Twice seven years ago, I stood on the Hill of Tara in County Meath, Ireland.
I cried out for a presence in the mist, called out to the Old Ones. I was wearied beyond words, beyond telling, with the calcified religion that had swept through Ireland, drying up its Holy Wells, its Sacred Springs, its flowing Streams of laughter, song, magic, stories. That night on Tara Hill, I called out to the magic ones, the pagan ones, the holy ones, the ones the Druids worshipped.
But no one answered.
I tasted the mist, let the fog penetrate my lungs, let the mystery enfold me.
And still no one came.
“There is nothing left here.” I knew it in my very soul.
My companion appeared out of the shrouding fog, his face suddenly clear before me. He gestured towards the thickening gloom. “We’d better drive back before the road becomes dangerous.”
A few days later, I travel to the Wicklow Hills, to Glendalough, site of Kevin’s sixth century hermitage. Legend says that Kevin held his arms outstretched in prayer for so long that a blackbird nested in his hand. He stayed in that position until her eggs were laid and hatched. Fifteen hundred years later, Ireland’s poet laureate Seamus Heaney praises Kevin:
A prayer his body makes entirely
For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird
And on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name
By the lake at Glendalough, Kevin’s hermitage grew into a monastery that lasted a thousand years. Here I meet a teacher of Celtic Christianity. After twenty years working in Africa as a missionary priest, Michael Rodgers has returned to Ireland to teach his own people their forgotten ways. He guides us by a stream under dark oaks, and invites us to consider our journeys in life, what we seek. He walks with us by the base of the cliffs and invites us to call out our questions, and hear them echoed back to us. The answers are within, he says.
I think about my house beside the Ottawa River, where a piece of ancient Ireland hangs on the wall. A gift from my sister, it depicts in grey pottery what appears to be a woman on a cross. I want to like this shiveringly new/old image, but try though I may, I cannot feel close to it.
I hope that in Ireland I will find the elusive ancient holiness that welcomes and embraces the feminine; I want to find a spirituality that speaks to my life as I experience it. I want to read my way back into the story.
We gather inside the shell of the monastery where the singing stones hold memories of those who left all to seek all, and add our prayers to those prayed here for a millennium. Michael tells us that the monasteries were the beating hearts of villages where people gathered to live their lives close by their “soul friends”. Each monastery was its own centre, shepherded by its own abbot, with its own rule. Of the eight remaining Books of Rule from the old monasteries, six are written in poetry.
The Celtic cross is surrounded by the ancient feminine symbol of the circle, sign of the interconnectedness of all of life, the rhythm of the seasons, the life/death/life cycle. Michael tells us that Celtic Christianity was cross-centred, focussed on the person of Jesus. His suffering gave hope to a people who felt the nearness of God so intimately that their breaths commingled with those of Jesus, his light pierced the darkness of their days and his compassion reached into the most earthy needs of their lives as they prayed.
An early Celtic prayer asks:
May Christ and Mary
Go with us the length of the road;
May our journey not be in vain
But may every inch of it be for our good.
The next day, I walk the three miles from my lodgings to return to Tara, finding in sunlight what the mist had obscured, the high stone that once sang in recognition of the one who would be High King of Ireland. The guide tells of Patrick’s visit here to the High King Laoghaire in 433 AD. seeking permission to bring the teachings of Christianity to Ireland.
“I do not understand this religion,” the king responded.
Patrick then stooped down and picked a three-leafed plant, and began to teach the king about the Trinity.
”Look down at your feet,” our guide says. We are standing on shamrocks.
On the lip of the Hill of Tara, there is an old building whose stones are full of stories and poetry. Inside, I find a small book called “Legends of Killarney” by Crofton Croker, written in 1828. I will be travelling to Killarney. Now, I have a guide.
But on the following day, as I settle into my seat on the BusEirann, I sink into a fug of uncertainty about my faith. No pre-Christian magic reached out to me on the Hill of Tara and what I am hearing about early Christian Ireland is captivating my heart against my will and my better (feminist) judgement. I look at my hands, where a hot rash had been raging the day before, until I bathed them in Patrick’s Holy Well. They are clear, as are my eyes, which had been red and itching with allergies, until I splashed the cool spring water over them. In the background I am aware of old American tunes on the BusEirann radio. A woman’s voice sings, “I’m your lady . . .” I notice this only because of a strange conjunction as we pass under a stone viaduct. Someone has chalked in large letters, “I love you, lady.” I sit wondering, feeling comforted.
I open the small worn Croker and read of the beauty that awaits me. By the time we reach Killarney, some six hours and two buses beyond Dublin, I know enough of the old legends to look forward to my exploration of the same lakes and islands that he saw nearly two centuries earlier. I will see them with his eyes as well as my own, peopled with the characters he met and full of the stories he recorded: of the old monk who travelled from Innisfallen to Mucross for the annual purchase of wine, and fell asleep for a hundred years, waking to find that spring had become winter. He seized a boat to return to Innisfallen where he found his monastery owned by strangers, and monastic life dissolved by Dublin parliament in harmony with Henry V111’s wishes. I read of enchanted wolves and lost treasure and strange battles and heart-rending loves.
I begin to trust that every inch of the journey will be for good. So I am not surprised to find that the hotel booked for me on Killarney’s main street has the beauty and comfort of long-polished wood, and my seat in the dining room is beside the illustration from the Book of Kells of the author of the Gospel of John, the Gospel most loved by the Celts.
(to be continued)