Wednesday, 6 April 2016

A Ninth-Century Antiphon and its Composer

Although he is not actually an Irish saint, I cannot resist marking the feastday of the blessed Notker Balbulus of the Irish abbey of Saint Gall, which falls on April 6. Below is an extract from an 1884 paper on his life and authorship of the beautiful antiphon Media Vita, even though modern scholarship seems to question this.

Media vita in morte sumus ; quem quaerimus adjutorem, nisi te Domine, qui pro peccatis nostris juste irasceris? Sancte Deus, sancte fortis, sancte et misericors Salvator, amarae morti ne tradas nos.

In the midst of life we are in death: of whom may we seek for succor, but of thee, O Lord, who for our sins art justly displeased? Yet, O Lord God most holy, O Lord most mighty, O holy and most merciful Saviour, deliver us not into the bitter pains of eternal death.


St. Gall, an Irish monk and disciple of St. Columbanus of Bangor, who had declined to follow his apostolic countryman into Italy, founded near Lake Constance, in Switzerland, the celebrated monastery which bore his name. A few humble huts, constructed on the confines of vast forests haunted by bears and wolves, at first sheltered the little community from the inclemency of the seasons, but in time they disappeared, and in their stead arose the walls of that magnificent monastic school, destined to live in history among the great abbeys of the middle ages, with Bobbio and Fulda, with Monte Cassino and Cluni, which conferred such incomparable benefits on literature and civilization..

Mediaeval history has preserved the fame and grandeur of its early name, around which are gathered associations, traditions, and legends whose diverse and complex interests are full of fascination for the antiquary and of affection and awe for the hagiologist. Before the death of its saintly founder, in the early part of the seventh century, St. Gall had become a centre of Christian life and thought in the Germanic world. No less than five monks named Notker are numbered among its illustrious scholars. Some writers have so confounded one or other of these with the author of Media Vita, who was canonized by Pope Innocent III., that it is important to give a list of the four who also bear the name of Notker, in order to guard against the mistakes which others have made. They are Notker, surnamed Physicus, who was both painter and musician, and for a time physician at the court of Otho I.; another, of whom little is known, is said to have been abbot of St. Gall; a third, Notker Provost, or Notger, who flourished about the year A.D. 1000, was bishop of Liege and author of a Life of St. Remains; a fourth, called Notker Labeo, or Teutonius, who died about A.D. 1002, was the most celebrated of all these, save the author of Media Vita. He excelled in many branches of learning- and enjoyed great repute as painter, poet, astronomer, and mathematician. Possessing the diligence and industry of the cloister, he made many translations of the sacred and profane writers. The manuscript of his translation of the Psalms into High German is still extant, and is regarded by bibliographers as one of the most valuable monuments of the oldest German prose....

