Sin is behovely’. The Lady Julian of Norwich

But the story also assures us that we are altogether very human and that’s not a bad thing, and as humans we will sometimes make mistakes, but through them the Universe, the Source of All is able to turn them around to the benefit of all, and they become blessings.

Yes, the voice of grandmother Rhianwen, who ‘borrowed’ the words of Julian of Norwich on many occasions and reiterated them in a north Welsh accent, continues to echo in my mind, even now, and even here in London: ‘All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well’.

 

[The poem extracts in Welsh with an English translation, above, are from Clychau Cantre’r Gwaelod (The Bells of Cantre’r Gwaelod), a poem by John James Williams (1869-1954) who was a pastor and a poet. J. J. is his bardic name.

The Quest: A Story From The Heart(h) From Beyond The Veil

20180521 THE QUEST ANOTHER STORY FROM THE HEARTH BEYOND THE VEILIt’s a great evening here, as I sit in my garden of Tŷ Gwyn cottage, north Wales. It’s one of those evenings that, after a fine, sunny, cloudless, quite warm day for the time of year, it has now become somewhat cold, or as they say around here, ‘bracing’ or ‘fresh’.

‘Imagination is the true magic carpet.’ Norman Vincent Peale

As I sit here with a glass of good red wine on the old wooden garden table, my mind wanders and I remember former times. My stomach is full, some of that red wine is coursing through my veins, a pleasant glow seems to envelope me and my imagination is fired up, especially as my eyes seem now to be half-veiled.

As a wee lad I would gather by the hearth and listen to one of my grandmother’s stories. She was a seanchaí [pronounced ‘shawn-(a)-key’, Gaelic] a story-teller, and would tell me many a profound story that only now, in some respects, do I see a yet deeper layer of meaning in the retelling.

‘Lift the veil that obscures…and there you will find what you are looking for’. Kabir

As the sun sets, so in my mind’s eye I can see the past, me as a wee lad, the golden glow from the hearth, and I can feel its heat on just one side of my face, something which periodically causes me to move from the side of the rocking chair, where my grandmother is sitting, to the opposite chair. There is a satisfying and protective feeling of warmth around the hearth, and not just from the fire.

I can remember telling my grandmother, somewhat reluctantly, that I had forgotten to do something that she had asked me to do – it had slipped my mind as such things do when a child is engrossed in play especially when surrounded by the majestic beauty of valleys, lakes and streams, mountains and an abundance of wildlife, such is north Wales.

My grandmother used my forgetfulness as the basis for another story.

‘There was once a small child’, she said,‘ who lived in a palace with fine food, luxuries of all kinds and who never wanted for anything. His father was the King, his mother was the Queen, and the small child was a prince.

There came a certain day when the King and Queen told the prince of a quest they had set before him. Giving him provisions for the journey they took from him his prized purple toga and glittering white robe. They instructed him to head west and to bring them back a most beautiful pearl and he would be rewarded, but to be careful as the pearl was guarded by a ferocious huge serpent. And so, off the prince went with his two guardians.

The prince travelled far and arrived on an island, his guardians left him. He asked many questions of the locals about the pearl and the huge serpent, and as he bided his time, for he wanted the huge serpent to fall asleep, he got bored and lonely. He really missed his home and his family.

He shared his provisions with his new neighbours and became good friends with them. Why, he even started to talk like them and to dress like them. Dressing like them, talking like them, eating their strange-but-now-familiar food he forgot that he was a prince, home seemed a distant memory or a fairy tale now, and he even forgot his quest for the unique pearl.

Years went by. When their son didn’t return home the King and Queen wrote a letter to him, signed by the King and Queen and all the nobles, which was delivered to their son by an eagle.

The young man, for he had now grown up into a fine young adult, awoke with a start. The eagle spoke to him and gave dropped the letter on the young man’s bed. He read the letter and remembered that he was indeed a prince and his home were there is no want, and he remembered his quest for the pearl. The veil of forgetfulness immediately fell away from his eyes.

He manfully went about his quest, located the pearl and the huge serpent, and sang, and sang, and sang until the huge serpent fell asleep. Then he took the pearl, went back to the village, cleaned his clothes, and embarked on the long journey, eastward, to his home.

Just as he reached the city gates to his home he saw his family running to greet him, and they brought with them his favourite purple toga and his bright, glittering, white robe. As he put on his fine clothes, he thought of how many years had passed, but his over-riding emotion was of joy at being back home with his family.

Giving the King and Queen the wonderful pearl, they rewarded him with even more fine clothes, luxuries of every kind, and as promised he inherited the kingdom to rule, along with his bother.

My grandmother finished the story by asking, ‘Do you think you might be that prince, the one who forget and then remembered?’. Ofcourse, I knew the cue, nodded, and she let out a hearty laugh.

‘Awake, O sleeper…’, Ephesians 5:14a. The Book.

‘Yes, yes, yes you are, ‘she said. ‘We all are. It’s as though we’ve all fallen asleep, we’ve all forgotten where we come from, our purpose in life and where our true home is. But, some of us are now waking up, starting to remember, aren’t we?’. Again as a small boy I knew another nod was required.

And even today, many years later her story rings true.

We have all forgotten our real home, our status, our purpose, and our return. But, some, maybe I as I retell this story and you, as you read it, are getting glimpses of the truth behind the veil.

