Drawing a Circle of Love: The Celtic Encircling Prayer by Bruce Epperly

Today, many people are rediscovering the spiritual wisdom of the Celtic spiritual tradition. Pushed to the sidelines of Christian faith by the gatekeepers of “orthodoxy,” and often seen as an heretical movement deviating from the sin-redemption theology of Augustine and the Roman church, Celtic Christianity has emerged as an earth-affirming, body-celebrating, and creation-honoring, ecumenical vision for today’s pilgrims and seekers. Celtic Christianity recognizes the wildness of life, reflecting the choppy waters surrounding the Isle of Iona and the seas upon which Celtic missionaries sailed. It also recognizes the wonder of all creation and the protective and companioning presence of God. The God of all creation is the God of every creature and every moment of our lives. Even when we flee from God’s presence, we run straight into God’s loving arms.

Celtic spirituality involves a dynamic interplay of vision and practice. The Celtic vision affirms the ubiquity of God’s presence. God is here and everywhere, residing in all things as their deepest reality. Some places—often described as “thin places”—are translucent to the divine, filled with divine energy and inspiration. In such sacred spaces, we can feel the unique presence of God. But, in reality, thin places are everywhere, including right where you are.

One of my favorite Celtic spiritual practices is the “caim” or encircling prayer. The “caim” involves simply drawing a circle around yourself or another person physically or in your imagination. This encircling prayer is grounded in our awareness of the constant companionship and protection of the divine. It reminds us that God is in this place. Often, as they embarked on journeys or felt at risk, Celtic pilgrims would inscribe a circle around themselves as a reminder of God’s ever-present companionship and protection.

Practicing the encircling prayer is simple. Pause and then take a moment to draw a holy circle around yourself or, imaginatively, around a loved one. Use your index finger as a way of inscribing the circle around you. As you draw the protective circle, you may use a traditional or contemporary prayer of encircling. You may also choose to write and read your own personal prayer for yourself or another. But, in any case, the power of a spiritual tradition often finds its most lively expression when we embody it from our deepest spirit and in the language of our own hearts. 

One traditional prayer of encompassing invokes our awareness of our ever-present Companion with these words:

The God of the Elements’ guarding,
The loving Christ’s guarding,
The Holy Spirit’s guarding,
Be cherishing me, be aiding me.

Another traditional encircling prayer that I often use involves repeating sections of the prayer attributed to St. Patrick:

Christ be with me, Christ within me, Christ behind me,
Christ before me, Christ beside me, Christ to win me, 
Christ to comfort me and restore me, Christ beneath me, 
Christ above me, Christ in the hearts of all that love me,
Christ in the mouth of friend and stranger.

I repeat these words as I revolve slowly in a clock-wise direction, drawing a circle around myself with my index finger. I also use these words and the encircling prayer that accompanies them at many of our summer services in the woods of Craigville Conference Center near my home on Cape Cod. Sometimes, when I’m in a situation where I feel my anxiety rising, I experience myself within God’s circle of loving protection by visualizing God’s circle of love surrounding me, reminding me that “omnipresence” means that God is with me, right where I am.

A contemporary prayer of encompassing proclaims the loving nearness of God in every situation:

Circle of love,
Open my heart.
Circle of wisdom, 
Enlighten my mind.
Circle of trust,
Protect my path.
Circle of healing, 
Grant me new life.

An important element in the spiritual journey is our blessing of others. To bless another is simply to place them in our hearts with the intention that they be surrounded, enlightened, and inspired in body, mind, and spirit by the Encompassing Love of God. I often say the following prayer as I visualize friends and family embraced by the Divine Circle. I symbolically encircle them in my imagination by imaging myself drawing a circle around them using flowing dance-like movements.

Circle of love
Encompass _____________.
May your love well up within her/him
May your passion enlighten her/him.
Circle of healing
Encompass ______________.
May your healing touch rest upon her/him.
Circle of protection
Encompass ______________.
Surround _____________ with your eternal safety
Protect her/him from all temptations and ills
Give her/him courage and strength
To live always from Your safe and powerful center.

This Celtic prayer gives us a sense of divine presence and nurtures us on our way to “become fire,” lively spirited persons, who know their daily adventures to be undergirded and guided by the encircling companionship of God.

Bruce Epperly is Pastor and Teacher at South Congregational Church, Centerville, Massachusetts (http://southcongregationalchurch-centerville.org) and professor in the areas of theology, spirituality, and ministry at Wesley Theological Seminary, Washington D.C. An ordained minister in the United Church of Christ and Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), he is the author of forty books, including The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality in the Postmodern World and Anamchara Book’s Becoming Fire: Spiritual Practices for Global Christians