St. Notker, author of the antiphon Media Vita, one of the most interesting characters in the history of the old abbey of St. Gall, whose figure is seen high among the lights which shone above the intellectual horizon towards the sunset of the ninth century. .. The exact date of his birth is uncertain, but the majority of writers whose opinions on mediaeval subjects are worthy of consideration represent him as the senior in age by some months of his friend and patron, Charles le Gros, the last emperor of the Carlovingian dynasty. They agree in dating his birth about the year A.D. 830. His native village was situated in the old province of Thurgovia, in Helvetia, which, at the disruption of the vast empire founded and held intact by the splendid genius of Charlemagne, was divided, and the present canton of Thurgau became a part of the dominion of Louis of Bavaria, So St. Notker was, in the parlance of our day, a German Switzer. His lineage was both ancient and noble. Following the custom of his age and country, St. Notker was trained from youth in a monastic school. Dedicated to the service of God from childhood, the neighboring monastery of St. Gall, but a short distance from his ancestral estate, was his home from the period at which he left the paternal roof until called, at the advanced age of eighty-two, to sleep in everlasting rest with the soft tranquillity of an innocent child. Divers were the out door occupations which filled up the hours of recreation among the monks of St. Gall. Fruit-trees were to be planted or pruned, gardens to be seeded or worked, and nets to be woven or tended when spread for fish or birds. In these various pursuits the monastic disciples assisted their masters, who combined, as in our industrial and agricultural schools, both mental and manual labor. ..Gray-headed monks too old for work, who crept with infirm step about the cloisters of St. Gall, noticed the demure little boy of quiet manners and studious ways, whom they surnamed Balbulus the stammerer from an impediment in his speech. Some, of larger insight into human character than their aged brothers whose faculties were dimmed by weight of years, discovered in the sensitive boy a poetic fervor, supplemented by a humility of spirit almost preternatural in one so young. Under the direction of Ison and Marcellus, his instructors, and in communion with pure souls bound to each other by that most enduring and ennobling of all ties, the profession of a higher theory of life than that which prevailed in the world, St. Notker advanced in the sphere of human knowledge and in the wisdom of the saints. Among his fellow-disciples, who always held him in tender affection, was Salomon, afterwards bishop of Constance. When the period had arrived for the fulfilment of the special purposes of his monastic training he made his religious vows, and from that time forward we find him pursuing with ardor and devotion the every-day duties in the life of a monk of the ninth century. Possessing talents of a high order, which claimed greater scope for development than that afforded in the mere routine of transcribing sacred or profane writers, he spent much of the time usually given to that kind of labor in original composition, and became distinguished as a scholar, poet, and musician.

But although so richly endowed with mental gifts differing from, or superior to, those of his associates, St. Notker was never neglectful in the performance of his full share of work, both in the garden and in the scriptorium. Like the true monk as well as the true poet, he loved nature and understood the tranquillizing power which lives in her majestic symbols. Her book, wherein he read the mystical meaning in which things earthly prefigure things heavenly, lay open to his mind and heart. After the manner of St. Ephrem, who saw the sign of the cross in the outstretched wings of the tiniest bird, or of St. Dunstan, who heard the melody of the antiphon Gaudete in Caelis when the wind swept the strings of his harp suspended on the wall, St. Notker, moved by the sound of the slow revolutions of a millwheel in midsummer when the water was low, wrote the words and music of his hymn, Sancti Spiritus adsit nobis gratia. When a messenger of his friend and admirer, Charles le Gros affectionately called "our Charles" by the monks arrived at St. Gall on a spiritual mission in behalf of the emperor, he found St. Notker weeding and watering the herbs in the garden. The interview was brief and the lesson taught suggested by the lowly occupation in which he was engaged. "Tell the emperor to do what I am now doing," was the saint's reply. Hearing the advice, Charles at once caught its import and said: "Ah! yes, that is the sum of all: destroy the weeds of vice and water the herbs of grace." On another occasion during a visit of Charles le Gros, who delighted in the companionship of the monks, the evidence of confidence and love shown towards St. Notker excited the envy of the chaplain who attended the emperor, and he determined to revenge himself by jeering at the stammering speech of the saint and by perplexing him with knotty questions. Approaching St. Notker, who was composing sacred melodies on his psaltery, the chaplain of Charles addressed him : "Master! solve for us a point in theology, we pray you. What is God doing now?" The attendants of the jealous and conceited inquirer, knowing the secret purpose of the question, were astonished at the promptness and wisdom of the reply : "God is doing now," said the saint," what he has done in all past ages, and what he will continue to do as long as the world lasts: he is setting down the proud and exalting the humble."

St. Notker was a central figure among the transcribers and illuminators of manuscripts in the spacious scriptorium of St. Gall, in which quiet reigned because all the busy monks were intent upon their special work... As a collator St. Notker was zealous and accurate, and his services were of incalculable value to the library of St. Gall. Through intercourse with the learned men of his times he became acquainted with the character and contents of other libraries than that of his own community, and by such knowledge he was enabled to procure copies of scarce manuscripts or to borrow them for transcription. From Liutward, Bishop of Vercelli a Ghibelline city of northern Italy, whose episcopal see dates back to the fourth century, and whose cathedral library is rich in ancient manuscripts he received a copy of the Canonical Letters in Greek, which he copied with his own hand.

