Marvels: Letters from an Elder, Part 21
Letter # 12, February 9th, 1949 continued
5. Soul friendship
Celtic saints often had a soul friend, a tradition arising from earlier desert practices. St. Brigid said, ‘Go forth and eat nothing until you get a soul friend, for anyone without a soul friend is like a body without a head; is like the water of a polluted lake, neither good for drinking nor for washing.’
In these letters, we have discussed your own spiritual journey as though you were operating in isolation, but of course this was never and will never be true. In practice, you are never alone, even on the mortal plane. At all times, you are surrounded by others, many of whom will be further along the road to spiritual maturity than yourself. If you include the spiritual planes, the number of loving companions directly interested in your well being would beggar your belief, so I refrain from delving into that subject for fear of shaking your credibility.
Having a spiritual mentor or companion on your soul’s journey means that someone is always there in whom you can confide all of your inner struggles, someone who can help you find your path and who can midwife you in discernment. There needs to be a sense of genuine warmth and intimacy in this relationship and deep respect for the other’s wisdom as a source of blessing. Age or gender differences should not matter.
I cannot be there for you in the flesh, but I invite you to spend some time seeking out a soul friend. You may already have one: a spiritual director, a wise guide, someone you can turn to when things feel challenging or you feel that you have lost your way. This person needs to be one to whom you can entrust the secret desires of your heart.
A prayer attributed to St. Patrick contains the following lines:
Christ with me, Christ before me Christ behind me, Christ in me Christ beneath me, Christ above me Christ on my right, Christ on my left Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down Christ when I arise, Christ to shield me.
In the Celtic monastic tradition, a lorica is a type of prayer which invokes the power of God to safeguard the individual from the operations of darker forces. The sense of some need for protection is rooted in the precarious sense people often have of our own existence. Naming the presence of Christ in all directions as a shield against harm and a reminder of God’s loving presence acts to summon confidence from within yourself, whatever you feel may be your own relationship with Christ.
What is happening here? The very fact that you are calling upon Christ transcends the habits and arguments of the egoic voice which is your habitual self. Whether you have any conscious knowledge of or direct experience of any figure you can call Christ becomes irrelevant. Prayer calls upon a wider aspect of being to activate and summon aspects of the self far beyond those of the chattering ego.
7. Walking the rounds
You find me in these letters calling upon Celtic practises more and more often. This is because the Celtic view of the spiritual plane was closer to what we might term the ‘operational truth’. Little is known on the mortal plane about the religious beliefs of the Celts, but what is known is that their society and practices were orientated around a firm knowledge that existence continued after death, and they buried food, weapons, and ornaments with their dead. The early Celtic priesthood, known as druids, taught the doctrine of transmigration of souls and discussed the nature and power of the gods. This was later subsumed into their Christian beliefs. The Irish believed in an otherworld, imagined sometimes as underground and sometimes as islands in the sea, variously called the Land of the Living, Delightful Plain, and Land of the Young and was known to be a country where there was no sickness, old age, or death, where happiness lasted forever, and a hundred years was as one day, which was easily absorbed into the Christian conception of Heaven. Some of these tales date from the 8th century, and are infused with the magic quality that is found 400 years later in the Arthurian romances. But for the Celts, the afterlife was not simply a belief but a confirmed part of individual and social life. In that sense, their perception of reality is one which should be emulated on the mortal plane as reflective of the wider truth of spiritual realities.
A central Celtic practice at churches, graves, crosses, holy wells and other sacred sites is known as ‘walking the rounds.’ This involves walking sunwise (or clockwise) in a focused way around various markers or monuments for a number of times, often three to reflect the sacredness of that number in the Celtic imagination. There were often particular days associated with different holy places and a set number of rounds to walk in specific places along with certain prayers.
Walking at a slow and focused pace helps an individual to arrive and to match the speed of his environment, while walking in a circular manner helps to move one out of linear ways of thinking and to open one’s heart to receive God’s grace.
What would this involve in practice?
You may have somewhere you consider special, or you may be aware of a place which your community considers to be holy. It might be a favourite tree, a local church, or around the edges of a garden. While walking the rounds, you might recite a traditional prayer like the Hail Mary and the Lord’s Prayer, or any special words from the heart.
As was written in Exodus 3:4–5, ‘Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.’ Some places have distinct energies and powers, while others have subjective value. The fact that the value given to a place is subjective does not mean ‘merely subjective’: such connotations belong to modern thinking and are part of that framework of cultural reality which acts to leech the spirit of vital sustenance.
Think of yourself as having been trapped in a prison in which you have been fed little of value and shown only worthless images and objects to encourage you to desire them in place of anything of real worth. Now, hopefully, you are beginning to emerge from the walls of that place of incarceration and your eyes and ears are opening to the true lights and sounds which have always been around you, but to which you have been blind and deaf.