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.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Vox Peregrini Clonegal to Shilaleagh

The day started out with like most pilgrimages, a group picture at the starting point. For me, it felt odd. This was where I had taken pictures after finishing my previous walks across the Wicklow. Everyone is on their own pilgrimage—and mine is to lead a group while walking in the opposite direction.

This stretch of walk is 14 miles. The path has too many miles of paved roads and gravel covered farm roads. Too little walking down pristine wooded trails on the first day. With this having been the final day of the Way on previous walks, I honestly hadn't noticed how mundane the path had been. I kept telling the group that the deep dark forest lie ahead and that on each day we would be walking more in the forest and less down paved roads.

But, this is their pilgrimage. They are a spirited group. Lots of positive energy. Morgan's bag didn't arrive at the airport in time for him to have his hiking gear. So the group pitched in. Someone had an extra pair of hiking shoes that fit Morgan. Pants, shirt, rain jacket if needed (which we didn't), a Camelback water pack, and an extra hiking stick. He was ready to go. This group has never been together before. Some of us had met for the first time the night before. Community typically takes months if not years to build. Yet, these folks, drawn together by their relationship with the director, their powerful skills of singing, and their curiosity of such a unique opportunity of pilgrimage, are indeed, quickly being knit together.

At lunch, sitting at a crossroads in some lush grass, they sang. Sacred music. Ancient music. When I asked a few about the experience, singing outside is not they're used to doing. The sound disperses into the air like smoke from a fire. They said they had trouble hearing one another. Yet, as an observer, their voice was strong, yet delicate against the terrain and the challenge ahead.

Near the end of our day, my part of walking in a new direction down a familiar trail came to meet me like an old acquaintance in an unexpected place. I walked right by our pick up point. I didn't even notice it. Then we came to a cross roads I recognized, but I talked myself into thinking that this should be a part of the first day, which felt like the 'last day'. I looked at the map. Shared it with two others. Something in me said to simply call right then for a pick up. I foolishly ignored my intuition. This wasn't the place I had in my mind. My thinking function convinced me to push on.

We walked a mile up the road to St. Fiinian's church. John, the director decided this would be good place to sing. The Catholic church was open and the sexton said the group was welcome to sing. Exhausted, sore backs, blisters already emerging, they sat in the pews and lifted their voices within the lovely, simple, Irish sanctuary. I was amazed at their ability to deliver such a divine sound after more than seven hours of hiking.

Soon we were back to walking. Up the road, now having missed the pick up point, one young singer told she's not an emotional person, but sitting in the vulnerability of pilgrimage, singing in this simple church, no audience, just the choir and their voices, those hidden emotions began to arise to the surface. She was imagining this would not be the first and only time her emotions would visit her during this journey.

Within a mile, I finally saw a place I recognized, triggering within me the realization we had gone too far. Last year, Erik spent the night camping at that location. Then I knew we had missed our pick up point. Fortunately, a few phone calls, backtracking only a mile, and the van was there to met us.

I wasn't lost but I had walked too far and caused 13 other people to endure my pushing forward. There is much to learn on pilgrimage. I continue to be humbled by the power of walking in my soul's shadows. Daylight is stirring our pilgrims this morning. We will be walking in a few hours. The teacher of the pilgrimage awaits us with another lesson for the day.

Vox Peregrini - The Night Before the Walking Begine

Vox Peregrini is a singing choir. Thirteen professional singers from across the United States and Canada. All under forty years of age. All university trained, some with terminal degrees. Their director and founder of Vox Peregrini is Dr. John Wiles, professor of choral music at the University of Northern Iowa.

