This blog has been kind of a one-stop shop for all things spiritual; the stuff life throws my way and what, by God’s grace, I get to hurl back. Much of that is intimately tied to my Celtic DNA. A Canadian by birth, an American by address, a Scot by history, bloodline, and luck – I gain much from this tossed salad of personal ingredients.
Perhaps none more so however than the joy and pride I take in being a Highland Bagpiper.
Now, I recognize that many out there might consider it an oddity for such a thing to be a point of pride. Well, to those misdirected naysayers, I share the following excerpt from a delightful book I’ve been reading entitled A Celtic Miscellany. It is a varied, and utterly delightful collection of literary bits ‘n bobs, all masterfully translated from early Celtic literature by Kenneth Hurlstone Jackson.
From a section on humour and satire (something in which the Celts took great delight and did astonishingly well), I give you “Welsh Harper and English Bagpiper.” It describes the self-pity of a self-congratulatory Welsh harper at being upstaged by, you guessed it, a bagpiper.
Enjoy (he says, trying unsuccessfully to rub the silly grin off his face).
“Last Sunday I came – a man whom the Lord God made – to the town of Flint, with its great double walls and rounded bastions; may I see it all aflame! An obscure English wedding was there, with but little mead – an English feast! and I meant to earn a shining solid reward for my harper’s art. So I began, with ready speed, to sing an ode to the kinsmen; but all I got was mockery, spurning of my song, and grief. It was easy for hucksters of barley and corn to dismiss all my skill, and they laughed at my artistry, my well-prepared panegyric which they did not value; John of the Long Smock began to jabber of peas, and another about dung for his land. They all called for William the Piper to come to the table, a low fellow he must be. He came forward as though claiming his usual rights, though he did not look like a privileged man, with a groaning bag, a paunch of heavy guts, at the end of a stick between chest and arm. He rasped away, making startling grimaces, a horrid noise, from the swollen belly, bulging his eyes; he twisted his body here and there, and puffed his two cheeks out, playing with his fingers on a bell of hide – unsavoury conduct, fit for the unsavoury banqueters. He hunched his shoulders, amid the rout, under his cloak, like a worthless ballad-monger; he snorted away, and bowed his head until it was on his breast, the very image of a kite with skilful zeal preening its feathers. The pigmy puffed, making an outlandish cry, blowing out the bag with a loud howl; it sang like the buzzing of a hornet, that devilish bag with the stick in its head, like a nightmare howl, fit to kill a mangy goose, like a sad bitch’s hoarse howl in its hollow kennel; a harsh paunch with monotonous cry, throat-muscles squeezing out a song, with a neck like a crane’s where he plays, like a stabbed goose screeching aloud. There are voices in that hollow bag like the ravings of a thousand cats; a monotonous, wounded, ailing, pregnant goat – no pay for its hire. After it ended its wheezing note, that cold songstress whom love would shun, Will got his fee, namely bean-soup and pennies (if they paid) and sometimes small halfpennies, not the largesse of a princely hand; while I was sent away in high vexation from the silly feast all empty-handed. I solemnly vow, I do forswear wretched Flint and all its children, and its wide, hellish furnace, and its English people and its piper! That they should be slaughtered is all my prayer, my curse in their midst and on their children; sure, if I go there again, may I never return alive!
After a dodgy night playing at sleep, I woke up Jonesing for coffee. Something I’d not considered was the amount of light this far north at 3:00 am. Its insistence had done its work keeping me at the edges of REM. Hence, without the final plunge that gifts a person with an actual readiness for anything resembling wakefulness, I make plans for the day. They included much walking.
Ever since first learning to play Skye Boat Song on bagpipes many years ago, I’ve wanted to see what kind of place could inspire such a fetching melody. Sir Harold Boulton’s stirring lyrics:
Speed, bonny boat, like a bird on the wing,
onward the sailors cry.
Carry the lad who’s born to be king
over the sea to Skye.
Wait, they take a bit of a turn.
Loud the winds howl, loud the waves roar,
thunderclaps rend the air,
baffled, our foes stand by the shore,
follow they will not dare.
Phew. And, we’re back.
Though the waves leap, so soft shall ye sleep,
ocean’s a royal bed.
Rock’d in the deep, dear Flora will keep
watch o’er your weary head.
Spoke too soon.
Burnt are our homes, exile and death,
scattered, the loyal man.
Yet ere the sword, cool in the sheath,
Charlie will come again.
And for the win…
Speed, bonny boat, like a bird on the wing,
onward the sailors cry.
Carry the lad who’s born to be king
over the sea to Skye.
Abundantly evident in these overly nostalgic, clamoring lyrics is the kind of sentiment one finds at times of great national upheaval. The song tells how Bonnie Prince Charlie, disguised as a serving maid, escaped in a small boat after his defeat in the Jacobite uprising of 1746, with the aid of Flora MacDonald. Readhere and here for more.
But, for all her beauty, Skye holds many secrets close to the vest. She can be coy, and her best ones you work for. Cars get parked. Hats, water, whistle (I of course didn’t have one), and walking canes come out of retirement. If you’re wise, a bit of stretching, and away. For me, however, it was to be further complicated by the fact that I’d be doing so with my bagpipes strapped to my back.
