We are in the midst of a summer worship series called: The Souls Slow Ripening: 12 Celtic Spiritual Practices for Seeking the Sacred, by Christine Valters Paintner.
Have you been around dogs enough to notice a curious habit? Some dogs will circle their beds before settling in for a nap. This behavior was hard-wired in prehistoric times when dogs had to make their own den. Walking around in a circle was a safety precaution, leaving their scent to tell other dogs that this territory has been claimed. Dogs living in the wild would circle and paw at twigs, leaves and earth to create the perfect sleeping area and the right bowl shape to fit their bodies and their pups. This made it more difficult for predators to see them, as well. Denali doesn’t walk in circles around her bed – but she will paw at any loose rug and rustle it up to make a nest before curling up. Apparently, just like circling, the digging action is probably an ancestral behavior related to staying safe/comfortable.
Dogs are not the only creatures to walk in circles. In ancient Celtic Spirituality, there is a spiritual practice of “walking the rounds” at sacred sites in a sunrise direction. To walk sunrise means walking clockwise. There are holy sites, trails & paths known to be sacred for centuries, if not 1000’s of years. In Ireland, people journey to these holy sites – “walking the rounds” around sacred monuments such as a series of cairns, a holy well, graves, a church ruin, a Celtic cross. It’s like a prescribed pilgrimage. People would pray The Lord’s Prayer or the Hail Mary while walking, or offer their own silent prayer. People would walk around 3X to reflect the sacredness of that number.
Walking the rounds serve a similar purpose to walking a labyrinth. The purpose of walking the rounds or a labryrinth is multifaceted:
Walking mindfully helps slow us down to arrive fully to a sacred place and pay attention.
Walking in a circular manner can move us out of linear ways of thinking and and embodies our prayers in a deeper way. When we are discerning our next step in life, we often pray for the next best step to appear. But discernment is more like a spiraling inward and deep attentiveness to what is happening in the moment rather than a clear path to follow. It allows us to rest into the spiral nature of time and see things from a new perspective. Pilgrimage is never a straight journey, but one of continual unfolding and listening to wisdom arising from dreams, or nature, or our interior.
The steady rhythm of walking along the ground harmonizes with the working of lungs to bring about a sense of peace, well-being, and balance. Walking can return us back to ourselves more fully and to bring the mind back into harmony with a more natural way of being.
Walking helps us to bless the earth with our feet so that our whole being becomes a prayer. Instead of walking to “get somewhere” as we might when journeying to a particular place, walking the rounds invites us to continue journeying in place.
Walking the Rounds, Walking Labyrinth, Pilgrimage, Prayer Walking – All of these are part of an ancient tradition of traveling together – recognizing the journey is as important as the destination or arriving.
Until reading this book, I was not familiar with this Celtic practice of Walking the Rounds, but about 25 years ago I learned about the spiritual practice of walking the labyrinth. A labyrinth is an ancient symbol that relates to wholeness. It combines the imagery of a circle and the spiral into a meandering but purposeful path. The Labyrinth represents a journey to the physical center and back again out into the world. The Center is symbolic of Christ, or the center of our inner being.
Labyrinths have long been used as meditation and prayer tools, as a metaphor for our journey in life. It is a symbol that can create sacred space. Some people equate it to a maze. But it is not a puzzle to be solved, requiring logical, sequential, analytical activity to find the correct path out. With a maze an active mind is needed to solve the problem of finding the center.
A labyrinth has only one path. The way in is the way out. There are no blind alleys. The path leads you on a circuitous path to the center and out again. With a labyrinth there is only one choice to be made. The choice is to enter or not – to walk a spiritual path. At its most basic level the labyrinth is a metaphor for the journey to God, to the center of your deepest self and back out into the world with a broadened understanding of who you are, to whom you belong, and how to live in the world.
I’ve walked a number of labyrinths over the past 20 years – pretty much whenever I encounter a labyrinth, I choose to walk it. Sometimes, we even go in search of labyrinths to walk. I cannot tell you that I can tell an immediate spiritual benefitit while walking the labyrinth, and yet I trust that over time walking in this way HAS shaped me and formed me spiritually. And for some mysterious reason, I continue to search them out – with different spiritual reflections at each one, in different geographical settings – urban and in nature – made out of wood and shells or gravel and rocks or a dirt path in the grass or poured cement.
Stories about various labyrinths I have walked in the last year: Chambers Bay; Orcas Island Episcopal Church; Episcopal Church, Vashon; Land’s End, San Francisc0; San Damiano, Danville, CA; Epiphany Celtic Spiral at UCUP
I want to close with words from one of our presenters at Academy – Robert Benson, from “Between the Dreaming and the Coming True”.
Once we start home toward God—which happens the moment we start, actually—we simply do not ever turn around and head in another direction. There is no other direction. And in the moments when we feel as if we are so turned around that we will never get home, somebody turns up and nudges us a couple of points to starboard, whichever direction that is. Without being particularly conscious of it or faithful about it, we sense that we are headed toward God again full blast. I suddenly become aware of Jesus and these people in my life walking beside me on roads I had walked thinking I was surely all alone.
Alone in the woods, I remembered certain places, and then I knew what it meant to be on holy ground—ground that had been made holy by the One who made it and by those who walk it and do the work of the Christ on it. We do not often see the place we are standing as holy ground. But the fault does not lie with the ground; it lies with us. We do not always see the saints among us, either, because we do not see what it is we are looking at.
We do not always see that we should be moving about our days and lives and places with awe and reverence and wonder, with the same soft steps with which we enter the room of a sleeping baby or the mysterious silence of a cathedral. There is no ground that is not holy ground. All of the places of our lives are sanctuaries; some of them just happen to have steeples. And all of the people in our lives are saints; it is just that some of them have day jobs and most will never have feast days named for them.
I began to walk out of the woods, very slowly, aware that each next step was on holy ground. I worked out a little Hum as I went, in the way that Pooh Bear capitalizes Very Important Things – I called it “A Song for Reminding Myself to Walk Slowly More Than I Used To”.
No journey across holy ground should be rushed.
This week is a sacred invitation to walk in an intentional way; to bring yourself fully present to this moment and to walk with full mindfulness and awareness. May you be blessed in your walking and in your coming in and your going out.
Rise up, walk through the length and the breadth of the land, for I will give it to you.” So Abram moved his tent, and came and settled by the oaks at Hebron; and there he built an altar to the Lord.
Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”
You must follow exactly the path that the Lord your God has commanded you, so that you may live, and that it may go well with you, and that you may live long in the land that you are to possess.
Thus says the Lord: Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.
May you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to God, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God.