Research showed me that my grandmother ‘borrowed’ that story from the Acts of Thomas and loosely adapted it. Nevertheless, it does contain gems of truth about our origin, status, purpose and journey home, and that we currently live in a world where many have forgotten the most important thing in life. Many are asleep.

The sun has now gone below the horizon here in north Wales, and my eyes are now wide open. There’s a distinct chill in the air and its pitch black. But, it’s a wonderful evening. It’s dark. There are many walking in darkness, but not you, and not those you draw alongside. As my grandmother passed the lighted-truth onto me in that ancient-future story, so you and I pass it onto others, sometimes even without knowing it by what we do and say. The veil is lifting. Don’t go back to sleep.

‘The breezes at dawn have secrets to tell you.
Don’t go back to sleep!
You must ask for what you really want.
Don’t go back to sleep!
People are going back and forth
across the doorsill where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open
Don’t go back to sleep!’

(Rumi)

Celtic OrthoPraxis: Time To Dive In

20180320 CELTIC ORTHOPRAXIS TIME TO DIVE INToday, the day started off ‘fresh’. Temperature-wise, that was. The snow of a couple of weeks ago returned a couple of day ago, but it too, has almost melted away. A little remains in my little city aparment’s garden.

At one level it’s just snow – great to look at, and I do so love it. My inner child, never far below the surface, erupts with a simple joy. Look deeper and we know that snow is composed of water molecules and intricate crystals and atoms, and even small physical quanta. But, at another level it evokes a deeper response, a deep spiituality – it’s as if nature is reminding us that we dont control the weather, that the circle turns as it pleases and not at our behest, and that we are yet immersed in nature and not the other way around. There is always more.

‘Those who would search for pearls must dive below.’ John Dryden

Today, I greeted the day with a simple liturgy set in a simple ritual. At one level it’s just a prayer and ritual, formed of words and physical actions. Some stop there. At another level the words give voice to an inner intentionality, which is important. More than that, that liturgy and ritual has a deeper, spiritual, and more profound effect in a realm invisible to us, currently. Yes, there is more.

We can look at the surface of something, or go deeper, or go really deep.

Later, I was talking with a good friend. We spoke about calendars. I mentioned that I like nothing better to mark the months using a formala put forward by Graves, and which uses trees names to mark the unfolding year. It was pointed to me that that ‘tree calendar’ was fiction in that ancient Celts and Druids would have been unaware of that particular calendar. I know. But, fortunately we looked deeper.

‘Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.’ Albert Einstein

At another level we both agreed that that calendar was nature-focussed, and eco-awareness-prompting, and that cannot be such a bad thing. It was also pointed out to me that ‘purists’ would still object, but we worked through that, noting that there seems to be more worth in celebrating months named after trees than ancient Roman gods and emporers as some do without further thought or objection. But, there’s more. At a deeper level, that kind of ‘tree calender’ worked very well (in conjuction with regular named months), does bring us into a deeper awareness and participation of the turning circle of the seasons. Okay, a little imagination is needed. But, there, is always more.

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing
and right doing there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass
the world is too full to talk about.

Rumi

We can look at the surface of something, or go deeper, or go really deep. But, we live in a world that is, in many senses, quite, quite shallow. Very dualistic. And arguments, for instance, about particularly interpreting and applying ancient words, ritual and formulae, especially where over the years where ‘gaps’ have appeared, abound.

For instance, many years ago I wrote a prayer that had four verses, one to be recited at each of the compass cardinal points. The problem is part of it is missing. The ‘south’ prayer was missing. Lost somewhere. Now a ‘purist’ might say, ‘Tadhg, to be authentic to your work, you should recite the three verses you have, and remain silent when turning to the south’. I hope it doesnt upset my ‘purist’ friends, but I filled in the gap, by recently writing a ‘south’ prayer in line and in the style of the preceeding verses, and it worked wonderfully. It also occured to me, that we all do similar.

‘I would rather my heart be without words than my words be without heart.’ LaMar Boschman

But, there’s more as regards that prayer. Deeper than just words, there was intentionality, and deeper than that was the threshold opening of ‘touching’ another realm. All of which would be lost if we had just concentred on the challenge of the missing verse and discussing, at a cerebral, contemporary, dualistic, academic level, whether it should have been re-written or not.

‘Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.’ The Book, 1 John 3.8

There is an ancient Middle-eastern story that goes something like this:

‘There was once a time when some kind of calamity was threatening a village. The village elder knew what to do. He went a certain ‘Holy Place’ in the forest, lit a ‘Sacred Fire’ and said a ‘Special Prayer’. And, when this was done, calamity was averted.

Years later a similar threat arose, and so the village elder of that day went into the forest and spoke to the Source of All, and said: “I do not know how to light the ‘Sacred Fire’, but I still remember the ‘Holy Place’ in the forest, and I still know that ‘Special Prayer’. Then, he said the special prayer in the holy place. When he returned home, the calamity had been averted.

Some years later, the village found itself in trouble. The village elder of that day went again into that ‘Holy Place’ in the forest and said to the Source Of All: “I don’t know the ‘Holy Place’, in this forest, but I do not know how to light the ‘Sacred Fire’ and I’ve forgotten that ‘Special Prayer’. Yet,  have pity on us and save your people.’ This time, too, the tragedy was averted.

