Saturday, July 04, 2015

Vox Peregrini The Final Walk into Dublin

The first day of every pilgrimage is filled with adrenaline. Hikers often start off with a pace they cannot sustain. The final day is similiar. To finish is to accomplish. So we imagine the end of pilgrimage. But pilgrimage is never finished. Vox is ready to start the end of walking. Imaginational paradox. Yet, there is sadness in a successful completion of the Way. The task will be done. The work will be over. And the community will come to an abrupt end.

The final day into Dublin is three miles up, three miles down, then three miles up, and three miles down again. Two 1200 foot ascents. Not easy. Especially at the end of a 100 mile hike. Our group started out too quickly on that first steep 500 yard climb. The first of many. Not enough rest at the top. A bad cocktail. Potentially producing a wicked hangover.

A mile and half into the hike, we met a very large brilliant white ball of fur. I'm not good with dog breeds. His feet were huge, he was strong and tall, like a husky. He was incredibly friendly. He greeted everyone with his inviting eyes and a lick. Unconditional love is so irresistible. Someone checked his tag. His name was Cado and he decided to follow us. Actually, he led us up the mountain. Clearly, he had been this way before. I had hoped he would get tired and turn around. At the half way point I feared he would follow us all the way to Dublin.

We stopped at a bridge for lunch. Hikers going in both directions of the Wicklow Way found the bridge a great place to rest. Without surprise, Mark and Roz met us there as well. A few of our group had left their lunch at the Knocree hostel. Mark carried them in his pack, knowing he would catch up with us.

As we ate, I was troubled by Cado's fate, I saw a young man, walking alone, down the hill ahead of us. He moved at a quick pace as he came down the hill. Something in me said this guy could help us with Cado. I stopped him and asked where he was headed. "Enniskerry." Perfect. I told him about Cado and asked if he could help us. He obliged. We offered him half a sandwich to entice Cado. The dog was hungry and the chap was a pro at baiting Cado with just a tidbit here and there. Off the two went for what we hoped was a lovely return home.

Meanwhile, Ian, the Vox videographer, set up his camera. He had been interviewing our pilgrims along the way. Now that Mark and Roz had become so dear to the group, Ian asked if they would mind answering a few questions on camera. He asked one question and they filled up twenty minutes of film about the power of walkabouts and Vox's influence on their Wicklow experience. I doubt Ian could have written a better script.

After a long break, the final ascent was difficult. Tired legs. Burning lungs. The thrill to finish. The sadness to leave this newly formed community of pilgrims. The climb to the top of Dublin Mountain was extremely slow. No one got too far ahead. In fact, for the first time we reached the top together. Lots of pictures. Some sat down to get a long look at Dublin Bay. There seemed a reluctance to head down the mountain. The end was just a few miles away.

We entered Marley Park together. Crossing the finish line one by one. Of course, to the applause of Mark and Roz.

Cathy, who has been our support team all along the trip, distributed Wicklow Way completion certificates. More pictures. Full pack pushups. Lots of hugs. Plenty of tears. Celebration.

While the walking may be completed, a pilgrimage is never over. For Vox Peregrini tomorrow and Friday the work continues at Christ Church Cathedral and St. Patrick's. Will their concerts simply be just another performance? Or will the pilgrimage appear in their voice?

Friday, July 03, 2015

Vox Peregrini Day Seven - White Hill

This morning, like every morning since day two, the wounded gather to have their feet, ankles, and sore knees tended. Blisters on heels, toes, and the bottom of feet. Already one hiker backed off the trail due to an open wound on a heel. I wondered each morning how others kept going. Today, though, I heard a few odd comments as they sleepily stumbled into the tiny hallway for bandages.

One voice said, "My blisters are getting better."

Another said, "I think mine are too."

Once blisters form, they don't get better as you walk a 100 mile hike. At best, they are managed and hopefully don't get worse. But better? No. Curiously, though, as I bandaged each blister and taped a few ankles, indeed, there was some healing. I began to wonder about that as I walked the day.

The sixteen mile hike over White Hill, the highest point in Western Ireland, taunted Vox like a playground bully Dangerous enough fear. But not enough to keep them from their destination.

