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:

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