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Sundays in America: Celtic Celebrations

by Suzanne Strempek Shea

Allsaints Want to celebrate St. Patrick's Day in an authentic manner, but without having to pay ever-rising trans-Atlantic airfares or swallow a startling dollar-to-euro exchange? Skip the trip to Ireland and stay stateside for a journey to All Saints Parish in Brookline, Massachusetts.

After all, a holy day is what the holiday is first and foremost. St. Patrick's Day parades now meander down the lanes even of Ireland's smallest villages, and Dublin's to-do now rivals New York City's or Boston's, but until recent years St. Patrick's Day in Ireland was a day off for church and family. Prior to your pub visit, or post-parade, consider a visit to this 111-year-old Anglican church, which holds a Celtic Eucharist service each Wednesday and Saturday evening.

It’s offered as part of a Celtic spirituality focus that began in 1989 at All Saints, a stately Protestant church located down the hill from the birthplace of this country’s only Catholic president. “Celtic worship seeks to heal the wounds of centuries,” All Saints Rector David A. Killian writes in the 20-page black-on-gray liturgy booklet. “Celtic Spirituality is committed to caring for the earth, promoting equality between men and women, securing justice and freedom for all, and working for peace in the world."

Allsaints2 And it of course commemorates St. Patrick, Apostle of Ireland, who rocketed from toiling as a teenage slave in Britain to establishing in Ireland a powerful church that shaped the culture in ways that, for better and for worse, still reverberate. His delivery of Catholicism in 450 AD is considered history’s only bloodless conversion of a country-- if you leave out the fact that in the process Patrick stabbed King Aenghus in the foot with his crosier, receiving no complaint because the victim believed impalation to be part of ceremony.

Beginning with the lighting of three candles, the liturgy has the greeting- readings- sermon- Eucharist- meditation- dismissal bones of most Protestant services and all Catholic Masses. The language is what struck me during my visit. Anyone familiar with traditional Irish prayers or poetry, or the modern- day- yet- ancient musings of bestselling Irish philosopher John O’Donohue, will recognize Celtic lyricism and the references to the natural world in even the absolution given by Pastor David after the congregation makes a group confession: "You have lowered the canopy of night and its gentle shadows cover us with your peace. May the dews of heaven heal our wounds and wash the tears from our eyes. And may the burning light of Christ banish forever the darkness from our souls, that we may be at peace."

Allsaints3Not often does pub music waft down the aisle of a church, but considering the theme of the service I guess it’s not too shocking to hear "The Star of County Down." The folk tune shares the same music as some old English and American hymns, but it was the contemporary rocking and racing version mumbled by the brilliant Shane McGowan that sprang to my mind, rather than the one that gently glides from the cello, flute and guitar trio at the rear of the sanctuary. As an added touch of authenticity, a bodhran kept beat.

I was one of 25 worshippers-- all white except for an Asian man-- the lot of us dressed in casual layers that included a nod to the holiday in a trio of green shirts, one green boutonnière and a pair of shamrock antennae. Together, we prayed and reflected and sang, including the concluding hymn translated from Irish and known by several names, among them "St. Patrick's Breastplate" due to the protection so much of the prayer seeks at this or any time of year:

Christ be with me,  Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me,  Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.

Christ beneath me, Christ above,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger
Christ in hearts of all that love me
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger

Sheasundaysinamerica Suzanne Strempek Shea,winner of the 2000 New England Book Award for Fiction, is the author of five novels, Selling the Lite of Heaven, Hoopi Shoopi Donna, Lily of the Valley, Around Again , and Becoming Finola, and the memoirs Songs from a Lead-Lined Room, and Shelf Life. Her next book, Sundays in America, from which she adapted this post, will be released by Beacon Press this coming Easter. She lives in Bondsville, Massachusetts, and sells books at Edwards Books in Springfield, Massachusetts.

Read the other posts in the Sundays in America series: Barack Obama's Church | Christmas Eve in Bethlehem