Rev. Nóirín Ní Riain PhD is an Interfaith Minister, an internationally acclaimed spiritual singer, theologian, writer, musicologist, and Celtic Spirituality expert. 




00:02:31 As a singer coming out of stage fright

00:06:00 Living for years at Glenstal Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in Ireland

00:06:56 Blessing a separation or a divorce

00:12:45 Noirin sings her favorite Psalm. 

00:14:00 Gregorian chanting and healing power

00:16:00 Theosony, listening to the divine, the ear of the heart and listening all around.

00:21:00 Stories of her friendship and time with Irish poet and Hegelian philosopher John O’Donohue

00:24:00 Learning patience and trust

00:27:00 On choices and mistakes

00:30:00 Qualities of loving

00:36:00 Rituals and being with people during times of transition








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RAW TRANSCRIPT Please excuse all errors

Olivia Clementine: I’m Olivia Clementine, and this is Love and Liberation. Today our guest is Nóirín Ní Riain. Noreen is an Irish spiritual singer, theologian. I’m Olivia Clementine and this is Love and Liberation. Today our guest is Nóirín Ní Riain. Nóirín is an Irish spiritual singer theologian, teacher, author and interfaith minister. She received the first PhD in theology at the University of Limerick. Known as the High Priestess and expert of Gregorian Chant, she is also known as a singer of Celtic Music, Sean-nós and Indian songs. Nóirín has released 16 albums since 1978, including three with her son. Her voice has rung out for peace on many continents, from United Nations conferences to gatherings with the Dalai Lama.

I wanted to start first with the fact that you had stage fright for a period. You’ve been singing since you were the mere age of seven, and I’m wondering what shifted that? How did you come out of stage fright and Yeah. Do you attribute that to anything in particular? 

Nóirín Ní Riain: And Olivia do, do you ever come out of stage fight? Even now I’m here sort of praying for inspiration and all of that, but I think probably two things.

 And the most dramatic of that is knowing that you are singing is not coming from yourself. That, so you have to remove, you have to shift the ego. And that took me a long time to shift because of course I started singing when I was very young and I was a sort of child gy. I presented ra, the first radio programs, children’s radio programs in Ireland, all of that kind of stuff, and thrown onto the stage, won all sorts of competitions.

And so I ended up very precocious as a young girl until I had a very traumatic experience at the age of 14. I was told, you know, in fact, you’re not as good or as you know, talented as you think you are, because I made a mistake one time in a little musical that I was saying the part in. So then my ego suddenly came in and I suddenly realized, oh gosh, you know, I’m imperfect.

And so it took me so long. To learn that in fact your talent is nothing about you. It’s coming at you from another source entirely. And that each time, so including today, that I do something to do with my singing or with communication. I pray and pray that my ego will turn from the small. Small ego into what Carl Jung called the self with the capital S, and so he would expand on that capital S being the imago de the image of the divine.

And that each one of us, that’s our vocation, that is our job, is to be that messenger and to stand back from yourself. And then the other message that I learned too was that time when I was going through crippling stage fright, which now I don’t have, it’s not crippling now, so much so that it takes away my voice.

 But was that a priest one time in the monastery where I lived for 16 years in the male monastery in Ireland, he once said to me, look at, he said, your singing. This evening I was talking about a concert I was going to be doing locally for about 300 people and he said, look what you’re singing there for one person and one person only, and if you reach that person, your job has been done.

And I find that so helpful, Olivia, in that here are we speaking to your group of friends and listen. But there’s really only one person there that will be deeply, deeply touched by something you and I will say. And so I often experienced that at concerts. Olivia, you know, you’ve suddenly done your bit.

And of course most of my concerts now will be in church because my repertoire is spiritual. And so, but you’d be there and you’d catch somebody’s eyes at the end of a concert, and you might never meet them. Sometimes course people would come up to you, but you’ll know that was a person I was here for.

So that, they’re the two things that really have helped me live with nervousness, because nervousness is my friend. Mm-hmm. And I can never, like the poor, it’s always with us and I can never get rid of that. 

