The idea of journeys and pilgrimages has been interesting to me for some time. Folk singers say that every story is about going away and coming back again.
Whether inward or outward, for 5 minutes or 5 years, we all need to journey into silence and back again. I’m reminded of the Hermit achetype. The lone figure on a mountain shining a light back down. The need to journey into solitude and darkness and bring the light back with you.
They say that if you want to get to know a man, walk a mile in his shoes. I think that this is a beautiful way of life if you take it literally. Put down your theological arguments for a moment, take part in the pageant, and experience what it feels like to be on the other side.
One literal pilgrimage that I missed was the 29th of February inaugural walking retreat from the Liam Lynch monument near Cahir in Co. Tipperary to Mt. Mellary Abbey in Co. Waterford. Across the Knockmealdown mountains St. Declan’s way is about to become the Irish Camino. A future hotspot for instagrammers.
Although at present I find myself in something of a walking retreat in my father’s shoes, I have of late developed a fondness for the myth and aesthetic of the Catholic Church. Fr. Denis Luke from Mount Mellary Abbey was kind enough to send me his account of their walking retreat, and ask for my reflections on it.
I’m struck by Denis’s genuine concern for the younger people growing up without faith (On a side note, I recently found an article that I once wrote for the Humanist Ireland magazine about faith. I haven’t read it yet, I’m looking forward to seeing what I think about it!). Having got to know Fr. Denis Luke a little, I am touched by his “broad church”, his welcome smile and home-made scones that he offers any who come through the cafe door. In a fractured world, it is surely time for us to reach across the aisle, shake hands, and offer each other the sign of peace.
To try to reach a common ground – Is it possible for us all to agree that we need to believe in a something? That to start with – we agree on that, and then argue about what to call it. Sogyal Rinpoche, in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, says that before he helps anyone, he asks if they have a belief in an afterlife.
Not what they believe. He just asks if they believe in a something.
To dismiss religion entirely as a childish superstition is to miss something quite special. Regardless of our beliefs about the universe, to see an example of a person who puts others first, spends time in contemplation, has years of wisdom – should be just as special a gem as a beautiful stained glass window. And indeed if you want to change the world, the only way to do it is by example.
I enjoy dipping into different faith stories and traditions. Every story adds something to our understanding. I once listened to a talk by the Tibetan lineage meditation teacher Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche. In it he described experiences he had when he went on a four year wandering retreat. This man, who had lived all of his life in a monastery, one day left with nothing but his clothes and wandered the planet for four years.
To hear a man who comes from a lineage of Tibetan teachers, a revered master, talk openly about the severe anxiety that he experienced on that journey was humbling. He suffered many trials and nearly died, but the enduring thing he spoke about was his anxiety. To throw ourselves into the world is a scary thing.
Journeys take on meanings, some of them inescapable. Pilgrimages are about finding ourselves, or finding God – if there’s a difference. The route to compassion for others is compassion for ourselves. Sometimes finding compassion for ourselves is a very tricky thing. At times we need someone else to show us that love first.
My Father and I have a friend in common. We both met him at different times and we call him different names. He looks a bit different and he’s changed a bit over the years. But we have a friend in common. That’s enough for us.
A strange irony about these journeys though, is that sometimes we do need to take that physical journey as well as the internal. We first learn about abstract love from the physical example of our parents. If you are in West Waterford, take a walk up to the Cross, sit quietly in the Abbey, and see who you might meet in the cafe.
When we are watching a great movie, we don’t care if it’s true or not when we are crying as the closing credits roll. Just imagine, just for a moment. Take a look through someone else’s eyes. Some say that a place is made holy by what people do in it. If you take a stroll down the Irish Camino tell me what you think of the place you find in the Knockmealdowns.
Oh, and don’t forget to bring some holy water home from the Grotto – but remember that Our Lady asked for Quiet.