Madness, Insight and Poetry

Here under the light of the full moon I have been writing on the nature of éigse as a kind of poetic wisdom. I was working on the paragraph where I discuss the link between this kind of insight and madness when a memory suddenly came rushing back to me.

Decades ago I was a confident and dedicated Christian considering entering the ministry as a priest, so on the suggestion of a friend who was in seminary at the time I went and spent a year working at a project in Kingston-on-Thames (just outside London). It treated both substance abusers and troubled youths, and I was confronted there by a world that I never thought possible. I’d known of its existence for years, but the reality of deliberately self-destructive behaviour had never imposed itself so strongly on my awareness. By the end of the year my conviction that I was priest-material had been irrevocably shaken and would soon collapse entirely. That is a different story, though.

The story here concerns one Sunday when I took up the offer to deliver my first (and thereafter only) sermon. The project was connected to the local baptist congregation and in fact held its own services on the project’s grounds as the director was also the priest. I worked for days on it, producing about six pages of material, but when I stood up before the people gathered I suddenly felt it was all rubbish so ripped up the pages and extemporized for about ten or fifteen minutes.

Afterward, many people complimented me on my delivery or some of my points, but I was convinced that I had completely botched the whole endeavour and so was milling around during the coffee-hour afterward in a kind of daze. While I was doing this, I found myself beside a young woman who was brought to the service every Sunday and who suffered from some kind of mental affliction. I don’t remember what it was, but its effects were that she rarely spoke to anyone, spent most of her time staring off into space and, when she did speak, did not make much sense at all.

On this particular day and after I had made some sort of lame greeting, she fixed me with a hard, piercing gaze and said ‘will you betray me?’ Being an avid Christian and prone to intense feelings of guilt for just about everything under the Sun, I suddenly had the feeling that somehow God was speaking through this young girl. I had in several other places and at different times come across the idea that madness could sometimes be a kind of blank state on into which divinity could intrude, so that the insane might sometimes speak prophetically, and the moment abruptly felt charged with some great significance.

‘I hope not!’ was all I could think to reply, but she answered without missing a beat, ‘it’s too late; you already have’ — and just like that the moment passed. She turned away and walked into the crowd of murmuring parishioners.

At the time, I was too stunned and horrified by the whole encounter to talk about it with anyone, emotionally fragile as I was after delivering my sermon, so when her guardian came by and said (without my bringing up the incident) that he hoped she hadn’t said anything too strange — she could, after all, get quite confused — I simply brushed off the encounter and fetched another cup of coffee. Nevertheless, I could not shake the feeling that something momentous had happened, though precisely what was beyond my understanding.

Looking back now it occurs to me that perhaps my first instinct was correct, but my interpretation was misguided. I took her to be communicating something from the Christian god and so accusing me of betraying my vocation to the ministry, but with my new perspective there is much more that might be going on. Might she have been speaking with the voice of that divinity which has taken an interest in me from the beginning, that presence who was always there with me in the woods and who guided me to my first book of runes when I was only nine years’ old, and the one whose trust and efforts I was betraying and continually betrayed by imposing a Christian paradigm onto my entire experience?

Éigse, that peculiarly poetic insight and wisdom that can be sought in extreme experiences, honed through intense training, but is ultimately uncontrollable, can and often exhibits the tokens of madness. After all, Oðinn, the god of mantic insight and otherworldly knowledge who first brought poetry to humanity, bears a name that means ‘the Warped-One.’ He is also highly irregular in his habits. The seventh-century king of the Dál nAraidhe, Suibhne, having been cursed by a Saint to live in madness as a ‘wild man’ of Ireland, suddenly was also gifted with the ability to compose prophetic poetry quite literally ‘on the fly’ (as he was at least partially changed into a bird). I was certainly not imbued with the poetic spirit that day but believe that my attempt to be so allowed me the insight enough to recognize when it had, unsought and unbidden, alighted upon another already prone to it.

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