Monday, November 2, 2009

What Is Pilgrimage?

When I tell people I went on a pilgrimage to Ireland, they often ask what that means. What is the difference in a tour or just plain old trip and a pilgrimage? For most of us the word “pilgrimage” evokes a picture of visiting a holy shrine at a certain season, perhaps to pray for blessings.

However in early Celtic Christianity, a pilgrimage was different. Early ascetic monks would leave home, exile themselves from family and friends, on pereginatio pro Christo, or wandering for Christ. From Ireland they went out into various parts of Europe, as well as to remote places in or around their homeland. They sought out places of solitude where they devoted themselves to prayer and contemplation to become closer to God and develop their relationship with God. They often took with them small communities of twelve others. As Oliver Davies tells us in Celtic Spirituality, “It is these wandering Irish monks in [self-imposed] exile who were responsible for bringing Christianity to large areas of western and central Europe.”

When, just over a month ago we set out on our pilgrimage to Ireland, we were going with particular sacred sites on our itinerary, but in another way, we were participating in a bit of pereginatio. Life is metaphorically called a journey, and sometimes it takes curious, unexpected twists and turns. We may find ourselves wandering about a bit in order to find where we need to be, just as those ancient monks did. So, when we left for Ireland in September, with an itinerary, we also had a mindset of being on a bit of a wandering around. Within the structure of the planned pilgrimage there was a place for individual time, silence and contemplation, and an openness to whatever might be evoked in us by our surroundings. The journey was not just about seeing places, but also about what we experienced, which often came in unexpected ways.

Pilgrims through the ages have taken time away from their day-to-day lives to make journeys to sacred sites, to renew something within them, to rededicate themselves spiritually, or to seek blessing or healing. The real challenge is in the rest of our lives when we aren’t officially on pilgrimage. That is to live with the idea of all life being a sacred pilgrimage in our minds. What would that mean? First, an openness to the unexpected. Balancing our to do lists with time to be present in the moment and conscious of what is going on around us that we might normally rush past and tune out. It may mean creating a space and time for being still and open.

This morning I lit a candle and meditated for a time. In the quiet I heard sounds that are around me all the time but that I normally do not hear. The steady rhythm of a clock nearby, a bird outside, a dog somewhere in the distance. There are times when I willingly tune out these sounds as distraction, but today, hearing them gave me a sense of being a part of a larger whole. For those moments instead of being busy manipulating objects around me, trying to be in control and accomplish something, I was still and calm, feeling in sync with the rhythms of all that surrounded me. When I take time to meditate like that, my day generally goes better and I am less frazzled at the end.

On the pilgrimage in Ireland we had quiet times to be open to what I experienced at home this morning. The real challenge has been to come home, create space for and keep the mindset of pilgrimage alive as we resume our normal lives. Pilgrimage doesn’t have to end. (The picture below, unlike those above that were made in Ireland, came from my own back yard.)

Bonnie McCarson

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Access or Inspiration---Landscapes of Education

With beautiful words and images, Bonnie will continue to post reflections on our pilgrimage to Ireland in September. Deep thoughts keep coming from those experiences of standing on holy ground. Continue to guide us, Bonnie.

In the meantime, I gather the inspiration from those Celtic mists and hit the world of secondary education in the state of North Carolina with a leap and a bound. My travels, from Murphy to New Bern, are now complete. Having traveled now almost 3000 miles in a rental car (with "Eduard"--my GPS guide with a lovely Yorkshire accent), I have talked to students in over 75 high schools and 14 community colleges. With four college fairs per day, sometimes five, I have managed to scan the horizon of secondary education. It is not a pretty picture. In the western part of our state, I have seen high school seniors, already old before their time, stand in the corner of the gym, where over 50 college representatives stood eager for conversation about their school, huddled with friends in the corner, not even interested in considering future educational opportunities. In the east, I have seen student athletes, decked out in Friday football jerseys, dream of playing college football not even mindful of the long-term educational opportunities afforded with such a dream. In the central part of our state, I have watched as a counselor explained the reason for the student's lack of interest--"he is interested in only working for NASCAR--he doesn't want to go on to school." Foot ball is good and important to our southern culture and NASCAR has created opportunities for our state but where is the passion for learning? Where is the desire for improvement? Where is the burn to learn?

I have seen dirty sidewalks, unkempt hallways, poorly maintained doors and windows, unpaved parking lots, and a general sense of defeat and impossibility. Our schools are hurting, our teachers are overwhelmed, our students look like "deer caught by headlights"; our system is not working.

Yes, we need more money for education in our state. Yes, our students need to have more access--to be able to attend college or university regardless of economic status. But more than state appropriations, and creative access initiatives with financial aid and admissions assistance, we need inspiration. Access is good, but inspiration is essential. We need students who are eager to learn, who know the exciting possibilities that come from understanding more about their world, who are inspired to change their community, their world, their own lives. We need inspiration in our system--somewhere, somehow.

This is my question of these weeks: How do you inspire students to learn? Landscapes help--clean hallways and freshly painted walls do make a difference. Beauty inspires. Inspiring teachers inspire. Those adult mind guides---our teachers-- who are alert to their world, who can transmit knowledge through inspiration, are essential. And students need to know that there is more than they can see, that there are possibilities out there, that the clutches of poverty and ignorance need not bind them forever, that life can be meaningful, that truth can be discovered in the microscope in the science lab and in the blade of grass on the hillside. We have been saying that students need access to education. I am now saying that students need inspiration first, then access. For in my high school tour this fall, the missing ingredient was inspiration.

Back to the Celtic thread for a final moment---what I find really interesting in the study of monastic landscapes in early Celtic Christianity in Ireland, Scotland, Wales are the connections between inspiration and learning. At the center of the monastic community were also schools and colleges, as well as the expected chapels and holy groves for prayers. These educational places promoted the love of learning, the love of writing and painting, and the love of nature in the religious community.