A prayer was said each morning before the hike. This morning's words were a humble plea for Father Sky and Mother Earth to be gentle with us. I've hiked over White Hill three previous times. Twice in a bone soaking, wind whipping rain. Last year the group I hiked with was embraced by quick moving mist filled clouds. In all the times I have walked Ireland, I had yet to experience a cloudless day. Today would be the first.

After walking six miles to get to the base of White Hill, the cloud cover blew passed us and we were left, fully exposed to Brother Sun and the Irish wind as we climbed. A paradoxical pair, sun and wind. Unprotected by friendly clouds, the sun can bring a blistering sweltering summer heat in Ireland. The strong wind, however, on this day, kept the temperature bearable. We climbed to the point where we could see the water rippling across Guinness Lake far below. Indeed, the shape of the lake, its black surface and white beach looks exactly like a perfectly poured pint of the famous Irish beer. From our vantage point, we could see the huts left behind from the filming of the History Channel's "The Vikings." A reminder of some of the darker days of Ireland's history.

We pushed long past our normal lunch time in order to reach a perfect resting place at the peak of the Hill. There, hiding from the wind behind a quartz outcrop, we dropped our packs and weary bodies on the grass. The cloudless sky delivered a brilliant view far into the sea. I could see a ship floating on the horizon. I wondered if Vox would try to sing against the wind and their exhaustion.

Our Australian friends, Mark and Roz, wandered by as we ate lunch. They dropped their packs to join us. I took the opportunity to ask them about their walkabouts. England, Portugal, and of course their home land Australia. Retired teachers, they had enjoyed a lifetime filled with hiking. Amidst all their travels though, they were smitten with this singing group like no other experience.

Lunch came and went. No lunchtime song. John was planning a long rehearsal that night at the Knocree Hostel. We had many miles ahead of us. As we headed down the backside of White HIll, one our group suffered what I thought to be a serious knee injury. A sharp pain on the outside of her knee. At one point she appeared to have buckled and sat down a large stone. I was worried she might not be able to finish the hike. It was three miles to the bottom and six to any crossroad. There are only two ways off the Hill. Walk under your own power. Or call Mountain Rescue. It would take them as long to reach us as it did for us to climb to that point. Long ago, I had made peace with myself that if I had a heart attack or life threatening injury on that hill, I would most likely die there. There are posted warnings about the dangers of hill walking in Ireland and this could have been one of those moments I knew was a possibility.

Fortunately, one of our guys produced a knee brace he had been carrying. The brace fit her knee perfectly. Slowly, gingerly she moved down the hill. I called ahead to find some possible pick up points at the bottom. But, by the time we reached the bridge over Powerscourt waterfall, she was committed to finish the day's final five miles. Her will and the group's support carried her.

Just before reaching the Knocree Hostel is my favorite tree in all of Ireland. Not the tallest tree. Surely not the oldest. Maybe not the most unique in shape and form. But truly the most inviting. Over at least the last century, the tree has grown around a trapezoid shape stone six feet long, over three feet high. The rests at an angle inside the tree. Growing around the stone has created a womb like opening at the base of the tree. Standing on the stone, a person can almost disappear from view inside the tree. There I have left mementos as tributes to past lives. A few sat on the stone in the tree for a picture. But as I took a picture of our pilgrim with the wounded knee, I could feel the tree offering her some healing grace. She finished the day. Tomorrow she would re-evaluate the possibility for the final hike.

After dinner that night, Vox Peregrini would rehearse for the final time before their concert at Christ Church Cathedral in two days. John encouraged them, challenged them, pushed them, and thanked them. They responded each time to his subtle changes with a beautiful sound.

Our Australian friends, Mark and Roz, were also staying at the hostel. Other guests and employees of the hostel listened in for the 90 minute session. Some even hung around after to chat. Mark said the music felt like it was shaping his soul. Vox Peregrini is gaining confidence and with it, power of voice. They have been together only eight days, yet it sounds as if they have spent years together honing their sound. I wondered if the pilgrimage itself was adding her voice and refining them into gold? At the very least, it appears the pilgrimage trail is providing some healing for Vox.