Yes, some years later, again, trouble arose. The village elder of that day wanted to avert tragedy. Sitting at home, he prayed to the Source of All from the depth of his heart: ‘I am so sorry. I do not know that site of the ‘Holy Place’ in the forest. I cannot light the ‘Sacred Fire’, and worst of all, I have even forgotten that ‘Special, Prayer’. Yet, I pray that you would have pity on us and deliver us from danger.’ And the Source of All listened to the elder’s heart and averted the calamity.’

Words, depth, heart. Words, meaning, intentionalty. Surface, go deep, go very deep.

There is always more. Mae mwy as they say in Wales. So, my encouragement to you and myself is to go very deep. And in using of prayer, liturgy, ritual and personal encounters with That Which Is Bigger Than Us, let us not to be hung up on mere ‘surface’ concerns and miss the Encounter and other delights that await us when we leave ‘the shallows’ and when we dive deep. There is always more.

 

 

 

Lessons From The Heart(h) Remembered

20180304 TALES FROM THE HEARTH REMEMBEREDMy grandmother, always having time to tell a good story, passed on some thirty years ago. Times flies. And yet, the legacy of her stories lives on in my memory and life. She was what many would call a seanchaí [pronounced ‘shawn-(a)-key’, and Gaelic for a story-teller], and she was a good one at that.

Even now there are times, in looking back, I can remember myself sitting by her chair, by the hearth, and as her sweet voice told yet another wonderful story, the fire would ‘roast’ one side of my face, making it red for some time after. I’d move to another position by the hearth, but as a small child, I would always ensure that I could hear every word she spoke.

Each of her stories encapsulated some nugget of wisdom, a lesson to be applied. And each was a lesson for an authentic Celtic lifestyle. Here’s three such lessons.

Un

They were a great times of hearing this consummate story-teller tell her stories of myth and ‘magic’. But they were stories, albeit stories that were so memorable and encompassed such deep truth that they were unforgettable. I can remember my grandmother telling me stories of Brigid. One story she told was of Brigid, the saint, who was also known as ‘Mary of the Gael(s)’, and who flourished around AD500. Brigid, then, turned bathwater into beer. Another story was of Brigid who was an ancient and timeless Celtic godess. And yet another story was of Brigid who was nursemaid to the Christ-child and so lived two-thousand years ago.

On one occassion, when I was a little older, I asked my grandmother, ‘But, which Brigid is the true one?’. Always one to answer a question with a question, she replied, ‘What do you think, little one?’.

‘I don’t know’, I replied after some time of thinking about my reply and getting confused in the process.

‘That,’ she said, ‘was the best reply. There’s an element for doubt. Room what ‘what could be’, and so then all the stories will continue to be told and enjoyed’.

‘When a wise man points at the moon the imbecile examines the finger.’ Confucius

It was many years later that I understood what she meant. If we adopt the twenty-first century approach, the Greek dualist approach, the academic way of ‘squaring the equation’ and wanting a definitive answer, and treating ancient writings and stories as though they were science books, then one story must be true and the other two would eventually be forgotten as untrue, and their wisdom would be lost.

If we accept the non-academic approach, the poetic, and I would say that is the ancient Celtic and Druidic approach (as well as that of many other ancient cultures eg Hebrew), then we can accept all three stories, not be overly concerned that they don’t fit neatly into our modern understanding of time and place, and their ancient wisdom can and will benefit us as they get told and retold, as the stories unfold. Oh, but how we fall into the trap of being ‘so sicentific’ that we lose the meaning, the light and love on the journey to understanding.

Lesson: Look for the deeper meaning, and not sentence construction, academia or historicity as ancient wisdom needs a little effort sometimes to get to, and an open-mind. Look to the ancient writings, to the deep words of others, to those ‘silent teachers’ in nature eg the trees, flowers, animals, elementals, the environment etc.

‘…the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.’ Matthew 13.45-46 The Book

Dau

On other occasion my grandmother would tell me stories that would ‘make my toes curl’. Scary ones, which as a wee child I would actually love to hear. Stories about the Cailleach (pronounced ‘kie-lich’), that ugly hag that wanted a respectful kiss, the Tylwyth Teg (pronounced ‘ter-loo-ith tehg’) a playful but misunderstood fae, or  The Gwrach y Rhibyn (pronounced ‘goo-rach ee ribb-in’) who was always depicted as an old witch, sometimes with thick leathery wings, but wasn’t so bad.

My grandmother’s stories were usually interactive, and she would insert a question or two throughout the story or at the end. She would say something like, ‘Now the Gwrach y Rhibyn is an awful sight to behold, but do you need to be frightened?’ I would shake my head, guessing that was the right thing to do, and say, ‘No’. And she would smile, and say, ‘Quite right, my dear one. The Gwrach y Rhibyn and others are sorely misunderstood and just want a little bit of respect. Just keep your distance, nod and be courteous to them, go on your way and all will be well’.

Lesson: In life, all is not as it seems. Treat everyone and everything with respect and you will prosper. Never be fearful. Always look for the ‘lesson’ in the event, realising that usually the ‘answer’ is in the ‘challenge’ or event. Be inclusive and welcoming to others, to circumstances etc. Welcome strangers, for by so doing some have entertained elementals unawares.

‘Do not judge by appearances; a rich heart may be under a poor coat.’ Scottish Proverb

Tri

One another occasion, and I was a little older by then, I asked a question of my grandmother, and she went silent, looked at me, and quite cheerfully said, ‘I don’t know the answer to that one’. Many years later I reminded her of that event, and she explained: sometimes life will be confusing and answers won’t be forthcoming. Sometimes, in this journey of life, we must accept that saying ‘I don’t know’ is the best answer. I pressed her further, and said, ‘Do you still think that’s true now?. She laughed to herself, looked at me, beamed a gorgeous smile and said out loud, ‘I don’t know!’. And we both laughed hilariously.

