Kildysart’s pre-dawn light is layered with soft pinks, a multi-colored layered blanket of blues and purples, and a yellow dash of light wanting to reveal the reluctant sun, which doubtfully will be seen today. The morning hours of this small Irish village will be quiet for hours to come. The only activity in the street is a foolish cat stalking a raven pecking at some child’s lost snack in the street.
My return to Kildysart yesterday was greeted by dozens of ravens flying overhead. The arrival felt like a homecoming, relaxing to the soul. This place is familiar, comfortable, and soothing. We’ve stayed in twenty-three different places over the past month and its nice to settle in one location for a week with people we know and a place we feel comfortable. The hospitality has been so genuinely welcoming everywhere we’ve been. But, still it’s nice to be in a community where we can kind of fit into the fabric of everyday life, or at least we are allowed to, sort of, in a playful way.
Kildysart is the home of my spiritual director and good friend, Father Michael O’Grady. We loved seeing him jaunt down the street with his spry smile bringing the key to our residence for the next week. Our host John Cahill is out of town at a wedding so he gave the key to Mike. We’ve stayed at John’s self-catering B&B twice before and we know how to make ourselves at home.
Mike invited us to his home for dinner on this evening. He lives just up the street in the village center. Mike bought this lovely little street view apartment for his mother forty years ago. After his father died, his mother would live with another son, but longed to “have her own key.” Through the years Mike slowly remodeled the place against his mother’s fear that he wouldn’t “be changing the little home.”
The evening was made special by our gracious host. How often does the monsignor cook dinner for his vegetarian friends? He borrowed a wok and made stir-fry because, “I love to try something new.” At seventy-six he seems ageless. The evening’s conversation was populated with memories of his mother sitting at the fireplace with some local friends, drinking sherry and remembering with “fondness and humor” the poverty of their early life.
Father Mike would be a co-celebrant at the Friday evening Mass, a year’s remembrance for a dear lady of the parish whose funeral he presided over. We left let him to get ready for the service. Our apartment is next to the church and we watched as half the village streamed by our window for the eight o’clock mass that “had to be over by half past eight because one of Ireland’s finest was featured in an Olympic bought at eight-forty-five.” Duly on time the people chattily hustled back to their televisions in thirty minutes.
While the institutional church is losing its grip on the Irish people, their spirituality is ever present. The Irish are grounded in their relationship with the past, the family, the land, and a God who permeates the ethos of communal life.
In a nation where ninety-five percent of the people are Catholic, though attendance is on the nose-dive and the Anglican Church of Ireland is rapidly disappearing, God-talk can be heard casually interspersed on the radio, peppered throughout the newspaper, and on the lips of pub conversation. Ireland’s most recent hero boxer Katie Taylor, the only Irish gold medal winner of the 2012 London games, thanked God for her win and the people for all their prayers. In an unusual display for an Irish athlete, but familiar to Americans, Katie would point to the sky after her victory. In the post victory issue of the Irish Star Newspaper there appeared an article about Taylor’s Pentecostal church and pastor. The country is so unacquainted with Pentecostalism; a sidebar story appeared explaining the Holy Spirit brand of Christianity.
The local pundits are predicting Ireland’s gyms will now fill with young children wanting to follow Katie into the ring. I wonder if the same could be said for young adults looking for something fresh about God following the young role model into her church. A phenomenon of the “attractional church model” of Evangelicalism we are all too familiar with in America.
Anecdotally, we encountered several adults and young adult alike who voiced his or her personal longing for a meaningful spiritual experience found lacking in the church. There was a general curiosity and genuine appreciation for my walking pilgrimage experience and my “different” style of Christianity they had not before encountered.
Historically, Ireland may know itself best in the face centuries of perseverance against English oppression and economic poverty. Forced migration is a common story for the Irish household. For a thousand years Ireland has been a battleground over land, politics, and religion. Once the population hovered over eight million, however since the potatoe famine of the 1820’s the population has been on a constant decline to its current 4.2 million. Generations of young people were expected to leave home and go to Britain, Australia, America, and Canada looking for work. In a reversal, during the boom of Celtic Tiger more people immigrated into Ireland than left. Young people from Poland and the Euro’s poured into Ireland. Unfortunately, the recent recession has reversed that brief trend. We were told countless stories of parents our age whose children had moved to Australia and Canada looking for work they could not find at home. Generational family farms and businesses may be lost if the next generation finds itself unwilling or incapable of taking over a four generation family lifestyle. Common references in Ireland and around the world can be heard in that, “I’m Irish Catholic, but that doesn’t mean much to me anymore.” The Irish are in as much a search for an authentic spirituality as people in America.
There is a current fascination in America with Celtic spirituality. John O’Donohue, Philip Newell, and Ester de Waal have written some excellent books on the topic. While these books are popular in America, they are fairly unknown here in Ireland. The idea of any such notion of a particular brand of seeing and knowing God, in other words Celtic spirituality, is most often met with a wry dismissal as if no such thing exists.
Much of Celtic spirituality is centered upon what little is known about the prehistoric people of Ireland. Four thousand year old burial mounds, ancient 2,000 year-old monoliths and stone circles provide only enough information for spiritual speculation. The only remnants of pre-Christian Celtic cultic practices and myths exist because Christian missionaries like Saint Patrick absorbed a few of these practices into the Christian cult. Icons like the Celtic cross remain a testimony to the worship of the sun being included into the worship of the Christian Jesus as the Son of God. There are few hidden reminders of a pre-existent religion where women were priests and equal with their male counterparts. The Sheila-na-gig is a not so subtle image of the power of fertility and strength of women. Once prominent on church building buttresses, these icons of wide vulvas have been removed over the centuries by a patriarchal religion. Forgotten in a few tiny places, like on the underside of an unused altar at St. Brigid’s Cathedral, Church of Ireland, in Kildare, these are ancient markers of a spirituality far removed from Irish Catholicism but lies under the surface of consciousness ready for renewal.
My experience has reaffirmed my notion that there is a general hunger in America and Ireland, and I assume other places, for a personal spiritual connection to the God we cannot see but sense is present. Why are we attracted to this inner feeling of the need for a spiritual connection? How do we scratch the itch of a spirituality left wanting by institutional churches? I think I have begun to have a sense, at least a tiny notion, that pilgrimage is a way to begin the exploration. More to come o
Priest, pilgrim, writer, alchemist—living into the mystery, the knowledge, and the practice of sacred alchemy. I've walked across Ireland, almost 400 miles of mountains, valleys, forests, and magic. The pilgrimage was a mirror of my life's journey, coach, president, priest. Traveler of the life's struggles—from failure to re-imagination—still walking.