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HOLY COMPANIONSSpiritual Practices from the Celtic Saints
By Mary C. Earle Sylvia Maddox
Church Publishing IncorporatedCopyright © 2004 Mary C. Earle and Sylvia Maddox
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSaint Patrick: The Encompassing Presence of Christ
Theme: In Patrick's life, we are given the example of a person who comes to know Christ's presence in every human circumstance.
My Christ! my Christ! my shield, my encircler,
Each day, each night, each light, each dark;
My Christ! my Christ! my shield, my encircler,
Each day, each night, each light, each dark.
Be near me, uphold me, my treasure, my triumph,
In my lying, in my standing, in my watching, in my
Jesu, Son of Mary! my helper, my encircler,
Jesu, Son of David! my strength everlasting;
Jesu, Son of Mary! my helper, my encircler,
Jesu, Son of David! my strength everlasting.
(Carmina Gadelica, pp. 212–13)
Born about the year 390, Patrick became the patron saint of Ireland. His life in Christ, however, began rather inauspiciously. His father was an ordained deacon, and his grandfather was a priest, but Patrick was not a particularly observant Christian. He had been baptized, he had learned some prayers, and he had lived in a Christian household, yet as an adolescent Patrick felt no real bond to the living faith of the Christian church. Though he held the faith of his parents at arm's length, he no doubt absorbed more than he realized.
Then at the age of sixteen, violence interrupted Patrick's life. Irish slave traders kidnapped the young man. They sold him as a slave to a petty Irish king, who forced him to work as a shepherd slave. We know from Patrick's own hand, in the words of his Confession, that this existence was harsh. Gone were the safety of hearth and home and the stable connections of kin and friend.
During this time young Patrick began to pray the prayers that he had learned when he was younger. The words began to come alive. There in that wild country, with lashing rain and fearsome wind, Patrick was embraced by the living Christ; he began to know the prayers as more than words, the belief as more than doctrine.
One night Patrick heard a voice telling him that a ship was waiting for him. After six years of praying, waiting, and longing, Patrick acted on the voice's instruction. He set out on foot, a runaway slave, relying on the compass of his heart to lead him to the boat promised by God.
Upon his arrival in the south of Ireland, Patrick did indeed find a boat preparing to depart. At first the captain refused his passage, so Patrick went to the hut where he was staying and began to pray. Later a crewman came out and bid Patrick to get on the boat. Patrick's journey home had begun.
Patrick tells us that when he reached home, he received yet another vision, this of a man named Victoricus, who came from Ireland bearing letters. Patrick opened one of the letters and began to read, and as he did, he heard "the voice of the Irish" pleading with him, "We ask thee, boy, come and walk among us once more" (MacDonald, Saint Patrick, pp. 35–36). Patrick had escaped slavery and made his way home, only to receive a plea from those who had enslaved him. He was called to be one of God's reconcilers.
He once again left his home, his family, and his friends, but this time he freely chose to depart for Ireland. He made the conscious decision to go to the people who had captured and enslaved him, Having found and been found by Christ in times of deepest fear, estrangement, and trial, Patrick knew Christ would be with him every step of the way; the wisdom he gained in slavery and hardship never left him. His mission to the Irish was unique in history. No blood was shed. No martyrs were slain. He came to his Irish enslavers as friend and reconciler, calling them to recognize the Lord through whom they had been created.
Pause: Reflect on a time when you were away from home and family and you experienced Christ's presence.
I saw Him praying in me, and I was as it were within my body, and I heard Him above me, that is, over the inward man, and there He prayed mightily with groanings. And all the time I was astonished, and wondered, and thought with myself who it could be that prayed in me. But at the end of the prayer He spoke, saying that He was the Spirit.
(MacDonald, Saint Patrick, p. 36)
The tradition of the lorica, or breastplate prayer, is closely tied to Saint Patrick. (Lorica is the Latin word used for the breastplate of a Roman soldier's armor.) A lorica prayer allows one to call on the presence of Christ, in whom "all things hold together" (Colossians 1:17).
"Saint Patrick's Breastplate" has been translated into English many times. This excerpt is taken from a version by Irish scholar Noel Dermott O'Donohue:
For my shield this day I call:
Christ's power in his coming
and in his baptising,
Christ's power in his dying
On the cross, his arising
from the tomb, his ascending;
Christ's power in his coming
for judgment and ending.
(Mackey, p. 47)
Sit quietly and comfortably. Pray the words of the breastplate. Imagine the shield of Christ encircling you. What do you feel?
Take a moment to remember the times when Christ has shielded you. Write them down. Offer thanksgiving for each instance of shielding. Pray for those who need to be shielded from harm, from danger, from violence.
