The Awen Tree

Those of you who are active in our community will know that I took a little sabbatical the last couple of months. It was a well needed rest and time to focus on my family as well as my study and prayer. I’m back now and I wanted to share with you all the project that I’ve been working on during this time.

I’ve been putting together a collection of Celtic poetry ranging in date from the early middle ages to the 19th century. It is 150 poems which have been arranged into a format that can be read as poetry or chanted like the psalms. It will even have nine accompanying tones, each expressing a spiritual mood. I am calling it Psalter of the Birds. It will be published by Anamchara Books in September.

There is a medieval Irish psalter called Saltair na Rann (psalter of quatrains) which was the inspiration for this psalter. A psalter, in case you’re unfamiliar with the term, is a name typically given to the Book of Psalms in the bible. The psalms are called a psalter when they are used for singing or chanting. If you want to learn more about traditional plainchant for the psalms then THIS is an excellent free resource.

Saltair na Rann is not actually the book of Psalms, but rather a collection of 150 poems written in Irish which tells the scared history of the world as well as the theology of the monks who compiled it. Psalter of the Birds is also a collection of non-biblical poetry and is designed to give a broad overview of Celtic Christian spirituality, liturgy, and devotion. All of the poems have been translated into English and loosely arranged into a quatrain format. A quatrain is a simple form of poetry made of four alternating lines.

Even though this project is also a psalter of quatrains, I chose to give it the name Psalter of the Birds because of a common theme in many Celtic texts. Birds are often presented as angels in disguise who are actually singing the psalms. One of the best examples of this comes from the Voyage of Brendan. I wrote one original poem for Psalter of the Birds, which will appear in the introduction. This poem, titled The Awen Tree, is my own artistic exploration of that story from Brendan woven together with the concept of Awen found in medieval Welsh poetry.

While this is not a historical pairing, I thought it helped to bring together the Welsh and Irish poetry which both feature prominently in the psalter. Awen quite literally means “inspiration” but it is also a mysterious term that is deeper than simply “getting an idea.” At times Awen appears to be a spiritual water which the bard draws forth from a well in the hidden recesses of nature. It is also presented as the practical skill of writing poetry, which can be acquired with study and practice.

Here is the poem I wrote:

The Awen Tree

A holy poem for this psalter
	A blessing from the God of verse
May my Awen never falter
	And in all things the Trinity first

My heart’s song is the Awen
	I bring it forth from the deep
It is a mighty river when it flows
	I know where it meets the sea

I know when it disappears
       I know when it overflows
I know when it ebbs away
       I know its fountain down below

Brendan sailed so far from home 
	In search of what is true
He was a pilgrim on the waves
	Set himself free into the blue

He never steered his little boat
	But he always found his way
At each island which God revealed
       He would stop to fast and pray

On one island which they found
	Brendan turned to his friends and said
“The Lord Jesus has given us this place
	To prepare the wine and the bread

To celebrate the resurrection of the Lord
	Here by this holy spring
It’s cool and clean waters provide
	A bountiful supply of food and drink”

Shading the sweet pool of the holy well
	Grew the tallest tree they had ever seen
With a trunk as wide as their boat
	They thought it must have been a dream

Its nine branches reached the heavens
	Its taproot was nourished in the deep
A host of beautiful pure white birds
	Were gathered together in that tree

Thousands of birds in a single flock
	They covered all the branches and leaves
Brendan fell to his knees in prayer
	In praise of the wonder which he did see

“Oh God who knows all secret things
	And who reveals to us the mystery
You know the suffering of my heart
	Teach me the secret of this tree”

One bird came down to greet him
	The music of bells was on her wings
She landed on his little boat
	And with joy she began to sing

She spoke to him of cosmic battles
	And of life in higher realms
She sang prophetically with wisdom
	While perched peacefully on his helm

“You must return to this island every Easter
       To celebrate the feast of our Lord
Until you find the promised land of the saints
       And set your feet on its radiant shore”

Then the birds sang together for vespers
	And Brendan’s heart was gently warmed
“Praise is due to you O God, in Zion
       And to you shall vows be performed”

The rhythm of their beating wings
	Raised a song of sorrow in the air
They stirred the elegant Awen 
       Like the breeze of midnight prayers

After vespers Brendan spoke to his friends
	“Take nourishment for your flesh
For our souls have already been fed
	By divine food we have been refreshed”

After their meal they came together 
        And sang compline and went to sleep
“The Lord hears me when I call to him
	I will lie down and rest in peace”

Brendan did not rest with the others
	He did not join them in their sleep
He stayed up until the midnight vigil
	So that his brothers he might keep

He awoke them with a prayer
	“O God of Awen and of art
You desire truth in my inner being
         Teach me wisdom in my secret heart”

When the holy man finished praying
	In one voice the birds began to sing
“Praise the Lord, all his angels
       Praise him with your heavenly wings”

At sunrise the birds sang out again
        “May the splendour of the Lord come upon us”
The angel song poured forth from the tree
	Blessing everyone with their promise

At terce the birds sang once again 
       “Sing psalms of praise to our King
Sing psalms of praise to our God
	Sing psalms with understanding”

At sext the birds sang once again
       “May God bless us in our meditation
And shine his radiant face upon us
	Let him be praised by his creation”

At nones the birds sang once again
	“Behold the good we are expressing
When kindred live together in unity
       For there the Lord ordained his blessing”

In this way they marked the sacred hours
	As is done by the nine ranks of heaven
The birds drew forth the Awen of deep remembering
	The number of times they prayed was seven

Let all creation rejoice together
	Make a joyful noise all the earth
Bless our God, every creature
       Let the sound of his praise be heard

Come and hear, all you who fear the Lord
       And I will tell you what he has done for me
Every time I circle back to my psalter
       I remember the love of the Holy Three

And every year Brendan returned
	To celebrate the Easter mass
With the angels in the tree
	And the music on the wing

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