Returning home after a magical and mysterious pilgrimage has left me speechless…at least at first! What can be said about the variety and beauty and surprise in entering into a world so ancient and new as Ireland is? To be a pilgrim there is an experience of body, all of the senses engaged and challenged by beauty, variety and surprise. And to attend to the Holy in an unfamiliar place asks me for sharper listening, more acute looking. That was my gift and intention.
My prayer was as I left home that I would have a body, mind and heart open to receive what was being given me in each moment, that I would not be limited by my preconceptions or fears or prejudices, that whatever came our way would be experienced as gift. Those gifts came in many forms–amazing colors of green, Ireland is said to have 89 shades! –wild cliffs and coastlines, ancient ruins and monuments, years of history that are part of contemporary consciousness, people who have suffered and still suffer deeply and mightily over centuries.
We were a small band of four, each with our own history and ways of thinking, and traveling together opened me to seeing more widely and expansively. Each brought his and her own gift–planning sense of direction, knowledge of history. My contribution was a gathering of reflections on Irish saints, some well known, others not. Patrick, Bridget, Brendan, Ita, Kevin, all accompanied us through country roads and remnants of sacred sites. Most have them had miracles ascribed to them–banishment of snakes, hanging laundry on sunbeams, otters rescuing illustrated gospels from the the river bottom. Those stories seemed possible and plausible in the thin air, the wildly changing weather, the remote sites linking us to layers of history; all allowed us (almost) to believe in miracles. Our own experience had miracles: John had longed to climb Skellig Michael, the island off the coast of Kerry, where 12 rugged men lived in isolation from the 6th Century to the 13th in order to pray and to live closer to God. We were told when we came close that boats had not been taking people out to the island for weeks; it was too wild and treacherous. Yet, on the appointed day, the sun came out, the boat slowly boarded climbers, the sea was calm and bright, and John ascended the 700 steps to behold the vastness of the world and the beehive huts perched at the top in which men prayed and worked. Maybe more importantly, he made it back down safely, and all the way to shore. It felt like a miracle!
The journey lives inside me as I ponder what it meant. I have been considering two things closely. One is that for the people of the countryside in which we were traveling, the wonders are every day phenomena–the greens, the old stones, the sheep, the Connemarra ponies. The residents attend to their daily lives of quotidian responsibilities, paying bills, buying food, navigating the roads, and may or may not see the miracles and wonder that a traveler might see. It calls me to pay attention to the wonder here in my neighborhood, in my city, on my local routes of travel. On our last day of travel, we were blessed with a complete double rainbow all across the Connemarra sky. Yesterday after rain, a double rainbow emerged here in Southern California across the freeways after rain. The miracles and wonders of the Holy abound everywhere!
I also feel a longing to maintain a connection to the sacredness of place in which I live. To have been a pilgrim was to be confronted with layers of history in every moment. The house in which I live is located on land where Native Americans once lived, where Mexican ranchers lived, where 20th Century developers lived. The walks I take, the drives I make, lie on top of other peoples, other histories and other cultures, whose spirits still in habit this space. In my own seeking for miracles and wonders, I want to be mindful of what has gone before me in this place, and be grateful.
The learnings are not all in, the pictures not all posted, the memories not all transcribed. But pilgrimage for me has once again opened my heart and soul to the Holy One, Who creates and is still creating, Who loves and is still loving, and Whose beauty can be found all over the earth.
Elizabeth Nordquist, who blogs for Patheos, reflects on a journey of pilgrimage to Ireland.