Once more my trusty green rucksack was packed, new walking boots at the bottom. Once more I am a not so lightly packed pilgrim as I aspire to be. Once more the nerves and excitement rise at the beginning of a new adventure.
A couple of months ago now, in October 2016 I set off on another exploration of pilgrimage. The travel was with the Abbey of the Arts (http://abbeyofthearts.com/) – an organised retreat to the Sacred Edge of Ireland, setting out to be Monks in the World.
Once more, I determined to travel on public transport, which meant train from Banbury, changing at Birmingham New Street, and Crewe, to Holyhead where the ferry took me across to Dublin.
I spent the night in Dublin before catching a train across Ireland to the west coast, to Galway.
“Aren’t you brave – travelling on your own?” said two women I chatted with on Banbury station as we listened to a notice about a delayed train. I didn’t feel especially brave. I was quite excited and looking forward to some time away. I was also nervous and hoping that travel connections would work and that I could pick up the tickets I needed for the remainder of my trip. Plus so many other unknowns – what would this retreat be like? What would the other people be like?
In Galway, at the Adare Guesthouse the pilgrims gathered, already experiencing the generous welcome and care from the owners Grainne and Patrick. Next we met the hosts of the retreat, Christine and John, who would be our guides. In their gorgeous living room, overlooking Galway Bay and adorned with picture of dancing Celtic saints, we began the pilgrimage. What had brought us here, at this time in our lives? For many of us there was some sort of threshold that we were about to cross, or had crossed – loss, healing, retirement. I hoped to be inspired by the adventurous Celtic saints into being my own form of adventurer. I hoped to do some more remembering of who I was. This was a good season to do that remembering, the Celtic season of Samhain, including the feast of All Saints and All Souls, was beckoning. This was the time to remember our ancestors and witnesses around us, in community with us. We learnt a song that would be one of the refrains we would return to:‘The peace of the rolling waves to you, the peace of the shining stars. The peace of the blowing air to you, the peace of the quiet earth …’ Song, movement, poetry, ritual, story would continue to accompany us along the way.
Over the next week or so, we explored monastic themes, as we visited sacred sites in and around Galway: hospitality, community, kinship with nature, silence and solitude, sabbath, work and service, conversion. What riches we received! I’m just going to give a little flavour in this blog account.
Welcome and Hospitality – This theme infused all our time together. Our hosts, our guides, the Irish people we met – we often heard, ‘You’re welcome’. It was a genuine expression – no empty words. We were so well fed! In soul and body we were so well fed. Our meals were all amazing. From the many breakfast options in the guesthouse, to meals out in one of the hundreds of eateries in Galway, to the amazing goats cheese salad lunch on the isle of Inis Mor – nothing disappointed. It was all delicious.
Belonging and Companions – I found myself the only ‘Brit’ among a group of Americans and one Canadian. How would this work out, I wondered?! Well, there were some separations of language and we explored different meanings of words that we shared and yet had very different interpretations! And then living, eating, walking, talking, being playful pilgrims together did its work of creating us into people with common hopes, longings, hurts and dreams. One lunch time I bought a book from one of our guides. ‘Ah’ he said, ‘you’re the Brit!’ Yes, I said, a little embarrassed. Around me there was laughter – the warm laughter of friends, of acceptance. I had feared that I, or the others, would be too different, and my fears had proved unfounded. I was part of the group. We were a group of fellow pilgrims, of ‘monklings’.
Passion – All around us were people with passion. John and Christine had followed their hearts to find a home and whole-hearted work in Galway, the wild west edge of Ireland. They had moved from Seattle, to Vienna and then to Galway. They were passionate about the importance of contemplative practice, creativity and imagination, to human flourishing. They were skilled in sharing, teaching, encouraging, communicating their passion and inviting us to (re-)discover our own passions. Playful practices helped us to go deeper. Orla and Niceol led us in storytelling games, and reminded us we all have a story to tell and we can tell it. We think we have no connection, that we are alone or too different to others, and we do have connection to others. They dared us to say yes to play, to failure, to being human! Our guides on our days out and about, at Brigit’s garden, in the wild Burren, on the Arran Islands, were all people of passion. Jenny at Brigit’s garden had a vision of creating a natural environment that reflected the themes of Celtic seasons and the gifts of the Celtic saint Brigit. Tony, our walking guide on the Burren, had left his work as a ‘petty bureaucrat in Dublin’ to follow his passion for the land, for connecting history, politics, faith, story, geology, flora and fauna. Dara on the Arran Islands, told us of his journey to minister in a different way, leaving behind the dogmatism and universalism of the Catholic priesthood, to become a priest in the Celtic tradition, more intimately connected and rooted in one place, in these islands, and offering ritual to mark key moments in the lives of islanders. The musicians we heard in Galway, and at our final gathering. Our kind and friendly driver Cormac, who was also very much part of the group. They all reminded us that there can be another faithful way to live whole-heartedly in this world.
My work is loving the world .. Let me keep my mind on what matters, which is my work, which is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished…
Mary Oliver, The Messenger
Gift – There was so much gift, so much to receive and be thankful for. Each day brought beauty, generosity, heart-opening times. Each day I thought had been the best, and the next day there was more. And the more did not diminish what had gone before. Truly all was gift. At the end of the retreat, we gathered in the ruins of Corcomroe Abbey. We gave each other a piece of apple, dipped in honey, saying to one another: ‘May you savour the sweetness of your life.’ Later, we were invited to write a poem of instruction – some words to take away and come back to as we continued to seek the way of the pilgrim, the way of being a monkling in the world.
There is always more
to receive as gift.
Walk. Sing. Savour. Take my hand.