God divided light from darkness by a circle. Job 25: 10
Flocks with shepherds huts burgeoned around Ninian’s community at Whithorn, for the brothers, pilgrims and poor people all needed to be fed. Ninian wanted to bless these as well as the monastery, so when the flocks were gathered in at night he would walk right round them, marking a circle on the earth with his staff. Then he would raise his hand and ask God’s protection on everything within the circle.
On Michaelmas Day at Iona all the humans and even the animals walked sunwise around the Angels Hill to seek God’s blessing on the island for the coming year. We know that abbots of Iona such as Columba and Adamnan practised the circling prayer. Adamnan tells us that when Columba sailed from Loch Foyle he blessed a stone by the water’s edge and made a circuit round it sunwise. It was from that stone that he went into the boat. Columba taught that anybody going on a journey who did the circling prayer round the stone would most likely arrive in safety.
In Wales you can still see traces of the circles of stones that surrounded monasteries and other holy places. They marked a place dedicated to Christ like human sentries, protecting the inhabitants from evil forces.
What is the significance of the circle for Christians? Celtic Christians carried on the Druids’ understanding that the Devil was frustrated by anything that had no end, no break, no entrance, because they knew that God is never ending both in time and in love, and the Three Selves within God form an ever encircling Presence. One of the chief rites of the sun-worship of pagan Celts was to turn sunwise in order to entice the sun to bless their crops. The Christians said to them, in effect: ‘The Creator of the sun is now amongst us, we will continue to circle our crops, but now we do it in the name of the Sun of Suns. The Creator had built the circling of the sun into creation, which reflects something of its Creator, so it is good for us’. This is not magic, it is an expression of the reality of the encircling Presence of God. To say the Caim or Circling prayer, stretch out your arm and index finger and turn around sunwise calling for the Presence to encircle the person or thing you pray for.
Circle me, Lord
Keep love within, keep strife without
Keep hope within, keep despair without
Keep peace within, keep harm without.