Piping my way through the Highlands and now Skye was always part of the plan for me. If I was to regenerate all that Scots-Canadian blood, it would be done loudly and frequently. On the way here I had already stopped at every other layby, handing my phone to some unsuspecting, wide-eyed bugger already trying to get pictures of something other than me. But they always obliged, adding their thanks for letting them take further photos of their own. Oh vanity, vanity…
I sopped up the last of my inordinately large, complicated breakfast, belched happily and donned my rental chariot for the ride cross island to Portree.
A short sixteen miles later and I let Skye’s largest town play with me a bit. I happily took in the smell of old sea and sound of fat gulls together with the obligatory tourist stops. A final morning coffee was enough to convince me that, today, the north road would be mine.
Skye did not disappoint. The sky on Skye was uncommitted. It opened enough to allow fingers of warmth from early summer sun, brightly cheerful. But, it was also shy, at times hovering low above the higher peaks, building a rather impressive palette of hued shadow.
Gentle, sloping meadows donned liberally with grazing sheep, farm equipment, and B ‘n Bs reach out into endless lochs and inlets. They are surprised by the often immediate, multi-colored, volcanic cliffs busting out of the earth in random protrusions. It is a land that veritably tumbles over itself in complex shades of purple-shadowed greens.
I battled tiny roads, a gutless car, crappy Internet (Siri was forever confused or non-existent), and literally dozens of cyclists on the way to my first port o’ call, a rocky outcropping called simply, The Storr.It is on the Trotternish peninsula facing the Sound of Raasay. My particular interest was to see “The Old Man of Storr.” Impressive in itself although one of the ugliest old men vaguely pictured in rock!
It was exhilarating as it was inspiring. Alas, in true tourist fashion, I huffed my way, bagpipes in tow, back down the mountain to the car and continued north to my next destination, Kilt Rock. Dramatic, vertical striations of rock, the clawed back of ancient volcanic activity, rise up dramatically from the sea, offering an imaginative view – God’s mesolithic kilt.
I tossed my bagpipes into the backseat, where they stayed most of the trip, and continued north. I was feeling good, even a bit feisty and adventurous. This feeling acted as preparation for or omen against what was to come.
In full obedience to the tourist parade who, along with me, dutifully pulled their cars off the road at all the same stops. Just north of the town of Flodigarry, my eye caught a sign beckoning me into the hills. I had apparently come upon the eastern entrance to The Quiraing Ridge, from the Norse Kvi Rand meaning ’round fold.’
As part of the Trotternish ridge it has been formed by a massive landslip which has created high cliffs, hidden plateaus and pinnacles of rock. Possessing numerous features with titillating names such as The Needle, The Table, and The Prison it acts a bit like the palm of a hand or fold in which cattle could be concealed from Viking raiders. As I would soon discover it had other ‘magical’ properties. It is sly and can quickly subsume unthinking walkers into its spongy loom.
It starts unassumingly in gentle turns on well-worn dirt paths that wind their way around tiny inland lakes. I took hungrily to the task of making them my own, the snaking trail gradually pulling me upward toward the more dramatic features to come. I had started at an ambitious pace, excited to discover what lay ahead.
For the better part of an hour I continued like this, letting the way unfold before me and the scenery embed itself in my memory. After what I could only guess was perhaps four or five miles I began to wonder, in the absence of any further signage or any other human being (or even sheep for that matter), whether or not I should continue or perhaps turn back. My buoyant mood made the decision for me and I puttered on, proud of my positive outlook, and equally glad for the perfectly cool weather.
Finally, after another half hour or so, I began to bump into numerous other hikers. Danes, Dutch, Japanese, Somalis, Canadians, Germans, Americans, and many Aussies who, as their sheer numbers suggest, love it here apparently. Brief conversations with some of them encouraged me to continue onward to what would be some of the most jaw-dropping sights I’ve yet seen. From the highest point one can see the entire north-western shore of the island and out to the Hebrides beyond. It was spellbinding. I planted myself on a rock wall and simply let it happen.
At this point I had a decision to make. I had walked for hours to get to this place and, looking way down to my right, could barely make out a parking lot. I was almost across the island! Although there was no concern either for loss of daylight or weather since both were cooperating fully, I decided to go back the way I came and do the trek from the west side the day after. It would be a simple matter of retracing my steps.
Friday, June 3. I wave goodbye to my wife as she makes her way by train south to a writer’s retreat near Bath. I make a leisurely retreat back to the Edinburgh car park where awaits my trusty chariot for the journey to come. As I shut the car door it occurs to me, shit, I have to drive through the Highlands without her as my human GPS (SatNav) where Internet is as rare as the Loch Ness monster.Lord, have mercy!
Before executing the daunting task of driving the Highlands alone I spend a few days reacquainting myself with the chic, sleepy provincialism cum arts mecca cum tourist quicksand that is Edinburgh. Long walks down the Portobello promenade watching very white-skinned Scots sunning themselves on windy beaches. It adds credibility to my insistence that Scots change color quickly given ten minutes of sun. Peppering the shoreline are numerous ice cream stands, overpriced coffee-shops above health clubs, and as many accents as are people to sport them. And best of all, to grace these precious days, friends.