By today they had all arrived in Bunclody, Ireland, a few miles from the starting point of the Wicklow Way. Tonight they rehearsed at St. Mary's Catholic Church. Fr. O'Connor was very gracious to let the group rehearse for three hours. They sat in a circle and sang eleven pieces for the first time as a group. While their director pointed out small nuances he wanted subtle improvement on, Cathy and I sat awash in the polyphonic four part harmony of people dedicated to the craft of their art. It was like sitting in the forest of the divine and listening to the sounds of the gods and godesses uttering otherworldly secret messages to one another. Not only was it a three-hour behind the scenes opportunity to sit in on their rehearsal, it was the privilege to sit encircled in their sound. We were not sitting in the audience. We were not sitting on the stage. We were sitting in the choir. Their melodious notes rose off the floor, danced along the walls, swirled aloft the ceiling. The sound felt as if it drifted down over our souls.

One day you too can hear their voices when the documentary and the music is available. July 2 they will sing at Christ Church Cathedral and St. Patrick's Cathedral, both in Dublin.

My privilege is to walk with this group. Guide them along the way and be present to their physical, spiritual and emotional needs. Cathy has made preparations for all the lodging and hospitality. Her experience of walking the Way and knowledge of Irish ways is indispensable.

The pilgrimage started a year ago when John launched his plan. Tomorrow morning the walking begins.

Monday, June 22, 2015

I Intend To Do My Part To Reduce Racism

Today I am in Belfast. Five days ago a twenty-one year old white male shot and killed nine African-American parishioners of the Charleston, South Carolina Emanuel AME church, during their Wednesday night prayer service. I am sad. I am grieving. I'm not sure what to do.

I want to recount all the reasons I am not racist and try to absolve myself. I want to. But I can't. Despite all the reasons I am not a racist, by saying I am not a racist, I have to accept some responsibility. I am white. I am privileged. I have not suffered racial prejudiced in America. As a white male, I am in a long line of those responsible for racial prejudice in America. What can I do?

Riding in taxi yesterday, I asked the driver about the troubles in Belfast. He said there's no room for hatred. "We need to leave it all behind us and find a way to peace." I told him there are racial troubles in America. He said he thought that was over. I told him it has never been over. It's always existed, we have just turned a blind eye and done nothing to move towards full peace with all our brothers and sisters in America of all colors.

When Clyde Cunningham and his family moved two doors down in the mid-60's, we became friends and teammates. I didn't realize how isolated he felt as a teenage African-American. He and his brother were two of a dozen young blacks at a high school of 5,000. That was Arizona. Then, as a minor league baseball player in the early 70's I saw what life was like in the South. When a black player danced with the white wife of another player, the owner asked our black teammate to leave. So, we all left the bar. In 1973, I witnessed the prejudice towards Bernie Smith, the first African American manager in professional baseball. I played for him that year in Danville, Illinois in the Midwest League (A). Years before the majors would hire Frank Robinson as the first African-American manager. Bernie could only suffer the insult for one year. But, we became better professionals and young men because of him. All during my playing career I watched good men like Dick Davis and Lafayette Currance and countless others endure ridiculous and insane prejudice because they were black.

Again, in the 1980's, I saw unbelievable prejudice when I hired John Shumate to be head basketball coach and the first full time African American employee at the then Southern Baptist Grand Canyon University. The slanders and threats he suffered were intolerable and to say the least, unChristian. Ten years later when I hired African American Leighton McCrary to be the then third African American full time employee the letters were no better. As a college baseball coach for twenty years, I took my players to places you would think prejudice wouldn't be tolerated. But John Patterson, Israel Walker, Channing Bunch, Larry Ross and many others suffered too many insults. I didn't do enough to attack the problem of racism in my own neighborhood.

Racial prejudice is alive and rancid in America. Why? Because I have not spoken up loud enough. I have kept too quiet. I am tired of watching injustice being suffered by my African American and black sisters and brothers. Today I worry about my own nephew being racially profiled. What will I do?