Olivia Clementine: You mentioned living in the monastery for all of those years. First of all, how that came to be, but also what your lifestyle was like living in the monastery all those years and, and what parts of that you’ve kind of brought forth into your lifestyle now. 

Nóirín Ní Riain: Oh, Olivia have you three days. 

Olivia Clementine: Yes I do. 

Nóirín Ní Riain: So to give you just a little potted version of that, of course I grew up quite near that monastery as a child.

And as a child I really had no friends and I was a trouble child, but I always found myself at home when I would cycle to this Mona. It had nothing to do really. They’re Benedictine male monastery, the only Benedictine monastery in Ireland, Glenstal Abbey. And so it had nothing to do with the monks there cause I didn’t know them.

But it was that soil there. Of course, that’s the beautiful thing about Ireland, Olivia, is that soil speaks to your, because every inch of the way is a sacred site or something happened there thousands of years ago. And so too in this space of Glenstal Abbey, I always felt at home there. And then I got married and had two sons.

 Marriage began to crumble at a certain stage, but a crumbling that we welcomed both my former husband, somebody in America was telling me talking about their, their former husband and they were calling them a was-band . I thought it was a very clever term. I’d never heard, but so when things started to, when we realized that we really should, we were holding each other back and we should go our separate ways, which yet maintained our friendship and indeed our love.

Actually Olivia , he passed over in 2018 and right to that last moment Friends, I’m an interfaith minister, and Mícheál came to my ordination in 2018, a few months before he died, and indeed I sang at his wedding a months later. So we remained very friendly, which is something that I’m very interested in now, actually, particularly since I took up the ministry.

Olivia, how do you bless separation? How do you bless the divorce? That’s another old story.

Olivia Clementine: I’d love to get into that. 

Nóirín Ní Riain: Yeah, yeah. Cause I think it’s very important, actually. We know how to bless weddings and love and friendship, but when it moves on to a different stage, how do we create a ritual for that?

That allows us to remain if we can at all friendly. And proceed in the knowledge that we were together for a particular reason, cuz everything happens for a reason. So then to go back to the monastery so when my, when we were beginning to separate, I was also embarking on a course of a doctorate in theology and so I applied the monastery forage.

Complete that monastery. And it was such a blessing, Olivia, at the time because it allowed me to retreat from the world. But also I had this marvelous library of 70,000 theological books. So I would get a reference and in three minutes I would have the book in my end. And then of course, many of the experts, some very various aspects of theology.

So I was like a traveler. Or you know, there’s somebody I said, I, I just need your help now. And so they did give me hermitage for that three years and that proved work out very well. And so I would attend morning Office, which was at 6:35 AM right through the day, up to night prayer Complan at 8 35. And it was a blessed time, but of course, Olivia, this is a male, Roman Catholic, Monastery.

So the monks are up there on their pews and I’m down here very often on my own, in the body of the church. So all of that kept me very happy for a good few years. And then Anaïs Nin, a French writer she has a lovely saying. She says, “the time came when to remain in the bud was more painful than to blossom.”

So that time came when the monastery didn’t really serve me anymore, when Roman Catholicism, I needed something broader, some broader voice, and of course my doctorate was, on listening to the sound of God. Now, that was in a Christian context. But then I began to realize that the sound of God is everywhere.

We all call it different names. 8 billion people on this planet, and we’ll have, each of us will have a different name and indeed no name for what we call that spirit that has brought us together. Look at this. Zoom, for God’s sake, has to be created by some outside force and for some reason, So I lived there until 2016, and then I had started embarking on a course of interface ministry in London, in the seminary in London.

And so I knew I was facing, you know, it would be very difficult for the monks to have this woman ordained so-called or. So miraculously I moved. But having said that, I’m still at the gate, Olivia, and I hope you’ll visit me someday there of the monastery so I can hear the bells and I can go, come and go as I please there.

