Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Cliffs of Moher

Well, this is it. Our pilgrimage is winding down, and our last full day in Ireland is drawing to a close. This trip was the opportunity of a lifetime, and it was truly an experience to be had. It has been a great opportunity to explore the more spiritual side of myself on a journey across a much simpler country than my own, one with a fantastically rich culture and a wide range of history, just sitting out there, waiting for people to come along and tap into it.

Kind of tacky sounding, but nonetheless, our trip was characterized by a close and personal experience with everything we saw and everyone we met. We enjoyed our privacy and the space it offered us to contemplate ourselves, our places in the world, and our relationship to God.

Today was a slight change of pace, as it was mostly a day of travel. The main attractions that we saw were the Cliffs of Moher and O'Brien's Tower. The Cliffs were a truly fantastic sight to behold. When you stand on top of the cliff, looking down a breathtaking distance, you feel a sense of looking into the heart of God, and you can almost feel your personal meaning and that of humanity. This meaning varies for every person in the world, which is part of what makes life in general so special. We all have our own path, a course that is unique to everyone. We all must make our own journey, with many stops along the way to provide insight into our conscious.

The Cliffs were a perfect example of one of these stops, and from the conversations I've had with the other members of our group, I can tell that it will be a memory to keep for years. The Cliffs, while a shared stop along our paths, meant something different to each and everyone who sees them. I cannot speak for others on this matter, but I can say that the Cliffs had a boatload of meaning to me. We spent an hour at the Cliffs, giving me adequate time to continue my thoughts on themes from the rest of the trip. It was a great opportunity for all of us to stop and think over life in the presence of one of its wonders.

The other place that we visited was a very brief, yet still significant, visit to Bunratty Castle. This Castle is a very important place to one of my peers, Ellie, since her family used to own it. It was a very beautiful place to see, and a wonderful part of history. It must be fantastic to have such a visible sign of one's own history.

Back to my metaphor of God's paths for us, this castle was a very important stop for Ellie, and meant a lot to her. However, it meant a lot to the rest of the group as well. It encouraged me to ask more about my own Irish roots, for one. Knowing something about one's family and seeing it are different on great levels, so it was a touching stop to make.

And that was our day. The rest of the time we spent in transit, with little else of note. This trip has been one of the greatest I have ever taken, and I'm very proud to say that I was a member. I have learned much about myself, and I believe that everyone on the trip has as well.

Now, with our revelations carried with us in our hearts, we return to our busy and preoccupied lives. I personally hope I can carry what I have learned with me forever, and not lose it in the onslaught of day-to-day life. I give thanks to God for bringing me together with these fantastic people as a group to have a tremendous experience, and I hope to have more along my path.


Monday, June 13, 2011

Inis Mor

Today was the best day so far. The weather was absolutely amazing. We started out by renting bikes and touring the whole island of Aran. The first place we stopped was an old Viking burial mound. Our next stop was a beehive hut. It was originally used for the hermits that were looking for a spiritual escape in which they would find God in solitude. The hermits would also provide shelter for pilgrims in their huts.

Next, we stopped at the seven churches. The seven churches were a monastic community founded by St. Breachan. After the seven churches we rode our bikes to Dun Aengus. Dun Aengus is a pre-Christian fort that on one side is protected by walls and the other by a three hundred foot cliff. We were told to lie on our stomach and crawl to the edge of the cliffs and look out. Earlier, we'd been told to drop a rock off of the cliff in a symbolism of letting go of something that has been troubling us that we just couldn't quite get rid of. It was an amazing sight.

Once we wrote in our journals and ate lunch, we headed back to our Inn to meet Fr. Dara Molly. He took us to the smallest church in Europe and most likely the world, St. Culumba's altar, the ruins of St. Enda's and numerous holy wells. He then took us to a completely secluded site where we celebrated the Eucharist. We said goodbye to Fr. Molly and ate dinner. Afterwards, we went to a traditional celtic dance. The singing was fantastic.

The part that resonated the most with me was dropping the rock off the cliff. When John first told me that we were going to throw a rock off a big ledge, I was naturally excited (seeing as teenage boys like throwing rocks off things), but it turned out to be an experience I will remember for the rest of my life.

