Cynthia Long is a librarian, folklorist, and writer with a focus in Celtic folklore, mythology, and history. She earned her M.F.A. in Fiction from Rosemont College in Rosemont, Penn., in May 2016. In August 2017 she presented at Doxacon, the Orthodox Science Fiction and Fantasy convention, on the topic of fairy tales and the famous C.S. Lewis quotation that says, "Some day you will be old enough to read fairy tales again." Cynthia was Chrismated in September 2012 and attends St. George Church in the Philadelphia suburbs, where she tends the parish library.
I came to the Orthodox Church by way of a high-church Lutheran congregation to which I’d supplemented a private study of Irish history, mythology, and the ‘ancient Irish’ church. Irish-American is the heritage I claim although in truth my blood is mixed with Dutch and German too. As a child, my family celebrated St. Patrick’s Day like a national holiday—eating corned beef and wearing green without noticing that he was a saint. I was raised strict, conservative, Evangelical. I discovered the saints and Mary with the Lutherans, and we patted ourselves on the back for being so very open-minded. Throughout the bewildering season of my Inquiring, the icon of St. Patrick on the wall of my local Orthodox Church continually comforted me.
In the early centuries of the Church, trade routes were common across the Mediterranean and up to Ireland. The early Irish litanies commemorated St. Anthony, the father of Irish ‘green’ (not desert) monasticism, and the ‘ancient Celtic’ church marked a full six weeks of Advent. Most of my Western sources promulgated these details as uniquely Irish expressions of faith. St. Patrick, they claimed, instituted the private nature of Confession. Now I know better.
As a folklorist-storyteller, writer, and former children’s librarian, I have a fascination especially for Irish faerie lore. Most of the Celtic pagan tales have been Christianized, and I cherish the Christian element, not as a didactic sanitation, but as the light of Christ illuminating mythology.
I share with you my favorite Irish faerie story. There are numerous variations according to the preference of the storyteller. It was most popularly collected by William Butler Yeats who was himself quoting T. Crofton Croker’s 1834 folklore collection where the tale is known as “The Priest’s Supper.” My own version is a conglomerate of multiple sources:
In County Cork in the time of your great-grandparents, Dermot Leary was walking a country road, on his way from his thatched farm cottage into town to fetch the priest for a neighbor who was ill. He is halfway into town when he hears faint music and sees wan and flickering lights in a bush at the side of the road.
An ageless man steps out from behind the hedges. He is handsome and well dressed in a proper waist-coat and jacket, and wearing a red felt cap. He is too handsome, with eyes that glow like starlight. “Go ask the priest,” the faerie says, “Go ask the priest what will become of the Fair Folk on the Last Day.”
In all the stories, it is known without saying that it is unwise to refuse a faerie. Answer their summons and be done with then, otherwise they’ll pester you without ceasing. As Orthodox Christians we do not to converse with spirits, but this is a folktale—a story—so please bear with me to its conclusion. Keep in mind also that mythological creatures are often a metaphor, a stand-in for people different from ourselves, or aspects of our psyche that we don’t want to admit to. Humans created the tales, after all.
Dermot hurries into town, walking even more quickly, and knocks at the rectory. He interrupts the priest at his supper. A fine meal it is, too, fresh salmon pulled from the Lee River that very afternoon, and broiled with potatoes on the coals. Dermot relays his message.
The priest puts down his fork.
(The stories vary significantly with the priest’s response. In one version he attempts to catechize the faeries. Here is the version I like best):
“Tell them that it won’t be known ‘til the Day o’ Judgment.”
I love folktales because they speak deeper truths. “Tell them that it won’t be known ‘til the Day o’ Judgment.” My priest had homilized something similar during one of my early visits to the Church. How stunned I was! How refreshing!
My Evangelical childhood had been filled with us-versus-them: We are going to heaven, and we must evangelize everyone else whom, we know, are not. Today I cherish Metropolitan Ware’s oft-quoted assertion that we know where the Church is, but we cannot say where it is not.
The humility and compassion of the Orthodox Church continues to stun me. Some days it feels fairy-tale unbelievable. I’ve discovered the sword-in-the-stone, the pearl-of-great-price, the heavenly treasure that thieves cannot steal.
I’ve learned to pray for the living and the dead and commend them to God. I pray and fast as best as I can. I queue up for the Body and Blood of Christ and proclaim myself the Chief of Sinners. The final outcome won’t be known until the Last Day.