Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Sacred Cauldron - The Wisdom of Ritual

Wisdom's Way has gathered seven pilgrims at the Tearmann Spirituality Center in Glendalough, Ireland for a five day retreat; Sacred Cauldron: The Wisdom of Ritual.

Cathy and I have just completed a ten day pilgrimage with Vox Peregrini, a pilgrimage choir. The choir walked the hundred miles of the Wicklow Way and then performed two concerts in Dublin. Hard work. Magical experience. Cathy and I symbolically represent the transitional constancy of life. We live life as pilgrims. Embracing the transformational process of pilgrimage. Knowing pilgrimage as a way of life. Moving from one pilgrimage experience to another; all intertwined, all built upon one another.

Daily transition is the substance of a pilgrimage. Transitioning out of the routines of our life into an unfamiliar setting; leaving home to come to Ireland. Walking a hundred miles in eight days pushes my body through several transitions of soreness to discomfort to pain. Every night settling into a different hostel. In the morning, rising from a strange bed, packing once again, walking another unfamiliar trail. To pilgrimage is to embrace the dailiness of transitions.

Cathy and I, making the transition from one form of pilgrimage to another. Accepting the transitory nature of life. Making friends, if you will, with the human condition of change.

Transitions have challenged humankind from the first moments of self-realization. Humans watched the sun rise in the east. Travel across the sky. Then settle into the darkness. Humankind wondered if the great ball of fire would return. The transition of the Sun created the daily transitions of human life. Creating rhythms, cycles, and seasons. All transitions. With the realization of the human self came the questions: Who am I? Who is the Other?

To know who I am is to realize that I was born, grew into an adult, and face the reality of all humans, death. To experience the Other is to imagine I might be a part of the great cycle of life. Maybe when I return to soil I become a part of the Earth. To rise into the life of the plants. To bath once again if the light of the Sun.

Humankind has pondered the questions of life's transitions and created rituals to mark the greatest moments of life. Transition and how to memorialize life changes has been the genesis of ritual. Naming ceremonies at birth. Vision quests to mark adulthood. Union rituals brought adults together. Counsel circles sharing a pipe to make communal decisions. Burial rites at the transition from life to death.

Here is Ireland, where the Tuatha Da Danaan, the people of Danu, built the remarkable burial mound and tomb, Newgrange, 5,000 years ago, the ideas of ritual have been considered before the pyramids and stonehenge. In the land of gods and goddess', faeries and wee people, where the myths of ancient religions morph, we gather to consider our own transitions and rituals to mark and honor them.

For five days we will study the rituals of the ancient peoples of Ireland. We will examine our lives through the art of mandala. We will create a personal ritual for the transitions in our lives. Cathy is working on a Croning ceremony. And I am creating a ritual for the transition from one pilgrimage to another. Each person at our retreat is processing the work of their own ritual. Creativity. Art. Birth. New life. I am excited and deeply curious.

Monday, July 06, 2015

Vox Peregrini A Final Reflection

The night before walking the Wicklow Way with Vox Peregrini, we gathered at the Most Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Bonclody. There we met each other for the first time. There they had their first rehearsal. The first time they had sang together as a group. I have never been privileged to be present at that genesis moment of art. But to my amateur ear, they sounded as if they had been companions for years. No piano. No reading through the music. They just opened their mouths and this most holy sound reverberated through the room and my soul. We had not taken one step and these thirteen people had already implanted their spirits in my heart.

That night I had a very unusual dream. I cannot remember having a dream about flying. I have dreamt of falling, but never flying through the air. Unaided, untethered, self-directed flying. But that night I had a dream I was flying twenty feet above the ground. I was enjoy the freedom of traveling where I wanted and seeing far below in all directions. It was a joyous dream and I felt good when I woke up that the first morning of our walk.

I have walked with groups before. In many ways, this group was no different. The dream did not foretell a problem free pilgrimage, where everything went flyingly well. It did not. One person had to drop out from walking after the first day. They came unprepared and the walk was more difficult than they had expected. Several packs were too heavy and weight was off-loaded into bags that were transferred each morning to the next hostel. Many of the thirteen suffered blisters. An unusual number experienced multiple blisters on both feet. By the third morning I was spending an hour tending to their battered feet. Three had knee problems. One a bad ankle. Fortunately, we had enough braces to go around. I thought I had brought plenty of bandages, but we had to restock three times. I had brought naturopathic remedies along that I distributed freely for sore muscles and aching joints, as well as one sore throat. Cathy also packed essential oils and we used them quite extensively. Including the purification oil every morning on my own hands. While I tended their feet, I prayed for their healing. I also used Charles Williams' ideas on the exchange of love. I counted on the purification oil to keep me from transferring blisters and joint issues to my own body. In retrospect, I think most of their problems were due to poor boots and not enough hill climbing before we started. But, I wasn't surprised. Hill climbing is a difficult task in Ireland. Not to be taken lightly. Experience is most helpful. I wondered along the way if they had read my posts to assist in their preparations. Most admitted they had. Still, it's kind of one of those things you have to see to believe, like the Irish landscape.

In Ireland, seeing can have more to do with the third eye. I think that's where the flying dream came to bear. Vox Peregrini's music and their spirit opened my soul a bit further than even I could imagine. As I pulled back the layers of each of my souls, the sauve of their musical spirits plied the widening of the sacred circle ensouling my nature. I walked. The concentric mandalas of souls breathed out ahead, behind, above, below me. Looking, seeking, searching, discovering. Finding new elements to pour into my alchemical cauldron, that which I pray over to bring forth soul gold. The psychic imagination of a new possibility.

The light faeries appeared. The dragon-raven revealed herself. The Divine opened a new place deep within the regions of my inner world where light had not flickered before. What does it all mean? The answer will take days, months, years to unpack.