As I crawled on my belly to the edge holding my rock I started to pray and think of what I really wanted to get off my mind. I looked out then closed my eyes and began to pray. It was weird-- everything turned silent. I'm not sure whether it was actually quiet, or if I was just so focused on talking to God.

I was in the middle of my prayer when I heard John say Amen. I was surprised, because I wasn't expecting such a fast prayer, then I realized that I had been thinking of it the entire bike ride and was ready to let go of the troubles that had been holding on to me.

He said, “OK, let go,” and I just dropped the rock without thinking. As soon as I dropped it, I felt an entire weight lifted off my back. I'd never felt such peace in my life. Being able to throw my worries into God's great ocean made my them seem so miniscule in comparison.

I actually didn't see my rock hit the water, but that was really a good thing. I saw my rock disappear over the ledge and had faith that it would hit the water and be hidden in the sea forever. I had faith that God was going to take care of my worries and problems.

It was an experience I will never forget and always remember when I am stressed from school, tests, and life in general. Amen.

- Quill

Sunday, June 12, 2011

A Travel Day (with an excursion to Clonmacnoise)

After Eucharist this morning we left Dublin and went to Clonmacnoise to see St. Ciaran's Monastery. Although it was slightly rainy at the site, the ruins were very powerful. We first watched a video and had a lecture about the history of the site. What struck me was how many times the monastery was attacked but the monks continued to rebuild it.

The monastery was in a well traveled location, close to a road and a river, which made it easier to have lots of people to convert to Christianity. The site had three high crosses which had been moved inside for protection and replicas placed in the original locations and two high towers.

The ruins provoked thoughts about what had occurred there so many years ago. We were inspired by how young St. Ciaran was when he accomplished so much; it reminds us that we can do the same in our own lives.

After we left the monastic city we continued to Galway where we had about two hours of free time to explore the city. To escape the rain, a few of us stayed in a pub while others ventured out into the downpour to shop in the city.

We caught a ferry to Inishmor from Rossaveal. The boat ride was fairly calmer than what was expected and no one was sea sick at all. We arrived at the Tigh Fitz Guesthouse for a nice dinner of curried chicken and then got settled into our rooms after some discussion.


Saturday, June 11, 2011

A Day in Dublin

Today's experience was quite different from our previous travels on the pilgrimage. For the past four days, we had traveled across the Irish countryside, allowing me personally (as well as the other group members, I'm sure) to see God in nature, and see how the Celtic and Pagan religions influenced the ideas of modern Christianity in Ireland.

So it was a sudden and drastic change today when we threw ourselves into the bustling city of Dublin. Highlights included seeing two tremendously beautiful cathedrals (I can say proudly that they were both Church of Ireland, the Anglican church in the country) and visiting a gigantic park. One of the cathedrals, St. Patrick's, had a Norwegian choir give a short performance, allowing for some quiet reflection and meditation, as well as some time for admiring the tremendous acoustics of the church.

Music plays a special role in my religious life and life outside of church, and to hear beautiful music being sung in a beautiful cathedral was refreshing for me, as well as some of the other musically inclined pilgrims.

We also saw the Book of Kells at Trinity college, a copy of the gospel copied by monks in the 9th century AD that is both well preserved and remarkably gorgeous.

Despite some entertaining free time wandering the city in the afternoon and some delicious fish and chips, the earlier part of the day was the most powerful to me. In the morning, we went to Kilmainham Gaol (jail), which was a brutal prison that operated by the British for hundreds of years.

It demonstrated to me both the best and worst characteristics of the human race. We were told stories of atrocities that were barely imaginable: 14 political prisoners in the ongoing battle for Irish independence in the early 20th century were executed, one by one, over the course of many days in 1916. All of these men had organized a rebellion. One of them had contracted gangreen and was dying, however, he was taken to the prison from the hospital in his wheelchair and executed anyway.

Another story that was told to us was about a prisoner sentenced to death who was engaged. Although he and his wife were allowed to marry, no one was allowed to attend, the only words that were allowed to be said were their vows, and the wife only got to see her husband for ten minutes afterwards (he was executed the next day). Word of these stories got out, and the Irish populace became outraged, and British popularity in the country diminished rapidly.