Lesson: Sometime in the journey of life, answers won’t always be forthcoming until we finish this journey. Until then, be content to enjoy the journey. It’s the journey and not necessary the destination that’s important. Keep forward-looking and not backward-looking. You’re not going in that direction.

‘The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails.’ William Arthur Ward

Conclusion, Or Is It?

Thirty years on, and though my grandmother has passed on, her words of story and wisdom still ring in my ears. They are remembered. ‘Mae mwy’, she would always say.  Welsh, for ‘There is more’. And, there always is. Life is an amazing adventure, and the deep truths of the Source of All cannot be comprehended by knowledge, but only ‘glimpsed’ in metaphor, story, myth, poetry, intuition and music. And it’s enough.

‘Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand. Albert Einstein

Mae mwy. There is more. The Great Story, which also incudes you and I, continues. There is always more!

The Cailleach And You. A Cautionary Celtic Tale For Today

20180214 THE CAILLEACH AND YOU A CELTIC CAUTIONARY TALE FOR TODAYYes, I’m awake so very early in the morning and couldn’t get back to sleep. On those few occassions this happens I know it’s time to observe something, to be aware of something, to know that there is something to learn and to make time for the experience. And so I headed to the garden.

As I sat there, in the distance I could see the green-grey colour mountains near Capel Curig, north Wales, mainly of slate and usually grass-covered or moss covered, with the latter prevailing at this time of the year. Indistict white clouds, that became mist hung low over the mountains, and the cotton-candy-like mist ‘rolled’ down the mountains’ side onto the low land, part of which, though some few miles distant from those mountains, formed the end of my garden. Mist enncroached. The feeling was quite delightful, very ethereal, other-worldly, and sound was muted. Liminal space.

Sound was muted that is, except in some high gorse bushes about forty feet away. There a noise could be heard, and with the wind now picking up and changing direction, it sounded like someone moving about in the gorse and occassionally letting out a low moan.

‘Only the wind’, or ‘Nothing untoward’ my grandmother would say to me when I was a wee lad.

As I sat there, with the sun just about to rise, but masked by thick cloud, looking at the gorse expectectantly. I remembered how my grandmother would tell me the story of the Gwrach y Rhibyn (pronounced ‘goo-rach ee ribb-in’. But the ‘ch’ in that second syllable is sounded like the ‘ch’ in loch, that is, a back-of-the-throat phlegm-clearing sound). See here for details.

However, this morning as I sat there, pondering how wonderful nature is, and what (or who) might be ambling around in the gorse bushes, another of my late grandmother’s stories sprang to mind.

She would tell the story of the Cailleach (pronounced ‘kie-lich’. But, again. the ‘ch’ in that second syllable is sounded like the ‘ch’ in loch, that is, a back-of-the-throat phlegm-clearing sound ) from Scottish and Irish mythology. And like the Gwrach y Rhibyn, the Cailleach was always described as an ugly old hag. Story-tellers of yesteryear didn’t mince their words. To those that are only partially acquainted with these type of stories, she was usually someone you would want to avoid, or so they would say. My grandmother, however, knew better, and though she always advised caution, she would always says such visitations can be a blessing, and the Cailleach (or Gwrach y Rhibyn as she’s known in Wales) should always be treated with respect.

Here’s the story my grandmother used to tell of the Cailleach:

The was a time when Niall Noigiallach and his brothers were travelling all together. Some time had elapsed, and they were thirsty. The began to search for water, and happenstanced upon a cottage with an ancient spring well in its garden. It was guarded by a hideous hag – the Cailleach. Her only demand for water from the well from these men was…a kiss.

Fergus and Ailil, repelled by the hideous look of the old women refused to kiss her. They returned from the well empty-handed, and still very thirsty.

Fiachra, another of Niall’s brothers, visited the well, and also saw the Cailleach guarding it. A kiss was demanded by her, and slyly Fiachra gave the old crone a mere peck on the cheek of a kiss. Did it suffice? No, the Cailleach wasn’t impressed, declared that that wasn’t a proper kiss, and with a frown sent him away empty-handed.

Niall went last, visiting the well and met the ugly hag. She demanded a kiss, and Niall gave her a kiss…..and a kiss that she wouldn’t ever forget.

While his brothers were thirsty and cold, Niall had his thirst quench with the most delightfully cool and pure spring water, and was warmed after accepting a invitation to the hearth of the ugly hag’s cottage for the night. In the morning the Cailleach  woke Niall, and before his very eyes she slowly transformed into a beautiful maiden. She gave Niall more water and told him that, because of his noble action he would also have the kingship of Ireland.

An old tale, but one that embodies great truth and wisdom. My grandmother was telling me to never despise anyone because of their differences, and to be hospitable to all. We might say, ‘never judge a book by its covers’ or ‘do not judge by appearances; a rich heart may be under a poor coat’, as they say in Scotland. Or, ‘Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it. (Hebrews 13.2 The Book). The ancient Celts, Druids and others of old (and, still today) extended hospitality to all, and in that there is much love, wisdom and truth. Orthopraxis.

