Monday, March 24, 2014

Finding Sanctuary

In today's vernacular, the word sanctuary has come to mean a safe haven, a place of protection.  We have bird sanctuaries, elephant sanctuaries, donkey sanctuaries and more generic wildlife sanctuaries. There is political sanctuary for endangered humans and plant sanctuaries for endangered plants. But a soul sanctuary? Where do we find one of those?

The original definition of sanctuary indicated a sacred site, someplace that was holy (as the root word, sanctus, indicates).  These holy places could be literally the sanctuaries in churches where pilgrims could shelter and rest from the elements as well as worship and pray or they could be holy wells, ancient trees, misty mountain tops, or fertile valleys. In Celtic lands, sacred structures were often built on ancient holy places, creating enclosures (the origin of the prefix llan in the Welsh language) and building churches near the sacred springs or trees where their ancestors worshiped. 

It is often easy to find rest for our hearts and minds in thin places like these with their gossamer veil between heaven and earth. And while some of this may be the expectations we bring to a site that is steeped in history and tradition, these aren't merely peaceful places where we relax and unwind-- they are places where we are re-created.  There's something about prayed up spaces, places where ritual and mystery have been honored for centuries, that seems to change the very atmosphere.  When we cross the threshold into these liminal landscapes, we  step out of our daily life and concerns and into sanctuary.

One of the challenges and opportunities for those of us who live in the "new world" is discovering our own places of sanctuary.  Many of the sacred sites of those who walked through these forests and fields before us have been  forgotten over time or worse, purposefully erased from memory.  But just because there isn't a plaque marking a healing spring or crumbling stone structure in our neighborhood doesn't mean sacred places aren't there to be found.  We can be open to noticing those places in nature where our mind begins to slow and quiet, where our restless heart eases and opens, where our soul can find sanctuary.

Friday, March 21, 2014

From Effort to Offering

Today is one of those days where my motivation to work is nonexistent.  I've answered a few emails, straightened up my desk, tested all my pens to see if they're still in working order, mulled over a some themes for future blog posts . . . and here it is, lunchtime.  Half the day gone and I've still not set my mind to the one big task I have to do today.  It's a job that usually seems more like play than work to me, yet for some reason today it feels onerous, ponderous, heavy.  

And speaking of work versus play, in my effort to procrastinate even further I decided to look up the definition of work and found the synonyms listed quite revealing: drudgery, labor, toil, enterprise, project, job, responsibility, industry, occupation, business, job, trade, calling, vocation, profession, product, achievement, feat.

Not too many happy, energizing words in that list.  No wonder I'm not eager to get to my work.

Which brings me to today's postcards, from Lynn Cerrig Bach, a little lake on Anglesey Island in sight of the RAF base where Prince William was recently stationed.  

Lynn Cerrig Bach, Anglesey Island
During World War II when the area around the lake was being dug up to make runways for the base, a horde of iron age Celtic artifacts was discovered-- shields and swords, chains and chariot wheels, horse gear and household implements.  The treasures, which seemed to have been broken deliberately before being tossed into the lake by the druids (priests of the pre-Christian Celtic religion), were likely votive offerings, symbols of work offered to the deities in exchange for blessing and good fortune.
Pilgrims preparing to make
 their own votive offerings

More evidence of this Celtic idea of seeking blessings for one's work is evident in the many task-related blessings in The Carmina Gadelica, a source book for Celtic prayers collected by Alexander Carmichael in the late 19th century.  Carmichael dedicates a whole section to prayers for "Labour" including invocations for herding, weaving, milking, fishing and  assorted other tasks on the to do list of a Scottish crofter.  

What does all this have to do with my inability to get to work today?  Last month I led a retreat for a group of thirty women and during our weekend together we talked about ways to weave the strands of Celtic spirituality into our daily lives.  One of these ways was writing blessings for a specific aspect of our work or daily routine.  A few weeks later while having lunch with one of the women, she mentioned how a few days before she'd been having a hard time facing a looming task on her to do list when she remembered my suggestion to write a blessing for it.  So she sat down and did just that.  That act of putting pen to paper and recalling the big picture reasons for why she needed to do what had to be done and inviting the Holy into the process transformed what had been mundane into an opportunity for mindfulness.  

So in a moment I'll  post this to the blog and move onto the big task for today.  But not before taking a moment to light a candle and invite the Holy One to bless the work I have to do.  Work that isn't labor, toil, drudgery or effort.  Work that is creation, nourishment, discovery, offering.

If you don't feel like writing a specific blessing for your own particular work, here's one by John O'Donohue for work in general.  

For Work from To Bless the Space Between Us (Doubleday)
May the light of your soul bless your work
with love and warmth of heart.

May you see in what you do the beauty of your soul.  

May the sacredness of your work bring light and renewal
to those who work with you
and to those who see and receive your work.

May your work never exhaust you.

May it release wellsprings of refreshment,
inspiration, and excitement.

May you never become lost in bland absences.

May the day never burden.

May dawn find hope in your heart,
approaching your new day with dreams,
possibilities, and promises.

May evening find you gracious and fulfilled.

May you go into the night blessed, 
sheltered, and protected.

May your soul calm, console, and renew you.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Welcome to Postcards from the Pilgrim's Path

The Feast of St. Patrick seemed like an auspicious day to begin a new blog about Celtic spirituality.  So for the very first Postcard from the Pilgrim's Path, I offer you a postcard of a path perhaps walked by St. Patrick himself.  
Path leading to Ffynnon Badrig, Patrick's Well
This steep grassy incline is the path leading down to Patrick's cave at Llanbadrig on the northern tip of Anglesey Island. Legend has it that Patrick was shipwrecked along the Welsh coast during a storm on one of his voyages to or from Ireland.  After swimming to shore, he sheltered overnight in the cave at the bottom of this path.  In the morning when the seas and winds had calmed, Patrick climbed up the hill and vowed to build a church on terra firma as a votive offering in thanksgiving for his survival.

When I led a group of pilgrims to Wales last May, two brave souls crawled down the path and entered the cave where they found the fresh water spring that kept Patrick nourished through the night.

Maybe the next time we visit I'll be brave enough to attempt the descent for myself.    And if I do, I'll be sure to call to mind the words of the Breastplate of St. Patrick, especially the invocation for protection against "drowning and wounding" as the seas around Llanbadrig seemed stormy even on a gloriously sunny afternoon.

Llanbadrig Church
The familiar words of St. Patrick's prayer, "I arise today . . . " follow the format of a lorica, a Druidic prayer of protection.  From the Latin word for body armor, these types of prayers were often said in the morning or before the start of a journey.  A lorica wasn’t recited as much to invoke the Spirit, which is always present, rather to remind the one praying of the presence of the Holy that is always with us.  When a lorica was said,   it was customary for those praying to stand and draw a circle around themselves with their index finger to symbolize the encompassing power of protection they were  invoking.

Yet another auspicious reason to be beginning this blog with postcards from Llanbadrig is that, in some small way, this blog is my own votive offering, a symbol of the work of Anam Cara Retreats and my writing and teaching on the Celtic path.  So here I go, tossing my first post into the vast sea of the internet with a prayer of thanksgiving for all who read it.