Inspiration matters. Hard to quantify, and even more difficult to transmit, but our high school students need it! And those of us laboring in higher education, where inspiration comes a little easier, need to be willing to share it with those who are in need at this given moment. Inspiration matters.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Reflection: Landscapes – Sacred or Meaningless

Reflecting on Photos of Ireland

The remains of a rock structure perch
precariously on an uplifted mound of
earth. The outer walls struggle to stay
in tact with the ground now so uneven
beneath it. In the forest an old, old tree
wearing moss over its lower trunk
stands by the pathway in solemn
welcome to all pilgrims who go there.

In my country we have no buildings
from more than a few centuries, nothing
to touch the many stone churches
dating back a thousand years. Even
our trees are often newly planted, so few
old forests have escaped progress.
Our windswept coasts too often
developed into beaches and resorts.

We are the New World, trying to lead
all the rest, while our elders in the
old are second fiddle at times. If
age has wisdom, where is ours, except
maybe in the land itself, the part,
at least, we haven’t scraped away
or covered with concrete. And what
does it say about our heritage?

Looking back at the four hundred plus pictures I took while on the pilgrimage in Ireland leads me to reflect on many aspects of culture, both that which we experienced while abroad and our own at home. I’ve also been reading from several books since I returned home. One of those is Dara Molloy’s The Globilisation of God. In it he suggests that as Christianity and Western civilization spread through other parts of the world, the indigenous religious beliefs that reflect a sacred connection to the land have been lost.

Reading Dara’s book has given me much to think about. The pre-Christian and early Christian traditions in Ireland maintained that sense of the sacred in the very landscapes. Wells and hills, sacred to the Celts before Christianity, were adopted as locations for abbeys and churches. We noted that particularly in Kildare. Thus, in Celtic Christianity there remains some connectedness with the landscape that many of us in other parts of the world have lost. I was addressing some of the loss we’ve suffered in the US in the poem above. But I’ve thought about it even more since writing the poem. And part of my thinking process has been influenced by another book.

I’m something of an amateur archeologist, having participated in a dig in my home state at a site where Spanish explorers in the 1500’s set up a small fort beside a Native American town. In that particular case, after about eighteen months when the Spanish became too demanding or possibly abusive to the Native Americans, their settlement was burned and the Spanish themselves killed or chased away from the site. As we well know, in American history, things did not turn out that way for the majority of the Native American culture.

My interest in archeology and Native American culture led me to pick up another book – Timothy Pauketat’s Cahokia. It describes a large Native American complex that existed on the Mississippi River nearly a thousand years ago. At the present time parts of the complex lie within a state park in Illinois, but that is a fairly recent development. Before it became protected and archeologists had the opportunity to explore much of it, housing developments and interstate highways cut through mounds of ceremonial centers and burials, destroying what might have been learned about a complex culture that existed on this continent a millennia ago. At least parts of Cahokia were sacred spaces to those Native Americans. As our nation grew, it showed no concern for what had been sacred to earlier indigenous people. The same was true at the archeological site where I volunteered. A mound that had existed there, created by perhaps related Mississippian people or their descendants, was pretty much plowed down before archeologists began digs at the site.

We owe much to progress. But have we also sacrificed something in the wake of it? What toll has our absence of concern for what was sacred to those before us taken? How is our disconnect from the land and its heritage influencing our lives today? How is it affecting us spiritually? Can we learn anything from other cultures who do view the landscape in sacred terms? What would that mean for the environment?

These questions and more are a part of what I brought home from the pilgrimage to Ireland.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Another pilgrimage of sort--visiting high schools across North Carolina

How hard to leave those Celtic mists! I returned home to pack another suitcase for a busy month of travel for the Office of Admissions of Wake Forest University. In the last two weeks, I have visited over 50 high schools, traveled over 2000 miles across the great state of North Carolina, seen sights from Murphy to New Bern, distributed almost 4000 pieces of admissions literature at College Fairs across the state. In the next few days, I will share my observations of the state of public school education and the need for greater attention to secondary education by institution of higher education.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Reflection: What I Brought Home

At Home after Pilgrimage

Morning glory and honeysuckle
vines climb the willow
by the foot bridge
giving it unnatural
blossoms of orange and purple.
They were not there
when I left.

Rain, scarcely more than mist, falls
over goldenrod and barely-changing
leaves in a familiar landscape –
weather more like we expected
in Ireland than here in the Piedmont
of North Carolina. I wonder
what the cool temperature would
be in Celsius, so spoiled
am I to Fahrenheit.

It is a good day for wonder -
a time to be inside, reflecting
on all I met and saw and did
while away. It is a good
time to bring all the
experience and solitude
of pilgrimage home with me.

Toward the end of our pilgrimage in Ireland, we began to think about what we would be taking home with us. I’m speaking of the ways in which the pilgrimage changed us, the things we learned, the personal growth we gained through the experience. To paraphrase the words of Tennyson, from his poem “Ulysses,” just a bit, “[we] are a part of all that [we] have met.” Or I should say that a part of all we met has become a part of us.

Spending time in a landscape different from the one in which I live opened my eyes anew to my own landscape when we returned home. Thus, the poem above.

The experience opened in me other ways as well. One morning in Glendalough I went down to breakfast early. I was in search of coffee because I’m accustomed to having my first cup at home before I do anything else. But arriving in the empty dining room at the same time was a young woman with a backpack. She was trembling from the cold outside. She asked for something hot – coffee or chocolate. When served a cup of coffee, she wrapped her hands around it and sat, still shaking. It was obvious that she was chilled through and through though she was wearing a coat.

I began a conversation with her and learned that she was from the Czech Republic. She’d come to Ireland looking for work. She had been camping near the Glendalough Hotel the previous night when the temperatures dipped, and about four in the morning, she’d come into the entrance hallway of the hotel for warmth while she waited for the dining room to open. Even there she had remained chilled so that three hours later when I saw her she was still shivering.

