This article is from the Spring/Summer issue of Reflections magazine. Click here to read the entire issue.
by Sylvia Maddox
Thanks be to Thee, O God, that I have risen today,
To the rising of this life itself;
May it be to Thine own glory, O God of every gift
And to the glory of my soul likewise. (1)
This exuberant prayer of greeting the new day with joy and dedication invites us into the immediacy of the Celtic Christian prayer tradition. Celtic prayer is at the heart of Celtic Spirituality. To pray these prayers coming from the Celtic lands of Ireland, Scotland, and Wales one is drawn into the mystery of God’s presence in all things and the joy of expressing that presence in a pattern of praise and blessing. The prayers, passed down from before the 12th century and continuing in the oral tradition today, are like faraway songs that continue to sing in the hearts of all who long for prayer and life to be woven together.
My interest in Celtic prayer came at a critical junction in my own spiritual journey. I had just begun to discover the great contemplative writers of the Christian tradition. I loved the call to “be still and know” and the experience of God’s presence in silence and solitude. I looked forward to morning meditations and times of retreats. All this changed, however, when I found myself the mother of two young sons and the coordinator of religious education at our local church.
When I’d rise early for prayer, little feet would come running in for breakfast. When I’d arrive early at work for a time of reflection, the telephone would start to ring. Like most people I tended to separate my prayer life from the other parts of my life. I was very far from the wisdom of Thomas Merton who said, “What I do is live. How I pray is breathe.”
It was in this time of struggle and imbalance that a friend offered me a small book of Celtic prayers and praises. There was something in the rhythm of these prayers that reminded me of the rhythm of life. They contain an awareness of God’s presence from the rising to the setting of the sun. Entwined with the reality of living, each action of the day becomes the essence of prayer. The transcendent Holy One is a close companion as one prays:
God to enfold me
God to surround me,
God in my speaking,
God in my thinking,
God in my sleeping,
God in my waking (2)
Celtic ears hear God’s word spoken through the created world. The quiet earth expresses God’s peace. The river proclaims God’s goodness. Like the psalmist, one stands amazed that “the one who made the moon, made us likewise.” The sight of the new moon and the song of the morning lark become occasions of praise for the Lord of each living creature. Many of the Celtic prayers call us to look outside our window and discover the delight of an ordinary landscape transformed with a glimpse of God’s glory. Suddenly the sunset over the soccer field, the cool breeze on the walk to school become reminders that:
There is no plant in the ground
But is full of God’s virtue.
There is no form in the strand
But it is full of God’s blessing.
There is no life in the sea,
There is not creature in the river,
There is not in the firmament
But proclaims God’s goodness. (3)
Praising God’s presence in creation opened my eyes to a new vision of the holy in the ordinary things of my life. Many of the Celtic prayers, especially those gathered in the Highlands and Island of Scotland in the last century, are offered while people go about the daily tasks of life. In the morning a mother kindles the fire by praying:
I will kindle my fire this morning
In the presence of the holy angels of heaven
Without malice, without jealousy, without envy,
But the Holy Son of God to shield me.
God, kindle Thou in my heart within
A flame of love to my neighbor,
To my foe, to my friend, to kindred all. (4)
There are prayers for the farmer going out to sow the seeds, the weaver at the loom, the fisherman, and the crofter. Even the tools of one’s work become holy if blessed and dedicated to God’s purposes. The prayer of the milkmaid is a call to recognize and claim the sacredness of our work.
Bless, O God, my little cow,
Bless, O god, my desire;
Bless thou my partnership
And the handling of my hand. (5)
As I began praying these prayers, I became inspired to write my own blessing prayers for the daily “handling of my hands.” In the tradition of the Celtic mothers, I blessed my children when they departed for school; I blessed my computer before I began a project; I learned to offer thanksgiving when I heard the first call of the morning dove. From Celtic prayer, I was experiencing the joyful freeing of the spirit when there is trust that everything is encircled and encompassed with God’s presence.
Our yearning for God’s encircling presence is expressed uniquely in the traditional Lorica prayers of protection. The most famous of these prayers, St. Patrick’s Breastplate, invokes all of God’s gifts to accompany us on our journey.
Christ beside me,
Christ before me
Christ behind me,
Christ within me
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me
Christ within me. 6
In this invocation, we are wrapping ourselves with the garment of Christ’s presence. This is the mystery of the incarnation in our own lives.
The rhythm of this incarnate life, the ebbs and flows, the twists and turns, the darkness and the light is the rhythm of Celtic prayer. It transforms our vision, stirs us to praise, and sets us out on the journey singing:
Be Thou my vision, O Lord of my heart
Naught be all else to me, save but Thou art,
Thou my best thought by day or by night
Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light. (Hymn 488, The Hymnal 1982.)
Sylvia Maddox is a writer and educator. She is a member of Church of Reconciliation, San Antonio TX Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org
1. Alexander Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica, Lindisfarne Press 1992, p. 188.
2. Carmina Gadelica, p.204
3. Carmina Gadelica, p. 45
4. Carmina Gadelica, p. 93
5. St. Patrick’s Breastplate, att. Patrick (372- 466) tr, Cecil Frances Alexander (1882-1885)
6. Irish, ca, 700 versified Mary Elizabeth Byrne (1880-1931), The Church Hymnary, Oxford University Press, 1927, (The Hymnbook 1982, p 488)