And I’ll always be connected. Glenstal Abby. But just, it was just a time Kept so much riches and treasures from that time, particularly reciting the Psalms. Psalms, I think you would say. We’d say Sams. So because that was caught the daily round of the monastery and so I loved and still do love saying the Sams Daily because the Samist, they’re just people like you and I who were wounded and in search of, The divine in search of a lifeline to, oh, with this valley of tears and of love.

Of course, most of Sam’s, of course, as you know, are centered around love. Some of them round a lack of love too but that’s another story. 

Olivia Clementine: Are there any that come to mind? 

Nóirín Ní Riain: Well, my favorite one is, and I’ll sing it for you, I’ll just give you a little blast of it, is 120 in some, in the Hebrew new ring it’ll be 121.

“I lift up my eyes to the mountain from where shall come my help. My help shall come from Lord who made heaven and the earth.

May God never allow you to stumble. May God sleep not your God. Oh God sleeps not nor slumbers, Israel’s God. All of our God. The Lord is your garden, your shade at your right hand god stands by day the sun shall not smite you, nor the moon in the night, the Lord will guard you from evil. God will guard your soul. God will guide your going and you’re coming. Now and forever Amen.

Olivia Clementine: Beautiful. Thank you. 

What is Gregorian chant and, there’s so many studies as well, in terms of its healing properties. 

Nóirín Ní Riain: Taken from Saint Gregory cause that’s, it’s a misnomer really. But it’s the chant of the Christian tradition. And so very much based on a Latin version of the Psalms. And so it would be sung Primely by monasteries.

The daily round would have these little. Some beautiful, “Ave Maria,” that chant to the divine feminine to Mother Mary and some, some beautiful, beautiful chance. All, you know, anonymous of course. We don’t really know who wrote the body of chant that goes back to the 10th century. One of the oldest chants they say goes back to the sixth century, which is where charity and love is true god is there. (sings here)

Where charity and love is true god is there. So of course chanting then to Olivia in all traditions is extremely healing. A great way of connection with the divine, whatever, we’ll call that divine, the white spirit, the almighty whatever. So in most religions will be centered around chanting. As you know, the Buddhist too, they will chant for hours on end Hindu tradition as well too.

And so it’s, we are recognizing that power of moving something from speech into. That huge transformation happens there when you go from this speech onto chanting. 

Olivia Clementine: Going back to your, your thesis or your paper for your doctorate degree the title was “The specificity of Christian Theosony.”

And I think it’s important, we actually just mentioned this word because it’s attributed to you Theos from the Greek Theos God and the Latin Sona sounding, referring to the practice of listening to the divine. This could also be like a three day answer, but what were some essential conclusions on how and why these vocal sounds invite in holy experiences?

Nóirín Ní Riain: Mm-hmm. It’s a very deep question to indeed. So you see in theology and maybe in spirituality Generally, I think the ear has been neglected. It’s a Cinderella of the senses. You know, we, when we understand something we say, I see that, I hear, and for me, connection with the divine, since I was a very young girl, has always been oral and every sound.

Can bring you in to an ecstatic experience, can bring you into a moment ecstatic love. Lovely word, of course. Greek word from extasis from the exit, from what is, what is stuck, what is stagnant. So sound I I discovered very early on as a young girl was my medium, not sight, but just that sound. Every sound was, you could attribute since the creator, the divine made the world that every sound is also a vehicle, a vehicle to bring us into the sound of God.

 And so that was the two words, theos as you have, as you said, Olivia, from God, Greek God, and Latin sonas. And so went back of course to scriptures, but primarily Christian scriptures. Isaiah, listen that you might leave and found that there were these messages, these messages encrypted in the oral, and of course the oral too.

And then of course, very much part of my, my doctors to Olivia was silence. And I think that’s a. Area that we have to face in ourselves today. Because we’re moving away from stillness, from being silent. You know, our major problem is not being able to fit still, to meditate, be in that silence. And then I always love to point out that silent, if you throw down those words on a Scrabble table differently, you’ll get listened. And then of course, when I went to live in the monastery in the Benedict Monastery I became very much involved in studying the rule of St. Benedict. There’s a rule from the fifth century, Olivia, that monks live by. It has an awful lot to say to us too.