To come into that prison and hear about the monstrosities that were committed had a deep effect on me. Although these political executions were not directly related to Christianity or religion, I could not help but wonder where God was while these people were getting executed, and prisoners were being shoved into a prison that was literally bursting at the seams. Learning about these things, and realizing that they were committed by human beings, just like me or anyone else on this pilgrimage, was disheartening to say the least.

But then to see the Irish nation as a whole join together in outrage at those who had committed these crimes (which if you didn't know, for the Irish, is quite a feat), assured me that God was at work among them. Standing on the very ground that these 14 men were shot was an experience for me to say the least. Despite the horrible things that had happened, it gave me some hope for a humanity that is littered with senseless killings and other inhumanities, oftentimes in the name of God. I was also given assurance that God is at work among us and everyone.


Friday, June 10, 2011

Knowth, Monasterboice, and Tara

Happy Friday!!! I'm happy to report that today was another eventful and meaningful day. However, it started exceedingly early for some of us... Our lovely and CRAZY ball of energy, Janine, inspired a few of us to wake up at 4:45 to watch the sunrise (and some other strange events that can only happen at 4 am...).

After the sun rose and the normal people woke up, we departed for Bru na Boinne where we toured Knowth. There we saw extremely old, large mounds where many people were buried. Its many residents began living there during the Neolithic era, thousands of years ago. From there, different societies moved in and created their own cultural changes that our lovely tour guide presented. After understanding its historical impact, we began to contemplate the transition from Pagan beliefs to Christianity.

Following that, we went to Monasterboice, another high cross, and we spent some time in its cemetery. The cross was the most intact of those we had seen so far. With all of its perfectly drawn out symbols and flawless structure, it was difficult to believe it was from the 10th century!

We finished our day with a tour of the Hill of Tara, another group of burial mounds, with an astounding view and a ton of history. Standing in a place where so many before us had, it was baffling to contemplate our nonchalant reason for being there compared to the sacred/bloodthirsty/all-around-crazy reasons of our predecessors.

After experiencing these three sacred places, we waited for some heavy thoughts to sink in.
The spiritual search for answers and comfort has been around for longer than it is easy to understand, and at times we were surprised by the artful and architectural advances (a lot of a's....) of their “primitive” societies. It's a lot to take in for our immature teenage minds. We're working on it... hopefully we'll have all the answers by the time we get back!

Hope all is well in Atlanta. I definitely have to go to sleep now though- Janine is suggesting a 4 am run... HELP!!!


Thursday, June 9, 2011

Kildare, St. Brigid & the High Crosses

Today was day three of our pilgrimage in Ireland. The day started nice and early for us, waking up around 7:30. It was our last day at Sli an Chroi, so we were required to pack all of our stuff up. After we had a small pillow cover problem (there were none) we had to strip our beds and remake them. We then went to morning prayer and loaded everything onto the bus.

We then headed towards Kildare where we me met up with sister Mary at her house. We then sat in a circle and lit a candle and she told us about Saint Brigid and then we listened to a song (which praised Saint Brigid). Mary sang along.

We then left her house and walked on over to Saint Brigid's Cathedral. We then decided to climb up one of the tallest round towers in Ireland, this surprisingly took a long time to reach the top. When we got up there we took some great pictures (including a killer picture with John and William).

We then went into Saint Brigid's Cathedral, where we sat down and Mary talked to us about the history of the church. We then left the church and walked though the oldest street market in Ireland (it was started around 1515) to get to an information center about Saint Brigid. After we watched a 15 minute movie (and yes it was extremely cheesy) we left and walked to a Catholic church where we learned more about Saint Brigid.

We then got back on the bus to go to the well of Saint Brigid but first we took a pit stop at a healing well. Then we got back on the bus and continued on to Saint Brigid's well. When we got there we went to these rock structures and learned what all five of them stood for, we then got to the actual well where we stood and listened to Mary talk more about Saint Brigid. She then told us that some people leave something of theirs tied to a tree near the well then some of us did the same.