One particularly memorable evening I prepare myself for a most enchanting experience: a literary pub tour in downtown Edinburgh. Two actors, one playing an actor (does he get paid the same?), the other an intellectual, regale us with tales, poetry, and saucy anecdotes of the lives of Robbie Burns, Sir Walter Scott, and Robert Louis Stevenson – all of whom would have made great rock stars, awash as they were in wine, women, song, and…wine.
For lit-geeks like myself, it was orgasmic.
Sights, sounds, experiences – these are only given meaning when they can be shared with those closest to us. Edinburgh is a place of such connections. We lived here in 1989 making fools of ourselves among a motley group of trendy Baptists intent on serving one of the poorest areas in western Europe.
Pastor Andy Scarcliffe and his wife Moira are two of our bedrock Scots friends. It is their home that provided our, and now, my residence these few days.
Hours of slow and windy driving through the Highlands bring me at last to Kyle of Lochalsh. It is a tidy little Scottish village at the convergence of Loch Alsh and what is called The Minch. The unimaginatively titled Skye Bridge leads me to Kyleakin on Skye’s eastern shore. Both towns are replete with customary Scottishisms – quaint pubs, fish ‘n chip shops, numerous cafés complete with dodgy wi-fi, and store owners speaking less Scottishy for us tourists to decipher.
One would think it obvious that places like Skye would have their fair share of tourists. Dozens of us cram onto the tiny ribbon-like roads, hastily taking leisurely pictures at every available layby. We follow each other like newborn puppies in search of Mom.
But, apparently I still live too much in overly-romanticized pictures of it and I become bitchy about just how many of ‘them’ are here. This, despite the fact on numerous occasions I do so while taking view-enhanced selfies or while asking someone to take my picture as I pipe my way across the island – you know, the way actual residents do. *I do not possess enough appendages required to do the same.
By the time I stopped three or four times for still more precise directions I fill my cellphone to overflowing with photos even more touristy taken by at whom I whinge. I can live with that. Besides, once it became clear that I was merely part of the parade, like pinballs bouncing from one site to another, I relaxed a bit more and settled into this reality. A combination of Siri (when available) and my trusty old school map guided my way.
Cnoc Aluin, my island digs for the week would be one of the numerous well-fitted bed and breakfasts that pepper the island. But, not before getting lost on any number of identical tiny interconnecting ribbon roads, high-centering the rental car in the neighbor’s yard, and getting stuck in the driveway. I am, if nothing else, walking proof that the evolutionary process is, well, a process. Once I found the place, I knew it would be the perfect home for the days I would be here.
Irene, more big sister than business woman, reveals well the identifying marks of many city-born proprietors now happy to live simpler lives here. Born in Edinburgh, lived in London, she and her husband are all too happy now to help those like me find some of the magic here. During my stay, their expertly retro-fitted place also houses a Japanese family and two young grad students with whom to swap exploits. Tangentially, I bumped into the two students on almost half a dozen separate occasions at spots miles apart!
Skye has two ring roads that, more or less, circumnavigate the island. A northern and a southern route. Many smaller tributaries to other sites web themselves to these primary ones allowing access to more beauty than is humanly comprehensible. It is surprisingly small by North American standards. But, for its size it boasts a long, proud, convoluted history.
I waited my entire life to see this place. The greatest gifts require commensurate patience on our part. They are revealed to us only as we are prepared for the gifts, and accompanying responsibilities, they bring. Are we prepared for all that may be asked of us? Do we even know how to see what we most need to see? When we see, will we have the courage to invoke its transforming influence in our lives? Will we submit to lessons we hadn’t anticipated?
As I sit behind the wheel of the rental car about to embark on my first sight-seeing trip of this remarkable place, do I have what it takes to humble myself before its treasures and, metaphorically, God’s?
I pull out of the driveway in the expectant hope that I do.
It was 1970. I was under-ripe, but hoping for the best at 7 years old. My Dad was developing the basement in our tiny 1000 square foot bungalow in Calgary, Alberta. Part of that process was building my own bedroom (let applause dwindle before carrying on). I was elated. During part of the process I was sick and recall sleeping on a movable cot in an unfinished room into which my parents had brought a TV that I could watch while convalescing. Poor me, I don’t know how I managed under such rigorous conditions.
My life forever changed one evening upon watching a live presentation of the Edinburgh Military Tattoo from Edinburgh Castle. I was smitten.
I had encountered something so pristine and wild that I told my parents the next morning I wanted to learn to play the bagpipes. Instead of the response generally expected, perhaps even advisable, for any parents, mine were intrigued and supportive. In less than a year I’d become part of a local Boy’s Brigade company hosted at the nearby St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church where I would also begin my first lessons.
Perhaps the biggest discovery however was that I was becoming aware of my beginnings. My parents made it clear to me (as clear as such things can be to an eight year old) that, as the oldest of three adopted children, I came from Scottish DNA. Spooky to some. Intriguing to others. My response to this growing revelation of my biological roots was an insistence that I was finding my spiritual ‘home.’
