I am delighted to share another beautiful submission to the Monk in the World guest post series. Kiran Young Wimberly is a minister, spiritual director, and musician living in Ireland. Our next prayer cycle honoring angels, saints, and ancestors (coming this fall) will be integrating Kiran’s Celtic version of the psalms. Read on for her reflection and watch her version of Psalm 22.
Before I ever knew I’d spend the majority of my adult life in Ireland, I was drawn to traditional Irish music. When I was young, someone asked what my favorite hymn might be, and after scanning the hymnal and being unable to recognize most them, I spotted Be Thou My Vision and thought, “This one. This one is beautiful.” When I was in my early 20s, singing in a folk duo with a friend of mine, it was the traditional Irish airs that struck a chord with me and felt at home with my voice. When we moved to Belfast from America in my late 20s, I was excited by the opportunity to learn more Irish music and hoped I would hear more hymns like Be Thou My Vision. What I didn’t realize was that in Northern Ireland, traditional Irish music is associated with the Catholic community, and with the history of conflict here, not only was it rare to have that style of music in Protestant churches, but it was very unusual for a Presbyterian minister like myself to be singing it. However, my love for traditional music remained, and in sessions at pubs, and my traditional singing classes, I continued to fall in love with the beauty of the old melodies. I found myself moved to tears or joy, connecting with a deep longing, and brought into a contemplative state even as the music pulsed around me. To me, it was clear that something sacred was happening when people gathered to sing and play this music.
For me, this emotional depth connected naturally with spirituality. One night, I was listening to the heartrending harp piece “Eleanor Plunkett,” a beautiful air that evokes a sense of sorrow and yearning. I had just preached on Psalm 63 that morning, about longing for God’s presence like thirsting for water in a dry land. The 400 year-old melody and the ancient words of the Psalm spoke to each other. I put them together, and that became the first “Celtic Psalm.” As time went on, another tune would speak to me, or words of a particular Psalm would cry out for a voice. Over the past ten years, I have set 44 Psalms to Irish and Scottish melodies.
Like the Celtic melodies, the Psalms also drew me from a young age. When I was growing up, I would open the Bible randomly to see where it would lead me, and it often fell open to the middle – to the Psalms. And there, I found an expression of many of the tumultuous emotions of childhood, the growing pains of the teenage years, the frustrations, fears, anger, anxiety, sadness; and on the other hand, I also found expression of gratefulness and joy and the beauty of creation. The Psalms seemed to speak into so many life situations, and they connected me with the prayers and experiences of so many people throughout the thousands of years since they were written. Without realizing it, the Psalms gave me perspective on any struggles I faced – because I knew that other people had struggled too, long before me, and their prayers guided me. The Psalms reminded me that God was listening to my prayers, and to all of our prayers, no matter what time or place or culture we live in.
So the combination of the expressive traditional style of music with the poignant words of the Psalms have filled my life for the past decade and more. I’ve had the pleasure of singing with the incredibly talented musical family, The McGraths, and we’ve worked alongside stellar traditional musicians to create the sound of Celtic Psalms. Singing these Psalms in Ireland links us with the Celtic Christian communities who once sang and recited Psalms multiple times a day, carrying with them on their journeys Psalm books inscribed on velum with intricate artwork and ornate covers, singing them in sweet melodies that have been long lost. And as we look back at the Christianity that thrived on these islands before the Reformation divisions, we see the Psalms as something we can share, across the barriers that separate people today. Through bringing our music into Catholic, Protestant, and mixed audiences, we’ve found that the Psalms are much older than our divisions, they remind us of our common humanity, and they bring us into the presence of a God who listens to us all, and loves us all, and welcomes us all.
The Celtic Psalms project has become far more than beautiful music that can lull us into a peaceful state. This music is about building bridges between people, being honest about our longings, and our pain, and our struggles, and also our gratefulness and our joy, before a loving God, and in turn, listening to and loving each other with graciousness and generosity of spirit. If we open ourselves to the possibility of sharing space with each other courageously, acknowledging the beauty and depth of the human spirit, we can begin to see glimpses of healing, and together we can be a part of forging a hopeful future – in Northern Ireland and wherever we are in the world.
Kiran Young Wimberly is a PC(USA) minister, spiritual director and musician living and working freelance on the north coast of Ireland, and a member of the Corrymeela community for peace and reconciliation. She has recorded four albums of Celtic Psalms CelticPsalms.com with the McGraths, and together they have formed the nonprofit Celtic Pilgrims CelticPilgrims.com, dedicated to connecting communities through music. She hosts a podcast called Psalms for the Spirit PsalmsfortheSpirit.substack.com and writes a newsletter called Bless My Feet at KiranYoungWimberly.substack.com. Kiran’s website is KiranYoungWimberly.com.