And so, I sat there for some time gazing at the high, thick, dense gorse bushes. Was it an animal scurrying about or the Cailleach? Who knows?

I couldn’t help but stand as a mark of respect, move half way to the gorse bushes, stand, bow my head momentarily, and (because no one else was about and would think me mad, because no one else would even know about this experience….well, apart from you, dear friend, and I trust you) I quietly said, ‘Whoever you are, you are most dearly welcome here’. I waited, the scurrying stopped, and then I turned back and walked slowly to the house.

Now inside, I peered at the gorse bushes through the window and wondered. ‘Was it the Cailleach?’ I don’t know, but whoever I meet today I will welcome them as though they were the Cailleach in diguise and who might give a blessing to me today, and I would commend the same to you. Wherever you are, you might encounter the Cailleach in disguise, and if you treat her (or him) well, you, too, might receive a blessing.

 

Everything You Wanted To Know About (The) Gean Cánach

20180209 EVERYTHING YOU WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT THE GEAN CANACHI’m back in north Wales, and it’s twilight, that time of the day between daytime and night-time, a liminal time, a state when unusual things can happen and can be witnessed by those who are aware.

Sitting in the garden, mesmerised by the play of sunlight on distant mountains, watching them grow ever darker from the base upwards, as the light fades, it’s easy to enter that blissful, relaxing, ‘magical’ waking-dream state.

In the distance a combination of bird and other animal sounds can be heard, coupled with the sound of the babbling brook nearby, and the intermittent sound of the wind as it changes direction. It howls and almost sounds like music, and with crows cawwing it does seem like the occasional intelligible word can be heard as if spoken by someone unseen.

‘Beauty surrounds us, but usually we need to be walking in a garden to know it.’ Rumi

I’m sitting in the garden, and it’s now quite dark, the wind continues to gust from different directions, it’s getting colder and those music-like, word-like sounds, just below the intelligible level continue, too.

There is an ancient story (originally from Ireland and Scotland but one that has been taken to heart in this part of Wales) about the Gancanagh or Gean Cánach (an ancient Irish term pronounced gann kanna). As this music-like, word-like sound, carried on the wind, draws me into it, it does seem as though it might be the Gean Cánach.

There are two ways of perceiving the Gean Cánach.

To some the Gean Cánach is an elemental, one to wary of. As I sit here, the Gean Cánach, should one be close, is nothing to be feared, at least not by me. In ancient story the Gean Cánach is said to frequent mountains, hills lakes and lonely glens and use his wit, charm and ‘magic’ on women and rob them of their innocence. He was (or should it be, is) the original smooth-talker, and indeed Gean Cánach means ‘love-talker’. This elemental’s exploits have been written about over the centuries….but we move swiftly on. Ofcourse, some exaggeration may have crept into this myth over the years, and so do keep an open mind.

‘Hello, sun in my face. Hello you who made the morning and spread it over the fields…Watch, now, how I start the day in happiness, in kindness.’

Mary Oliver

As I sit here, in a dream-like, blissful state, I dwell on another use of the word Gean Cánach. Today, most of us would know what we mean if we described someone as genius. It is ofcourse a person who displays exceptional intellectual ability, or excellent creative productivity. That ofcourse is a modern, albeit ‘lighter’ understanding of the word. Go back several thousand years and to be a genius was to be ‘inhabited’ (in a nice way) by a guiding spirit or a (minor) deity who was sharing their knowledge, wisdom or creativity with that person. So, there are two ways of perceiving the word genius.

There is another way, perhaps more acceptable to some, and much more ‘usable’ of perceiving the Gean Cánach.

In this modern sense the Gean Cánach is ‘love-taking’, praise poetry (or other words) that we might use in gratitude of others, or indeed of nature, or life itself. This interpretation I like very much and it is usable on a daily basis, giving us the foundation of a good spiritual practice.

Frank MacEowan in his book ‘The Celtic Way Of Seeing’ writes about this. It is a deep and thoughtful process, a meditation practice of reciting simple ‘love-talking’ or gratitude poetry, and to make it so ‘real’ that we become part of it. We become the poem.

‘From the lips of children and infants
you have ordained praise’

Psalm 8.2a The Book

And, as I sit here, and it is darker, still, but I can just make out the mountains in the distance, trees nearby, the rustling of animals, birds in trees, and hear the wind howling and see low clouds moving rapidly across the sky overhead, I use that form of ‘love-talking’ or gratitude poetry, an example used in Frank MacEowan’s book (and formulated by Tom Cowan).

‘Sometimes I need only to stand wherever I am to be blessed.’
Mary Oliver

You might like to use that kind of ‘love-talking’, praise poetry. It’s simple, profound, and is a spiritual exercise to increase our awareness of nature around us (and which can be used in urban as well as rural environments) and of giving thanks. You don’t have to be an accomplished poet. Just speak from the heart. There is no right or wrong way to do this (because you are speaking from the heart, and you are the poem, too). One formula is to recite:

Beautiful is…beautiful too,….

So, an example of this might be:

Beautiful is the howling wind; beautiful too, are the racing clouds
Beautiful is the babbling book; beautiful too, are the nearby foxes
Beautiful is the mighty oak tree; beautiful too, is the green, lush grass

And so the ‘love-talking’, praise poem goes on, sometimes for many minutes as you and I might add more lines to the proceeding one, using the formula above, in describing what we see around us and give thanks for it.