Alongside many others through the centuries, I am one who uniquely identifies with what we believe to be true about the Celtic way of life.
I’m happiest when I’m a little sad.
Life is always better in the rain.
Green will always be the best color.
Everything is a metaphor for something else.
When I wander, I long for home. When I’m home, I long to wander (translation: whiny and impossible to live with).
Stories, music, poetry, and art are still the best way to teach anything.
Men look best wearing colorful dresses, tossing around telephone poles, and making themselves dizzy blowing ridiculously loud instruments.
Women are best when allowed equal voice in the community.
The forest may still be the best place to worship together.
Dark skies are a sign of hope more than weather.
The best life is when one day we sing together, the next we die together.
And, learning means more about living than just knowing.
What I’ve loved most about my place on the Celtic role call is that life for the Celts wasn’t neatly compartmentalized, as it is in our western, rationalist world. The idea of one’s “spiritual life,” or “physical life,” or “social life,” or “sex life” would have been quite foreign to them.
It was, quite simply, life. Everything mattered equally. Everything counted. Nothing was completely meaningless but contributed to their daily and eternal existence.
They lived very outward lives from very inward places. They spoke of “thin places;” the nexus where one could feel the outline of God’s hand touching theirs from behind the thin sheath of reality. The thin place, where transcendence meets the here and now, was where the Celts felt most comfortable.
It contributed in forging a Christianity deep enough to pray ceaselessly, strong enough to endure a pushy Roman empire and countless robust threats, and bold enough to sail into the unknown and share what they had experienced.
I like to call them “practical mystics.” They rehearsed the soul well enough to sing its song in the byways and the unforgiving wilderness. Their memory of mystical encounters with God propelled them outward to meet innumerable dangers to preach and live the Gospel.
They possessed a unique zeitgeist I like to call “shared home.” Hearth and home, food and fire, pain and process, bird and beast, wine and women, song and celebration, faith and family, God and neighbor, self and sacrifice, love, laughter and loss – all of a piece, one undivided garment of singular living. What they shared with the world they had already experienced in their daily lives.
They were perhaps one of the most genuinely whole peoples the world has ever known. I would even go so far as to suggest that they exemplified a very biblical faith. They marched to the skirl of their own bagpipes!
As a result, Rome absolutely LOVED them and offered their undying support (pry tongue from cheek here____________).
What the Celts understood is that there would be no outward “success” without honest, inward labor. The great, wide sea that would lead them to countless would be Kingdom-citizens awaiting their hopeful voice could wait long enough for them to be well acquainted with the reason for their journey. Boats easily sink when left untended for too long.
They went out boldly to see God at work in the world, but did so through the in door of communal spiritual practice. They had more than ideas to share. They took their photo albums and welcome mat with them.
The insatiable longing to belong so pervasive in the Celtic spirit changed their way of living. They willingly and consistently explored what it meant to be “home,” all the while sailing to the ends of the earth in pursuit of what they sought. In so doing, they brought the hopeful message of Jesus’ new Kingdom to those people everyone else called “barbarians.”
The Celts called them neighbors.
The Celts loved silence and the life of the soul. But they loved it too much to keep it a secret. They went out through the In door. And, with this inner treasure in tow, they sailed the great deep to change the known world.
We are their legacy.
Great Guardian of hearth and horizon, soul and sail,
I have lifted my feet in obedience to an insistent wind. I have lifted my head up above this tiny-rimmed being. I have sought again what once was too costly. I have set out once more upon a wildly restless sea.
She was slightly chubby with a pinkish, round face, and dancing eyes that squinted a bit when she smiled. She had a way about her that was at once bracing and dangerous while at the same time hospitable and kind. She felt…comfortable. Our afternoons were often spent talking about all manner of shared interests: music, art, nature, beauty – often while lying side by side under our crabapple tree in the backyard gazing at the summer sky. It was heavenly. We held hands. We kissed. Often.
We were ten.
I was elated. It was summer. It was hot, and I was slicing through cool, choppy wake churned up by the boat behind which I was waterskiing – upright – for the first time in my life. My friend Darrin was driving, his dad beside him, and his younger brother watching me in case I came into difficulty. Silly, thought I. What could possibly go wrong? As is often the case with cocky, self-assured fourteen year olds, with over-confidence I over-compensated for over-reaching and found myself suddenly bouncing headlong over waves (surprisingly hard while cheese-grating along their ragged tops at forty miles an hour). By the time I finally pulled myself up from under the smug water, I was out of breath, bleeding from my side and completely naked.
It was exhilarating.
I saw my ever stoic and unyielding father cry only three times. Once during a heated exchange with my younger brother in which he loudly proclaimed that dad was an imposter (all three of us were adopted). Once, when my mother screamed at me so violently it made me cry out all manner of things I now wish I hadn’t. His hand, placed over mine at the kitchen table, is etched forever in the not-to-forget section of my memories. And once when he got back his biopsy results. I had driven him to Rockyview Hospital so that someone was with him should the news not be good. It wasn’t. At all. He came out of the room, face a pall of grey, and trembled out a few words in his roughneck Saskatchewan farm boy manner, “well, looks like I got a touch of the cancer.”
