Today’s day of pilgrimage was a long and exhausting day, not just physically – though it was – but more specifically from a spiritual perspective. There was much to engage with and ponder – and it would not be ignored.
We left our Dublin hotel early today and headed out of that fine city in the direction of Kildare to the west. We were heading there for a specific reason, because the town of Kildare is associated with St Brigid, one of the patron saints of Ireland.
Driving through the countryside it was hard to miss just how ‘green’ the country is. And it wasn’t just a uniform green; Ireland really does have many shades of greens, all of which are readily visible across the patchwork of the Irish countryside. It was, to be honest, like nothing I have ever seen. And it was also beautiful to behold. The slight drizzle may have contributed to the beauty of the countryside we drove through, but it could only ever be an enhancement to something that was already there.
The township of Kildare is a small town just 5o km west of Dublin. Its name, which is also the name of the county in which it is located, comes from the Irish Cill Dara, which translates to ‘the church of the oaks’. The area was originally home to a great grove of oaks, a tree that had a special significance for the pagan Celts. The name takes its significance, however, from the belief that Brigid founded a mixed monastery on the site, under or within the oak trees that grew there.
And this was the reason we visited the site. St Brigid, having founded a religious community there, became well-known and well-regarded in the area. A church has stood on the site since the 5th century, and the present church that bears the name of St Brigid is a cathedral church of the local diocese of the Church of Ireland.
The church itself is beautiful and very distinctive. Though relatively small, it remains a place of great spiritual significance, a place that oozes spirituality, a place where prayer has soaked into the stone walls of the building itself.
From Kildare, we made our way to Glendalough, the valley of the two lakes, to walk in the footsteps of St Kevin, who founded the earliest monastic settlement there around the 6th century. And as soon as you set foot into the place the reason it was chosen becomes immediately obvious.
Though it has changed over the centuries, Glendalough is still one of those thin places, a place where this world and the next, where time and eternity, rub up against each other. The isolation, the physical beauty of the creation stirs the soul, today as much as it may have done for St Kevin all those years ago.
It is hard to walk around the physical environs of Glendalough without having a sense of the Divine. One only has to raise one’s eyes to the mountain tops, or watch the water move on the lake, or listen to the birds, or … Well, you get the idea. I found myself becoming lost not only the physical beauty of the place but in the very tangible presence of God that permeates that place. I could spend days there, not just communing with the Divine, but photographing the landscape around me. There’s little wonder, at least in my estimation, as to why this particular place was chosen by St Kevin as a place of retreat, and why others eventually came to join him to establish one of the premier sites of Celtic monasticism in the whole of Ireland.
We had the great privilege of being guided around the site of the monastic city, and the broader area, by Fr Michael Rodgers, a man with a great love of the place, a priest with a great sense of the Spirit moving in that place, a poet who connects to the beauty of that place. We celebrated Eucharist around the site, starting in the monastic settlement, and moving around the upper lake, stopping from time to time as Michael led us in the first part of the Mass, connecting what we were celebrating with the physical beauty and the history of the place. For a group of pilgrims – or at least for this pilgrim – it was an experience of powerful worship in the immediate presence of God made tangible in the location in which we found ourselves.
To have the privilege of presiding over the second part of our celebration of Eucharist was moving beyond words. It was powerful to celebrate at the end of a physical pilgrimage around that site, with the group of people who are sharing the journey with me, and having been prepared for what we were doing by the wisdom and insight of Michael.
It is an experience that I will never forget. It has marked my soul forever. I can never celebrate Eucharist in quite the same way, whether as priest or member of the liturgical assembly.
While today was a long day, physically tiring, it was something entirely worthwhile to experience.
Tonight we stayed in a hotel in Bray overnight, ready for our continuing journey tomorrow.
Though for me, I doubt the spiritual dimension of our journey can now be topped.