What seems most meaningful at this moment in time? My most profound memories? Morgan K's incredible positive attitude when his bag didn't arrive the first night and he had to borrow boots, pants, a shirt, a pack, and a stick from fellow pilgrims. The group, I believe, breathed in his spirit and shone with it the remainder of the trip. In the face of countless opportunities to complain, I never heard one second of grumbling. Morgan H's courage to stop walking after the first day, reminded me that we are all on our own pilgrimage. Pastor Amy's blessing midway through a most difficult day poured sauve on my soul. Jonathan's bass ohm shook my imagination free on Glendalough's mountain side. John whispering to the choir, "Listen to the wind. Match your voice to the rhythm of the trees," opened my ears. Ian's ability to be everywhere to take the best "money-shot" pictures widened my eyes. Samantha's innocent curiosity about faeries and her deep desire to see one, caused me to giggle with glee and I prayed she would see one too. Allie's steady pace, as she quipped, "We're a heard of turtles," made me slow down to her wisdom. Richard's Eagle Scout confidence steadied my own insecurities in map reading. Michael's open heart of spiritual theology buoyed my hope for Christianity's future. Briar's fierce questions reminded me daily the value of the question far outweighs the necessity of any answer. Arlie's servanthood presence kept me focused on the One I follow. Melissa's bold face courage to confront her fears and overcome them filled my eyes with the fresh tears of the Spirit of God when she crossed the finish line - encouraging me to take up yet another pilgrimage, another day, for another fellow pilgrim. And Cathy, you were always present. Both Mary and Martha, words of wisdom and ministry of presence. You have kept me alive for forty-three years and counting. With Vox Peregrini you shared that grace as well. I am thankful for each of these marvelous pilgrims—the communal soul of Vox Peregrini.

When life challenges your being, presses against your soul, beats down your spirit, takes away your breath—remember the Iron Bridge and S-F hill. Remember you made it. All the way to the top. On your own. Such is the power gained by walking your own pilgrimage. But, there is also a great paradox, the pair of opposites found within pilgrimage. As John said that first night, "Just because they show up to the concert, doesn't mean they get to understand everything." Such is the hidden wisdom of pilgrimage.The wisdom is found in the reflection. Without it, you simply walked 100 miles.

I have learned much from you. I pray much more is to come. I am much better for walking by your side. Blessed Be dearest friends. Till we meet again.

Sunday, July 05, 2015

Vox Peregrini Concert Time

Eighteen hours after finishing the Wicklow Way, Vox Peregrini stood in Christ Church Cathedral, which sits in the city center of bustling Dublin. The ensemble was dressed in professional concert attire. Their hair was in its place. Make-up on. Shaven and trimmed beards.

"This is who we are. This is our comfort zone," one pilgrim told me. "Out there on the trail, all we felt was discomfort."

We met nine days ago. Today was the first time I had seen them in anything but hiking gear, ponytails, sans cosmetics. For me, seeing them in performance mode, was the reality of returning to the normal world. A world in which I feel less comfortable with every pilgrimage. The mask of "normality" fills me with dis-ease. The group seems a bit unsettled as they began the performance.

After the concert one pilgrim recommended that for the next Vox Peregrini group it would be best to give them a day of recovery before the first performance. However, as a sort of anthropologist of pilgrimage, I wanted to see them in performance mode as soon as possible after they finished walking. My desire was to see a raw pilgrim try and perform to an audience.

Their self-reflective critique of that first concert was harsh.
"I coudn't hear anyone so I was afraid to sing out for fear of being too loud."
"I felt like I was trying to sing for the audience. It didn't feel right."
"We made some serious mistakes."

They had just finished walking 100 miles a few hours before. Their bodies were aching. Feet still blistered. Knee and ankle braces still worn. The jarring effect of returning to the bustle of life after eight days of almost pure nature filled silence was still rattling their souls. They preformed out of what described as their pre-pilgrimage paradigm. And it "didn't feel right," to them.

Twenty-four hours later, at St. Patrick's Cathedral, just a few blocks down the street, Vox Peregrini stood in place to sing their second concert. Before they could begin, however, their director had to ask a tour guide, and her loud voice, to move her tourists off center stage. I wondered about the irony.

The Vox Peregrini choir seemed be standing closer together than yesterday. John had rearranged who stood where in the now tighter half-circle. As they performed, it was apparent he had also changed the order of the pieces of music.Their voices were much stronger. They appeared less inhibited by the noisy wandering tourists. They swayed, more at ease with themselves and one another. They smiled at one another. They seemed to have found a new voice.

After the concert I asked John to compare the first performance with the second. "Yesterday was like watching TV. Today was like making out with your girlfriend."

A member of Vox Peregrini told me that just before they walked out to sing, John encouraged them to sing for themselves. Sing like you sang on the Way. "Listen to wind," he said, "Sing in rhythm with the trees."

Vox Peregrini completed the Wicklow Way. Up some extremely difficult hills. Down into some steep valleys. They walked through the deep dark forest. They trekked across the bald White Hill. They sang in the forest. They sang for themselves. They sang for Frank from Germany on the side of a hill. They sang for Mark and Roz from Australia high in the Wicklow forest. At St. Patrick's Cathedral they sang in tune with the natural world. I wept.

I can't say how the pilgrimage has affected the members of Vox Peregrini. They haven't had time to process. I have asked them to share some reflections with me during the next few days, weeks, and months. How, if at all, has the pilgrimage changed their solo and ensemble perspective of performance as well their creative craft of music? There will be much to learn from them. As for me, I too am processing. I will write one more blog for Vox. One more reflection. One more in the line of a life time of memories and reflections they have sang into my soul.

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.