Peregrinatio: To Be a Holy Wanderer

This is the last of our four-part series on Celtic spirituality. Thank you for exploring the rich heritage of the Celtic tradition with me!

There is a tradition in Celtic Christianity of the peregrinatio, a pilgrim who wanders without destination. This vein of holy traveler does not occur in other strands of spirituality. It contrasts with the pilgrim, who sets out with a particular destination. The peregrinatio hears an invitation within her own soul to set out, not knowing where God might lead her. It is intriguing that this comes out of Celtic spirituality, for these are a people deeply connected to both the land and to God. There wasn’t a sense that they needed to travel to find God elsewhere. Rather, the journey was a way to deepen in relationship with the Lord, to practice complete trust and surrender. The journey of the holy wanderer is a powerful metaphor of the interior journey, of the wilds within our own souls that God invites us to explore, and of the way a relationship with God is a journey into mystery.

Print of The Mysterious Boat by Odilon Redon

Print of The Mysterious Boat by Odilon Redon

St. Brendan the Navigator is the most famous of the peregrinatios. St. Brendan set out in his currach without oars, trusting the Holy Spirit to fill the sails and lead him wherever he was meant to go. His story has captured my imagination. I have a painting of his boat that I use as an entry point to prayer. I imagine myself in the boat and I ask the Holy Spirit to fill my sails and lead me where She will, to points unknown. I feel my soul fill with hope and possibility as I practice trusting the Lord with my journey. In my interior life, I am a content peregrinatio.

That is rarely the case in my exterior life. When I find myself in situations where the outcome is unknown and I am wandering without a destination, I feel anxious and worried. I want to take control and rush things along to an outcome. Will I get the job I hoped for? Will we need to move? What will the test results show? When the direction of my life is unclear, I often forget how to trust and find my hope in letting the Lord be my guide. To be without destination is an attractive concept and a difficult reality.

I see in the tradition of the peregrination an invitation to be in these unknown situations in a different way. I am learning how to reframe these exterior unknowns as opportunity to journey with the Lord. They remind me that God is both leading the way, and is the destination, and is the path that I travel. When I feel the anxiety and fear creep in, I remember St. Brendan’s boat, and I ask the Holy Spirit to help me to trust that my sails will be filled.

There are different ways to play with this concept of peregrinatio. Like me, you could pray imaginatively with the imagery of a boat at sea. Can you picture yourself in that vessel, riding the waves? What are the uncertain waters that you are experiencing in your life? What is your sense of God within the scene you enter? Another way to practice would be to set out for a walk without a destination, to let yourself physically wander. Notice as you walk, where God might be present within the wandering. These are just two possibilities. I hope you find time to play with this concept of the holy wanderer, and to deepen in your own spiritual journey.

For reflection: Where in your life are you being invited to live in the not yet known? What journeys are you currently taking that do not have a known destination? What might God be saying to you within the mystery?

St. Brigid, Weaver of Opposites

A hand-carved Celtic knot, a gift from March's Celtic Spirituality Retreat

A hand-carved Celtic knot, a gift from March's Celtic Spirituality Retreat

I love the intricate twists and turns of the hand-carved Celtic knot that I keep on my desk. I follow the lines with my fingers as I cradle it in my hands, not knowing where the loops will take me or when I will return to the beginning. The Celtic knot is a symbol of mystery, and one of the best-known symbols of Celtic spirituality. John O’Donohue, in Anam Cara: Spiritual Wisdom from the Celtic World, describes the Celtic connection to the knotted spiral:

The Celtic mind was never drawn to the single line; it avoided ways of seeing and being which seek satisfaction in certainty. The Celtic mind had a wonderful respect for the mystery of the circle and the spiral. The circle never gives itself completely to the eye or to the mind, but offers a trusting hospitality to that which is complex and mysterious.

This circular intricacy, the comfort with the complex and the mysterious, reminds me of St. Brigid. The patron saint of weavers, she weaves within her very being many opposites. As John Philip Newell writes in his book The Rebirthing of God: Christianity’s Struggle for New Beginnings:

Brigid of Kildare was said to be the daughter of a pagan chieftain and a Christian woman slave. She was born at dawn on the first of February while her mother (who worked as a dairy maid) was standing in the threshold of the household dairy. So it is that Brigid was born neither slave nor free, neither indoors nor outdoors, neither pagan nor Christian, neither in the winter or the spring, neither at day or at night. Brigid, therefore, was a liminal figure -- a woman of the margins and the thresholds.