I miss him still.
I looked out the airplane window to a sight I’d waited seventeen years to see. The tightly woven, ancient and ragged hills of Scotland, huddled together in green beyond imagination danced a jig before me. If there’d been a seat on the wing, I’d have taken it in a heartbeat just to be that much closer to the land of my soul. Although Canadian born and raised, I have always been Celt to the core. My genes are kilted, my blood tartan, and my chromosomes play bagpipes proudly, up and down the hallways of my DNA. Best of all, I was there with my Welsh-Canadian wife of less than a year. Two Celts touched ground in Prestwick on a chill April day in 1989 and have never been the same.
“O flower of Scotland…”
The din was almost deafening. Bagpipes everywhere. It was August, 1991. Bellahouston Park in Glasgow. It was a “second first” related to this place. A bagpiper from the age of eight, I’d dreamed of making my way there to compete with the world’s finest since barely in double digits. Now, as head instructor for an up and coming junior pipe band, I was again on old country soil. This time, for the World Pipe Band Championships. To say it was dreamlike would be understatement akin to calling Mt. Everest a quaint, country bump. We were called up to the line. The pipe major barked his command, “by the right, quick march!” Two three-stroke rolls from the snare drums, drones, chanters, then – seven minutes of music, practiced and polished for two years.
This was originally posted as a guest post on a favorite website of mine, Abbey of the Arts (thank you Christine Valters-Paintner!). What a delight to be given opportunity to share one’s life among kindred spirits in the grand dance that is our eternal redemption.
Please, please, please, if you haven’t already done so, be sure to visit Christine and the rest of us Monk-Artists at the Abbey. Come visit/like the Facebook page as well. You’ll be so glad you did. I promise.
I am the dusty ground, low and dry thirsty for the imprint of holy feet. Despoil with radiant prints, this virgin ground.
You are the rain, falling deftly upon my brown soil. Now is left your footprint on this ground.
I am the ashen leaves, curling and broken awaiting but a whisper. For only then can I fall on solid ground.
You are the soundless wind, howling, still. You creep up behind me and exhale me to the ground.
I am the snow, disembodied worlds of cold and chance encounters with hand, or tongue, eye-lash or palm needing ground.
You are the frozen air in which I am held aloft, drawn slowly down to meet with others on the frozen ground.
I am the waning autumn death soon to give way to the long silence-when one Voice becomes the loudest ground.
You are the Voice that speaks heard best in dying, power given for rising from this shivering ground.
I am the distant hours, the midnight passing- the refusing minutes, trapped in hours, running from the years of ancient ground.
You are the many, and the one, and all time and nothing and everything from nothing where time has no ground.
I am the weeping, the squalid groaning, the unrequited miseries of misery’s company laying crippled and diffused in the ground.
You are the end of tears and years, the question and the answer, the sutured nerve of joy, not suggested but present, here, on this Holy Ground.
For me, the term ‘monk’ used to mean ‘one safely cloistered away from the cares of normal life in dimly lit, echoing stone hallways where hooded men sing hauntingly beautiful music and basically float just a bit off the ground. A single, piercing glance from their crystalline eyes means healing, they have superpowers, can read your thoughts, never need to eat, and speak once a year whether they need to or not.
Since leaving behind my roots in evangelicalism for headier waters elsewhere I’ve since discovered that monks often have the sauciest senses of humor, the bawdiest stories and, not surprisingly, the deepest delight in the world around them. My kinda fellas. They’re as non-dualistic as they come; a life to which I aspire. Apophatic meditation one moment. Bodily noises the next. Welcome to my world.
I am a dreamer; a philosopher-poet capable of romanticizing even the most mundane banalities. To a guy like me, cutting the grass has the potential to be a portal into the nether regions of the universe, awash in liminality, where mythic faeries ride unicorns on their way to Celtic slumber parties. But, I’ve been known to overstate a little.
Clearly, I’m a favorite among type-A corporate headhunters (tongue super-glued to cheek). Rather, stereotypical songwriters, tree-huggers, poets, unfocused A.D.D. artsy-fartsies, and contemplatives love to love me. They’re my peeps. My homies. They know my psychic address.
These overly romanticized sensibilities haven’t always promised smooth sailing for me. In fact, more often than not they’ve brought more than their fair share of woe and disillusionment. The world has precious little patience for those like me, preferring instead the multi-tasking, power-doers with ambitions larger than the moon upon which they hang their coats (but generally not their egos). It’s a challenge in our super-charged, winner-take-all culture to prove real value in lighting candles and pursuing silence when time is money and money is god and god keeps shrinking or running away.
My earliest recollections of spiritual awareness contained the following simple elements: surprised by joy moments, generally unasked for and seldom expected; a sudden awareness that the world was not really as it seemed – that from God’s perspective all was well. Specifically, I was drawn to all things ancient, mystical and Celtic. As a bagpiper/Irish whistle player who has toured extensively it makes sense that, for me, the world is seen through green colored glasses, smells just a little peaty, telephone poles were meant for tossing, and “ladies” is misspelled on the restroom door (insert look of shock and consternation here).