We then got our lunches off the bus and sat in the fenced in area around the well and had lunch. After Owen (our bus driver) dropped off our guide Mary we got back on the bus and headed to see the High Cross at Moone, and some other high crosses at Castledermott. We then got back on the bus and we headed towards Dublin, however most of the journey I don't remember because I fell asleep (our bus is unusually comfy), but apparently some Max, Jeffrey, Susanna, and Eason played games the whole way there (rather quietly, thankfully).

We then arrived at Emmaus (our hotel) which has endless hot water and doesn't smell like cows when you walk outside (i.e its way more modern and nice). We then got to our rooms and had a little time to hang out before we had to go to reflection where we journaled for about 30 min.

We then had a little more free time before dinner, after that we headed into our own private dinning hall to have dinner where Luke sat with all the kids and Jeffrey and William sat with the rest of the chaperones (who had very enthralling conversations and I only could guess that Luke and the other teens had great conversations as well).

Next we watched the slide show of the day's pictures and we talked about our experiences with the people we met today. We then had compline which Jeffrey and Ellie led (they did a wonderful job). We then went to our rooms and got ready for bed (I assume).

Today was a great day and we had a lot of fun, but I must go to bed now so goodnight loyal readers and Atlanta.


Wednesday, June 8, 2011

St. Kevin's Monastic City

Today is the second day of our pilgrimage in Ireland. We woke up around 7:30 and had breakfast and did a morning prayer. We are staying at some form of a boarding house. The name is Sli an Chroi, which means the way of the heart or journey of the heart.

After morning prayer, we hit the bus and traveled to Glendalough. This is where St. Kevin built his monastery and lived. The drive is a little over an hour. At first we went into a museum to learn about the site a little more. There were other tourists from other parts of the world. There was also a German and Spanish group. This caused me to really reflect on how wide spread St. Kevin's outreach must have been.

After a short film and a museum visit we headed out to find our tour guide. He was running a tad bit late with the previous group so we had someone named Bridget guide us around beforehand. Bridget took us to a labyrinth. She told us a story of how when some people would take pilgrimages back in the past, just like St. Kevin, it would be dangerous to do so. So she said they would find ways to walk and try to find yourself spiritually through a pilgrimage. Then they could settle and sometimes build up their beliefs just like St. Kevin.

She told us to bend down and touch the ground, to feel the wind with our hands, and to feel the earth. She did this because she wanted us to know where we came from and to respect it. This was really resonating with us as a group.

Living as teenagers every day we never really take the time to stop and look at what is given to us. Every day we wait for miracles when we are given small ones all the time. We overlook them all the time when they are staring at us constantly. This exercise somewhat re-gifted these previous gifts God had given us since day one. We all had the opportunity to walk through the labyrinth. This was supposed to give us time to clear our heads and thoughts of any ideas besides our own journey that lies ahead.

Then Bridget took us to the entrance of Kevin's Monastic City. There we stopped where she pointed out a cross carved into the stone just inside the entrance. She told us how the city was a sanctuary for all people. She told us to lay our hands on the cross and ask for sanctuary from whatever it was that troubled us. This gave us time to bring up the ideas in our hearts that usually we keep hidden. This was one of the first steps to healing and accepting God fully.

I believe this is the first step for most of us pilgrims in accepting that we are not always alone that He is with us and He lives through us. That by driving away sadness and anger from our hearts is the only way we can open them to God. He is the only way we can drive this out. We look to Him to show us how and by praying He will answer us.

After the cross Father Michael came and joined us, and soon we were off to see other ruins of more stone churches around the monastery. This part of our tour was what we all expected, a little bit of history along with some spirituality for good measure, but the next part came out of left field.

Just to set the tone we had arrived at the base of a hill and were standing in a circle around Father Michael who, might I add, is 72 years of age. He is a Catholic priest, but explained that he felt more like a christian than simply a Catholic. He told us that, if we wanted, we could go on a little hike up the hill. He even joked around that we were young, so maybe we could carry him up the hills and we would walk. We all agreed that this sounded like a good idea, what's a little exercise right? He started our hike with a poem, of which he knows many, that repeated the refrain “take off your shoes.”

