This week my youngest son started pre-school. And while his mornings will be spent within woodland walls and upon forest floors at a nature preschool, both he and and I were experiencing a deep anxiety around this fundamental shift in our daily rhythm together. I awoke early on his first day of school for a time of meditation and prayer practice on our behalf and for personal preparation.
My spiritual practices come from the Celtic tradition. The Scottish Highlands are in my blood through my maternal line and I grew up with a father who worshipped in the many steepled sanctuary of the mountains. Seeing the natural world as sacred, a fundamental feature of Celtic spirituality, is written into my DNA; it is a cellular response for me to see the numinous within nature. So on this particular threshold morning, I began with an embodied, ritualized form of prayer, the Celtic circling prayer.
Circling prayers, also known as Caim prayers (from the Irish gaelic meaning ‘protection’), are used to create a ring of safety around one’s self and their beloveds. It is a way to pray within the physical dimension as it requires the body to actively participate in the supplications of the heart. When one participates with and prays a Caim, the invocation begins with an arm extended outwards, pointer finger set towards the ground tracing the shape of a circle. This intentional act creates a sacred sphere, a space within which the pray-er invokes the protection of the divine. When I pray a Caim, I extend these boundaries beyond my personal reach to include my whole house, my neighborhood, the community in which I live, and the world at large. I encircle a space much larger than myself as a way to include the vast and diverse community of life of which we are fundamentally a part.
By extending the Caim protection beyond my person to include the plants, trees, birds, and other wild-life, I am doing something different than invoking a defense against that which is forbidden, dangerous, or out of control; instead, I am inviting that wild world in, bringing the more-than-human community of life into revered relationship and attunement. I am inviting a way of seeing the wild as wonderous, and in the most ancient of meanings, seeing myself within its ward. Encircling prayers that cast the boundaries beyond our domesticated borders initiate a way of moving through the day that is expectant of mystery and magic as the whole of creation is considered to be within the Caim circle. In this way, Caim becomes an eco-centric way of praying.
And so I prayed a Caim the morning of my son’s first day of school, which would be situated on the wild edges of an urban parkland. I chose a prayer befitting the day, knowing where my son would be. This prayer of blessing is one of the earliest known Caim prayers that is attributed to St. Columba, founder of the Iona Abbey:
“Bless to me the sky that is above me, Bless to me the ground that is beneath me, Bless to me the friends–furry, feathered, or fronded–who are around me, Bless to me the love of the Three Deep within me and encircling me and the greater community of life. Amen.”
(emphasis my own personal eco-centric addition)
I said these words as I circled, intentionally creating an expectation for the sacred wild to be within our midst this day.
Here is where this day’s prayer practice became quite extraordinary. We are fortunate to be able to walk to this sweet outdoor school, but every step away from home towards this new experience was causing my son anxiety and tears. Our route leads us through a wondrous three city-block sidewalk that has mature chestnut and maple trees planted on either side of the path that creates a wooded passage; we have since named it the Tree Tunnel. While walking along this way, a squirrel appeared before us on the sidewalk. While that is not uncommon, we did expect the normal behavior of it scampering up a tree as we drew closer. However, this squirrel did not. Instead, it carefully and slowly approached myself and Cannon who was seated in his stroller. With a steady gaze directed at Cannon, the squirrel continued straight up to him and gently put his paw upon my son’s foot. The silence that surrounded these two beings was sacred, a holy moment marked by their communion. This is interbeing, what Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh talks about as that recognition of the connectedness of all life, a way of being that must be reclaimed and protected now more than ever. This is Caim.
After a full minute’s pause, the squirrel scampered away, and Cannon turned to me with a rapturous face, exclaiming his empowered readiness to go on to school where the squirrel would be to watch over him, protecting him until my return.
Every day thereafter this week, that squirrel has been awaiting Cannon in the Tree Tunnel and the same ritual ensues. Squirrel appears before Cannon and as we slow to a stop, it approaches him and places his paw upon his leg. Cannon quietly receives this blessing from the wild, a lesson he is too young to have yet unlearned. He inherently knows that nature is not something from which we need protection against, but a relationship in which to be cherished and engaged, a relationship that is within our sacred circle.
Find a place outside where you can practice in the embodied form of the Caim. Back yards, front gardens, public parks, and even sidewalks will do!
Center yourself by taking several deep breaths, tuning in to the sounds of the natural world all around you. You will likely hear human-made sounds too. Don’t ignore the anthrophony. Instead, receive these sounds as an invitation to include them in your Caim too.
When you feel ready, position your body facing north. Breath deeply and feel the air within and around you. Stretch out your arm in front of you with your pointer finger extended and pointed to draw a metaphorical, expansive circle that includes the natural world. Slowly turn your body in a clock-wise rotation–going from the cardinal direction north, to east, to south, to west and back again to facing north while saying this simple encircling prayer, adapted to include the greater community of things with whom we live:
- North, “Circle us Spirit, Keep protection near, And danger afar.”
- East, “Circle us Spirit, Keep light near, And darkness afar.”
- South, “Circle us Spirit, Keep peace within, Keep evil out.”
- West, “Circle us Spirit, Keep hope within, Keep doubt without.”
- Back at the North can finish your prayers with:
May you be a bright flame before us,
May you be a guiding star above us,
May you be a smooth path below us,
And a loving Guide behind us,
Today, tonight, and forever.