After she had warmed up with a second cup of coffee, she left. When I left the dining room, I saw her talking with a staff person in a hallway. I had many questions in my mind. I wondered if she were inquiring about work there at the hotel. I also wondered if she were camping out that night because she had no other place to be. She had told me if she couldn’t find work, she’d go back to the Czech Republic.

I carried home with me the memory of that young girl who looked no older than the high school students I taught until recently. I wondered at her being alone in a country other than her homeland and the circumstances that sent her there. I have continued feel the concern for her, though our encounter was brief.

Back at home I received an email from a friend telling me that she planned to participate in a walk to raise money to fight world hunger. I found myself readily joining the walk. I don’t know that the young Czech girl I saw was hungry, but it struck me that she only asked for coffee – something hot to help her get warm that morning, nothing to eat. I wondered if she had no money to buy breakfast. The possibility of hunger in a setting where we were being overfed raised my awareness that morning. And that awareness moved me to act back at home.

That, as well as new eyes for the beauty in my own back yard, is something I brought home from the pilgrimage.

Bonnie McCarson

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Bonnie McCarson, a wonderful writer, poet,, and pilgrim

You have been reading the beautiful words of Bonnie McCarson, scholar of British literature and history, teacher of English, published writer, poet, and pilgrim. Bonnie graciously agreed to provide a daily itinerary of our travels (while I am still traveling). Thank you, Bonnie, for helping us to remember.

Bonnie and I will continue to reflect on this trip and the significance of this pilgrimage in our lives right here on this blog site. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Pilgrimage – Day 11, Sept. 20, 2009

It was hard to believe that our time in Ireland was drawing to a close. On this Sunday morning, we gathered briefly before checking out of the hotel and making our way to the dock to catch the ferry to the mainland. We were not retracing the path we had come but were going to another village, one that would put us in the Burrens for our final day.

Our ferry was a bit late in arriving, and when it did, we found it a little unsettling that it was a smaller craft than the one we’d come to the island on. The wind was cold, the skies gray, and our ferry ride three times as long as the one coming over. When we had cleared the harbor and gotten out into the open water, the ferry began to pitch. At times waves splashed over the side. However, we were afforded a view of the other islands of the Arans as we passed on our way south. Making the best of the rough ride, we snacked and enjoyed the views.

Finally we came in sight of land. But the ferry stopped a good distance out, and suddenly a crew member was handing us life jackets. That was a bit unsettling, to say the least. We soon learned, however, that due to the tide being out, the ferry could not go all the way to the dock. We would have to climb down into small motorboats to ride in. Then we had to climb, and be pulled, up to the dock when the boat arrived at it. Nobody said pilgrimage would be easy! Natives to the area seemed to take all this in stride. They apparently were familiar with the process, unlike this group of pilgrims.

We soon met our driver for the day and were off to a pub with a hot lunch, then on the road again to see the Burrens. The word, Burren, is actually another pronunciation of “barren,” and it described the landscape well. The area is one primarily of rock, yet it has its own kind of beauty.

There were some highlights on ride through the Burrens that day. One was finding a small roadside cemetery where John O’Donohue was buried. We observed some moments of silence and prayer by his grave before continuing on.

Later at the top of a ridge, we passed a dolmen off to the side. As we clambered for our driver to stop so we could make pictures, he gently told us to hold on. Around the next bend or two was another dolmen that had a parking lot and trail up to it. These dolmens, or passage tombs, date back to about the same time as New Grange. More amazing monuments left by a people we know little about.

Seeing the dolmens on the last day of our pilgrimage in a sense brought us full circle. We had begun our trek at New Grange, a mysterious tomb/ceremonial site dating back five thousand years. In between we traveled through the centuries to numerous sacred sites. We were leaving with a view of that ancient pre-Christian time again.

From the Burrens we went into the town of Ennis, not far from Shannon airport where we would take our leave of Ireland the next day. In a lovely hotel after another luscious meal that evening, we gathered as a group for the last time and said our thank you’s and goodbyes. This had been an experience of a lifetime. It was more than just a trip. Each of us has her own reflections and meanings garnered from the places we visited and the things that happened along the way. We continue to savor and reflect.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Pilgrimage – Day 10, Sept. 19, 2009

Day of Silence

One might ask why we had planned into our itinerary days of silence. As I reflected in my journal in silence and solitude, I thought of the early monks who found their way to Inis Mor. I thought back to St. Kevin and the isolated places we’d visited along the upper lake at Glendalough where he’d retreated to for solitude and silence.

On this day, each of us in the group had the freedom to go off alone to whatever place we chose to reflect and just be present in the spot where we were. At times we crossed paths with each other, but much of the time was spent in some sense, alone.

I first walked into the village of Kilronan and sat briefly staring out at the harbor where we had first arrived at Inis Mor. I watched the activity there in the village as visitors were beginning to arrive. Drivers with vans offered tourists tours of the island. Several drivers of horses and carts were also available. A group of young people arrived and rented bicycles to ride around to see the sites.

Then I walked up the hill and found the grocery store, next to which was a coffee shop. I opted for a coffee and scone rather than a snack from the grocery store and sat outside in the crisp air observing the people of the island coming and going to the store and stopping for coffee and conversation.

Things on Inis Mor move at a more relaxed pace than we are familiar with in the US. Even the major roads are narrow and traveled as much by people on foot, bicycle, and horse cart as by motor vehicle. Though it seemed that the cars and vans were going fast, compared to highway speeds at home their speeds were moderate.

On this day of silence as I walked for a while, even with people all around, I was noticing things that I might have missed had I been chatting with someone. My senses were free and open to take in the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of the island. I savored the coffee that is somewhat different from what I have at home, the scone that was freshly made. I soaked in the sun and the wind and enjoyed being in the clean air. Then as I walked back down toward the seaside, I passed a horse in an enclosure between houses. It was standing near enough that I could have touched it from the roadway. Not something I’m used to in my suburban neighborhood at home.