Although a mystic from a very early age, despite a decided lack of language to articulate such things, my fate was forever sealed when, for the first time I heard the Great Highland Bagpipe. I was seven years old. I was gobsmacked. Mere weeks later, in the basement of St. Andrews Presbyterian Church, I started learning to play the pipes. I have played ever since.
Something else happened however. It christened a liminal journey of my inner mystic and forever sealed my fate as a lover of all things Celtic, monastic and artistic. It also began an almost unassuagable thirst for the monastic realities of thin-place living. Puddles become holy water. All time, whether singing, snoring or snacking, can be wrapped up in a ball of quivering holiness. It is the essence of Celtic spirituality. It is my essence (especially if we had haggis the night before).
Now, a gazillion years and as many prayers later, to be an artist, a mystic and a monastic-wannabe is for me to see myself less as a dreamer and more as a waking dream. Life is to find the holy in the banal; the glorious mundane. The perfect, daily moments of nothing-special that, simply by virtue of noticing them, become possibilities of inherent wonder. The greatest gift I’ve received in the past few years, something particularly attributable to the Celts, is that of awakening to these shimmering possibilities in the blasé and dull. How brightly they shine under the light of the God of order and magnificent delights.
Where a person is can be as important to one’s spiritual development as what they believe. Long have spiritual masters proclaimed the benefits of sacred places. The Hebrew scriptures are replete with God’s directions to Israel to mark out territories prescribed by God that would both demonstrate God’s faithfulness and Israel’s special role in God’s redemptive economy. From the irrigated, verdant hills dotting the landscape around his hometown of Galilee, Jesus would spend countless hours with his Father. From such wilderness haunts he would find nurture, tenacity, strength, succor, and, frankly…answers.
So much of who we are and what we are becoming is directly attributable to the places that have graced us (rhyme subliminal but entirely intentional). In the comparative spiritual laissez faire of Constantine’s newly Christianized Rome, Abba Antony of Egypt started a mass exodus into the deserts of Egypt, those who would become known as the Desert Fathers and Mothers. The barrenness and desperation of the desert mimicked a similar cry deep within the hearts of these enigmatic souls. What is the obvious lesson? When there isn’t anything to titillate the senses, one might as well deal with the soul!
As a result of their foray into geographical nothingness, they became everything. They became the fullness that lies beneath the surface of what one misses when only seeing the desert sand.
The Celts, well known for their keen kinship with their environment, made much of this desire. Not unlike the Native populations of the US and Canada, not a feather of wing-ed bird, nor bark of tree, nor single trickle of rainwater escaped their notice. All carried within it some morsel of meaning for them. Because everything received notice, nothing got wasted and this outer kinship found expression through inner resolve and great spiritual creativity.
My own holy places, the cairns of my wanderings, are generally old, rather solid, often drafty and poorly insulated, but full of the memory of stones that have long cried out to their Maker. Long have I had an historical and spiritual affinity for those stuffy, rarely air-conditioned chapels that never cease to draw me elsewhere…to the great Other. Let me share just a few.
St. Saviour’s Anglican Church sanctuary in Nelson, British Columbia where for a number of years I taught at a Highland Bagpiping School (a place where other strange souls like myself learn to tame a five-legged creature designed to rouse neighbors and destined to arouse suspicions). Connections in the community opened the door figuratively and, in this case, literally, to spend as much time as I wanted in the church sanctuary after everyone else had gone home. I was given a key and carte blanche run of the place.
Most evenings after a long day of bagpipe students, some whiny, some lazy, all of them noisy, I would retire to the sanctuary with my pipes. For an hour or so I would simply play, enjoying the epic reverberance of the sound bouncing off the hard stone walls, and finding no sonic respite from the hardwood floor. It was, for me, the closest I had yet been to what I might have then described as heaven. At times it was 2:00 am before finally getting back to my room.
The hospital chapel in the same city was another such place. I was falling apart after a recent break-up with a girl to whom I had been engaged. My shattered interior was gradually reintegrated in that little chapel where I would weep and pray for hours, listening to John Michael Talbot, or the Monks of the Weston Priory sing beautifully doleful refrains. It was for me, through gallons of heart-crushing tears, the perfect requiem to my stubbornly elusive peace of mind. It would become the Introit to a new place of healing and restoration, albeit gradually.
Tintern Abbey in Wales, the place I believe could be boasted by angels as heaven’s waiting room, the lobby to eternity. My first experience of this roofless wreck of holiness was following a six month sojourn as a missionary to youth in Edinburgh’s rough Pilton district with my new wife of a year. We were tired and needed time to traipse about the land of our ancestors (and her relatives) before returning to Canada, unsure of what awaited us there. The warm, lazy day infused with the angular light of Fall caressed the ancient stone walls easily visible from almost anywhere. The pointed gables of apse and nave bespoke a darker but simpler time. All we could do was sit and pray.
