Friday, July 21, 2017

Sacred Cauldron: A Spiritual Retreat in Ireland

My wife and I have been in Glendalough, Ireland leading a retreat for five days, which we call Sacred Cauldron. Our group has been exploring the rich spiritual landscape of Saint Kevin's ancient monastic community. We have wandered and wondered through the rich contours of Celtic Spirituality, both its pre-Christian roots and its current expression that can help us imagine ideas and practices beyond Christianity. Together, we have walked the sacred grounds, prayed ancient prayers and new ones as well, we have placed our hands in holy wells, and shared newly created rituals with one another. Ireland has been the container for our soul's journey. Of course, this island is not the only place we can imagine new possibility for practices and rituals, but it is lovely place to journey that has been home to spiritual pilgrims for Aeons.

The focus of the Sacred Cauldron retreat is to learn how to build personal ritual for our daily spiritual practice and for those momentous events in our lives. Each of our religious traditions offer us tools to use in our daily lives, though sometimes these traditions are the gate keepers of certain rituals like weddings, funerals, and corporate worship. The Sacred Cauldron retreat is a safe space for people to experiment with practice and rituals that might be outside their religious tradition. It is also, and more importantly, a safe circle where we can have open and honest conversations about our lives.

Sacred Cauldron has been the container for creating, developing, and expanding personal spiritual practices like prayer, writing, exploring archetypes through tarot, and the mandala. And it has nurtured rituals for loss, disappointment, love, renewal, covenant, corporate worship, and imagining the future.

Most importantly we have practiced the delicate art of community building by living together at the Tearmann Spirituality Center and sharing the duties of daily life like preparing meals and cleaning the house. We have eaten together, prayed together, laughed together, danced together, and wept together. And in five days we have opened ourselves to the reality of being a spiritual community of love and care for the souls of others.

The Sacred Cauldron Retreat is an extension of the Wisdom School that Cathy and I have founded in Phoenix, Arizona. The Wisdom School is a two year program created to foster an Interfaith Spirituality within a small community. If you are interested in exploring these kinds of experience please check out our website at 2wisdomsway.com.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Sacred Cauldron: Day Three of the Wicklow Way

Pilgrims carry a heavy paradox in their packs on the final day of any walking pilgrimage; the celebration of having completed a planned journey mired with the grief that the community has come to an end. Bonds form quickly among those who spend hours together walking the mountains and rugged terrain. Being openly vulnerable about one's aches and pains, sharing the stories of a blistered soul, and acknowledging living with the reality that the only privy is behind the next tree, builds community that comes with the cauldron's heat of walking. Pilgrimage creates fire that transmutes.

We were given a special blessing this particular day—an Irishman walked with us. He was an acquaintance of one of our group and wanted to join us for the ten miles from Roundwood to Glendalough. It would be half of his day because he would travel on to Glenmalure, another ten miles. His gentle brogue, Irish whit, and lovely stories made the miles pass too quickly

It was a perfect day to walk through the Wicklows. There was a high soft grey cloud cover, a gentle breeze, and even a slight mist at just the needed moment. After a brief climb through the forest, the Way opened onto a sweeping fern covered hill. The soft light green leaves hide the harsh and thorny grose, whose razor stickers leave a burning cut on exposed skin. Hidden away from the path was an odd circle I was familiar with, where the unaware might walk by. But there, among the ferns, was an open space, twenty-five feet in diameter where a stone circle once stood. The four directional stones are still in place, the others have fallen to the side. One of our pilgrims ventured into the vortex of Irish lore and there discovered the thin place. Moving among the stones, the imagination opens and time stands still—everything is "different."

Leaving the top of the Wicklows, we dropped down into the forest again preparing to cross a bridge over the bubbling river fit for a postcard. The pause is necessary because there is one last climb to the eastern ridge of the Glendough Mountain. There we can see down into the picturesque Valley of the Two Lakes, home to St Kevin's Kitchen and 1500 years of ancient ruins and graves. To this day, the dead are still are being buried in this sacred ground.

