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.
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