Thursday, July 02, 2015

Vox Peregrini Day Six Glendalough to Roundwood

Glendalough has a deep mystery. Those who are open to the soul of the land, the lakes, and the ancient ruins find themselves in wonderment long after leaving the valley. Place has presence.

The climb out of Glendalough is steep and long. Plenty of time to stop, catch your breath, and look back over the resplendent scenery. The Wicklow Mountain is not shy this day with her sumptuous beauty. The heaviness of the previous day's reflection in Saint Mary's Chapel, the slow pace of the climb, and the stunning beauty of the landscape held our group in a hushed silence. The long days of pilgrimage were having their effect.

We found a three-sided hut at the mid-point in our hike. Some sat at a picnic table. A few sprawled out on the grass. Others leaned their tired backs against the inside of the tiny building built by Mountain Rescue. John found a traveler's journal placed in a water proof canister attached to the wall. Those who tended the hut had placed the book there for hikers like our selves to leave a comment. He read other's reflections while we ate our lunch. I could sense that Vox Peregrini was forming community.

A group of thirteen hikers in not a typical sight along the Way. Most hike in pairs or alone. To see so many people quietly eating lunch usually gets a surprised smile and a gentle hello from anyone who wanders by. Today, a couple in their early sixties stopped for a moment. The woman asked where we were from. We exchanged pleasantries and one of the young women in our group asked if the couple would like to hear them sing.

"In all my walkabouts, no one has ever sung for me," the man said.

Vox took their places quickly and sang, "That Lonesome Road." Our fellow pilgrims were obviously touched. I could see the man's lip trembling. I think Vox sensed something about the couple and asked if they would like to hear another.

"Why, yes of course," the woman said in a sweet Aussie accent.

The second song seemed almost overwhelming. The music swallowed the couple like a spirit rising from the soul of the earth. The man had to steady himself. The silence after the final note hung in the air like an Irish mist.

Finally the woman broke the stillness, "So who are you?" A question with so many layers.

As our new acquaintances, Mark and Roz, hiked on, John gathered the group in the hut for an unusual extended lunch time rehearsal. In the early stages of healthy community formation, each person can find their role. Johnny, an enigma of showmanship and deep water soul, suggested Vox begin this rehearsal with a moment of gathering. HIs base voice resonated against the walls of the tiny enclosure and my own body. Three times he let out an earthy and long "ohm." The group dropped into the moment.

The director whispered his instructions. "Hear the wind in the trees." The pines sung. Vox listened. "Match their rhythm." My skin tingled as Vox and the trees sang in harmony. Something more than community was emerging here. Human souls of an eon who has long dismissed the choir of nature had, in that moment, now bound themselves to the voice of Mother Earth. The pilgrimage was having her way on Vox Peregrini.

As we walked away from the hut, I noticed the group spread out a little more than usual over the next easy five miles. They walked mostly in single file. I didn't heard little of their usual light hearted chatter.

Late in the afternoon, in the corner of The Coachman Inn in Roundwood, the group rehearsed again. Sitting at tables, a pint of Guinness sitting here and there. A cup of tea. A glass of wine. Water bottles. All part of the support team that tends to the voices of Vox Peregrini. Long days filled with mountainous miles, weary bodies, tender souls. Nurtured with music of the spirit, something anew was stirring in the soul alchemy of Vox Peregrini.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Vox Peregrini Day Five - Glendalough's Sorrows

I called this a day of rest, but it seemed anything but. After breakfast, I wandered into the ancient ruins to journal. There I saw many of my fellow pilgrims doing the same. They sought solace to reflect before the work that lie ahead. By noon the choir was in rehearsal at St. Kevin's Catholic Parish a mile up the road from Glendalough. They sang through their most difficult piece. John pushed them. Challenged them. Sought their input. Gently guiding them into places some would have rather avoided. "You have lovely voices. Feel affirmed. But what we're missing in an expansiveness." He used metaphors from life to evoke the emotions intended by the song writer. He seemed to instinctively know how to gently nudge them from one place to another. John's body language, silence, pristine use of the professional musician's secret vernacular guided his choir to another level. While I am not a musician, with every new start, my ears tell me something beautiful is being born. Two and half hours felt like ten minutes to me. The choir continues to have boundless energy, but as they walked out the door I could sense their weariness.

