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

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.

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Vox Peregrini Day Five

Climbing 1500 feet out of the Glendalough Valley is demanding. But every pause is the opportunity to breathe in the panorama of creation's majesty. The kingdom of the sky lays down a light grey, then a purple, then swirls of cream, and dops of midnight blues with dashes of royals. The portrait of the sky feels permanent until the next time we turn to take another glorious breath. Under the comforting sky reside the vast interwoven mountains, vested in emerald regalia, revealing the rich hues of Mother Earth's resplendent tapestry of greens that only the soul can differentiate. On the hillside around us the ferns move in rhythm with the encouraging breeze. And today's footsteps are softened by a velvet hillside grass that reaches up to caress our feet. At the very peak of our three hour climb we lay down our packs for a well deserved rest.

This is the pilgrim's rest going in and out of the Glendalough Valley. The Mountain Rescue team has build a shelter that invites a day time relief from rain and a home to spend the night. Here we rest. Here the magic of the Way begins to settle into the bones.

John Wiles chooses the Shaker hymn, "Not One Sparrow," for Vox Peregrini to sing. After a few gentle comments, one of the singers offers that this song reminds him of his grandmother's favorite, the "Eye of the Sparrow." Indeed, John says, similar in tone, but different in theology. He offers Vox a line or two about Mother Ann Lee and points to a line in this hymn that makes reference to her. Shakerism, founded in Lee's dualism of the female and male nature of the Divine, created a community of equality. Her gentle teachings convinced her followers that she was the feminine incarnation of brother Jesus. Though the Shakers worship style was a response of spontaneity to the staid Church of England, Lee's hymns are gentle and comforting. "Not one sparrow will be forgotten, even the raven God will feed."

As Vox Peregrini began to sing the hymn again, a small sparrow like Chiffinch landed on the ground in front of me. His brilliant copper chest almost obscured his dark silver helmet. He was curious. He also sung in time with Vox. I imagined he wanted me to throw him a crumb. But he moved to quickly, seeming to be more interested in the singing. He circled the singers, sat in a tree, matched his tone to theirs and announced that he had joined this human choir. Then he returned to the ground in front me, assuring me music was more sustaining that food. For, this sparrow said that he too was the incarnation of the Divine.

Sunday, July 02, 2017

Vox Peregrini Day Four and Glendalough

When the sun shines in Ireland the hills sparkle with their silver pines. The grasses twist their heads forward to reveal a glistening sheen of iridescent green. And the bog exposes a reflective onyx. Erie breathes a deep sigh of joy on these rare clear summer days.

With a gentle cool breeze at their back, Vox Peregrini climbed the Glendalough Mountains heading towards the near 2,000 year old monastery of St Kevin. We made the steepest ascent in this point of the Wicklow Way from the south. Leaving a logging road, we started the stairway of shiny grey shale without being able to see the top. Each step had to be carefully chosen, else fearing the loss of balance and the chance of falling backwards down the hill. To the sides of the natural stepping stones was the wet and unstable ebony bog. At some points, hiking sticks caused more risk than aid, either slipping on smooth stones or sticking in an enveloping black goo.

Reaching the top was a moment of exhilarating achievement, at least for a guy my age. The younger ones worked their way to the top and were well into enjoying their lunch by the time I arrived out of breath. They smiled kindly at my successful arrival. It's been so long since I was there age, I can't remember what it felt like to pull a hill and not see more of the ground than the sky. But, hey, someone has to bring up the rear and make sure everyone else arrives safely. At least that's what I like telling myself.

After lunch we cross a half mile of railroad ties, allowing us to move easily across the gnarly grass covered bog. The black bog was created when centuries ago an Icelandic volcano erupted and the ash blanketed Ireland, suffocating most of the plant life and creating a fifteen foot thick natural compost. The bog has been a modern source of fuel for the Irish especially during the petrol restricted times of War World II. Harvesting bog is now protected to ensure its historic perseveration. Personally knowing the difficulty of walking across the bog on some western trails in Ireland, I can't imagine the difficulty of cutting and hauling it for miles. But today, we simply walk up a hill across railroad ties laid down by volunteers who love climbing the hills of Ireland while protecting its ancient landscape.

Before descending in the Glendalough valley, Vox Peregrini stopped to rehearse. Two fellow pilgrims sat under the shade of the pines for a breather. They enjoyed their serenaded respite and their applause was acknowledged with appreciative smiles.