As we dropped down onto the hill, the ruins disappeared among the thick forest. Dark alley ways, pine covered paths, and stones covered with green moss bring all the senses alive. Here in the world of the Irish mythology the symbolic unconscious speaks to the soul. The pace of the walkers almost comes to a halt, as if by leaving the forest, life would end. Without care, tears are wiped away from quivering lips. Souls has been altered but only silence can announce the tune of the next unknown hymn. To leave the forest is to begin living into a new normal; one the world and our families may not understand. The tune might sound familiar but the words have all changed.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Sacred Cauldron: Day Two of the Wicklow Way

The sixteen mile trek from the Glencree Valley to the village of Roundwood is my favorite day of the Wicklow Way. The day begins walking through tall luscious grass along the gentle Glencree River. Just over a mile into the walk stands my favorite tree in all of Ireland.The tree must be a few hundred years old and still produces lush green leaves. I'm not good at distinguishing trees, but I imagine she must be one of the variety of Mountain Ash that can grow as tall as a 120 feet and can live to be 300 years old. This ancient tree is nearly ten feet in diameter at the base and has grown around a rectangular stone that is four feet long and two feet high. The growth of the tree around the stone has created a womb within the Great Mother tree which extends high into the structure. Crawling up on the stone, I can stand inside the opening and still not reach the top.

For me, this tree creates a sense of mystery; a desire for more knowledge; allowing me to experience something magical—all while sitting on the stone and listening to the wisdom of the past. Here, resting in the heart of majestic presence, I feel the soul of the Great Mother Tree pouring through me—archetypal images bursting forth with words by which to live my life. She says I can't stay there forever, and bids me on, sending me off like a child on my next adventure.

A few more miles up the path that winds through Crone forest, there resides a grove of trees that must be the ancient women of wisdom that holds the name of these woods. In this cathedral of trees, we enter the unconscious of the forest for a thousand yards. There in the darkness, stand two dozen trees as pillars of the community of the interior world. These crone trees have grown through, and consumed, a stone wall. The root systems have intertwined with one another, creating an eco-system of fibrous microbes, moss, stones, and roots that share nutrients of sunlight, soil, and matter. What one abounds in, it shares with those in need. This stand of ancient trees has created a community that lives, moves, and has its being under the dome of the Great Wisdom of the Universe. All who walk this way and know of their presence and all those who would not imagine that such a place exists, benefit from this living Mind. Our group spent time smelling the trees, tasting the bark, touching roots, listening to the stories, and seeing what mystery abounds. We were bathed by the wisdom of the Crones.

From there we climbed through the Djouce Woods, which over looks the Powerscourt Waterfalls. The Dargle River falls 1500 feet, evidence of how high we have climbed. Above the falls, we walked down to the river that is the source of the falls; a treacherous shale covered 400 feet, to cross a foot bridge. And then we trudged back up the sharp "V" canyon another 600 feet. The steep descent and quick ascent stretches for almost two miles. The reward for all this effort is a vista that expands past the Liffey tributary far below, into the Dublin Bay, and deep into the Irish Sea. Only the imagination limits seeing the coast of Wales. And we still have yet to climb over the bog covered White Hill. Over the last twelve years I've walked this trail six times and every step has taught me something new about myself, reminding me particularly this time that I am rapidly approaching sixty-four. But the lesson exceeded my physical limitations. The unconscious was demanding that I stay present, to take in what the Earth had to speak. Emerging from the black soggy bog glistened the "Eye of God" quartz, stones of the spiritual soul for aeons. Gifts and treasures singing praise to the Wisdom of the Universe—some voices for healing, some for ritual, some for transmutation.