Beautiful is the city park; beautiful too, are the bright red buses
Beautiful are the trees in the street; beautiful too, are the pigeons and sparrows
Beautiful is the mall music; beautiful too, are the people shopping

I heartily recommend this form of spiritual poetry, this deep poetic meditation, your words (as you perceive more around you) of gratitude to Nature, Life, The Source Of All. It is another ‘tool’ in your spiritual toolkit. Do try it, and let me know how it goes for you.

It’s now late. The weather has turned and it’s beginning to rain. I do love the rain and love walking in it, or even sitting as it falls on me, but, maybe, not tonight.

Beautiful is the soft, refreshing rain; beautiful too, is the roaring hearth fire.

 

The Curious Incident Of Brigid And The Bathwater: A Profound Story For Today

20180122 THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF ST BRIGID AND THE BATHWATER...The circle continues to turn. Imbolc, St Brigid’s Day, or Candlemas, as some call it, comes ever closer. Spring is in the air.

‘O, wind, if winter comes, can spring be far behind?’. Percy Bysshe Shelley

If we’re still in the season of winter, and we are (and, it started on 31 October, marked by the festival of Samhain, also called All Saint’s Eve by some, and progressed to its ‘height’ with the winter soltice, we’re now coming to the end of that season). Imbolc, 2 February (or a day earlier than that to some), marks the end of winter, and is the first day of spring.

‘There is a delightful phrase in Gealic, ‘Ag borradh’, meaning that there is a quivering life about to break forth.’ John O’Donohue

And, if today is anything to go by – it was so relatively mild, weatherwise – spring is here, or is ‘just around the corner’. I could detect a slight ambient temperature increase today, a change in the prominent wind direction, you could almost smell it in the air. Something had changed.  The circle continues to turn and this season is coming to an end.

And with 2 February in mind, our thoughts turn to Brigid of Kildare. Brigid is viewed in differing ways, by different people. To some Brigid is an ancient Celtic goddess. The goddess of fire. Indeed, a sacred fire burned in Kildare in ancient time, as was kept burning by priestesses. In this way it was thought herds would be protected and harvests would be plentiful. To others, Brigid is a saint, and at the time of Candlemass, candles are blessed (and lit by some), and Brigid is remembered as one who symbolises motherhood, new birth, the springing forth of seeds and, in the recent past, some would bless (even) agricultural tools on that day. It’s spring (or nearly, so), after all.

‘I am going to try to pay attention to the spring. I am going to look around at all the flowers, and look up at the hectic trees. I am going to close my eyes and listen’. Anne Lamott

Yes, you know I like stories, and here’s another about Brigid.

Brigid was known for her hospitality. For the weary traveller no expense was spared by her.

On one occasion, going about her day, she came across some very tired, hungry and thirsty lepers. The plight of those dear people had already touched Brigid’s heart, and she made them as comfortable as she could. She ensured that they had had some food, but were thirsty.

One of those near to Brigid came to her and broke the bad news news: there was no beer for those thirsty lepers.

Brigid was deeply concerned, and it is said, immediately sprung into action. At the back of some nearby buildings she found an old bath, full of dirty bath water. She put her hand into the bathwater and blessed it. As the attendant drew off pints from that bath they found that it had changed! No longer dirty bath water, but the finest, freshest and coolest beer you could ever imagine, which was served to all.

The lepers and others were delighted, and had more than enough to drink, and there was plenty of beer left over.

You will have to forgive me – flippant only for a moment or two – but isn’t Brigid the kind of person you would like at all your parties?

I know sceptics may ridicule the bathwater-into-beer story, but there are some deep and profound truths ‘buried’ in it, if we take time to discover them. The need to be hospitable, and the joy in being so. The fact that we live in a world of abundance. The ‘power’ that one good person has. The Universe (God, the Elements, The Source of All) is friendly. The power in a blessing etc. All wonderful truths that are ‘unpacked’ in this unusual and delightful story about dear Brigid.

‘Spring has returned. The Earth is like a child that knows poems’. Rainer Maria Rilke

Spring is close. However, you view Brigid, it may be good to give thanks for her example, for this season of rest, to look forward to the coming season of spring and the springing forth of plants etc, for growth, and perhaps to light a candle. Fire, however, you view dear Brigid, is a worthy symbol of her, and the lighting of a candle on her day a notable action to do.

 

Brigid’s Cloak: A Profound Story For Today

20180118 BRIGIDS CLOAK A PROFOUND STORY FOR TODAYIt’s late. I’m still in London, but now things have settled down somewhat I’m able to slow down (even more). Earlier today, in a huge supermarket nearby I spied jars of Horlicks lined up at eye level, just calling to me, almost. I had never noticed them before. Horlicks, if you’ve never had it, is a delightful malt drink, usually in powder form and was something that many children grew up drinking. So far as I know it’s extremely healthy.

It’s even later, and I’m on an oh-so comfortable sofa, and having added hot milk to that Horlick’s powdered malt drink, it now resides in a cup just a couple of feet from me. Lights are low. And as I sip it, in my mind’s eye I am immediately transported back – memorywise – to my early childhood days. Amazing how a simple taste can remind us of past things and pleasant events.

I’m reminded of a time, about this time of year, but many years ago. I was sitting in my grandparents’ cottage in Wales. I must have been about seven years old. It was late in the evening, then, and I had positioned myself, comfortably, near the hearth. The main living area of the cottage was partially lit and the fire’s orange glow bathed everything in a warm, restful, flickering, other-worldly light.