Another verse of Patrick's breastplate leads us to claim Christ's all-pervading presence:
Christ beside me, Christ before me;
Christ behind me, Christ within me;
Christ beneath me, Christ above me;
Christ to right of me, Christ to left of me;
Christ in my lying, my sitting, my rising;
Christ in heart of all who know me,
Christ on tongue of all who meet me,
Christ in eye of all who see me,
Christ in ear of all who hear me.
(Mackey, p. 48)
Pray this prayer as you take a walk, as you go about your daily work, as you drive. (You may want to write it on a small card.) This is a prayer that is very portable; it is to be prayed while we are on the way. Allow the prayer to accompany you wherever you go.
At the end of the day, make note of when and where the prayer helped you to perceive Christ's presence in your activities, in those whom you encountered, in a challenging situation. Practice this way of praying for several days. What changes do you notice in your perception? How do you feel about those changes?
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
Closing prayer: Gracious Lord Jesus Christ, I am thanking you in my lying down and in my rising up, in my waking and in my sleeping, in my speaking and in my working. May my life and the lives of all I meet be filled with your radiant presence. Amen.
Chapter TwoSaint Brigit: Soul Friendship
Theme: Brigit, by her compassion and spiritual wisdom, embodies the Celtic tradition of soul friendship. Her concern for those in need and the generosity of her listening heart remind us that God is very near when we are in the company of a true soul friend. Such relationships transcend both time and place.
Every day and every night
That I say the genealogy of Bride,
I shall not be killed, I shall not be harried,
I shall not be put in cell, I shall not be wounded,
Neither shall Christ leave me in forgetfulness.
(Carmina Gadelica, p. 81)
From the beginning of her life, Brigit, also known as Bride or Brigid and as Ffraid in Wales, was touched by God. She was born of a king and a slave around the year 452, and is said to have been raised by a teacher who saw in her a radiant daughter who would shine like the sun among the stars of heaven. From an early age, Brigit showed compassion for the poor and a generous responsiveness to those in need. The fire of the Holy Spirit appeared to accompany her wherever she traveled; numerous stories tell of a flame of fire that others would see about her head. When Brigit went forward to receive the veil of religious life, the fire of the Holy Spirit seemed to be with her. As she knelt to receive the veil, the bishop said the words of ordination for a bishop, and when his assistant protested that such a prayer should not be said over a woman, the bishop replied: "No power have I in this matter. That dignity has been given by God unto Brigid, beyond every other woman" (MacDonald, Saint Bride, p. 27).
Brigit took this blessing and founded the great monastery at Kildare. (Kildare means "church of the oak" in old Irish.) Here both men and women received her guidance and leadership as abbess and soul friend. She was recognized in all of Ireland as one aflame with the intensity of Christ's love for the poor. Her spiritual discernment was manifest in seeing even the smallest needs of another's body and soul. Many stories recount how she healed the wretched, the foolish, and the weak. From the oral tradition we learn that Brigit declared, "It is in the name of Christ I feed the poor, for Christ is in the body of every poor person." She practiced a ministry of Christian hospitality, welcoming one and all in the name of Christ.
Because she was fostered by another family and nurtured as a Christian, Brigit had a distinctly Irish perspective on friendship. She honored and lived out the tradition of having an anam cara, or soul friend. Her life was typified by a profound sense of Christ's friendship with us, a sense that is foundational to Christian soul friendship.
From Celtic tradition we receive the story that one of Brigit's own foster sons came to spend time with her at Kildare. While he was there, Brigit knew in prayer that her foster son's soul friend had suddenly died. She counseled him and advised him to find a new soul friend quickly.
In the Irish tradition, the earthly soul friend was always accompanied by heavenly soul friends. Those holy souls who had entered the gates of eternity were perceived to be alive in Christ and readily accessible to those on earth. In prayer, one could ask that the saintly presences, whose lives had been icons of the life of the risen Lord, be our protectors, guides, and intercessors. Because the soul friends of the community of saints were always present to the faithful, Christians were perceived as being never alone, no matter what the circumstances.
One of the most significant traditions about Brigit depicts her as the midwife and nursemaid at the birth of Jesus. To the Irish, Brigit abides in eternity; this seemingly fanciful belief reveals a perception that Brigit's way of caring and ministering were learned at the manger, amid the oxen and the cattle. She is seen as the companion of the Holy Family, as Mary's trusted friend and aid-woman, and as the kind and faithful nurse to the Christ Child.
There is truth in the story, for Brigit lived her life encountering the human family as the Holy Family, and her sisters at Kildare as fellow nursemaids of Jesus. This tradition of Brigit as the nursemaid of Christ continues to this day in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, and reminds us that the Holy Family is always in our midst.
Pause: Reflect on what a soul friend means to you.
