by Charles LaFond
Keening. Go ahead and cry out! The planet will join you!
Sometimes we humans need to pull out all the stops and let out a great huge cry. Animals do too I find. A friend told me recently about keening. I have never heard of this ancient Christian, Celtic practice. Some ancient Christian Celtic monasteries would have a room set aside for keening. Women from the surrounding area would go there to wail. It was special kind of wailing, which included ritual and some musical, vocal intonations under the wailing. Women would weep for the dead, weep for injustice and weep for mothers of dead children in the village, weep for their own griefs of loss and betrayal.
This friend went to one of these ancient, Celtic monastery ruins which had, in its ecclesial village of buildings a keening room. It must one day have been beautiful but today all that is left are partial walls and grass floors. In these ruins, with a few of her friends, she keened. She wailed. They all wailed and cried and wept for all the injustice in the world and even in the church. I have since spoken to others who know of keening and of course it merges 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 encounters 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 the keeners begin a cacophonous wailing as they keen. There are different pitches and different tones. Over time however, they find that there is a certain, unconscious melody in the singing of their wailing – a 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. Whales who sing in our oceans do this too I am told.
This week 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. My black Lab Kai sat and listened as if keeping vigil. I wept at betrayal and loss; and I keened. I screamed psalm 55 at the top of my lungs 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 a mahout training camp in the mountains of Thailand in which I spent some weeks living with an elephant. The mahout (elephant trainers) 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 from the nearby fields and forests and began to sniff me all over, circling me. 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 as much retreat hermitage as anything else. The elephant who choose me would hang out nearby waiting to play, walk, 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. I was keening though I did not have the name for it until now. It was a loud jungle and so it felt safe just to wail. So I did.
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.