Christ with me, Christ within me...the encircling of God
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in heart of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.
I have a rosary that I use for meditative prayer, and at two points along the rosary I say this excerpt from the St Patrick's breastplate. I've been doing this for several months now, and today I'd like to share a meditation on these words, and how they might accompany us on our journey of faith and trust in Christ.
As a prelude, a reminder about one of the core ideas within Celtic Christianity, the strand of our faith that this prayer comes from. The Celts assumed the total integration of the whole of life – things seen and unseen. They blessed their homes and hearths in the name of the Trininty, and saw the presence of God in the ordinary details of life. The Celtic knot is an illustration of how they perceived the interconnectedness of all things – the spiritual and the physical world, and all elements within them. For them, the veil between the realms of flesh and spirit was often thin or permeable, and there was a deep confidence that God was not far off, but immanent and surrounding them in the people and places that formed their ordinary world.
These words about the abiding presence of Christ in absolute nearness reflect that basic worldview.
Christ be with me, Christ within me
With: the Christ is a personal 'you' who is able to offer a sense of tangible companionship, even though unseen, and eternal. Accompanying, nearness, Christ as companion and presence. Jesus's promise to his disciples, 'Lo I am with you always.' - A truth that is always present but needs our remembrance and acceptance if we are to receive it.
Within: the risen Christ was not taken into the ether, but rose 'into us' – co-mingling of the Spirit of Christ with our own spirit. I see with the eyes of Christ, and act with the hands of Christ. In earliest baptism liturgies in the first centuries, those gathered to witness would call out people's name as they came out of the water with the words 'a Christ' or 'in Christ'.
The testimony of mystics is that after learning to pray contemplatively, there's a slow dawning realisation that the birth of the authentic self into the world is also the bringing forth of the Christ who is within us.
Q: when do you experience Christ in these different ways? Is one more comfortable to you than the other? What opportunity or newness might they invite you toward?
Christ behind me, Christ before me
We could read this as spatial – an extension of 'with' and 'beside' – a kind of circular protection or enfoldment. But I see it as also temporal – Christ in my past, Christ going ahead of me and inviting me onto the road that I must walk. Some various things this might mean:
- forgiveness & acceptance of things that we might try to forget, block or hide
- being known and accepted in all that has shaped us – deeply understood in our current actions & choices – perfect empathy
- shaping who I am becoming – Christ is in my unfolding and emerging and knows better than anyone what that needs to involve
- I am not alone even if the future is uncertain, even if I walk through the valley of the shadow of death' – wherever life is leading us he has gone before
Q: what difference might it make to something you are facing in the present, if you consider Christ as having been in your past, and to some extent already in your future? What from your past is still unreconciled and affecting your present and future?
Christ beside me, Christ to win me
Beside: encouragement – 'on my side' – a supporter. 'Beside' has no sense of judgement – there is no looking down on, but near, alongside, meeting me where I am. Christ is the light in the dark, the presence in our loneliness, the strength in our weakness, the guide in our lostness.
To Win: my unfinishedness – my ongoing need for conversion. I am accepted as/where I am, but I am also being called on – as a lover, and out of desire for me and my deepest wholeness, not because where I am isn't good enough. The 'winning' is not forceful or coercive, it's wooing and luring and haunting. We are invited into a whole of life journey by the desire of Christ to win us completely – it's not a one off over the threshold arrangement. Not always comfortable, because the process of being 'won' involves provoking me to restlessness and change.
Q: which of these to you most need to hear today? That you are met where you are? Or that God in Christ is continually calling you on? How do we hold both to be true at once?
Christ to comfort and restore me
The process of life and change takes its toll, and walking the 'narrow way' can leave one dusty and tired. Ps 23 offers a vision of green pastures, still waters and 'restore my soul' – images of comfort and rest. The journey of faith is not all slogging onward and self improvement. It involves rest as well as difficulty, and Christ the good shepherd knows how to gently lead us if we know how to receive (rather than needing to be in control.)
Q: can you ask expectantly for the comfort and restoration you feel you need? Or are you more habitually stoic, with a story of 'worthiness' that involves always being in the place of hard work and sacrifice?
Christ beneath me, Christ above me
Again, could be spatial – the full encircling above and below as well as beside etc.
But also perhaps metaphorical – speaking of different 'realms' that have a psychological effect on us. Ps 139: 'If I ascend to heaven you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol you are there.'
'Beneath' – that which is buried, hidden, the depths of ourselves and our unconscious and also the collective 'depths' – the hell that Jesus 'harrowed' on his way to resurrection.
There is nowhere and nothing – no state or terror, disintegration, death or loss of self where Christ is not also, and those places in/beyond the world or our own minds that are frightening to us because they are dark or hidden are not dark to the one who is light.
'Above' – We are reminded that Christ when embodied physically in the person of Jesus spoke of coming 'from above' – there is more to life than meets the eye, and more to our future than we have yet been able to imagine. There is something to hope for in the sense that Christ is 'above,' even while it remains a mystery to us. There is a moreness, that seems to herald the possibility of joy, fulfilment, and wonder. And an affirmation that I will not sink, for Christ lifts me.
Q: Do we trust Christ with all that is beyond our knowledge – or do we stray sometimes into being too certain that we know all that there is to know?
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger
For most of us, quiet and danger are two different states or experiences – either our lives feel stable, protected, and easy, or we feel buffeted, distressed or threatened. As the Hatalafales know, there's a thin and often random line between these two states and we never know when we're going to be catapulted from one to the other.
Christ unites both these states within himself – he is the eye of the storm, the one who slept in the boat while the waters raged, and then calmed them, who was silent in the fact of accusation and prosecution. He is the peace that passes all understanding and also the voice that calls us out of our quiet into risk and uncertain ground. It is Christ who asks us in the place of our fear 'who do you say that I am?' and invites us to grasp his 'quiet' when we are in turmoil and to step onto the road to Jerusalem when we are stuck or in stasis.
Q: is your life at the moment characterised more by quiet or danger? What is your experience of receiving from Christ in each of these states?
Christ in heart of all that love me, Christ in mouth of friend and stranger
We come back to this insight that there is no division between sacred and secular, places where God 'is' and places where God 'isn't'. The veil between the ordinary and the mysterious can be very thin. Christ comes to us not just in pure spiritual connection and heart experience, but also through the every day – in particular other humans, whether known or unknown:
I sought my God, my God I could not see,
I sought my soul, my soul eluded me.
I sought my brother/sister, and I found all three.
When we experience love and forgiveness, warmth and encouragement from another person, that is also Christ, made manifest through a human who is giving expression to the Christ within them. When we long to hear the word of Christ to us, to guide us, this is not just to be received as a voice in our heads. Far more often it is in the mouth of friend and stranger that we hear words that resonate and 'speak' with truth and power.
Q: As you travel through your day, do you expect to meet Christ in the other?
We will say this prayer together, as an expression of intent and longing to know Christ in, around, beyond, through and toward us in the ways we've just explored.