Rewilding Prayer: How Caim Invites Protection for All of Creation

Rewilding Prayer Caim

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.

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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.

 

Rewilding Practice

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.

Amen.

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Iona Pentecost Pilgrimage: Island Journey

Bay at the Back of the Ocean

Bay at the Back of the Ocean

Bless to us, O God,
The earth beneath our feet,
Bless to us, O God,
The path whereon we go,
Bless to us, O God,
The people whom we meet.
Based on an old prayer from the Outer Hebrides

The pilgrimage around Iona visits places of sacred significance and historical importance on the island.  There are 18 sites in all and can take nearly all day to get to each one.  Our group broke the pilgrimage up in a few days-hitting the Abbey’s specific spots while we did our tour and hiking up Dun I on a quiet afternoon-so that we could enjoy the heft of the hiking down to the south end of the island to really spend some meaningful time at St. Columba’s Bay and enjoy the reflections at holy sites along the way.

Columba's Bay

Looking south towards Columba’s Bay

I watched our band of pilgrims prayerfully hike the path that Columba, his followers and 1450 years of seekers have sojourned.  While not adorned in the medieval garb of the traditional pilgrim (full length tunics, broad rimmed hats, staffs and satchels), their water proof pants and jackets, knit caps and thick ankled hiking boots carried the seeker-spirit of modern day pilgrims on this Sacred Isle.  While not barefoot, our blistered, bone-tired and boot-sore feet carried us over sacred pebbled beaches and peaty bogs.  We jumped and leapt from rock to rock, attempting to keep out of the muck, as we made our way to the 17th century remains of the Iona Marble Company’s marble quarry, a site that demands acknowledgment of humanity’s exploitive behaviors and pleads for a change in global values and lifestyles.

Scripture verses that speak of Christ as our rock became more than just metaphor as we discovered that we very much needed the consistent presence of the rocks to keep our feet out of the mire.  This island journey was clearly emphasizing and highlighting Celtic and pilgrim-ways of seeing.  Without the physicality of the outside world to underscore these Biblical truths, these Christian metaphors would be weak words and flimsy fables.

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Port a’Churaich (the Harbor of the Curragh) pebbles

The early Celtic church had a fundamental belief in the revelatory nature of the created world.  Every tree, blade of grass, and wild gooses cry was imbued with the Spirit of God and spoke to the character of the Creator.  These “theophanies” –God showings—were expected and sought after as a way to understand the sacred mysteries.  The ninth century Irish teacher, John Scotus Eriugena believed that God was the ‘Life Force” within all things, “…therefore every visible and invisible creature can be called a theophany” (John Scotus Eriugena, Periphyseon-The Division of Nature, 749D).  All of the created world upholds something of the essence of the Creator.  Eriugena also taught that there are two primary ways in which the sacred is revealed–the Bible and creation: “Through the letters of Scripture and the species of creature…” mysteries of God are revealed.

The historical significance of Iona was underscored as we hiked this island pilgrimage; sacred sites emphasized how very near the works of God are all around us.  We were also reminded that we walk the pilgrim path together; we are not alone as we seek God’s guidance in our lives.  The road is filled with pilgrims who are seeking after inspiration and transformation, seekers who long for and are called by the saints who have gone before us.  And, as a mutual company, we are challenged to live forward in ways that bring about restoration to others and our earth.

labyrinth

Walking the labyrinth

heather

Hiking through heather towards the Marble Quarry

Taking the Outdoors In

Its a sick-day today at our house.  And a rainy one to boot.  Fevers and coughs, snuggles and sighs, and relentless rains are keeping this family inside.  For a group who typically goes outside no matter what (we are firm believers in the “there is no such thing as bad weather, only being poorly dressed” theory), these days are hard.  Furthermore, the Celtic Christian that I am, I get at my sacred space when I’m out of doors, whether it be in my garden, in our neighborhood greenspace, or trekking a bit beyond to the beaches and burrows of Seattle.

Considering this dynamic, I knew I needed to intentionally employ some resources to sooth and ground our souls, in spite of the sickness.  I’m a tactile person, hence the great benefit I personally receive from our forest restoration work, digging deep into my garden and even my seasonal knitting.  The feel of a tree, a stone or yarn passing through my fingers quiets my Self and wills my soul to show up and be present to my daily realities in ways that invites me to see the Divine all around me.  Synthetics and plastics just don’t cut it; they lack the heft and tactile reality that natural elements embody.  For example, a plastic “toy” rock simply cannot achieve the appropriate weight and texture of a true stone.  Nor do I have the same soul-response to a simulated stick or floral spray.  I need to engage the natural world in real and tangible ways daily; it is how I connect with God, myself and the greater community of things all about me.

It is common-culture in our house to bring the outside in in whatever appropriate and inspiring ways that we can. So while, yes, we have Playmobile Knights fighting battles throughout the house, we also have baskets of chestnuts collected last autumn for counting games and cannonballs, sliced wood blocks, scores of sticks, and easily accessible balls of woolen yarn for spontaneous story string making or finger knitting.  Absolutely, the outside comes in for fun and play.  But we also create intentional spaces and places that with a mere glance reminds us of the goodness of creation and the One behind it all.