"Anyone without a soul friend is like a body without a head." (Sellner, p. 73)
The tradition of anam cara, or soul friendship, is closely tied to the Celtic saints, especially Saint Brigit. She was known to have guided both men and women in their spiritual journey. A wise soul friend such as Brigit served as a mentor and a guide, but most of all as a companion along the way. One recognizes a soul friend by the hospitality she or he offers in accepting one's deepest thoughts and aspirations. With a soul friend, one feels at home not only in this world but also in the greater world of spirit. The soul friend honors the secrets of the heart and gently nudges one's dreams into being.
It is in soul friendship that one discovers the presence of Christ. When Jesus says that whenever two or three are gathered in his name, he will be with them, we see the true meaning of soul friendship.
Soul friendship can extend beyond geographic time and space. A soul friend may be someone we encounter in our reading or in our prayer. Brigit herself continues to minister to those who seek her companionship and guidance. She is especially a soul friend to those who seek to make holy the ordinary tasks of daily life.
Spend some time remembering the soul friends who have appeared in your life. What gifts have they given you? Take some time and write those friends a note expressing gratitude for their gifts.
Remember a time when you felt without a soul friend. What was happening at this time of your life? Where did you go for companionship? What lessons did you learn about yourself?
Sometimes we are called to be a soul friend to someone seeking guidance. Who do you feel is calling you to be a soul friend? Which of the following qualities do you feel you could offer? In which area do you desire more growth?
In the Celtic understanding of time, one lives in both the present and in eternity. Saint Brigit, in her vocation of showing mercy in the love of Christ, was often pictured as the nursemaid of Jesus, present in spirit to help both Mary and Jesus in their times of need.
Imagine yourself being present at the birth of Christ.
Imagine Mary and Joseph as they attend to the Christ Child.
Picture the shepherds and any other visitors as they enter the stable.
Watch the donkey and the sheep as they sleep peacefully.
Where are you in this scene? What is your relationship to the Christ Child?
Saint Brigit has often been considered a soul friend by those who tend to the domestic tasks of living. Many of the prayers collected in the Carmina Gadelica demonstrate the blessing of being among Brigit's companions.
I am under the shielding
Of good Brigit each day;
I am under the shielding
Of good Brigit each night.
I am under the keeping
Of the Nurse of Mary,
Each early and late,
Every dark, every light.
Brigit is my comrade-woman,
Brigit is my maker of song,
Brigit is my helping-woman,
My choicest of women, my guide.
(Carmina Gadelica, p. 239)
What soul friend accompanies you each day and each night, in your work and in your leisure? Write a prayer about such a friend in the style of the Celtic prayer above.
You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.
Closing prayer: I give you thanks, most gracious God, for calling me into friendship with you and for giving me soul friends as companions along the way. Grant me the wisdom, grace, and mercy to be a soul friend to others, for your mercy's sake. Amen.
Chapter ThreeSaint Non of Wales: Holy Mothering
Theme: Saint Non of Wales was dedicated to holy mothering and to the continuing birth of new communities and new life in maturity. Her presence with us in prayer also helps us to discern when it is time to let go of those we have mothered and begin a new phase of our life.
There is a mother's heart in the heart of God.
(Reith, p. 5)
Much beloved by the people of Wales, Saint Non was the mother of Saint David, the patron saint of that country. Because of her caring and nurturing ways with David, Non is seen as a holy mother. Her strong mothering of David led to a strong church in Wales, and she is regarded as the holy mother of the Welsh church.
Non's story begins with the violent disruption of her life. Beautiful, of royal lineage, a maiden of Christian devotion and faithfulness, Non drew the attention of Sanctus, a king of the region in which she lived. Sanctus was seized by lust at the sight of Non. He overpowered her, dishonored her, and raped her. In this act of violence, David was conceived. According to the traditional accounts, the earth itself responded to David's conception: two standing stones came forth from the earth, one at Non's head and one at her feet. Creation itself recognized that a saintly child would come forth from Non's womb.
During her pregnancy, with new life swelling within her, Non continued to live a holy life dedicated to the living God. In the ascetic tradition of the Celtic saints, she lived on bread and water, prayed, and trusted that the child within her, though savagely conceived, would be a gift for her people. One day, hungry for a word of the gospel, she went to hear a preacher in a local church. As she entered the sanctuary, the preacher found himself unable to speak. He dismissed the congregation and tried to discern what caused his sudden inability to preach. Non, in the meantime, hid in the church, hoping to feed on the living Word should the preacher begin again. He tried once more to preach, but could do no more than speak conversationally. In fear and frustration, he bid that if anyone were hiding in the sanctuary, she or he should come forth. Non said, "I am hiding here," and emerged from hiding. He asked her to depart, and she did. The congregation entered the church once more, and the preacher was able to preach. It was evident that the child she was bearing was of God, and that the child's presence was more powerful than the preacher's voice.
Excerpted from HOLY COMPANIONS by Mary C. Earle Sylvia Maddox Copyright © 2004 by Mary C. Earle and Sylvia Maddox. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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