It is painful to think that such a man as St. Notker, whose simplicity of character and sweetness of disposition are the themes of panegyric with the historians of the abbey of St. Gall, did not escape the envious promptings which stirred the bosom of Sindolphe, a brother of the same community. Allowing for the natural glow of enthusiasm which would animate the portraiture drawn by a monk of St. Gall three centuries after the close of the earthly career of the saint, other evidence is not wanting in confirmation of the testimony of Eckehard, who says that "no one ever saw him unless either reading, writing, or praying; he wrote many spiritual songs; he was the most humble and meek of men, and most holy." We sometimes find in the cloister, as in secular life, that men of dissimilar tastes and talents are often attracted to each other by the very dissimilitude which at first sight appears incompatible with the ordinary notions of gravitation in the moral and intellectual world. Associated with St. Notker from the date of his novitiate were Ratpert and Tutilon, two monks wholly unlike the saint in temper and character, yet among them there had grown an affectionate regard for each other which had never been chilled by open strife or secret distrust. Common aims and common dangers shared together seem to have softened those little asperities, frequently united with quick feelings, which are yet not inconsistent with holiness of life. But this union of confidence and affection awakened in Sindolphe a suspicion that it had some other motives than those which appeared on the surface. In his ignorance and jealousy he attempted to poison the mind of the abbot against them, but the latter had sounded the shallowness of Sindolphe's undisciplined will, and took no heed of his insinuations. Tutilon, learning of these wayward acts, was watchful of his foolish brother, and soon found means to administer a wholesome lesson. St. Notker and the two monks had repaired together on one occasion to the scriptorium for study, and Sindolphe, believing that he might overhear something which would convince the abbot of their unworthiness, secreted himself under the window outside and placed his ear close to listen to their conversation. Tutilon, keen-eyed and alert, observed the action, and, sending the sweet-tempered Notker into the chapel, persuaded Ratpert to take a whip, and, coming up softly to the unsuspecting Sindolphe, to beat him severely; while Tutilon, opening the window, seized him by the head, calling for lights that he might see the face of Satanas, who had come hither with evil intent. Besides his bodily chastisement, which amused even the grave abbot, the unamiable monk had to endure a still further penance in the well-merited raillery of the community of St. Gall. But whatever may have been the peculiar trials to which the conduct of Sindolphe subjected St. Notker, it is pleasant to believe that they were unable to destroy his high serenity or to tarnish his purity of soul, as in later times the advocatus dioboli was unable to present evidence which in any way interfered with his being a saint. In his long career many honors commensurate with his talents and vocation came to him, but in meekness of spirit he turned away from them all, even the episcopal dignity more than once pressed upon him, to pursue the humble path of a simple monk. As an author his fame spread abroad, and he was remarkable for the variety and extent of his erudition.

On this account certain writings continue to this day to be wrongly attributed to him, notably among these the Gesta Caroli Magni. He compiled a life of St. Gall in verse, and wrote a martyrology "which he chiefly collected," says Butler, "from Ado and Rabanus Maurus, and which was for a long time made use of in most of the German churches." His skill in music found expression in many sequences and proses which established his reputation as a master of ecclesiastical chant, and his small treatise on the value of letters in music is still extant in the Scriptores of Gerbert. Ruodbert, Archbishop of Metz, requested him to compose a hymn in honor of St. Stephen to be used at the opening of a church dedicated to the proto-martyr. He complied, and accompanied it with these words: " Sick and stammering, and full of evil, I Notker, unworthy, have sung the triumph of Stephen with my polluted mouth, at the desire of the prelate. May Ruodbert, who has in a young body the prudent heart of a venerable man, see a long life full of merits!"

