Over the last few weeks I have been writing about angels. For most of Christian history, going back to the scriptures themselves, angels have had a central role in people’s beliefs and practices. You can read an introduction to the deeper meaning of angels HERE and one about the spiritual understanding of demons HERE.
In this article I will be looking at the angels from the perspective of the medieval Celtic bardic tradition. The angels had a central role in historic Celtic Christianity in general and were often invoked by poets. A bard was understood as someone who participates in the heavenly realm.
This is partly because the angels form choirs in which they sing hymns and psalms to God. The songs of the angelic choirs orchestrate the unfolding of the cosmos and carry the inspiration of God throughout the universe. Bards also sing sacred songs of praise and their art has a share in that divine power.
The blossoming of poetry and song within a person allows them to participate in the choirs of angels. Whether or not you yourself are a poet, to sing a sacred song or to chant a holy poem is to enter into communion with the wisdom of Heaven. It is to wake up and remember the eternal song of creation which is the essence of our being. Singing sacred poetry heals us.
The spiritual power of poetry is something unfamiliar to most people today, yet it was central to the medieval Celtic understanding of the bardic arts. Audacious claims about the spiritual efficacy of poetry abound in the historical texts. Take for instance this excerpt from a medieval commentary on Deer’s Cry, also known as Patrick’s Breastplate.
“It is a breastplate of faith which protects both body and soul from demons, vices, and human beings. Whoever recites it daily and fixes their mind solely upon God will be protected from demons, poison, and jealousy. They will be guarded against unexpected death and it will be a breastplate for their soul after death.”
In medieval Ireland, this poem was understood as a vehicle of God’s blessing able to directly affect the world and the people in it. Not only does the recitation of Patrick’s Breastplate protect a person in this life, but it also protects them in the life to come. There is a stream of belief which teaches that the bardic arts have the capacity to bring about salvation for those who use them well. Medieval Celtic poets often speak about the way in which poetry can heal people from sin and grant access into heaven. The bardic arts affect the bonds of the universe.
Energy flows from Heaven into the poet but it also flows from the poet back into Heaven. Chanting and singing poetry is a means by which the soul can encounter Heaven after leaving this world behind, but it can also help us to connect with the angels in the present moment.
The unity of the music of Heaven is a harmony between many different voices. The poet is able to take part in the creative unfolding of the cosmos by joining that harmony with the inspiration of their spirit. We are co-creators with God, who has given us the ability to shape and form the world in which we live.
We participate in the unfolding of the material world by the work of our hands. We also participate in the unfolding of the spiritual world through the inspiration of our hearts. Because Heaven and earth are really one spectrum of being and not two separate worlds, what is worked in Heaven is also worked on earth. As in Heaven, so below.
The dynamic relationship between Heaven and earth is discussed in a fascinating way in the Martyrology of Oengus. A ninth century text, this collection of Irish poetry was designed for a liturgical setting and provides teachings on the lives of various saints, one of which you can read HERE. It is also a wealth of information on how the medieval bardic tradition understood the spiritual power of poetry.
In the epilogue, Oengus talks about the heavenly origins of his book and the real world blessings which it bestows on the communities who use it. In the following two quatrains, he explains the way that the angels of God directly revealed the poem to him.
The King of Heaven with his angels Whose fame we will declare Along with every martyr of the faith Came together to compose this book A fair synod came to me In the middle of my house To ensure its correctness for all According to the rule of the King of Heaven
A little while later in the poem, after praising the excellence of the book he created in cooperation with the angels, Oengus describes his book as a psalm imbued with spiritual power. Not only do the angels descend down to inspire the poet, but they also lift the poet back up into the eternal realm. The ladder between heaven and earth is a two way street. Through the power of poetry, we can ascend the ladder and join the angels and the saints.
Unto God it is a vehement prayer Against the Devil it is a vast strength It is a psalm that declares great might It is a truly accurate martyrology Everyone who sings the music Of this noble continuous song Will be carried by the host of Heaven Into the eternal realm of the King
And so, dear sisters and brothers, when we embrace the ancient and eternal echoing of divine inspiration, there is no limit to the possibilities which will unfold. The creative expression of the human being is the fullness of the image of God, because God herself is a creator, a poet of the highest calibre. So, seek your inspiration in the wisdom of the hills, the deep dark woods, the crashing of the waves, the radiance of the sun, the tender mercy of the moon, the vibrant colours of the wind, and the music of the angelic choirs.
This topic is covered in more detail in Psalter of the Birds, click HERE to go to our books page and buy a copy.
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