But the very first word that St. Benedict uses in that prologue to the his monks, to the rule, the very first word, is Latin word, who’s an written Latin ota, which means listen with the ear of the heart. And so I was trying to delve into what is the ear of the heart? You know, we talk about the third eye but what is a third ear?

And so I devised a whole classification then of listening, how do you actually listen? How, what is the stage that brings you into the presence of the divine? And so devised their cosmic theosony, which is listening to the sounds all around. I’m listening to the birds now I’m listening to my little grandson out here.

 But it’s listening to that sound all around us. And then you have the sound that brings a message. So I suppose language you were put into that where you are actually taking the sound and making sense of it. And then you have the final one, which I termed as a sort of an oxymoron, silent theosony. Which is where just listening the act, the very active listening, brings you into the presence of the divine.

Of course, this, all these ideas, though Olivia, are not new at all. I wasn’t creating them. These are ever ancient, ever new, you know? But just, it was a time really, I was very inspired. Of course, around that time by the philosoph. And great friend of mine, John O’Donohue, who he read my thesis three times before he passed over in 2008.

And so he, he was very instrumental in my in my research. 

Olivia Clementine: Hmm. Do you have any stories with John O’Donohue that that feel prominent in your mind or heart right now? 

Nóirín Ní Riain: Oh shoot. There are millions of them. Cause, well the first, I didn’t ever know John until Sounds true in Boulder, Colorado, and they invited me to accompany John when Anam Cara was published in 1999 and to accompany him on a tour.

Well, really more a pilgrimage really of the states for two weeks. Very, very risky thing because we mightn’t have got on at all, at all Olivia, but we met in the garish Hotel in the Intercontinental in New York for the first time. And of course we’re two Irish speakers. We’re too fluent Irish speakers. So we spoke Irish all the time.

And but from day one, as they say we just got on very, very, And that two weeks of traveling with him in the States oh, was very special. That’s in fact when the seeds of my doctorate were sewn because we long, long journeys together, you see? And I would be telling him my ideas and he said, that’s a good idea.

(says in Irish) That’s Irish or (Speaks in Irish). So I tried out a lot of ideas on him at that stage. And then when we came back we kept contact, we did recordings together and so on. And so there isn’t a day I, I don’t miss John. He left us so rapidly, but then of course he left us the great legacy of his writings and he’s presence. I can feel him here actually as I speak.

Olivia Clementine: What a tremendous gift to have had that synchronistic meeting. Well, going back into this, theosony, you also share this turning point, I think it’s around the time you, you had this divorce I guess this divorce blessing, and, and then also writing your doctorate and things seem to shift for you where you started to not maybe put so much energy towards worrying and you started to really start to have greater faith in, in what’s bigger than you. You quoted once the Jewish Proverb, “humanity Plans, God laughs.” and I’m wondering because, you know, our culture is so material prominent right now, and it can feel, especially when the form world is not cooperating with what our mind would like, what do you feel is a pathway to nurture having greater faith in the unseen and in the larger the vision of one’s life?

Nóirín Ní Riain: Yes. And that’s quite pertinent in my own life at this moment actually. Olivia

 That because I’ve come out of a very serious illness. Through an attack of shingles on my left side of my face, my eye which led to death levels of sodium. And so it’s just exactly four months ago now. And that has been a huge learning lesson on all of that because up to now I’d always thought I could manage my life that I was in.

I think a lot of us think that we are in charge, but then I knew this was a message from the divine. There’s no other way I can talk to you, Noirin you’re a stubborn woman. I have to hit you with something very serious because I have messages tell you. And so my life has turned around Olivia since then, all around patience.

And I think we’re not taught how to be patient, that we have to go through the depths, the dark night of the soul to and be patient while we’re doing it, knowing that we’re being held. And even though I was on death store and all sorts of emergency hospitals, and so.