The voice of the thoughtful monk, who had chastened his soul in solitude and turned a deaf ear to human applause, has gone out into all the earth and his words unto the ends of the world. The antiphon Media Vita in morte sumus, which commemorates the insecurity of life and the certainty of death, has preserved the name of the severe ascetic in the literature of the church and among those who have ceased to be partakers of the lot of the saints. It was sung for centuries at St. Gall, and formed part of the solemn supplications every year in Rogation week during a religious procession to an awe-inspiring region situated between two mountains and spanned by a bridge beneath which the roaring torrent dashed over the sullen rocks. Peak to peak reverberated the penitential song of the monks, until its last echoes died away among the lofty summits, of Alpine solitudes. The antiphon soon spread over Europe and thrilled the hearts of pilgrims from the stern regions of the inhospitable north and from the vine-clad shores of the blue Mediterranean. Sung by Crusaders, it stirred the most listless and apathetic on the eve of conflict, and at the close of day it was a prayer for protection through the awful perils of the night. So profoundly had it moved the mediaeval world that it was heard in the ranks of opposing armies going to battle. But by and by the imagination of the ignorant began to invest it with a sort of superstitious charm, which led the Synod of Cologne, in 1316, to inhibit its use except by express permission of a bishop. Two accounts of its origin, slightly differing in detail, have been given by monastic annalists..

The monks of St. Gall made frequent excursions into the neighboring country, some for recreation, some on missions of mercy, and others for herbs and flowers which clung about rocky projections or grew in mountain recesses perilous of ascent. Their circuit of ordinary travel, hedged in by a snowy palisade of Alps, abounded in scenery of infinite variety and grandeur. The earliest version of the origin of the antiphon is that, during one of these rambles in the wild region of the chasm of Martistoble, St. Notker was drawn thither by the sound of the hammers of workmen engaged in the construction of a bridge across the yawning abyss. The spectacle of the masons suspended over this awful gulf on movable scaffolding, adjusted by means of ropes which swayed to and fro by the very motion of their bodies, presented to the mind of the saint a realistic picture of the uncertainty of life, and suggested the train of pious thought elaborated in his great antiphon.

The flora of the mountain ranges and the outstretching valleys was pretty well understood by the monastic herbalists, who had traversed the whole region on foot and given to some of the plants and flowers the names which they retain, although in a corrupted form. Between the pages of well-used manuscripts preserved in the libraries of religious houses are still traceable the dim, faint outlines of the rare flowers gathered, perhaps, from rocks and ravines seldom touched by human foot save that of the monk, and in this way the delicate petals and stems were dried for the hortus siccus of the monastery. The monks were physicians of both body and soul. They made many discoveries in the medicinal properties of herbs which entered largely into the practice of the healing art.

The sampetra, or samphire plant, well known in Great Britain, was highly esteemed for its aromatic and curative qualities. It grows on rocky cliffs and promontories the sight of which almost confuses the vision and makes the brain reel... The second account of the composition of Media Vita relates that the clinging form of an adventurous gatherer of the plant, hugging, as it were between life and death, a precipitous rock which juts over the very edge of the torrent below, his body at one moment wrapt in a violet mist, then apparently within -the full sweep of the foaming spray, so pierced the imagination of St. Notker that not only the words but even the measured movement of the original melody of the antiphon sprang spontaneously from his awe-struck soul.

Of the career of its composer but little more remains to be told. St. Notker was now an octogenarian and the weariness of years weighed heavily upon him. The animation that had lighted up his face in the flush of manhood was gone, his eyes were hollow, and his flesh was wasted with the long conflict of life. His body, frail and shrunken, was scarcely equal to its functions, and the intellectual fibre, once so strong and vigorous, was worn out. The candle was burnt to the end and its dying light fluttered in the socket. In his own person was fulfilled the prophecy of old:

