Last week I visited the remains of the ancient Irish Celtic monastery at Clonmacnoise, founded in 546 by Saint Ciaran and which had a significant impact upon European learning in the following Centuries. All that visibly remains now are the ruins of some churches and two beautiful High Crosses. While there I remembered a poem by Seamus Heaney which refers to a marvellous story from 748 AD when a ship floated by in the sky. (The heavenly realms were frequently imagined as an ocean in those times, and were seen to be as real as life on earth). The monks were at prayers, they looked up, and watched the ship go by in the sky. Then, out of the ship, came an anchor, which fell and hooked itself to the altar.… the ship finds itself stuck, it cannot go forward. A sailor climbs down the rope, to try to un-hook the anchor, but began to “drown” in our air. The monks realized this, and hurried to free the anchor, and they helped the man back up to the ship.
Heaney’s poem sees in this story the mingling between worlds. His beautiful words – “out of the marvellous” – strikes us, as it shows that, for the sailor from “up there”, the world “down here” is new and wondrous. In all of Heaney’s later poems we see everyday miracles and otherworldly wisdom in the ordinary of every day. Our mundane world of meetings and conversations is full of depth, if we pay attention. We are reminded: there are enough marvels in this world, if we have the eyes of wonder to see them.
The annals say: when the monks of Clonmacnoise
Were all at prayers inside the oratory
A ship appeared above them in the air.
The anchor dragged along behind so deep
It hooked itself into the altar rails
And then, as the big hull rocked to a standstill,
A crewman shinned and grappled down the rope
And struggled to release it. But in vain.
‘This man can’t bear our life here and will drown,’
The abbot said, ‘unless we help him.’ So
They did, the freed ship sailed, and the man climbed back
Out of the marvellous as he had known it.
– Lightenings viii, 1991
photo from the blog richie abroad