An hour later we were making our pilgrimage to St. Mary's Chapel. A thousand year-old ruin. The hollowed ground where grieving mothers brought their dead children for burial. The tiny chapel sits outside the walls of the monastery as a reminder the church has built more barriers than paths to the divine. To get to the hideaway we had to pass through three sheep gates and knee high grass. Our trail through the grass followed the footprints of centuries of pain in a journey to the house of tears. And the final entrances to the confines of St. Mary's we had to climb over a four foot stone wall. Only those willing to confront death would dare crawl over those stones. Once inside the grounds, we were confronted with dozens of ancient tiny crosses. Graves of unbaptized children. The Mother of Sorrows, a universal archetype from which we often cower to avoid our own grief. But there we stood around a humble piece of bread and sour wine, reciting our meager prayers.

Somber, reflective, tentative. Who could dare know what to expect of our souls? We could simply hold the space for one another's experiences. Withhold judgment. Honor one another. Cherish one another. Present to one another. Maybe we were pushing at the edge of the expansiveness we were so shy to consider?

Monday, June 29, 2015

Vox Peregrini Day Four (for reals) Glenmalure to Glendalough

The Glenmalure lodge was built in 1801 as a hunting lodge. Though, the legend goes it was a hideout for those who needed refuge from the English law. If you can be still enough within your soul, the faeries and ghosts of those rebellious folk might appear. The lodge and the woods themselves hold the stories of lives long forgotten by the world of the seen—but always to be told in the realm of the unseen.

Before leaving the lodge to hike into the Wicklow Natural Forest, Vox Peregrini sang just outside the front door. Their rich voices attracted several guests and hosts as well. I'm always fascinated to watch the faces of those who listen; their faces relax into the presence of being blessed by the holy, gentle smiles, their bodies often sway in rhythm with the a capella flow. Immediately after Vox Peregrini finished the first piece, "Another please," quickly arose. And the musical pilgrims responded in kind with another few minutes of blissful sounds.

Packs on, day four, on to the ancient monastic ruins in the Valley of the Two Lakes, Glendalough. After singing, I've noticed our pilgrims have high spirits and energy in their weary legs. This morning even more so. The promise of only walking 10 miles and then a day off seemed to add to their good feeling.

Slowly we climbed the mountains of Wicklow. Through the dark dense forests. Higher past the tree line where we were to cross the bald bog. To get to that point we had to climb several natural stone stairways. Only Mother Earth could create such perfect placed souls of stones to aid our path so safely. Yet one slip and injury was for sure. Finally to the summit and the scenic payoff was spectacular. Looking back over the mountains and valleys where we had climbed were the rolling mountains of emerald green, spotted with outcrops of glistening quartz. The mountains were so green they were black. The haunting purple clouds rolled across the peaks of the mountains and darted down into the low places. Mother Earth provided us with a full display of her best work. No picture can capture what the eye and soul will witness at the moment of having struggled to reach that point, in time and life.

We carefully negotiated the railroad ties graciously placed by Mountain Rescue and Hill Walkers, so that we might safely cross the deep black bog covered with slick tufts of lime green grass. The wind pushed against us, hoping for a laugh if we fell. I would imagine the wind was more than 30 mph. Strong enough I paid careful attention to my own footing. No falls from the pilgrims of Vox Peregrini.

By the fourth day of a pilgrimage, while exhausted like never before, a strength emerges. Pilgrims seem to tap into a new found wellspring. They drink, not from a reserve, but from a dark place they never knew existed. In that place of shadows, where only the pilgrimage can shine a light of discovery—there in moments of the fear of failure, there in the darkness is found the water that renews like none other. I have witnessed the pilgrims of Vox Peregrini begin to drop their cups into that well.