" The days of our age are threescore years and ten; though men be so strong that they come to fourscore years, yet is their strength then but labor and sorrow." The verdure of spring, so grateful to the languid eyes of the sick man, had now begun to clothe valley and hill with its richness. Winter was relaxing its icy hold, and nature, like a young giant refreshed with sleep, was putting forth the strength and fulness of life. Even the coldness of the snow-crowned Alps seemed to decrease under the lustre and warmth of a vernal sun. The quickening influences of reawakened nature, which touched all visible forms with the glory of resurrection, made no impression on the attenuated frame of the saintly ascetic stretched on his narrow couch. His mission was nearly accomplished, and only the feeble pulsations showed that life was not quite extinct. The morning of the 6th of April, A.D. 912, wore away as usual in the cloisters of St. Gall, and no change was apparent in the face of the dying monk; but when silence and night settled over the sorrow-stricken community the joy of eternal day had dawned on the vision of the saint. So quietly and peacefully came his release from the earthly tenement that none knew the moment when he ceased to breathe. ..

Catholic World, Volume 38, (1884), 13-28.

Sunday, 3 April 2016

The Incredulity of Thomas




John, son of Zebedee, the beloved disciple of Jesus, the heir of the Virgin, the twelfth apostle in the order of the apostolate, the fourth Evangelist who wrote the Lord's Gospel, recounts the great and noble deed preached on this day, telling how the apostles and disciples of Jesus were in one apartment with closed doors, and Thomas with them, on the eighth day after Christ's resurrection, and how Christ came to them, though the doors were closed, to strengthen their belief in the resurrection, and how He stood in the midst among them, and blessed them. 

Sermon XXXI 'On The Incredulity of Thomas' - The Passions and the Homilies from Leabhar Breac - Text, Translation and Glossary by Robert Atkinson (Dublin, 1887), 465-466.


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Thursday, 31 March 2016

Saint Machabeo of Armagh, March 31


Canon O'Hanlon brings us details of a twelfth century abbot of Armagh commemorated on March 31 - Saint Machabeo. The notes to the Martyrology of Gorman provide him with this eulogy:

Gilla mo-Chaidbeo, abbot of the monastery of Paul and Peter in Armagh. The tower of piety and firmness, wisdom and knowledge, labour and prudence of his time.

Details of our saint are also to be found in the Irish Annals which give the year of his death:

THE AGE OF CHRIST, 1174.

Gilla Mochaibeo, Abbot of the monastery of SS. Peter and Paul at Armagh, a diligent and faithful servant of the Lord, died on the 31st day of March, in the seventieth year of his age.

As Canon O'Hanlon remarks in his account below, this makes Machabeo one of the latest saints to be recorded in the martyrologies of our country:

St. Machabeo, or Gilda Machai-beo, Abbot of  Armagh. [Twelfth Century] 

Although the oak-tree's trunk cease for a time to put forth branches and leaves, its roots do not fail to grow vigorously, while they extend in the earth. So when religious life appears diminished to the gaze of men, its hidden workings do not present less effective results, in the sight of God. St. Machabeo, or, as he is sometimes called, Gilda Machai-beo, means, "servant of the living Mochai;" and, Colgan, who has given an account of him, at the 31st day of March, supposes the name to have been imposed, in honour of St. Mochai, Abbot of Nendrum, who is related to have lived one hundred and fifty years, in Heaven, and in a state of repose. The present saint was born, in the year 1104, as we collect from the Irish Annals. He embraced the monastic profession, in the city of Armagh, and, in its former monastery, consecrated to St. Peter and St. Paul. He was probably a student, with the great St. Malachy O'Morgair, and under the tuition of that holy Abbot, Imar O'Aedhacan. It is also probable, that our saint succeeded this latter, by governing the monastery, after his death, in the year 1134. The office of Abbot he exercised—if this opinion be well grounded —during forty years, with the greatest sanctity. According to our ancient Martyrologies, he was the tower of Devotion and of Mildness in his time, the Ark of Wisdom and of Science, of Labour and of Prudence. He is also one of the latest saints, recorded in the Martyrologies of our country. He died, on the 31st of March, in 1174, having attained the seventieth year of his age. We find mentioned, on this day, in the Martyrology of Donegal, Machabeus,  i.e. Gilla Mochaidhbeo, Abbot of the Monastery of Peter and Paul at Ardmacha. The Bollandists briefly notice him, at this date, but they print, incorrectly, MCXXXIV., as the year for his death.



