My spiritual director, one of the three crones I mentioned earlier in a recent blog, told me about keening. I have never heard of this ancient Christian, Celtic practice. She explained that in the ancient Christian Celtic monasteries, some would have a room set aside for keening. Women would go there to wail and it was special kind of wailing which included ritual and some musical intonations under the wailing. Women would weep for the dead, weep for injustice and weep for their own griefs of loss and betrayal.
My spiritual director even went to one of these rooms – left today in ruins with partial walls and grass floors, and with her friends, she keened. She wailed. I have since spoken to others who know of this practice and of course it emerges out of the ancient practice of paid wailing at funerals long before the time of Christ. Jesus’ encounter on the road, of a group of wailers as he walked along the cliff of cemeteries and encountered a widow-mother burying her son is a prime example.
In speaking to people who know more about keening than I do, I am told that like whales, the keeners begin a cacophonous wailing as they keen, but over time, they find that there is a certain, unconscious weaving which happens such that the wailing and moaning, the screaming and lamenting begins to become a form of song in which the one influences the other, almost becoming musical. Keening is not just for weeping. It is also used today by people protesting injustice by wailing in non-violent protest. I wish we, in the Episcopal Church of the USA would do more of that when we need to. I keen for the lack of financial resources in episcopal churches and the refusal to solve the problem, thereby constipating mission in some places. For example. Albert Einstein said once that “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” And yet we do. So we keen.
Anyway, my spiritual director asked me to do some keening, not easily done in a city with houses a few feet apart; and so I had to go way out east of Denver to an area where there is lots of open land – and there I keened. I wept at a betrayal, the loss of an old friend – and I keened. I spent time with psalm 55 and I keened. It was rather therapeutic – a release of energy needing to be released into a cosmos big enough to absorb it and where it could not harm anyone.
The experience reminded me of a day in the mahout camp in the mountains of Thailand. I had visited once with my friend Dennis and then returned for some weeks. The mahout had me stand in a field, alone and ramrod straight, and told me not to move. There was a pail in case I needed to relieve myself and a jug of water in case I was thirsty. I stood there for a long time. Slowly the elephants emerged and began to sniff me all over and though many wandered off, one seemed to hang with me. The mahout said she had chosen me and that she would companion me all day, every day for my weeks of training.
In the third week, I began to feel pain from recent experiences in my life. The hut (pictured above) was small and was more of a retreat than anything else. The elephant would hang out nearby waiting to play or walk or be washed or fed and I was grateful for the vigil she seemed to keep for me. One night I was in deep grief and began to cry. It was a loud jungle and so it felt safe just to wail. So I did, not knowing about keening in those days.
As I cried out, she blew her trunk with a great loud trumpeting which so shocked me that I stopped weeping and began laughing.
The odd thing was – and I will never forget this – her note of trumpeting matched the tone of my cry, almost exactly.
For more on Keening go to