My grandpa had just given me a hot cup of Horlicks, as my grandmother started to tell another of her wonderful stories.

As I sip from a cup of Horlicks now, I’m reminded of that story from yesteryear – and it’s all the more poingnant as it was then coming up to St Brigid’s Day, and so it will be again in about two weeks from no. Some (myself included) call it Imbolc (pronounced various ways, but I quite like ‘ih-mulk’), and many call it (now) Candlemas.

As I sat there all those years ago, my grandmother told a story about Brigid of Kildare (in Ireland). The story went something like this:

Dear Brigid approached the King of Leinster with a request for some land on which to build her monastery. She thought deeply about the location, and felt led to build it in Kildare. There, it would be near a lake where water was available, and in a forest where firewood would be plentiful, and also near a large, lush area just right for the growing of crops. Self-sufficiency.

However, the King refused her request.

Brigid wasn’t deterred by his refusal. Rather, she thought about it, prayed about it, and made her request again to him, but this time she added, ‘I would respectfully ask the King to grant me as much land as my cloak will cover.’

Seeing her small cloak, the king laughed out loud, and then granted her request.

Brigid then removed the cloak that was on her back, and gave instructions to her four helpers each to take a corner of the cloak and walk in opposite directions – north, south, east and west. They did this. And, as they did this the cloak began to grow, and grow, and grow. It was soon the size of a large table cloth. And, they carried on walking. And soon it was the size of a living room carpet. And, they carried on walking. And, soon dear Brigid’s cloak had spread across many, many acres of land. She now had sufficient land to build her monastery.

The King was greatly dismayed, but also amazed at this seeming miracle. The King realised that this woman was truly blessed, and had great power. The King was impressed and supported Brigid’s work with money, food and gifts.

My grandmother ended the story, summing up that Brigid was indeed a clever woman, one in touch with great power from the Source of All (that which some call God), and that the story tells us that we do, indeed, live in a world of abundance, but sometimes we need to ‘see’ things differently, and trust in the timely provision of what we need.

That story of dear Brigid (St Brigid to some) made a big impression on me then and throughout the years: I believed then and still believe that we do live in a world of natural abundance and blessing, and Brigid and this story about her is one that we can take to heart and draw strength from.

 

Magic Café Revelations: All Life-Stories Matter

20171121 MAGIC CAFE REVELATIONS ALL STORIES MATTER

I am sitting in a café in London, and it’s magic. I know this to be the case, as over the door it says in big bright lettering, ‘The Magic Café’, and it’s one of my favourite places to relax. As a regular I’ve got to know the other regulars that frequent this awesome place.

I’ve probably mentioned it in the past: there is the yachtsman, the Portugese lady, the journal lady, the nanny, and the taxi drivers. As I sit here today, I wondered if they had a name for me, or if the journal lady had written about me as she writes copiously at her table, right now, supping coffee and chewing on a croissant?

Each one of us has a story to tell.

I was once at a meeting where a speaker, originally from London and had spent a number of years in a remote corner of Africa, only to return and recount his story. After fifteen minutes or so he said that each one of us has a story to tell, and suggested that one by one – there were twelve us in this group – we might tell something of our story. It hadn’t got far, infact only two people had shared their story, when the third person said something like, ‘But you’re story is so much more important, so full of awesome events, that we would like to hear more’, to the speaker. And so the story-sharing came to an abrupt end. Disappointed.

‘A bruised reed He will not break.; Isaiah 42.3 The Book

As I sit in the Magic Café, now, I imagine what each of the regulars’ story might consists of. I can imagine, and do. I wonder in what way their lives are similar to mine, and their will be similarities. In what ways different, and there will be great differences. I wonder in what ways your life story and mine co-incide. It does! At the very least it co-incides as I write these words and you are reading them. Interaction. And, there’s more. In a spiritual realm my thoughts ‘flew’ as I write these word, and your thoughts ‘fly’ as you interpret them. Mingling.

We participate in each others story because of that interaction via the internet, via physically meeting or emailing or commenting, or even thinking about each other; and participate in each others story on a cosmic level which, right now might be more than we can conceive, but one day we will understand fully. Imagine that.

‘If I’m gonna tell a real story, I’m gonna start with my name’. Kendrick Lamar

But for now, I use imagination to understand the depth of our connectedness. And would suggest the same to you. Imagination is a spiritual gift even though we play it down, or use it just as a figure of speech. And, imagination, right now, fuels my desire, our desire to get to know each other (more). The more I think about, say, the journal lady in this café, sitting just a few feet away from me, the more inquisitive I am about her (in a wholesome way), and imagination does change things.

‘…we are talking about spiritual transformation, mediated by the imagination.’ Sandra M Levy

Using my imagination piqued my interest, and that in turn brought about a desire to know that person as a friend, and that in turn lead me to talking to her, and interacting on a verbal level (and more). Ah, she’s a retired doctor, and yes, she loves to journal. I know part of her story now, and she knows part of mine.

Each one of us has an awesome story to share, and unlike the third person in that group, mentioned above, your story is as great as anyone elses. And our stories connect us.

‘Your story is different from mine because of different experiences. Even so, somehow or other we fit them into a Big Picture, we develop a sense of how our own stories fit into a larger one…’ Sandra M Levy

Our individual stories connect us to each other because our stories form part of the chapters of the ‘big picture’ of the cosmos or the big Book, and in such a Book there are no incosequential stories, no inconsquential people. Your life story counts, and it’s writ large upon the universe. All life-stories matter. Share your story. It’s a good one.