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Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Saint Colman, March 30

On March 30 we have yet another Saint Colman commemorated on the Irish calendars. Indeed, it seems we have more than one for there is a Saint Colman of Linns also commemorated today. Canon O'Hanlon's account below deals with a Saint Colman who is named as the 'Son of Ronan', but about whom little other information has survived:

St. Colman, Son of Ronan. 

The Martyrology of Tallagh, at the 30th of March, records the entry of a St. Colman. The name of this saint appears twice repeated, in the published version. This is not the case, in the Franciscan copy, preserved at the Convent, Merchant's-quay, Dublin. According to the Martyrology of Donegal, likewise, on this day was venerated, Colman, son of Ronan, son to Loarn. He descended from the race of Conall Gulban, son to Niall. We know little more regarding him.

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Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Saint Aedhan of Derrybrughas, March 29

A saint from County Armagh is commemorated at March 29 on the Irish calendars - Aedhan of Derrybrughas. Although Canon O'Hanlon's account below does not mention it, Pádraig Ó Riain suggests in his Dictionary of Irish Saints that today's Saint Aedhan may be linked to a County Down saint Aedhan, 'the layman' commemorated on April 1:

St. Aedan, or Aedhan, of Derrybrughas, County of Armagh. 

The Bollandists, on the authority of the Martyrologies of Tallagh and of Marianus O'Gorman, place the festival, Aidanus de doire Bruchaisse, at the 29th of March. Aedan Dairi Brucais is now known as Derrybrughas, alias, Killyman, in the County of Armagh; and, at his church, which seems to have existed from the seventh century, the present saint was venerated.  An entry occurs, in the Martyrology of Tallagh, at the 29th of March, Aedan Dairi Brucais. St. Edan, Bishop and Confessor, was venerated, at the 29th of March and, formerly, he had an Office of nine Lessons, as we learn, from an old Kalendar. We read, in the Martyrology of Donegal that on this day was venerated, Aedhan, of Doire Bruchaisi, or Doire Bruchuse.



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Monday, 28 March 2016

Beatha Mhuire Eigiptacdha - The Irish Life of Saint Mary of Egypt

French 15th c. illustration.
Photo credit: Wikipedia


March 28 is one of the commemorations of the female ascetic, Saint Mary of Egypt, c. 344-421. This was the date at which her feast day was entered in the Hironymian Martyrology, a possible source for the Irish Martyrology of Tallaght, even though the feast does not appear in the Irish calendar. Saint Mary's feast is today celebrated by the Orthodox on April 1, according to the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia it is entered in the Roman Martyrology on April 2 and the Roman calendar on April 3.

The story of Saint Mary is told in an early Life composed in the east in the sixth century and brought to the west in the eighth century when a Latin translation was made. Saint Mary was an archetype of the repentant fallen woman, and her Life was remarkably popular in medieval Europe, appearing in a number of European language versions. The Life of Saint Mary is also known in an Irish version, indeed it has survived in three recensions, the most well-known of which, Recension 1, is a 15th-century adaptation attributed to a prolific scribe, Uilliam Mac an Leagha, who was possibly using an English source. The basics of the story are the same in the Irish version - Mary is born into a life of privilege and devotes herself to a life of hedonism and sexual excess. She eventually comes to her senses and retreats to the desert to repent, meeting a monk called Zosimas at her life's end. Yet our Irish scribe does not appear to have merely copied his unknown English source but to have actually translated or adapted it. Whilst in other versions the desert-dwelling penitent Saint Mary cuts an extraordinary figure as a weatherbeaten naked woman, Uilliam depicts her as actually bestial in appearance. The monk Zosimas is called Damsosmais in this Irish version, and unlike the eastern version, he does not appear at the beginning of the Life but later on in the text. Uilliam also begins his account by associating Saint Mary of Egypt with Saint Mary Magdalene, who was the exemplar of the penitent woman for the western church:

I. Incipit uita Mariae Aegyptianae, that is Here beginneth the life of Mary of Egypt. When the Lark ceases her singing at eventide her heart mourns for the day in sadness and sorrow; for she hath no love or liking for the night but is lonely for the day all the while. Even so the man who has no pleasure [?] in praising another but regards his good deeds and disdains his virtues; that man is lonely for the great glory compact of glories, the noble house of Heaven, where is life without death, love without darkness, cheer without gloom and all other glories besides. For tongue cannot tell, nor eye attain, nor ear receive, nor heart mediate the glory of that house; and he who is not in deadly sin will have his share of that glory. No man can sleep or rest, sit or stand, fast or feast, without sin; but, O mortal, if thou sin, be not downcast and despairing of God’s mercy, but make confession quickly afterwards and God will forgive thee thy vices. For consider how Peter sinned, and Paul and Longinus and Mary Magdalene and Mary of Egypt and many others likewise; yet these were all saved after repentance, since God longeth more for the sinner to pray that his sins may be forgiven than doth the sinner to obtain forgiveness.

Uilliam is also at pains to point out how beautiful Saint Mary was originally, telling us that she 'became fairer of form than any other woman in the world at that time'. The contrast with what she later becomes during her penitential life in the desert is thus all the more striking:
9. .... And she ranged the desert on her feet and hands; her smooth body put forth a long hideous hairy coat, so that her own fur was her covering in place of clothes. The polished rosy nails fell from her toes and fingers and she grew long, sloping, sharp, savage nails after the likeness of the hideous hooves of a goat....    
It is the sight of this extraordinary creature which forty-seven years later confronts the monk Damsosmais, he commands her in the name of Christ to stop as she flees from him and she tells him her story. The Life ends with Damsosmais discovering Mary's body in the following year. He buries it with the assistance of a lion, no less, an episode also found in the original Life from the east. The lion helps to dig a grave and whilst the man takes the head of Mary in his hands, the big cat 'took the feet of the holy woman in his fore-feet, and together they laid her in the grave and the lion quickly covered her up with earth'. There is also a rather touching detail added of the parting of these strange mourners: 'Then the lion gave a kiss of peace on the monk's feet and the monk blessed the lion and the lion went his way into the forest fastnesses....' The monk then returns to his community and shares the salutary tale of Saint Mary with them. I am glad that the scribe Uilliam Mac an Leagha shared it with the people of Ireland too, albeit with a few embellishments to an already strange tale!

A. M. Freeman, 'Betha Mhuire Eigiptachdha', Études Celtiques, Vol. I (1936), 78-113 in Máirín Ní Dhonnchada, ed., The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, Vol. IV, Irish Women's Writings and Traditions (Cork University Press, 2002), 143-148.

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Sunday, 27 March 2016

The Feast Which Surpasses All Others

And though all feasts fully deserve their celebration and honour in these three ways, still more does this festival; for in it is the assembling together of the folk of heaven and earth; it is the festival alike of the Old and the New Testament; it is the peculiar feast of the heavenly Father; the feast of the Lord's resurrection; the feast which surpasses all others; the honoured and venerable festival of the people of heaven and earth, is this festival of Easter. For many are its wonders and marvels: in it the angel passed over the houses of the children of Israel, when he slew all the first-born of Egypt; in it the people of Israel went forth from Egypt, to go up to the land of promise; in it Christ arose from the dead, after binding the devil in hell; in it the souls of the holy and righteous of the five ages of the world came out of hell into paradise; in it will be the famous day, the Day of Judgment.


Homily XIX, 'On the Resurrection' - The Passions and the Homilies from Leabhar Breac - Text, Translation and Glossary by Robert Atkinson (Dublin, 1887), 390.

Beannachtaí na Cásca oraibh!


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