Now I'm sure they meant this metaphorically in the poem, since it referred to taking off your shoes of racism and such, but it got a new literal meaning once we started the hike. I guess the barefoot hiking started with me, simply because I could not climb that hill in my birkenstocks, I was practically sliding out of my shoes. Soon about half of the group, (Addie, William, Susanna, Quill, Janine, and myself, Ellie, included) had taken off their shoes and was continuing on the hike barefoot (and no mom, there aren't any snakes in Ireland, so my feet were fine).

It was a rough climb, the hill was more of a mountain, the ground was slippery and muddy from rain, and through it all Father Michael was leading the pack forcing a group of huffing and puffing 16 year olds to try as hard as they could to keep up. The weather was less than ideal, with on-and-off rain showers all afternoon.

Father Michael soon realized that we had left the path out of sheer enthusiasm and we soon had to pioneer our way through the ferns to find the road again. Finally, after a thorough soaking, and plenty of muddy feet, we reached the road and the top of our path. As soon as we reached the top, the sun came out and warmed all of our wind blown faces as we started the trek down the “hill”.

We soon reached flat ground and took our time to play a little in a passing creek as we walked. Soon we had reached civilization again, and famished as we were, we took a break for lunch. It was a rather momentous occasion for many of us, as it was the first time most of us had spent our newly changed Euros. We rested, feasted, and dried out until Michael came back in order to show us more of the old city.

We went to view Kevin's cell ( actually his cave, not as harsh as it sounds) across from the upper lake of Glendlough valley. There we stopped and took time to discuss with him his idea of spirituality and inner self. Many of his beliefs resonated with the group, and simply made a lot of sense. We all have a gift, and it is our job and responsibility to share those gifts with the world in order to make it a little better.

We also have to focus some time on our inner self, the part of us that often gets neglected in this modern age with so many other distractions to hold our attention. This inner meditation is what allows us to enjoy life to its fullest, and hear the voice of God within each and every one of us. He was a very powerful speaker, and many of his ideas shared at not only Kevin's cell, but all the other ruins we visited before and after, will stick with me and all of us as we continue along this journey. I know he made an impression on us, and Addie and I were happy to hear that we also managed to make an impression on him.

When we got home we had time to rest for about 25 minutes. I took the chance to take a shower. The warm water runs out fast so if you choose to take a shower during the prime time you have to be quick and it has to be cold. I chose the time when no one else wanted to shower so it could be HOT!

After this shower we had reflection time. There we went as a group and reflected on the day's experiences. We wrote in our journal for about 30 minutes each. In our own words we described what had happened to us spiritually, mentally, and physically that day.

After this Owen, our bus driver, made us dinner. He made a beef stew for us and also a meatless Curry because Eason is vegetarian. Both were delicious. Thank you Eason for being a vegetarian!

After dinner we had a guided tour by our host. His name is Seamus and he is a Catholic priest. He lead us through his gardens in front of the house. He really went into depth talking about exactly what Michael had talked about earlier. This resonated with Ellie and myself and we started hugging the trees. Eason joined and Janine, William, And Quill started climbing them!

We walked through the garden while he explained what every carved stone and placed rocked represented. Everything had a purpose and everything had God in it we must remember. We came to a fork in the road and he told us we had two options. The left took us to an “adventurous” Labyrinth and the right took us home. We got to make the decision. Now really? Come on how did we climb the mountain earlier? Barefoot? Exactly. Ellie and I were smiling while the other kids tried to talk John into it.

Of course we won. Quill, Max, William, and Janine ran ahead. Eason, Ellie, Jeffery, Susana, the chaperones and myself stayed behind and walked. We got lost. We took the wrong turn but ended up finding our way back. We got back just in time for the predetermined night prayer. The other group had not. They came running in around 15 minutes late. They told us enthusiastically how some cows ran after them and would not leave them alone. With pink cheeks and huge smiles you could see how content they were.

We watched two slide shows of all our pictures and did nights prayer and talked about our day once again. Then we headed up to sleep. So goodnight Atlanta we love you, but we are not ready to come home quite yet. See you kinda soon.

Ellie and Addie.