I continued on the road above the seaside until I found an opening in the rock wall that allowed me to pass through to the rocks above the bay. The tide was out, so there was an expense of wet rock and sand below me. A few birds were hopping about. Seaweed that had been washed in clung to rocks. Farther out several boats were anchored. In the distance the lower end of the island curled around into view. Thinking about those early monks who came here and found places to retreat from the busy-ness of the world to enrich their spiritual lives, I found a smooth rock with tufts of grass and flowers on either side on which to sit. When seated, I was hidden from the view of passersby on the road. There in my “solitary cell” I ate a piece of Butler’s chocolate bar and wrote in my journal. Decadence (that chocolate) and austerity together, I thought. But then I wondered about what the first people to come to this island saw. What vision led them to stay and make a livable place of it? A sacred place, both in pre-Christian and Christian times.

I don’t know how long I sat there for time loses meaning in silence and contemplation. For many of us who are constantly aware of calendars, appointments, time schedules and to do lists, it is a good thing to step into a bit of the natural world and pause just to be, to open the senses and turn off the mind chatter. These are moments that offer the opportunity to become one with all of the created order and be at peace with it. These are moments to open ourselves to who we really are, aside from all the roles we play and jobs we do. These are moments to come into closer communion with the divine.

Just before dinner that evening we met again as a group and shared our experiences of the day. This was our way of breaking the silence and reentering into our community. After dinner we really broke silence, joining islanders and visitors alike in the pub for Irish music and dancing. We even got to see Padraigin again, this time demonstrating Irish dance. This was our last evening on Inis Mor, and we savored it.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Pilgrimage – Day 9, Sept. 18, 2009

During the morning of our second full day on Inis Mor we traveled by van to the Visitor’s Center for Dun Aonghus, a site long called a hill fort and now a national historic site, to meet our guide for the day, Padraigin Clancy. A folklorist and historian, she works at the site during part of the year but had taken a day off to spend time showing us around that site and others. Padraigin also has worked with archeologists who explored the Dun Aonghus site and think that it was not so much a fort as a ceremonial site, dating back to about 1500 B.C.E. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Before we could experience the beauty and awe of being on Dun Aonghus, we had to walk up the last half mile to it, just as all pilgrims who have come to this sacred site for hundreds of years have done. Padraigin stopped at points along the climb to point out features of the landscape or magnificent view - and to let us catch our breaths and sample the blackberries growing beside the path.

At the top we entered an area enclosed by a rock wall around three-fourths of its border. The final fourth was a 300-foot drop to the sea below. Those braver than I inched to the edge on their bellies to look down. Locals do not do this, Padraigin explained. They know that pieces of these cliffs can break off. Also, they just don’t feel the need, for as Dara Molloy explains in Legends in the Landscape, “Entering the inner sanctum of Dun Aonghusa is like entering the Holy of Holies of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem at the time of Christ.” Just being there is enough.

Padraigin pointed out the stone platform near the edge of the cliff where ceremonials artifacts had been found during the archeological digs. Nearby were other spots where structures had been erected. We had our morning prayers on this high sacred place before the tourists coming for the day from the mainland had had time to arrive on the island by ferry. Then after taking our time just being in that spot, we descended to the Visitor’s Center again to read about where we’d been. Afterward we found our way just down the road to a charming eatery. Padraigan excused herself for an hour to go to the final mass for the gentleman whose body we had accompanied on the ferry coming to Inis Mor. By the time we had finished eating a delicious lunch and peeped into the shops nearby, she had returned.

After lunch, from the foot of Dun Aonghus Padraigin led us a short distance up the road toward the end of the island and then turned down toward the sea on a pathway that led through fields and across a trickle of a stream to a clochan. Also called a beehive hut, a clochan is a rock structure that monks built as a place to spend time in solitude. There are several on the island, but this one was the most accessible to us. No more than six feet wide and maybe twelve feet long, it managed to hold all of us as we stood inside for a moment of silence and prayer.

On our way back to the road, we again sampled the many blackberries by the path. Then Padraigin kindly drove us in her car, in small groups, back to the hotel and we said our goodbyes to her – at least for that day.

Back at the hotel some members of the group quickly prepared to go to tea with another stranger we’d met on the ferry ride to Inis Mor. He first drew our attention when he drove onto the dock, not far behind the hearse, and unloaded a trashcan, shovel and several other items. (Curious, we thought.) Then he took his car back to the car park. On the ferry someone in the group learned that he, Helmut, lived on the island, having come there years before from Germany. He and his wife live at Killeany Lodge, near sites we visited on our first day on the island. They engage in sustainable gardening, and like Dara Molloy, work for improvement in the quality of life on the island. They often have young people from other places coming to live and learn from them there at the lodge. And on this day they were most hospitable hosts at a delightful teatime.

Then before dinner, we gathered in the hotel as a group to set our intention for the next 24 hours – another period of silence. I’m sure it was a strange experience for the wait staff in the hotel restaurant to see us eating dinner that evening without our usual festive conversation, but it was good to enter another time where we could reflect upon our experience and see how it was working within each of us.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Pilgrimage - Day 8, Sept. 17, 2009

Late evening of day 7 of our pilgrimage we booked into our hotel at Kilronan, Inis Mor and, after a bit of “musical chairs” with room assignments, settled into a landscape that is vastly different from Glendalough, in fact from most other places. It is one of rock almost everywhere you look. In earlier times settlers carried seaweed and sand from the shore to create soil in which to grow some grass for their herds and a few vegetables.

On the morning of our first full day on Inis Mor, we met Dara Molloy (See note at end) who would be our guide and teacher for the day as we began to explore this island that is a mere nine miles long and a mile or two wide. One of the first realizations we had was that no matter where we were, we looked out over the sea. And from the sea, everything on Inis Mor seemed up. We would grow used to climbing!

