Walking the Sunwise Path
A Concise Guide to Deiseal Meditation
Within the Christian tradition, meditation serves as a means of quieting the mind so that one can experience the presence of God. As a form of prayer, meditation serves to allow ourselves to reflect on the teachings we have been given and grow into an increasing knowledge of Christ. Meditation is a spiritual exercise, a method by which the mind is constantly engaged in devotion and the heart grows closer to God. Every mystic has a method of meditation that attempts these feats, typically through the use of a contemplative prayer.
The purpose of this article is to delineate a form of Christian meditation referred to as Deiseal. Also known as sunwise circumambulation, Deiseal involves walking around in a circle while reciting a contemplative prayer in congruence with one’s breath. The method explained here includes an abbreviated step-by-step process of practicing this form of meditation from beginning to end. As it is based on a pre-Christian Celtic practice, various terms and prayers are written in Scottish Gaelic with their appropriate translations but the prayers can be translated into Irish as well. This provides a simple method of practicing a form of meditation derived from ancient Gaelic religious traditions, offering a form of personal piety that resonates with one’s interest in Celtic Christianity.
The practice of sunwise circumambulation can be found dating back to pre-Christian Celtic society, where in the Cath Maige Tured Lugh is described engaging in this practice. In the text, he is described as singing a chant as he went around the men of Erin “on one foot and with one eye closed.” In the paper Omens and Celtic Warfare, Ellin Ettlinger describes the act as a form of sun worship, where Lugh’s posture is traced back to the Celtic notion of the anthropomorphized sun. This position is also present in Deiseal & Withershins: Exploring the Celtic Sunwise Way where Terri Dowell-Dennis speculates that sunwise circumambulation is an imitation of the sun’s motion, indicating sun veneration. This is associated with the various monuments of Ireland, such as the Brú na Bóinne, as it is oriented towards the sun.
This practice was later adapted by Christians where saints engaged in deiseal by circumambulating around their army prior to battle. This act was ascribed to St. Columba during the Battle of Cúl Dreimhne in the 6th century, where he performed the act as a form of lustration as being in harmony with divine powers was necessary for battle. Their battle against Eochu Feidlech was assured victory, as his army counter-clockwise or tuathal. As the act of clockwise circumambulation was in harmony with divine workings, counter-clockwise was an act against those workings. For this reason, witchcraft in Britain was often characterized as witches practicing their arts while walking counter-clockwise.
Even today, the practice of circumambulation is present within Gaelic society. In Ireland, the practice of An Turas Cholm Cille – the penitential stations of St. Columba – survives as the longest ongoing pilgrimage. In his paper Celtic Pilgrimage, Past and Present, E. Moore Quinn describes the practice as “In silence, they would stop at fifteen “stations” to circle, genuflect, pray individually and collectively, recite fifteen decades of the rosary, and outline the village’s sacred contours in single file.” These practices, known as “patterns” from an pátrún, entails gathering on a set day at significant sites, such as wells, ruined monasteries, churches, and mountaintops. This includes wells, an element of pre-Christian religious practice that became a source for Christian baptisms.
The act of preparation, or ullachadh, pertains to finding the right area to begin one’s practice and preparing the mind through prayer. First, it is important to use one’s reason to find a place that is spacious enough to move and quiet so that one may concentrate on the practice. If one lives in a crowded area, then reason dictates that it should be practiced indoors. If one lives in a small house or apartment, then a secluded area outdoors would be ideal.
Next, one should determine the correct center point for practice. This not only is used to guide one’s movements while circumambulating but serves as a symbol for God’s presence, as we harmonize ourselves with his divine workings. For those practicing indoors, a simple bowl or censer containing incense would suffice letting your prayers “be counted as incense before you, and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.” (Ps. 141:1-2)
Once these preparations are made, enter the space from the north – facing south – so that one’s movements move from east to west. Use a compass to ensure this is accurate and that walking in tuathal is not practiced. Face towards the east and offer prayers that may purify the mind of all distractions and temptations. One may engage in sleuchdadh – the act of prostrating – as an act of obedience to God and his will. Offer these prayers:
An Ainm an Athair, agus a Mhic, agus an Spioraid Naoimh. Amen.
(In the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.)
Iehòbhah Dhia, gum theasairginn `s gum chòmhnadh, deifrich ort.
(O God, make speed to save us. O Lord, make haste to help us.)
A Thighearna, dèan tròcair oirnn.
(Lord, have mercy on us.)
A Chrìost, dèan tròcair oirnn.
(Christ, have mercy on us.)
A Thighearna, dèan tròcair oirnn.
(Lord, have mercy on us.)
Gloir don Athair, agus don Mhac, agus don Spioraid Naomh. Mar a bha, `s mar a tha, `s mar a bhitheas, fad shaoghal nan saoghal. Amen.
(Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. As it was, as it is, as it will be, unto ages of ages. Amen.)
Once these preparations are complete, return to standing position with one’s feet parallel and straight facing south.
Once the preparations are made, the individual can begin with siubhal – the act of walking. When one engages in Deiseal, the act of walking is a series of two distinct stepping patterns that are necessary to turn the body and follow along with the center point. The first is a hooking step where the individual takes the step and turns the right foot approximately in a 45 degree angle. This angle can be adjusted based on the size of the circle; a larger angle will result in a short circle and vice versa. The next is a following step that moves the left foot ahead of the right, almost parallel to one another. When moving, the rotation of the torso at the waist should move the legs, rather than letting the legs move the torso. As one continues this stepping pattern, the body will naturally move in a circle around the center point.
As one steps, there should be correct posture to ensure that joint or muscle pain does not occur due to overextension. Keep the back straight with a stable posture, as to ensure there are no inhibitions in one’s breathing. As one turns around the center point, the individual should mind it while walking to ensure accidents do not occur. Extend the arms outward in an orans or praying posture with palms facing out. Do not stretch the arms out too much to bring about fatigue but enough to maintain good structure.
As one engages in siubhal, it is important to engage the mind through ùrnaigh – the act of praying. It is important to choose a simple contemplative prayer that flows in congruence with one’s breath. This may include prayers, such as Iehòbhah Dhia, gum theasairginn `s gum chòmhnadh, deifrich ort, or the Jesus prayer: A Thighearna Ìosa Crìost, Mac Dè, dèan tròcair orm. As one is stepping, inhale and repeat the prayer on the exhale. As one’s breathing should be slow and steady, the prayer should be recited slowly as well.
Over time, the recitation of this prayer will be done aloud but will gradually be an internal prayer, recited by the mind. With consistent practice, the prayer will be said alone by the heart. For this reason, the Jesus prayer is called the “Prayer of the Heart.” This should not be taken as a goal, as it may interfere with the practice, but as a possibility over time. The primary goal of this practice is not how long one practices at a time, or the amount of effort exerted, but how consistently one practices.
The practice of Deiseal is a new form of meditation that offers a dynamic practice rooted in a rich history. A simple and direct practice, Deiseal combines one’s thoughts, words, and deeds into a singular activity focused on God. As such, Deiseal is a great form of meditation for those who cannot stay in one place for long or are looking for new avenues of spirituality to explore.