In the past, my joy of completing White Hill had left feeling the mundane re-entry of the remaining four miles. This time, however, with the voices in chorus moving around me, I found the opportunity for reflection, a space for imagination. My fellow pilgrims walked on, alternating their success of finishing the longest day with their frustration at creeping blisters. Every light of joy is only achieved with the accompanying darkness of pain. Such is living life as a pilgrimage. Still yet, I could see in their faces a sense of having communed with the Great Otherness, of being at one with that which is greater than ourselves—such which nourishes our souls. For that, I am thankfully humbled to walk with this deep souled community of pilgrims.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Sacred Cauldron Day One of the Wicklow Way

Seven of us gathered in Marley Park to walk three days from Dublin to Glendalough, roughly 45 miles of the Wicklow Way. Two of the people had not met anyone in the group and even those who had met, knew each other only from a couple of evenings of dinner. This small band was preparing to share three days of hiking before the beginning of the Sacred Cauldron retreat in Glendalough. The purpose of the retreat is to facilitate the development and practice of rituals in our lives; rituals that we create in order to foster a deeper experience with the spiritual. The walking pilgrimage is the fire that heats the cauldron of sacred transmutation.

This is my sixth walk along the Wicklow Way. Each pilgrimage has built on the previous experience while spiraling the spaces of life in between into a helix of ever emerging mystery. The knowledge of each experience has exposed new levels of vulnerability, creating thin spaces in the spiritual maturation of the soul. The trepidation, uncertainty, dis-ease, disturbing nature of walking pilgrimage creates the heat needed to reconfigure, even transmute, the essence of one's inner being. To quote Carl Jung, "There is no inner journey without an outer pilgrimage." Or if like Nietzsche better, "No great idea has been formulated without first taking a long walk." While walking alone is indeed a pilgrimage experience unto itself, to walk with others adds elements to the cauldron of possibility.

Walking pilgrimage together is a microcosm of the art of community development. Walking fifteen miles affords the time to slow down enough to listen to one another's story. Traveling over rocky paths, up and down several rugged hills, through dark forests, creates the hotspots of vulnerability, opening the unconscious to expand our consciousness. Walking as a group, watching one another personally struggle with the challenging elements, illuminates the compassionate soul within us and creates an egalitarian community rather rapidly. And while community emerges, individual identity is nurtured.

Ireland and the Wicklow Way are itself the cauldron in which we place the elements of our pilgrimage intentions. The lush green sheep strewn hillsides, the dark forests, the rich loamy bog, the singing birds touch each of our six senses in way we might not have imagined, evoking a mandala of imagination.

Dinner after a walk fills the ravenous canyon of spent energy, while nourishing the desire for authentic soul conversations. My pilgrimage experience has taught me to anticipate these conversations, yet each time I am freshly awestruck by them as much as I am by the landscape of Ireland I've witnessed so many times.

Saturday, July 08, 2017

Vox Peregrini 2017 Being Vox

Walking a hundred miles in seven days through the Wicklow Way takes an exacted toll on all who dare the adventure, even the young and able. The pilgrims of Vox Peregrini 2017 were not spared the price. And neither were they excused the cost of admission; the commitment to perform within hours of finishing the Way. They arrived in Marley Park about four on Wednesday afternoon and performed at eleven the next morning at St James Chapel, then two hours later at St Patrick's Cathedral. Added to these concerts was a three hour recording session Friday afternoon. Muscles are muscles and the will carries tired legs as well as exhausted voices and Vox 2017 delivered with superb style on both accounts.

St James Chapel rests along the walls of the Guinness empire. The exquisite Roman church is as esthetically appealing as any Cathedral in Ireland. The long gothic white arches are etched in lines of red that lead to a golden roof. Behind the marble white altar is a stunningly ornate wall piece complete with gold crucifix. The back wall of liturgical blue and red arises out of the marble altar piece, ascending into the golden heaven. Marking gospel and church history is the life size crucifix that has hung near the altar since 1759.

Vox opened the performance with Hildegaard Bingen's "O Ignis Spiritus Paracliti." The small audience was held in awe. Their profound silence, held back no longer, erupted into appreciative applause. At the conclusion of each piece the teary-eyes parishioners of St James could barely contain themselves and when the performance was finished they rushed to embrace the Vox singers. The strength and skill of these young musicians under the guidance of their master conductor was on display at its finest. And they had only been singing together for eight days.

