Circles and Safety
Bruce G. Epperly
In the Celtic tradition, travelers often begin their daily journey with a prayer and the encircling (or “caim”) in which the traveler rotates in a clockwise direction, inscribing a circle with her or his index finger. Whether we do this through movement or in our imagination, the encircling reminds us that wherever we are, we are in God’s circle of protection. In the spirit of Romans 8, we discover that nothing – none of our deepest fears for ourselves or our loved ones – can separate us from the love of God. With the author of Psalm 139, we discover that if we descend to the depths, God is there; if we ascend to the heights, God is also there. Like the story of the Runaway Bunny, even when we run away, or clothe ourselves in darkness, God is there to embrace us.
I have found the practice of encircling to be a spiritual aid, especially when I find myself struggling with stressful situations or caught up in fear and anxiety. When I experience myself in God’s circle of love, I know that despite my fears that all will be well.
Being a parent can be frightening. We fear for our children’s safety and place in the world. We are constantly bombarded by news alerts and commercials that remind us, often unrealistically, that we, and our children, are always at risk. There are no guarantees in life, even for spiritual persons.
While parents can practice many common sense safety practices, the issue of safety is spiritual as well as practical. Parenting is about expanding the circle of our children’s experiences and this always involves risk. At five months, my grandson’s parents have 24/7 awareness of where he is and what he’s up to. They stay in contact with him by: being in the same room and through baby monitors. As he grows older, his circle of experience will grow to closing the door of his own room for privacy to playing alone in the backyard and to going on walks and bike rides with friends or all by himself. Eventually, he will go away to college, making a life of his own.
Parents and children alike need sufficient “primordial” or “basic trust,” enabling us to face uncertainty with confidence in our own abilities and the basic benevolence of the universe. Process theology sees trust as growing out of the dynamic divine-human relationship. God is involved in each moment of experience, providing possibilities and the energy to achieve them. God does not and cannot determine everything or provide an absolute safety net, but in every situation, God is providing resources for our well-being and safety, both in our experiences and by inspiring others toward acts of care and protection. We are always in the circle of God’s love and our calling is to create circles of love that expand to embrace others and that promote others’ creativity and freedom. This applies to parenting as well as to mentoring, marriage and friendship.
Parents need to join order and novelty in their parenting. Order describes the safe circles of life, of responsibility to protect our children with all the resources we can muster in terms of presence, household safety and security, diet, and health promotion. Novelty relates to allowing surprising and serendipitous moments to occur. These always involve a degree of risk. For example, in teaching my son to ride a bicycle 25 years ago, I put him at a small degree of risk as I pushed him forward and then let go so that he could ride on his own. He fell several times and then – voila! – Off he went, having learned to ride on his own without training wheels. The move from crawling to toddling and walking involves pain and failure; and yet it is necessary for growth and maturity. New ideas are threatening – and at times, painful – and yet without new idea, we stagnate intellectually, spiritually, and emotionally.
As a parent and grandparent, I take the Celtic encircling seriously as essential to my intercessions on behalf of my son and grandson. I circle them in God’s care whether I am visiting them in Washington DC or taking a walk in my Lancaster, Pennsylvania neighborhood. The encircling reminds me that we are always connected and that my prayers make a difference. There are no guarantees in life – the sun shines and the rain falls on all of us. But, through the interplay of smart and safe parenting and a constant expanding of the circle of experience, we can balance safety and risk in ways that support our children’s well-being.
A Spiritual Practice for Parents: Regularly inscribe the Celtic circle (or “caim”) around your children and teach them to practice it as well. In your imagination, visualize yourself drawing a circle around your child as you pray for their safety, well-being, and creativity. Invite them to simply draw a circle around themselves by movement or in their imagination.
Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, healing companion, retreat leader and lecturer, and author of nineteen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living; God’s Touch: Faith, Wholeness, and the Healing Miracles of Jesus; and Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry. He has taught at Georgetown University, Wesley Theological Seminary, Claremont School of Theology, and Lancaster Theological Seminary. He is currently theologian in residence at St. Peter’s United Church of Christ in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org