There were times that I did say, “why have you abandoned me?” But there were other times that I knew deep down, that I had to learn from this experience. I was being taught by being brought on my knees quite literally.

And so there were things I had to let go in my life. There were forms, ways of living, habits I had to overcome and I wouldn’t have overcome them any other way except through this dramatic intervention as a prayer. Cuz I had been teaching, doing ministry, writing, just finished a book on prayer and really had never been ill in my life, and suddenly to be brought to the point that wake up, wake up a great message of course, in scripture too, isn’t it? Our lovely poet, Seamus Heaney passed over. Used to say he has a poem around, had I not been awake, I would’ve missed it. Had I not been awake, I would’ve missed it. And so that’s a great message too for us in life. So I’ve digressed now from you 

Olivia Clementine: No, you’ve totally not digressed. I’m sorry, first of all that you had that experience, but it sounds like, sorry wouldn’t be appropriate, because you’re seeing it as a gift. So I’m sorry though still for the suffering of it, and I’m glad you’ve come through. 

I’m wondering if all the years of trusting, because you’ve had a lot of twists and turns, it sounds like you’ve chosen to turn your mind towards having faith that there’s a larger message of what it is to be a part of the great vastness. And I’m wondering too, going back to the listening to the divine, what do you find in, in your regular life of how you keep turning your mind towards that wisdom, towards being okay with the intensity of the divine to the chaos of the divine?

Nóirín Ní Riain: You see, I wonder in life, certainly, I think in my own life, do we make those choices? We look back, I look back, but I don’t see them as I, there wasn’t a particular time that I said, I’m going to do a doctorate. I’m going to go ministry. I’m going to, you know, I think you are guided in. Rather than actually making that life choice yourself. There’s very few life choices I think that we actually make, that we stumble very much into our lifestyles too, and we sort of trust that they will, you know, when we look back, we talk about mistakes, but I wonder are there. You know? Yes. When I look back in my life, I see all the things I shouldn’t have done, the things I shouldn’t have said. Hopefully not too many people I hurt, but I thought I was doing the best at that time. You know, do we, do we ever make a choice to do wrong?

We do it. We thought it was the right thing to do at the time.

It’s a big question, you know? Mm-hmm. Because I’m very affected by the golden rule, Olivia, because there are what? There are 4,000 to a hundred religions in the world, which believes that 4,000. And each of them has their own version of do unto others as you would let them do unto you. Some of them will be negative, do not do unto others, but you would not have them do unto you.

But all those major religions, the eight major religions are a more that break up into those 4,200 they all, and I wonder if we could only live by. Love others as we’d like to be loved ourselves. Our Indeeds, our Christian scriptures would say, love your neighbor as yourself. I remember one time I was invited by the United Nations to introduce his His Holiness the Dalai Lama in Costa Rica, and it was marvelous honor because I was bringing him in to this cathedral.

In San Jose and marching him up the aisle there. And of course I’d be singing lots he didn’t know, but I’d be singing lots of Christian stuff and Irish stuff and everything. And a few Tibetan chants too. But I got a chance to sit at his feet for a week there and to listen to his wisdom. He used to always say that you Christians, you are Christians, you will talk about love your neighbors as yourself who are neighbors. And it’s true because we don’t really know how to love ourselves, we’re never taught to love ourselves. At least people of my generation in Ireland we’re never taught we all always thought that you should be seen and not heard.

So to love your neighbor yourself, we first of all have to learn to love ourselves. And it’s a matter of how much we love ourselves, that we can love others. So loving begins at home, begins in ourselves. 

Olivia Clementine: And what do you feel are some qualities of loving one self?

Nóirín Ní Riain: Hard question to answer.

I suppose being good to yourself as or as John would say, minding yourself, knowing what to say yes to and what to say no to. Even more important.

Surrounding yourself with like-minded people too, who bring the best out in you, not the worst. Selecting that as Emily Dickinson would say, the soul selects her own society. 