But, there’s more…

 

 

The Telling Place In The Age Of Binary

20170921 THE TELLING PLAE IN AN AGE OF BINARYThere was a time when I was a child, when my friends and I would take a short walk to Clackitt’s wood, stay out as late as we could – dependant on our ages and parents’ wishes – and tell each other wild stories. We would scare ourselves, and we loved it. As we sat on felled trees, someone would start the story.

‘Memory… is the diary that we all carry about with us.’ Oscar Wilde

It might be the story of the Llamhigyn Y Dwr, a creature that is said to resemble a giant frog, but with a stinger on the end of its tail, and bat wings instead of front legs. Another might remind us that it would part-fly and part-jump across lakes and land, hence its name (in English), the Water Leaper. Someone would start the story, and someone would add to that fragment of information, and sometimes someone would go back in the story to add or correct someone’s memory about the story. For instance, someone might remind the person who had just spoken that the Llamhigyn Y Dwr was, infact, said to be the size of a cow. Oh, how we scared ourselves, and became more alert to the noises and scuffles in the undergrowth. Could it be that the Llamhigyn Y Dwr was lurking nearby, watching us? As children, we loved it.

‘The imagination of early childhood has no limits. This is why children are fascinated by stories. A story has permission to go anywhere….The child rarely experiences the story as an observer. The child enters the story, it experiences the drama from within.’ John O’Donohue

Now much older, I’m sitting around a garden table in my ever-so-small, but greatly appreciated garden in London, with a few friends. This evening we’ve already shared stories of myth and magic, sometimes fragments of memories of a friends’ childhood, and sometimes more recent events, events that actually happened to someone we knew, and other stories that were fictional.

Stories are important. And more so in our electronic, computerised, fast-paced age.

The ancients, those Celts and Druids of old, knew of the benefits of stories. They would regularly meet around the village fire, in the evenings and tell stories that were, perhaps sometimes of individuals around the fire, or of ancient heroes and their ancestors, or of stories of cosmic proportions eg creation stories and/or of the tribe’s origin.

‘Without memory, there is no culture. Without memory, there would be no civilization, no society, no future.’ Elie Wiesel

‘Do you remember when we all went fishing, and Tadhg fell in?’, one of my friends around the garden table said. They described a snapshot in time of yesteryear. I’m beyond being embarrassed by that event – yes it did happen, and I was only eight years old at the time, and I was, and still am surrounded by friends. And then another would share another fragment of memory. ‘And, yes,’ they remarked, ‘and when he was pulled him out he wouldn’t let go of the fishing rod. What a great fisherman!’.

And, bit by bit, these fragments of memory would be put together by individuals in the group to make a kind of cine film of activity, if you can imagine the old days when a movie was a long length of celluloid made up of individual frames of still pictures.

The ancients new the value of story-telling, when they met together at Telling Places. There, fragments of memory were woven together, and ‘bits’ become ‘whole’, and all added to the complete story, and all listeners were included. Fragments of memory, separate and ‘isolated’ were re-membered. The opposite of dismembered. ‘Re-joined’. Put back together again. And in community, too.

‘We keep stories alive because to re-member is to put broken pieces back together. We keep learning from stories how to make things whole.’ Mark Nepo

Telling our individual stories, or of those of our ancestors, and such stories can take the form of sharing the mundane (as if anything is mundane), of what happened a few days ago. Ofcourse, if something unusual happened, that would make a wonderful story to share with friends. But, every aspect of your life is important, and able to be shared, as your story minute by minute becomes part of the fabric of the universe and transcends time itself. Your story matters.

‘You didn’t think I would let go of a fishing rod that took me five months
pocket money to buy? I retorted to my friends. We all laughed. ‘And, I still have that rod!’

‘Tell it to your children, and let your children tell it to their children, and their children to the next generation.’ Joel 1:3, The Book

Story forms community, it brings individuals into the group, it enables us to see the ‘whole picture’, very essential in an age that likes to fragmentise information eg three-point sermons all beginning with the letter Q! Stories heal, bind, enable depth, encourage laughter and other deep emotions, they alter and clear our perception, challenge and can comfort us, and cause us to wonder at The Source of All.

‘It is not by accident that the Native American medicine men put the questions to the sick who were brought to them: When was the last time you sang? When was the last time you danced? When was the last time you told your story? When was the last time you listened to the story of others?’ Mark Nepo.

And so, one of the things on my list to consider on my imminent visit to Iona, is to think deeply about story, our society, and how, as latter-day Celts and Druids we can give more weight and opportunity to the telling of stories, and encourage groups, faith groups and others to have periodic Telling places, and reap immense benefits.

It’s now late. My friends and I are still around the garden table, wine bottles empty, and we’re still telling stories, and eating the last of the cheese and biscuits. I couldn’t let my watery encounter go without adding, ‘And besides, I didn’t fall in,’ I quipped, ‘I was pulled in by the Llamhigyn Y Dwr, the Water Leaper, which was the size of a cow’. I laughed. They laughed. And as our Telling Place impromptu evening came to an end, it felt that as a group we were closer than ever to each other. Sharing. Laughing. Joy. Affirmation. Inclusion. Community. Love.

‘Every human is an artist. And this is the main art that we have: the creation of our story.’ Don Miguel Ruiz