I will no longer tolerate any act that sounds, smells, tastes, feels, or looks like racism. Whether it be family, friend, or acquaintance, I will speak out and call it what it is. And anyone who senses the same from me, I expect them to call me on any racism they see exhibited in my life. If white people would call one another on any semblance of racism, then at least we could make a dint in the inherent racism that exists in this country. Because whether we want to admit it or not, our families of origin are the cause of the problem. The sin of grandfathers and grandmothers and fathers and mothers are passed down upon their children, generation to generation. If you are free of prejudice or complicit behavior, thanks be to God. But, I doubt it. I want to contribute to the end of racism. I intend to do my part.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Synchronicity from Belfast

Timing is everything. Good timing, when the stars align and all is right in the world, can create what may feel like spontaneous magical synchronicity,

A year ago John Wiles invited me to be the spiritual director and walking guide for Vox Peregrini. John is the choral professor at the University of Northern Iowa. He has recruited thirteen professional singers to walk the Wicklow Way and perform mideval music as they make their 100 mile trek. The dates were set, Cathy and I began making plans to leave for Ireland June 15.

Six months ago, Chad Sundin and Bishop Kirk Smith began making plans for Chad's ordination into the Holy Order of priesthood. Ordination dates are chosen for several reasons including meeting Episcopal canonical law, the bishop's schedule, Chad graduation from seminary. Chad asked me to be the preacher for his ordination, so my plans were graciously considered. Given all the various nuances and requirements, June 13 was chosen as the blessed day. By tradition, then, on Sunday June 14, Chad would celebrate his first Eucharist. It is also custom not to ask the newly ordained to preach because all the preparation and stress of getting ready for the ordination. So, I would preach the day before I would leave for four weeks of vacation. All seemed to be in place for the exciting events.

Three months ago the bishop announced the opening of a newly created position. The position was to be two part time jobs, Canon Theologian for the diocese and assistant to the rector at St. Peter's Episcopal Church, Litchfield Park, Arizona. The Canon would be responsible spiritual formation opportunities across the diocese. The assistant position at St. Peter's would in essence do the same kind of work in the parish. Both jobs seemed very intriguing to me. I wasn't looking to leave my job at the time. I loved the people and the work fit my vocation. But I had been there 10 years and the new job offered two irristible attractions, time to write and my commute would be reduced from from 90 minutes a day to ten minutes and I would office out of our home. After several conversations I was offered the position.

Then came two decisions. First, it was decided my final day at St. Augustine's would be June 14. The second decision was that Chad was selected as my successor. He would be ordained June 13. The torch would be passed June 14. The following day I would leave for a month in Ireland.

I announced to the congregation and the Episcopal Campus Ministry community I would be leaving. For six weeks I carried their grief and mine. Yes, while I was excited about the new job, I was also sad to be leaving a people I have loved deeply for 10 years. The physical training of preparing for another 100 mile Irish pilgrimage, supporting a grieving congregation, and making all the necessary steps for a heathy leaving has been exhausting.

More than anything, I wanted to leave well. I didn't want 10 years of good work to be ruined by six weeks of mismanagement on my behalf. When I came to St. Augustine's I promised myself to leave the place better than I found it and I didn't want to make a tragic misstep in the final few weeks.

I can't say for sure, you'd have to ask the people, but it felt like the final days were a celebration of great time together and an acknowledge through the ordination of one of our own, that indeed all is well and all will be well,

At the reception after Chad's ordination I took a picture of three priests the bishop has ordained in the past two years who have come out of our congregation. Sunday morning Chad was assisted by two deacons who have been ordained out of our congregation in the last five years. Chad's wife, Jana, was hired last year as the Director of Children's Ministry for the Diocese. Two young adults were given Neely grants. The bishop's committee is a diverse group of excellent leaders. The parish is in good hands. Leadership development has become a way of life in this community.

All I can truly say is that St. A's are a people who have lived out their vision of Prayer, Discernment, and Hospitality. Now is their time to see a new vision given to them by their new vicar and prior the Br Rev Chad. All is well and all will be well. God loves you. Love God with all your heart. Love your neighbors as your selves. And all will truly be well.

From Belfast, Ireland, the land of the troubles, know that peace and love of neighbor is possible because we are all one in the eye of the Holy Living God.