The concert at St Patrick's was no less perfect—but still more powerful, given it was performed amongst the whim of unsuspecting tourists. Vox Peregrini 2017 carried magic dust that it spread freely over anyone who dared pause for a moment. An unusually large number gathered around to listen for several pieces. Twenty-something's, who stumbled in on the event, sat mesmerized. Tourists, who had paid the price of admission to the historic cathedral, were unsuspectingly drawn into what they did not understand. And a few family and friends who came to be the audience were enraptured. Not one sound of applause came after not one song. I imagined that those listening were experiencing a worship that they had neither expected nor knew how to sort, so they offered what they intuited most precious—pure silence.

When the concert was over, the applause came. With the final note, Vox Peregrini 2017 could no longer hold back the emotions they had kept contained for fear they could not sing. Strong embrace wrapped in tears poured into the cruciform of their love for one another.

In that witness, I was drawn to reflect on something I had overheard earlier that day. After the morning performance at St James, the docent, who was responsible for hosting Vox, had shared a bit of her history with a few willing listeners. She had spent most of her eighty plus years in that congregation. Her life had been one of volunteering in several key ministries. She was proud of her parish. Subtlety and without remorse, she simply stated, "Religion is dead, but the people need community and that's why I'm here." The rapid decline of every religion in Ireland, the UK, and Europe, is a foretaste of the diminishing global religious economy, of which America is not being spared. For what hope could there be?

Somewhere along the Vox Peregrini pilgrimage, musical director and creative genius, John Wiles started calling the entirety of the project and everyone involved in it, Vox. The once brilliant idea of imagination was given birth in 2015 and has now begun stretching its legs into a burgeoning maturity. The individuals of Vox and the Vox Peregrini 2015 and 2017 have become a part of something bigger than themselves. Now Vox, that larger entity, has itself, evolved into a part of the universal self, entering the cycle and process of the alchemy of life. Such is the birth of an achievement that rests primarily on the feet, backs, and voices of John and the individuals who have walked and sung with him. To you, I lift my pint and say, "Cheers."

The last time I saw Vox Peregrini 2017 was at the Church. Not St James, nor St Patrick's, but at the church where Handel regularly used the organ to practice his masterpiece "The Messiah." That church was St Mary's, Church of Ireland. It is now The Church Restaurant and Bar, one of the hot spots of Dublin. Vox sang, danced, and celebrated the short life of their charismatic community and their successful participation in Vox. They had given themselves as an offering of body, voice, soul, and love. Their oblations were received and magically, mystically, converted into the sacrament of the fire of the spirit, "O ignis Spiritus paracliti." As priests and priestesses of the Vox, they distributed communion to all who receive. And each communicant was transmuted as they would hear. Indeed, religion is dead, and its institutions are dying. But the Spirit lives in the hearts and lives of those who have ears to hear.



Friday, July 07, 2017

Vox Peregrini Day Seven Walking into Dublin

The final day of any pilgrimage is the most difficult. Along the way, we find ourselves asking, "Is this the last hill?" Because when I climb that final ascent, I want to capture the moment in a picture, a journal entry, in some way that will indelibly mark this experience into the very essence of my being. And when I reach this pinnacle, instead of words, I find myself bathed in my own silence.

There are two thoughts that dominant most pilgrims as they walk that last day. "Something I've planned for so long, is now over," which is followed by the daunting question, "How do I negotiate with myself how I will now live in the world?" How do I tell my family and friends about something they will most likely not understand? The answer lies in the reality that I don't fully comprehend what has happened to me. I cannot put into words the transmutation that has taken place in my mind, body, soul, and spirit. I have come to realize that the most difficult ascent is the final descent. The walk back into reality, back home, is the walk that begins my new pilgrimage—the return to a new normal, to a world that will never be the same because I am no longer the same person—the one I want to delay as long as possible.

