Prayers for the road

I bind unto myself the name...

I was knocked off my bike last week. This week we're cracking jokes like, "You bump into the nicest people when you're travelling," but it was serious stuff. Things could have been much worse. The side is ripped out of my bike helmet, which is the best advertisement for wearing them, that I've ever seen. I came down under the bike, and felt my head hit the ground. There's no mark on the outside of the helmet!

It's confronting being knocked off. We bike riders know we are very unprotected, compared to the passing cars. Like last week, we can have lights, reflective gear, and bright jerseys etc, and the car driver can be doing the right thing, and yet accidents can still happen. We ride based on the probabilities, knowing that we can also be knocked over on foot, killed in a car, or mown down by some maniac.

In the Celtic Christian tradition, people often drew a circle around temselves, as a symbol of God's protection. It was called the caim, or 'encircling' prayer.

The compassing of God be on thee,
The compassing of the God of life.

The compassing of Christ be on thee,
The compassing of the Christ of love.

The compassing of the Spirit be on thee,
The compassing of the Spirit of Grace.

The compassing of the Three be on thee,
The compassing of the Three preserve thee,
The compassing of the Three preserve thee. Source

The Caim prayers carry the sentiment that is perhaps best known in the wider church through hymns like St Patrick's Breastplate.

I bind unto myself today
The strong name of the Trinity,
By invocation of the same,
The Three in One and One in Three.

I bind this day to me for ever,
By power of faith, Christ's Incarnation;
His baptism in the Jordan River;
His death on cross for my salvation;
His bursting from the spicèd tomb;
His riding up the heavenly way;
His coming at the day of doom;
I bind unto myself today......

These hymns are intensely biblical, psalmic even, in their sense of the protection of God. "Though ten thousand fall around me...." Psalm 91

I have struggled to understand this kind of prayer and worship. I can understand that some people "participate fully in their myth." I'm stealing this line from Gordon Atkinson, who attributes it to Jung. Gordon goes on to say

I would say it this way: The Christian story is my father's only story, and he lives completely in that story. People like my father move history along by living within the reality of their stories. They are immersed in the plasma of human history, swimming through it, surrounded by it, making it happen.  (This is an exquisite article; read it!)

I've envied the kind of reality in the story, the kind of immersion in some strand of the faith tradition, I think Gordon is talking about. It's something I have not experienced. I've had to nut out my own version of The Story, and step into that. It's a bit lonely. People look at me blankly, or with that wary look reserved for the not quite orthodox. I look at them, and think, "How can you be so naïve?" Not naïve because there is no God-but how can you imagine God like that!

Maybe St. Patrick was fully immersed in his myth. Did drawing the circle have a reality that I cannot enter?

This cannot be the whole story. It is fashionable to be "dawkinsesque," and point out the naivety of these pre-modern people, who believed God would protect them. We tell ourselves we know better, and may safely discard such naïve superstitions.

It is here that many of us exhibit the worst of twenty first century arrogance. Do we really think St Patrick did not notice that harm did befall the faithful Christians of his time?! Do we really think that Psalmist did not know that faithful Israelites fell among the ten thousands? Life was one hell of a lot worse than it will ever be for Dawkins, or me, or most of the people reading this! The book of Job is devoted to the problem of bad things happening to good people. It would appear that in the original, that they didn't bother with the happy ending, either! (See Wikipedia for a brief outline of the issues surrounding the prologue and epilogue.)

I think people's belief in providence was altogether more sophisticated than the understanding many of us hold today. The savagery of ancient life, as opposed to the relative safety of C21 Australia, would have been a good antidote to naivety!

At the recent Kernewek Lowender, Rev Dr Robin Pryor lead a session on the Cornish flavor of Celtic Spirituality.  Speaking of the Caim Prayers he said people drew the circle, and prayed the prayer, in the knowledge that God would protect them, even if they suffered harm. Yes!! That's the secret. Despite whatever harm befalls me, even if I am one of the ten thousand, God protects me. Here is where I am entering into, or being immersed by, my own myth. There has been a growing conviction in my life, of the truth in the words of Dame Julian: but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.

Also in this He shewed me a little thing, the quantity of an hazel-nut, in the palm of my hand; and it was as round as a ball. I looked thereupon with eye of my understanding, and thought, 'What may this be?' And it was answered generally thus: 'It is all that is made.' I marvelled how it might last, for methought it might suddenly have fallen to naught for littleness. And I was answered in my understanding; 'It lasteth, and ever shall be, for that God loveth it.' And so All-thing hath the Being by the love of God.

So when I get the bike back- or a new one, because the verdict is still out on that, I will draw the circle. Is this because I think it will stop me being knocked off again? No. It could happen again, half a mile down the road. Is it because I think drawing the circle will cause God to look more favourably upon me? No. That's degenerating into magic. It's because drawing the circle is entering the myth. It's affirming what is true, that all will be well with me, regardless. That is the crux of the faith.

Gordon says

People like my father move history along by living within the reality of their stories. They are immersed in the plasma of human history, swimming through it, surrounded by it, making it happen.

He says it, I think, from the perspective of one who cannot quite enter into the same myth or story that his father swims through. But Gordon swims in his own myth, as do I. The doing of ritual in our lives, enriches the myth, and thus moves history along. Live ritual, not empty ritual that does not connect, empowers us.

I can only explain this by coming back to the bike. Each day I ride down a street that is cut off by barriers. At the end, there is a short drain that doubles as a path through to the next street. Even in the drought it was wet and slimy. You have to ride up on the edge of the drain, avoiding the wet, but not wobbling off into the gravel and being thrown, and not getting hooked on the traffic barrier or the shrubbery. I rode an uncertain wobble through there for weeks. Then one day, I saw "in my understanding" the bike roll through there, on a perfect line. Since then I have ridden through that narrow path without wobble or incident. Ritual and repetition empowers.

Draw the circle.

Andrew Prior



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