This week past I spent three days fasting in the forest with a big book of philosophy from Eriugena, a prayer list from our community, and a prayer rope. Last year, after my fast, I wrote an article about my experience which you can read HERE. This year, instead of telling you about my experience, I thought I would suggest a practice which you can do on your own. When I do this practice I use the imagery of an immram, which is a kind of Celtic story about setting off to sea and letting the waves carry you where they will. In particular, I use the Voyage of St Brendan as my primary image. I imagine myself on a journey similar to his, in search of much the same thing.
Just as Brendan set his little boat adrift and let the waters and winds guide it, so can we embark on spiritual journeys into the wilderness. Brendan’s voyage was interspersed with fasting, prayers, and liturgical feasts. In our own immram journeys we should also incorporate fasting, prayer, and ritual. This article will describe a way in which you can take your own immram into whatever wild spaces surround the part of the world in which you live. I have described here an immram into the forest because that is where I live. If you live somewhere else, then whatever natural world is around you will be fine. The wisdom of the Egyptian desert had great appeal to the early Celtic Christians. They considered the sea or rocky barren islands to be their deserts. You too can adapt the wilderness where you live to suit this purpose. For it is truly the return to nature which we seek and that is every bit as much desert as it is woods.
This practice is rooted in something Patrick said in his confession. He briefly gives name to the place where his faith in God blossomed and describes the manner in which this happened. Patrick was captured as a teenager and taken into slavery in Ireland. There he was put out to pasture as a shepherd where he lived in the wild with his flock. What had seemed akin to death had become the means of his resurrection and it was then that God placed a call on Patrick’s heart. It was a combination of prayer, fasting, and being exposed to the elements of nature which brought Patrick to his place of resurrection. Patrick himself names that these were the factors which opened his inner senses so that he could receive within his heart the word of God. This word, which spoke to him in the night, was his liberation from slavery. It was his sacred call from heaven leading him into his destiny. It was the beginning of his ministry as a servant of Christ. Patrick described it like this,
“When I had arrived in Ireland and was spending every day looking after flocks, I prayed frequently each day. And more and more, the love of God and the fear of him grew in me and my faith was increased and my spirit was quickened, so that in a day I prayed up to a hundred times, and almost as many in the night. Indeed, I even remained in the wood and on the mountain to pray. And – come hail, rain, or snow – I was up before dawn to pray, and I sensed nothing of evil nor any other spiritual laziness in me. I now understand why this was so; at that time the Spirit was fervent in me. And it was there indeed that one night I heard a voice which said to me: “Well have you fasted. Very soon you are to travel to your homeland.”
This model is one we can imitate. Fasting and praying in the wilderness is a beautiful tradition. It is one of the early Celtic Christian practices which closely resembles the Ojibwe ceremonies which I was trained in throughout my teens and twenties. Being exposed to the wind, rain, and sun while fasting for days on end on a mountain was the main type of ceremony which we did. I have personally done this seven times throughout my life and have helped countless people on their own journey into the wilderness. I can attest from personal experience that this changes people’s lives and awakens their inner senses. The way we did it involved a large group of people and a week of time out in the bush. I hope to one day bring people out on their own immram into the woods to awaken their own inner senses by following in the example of Patrick.
But, if you want to experience a simpler version of this for yourself, you can undertake your own immram into a wooded park or along the sea shore. To do this you should first assess your own ability. While the heroes like Brendan, Kevin, and Patrick went out into the wilderness to find their resurrection without any means of keeping themselves safe, they were also people who were well familiar with the forest and the sea. If you are not experienced in the wilderness then it may be wise not to venture too far into the unknown, especially without a guide to lead you. However, single day trips into nature can be very fruitful, especially if you have a phone with you in case of emergency.
You may choose to eat nothing on the day you do this. Bring with you only water. The immram truly begins when you set your intention for it. Treat every action in this process as sacred, as it is all part of the journey. When you have found a place with no other people, in the wild with the animals and trees, stand at the edge of the woods and say this prayer for a journey taken from the Carmina Gadelica.