Vox Peregrini's remarkable moment was when the improbable happened. Standing atop Dublin Mountain, looking down on the bustling city nestled against the bay, Vox held silence. They seemed almost afraid to move, for fear they would disturb the air, causing the moment to vanish, as they beg against rationale, knowing it will. There they hold back the rushing wave of the eventual.

Almost by telepathy, John asked the group to sing, "When the Earth Stands Still." Without moving, without a prompt, without a beginning note, they sang, "Come listen in the silence of the moment..." They leaned their weight against the wall of emotion and sang. Their voices were not in circle, but they sang into the forest that held them, "There's a deep sigh int he quiet of the forest..."

While the magic worked, our friend the Chaffinch appeared, dancing at the feet of the baritone. The Irish aviary that sang with Vox at Glendalough Mountain would be mystically present. As the notes carried in the air, the Chaffinch then moved to rest on a large stone by a bass. The song lingered on its final note. Not to go unnoticed, he flew around the group to land in a tree behind the sopranos. There he smiled on their lives. To complete his visit and release the group to walk into their new pilgrimage, he flew into their midst. In picture, John caught witness of the experience, though not needed because the joy is now etched deep into my soul's memory. The ascent of the descent has begun.

Thursday, July 06, 2017

Vox Peregrini Day Six

The walk from Roundwood to Knocree is the longest and most arduous day of the Wicklow Way. It is also my favorite day of the pilgrimage. This would be the fifth time I made this trek over White Hill. Twice I've made the climb in torrential wind whipped rain with near zero visibility. But today the Celtic divine would give their blessings and the weather would be brilliant, light winds, white clouds, and a slight mist at needed moments.

Atop White Hill you can peer down on Lough Dann, or more commonly known as Guinness Lake. Looking down on the body of water the lake appears to be a giant pint of Ireland's famous luscious black beer, including a white beach, mirroring Guinness' frothy top. The crawl over the bald mountain is made across a long stretch of railroad ties, needed in order to pass over the bog. Even the sheep walk the ties in order to avoid the sticky black compost of earth. Of course, the sheep leave a natural trail behind them, often unavoidably so. Life is simply a long series of metaphors, is it not.

Vox Peregrini 2017 has made this walk with strength and vigor as they climbed the HIll with the ease of youth; but wisely they paused to take in the view of the Atlantic laying on the other side of the Great Sugar Loaf, chat with grazing sheep, and admire the mist rolling overhead. They picked their way down the narrow rocky back side of the trail, careful not to slip down the slick grassy hill into the rocks below.

Vox moved easily down into the valley in order to cross the Dargle River that feeds the rushing Powerscourt waterfall. And every time you walk down, you have to walk up the opposing steep hill to get into the Crone Woods, home of Knocree. There in the woods along a gentle stream stands the aging Mother Oak. There she has opened herself to grow over a large angular rectangle stone. The willing can crawl inside Mother and listen to her magic. Offerings were left, prayers made, gifts given.

At Knocree Hostel that evening, Vox gathered for a final rehearsal. The two hour rehearsal conducted by Dr John Wiles, appeared to be Master Class, which delighted his singers. They shared ideas, laughed at musician's insider jokes, and stifled yawns. They had walked 18 miles and it was late in the evening and yet their voices were magical.

A hostel guest asked if he could listen in. Pierre from France, who has visited Taize on more than one occasion, compared Vox's music to his spiritual experience in Taize worship. Three other guests dropped in, three inner city youth from Dublin. They were at the hostel for an outdoor experience program. At the end of a particular sacred piece, one of the girls burst out in joy, "You make my skin all tingly." Indeed, she wasn't the only one with who would be viscerally touched by Vox's magical artistry.

Tonight would be filled with archetypal dreams found in the ancient lore of Celtic wonder and myth. Penultimate days can feed the imagination of the pilgrimage and spark the revelation of the unconscious.