Singing in the open forest with a strong breeze seems impossible to me. But Vox Peregrini are never deterred. There voices match their director's expectations and something magical happens in the woods. That magic was translated twice to uninitiated pilgrims in the next twenty-four hours.

Having been in the silence of the forest for four days, the onslaught of tourists can be overwhelming to the soul. Our group bunched together, trying to protect ourselves from those unaware of what it means to walk a pilgrimage. John had decided to take the group immediately to St Kevin's Kitchen, the first ancient monastic worship space of the site. There, he hoped to be able to sing inside the rarely opened chapel. As synchronicity would happen, a man wearing a jacket with the word "Guide" on his back had opened the ten foot by ten foot stone room, complete with stone ceiling. This tiny stone chapel is one of the few remaining with the roof intact.

John quickly moved the group into their now practiced circle. The Guide told them he was going to close the gate to the building and they had to leave. John asked if they could sing one song. The man told them he wouldn't allow any inappropriate such singing. In a few words John told him they were going to sing sacred music. Hesitantly, the Guide said, "Well let's hear a bit."

And then the angels that had been dead for eons joined in with Vox Peregrini. A building that had longed to hear the nature of its purpose, opened its very soul to breathe deeply the sound of these young troubadours. The room quickly filled with amazed tourists. One women in her seventies stood touching the circle and openly wept and the music bathed the essence of her being. When the singing stopped, silence hang in the air like the mystery of birth, and then the child cried out in applause. The Guide gave the Irish understatement, "Well now, how lovely," and then swept the thirty people from the ancient worship space.

The next evening, Vox Peregrini offered their four day old repertoire to a small but extremely appreciative audience at St Kevin's Catholic Church. The beautiful grey stone and acoustically pristine church was built in 1850 by local parishioners. The space held its congregation's love and the singers absorbed the warmth of those present. John mentioned how this was the first time they had performed, which drew a gasp of unbelief from the couple sitting behind me. Indeed, it seems beyond remarkable how this group could knit their voices, and I might suggest souls, together so quickly. Maybe the answer lies somewhere in the mystery and magic of being on pilgrimage? Regardless the multi layers of reasons and circumstances that would allow such a group to crystallize so rapidly; the joyful noise illuminated the sacred space with fresh air for this moment.

Our twenty-four hour relief from the Way gave us time to live in the breath of times past. We gathered at St Mary's, the women's chapel, which lies just outside the monastery walls. There, women would bring their unbaptized children to be buried. And there, women priests would minister to their grief. We were led by a holy woman of the Grandmother's circle this morning. We followed her as she circled the tiny church seven times. We entered in silence. We listened to the prayers. We prayed Our Mother. And we shared in the blessed meal of the fruit of Love and the water of Wisdom; a pilgrim's meal of inclusion. My wife has always been a priest to her tribe and this occasion was no exception. Blessed Be. Now we must leave the Valley of the Lake of Two Angels. On to Roundwood and then to White Hill.

Vox Peregrini Day Three

The fifteen mile hike from Kyle's farm house to Glenmalure is a long slow climb through the Carrickashane Mountain. As the elevation rises the pilgrims have the opportunity to look back on the southern region of Ireland where the farms are demarcated by stone walls; tidy, lush green pastures of restive cows with their calves and the wondering sheep and lambs that blanket the rolling hills and valleys. Today's walk moves the hikers from the grasslands into the forests. The elevation of every hill gives way to the strain of demanding mountains of limestone and quartz.

The miles of the previous two days and the ache of climbing mountains began to show a bit on Vox Peregrini. Instead of walking in small chatty groups, a long silent line formed up every contiguous hill. Just as the burning muscles of one hill eases, the next climb begins. Vox Peregrini is little aware that this will be the pattern for the remainder of their trek along the Wicklow Way.

I have walked the Way from both directions, now my fifth journey along the Wicklow, the second starting from the south. Going from Clonegal to Dublin, I have found, is the most satisfying. The stunning scenery combined with rewarding challenges are to be found more prevalent in the final four days.

The great joy of walking with folks on their first pilgrimage, especially in Ireland, is that I am reminded of the beauty of what I might just walk past. This is the first journey across Ireland for most of Vox Peregrini 2017 and they stop to take pictures of the landscape and one another at points I had forgotten that I, too, had stopped to ponder in awe.