That morning we visited first the site of St. Enda’s church and burial, now surrounded by the island’s main cemetery. Enda was a prince who was converted and came to Inis Mor with a group of monks to establish ten monasteries across the island in the late fifth century. He perhaps chose this landscape because of its desolation, to emulate the tradition of the early Christian desert fathers, who isolated themselves to concentrate on their inner spiritual lives. This island of monastic settlements, like Clonmacnoise in the center of Ireland, would be a place where monks came to learn and then to go out to other parts of Europe. Enda’s church has now sunken down into the sand below most of the gravesites(as seen in the photo to the right). Some of these graves date back as far as 1500 years while others are from the present. The graveyard speaks to the enduring legacy of the island.

From St. Enda’s grave we walked along the road and then upward to three wells near a site of an Augustinian monastery of a later period. Wells in the Celtic culture were more than a necessary source of fresh water. From ancient times they have been associated with the sacred. The number three also is a sacred number both in Celtic times and in Christianity (as in the Trinity.)
(Right - one of the three wells)

Near the wells were the remains of a high cross and a round tower. Above us on the top of the ridge was a small church, St Bena’s, probably built in the eleventh century in honor of a servant of St. Patrick. Rock being so plentiful, it has been the building material through the ages on Inis Mor. The workmanship exhibited in the buildings is such that many have stood in tact for centuries with little damage except for the loss of their roofs, which would have been from less durable materials. We stood in awe of what the people living in such a harsh landscape had created through the centuries.

After lunch of delicious soups and sandwiches in one of the pubs of the village of Kilronan, we visited the Cill Ronan, the remains of a church of yet another saint and then a monastic site at the other end of the island called Seven Churches. Again we were surrounded by graves dating to the earliest Christian times on the island but also to the present. In fact, there was an open grave for a burial to take place the next day. The grave had been dug by neighbors of the family of the deceased, as is custom, and had shovels arranged across it in a traditional fashion. This was to be the final resting place, or in Celtic tradition the place of resurrection, of the man whose body we had traveled with on the ferry to Inis Mor the day before. We paused for a moment of prayer for his family.

From there we traveled along the “low road” – there being two main highways for a portion of the island’s length – to visit the site of St. Ciaran’s settlement in the sixth century. This site today contains a church probably built in the eighth century and perhaps added to later on, as well as a sacred well. It was a practice for people to come to this sacred well on St. Ciaran’s feast day, September 9, and walk around it seven times in clockwise fashion reciting prayers. Though we were eight days late, we observed the practice.

Outside St. Ciaran’s church we observed standing stones that had been inscribed with crosses. Standing stones were pre-Christian in their origin, but the early Celtic church used them to mark the boundaries of churches, inscribing them with crosses. This may have been the early origin of what later became the custom of building the high Celtic crosses with inscriptions of both Celtic artwork and biblical themes.

Also, outside this church there was a somewhat smaller standing stone with a hole through it near the top. This might have been a sundial at one time. However, it took on a later use as a wishing stone. One might draw a silk scarf through it three times while making a wish.

It was at this point that Dara left us to find our way back to Kilronan and the hotel on our own. His home was just up the hillside above this site, and he had another engagement that evening. And we were left with a bit of free time to try to take in and mull over all that we had experienced in the hours we had been with him. Some of us spent time that evening reading Dara’s Legends in the Landscape: Pocket Guide to Arainn, a small book that is at once a travel guide of Inis Mor and story book about the saints and heroes associated with this landscape. And before we let Dara escape, we’d also bought his new book, The Globalisation of God.

Our pilgrimage this day had introduced us to a most hospitable people on in a rather harsh landscape, a people who were not long accustomed to many of the comforts we enjoy at home, but who have carved out a way of life on this island off the beaten path.

Dara Molloy was a Roman Catholic priest who first came to Inis Mor to live in solitude and work with the rural inhabitants of the island to improve their quality of life. In his personal life pilgrimage, he came to leave the Catholic Church and to marry and have a family, as well as to continue to work for the best interest of the residents of the island. For more on Dara, his work, and books, go to

Friday, September 25, 2009

Pilgrimage - Day 7, Sept. 16, 2009

From Clonmacnoise we went into the city of Galway to spend the night. The next morning, we set out for a drive through another landscape of Ireland, Connemara, or as more often spelled in the US, Conamara.

As we were learning, different areas have their own unique characteristics, but each has its own beauty. Though we have now been away from home a week, we have moved into a timeless realm where days and dates have slipped from our awareness as we soak in the new offerings of the continuing experience.

Conamara is the area of Ireland from which the late writer, John O’Donohue, came. We have carried with us and read from his book, Anam Cara. Especially as we rode through these hills and by the lakes, we thought of his writings. I quote here from “Reflection from Conamara” on his website:

It takes us a long time to see where we are. It takes even longer to see who we are. This is why the greatest gift you could ever dream is a gift that you can only receive from one person… yourself. Therefore, the most subversive invitation you could ever accept is the invitation to awaken to who you are and where you have landed.

That last sentence was the challenge of this pilgrimage for us. As we absorbed the beauty of the heather and gorse on the hillsides, the lakes and streams, we were learning to be fully present in the moment, to live the lives we have been given and to come to know who we are. Without the hustle and bustle of our everyday lives, we were free to tune in to a different way of being.

In that frame of mind we came to Kylemore Castle/Abbey. This was a very different spot from the previous ones we had visited in that it is much more recent. Built in the 1800’s as a home, it featured a wonderful Victorian garden that has been restored to fruitfulness by the Benedictine Nuns who established an abbey on the estate in 1920. The abbey at present also houses an international girls’ secondary boarding school, which we learned will close in 2010, though the abbey will remain.

From Kylemore Abbey, we traveled to the dock to catch the ferry to Inis Mor, one of the Aran Islands off the coast of western Ireland. As we waited, wind off the water whipped around us giving us one of the chillier moments of our travel, since we had been blessed with amazingly good weather to this point.

