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Nijana: The Horse of Lindisfarne

In 2001, I joined Shalem’s Celtic pilgrimage to the islands of Lindisfarne and Iona. Each morning, our pilgrim group gathered outdoors to welcome the day with morning prayers. On Lindisfarne we walked down a flower-lined lane in front of the nearly 1000-year-old parish church that stands before the ruined medieval priory. Then we turned away from the church to pray in a pasture by the sea, in sight of a tiny island that is accessible on foot at low tide. Nearly 1400 years ago St. Cuthbert spent time on that little island in retreat from his duties as prior of the monastic community of Lindisfarne. The monks’ chanting is stilled now; that summer our prayers were accompanied by the wild cry of seabirds overhead and the hoarse call of a colony of seals on the tidal flats in the bay. The pasture and the view belonged to an elegant retired racehorse named Nijana.

For two days the horse ignored our presence in her territory, but on our final mysterious, misty morning she followed us as we gathered. The leaders paused before beginning, expecting her to go back to her grazing, while some of the pilgrims tried to lure her away with handfuls of grass. But instead she walked to the center of our circle and stood, quietly waiting. Our song leader began the Taizé chant Adoramus te, Domine: We adore you, Lord. The horse was still as we sang:
Adoramus te, Domine
Adoramus te, Domine
Adoramus te, Domine.

The reader began the opening prayer, inserting into her text a thanksgiving for the presence of the horse, reminding us of God’s love for all creatures, and the horse lifted her head, as if she knew that she was the subject of our prayer. As we continued with prayers, songs, poetry, and silence, she began a slow progress around the circle. One by one, she paused for several moments before each person, gently nuzzling, quietly accepting pats, or silently gazing, eye to eye. Stopping in front of the leader who was offering the morning scripture, she rested the tip of her nose on the edge of the Bible as he read the Gospel. By the time our prayers were concluded, she had met and blessed each person, and walked directly through the circle’s boundary to return to her grazing.

We stood in awed silence, knowing we had been visited and touched by the presence of God. We had been invited into the thin place where the world of senses meets the inner world of spirit, then allowed to step beyond, into a place where feet no longer meet solid ground, where things are not what they seem, where God touches us through the presence of a horse, a stone, another human being.

Several years later it occurred to me that the horse may have been exhibiting the behavior of a well-trained racehorse in the winner’s circle, not that it would have changed what we experienced and learned. But when I shared the story and postscript with a group, a woman who knew horses well assured me that this was not typical behavior at all. The mystery remains.

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