Be a smooth way before me,
Be a guiding star above me,
Be a keen eye behind me,
This day, this night, forever.
I am weary and I am forlorn,
Lead me to the land of of the angels;
I think it is time I went for a space
To the court of Christ, to the peace of heaven;
If only you, O God of life,
Be at peace with me, be my support,
Be to me as a star, be to me as a helm,
From my lying down in peace to my rising anew.
Remember that the forest is a community upon which you have entered. You may not be aware of the animals there, with your weakened human awareness, but they are certainly aware of you. Talk to them and offer them your peace. Tread gently upon the forest floor. Do not break twigs and make a ruckus as you walk. Even the moose, with its antlers and its giant body, can walk quietly through the forest. Seek to be the same. Do not enter the forest as a stranger who does not know the local customs but strive to carry yourself like your animal kin who walk all around you.
As you wander through unknown territory, try to be aware of your inner senses. Follow your heart, let God be your guiding star and the helm of your ship. You do not know where the thin place you seek is to be found, but you do know it is to be the place of your resurrection. It is the gateway to the court of Christ and the land of the saints. You will know you have found your thin place when the peace of Christ seems to wash over you like a gentle mist, when the colours and light change to become somehow both brighter and more solemn. When the chattering in your mind starts to fade away and you can hear the song of all creation being sung without words by the trees and moss and streams. When the peace of Christ has become tangible then you have found your holy ground. Fall to your knees in thanks, sing a song of praise, and allow your spirit to flow across the veil and into heaven.
Stay in that place for a while. Do not worry about the rain or the beating sun, these are part of life. In fact, it is they who give life to the world. Spend time in contemplation, silently worshipping the God of creation in the depths of your heart. Take the time to pray for and bless everyone you can think of. Literally everyone you know. Friends, family, acquaintances, and most especially enemies. Bless them sincerely and wish them well. As you sit in this place be aware of all your senses. Notice what each of your outer senses tells you about the place where you are. Feel the sun and wind on your skin, hear the sounds of the animals, smell the moist forest floor, see the colours of the leaves, and taste the freshness of the water you brought with you. Remember that your senses are the bridge between your soul and the physical world. Give thanks for them and for what they teach you.
When your time has come to leave, give thanks to the ground upon which you were resting. Thank the breeze which blew past you. Thank the rain which fell upon your head. Thank God for creating such a beautiful work of art. Then, begin to walk away and do not look back. The journey home is just as important as the journey there. We may even begin to wonder which is truly our home, our house or the woods. Pay attention to the ways the other creatures of the forest speak to you. The chirping of the chipmunks, the melody of the birds, and the presence of a beautiful flower. All of them have a lesson to teach you and a medicine for your soul. Walk humbly upon the earth and graciously accept what they have to offer. Offer in return the peace in your heart, the gentleness of your footsteps, and the sound of your music.
When you get home, or perhaps even before you leave, you may be tempted to tell everyone about this amazing thing you’ve been doing. While it does not need to be a complete secret (there should be no secrets between friends) it is best if it does not become a source of pride. The quietness of the deep woods does not need to be proclaimed. Its magnificence is of a humble nature. If you wish to carry the silence of that place with you as you return to your human life then respect its silence and keep it tucked away safely in the hidden recesses of your heart. If it is helpful to teach another, if one of your close friends or family asks, or if the Spirit leads you in another way then, of course, speak of it. If and when you do, speak of it gently and cautiously. In the same way which you tread your forest path gently like the moose, tell your story with a simple reverence which honours the sanctity of the wild. In fact, carry that gentleness and awareness with you wherever you are. Walk gently upon the subway floor, walk gently upon your bedroom floor, walk gently through the park and in the streets. If you do this, you may discover thin places everywhere you go.
Have you ever found a thin place before?
How can we understand the idea of holy ground?
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