In my own life, I’ve come to think of this woman of margins and thresholds as the patron saint of the both/and. Just as the Celtic knot weaves a complex pattern that cannot be easily untangled, Brigid weaves into a beautiful pattern concepts that are usually considered opposites: Christian and pagan, day and night, winter and spring, woman and (possibly) bishop. When I am feeling stuck, unable to reconcile two seemingly conflicting options or ideas, she reminds me to step back and look for a way to hold and include all that is before me. When I find myself thinking, “Either I could….or I could….” Shifting my gaze from my dilemma to St. Brigid invites a breath of possibility, and invites me to look for the potential both/and, to weave together my own opposites.

In this Easter season, we are also reminded through Brigid of the mystery of Christ’s rising. She points towards Jesus, who is the ultimate both/and, fully human, fully divine. St. Brigid shows us how to weave these seeming opposites, humanity and divinity, and to contemplate them within the person of Jesus. St. Brigid is an entry point to the mystery of our faith.

She is a model for us of Celtic spirituality, which holds opposites in friendship. Of this friendship, John O’Donohue says in Anam Cara, “For our sore and tormented separation, the possibility of this imaginative and unifying friendship is the Celtic gift.” In these polarized times, St. Brigid and Celtic spirituality offer a breath of fresh air. St. Brigid reminds us of the expansiveness of God, of the way God is not easily defined or limited or placed in a box. I feel the deep gift and necessity of this in my own life, to release my belief that I have all the answers or always know what is right.

I wonder, what opposites are you carrying in your life? Where are you experiencing tensions and the pull of either/or? What might it be like to spend time with St. Brigid, and allow her to reveal to you the possibility of both/and?

On Thin Places

On St. Patrick’s Day 2018, I had the privilege of leading a retreat on Celtic Spirituality in my hometown of Springfield, OH. I’ll be sharing a series of reflections on Celtic spirituality that are inspired by that sacred time, beginning with thin places.

thin places.png

I first visited Ireland at the end of high school. My parents planned for this trip for years, and there was a sense of excitement and pilgrimage to this much-anticipated visit. I fell in love with the land in those weeks, with the green hills, the grey mist, the ocean met by rough-faced cliffs. There seemed to be such mystery and magic to the land, as if it stored secrets that I longed to uncover.

I was experiencing what the Celts call a “thin place,” a place where the veil between the sacred and mortal worlds is worn thin. Thin places are suffused with the holy. This is an illuminating concept for Celtic spirituality, for in many ways it is a spirituality of thin veils, of transparent membranes, of both/and. It is a spirituality that embraces and holds in close contacts things that are often considered to be opposite, like heaven and earth.

Thin places are where God draws close, where heaven presses near. They are often experienced in nature,  where creation inherently radiates God’s love, and in places where prayer has been practiced for generations, so that sacred conversation now permeates the place. A thin place is anywhere you easily experience the presence of the divine. Ireland is one such place for me; my own backyard, where I watch my children clamber and run and laugh and play as the sun sinks lower in the sky, is another. Sometimes thin places are exotic locations of shared pilgrimage; sometimes they are mundane, encountered in the course of our daily life.

We can experience thin places in particular locations. We can also encounter thin places in relationship, in the people with whom we share life. We meet thin places within those people who seem to instantly draw us into deeper waters, the people who shine forth God’s love to us.

Thin places invite us into a physical, embodied experience of the divine. We know our thin places by the way our soul leaps in recognition, by the way our hearts beat a bit faster as the Holy Spirit dances within us, by the way the hairs on our arms stand up, by the way our God who often seems so distant suddenly feels as near as our next breath.

I wonder, where are your thin places? What places do you experience as holy? Are there relationships where the veil between the ordinary and holy seems particularly thin? I hope that you may find time and space this month to explore and savor these sacred places in your life.