At the halfway point of the day, before the more strenuous part of the walk began, John Wiles, creator of Vox Peregrini and musical director, called his wife, Pastor Amy Wiles, to offer a blessing for us. She had given this blessing to Vox 2015 at this point, and I personally found it most poignant. Her well timed and inspiring words moved the group into a long held silence that allowed the wind to speak through the flowing ancient pines.

This was also a day to recognize that the Irish also farm the forest. The stark reality of deforestation is abrupt to an innocent pilgrim. Even with the evidence of appropriate forest management and replanting, the image of walking where others have made holy pilgrimage is tarnished. Little is lost in the conversation among Vox Peregrini when they gather for a breather, to bandage forming blisters, and treat aching knees.

These are the days where life conversations brew, those revisiting past clouds and those discerning sunny days that could emerge. These long paths of solitude produce the possibility of coming along side a fellow pilgrim for contemplation that I find painfully rewarding.

Day three ends oddly at the Wicklow Way halfway marker. We stop for the obligatory photo taken by a fellow pilgrim from Germany walking in the opposite direction. And such a moment gives Vox the opportunity to sing "Blackbird." To stand among these gifted singers in a privilege, one I don't take for granted, no matter how many times I hear them. Equally, though, I am fascinated to watch the reaction of the sole pilgrim who stands amongst them, being sung to, personally, as if courted by a choir of lovers. Without exception, each solitary soul is visibly moved, some to tears others to great joy, and at some point I heard this young man join in - that was reciprocal love.

Saturday, July 01, 2017

Vox Peregrini Day Two

Synchronicity - is that a thing? Random circumstance? Extrapolated hopes? Wishful thinking? I lean toward Carl Jung's understanding; those unplanned situations that defy our attempted explanations, but have profound symbolic meaning for our life.

Early into Vox Peregrini's sixteen mile walk from Shillelagh to Kyle's Farm House in Moyne, they stopped at St Finnian's Catholic Church. The church was empty on this Thursday morning. But the doors were open and inviting.

I had stopped to pray at St Finnians in 2012 and then again with Vox Peregrini in 2015. Nothing would lead a visitor to suspect that this was a dying church. The doors were always open, no matter the day of the week. The yard around the grey flagstone church is beautifully maintained. The inside is simple yet immaculate. The wooden floor and pews were polished. The Renaissance paintings of the Stations of the Cross are prints, but well preserved. The stone altar and altar piece are pure white. The sanctuary for the reserve sacrament is polished gold and rests centered immediately behind the altar. A life size statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus stands to the left of the altar piece and one of Mary the Mother of God stands to the right. Everything visually proclaims that this is a well loved church. But evidently the vibrancy of the congregation is waning.

As the choir was working on a few pieces, I picked up a letter written by the local bishop to the four parishes in the area. Due to declining attendance and a shortage of priests, those parishes would be served by one priest and experience a dramatic reduction in their services, some, including St Finnians, to twice a month. The unspoken expectation would be that this was the first step of many towards closing some of those churches. Some like St Finnian's could become museum pieces to a religion of an ancient past.

The final piece that Vox Peregrini chose to rehearse was Hildegaard of Bingen's medieval chant, "O ignis Spiritus paracliti." The opening lines of the chant voice the cry of a desperate but hopeful soul: "O fire of the Spirit...Holy are you, anointing the critically broken. Holy are you, cleansing the festering wounds." The lyrics demand that the Spirit thrust her holy power into the despair of the dying; places like St Finnians that seem to have no hope, no future.

The magic of the choir and their pristine soprano soloist called forth the dead and evoked the angels to join the ancient chant. My soul was disturbed to joy, yet rattled to sadness at the edges of my imagination. Could it be that this would be the last music to be sung in this church? A church already void of Sunday music or even for special occasions? Could this be the spectral mass for the church itself? I could see the priests of the past whose graves lay just outside the walls, standing round the altar in their vestments, celebrating the Holy Eucharist. All would be well in this moment. But not for the morrow of the living.

Are we witnessing the death of the Church? Most likely. Are we experiencing a post-Christian era? Definitely. Will the Spirit's work of Christianity past fade into obscurity? Not as long as those who understand, love, and celebrate the craft of ancient Spirit filled art continue to open their souls to their imagination and the synchronicity of the moment. Not to conduct art as performance. But in the pure joy of singing to God for the sake of the gifts of God, allowing the music and the Spirit to perform their own mystical magic. That is the pilgrimage of Vox Peregrini. And on this day they sang for themselves, the divine, and the dead. Holiness was resurrected if just for four minutes. And that was enough for a lifetime of generations.