There is an ancient Celtic prayer that is as relevant today as it was all those centuries ago:
‘Be Thou between me and all things grisly,
Be Thou before me in all things mean,
Be Thou between me and all things gruesome
Coming darkly towards me.’
We live in a grisly time and don’t quite know what to do with the gruesomeness of it. This little prayer, whose origin is sometime between the 5th and 9th century, has that sense of foreboding that we are feeling in these dark days too. For the Celtic Christians, the darkness was all too real. They were a largely rural people, living in turbulent feudal times, but they understood much about the practicalities of life and how to turn concerns and desires into prayers.
Celtic Christianity started after the Romans left Britain in 410. In 635 an Irish monk, St Columba, came to Iona and set up a church and monastic community. He converted pagans in Scotland and Northern England, and over the centuries these monasteries became centres of creativity, learning and even enterprise.
But day-to-day life was hugely uncertain. Plague and smallpox ravaged the country and touched the life of everyone, including St Cuthbert, who probably died of plague in 687. After the Romans left Britain, it is estimated that the country’s population may have decreased by up to three million.
More and more often I find myself turning to the ancient reassuring prayers in this time of modern contagion. Our forebears were on the money when it came to identifying what it felt like to be under threat and what it took to be reassured. They were all too aware that life is risky, we suffer fear of the future, and when we are isolated we stop functioning.
We have the Celtic Christians’ prayers courtesy of a Victorian ethnographer and tax collector called Alexander Carmichael. He worked in the Hebrides and Scottish Highlands and wrote them down during his visits to the working people of these ancient places. He realized that these prayers actually had a long history, handed down through the generations via the oral tradition. And so we have a prayer like this:
‘Thou, my soul’s healer,
Keep me even,
I am tired, astray, and stumbling,
Shield Thou me from snare and sin.’
Perhaps we’ve all had that sense of stumbling and feeling astray. And when we feel like that — we might today talk about anxiety — then we can call out for a guide to help us through. The Celts felt an intense closeness of God — part of their everyday life, when milking the cows or attending to the fields:
‘…mayest Thou Thyself, O God of life,
Be at my breast, be at my back,
Thou to me as a star, Thou to me as a guide,
From my life’s beginning to my life’s closing.’
Michael Mitton, priest and writer, describes the first time he came across these prayers as feeling as though ‘I had come home’. And there is something satisfying about the way they discuss cosmic things and yet focus on the need for feeling safe and at home.
The old prayers also acknowledge the sheer exhaustion of living with a sense of peril and uncertainty. As a parish priest, I often hear people tell me about how worn-out they feel. When we take a peek back into the world of the Celtic Christians, they too felt at the end of themselves. One of the prayers begins: ‘I am weary, weak and cold.’ Indeed. Another asks for relief from the horrible sense of being oppressed but with a keen sense of us all being in it together (very valuable when we see images of people fighting over toilet rolls):
‘Relieve Thou, O God, each one
in suffering on land or sea,
in grief or wounded or weeping,
And lead them to the house of Thy peace this night.’
I think the sense of peace is something most of us would most treasure. What will we do when we are confined to our houses for long periods? Perhaps our forebears might help us a bit. They understood the need to rest and to take time to count out what we have as much as what we have lost.
The Celts’ worldview was essentially optimistic, even when faced with Viking raiding parties or the plague. After the second Viking invasion of Lindisfarne in 875, the relics of St Aidan and the body of St Cuthbert were removed by a group of monks to keep them safe. These followers wandered for seven years with the body. Then they rested. In 995 there was another Viking invasion and the followers and the body were on the move again, finally settling in what has become Durham Cathedral.
Life was perilous and the Celts’ powerful prayers never ducked it, but the Celts managed to hold together the fragility of life and the destructive power of nature alongside a view that the world and all that is in it is fundamentally good. Or to put it another way, they believed more in original goodness than original sin. This gave them great resilience in the face of disaster.
Their blessings are tiny, beautiful jewels of language that capture our own need to be and feel blessed whatever life has to throw at us. The Celtic blessing hopes that ‘well may it befall you’. It is a prayer I give for all of us as we wonder what the weeks ahead have in store.
I am fearful for the people I care for. I am used to a settled society. But it is in some way a comfort to know that we are not the first generation to face all this.
‘I am placing my soul and my body
Under Thy guarding this night, O God
O thou Father of help to the poor feeble pilgrims,
Protector of earth and of heaven.’