Communing, being out in nature, looking at the tree, at a tree as a symbol of yourself, reaching to the sky, reaching down into the depths, accepting, of course, the darkness in ourselves and not pushing it under the carpet or ignoring it. But recognizing it, welcoming in that dark side, not driving it away, loving ourselves, finding a connection with the spiritual, whatever that will be. Listening to poetry, music, singing a song, anything. Being creative, of course, is loving yourself. Being creative and of course doing things for other people too. 

Olivia Clementine: I know you have great reverence with the elemental world and I think of Ireland and there’s a long line in, in Ireland, a great kinship and reciprocity with the elemental world and the unseen. And I also know that you’re a, a Celtic storyteller, and I wonder if you have any stories offhand that reflect this connection with the elemental world as living as something to turn to in an honoring way. 

Nóirín Ní Riain: Myriads of thoughts come to my mind. Like our definition of nature would really be (Irish Phrase) house that God is to be seen in every element of nature and many, many legends around that. 

One of our great gods is Angus, the God of love, actually are equivalent to Eros he is the God of love, was also the God of unrequited Love those, those two sides there. But many legends around nature. There’s another one flying through my head now that I wanted to share with you. There’s Angus there’s of course our great warrior mythological figure and once he was asked by his warriors, by his soldiers, they said, fi, what is your favorite music?

Is it the music of the Roaring of the Sea? Is it the songs of the birds? Is it the breeze through the trees? Is it the Sound of Stones speaking to one another? What is it? Film that is your favorite music? And he replied, is it my favorite music, is the music of what happens. My favorite music is the music of what happens, and so that is the music.

Of everything, not just in nature, but the music of every moment that we, every day gives us these moments. But of course we are hearing is dulled with all the distractions around us. So we don’t have that. We find it very hard to pick out, even one moment in the day, not to talk of the thousands of moments that are there, but there’s something else there.

Yes. Two. And that’s yes, about loving yourself. Actually, that’s still a question still going through my mind, the other thing is gratitude. That’s one great way of loving ourselves is to look around and to see what can you be grateful. Existence, friendship, family, and so on. 

Olivia Clementine: Circling around your work as an interfaith minister, your work is really to be with people during these transitory moments. Whether we’re speaking of a marriage or a divorce blessing or grief, loss of a loved one.

And I wonder through this time, what is it for you that you find within yourself, how do you meet each of those experiences in the way that, you know, will serve those people in the most true, beneficial way for them? I’m wondering how you meet those people that you have the gift of being with during those big moments of transition. 

Nóirín Ní Riain: And it is a great privilege and a great honor, so that’s the first thing is the gratitude in for that privilege of standing beside people.

And that gratitude, of course, carries a huge responsibility. And so that connects to the other side of it, which is preparation. And so I would prepare very much by praying, by withdrawing, and by praying. I will be gifted, which has nothing to do with me, but that I will be just gifted with the right words to say because there are no scripts for this.

At least I don’t use any scripts. And so each couple, each passing over, each baby, each naming ceremony, each divorce. You see, ritual is so important to be able to ritualize something, to concretize it. Now that our churches have crumbled, our institutions thankfully have crumbled.

We’re now in a very exciting time, particularly in Ireland, where everything new can now be acknowledged. Of course, we were the first country in the world to recognize same sex marriages and I’d say 50% of my weddings would be same sex marriages. 

You have to be a vessel for what is to come. You have to be a conduit, almost like an icon. Don’t see an icon around here, but an icon where Not the image that is sacred in itself, but it is the belief that it leads you into. So I always see us ministers as simply the glue enabling people to move on, to celebrate their togetherness, to celebrate their love.

And so it is that and overall, so the other thing too that you’re reminding me of now that I haven’t spoken of before, Olivia, that the sense of community that it creates when you’re standing there with people, you really feel solidarity either in allowing the person to pass over or in celebrating relationship.

You know, and we have wonderful proverbs in Ireland that say that this is an age old experience. “Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine” and that is, that in the shadow and in the shelter, scáth is an Irish word, which is shadow and shelter, that, in that we exist and so are that we live when we are in the shadow and the shade of each other.