Less than two years later a picture of Tintern Abbey would help pull her through a terrible first pregnancy with our son, Calum. The same photo performed this function five years later as our second son, Graeme, reluctantly succumbed to womb-ed pressure and left his humble abode to make his premier. However, it is difficult to compete with William Wordsworth whose words best complete this picture:
While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things…
And somewhat of a sad perplexity,
The picture of the mind revives again:
While here I stand, not only with the sense
Of present pleasure, but with pleasing thoughts
That in this moment there is life and food
For future years. And so I dare to hope…(Wordsworth on Tintern, 1798)
Everyone can point to at least one place where something important, even seminal occurred and they sense something is different. There it is that our life has been forever changed, perhaps only incrementally, but transformed just the same.
I believe it is God’s way of playing spatial peek-a-boo.
Think deeply of a place or two that have been places of rest and reconstruction. Picture that place in your mind. Now let that picture juggle your heart.
As you do so, re-member the pieces of you that may have been broken or lost in that place. Quietly give thanks to the God who loves to find us where we’re least looking or at least looking the other way.
Lent is that time in the Church calendar historically set aside for an “under the hood” diagnostic of those things most needful for the optimization of our lives in Christ. It is a rich time, not for mere maintenance, but for the introspective dialogue with one’s own inner voice that, in concert with God’s voice, guides us to “practice resurrection” as Wendell Berry so eloquently advises.
Allow me to clarify with a story.
I’ll never forget the day I first told my bewildered parents that I wanted to learn how to play the bagpipes. I was seven. I had just watched a televised Edinburgh Military Tattoo replete with color-laden, swinging kilts, swashbuckling pipers, and swishing notes all clammering for attention under the bright lights of a night-lit Edinburgh Castle. From the first humming drone and pinched gracenote to the final cannon blast salute I was forever hooked. A seed was planted that has matured into a forty year career of performing, accompanying, competing, composing, judging and recording with this enigmatic instrument.
Under most circumstances, when one’s child shows even the slightest interest in music, it is generally accompanied by proud winks of acknowledgement, cackled whispers of “I always knew he had it in him” and blustery coffee room comments like “it was only a matter of time” or “our family has always been musical.”
At the risk of understatement, this was different.
Any parent hopes their groomed and dapper ten year old will be playing Chopin on the piano in the mall with the other bright and shining stars. With this announcement, those hopes were dashed. Instead, my parents (and poor, unsuspecting neighbors) would be forced to endure the long, loudly awkward learning curve the instrument promises all student comers. It most likely involved having to apologize to neighbors only pretending to be patient as some overly confident ten year old insists on playing, poorly, in the backyard.
They did all this with patience and pride.
Similarly, a doting, jealous God waits like a holy panther ready to pounce on any sign of our awakening to God’s romances kissed in our direction. Patient and crouched, hopeful and proud, our Holy Parent, yearns for all that is best in our human lives. From first light of spiritual birth to the brighter light of eternity in us, God waits to discover, or uncover, our intentions toward God.
What does this mean? Will he stick with it only long enough to tire of it and move onto something else, despite the considerable expenditures of cash and time? Or will he seek to express a complex nature through an equally complex instrument designated for oatmeal-savage mystics whose love for center stage is well serviced here?
To parents, it simply does not matter.
For a bagpipe to function optimally it must have at least three things. It must be utterly airtight, with no chance whatsoever for the not-so-easily-blown instrument to lose any of its chief operating component, air. The only allowable air should be that in service to the four reeds dependent upon a steady stream of the same, and all at a highly regulated psi. Likewise, the best Lenten practices lend themselves to tightening up any holes in our spiritual lives, perceived or not. We must place ourselves willingly at the behest of a God who tugs at the cords holding our varied parts together in order to ensure the least “leakage” of the precious commodities of abundance and hope. In so doing, we relinquish our ownership over all we think to be primary for the singular goal of obtaining God alone. A heartily resonant helping of “lov[ing] the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength” will do nicely here.
Secondly, it must possess the best reeds available (4 in all) in order for all energy expended to be done in service of a quality sound. It will only be as good as the weakest link in the complex chain of piping accoutrements. An unfortunate side effect of sin is our willingness to settle for counterfeit grace, for the short-term fix we think will provide quick, spiritual benefit but which, in the end, only multiplies our sorrows. All that we strive to do, at whatever level and for whatever reason in our pursuit of God will ultimately lead us astray unless we see it as pure grace; as gift. God’s purposes in us will always guide us to “whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable…any excellence and…anything worthy of praise” (Phil. 4:8).
Finally, all of its constituent parts of wood, bag and reeds are to be kept as impervious to excess moisture as possible – moisture that can foul the best reeds and, in worst-case scenarios, shut them down entirely. As with most mouth-blown instruments, outside influences of weather, barometric pressure, humidity and temperature have profound impact on whatever sounds are forthcoming. The via negativa of the spiritual life is to renounce anything that adversely affects one’s progress in the Way. John Calvin believed that self-denial lay at the heart of all spiritual transformation. To the degree we keep ourselves impervious, or at least well resourced, against the worst that life will most certainly throw at us, we will remain progressively more immune to outside influences that cause cracks to appear in our deepest parts where we need it to be well-contained and whole. The sage in Proverbs encourages us to “keep [our] heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.”