NatureTableOne such example of this planned kind of place is our Nature Table.  Our Nature Table is a dynamic display that morphs daily depending on who brings back what from a walk, from school, or from the woods.  It tells the stories of our days.  This dedicated plate contains memories of adventures, tokens of loved ones and connections to sacred places.  I’m delighted when, with fluttering finger strokes, my children recall special memories of our family’s time on the beach that are imbued in a shell.  Or when they want to be the ones to light the daily candle, for as this place is like our family altar, they understand that by bringing light here, they are inviting divine illumination on our lives .  For it is here that we bring natural items to represent prayers and hopes, and reminders of beauty and blessings.

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We also have bowlfuls of green stones from Iona, Scotland around the house on tables, next to couches, on bookshelves.  They are kind of like rabbits here, I guess.  These favorite rocks have been rolled, tossed, counted, used for doll’s food, blasted at by Lego ships, the whole gamut of play.  But they are also fingered when we are having hard conversations, or laying sick on the sofa, or reading books.  To some degree, they have become like prayer beads for our family, as fingering them seems to help keep in prayerful mindfulness the stories and events of our lives.  Every member of our family has a favorite stone and we also make a practice of giving away Iona stones to friends who are having birthdays or need something especially special and hopeful.

But, today.  Today, a wearied mom-of-two-sick-kids, I needed something.  I needed to figure out how to get my “gift of grace.”  An important aspect of Celtic Christianity is the refusal to separate the gift of nature from the gift of grace, for both are seen as of and from God.  Celtic scholar, and former warden of the Iona Abbey, John Philip Newell, unpacks this theological perspective further by offering, “The mysteries of creation and redemption are one. They are not in opposition to each other. Holding them together allows for a celebration of the essential goodness of life as a gift from God….” (The Book of Creation, p13).  We were not going to be putting on the rain gear to discover God’s goodness today outside…I had to find some fresh displays inside to buttress my rain-soaked-fever-weary spirit.

GingkoBunting

While rifling through some of the children’s books, I found some forgotten-about pressed gingko leaves.  These lovely fan-like, yellow leaves offered themselves up to become a garland for the piano in our front room.  By gently tying regular knots around each stem, and guesstimating equal spacing, we created a simple and natural bunting that is not only unique and attractive, but also a reminder of this neighborhood we call home, for ginko trees line the avenue to which our small road connects.

By bringing in something in from the outside world, we are creating reminders of where we are.  As a result of big-box home stores going global and all the home decorating catalogs that infiltrate our front doors, our home interiors can begin to reflect a homogeneous look and feel.  We could be inside and really be anywhere.  Our regional landscapes give us bold reminders of where we live and inform a sense of our identity and spirit.  This connection to place is critical in a global, technological driven era.  Simple objects from just outside your front door can distinguish your homescape and provide a native anchor to your home.

EyeofGodCollage

Our children recently learned how to make the Ojo de Dios (Eye of God) in Sunday School.  This weaving craft is surprisingly simple and meditative.  The repetitious pattern of bringing the yarn over and under the sticks is calming and centering.  Today, of course, no popsicle sticks could be found anywhere in our house, so I went out to our covered front porch where I keep a decorative stash of cut branches from my parents’ Red twig dogwoods out at their place in Snohomish.  I cut larger than normal segments, and my son nestled into the arm of the couch to ensue a time of creating with sticks and wool yarn.  Over, under, turn. Over, under, turn. Over, under, turn.  His cough actually slowed down.  He relaxed into the rhythm of co-creating with elements from the natural world. He commented on how different it was to do this project with real twigs compared to prefabricated popsicle sticks.  It required more focus and dexterity.  But the end result is beautiful and is already hanging over the interior of our front door, a visual reminder of God’s watchful presence in our lives.

Our Family Cairn-stones from the WA coast representing each of our family members

Our Family Cairn-stones from the WA coast representing each of our family members

My sense is that most of us live with items from special landscapes throughout our homes.  While outside, we are naturally drawn to look and touch.  While our feet carry and tarry us, we scan and search for a treasure to remind us of this time of feeling connected to the Source of it All.  Reflect upon occasions when you have walked along beaches and looked for drift wood or shells, or hiked through the mountains and come across interesting rocks or sticks.  These experiences tend to be imbued with a sense of calm and wonder. Sure, you can buy up tons of cast resin shells, coral and such from West Elm and Pottery Barn, and they will look wonderful on your shelves.  But there is something priceless about the seek and find of a natural object that comes into our home to serve as a reminder of an interconnectedness to the Creator and the created world all around us.

Indeed, I found what I needed today.  My gift of grace came by way of reminders and representations of the blessings that have come by way of surrounding landscapes, and being held and known by my children’s hands.

Please share how you intentionally create spaces in your home to collect and display found, natural items.  Is this a practice you regularly engage?   How do these objects/spaces make you feel?  

Tulips collected from our front garden is a reminder to be prayerfully present to our neighborhood.

Tulips collected from our front garden is a reminder to be prayerfully present to our neighborhood.