The tradition of pilgrimage in Ireland is an ancient ones. There are many trails and paths known to be sacred for hundreds, if not thousands of years.
One of the more ancient Irish practices of pilgrimage is the turas, which means to “walk the rounds” in holy places. Often there is a series of pilgrim stations – a series of cairns, a holy well, a cross, a chapel or sanctuary space – and each of these invites a circumambulation in a sunwise direction (clockwise), always in harmony with the rhythms of the universe. The number of rounds varies, but generally is either a single round at each place to pause, or the sacred number of three rounds, or a full seven or twelve rounds, which are also all holy numbers.
The purpose of walking the rounds is multifaceted:
• Walking helps to slow us down. The poet Wallace Stevens once said “the truth depends upon a walk around the lake.” We allow ourselves to arrive fully in a sacred place, both body and soul, and ask permission to be there and receive the gifts offered.
• Walking in a circular manner helps to move us out of linear ways of thinking. It allows us to rest into the spiral nature of time and see things from a new perspective. Pilgrimage is never a straight, step-by-step journey, but one of continual unfolding and listening to wisdom arising from dreams and nature.
• Walking helps us to bless the earth with our feet, so that our whole being becomes a prayer. Instead of walking to “get somewhere” as we might when journeying to a particular place, walking the rounds invites us to continue journeying in place.
There are still many of these pilgrimage stations throughout Ireland, and when my husband John and I bring pilgrimage groups out to the holy sites, we invite pilgrims to walk in this intentional way. This isn’t a mindless exercise of superstition, but instead a sacred invitation to bring ourselves fully present to this moment and to walk with full mindfulness and affectionate awareness.
While walking the rounds, traditional prayers like the Hail Mary and Our Father would be said, but any prayers of the heart are welcome. You might repeat a mantra or sing a meditative song.
The Celtic peoples loved spiral designs, as obvious from their artwork. I think these rounds serve a similar purpose to walking a labyrinth. There is a deep understanding that walking embodies our prayer, and walking in a circle has a way of moving our brains out of their desired linear course. When we are discerning our direction in life, we often want the next best step to appear, if not the entire path clearly ahead. But discernment in this tradition is more like a spiraling inward and a deep attentiveness to what is happening in the moment.
Consider finding a holy place to walk around. It might be a sunwise journey around a favorite tree, or inside your church, or even around the edges of a labyrinth nearby. If you are stuck indoors because of severe weather, simply allow a few breaths to center yourself, and then walk the room in gentle sunwise circles, not trying to figure anything out, simply allowing yourself to be fully present and attentive. If a recited prayer helps, let that be your mind’s focus and anchor. The breath can also be a beautiful way to return your attention again and again.
Try practicing this ancient tradition of walking the rounds while bringing yourself here and now and see what you notice or discover.
Christine Valters Paintner, PhD is the online Abbess at AbbeyoftheArts.com, a virtual monastery integrating contemplative practice and creative expression. Together with her husband John they offer online retreats and live pilgrimage experiences in Ireland, Germany, and Austria. Christine is the author of 8 books including her most recent The Soul of a Pilgrim: Eight Practices for the Journey Within