While we waited for the ferry to arrive, a funeral procession pulled past us on the dock. The family climbed out of cars that then left, but the hearse waited. When the ferry arrived, a wooden casket was moved from hearse to ferry, and the family were the first people allowed on board. While crossing the water to Inis Mor, our leaders, Linda and Kathy, learned that the deceased was being taken home to the island for burial. After conversation with family members, Kathy gave a St. Brigid’s cross she’d made at Glendalough to the family. When the casket was removed from the ferry and loaded onto a lorry on Inis Mor, the St. Brigid’s cross was on top of the casket. Though the family were strangers to us, we felt a connection and wished to honor the life of this one who had gone on. The human connection and common experiences we all share bind us to one another, no matter what country or spot on this globe we call home. It occurred to me that being reminded of the things we as human beings have in common, and having compassion for others we meet, is a step in the direction of making peace in the world.

Thus, we moved through a day that brought to us something unexpected, an event that would continue to weave through the coming days. This was pilgrimage… being present and living in the moment, even with the unexpected.

(Below - Leaving the mainland for Inis Mor)

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Continuing the Journey

After some delay because of the inaccessibility of the Internet, we’ll continue now with a day-by-day of our pilgrimage.

Pilgrimage, Day 6 – Sept. 15, 2009

This morning after another hearty breakfast at Glendalough hotel, we loaded into the van with our new driver and said goodbye to the beautiful Wicklow Mountains. Next stop, Kildare.

The word “Kildare” means church of the oak. Kildare is the home of St. Brigid, an important figure in early Irish monasticism. But in ancient pre-Christian times there was the goddess Brigid, and some scholars think that St. Brigid’s abbey may have evolved from a sanctuary of Druidic priestesses who converted to Christianity. In pre-Christian times priestesses gathered and lit a fire to invoke the goddess Brigid to protect their herds and provide a bountiful harvest. (Right - St. Brigid's Cathedral, Kildare)

Around 480 C.E. the abbess, St. Brigid, came to build an abbey on a hill now occupied by St. Brigid’s Cathedral. As Abbess, she presided over a church and a double monastic settlement for both men and women. This abbey and the nuns there became the keepers of the eternal flame, carrying Celtic tradition into Christianity but with added meaning. Fire, both literal and symbolic, can remind us of the experience of God in our lives. Thus, the Brigidine Sisters who live and teach in Kildare today are the keepers of the flame.

We had the opportunity to meet and hear one of the sisters in her home, which she regularly opens to pilgrims. Helping her was a local member of a lay society. They spoke to us of the significance of Brigid and then guided us on a visit of St. Brigid’s Cathedral and two of the sacred wells in the area, associated with Brigid. They also wove a St. Brigid’s cross and gave it to us with prayers for our continued pilgrimage.

At the present time the Brigidine Sisters of Kildare and their supporters are raising money to build a visitors’ facility with hermitages so that they may more fully facilitate pilgrimages to the area to share and celebrate the story of St. Brigid. (For more info, go to

Right above - St. Brigid statue near one of the wells.

Carrying our Brigid’s cross we continued on to another early monastic site of great significance, Clonmacnoise. Near the center of Ireland, this site founded by St. Ciaran and dating back to the sixth century, became a center of learning and training of the Irish monks who went out as missionaries to other parts of the British Isles and the continent during a time when chaos and darkness had settled over Europe. Such centers of learning as this were very important to all Europe as Thomas Cahill tells us in his book, How the Irish Saved Civilization.

At the visitor’s center we studied the carving on the ancient high crosses, moved indoors for their protection from the elements and tourists, then we went out to walk among the remains of the buildings of this monastic settlement.

One has to marvel at the amount of work that went into building all the edifices of stone. Though stone is plentiful in this area and most of Ireland, moving and lifting it into position to create the buildings, and later to enlarge them, obviously was a monumental task. Some of the buildings remain, at least in part, now nearly 1500 years later. And our civilization stands, in part, because of the learning kept alive by the monastics who built Clonmacnoise and others sites like it.
(Left - Clonmacnoise)

After ample time of walking through Clonmacnoise, and having tea, windblown and weary we climbed back into the coach to continue on our way to Galway. We noted the changing landscapes, for we on this day traveled across Ireland from the eastern side to the west. Doing so in a vehicle that covered the territory in a matter of hours, we remembered those monks who walked from site to site. The bumps in the road were small nuisances compared to the difficulties they undoubtedly experienced. We were learning, however, that on pilgrimage, the important thing is not keeping to a set time schedule and being comfortable. As we learned from the Brigidine Sisters, we were on “an outer journey to sacred places – an inner journey of heart, soul and mind.” (From Rita Minehan, Rekindling the Flame) Sometimes that means going with the flow of the unexpected. And it leaves us with much to reflect upon individually and together.

For more pictures from the pilgrimage see:

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Chaucer and the Internet!

We, the weary pilgrims, arrived home late last night with various destinations--Atlanta, Oregon, Paris, and Winston-Salem. And yes, there have been many days without a blog entry. For those who have been waiting so patiently to read about our daily experiences, I apologize for the lack of communication. I was certain that we would be able to connect for daily blogs while away. But we were at the edge --right on the edge--as we spent much of our time after Glendalough in the Aran Islands. And I could not secure internet service there. Chaucer was simply not bothered with this kind of communication barrier!

As we gain reentry, we will make report, not the just-in-time reporting we had planned, but perhaps even improved, with more reflection and meaning as we recount the trip of a lifetime. It was a blessed, blessed journey. And I am so happy to share these reflections with you.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Quiet Day and Final Day in Glendalough

Today is a personal day of quiet and solitude for our pilgrims. Following the monastic tradition, we are spending this day in personal contemplation--reading, praying, standing on the stones for the final time this evening in Glendalough, reflecting on this quote from John O'Donohue:

Silence is the womb of the word.