In a simpler world and time, we might say from here it's downhill. Pastor Amy, however, pointed out that she had a new understanding of that American phrase. The difference being she said, is that she would now rather walk uphill. The downhill slopes are painfully troubling. I wonder now. How will we take our new insights into a world that may never be able to fully understand our journey? Where language is lost on those who have not walked our way. Or care to hear our stories. I do wonder about those who seem to be casual tourists in life.

As we approached Glendalough on this pleasant Saturday, we met those looking for a scenic view of the valley and her upper lake. We passed families as well as locals out for their daily exercise. We heard the sound of children laughing as they played in the luscious green park below. The closer we got to our destination the more people we encountered. Finally, as we dropped down onto the two mile stretch of Glendalough Valley, we were almost run over by large groups of well meaning tourists who had arrived via bus. Many languages, nationalities, and races. Joy, wonder, and laughter. Yet, in their pleasantness, there was an assault on our 50 miles of silent struggle through the Wicklow Mountains. For the first time our group huddled to protect ourselves from the noise slamming against our souls. Seeking solace from this onslaught of what others consider "normal." But now as pilgrims, our normal has shifted, if ever so slightly. Looking at the world through the lens of a pilgrim, the world appears slightly askew. Now we must re-negotiate with our mind, body, and soul how we will walk through this life of strangers slightly leaning to one side or the other.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Vox Peregrini Day Four - Moyne to Glenmalure

Day Four Vox Peregrini - Moyne to Glenmalure

The Irish often refer to what we are doing as hill walking. They have organized clubs and major events built around walking the hills of Ireland. Hill walking is a big deal. Walking the hills from Moyne to Glenmalure is so strenuous our host at Kyle Farm House reminded me that when we reach the halfway point at Iron Bridge it is would be the last point at which I could call if anyone in our group couldn't finish today's 16 miles. Such a reminder in an ominous beginning to a long days hike.

The seven miles to the Iron Bridge is a long slow climb that starts with three miles of feet pounding pavement. Several members of Vox Peregrini are suffering from blisters, sore knees, and hip related issues to carrying a pack. This morning it took almost an hour to bandage all the blisters and tend to their needs. But this is the most positive group I can imagine. They support one another. Tell the funniest stories. Sing to lift one another's spirits. And I have yet to hear one word of grumbling.

When we reached the Iron Bridge I pointed up the hill that lie ahead. Like a taunting demon, the stretch we were about to embark in the Wicklows seemed foreboding. No one flinched. They all said they were ready for the challenge. Their optimism made me nervous. I knew what the next eight grueling miles were going to be like. I had walked them in reverse three times, having met others strugglling from the direction we were now walking. The singing rehearsal sounded good, but weary. I couldn't tell if it was my projections onto them, fearing the climb, or truly their exhaustion.

The first hill to climb after lunch is unforgiving. The trees along the path had been harvested leaving the steep incline unprotected. The Irish sun, beautiful as it can be, is no friend to the hill climbers. A sharp hill carrying a pack under an altitude sun makes the climb challenging for the experienced hill walker. The group stretched out. We had a good leader who set a reasonable pace. Even the strongest were stopping regularly to catch their breath. I could hear their prayers as we climbed. I was near the middle of the group. One by one I saw them disappear at the top, out of sight, where I knew they had made the climb. Looking back I could I see the struggles of those with the most physical issues. The group behind me walked two by two. Supporting one another. Their strength brought tears to my eyes. Those would not be the only tears I would shed today.

As the last pair made it to the top there were cheers and high fives. I wanted to warn them we had a few more hills that were equal to the challenge, but I thought better of it and we kept moving. We continued to move slow and steady. They have taken to calling themselves a herd of turtles.

Along the Wicklow Way at random and rare locations there are three sided sheds built by the Mountain Rescue that can be used for those who need a break from the weather or want to camp the night. Camping is not something people typically do on the Wicklow Way. At about our three quarter mark we came to one of the wooden huts just before another daunting climb. There we met Frank, a young man from Germany. We stood and sat in small clusters, resting, catching our wind.

Pastor Amy Wiles reached in her back pack and pulled out one of the Pilgrim's Prayers for strength and offered the prayer we all needed. Her husband then asked her to bless us as she does pour out such grace over her congregation every Sunday.

