"Stand at the crossroads and look. Ask from the ancient paths which was the good way -- take it and you will find rest for yourselves." Jer 6:16
"At the heart of the longing of all pilgrims lies the hope and dream that, by traveling to a special place associated with the divine, they may somehow be changed and renewed."
In Christian Celtic spirituality there is an emphasis on the closeness of God and ones connection with all of creation.
Last November, embracing that longing I joined with seven others to travel to "thin places" in Ireland. Open to encounter the sacred while trying to give God some help, we were well equipped with travel books and pilgrimage suggestions. The most important things we packed, however, were our raincoats and rubber boots. (Forget the umbrellas; the gale force winds would have us flying like Mary Poppins.) Over fourteen days without sunshine kept us from sitting on the beach or venturing long drives along the peninsulas and coastline in the rain and fog. Instead, one delightful day we were welcomed at a Benedictine Monastery with the wonderful hospitality of the monks. Joining in their prayer touched our hearts and warmed our spirits.
Traveling in the "off season" has benefits beyond low prices. We never waited in lines and at times were alone exploring ancient sites. The EVERY PILGRIM’S GUIDE TO CELTIC BRITAIN AND IRELAND by Andrew Jones led us to ninth century high crosses, ruins of monasteries, holy wells, sacred mountains, seven thousand year old burial mounds, bogs, and the enigmatic burial mounds in Newgrange called "Bru na Boinne" which are older than the Egyptian pyramids of 3000 B.C. Prompted by the weather and the limited daylight we kept our day trips short.
In our rented houses, we took turns cooking the evening meal and sharing a time of prayer and reflection. While every day was an adventure into unknown territory, our final full day was a highlight for me. I had heard of Brigid of Kildare, a fifth century saint, and saw it was possible to stay near Kildare on our way back to Dublin. We stopped at the tourist information office in the center of town inquiring about the Solas Bhride community. "Oh, you would like to speak with Sr. Mary. I’ll call her to see if she is available." We left for a cup of tea and some very delicious scones. A short time later, a gentleman from the tourist office found us and said that Sr. Mary would see us in her home at noon.
We really did not know what to expect. Much to our delight we were welcomed with open arms and led to a very contemplative prayer space where we prayed silently together for half an hour. Sr. Mary and Sr. Fiona are Brigidine sisters who were sent to Kildare to help rekindle the flame of Brigid. We learned that the fifth century Christian St. Brigid inherited much of the folklore associated with the goddess Brigid. We were entertained with delightful stories of the ancient Brigid. It is generally accepted that Brigid established a male/female abbey and church in Kildare. She had the genius of using the established Celtic signs and symbols of fire, water, wind, and earth in introducing people to Christianity. "Brigid’s Fire", a perpetual flame, burned in Kildare in pre-Christian times and was kept alight by Brigid and her nuns, possibly up to the sixteenth century (when the flame was extinguished by a local bishop). In l993 the flame was relit and remains perpetually burning in the room we gathered in. The Solas Bhride community maintains the flame.
Every February there is a festival in Kildare celebrating Brigid. A pilgrimage centering on peace and justice is the core of the five-day event. People travel from all over the world to rekindle the charisms and knowledge of Brigid. The Solas Bhride community claim Brigid is relevant for today. Her life inspires hope "in those who yearn for full equality…; in those who work to conserve our earth; [and] in those who promote peace, justice and reconciliation." I felt in tune with the sisters in their hopes, dreams and work. I encountered the sacred in the hospitality, generosity, and compassion of the people I met in Ireland along with the "thin places" I visited. I already long to go back to continue the journey.
Carol Weber is a trained presenter of Centering Prayer and a member of the Minnesota Contemplative Outreach planning group.