It is a standard faux pas of pipers to assume that the biggest, fattest reeds will automatically proffer the biggest, fattest sound – an important and coveted feature of the instrument. At issue here is the fact that, the bigger the reed, the bigger the effort required in playing it.
The dilemma is one of physics. Sometimes trying harder with bigger than normal reeds simply forces a law of diminishing returns. In the young piper, less familiar with those physics and more inclined to early onset frustration with an already mystifying instrument, this can be daunting to say the least. As one grows in knowledge of bagpipe physics it becomes apparent that the best sound production isn’t merely one of effort. It is primarily one of the integrated and streamlined functioning of all the factors necessary to make the instrument the beautiful experience, and sound, it can be.
Similarly, the spiritual life, like the Highland Bagpipe, works optimally when we can see the big picture; how each element fits into the whole and, as a result, produces what we will ultimately become. God’s intentions in us include all elements of our existence, our choices, our conversations, relationships, experiences both good and bad, love gained and lost, anger welcomed and spurned, pain suffered and healed…everything.
The seasoned piper learns that a tightly-fitted, well-maintained, thoughtfully set up instrument makes for the best possible sound. Then, what at first can be a most, let’s say…unfortunate, sound ultimately becomes something of beauty that actually produces a bigger sound with greater resonance, nicer pitch and less energy. Good discernment and skill leads to something leaner that is, in turn, louder but also sweeter to the ear.
This is the magic of the Lenten gift of grace. We are better poised to usher a generally gangly, uncomfortable instrument into places of sweetness, strength and otherworldliness. That is how a bagpipe should sound. That is how I’ve heard it sound.
Faced with the disturbing reality that, to end the painful, troubled life of the family dog is somehow still better than watching a once remarkable animal descend into incontinent, sorrowful chaos, to wit…
At a Highland Games sometime last summer I was piping for the Highland Dancing portion and wrote some reflections. This is the continuation of that story…
I jump ahead forty years in order to share one of many piping stories accumulated over those years. Since the age of fourteen I have played bagpipes as accompaniment for highland dancing. Typically, a piper or pipers are hired to perform this task, doing so throughout the day trading off dances for breaks from the delightful tedium. Yesterday was one such day.
One walks onto a damp field, humming with the possibilities of the day, newly arrived but yet in infancy. The sun, undecided as to its welcome, insists on playing peek-a-boo through gently swaying trees overhead. The heady, morning air gradually yields to the all too familiar squawks of bagpipers keen to tame the beast before their competition debut two hours hence. Ahead of me is a small army of doting Moms preening little girls; perfecting hair, fluffing ruffles, smoothing wayward eyebrows, tightening dancing shoes, blowing young noses and assisting people like me with the whereabouts of the necessary coffee, fuel for a long, noisy day of piping for Highland Dancing – the reason for this morning scenario…
It’s almost imperceptible how one’s surroundings, interactions – experiences in general, help to build a reality around our lives that is immediately recognizable on reentry. Smell pot once and you’ve pretty much got it memorized. Conversely, smell, if only for a moment, the fragrance of a particular perfume, and one’s whole world of first love reopens complete with vivid pictures, achingly familiar emotions and the intoxicating remembrances of love won and lost.
For bagpipers this occurs whenever the tangled auditory mess that is a competition field of peacock pipers strutting their craft before one another, feigning non-chalance, makes itself known. And yet, there’s a certain calming effect the uproarious clitter clatter of competing non-harmonies has had upon me for more years than I can count. As a competitive piper for decades, to walk onto a fresh competition field ripe with the smell of dew mixed with wet leather shoes, cigarette smoke, and the smell of bad food was nothing short of transcendent. If I’d hit a winning streak, this strut was accompanied by a rush of a please-notice-my-statuesque-entrance-onto-the-battle-field-and-be-afraid posture. Ah yes, the overly confident swagger of youth.
Today is not a competition day however. This is a day devoted to the craft of Highland Dance accompaniment. To the uninitiated it is the realm of piping masters whose melodies, lilting one minute, scorching the next, endear themselves to those intent on seeing kilts bounce up and down for six to eight hours in 90 degree heat. To those of us in the biz it is the bottom of the bagpipe food chain so to speak. To stand in one spot under a lovely shaded canopy while waited on hand and foot with coffee, water and sandwiches is a far cry from the blistering heat on black tarmac upon which competing pipe bands fight to maintain a most unwieldy instrument against the ravages of the waterless landscape. While I play simple, crowd pleasing melodies over and over again to constantly appreciative audiences, each pipe band must battle under much more extreme conditions not just for the crowds but for the stoic and feared judges lurking just beyond the competition circle.
No, my job today is considerably simpler. And, I’m OK with that.
I’m now closer to 50 than 15 and the sheer number of times I’ve had this experience of Highland Games participation complete with youthful swagger and passively boastful demeanor have been replaced by the gently glowing embers of gratitude. It is thankfulness for having even been introduced to this oddly mystifying instrument and its associated sociological accoutrements. Now, I can’t help but think as I stroll past these young pipers intent upon nervous preparation for the perfect performance just how glad I am that they, now, have their chance and, second, that I no longer need it to enjoy all that it offers. I’m gonna watch them sweat for awhile.