"May the Lord bless you and keep you.
May the Lord's face shine upon you and give you grace.
Grace not to sell yourself short.
But grace to risk something big for something good.
Grace enough to see that the world is now too dangerous for anything but truth.
And too small for anything but love.
So may God take your minds and think through them.
May God take your words and speak through them.
May God take your hands and work through them.
And may God your hearts and set them on fire."

I wept. I have never been so blessed. All of the divine's creation rose from the Irish landscape and bowed their heads to receive Pastor Amy's blessing. All said Amen. I felt inspired to live out her spirit graced words.

Then John Wiles, the director, asked the group to sing for Frank. The young man from German seemed so genuinely pleased and excited. He pulled out his camera to record and sat in expectation. As the sound rolled over him like a gentle Irish mist, I could see his soul settle. In the midst of a harsh day, gentleness and power visited us within the span of three minutes.

We moved on to finish the challenge of the longest day so far. Vox Peregrini took a picture at the halfway marker of the Wicklow Way. It was the perfect end to a blessed day. One more day lie ahead on our way into Glendalough for a Sabbath day of rest.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Vox Peregini Day Two Shilaleagh to Moyne

Day Two of Vox Peregrini - Shilaleagh to Moyne

The walk from Shilaleagh to Kyle's Farm house in Moyne is 14 miles. We are walking the Wicklow Way from south to north, towards Dublin. I've walked the Way three previous times from Dublin to the south. This new perspective has already revealed some fresh insights. What was the final day of the Wicklow Way was now the first, the we walked yesterday. I had not realized how mundane that stretch was—it was always the last day and I simply wanted to finish. I have realized because I simply wanted to finish, I couldn't remember anything about the trail now. That's the reason I missed the pickup point yesterday. This became so clear to me on day two of the walk. I could remember all the landmarks, though walking in the opposite direction, much of the walk felt so familiar. Except for one point.

At the halfway point of the walk, instead of the yellow marker of the Wicklow Way, there was a red marker. There was a sign marking a Loop Trail. We decided to stop there for lunch. It was noon. And I wanted to check my maps carefully, especially after missing our pick up point yesterday. I did not want to make a mistake today. The red arrow was marking a starting point for a local loop trail with a sign and a large map detailing the trail. Using my map and the help of two of our pilgrims, we determined, between the three of us, with some certainty that we should not take the loop trail, which was tempting, but continue on the more mundane trail we were walking. The group had lunch and rehearsed some music. I nervously searched up the loop trail and the trail we were on for a familiar yellow Wicklow marker. I couldn't one.

So we set on our road we had been walking. I took the lead with one of my trusted pilgrims who knows how to read maps much better than I - he is an Eagle Scout. A half mile down the road, my anxiety was relieved. There was a yellow hiking man. I couldn't help myself, I stopped and kissed that marker.

The loop arrow and sign had been there before the last time I walked the way, just walking the opposite direction I hadn't seen it. Had I been walking alone today I may have made the wrong decision. My fellow pilgrims brought their skills and confidence to the moment. Yeah for the Eagle Scouts! Thank you Richard.

The great joy of the day was when we left the mundane trail and walked for seven miles through the rolling sheep land of this region. The trail took us through the tree lined boreans, up over the side of the mountains where the sheep roam. There we had a glorious view of the farmlands below and the bald mountain above. This was our groups first look at the beauty of the Irish farming region. Their excitement brought a renewed energy to my step.

Later in the afternoon, near the end of walk, heading into a very wooded and dark section of the trail, John, the music director, chose an off the trail place within the woods for the group to rehearse. There, against an abandoned wall of green moss covered stones, they sang the song of Healing Light. The stones and the trees joined the choir. The dark forest glowed with a warm light. At the end of the final piece, the world sat in silence for a minute, listening to the vibrations of communion of all the divine's creation. I felt a positive energy. And as our group got back on the trail, I noticed some healing had taken place. Steps were stronger, spirits were higher, more laughter rose from their souls.

Vox Peregrini has nestled themselves into the hands of Mother Earth and sang their prayers for healing. Creation added their voice and a new harmony was created, a healing harmony.