Today has been an ordinary day of ministry in New York State. The snow has been falling at a constant rate for a couple of hours, the kids are home from school due to the weather, and the mood around the house has been a bit cranky as both parents have had their plans of getting extraordinary amounts of good things done abandoned and thrown to the wind. Meetings were cancelled, plans postponed, and ideas adjusted. In case you had not realized it yet, life still happens to people who live a life in ministry—there is no magical “Get out of jail free” card handed out to ministers when they agree to serve a church.
Before the snow began to accumulate heavily, I went out to visit a member of my church on comfort care. Their identity is known to God and the most I will say is that the individual has had a long period of being seasoned by life. I spoke with the family, agreed to sit with the individual for a while so they could get some rest, and settled down into a chair with Bible and Kindle.
I read a little scripture, prayed some prayers for the individual, lifted up the family in my prayers, spoke for a few minutes about the memories I shared with the individual, and then sat still. After a few minutes of silence, I found myself drawn to my Kindle and the copy I keep on my Kindle of the Carmina Gadelica.
The Carmina Gadelica is a collection of prayers and poems transcribed by Alexander Carmichael after being collected and recorded in the time that crosses the boundary of the 19th and 20th centuries. The Carmina Gadelica is an intriguing book in the fact that it chronicles a blending of cultures between the Celtic traditions that survived and the Christian traditions that took root in the British isles. I find the Carmina Gadelica to be an interesting collection that is very thought provoking.
I was reading through the second volume when the prayer “The Incense” caught my attention. I have come to believe that context affects the way we see the world around us. Sitting by the bedside of this individual as they breathed beneath closed eyes that saw the world when I had visited the day before and that had been bright before pneumonia came to visit in my absence, I read “The Incense” differently than I had read it before.
The translation of the following poem comes from the “Carmina Gadelica: Volume II” as translated by Alexander Carmichael. The poem is entitled “The Incense”
“In the day of thy health,
thou wilt not give devotion,
thou wilt not give kine,
Nor wilt thou offer incense.
Head of haughtiness,
Heart of greediness,
Nor ashamed art thou.
But thy winter wilt come,
And the hardness of thy distress,
And thy head shall be as
The clod in the earth.
Thy strength having failed,
Thine aspect having gone,
And thou a thrall,
On thy two knees.”
I looked up the word “kine” in the dictionary. “Cattle.” Kine is another word for cattle. What does it mean to give cattle in the context of days of health? What do cows have to do with incense or devotion? As a student of religion, my first thought is sacrifice. Sacrifice was once one of the ways how a person expressed regret, fealty, or even respect to God.
This cow is kine of a big deal…
The subject in “The Incense” refuses to give kine. They have no sense of devotion, no desire to sacrifice, and seemingly no reason to burn those herbs and fragrant plans which have been burnt in countless traditions to symbolize a drawing near to the divine. The person is haughty, greedy, unrestrained in their speech, and without shame in their time of strength, health, and well-being.
Yet, the poem goes on. Winter will come. They will come under the power of time, age, and weakness in time. Indeed, the person will one day find their life on earth equivalent to a clod of earth in the ground. The poem is bleak in many ways. The poem paints a picture of a person who does not understand their need in the days of their strength.
Sitting by a bedside, watching someone breathe breaths that might be some of their last in this life, and contemplating this poem was a different contemplation than many contemplations that I have had over the years. Am I wise enough to give kine in the days of my strength? Do I have the wisdom to realize that there will come a day when my choices have been removed from my path? If I do understand, do I let that wisdom affect the way that I live my life?
Can I live with gratitude for the gifts I have been given? Can I let that gratitude guide my choices? Can I choose to deny the parts of myself that want to be haughty, that live in greedy places, or that wish to live unhemmed by matters like compassion, empathy, or grace? Can I live a life marked by devotion and prayer? Can I live a life where kine are not for amassing into a giant herd for my profit, but instead exist in my life as a source of life and blessing for those around me? Can I live out my life in faith in such a way that I will one day find myself on my knees in a place marked by trust in God rather than the frailty that comes from regret?
Sitting with someone who reached an age where they were well seasoned affected the way I read the poem. I am not concerned by the individual I was sitting with while reading. The person I was visiting had a life that seemed marked by faith, hope, and love. The person’s presence was enough to remind me that, unless Jesus comes back in their lifetime, even the most righteous person will age and find themselves at a place on the threshold between one life and the next.
I pray that I have the wisdom in my own journey to find the humility the subject of “The Incense” seemed to miss. I pray that when I reach a place where I find myself on my knees, I will find myself enthralled by faith, hope, and love, but not fear.