Celtic pilgrimage

“Pilgrims are poets who create by taking journeys,” wrote theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.

This August, I swam in and danced through poetry on a trip to Ireland studying Celtic Spirituality with the Rev. Art Thomas’ class from the Ecumenical Institute.

Pilgrimage is often a lost spiritual discipline. Our ancestors knew that traveling a pilgrim’s path and seeing the world with new eyes awakens our wonder. It’s not so much a journey of finding God, but rediscovering the God who finds us.

On the Celtic Spirituality trip, our 20-member band explored Christianity as it blossomed in Ireland from 500 to 800 A.D. when the fall of the Roman Empire allowed a new flavor of Christianity to be created and flourish in this “land of saints and scholars.”

In a very simple summary, Celtic spirituality ignored the duality of Greek thought, which separated heaven and earth, the physical and spiritual, and even light and dark. Celtic Christianity, wrote Esther DeWahl, “is an approach to life in which God breaks in on the ordinary, daily, mundane, earthy.”

It was an indigenous spirituality, honoring creation and weaving prayer into everyday actions. It was a practical, rather than doctrinal faith. God was not as transcendent in Ireland. God was imminent. God rose and kindled the hearth fire with you each morning and provided light by which to move throughout the day.

In the lectures and worship on the bus, I filled pages with notes about history, religion, and the drama of human stories as they unfolded in the Celtic world. But mostly I drank it in. I drank water from the well of St. Brigid, took communion in the stone church at St. Kevin’s monastery in Glendalough, ran my fingers over the hand of God carved into a high cross at Clonmacnoise, listened to a nun share her thoughts on cows and lectio divina at Kylemore Abbey in the Connemara region, and marveled at the divine story that unfolded in interlaced artwork in the Book of Kells at Trinity College in Dublin.

At the beginning of the trip, I was the first person off the bus at a shrine to St. Brigid. Walking into the small cave, I was astounded at the hundreds of items and artifacts people had left on a stone wall beside the spring. Plaster saints, photographs of loved ones, scribbled notes, even a can of Red Bull. The whole display was kitschy and messy, stained with tears. It seemed to spill over directly from the heart. It was religion, the ancient woven with today, offering hope and light.

Light also shone bright for me at the end of the trip, as I stood in a crowd, marveling at the artistry of the Book of Kells, an illuminated Gospel book. In the margins is the story of a monk and his cat, both doing their jobs. The job of the book, the monk reported, is “turning darkness into light.”

Thirsty for this light today, people, and many churches, are reclaiming some of the wonders of Celtic Christianity for their own. After my pilgrimage, I understand this. I sometimes find myself murmuring the words of an old Hebrides woman in the 6th century, who when she rose, prayed: “I will kindle my fire this morning in the presence of the holy angels of heaven.”

I also find myself embracing another common Celtic prayer: “I on Thy path, O God. Thou, O God in my steps.” It’s a good way to travel. Poetry abounds.


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