We will talk more tomorrow.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Glendalough on the Weekend!

Jet lag has worn off, but the pilgrims are feeling several inches shorter after three days in Glendalough. We've walked off the ends of our legs.

Seriously, Glendalough is a beautiful setting in the Wicklow Mountains of Ireland. It was also the place St. Kevin came in the sixth century to find a spot where he could live an isolated life of prayer. In the days we've been here we have had time to visit the Monastic City ( Upper right) that grew up in the valley in the tenth century and today hiked to St. Kevin's cell, as well as up the other side of the upper lake to spots making his retreat place of solitude, a small cave in the face of a mountain, visible across the shimmering water of the lake. With Kevin came a few other monks who built a monastic settlement and church in a spot below Kevin's "bed" or cave retreat. Higher on the mountain side on a rock outcrop is a site called St Kevin's cell.

But a special part of our visit here has been visiting the Women's Church which actually lay outside the Monastic City. This church was a place of sanctuary and refuge for those not welcomed into the church in the Monastic City. I was particularly moved by the fact that the graves around this church were those of children who had not been baptized, perhaps babies stillborn or those who died close after birth and were considered unfit for burial in the cemetery, or "place of resurrection" of the church in the Monastic City. There may have been other people, for instance, the excommunicated, who were received, ministered to and buried at the Women's Church.

This morning being Sunday, we worshipped in the open air with bird songs for musical accompaniment within the walls of the Women's Church. It was a most meaning experience. Later we picnicked across the lake from Kevin's bed.

Of course, not all of our time has been spent in the ruins of these ancient sacred sites. After visiting the Monastic City on Friday we hiked along a trail through a lush forest to the Woolen Mill for a bit of "holy shopping" - supporting the Irish economy - with delicious scones and tea in the shop's tea shop. And on Saturday we traveled in a coach to Dublin to see the Book of Kells at Trinity College and to visit some of the exhibits in the National Museum. Of course, we worked in tea once or twice and some more holy shopping. Brian, our driver this day actually knew the way to Dublin on first try with just one side trip to give us a breathtaking view from the top of a mountainside in an area where movies have been shot. And when we first arrived in Dublin, we were joined by a most pleasant guide who narrated a tour of the city as Brian drove. Between the two we were well entertained while on the coach.

Tomorrow we will be able to go out and participate in individual activities but are doing so in silence to aid the contemplative aspect of the pilgrimage. We've seen much, eaten wonderfully, hiked until we ready to fall into bed, all the while with time in morning and evening for prayers and teaching from our leaders, Linda and Kathy. Then on Tuesday we leave this spot and make our way slowly across the island.

Had I time enough and space much more I could tell ... I'm sure we will in another day or two. But soon to rest and hopefully we will have quiet now that the wedding and weekend parties taking place here at the hotel are over. The Irish like to celebrate - loudly at times, as our light sleepers can attest. But all is well.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Hitting the Ground Running

Unlike Chaucer's pilgrims, we did not meet in a tavern to start our pilgrimage. Instead we arrived over a period of time at Dulles airport in Washington, D.C. to set out on our pilgrimage by plane rather than on foot. However, after our flight to Dublin, we probably walked as much in the first two days as Chaucer's pilgrims did going from London to Canterbury. At least our legs and feet may think so.

Our official pilgrimage began with a five-thousand year trip back in time as we visited New Grange. (Above right) This neolithic tomb/ceremonial center is constructed so the the sun shines through an opening just above the entrance only for a few days around December 21 for a matter of minutes around nine in the morning. The hill at New Grange was the first we climbed on the first day of our pilgrimage. We were probably doing this before our friends at home in the US were out of bed on Thursday.

From New Grange we set out to see the hill of Tara where ancient Irish kings went through the ceremonies making them kings. However, our driver was a little confused by our itinerary. After driving through the town of Slane twice and seeing from a distance Slane Castle, popular with celebrities, we found ourselves again circling New Grange. But the confusion bore some fruit. Like true pilgrims we were experiencing an adventure. Our driver took us next to the hill of Slane, renowned for being the spot where Saint Patrick lit a fire in opposition to the fire on the hill of Tara which was a sacred celebration to the pre-Christian Celts. To the left you are seeing the hill of Slane from the bottom with the ruins of a the ancient church and a later college.

The view from the hilltop was gorgeous. We tried to get our bearings and decide which hill in the distance was Tara. According to legend, the king saw Patrick's fire from Tara and was not happy that someone would light a fire on another hill during the festival.

After walking among the ruins on the hill of Slane and marveling at our luck in being there since it was not on our itinerary, we set off again in search of Tara. Sleep-deprived and heavy of foot, we perked up when we finally found ourselves in front of the gift shop for Tara.

Soon we were walking another hill, one that is said to provide a view of forty percent of Ireland.
There we gathered around the Stone of Destiny and reviewed all we had experienced since our long, long day began at home on Wednesday.

After descending Tara, we set out for Glendalough where we are staying for several days. A few pilgrims had a power nap on the drive south to the Wicklow Mountains - just enough rest to get us through checking in to the Glendalough Hotel and having our first delicious meal there.Here we found repose and the end of our first day of pilgrimage. However, jetlag has caught up with this storyteller, so the second day will follow on day three.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

In Dublin--waiting for you to arrive!

Kathy and I arrived in Dublin yesterday. We have practiced moving around to our city sites, visiting the Irish museum two times, making sure that we know where the antiquities are located--those that are especially important to our pilgrimage travel. Carolyn, we have found the original Stowe Missal on the third floor. Bonnie, the sheela-na-gigs are guarding the entrance to the back of the museum. The ones in the basement are there but we will not be able to see them without an official document from the Department of Irish Antiquities. But we will see them as we travel this week in situ! To the rest of our pilgrim group, the weather is turning lovely here. We are in store for a wonderful time. We will greet you in the Dublin airport early Thursday morning. Bless you all.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Chaucer, Pilgrims, and Blogs!

"When April [September] with his sweet showers has pierced the dryness
of March [August] to the root, and bathed every vein in such moisture as has the power
to bring forth flower [harvest]; when also, Zephyrus with his sweet breath
has breathed spirit into the tender new shoots [or fruit for the harvest] in every wood and meadow,
and the young sun has run half his course . . . . and small birds sing melodies. . .
then people long to go on pilgrimages . . . ."

Chaucer's opening lines from THE CANTERBURY TALES prepare us for our travel this week. We have been led to make this journey. The shifting of seasons creates a physical threshold for the journey. For Chaucer's pilgrims it was the shift from winter to spring; for us from summer to autumn. This threshold of seasonal time will also mark a difference in our own spiritual lives as we experience this most unusual form of travel together. We are about to shift. Be prepared. This is the nature of pilgrim travel. Shift happens.

I am packed and ready this morning (after several editions of suitcase arranging). Unlike Chaucer's pilgrims, however, I am packing the computer as well as paper and pen, clothes and shoes. I am meeting Kathy at Dulles Airport this afternoon and we are taking the 7:30 to Dublin. We will spend the next two days in Dublin in preparation for the pilgrims to arrive on Thursday morning, where we, refreshed and ready to lead, will greet you at the terminal gate.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Singing and Praying as We Go!

Ian Bradley, church historian at St. Andrews University, Scotland and author of The Celtic Way, observes that "different Christian communities throughout history have each made their distinctive and enduring contribution to the ongoing life of the Church universal. Medieval Catholicism embedded the principles of canon law and philosophical theology. The churches of the reformation brought a greater concentration on scripture and the experience of faith. Methodism has contributed great hymns of enthusiasm and its social gospel. The legacy of Celtic Christianity is simple and more direct. It has left a store of prayers, poems, and artifacts that testify to the presence and protection of God" (31).

And we will be dipping into that vast depository of prayers and poems, singing as we go. I will not pack the accordion, unfortunately. But who knows, we may find one in Galway! But we will have plenty of words and music as we make our way through Ireland.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Praying, Packing, and Preparing

Kathy Spaar and I talked again this afternoon at length on the telephone. We are gathering our thoughts, thinking through each day of our pilgrimage, and facing the difficult task of deciding what resources from our Celtic libraries to pack. We will be leading daily morning and evening prayers, sometimes on the very holy site as seen here in Glendalough, as part of the rhythm of our travel. Tonight while working in the home study, I read again a portion of T.S. Eliot's 'Little Gidding'. These words are so appropriate for our pilgrimage to the holy places of Ireland as honor the holy saints--both past and present. Perhaps these words will be important to you as you continue to make preparation this week by praying and packing.

If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere.
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same; you would have to put off
Sense and motion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Some Poetic Preparation from J.M. Synge

John M. Synge, playwright and poet (1871-1909), was very fond of Aran Islands. As you continue to think about our pilgrimage this week, you may want to ponder these words belonging to Synge:

Still south I went and west and south again,
Through Wicklow from the morning till the night,
And far from cities, and the sites of men,
Lived with the sunshine and the moon's delight.

I knew the stars, the flowers , and the birds,
The gray and wintry sides of many glens,
And did but half remember human words,
In converse with the mountains, moors, and fens.

We will see one another soon!

Friday, August 28, 2009

Just a few more days!

We are moving closer to our departure date. We will be seeing many of these crosses as we travel through Ireland. Notice the traditional cross pattern--the intersection of vertical and horizontal axis. And then pay attention to the interesting circle behind the place of intersection. No one has been able to describe fully the reason for this design. Some say that the circle represents the Sun; others say that the circle represents the feminine spirit. Whatever explanation, to me this cross (that Presbyterians have chosen as their denominational logo) represents the fusion of pre-Christian and Christian traditions.

Rest up this coming week because as soon as we find one another at the Dublin airport, have a strong cup of Irish tea, we will be making our way to Newgrange and to Tara (even with a little jet lag). We will be viewing places of ancient history and religion, two important Celtic landscapes time prior to the coming of Christianity on the island. By the evening of the first day we will arrive in Glendalough, a sixth-century Christian monastic settlement, where we will rest and prepare for the wonderful days ahead of us in Ireland.

Peace to you in these final days of preparation.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Pilgrimage as Spiritual Guidance

Edward Sellner writes that "pilgrimage is often a search for answers to serious questions in a person's life. It may be a quest for healing or spiritual guidance" (Pilgrimage: Exploring a Great Spiritual Practice (Notre Dame, In: Sorin Books, 2004, p.104).

I offer you this article describing my own story of my first pilgrimage to Ireland in the late 90s. The pilgrimage provided healing, spiritual guidance, and direction and transition to my life. Click or paste to read the article below.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Pilgrimage Preparation

Preparations are underway for our trip. All pilgrims are connected via email, community roles have been taken, and we are reading, praying, packing as we make our way to Ireland in a few days. Hold one another in prayers. Continue to read from our reading list. Think about the meaning of this trip for your life.
Recently I read a most wonderful quote attributed to Sandra Day O'Connor, an important Irish lady in our own country, that is most fitting for our journey:

"We don't accomplish anything in this world alone . .. and whatever happens is the result of the whole tapestry of one's life and all of the weavings of individual threads from one to another that creates something."

So glad that we are on this journey together. See you soon.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Preparing for Ireland

It takes a community . . . . What a great host of witnesses who have agreed to help us understand the ancient landscape of Ireland. Paidrigin Clancy of Inis Mor, Irish folklorist, will spend time with our group explaining the Aran Islands, the ancient stories, the language, the way of life then and now. In addition, Dara Malloy, Celtic priest, who knows much about the holy sites and their ancient use and in addition, will lead us in Holy Eucharist in places where saints and scholars have lived and worshipped. Stay tuned for more information as plans continue to develop.