In the far west of Ireland, in county Mayo, on the shores of Clew Bay lies a sacred landscape known as Croagh Patrick. It is a holy mountain of Ireland and one of the oldest pilgrimage sites in the island of poets and saints.
Standing 765 meters high, it is not the tallest mountain in Ireland, but you definitely feel the climb as it rises almost straight up at times from the sea. According to the story of this landscape it is here in 441 AD that St. Patrick spent 40 days and 40 nights on a Lenten retreat and then drove the snakes out of Ireland. While there is considerable dispute about the scientific veracity of the causal claim about the absence of snakes, there is little doubt that this mountain has been seen as sacred since that time, and probably even before. It is the site of an important pre-Christian festival in the Spring known as Lughnasa. Perhaps this is why Patrick chose such a remote spot to conduct his retreat. It is quite common for Christianity to use these pre-Christian sacred landscapes to consecrate in their own mythos. What we do know is that there is archeological evidence of a small chapel on the summit from at least the 9thC, and this mountain is described as a site of pilgrimage in the Book of Armagh which was written about that time. Ever since then, the Irish have been coming to this mountain to climb the sacred landscape particularly on the last Sunday in July known as “Reek Sunday”. They take their cue from the Exodus passage in which Moses is instructed to take off his sandals on Mt Sinai for the ground he is standing on is holy ground, and they often climb this rocky mountain barefoot.
I, too, went on pilgrimage to this remote and sacred landscape which I had been reading about for years; but since it was a cold November day and I had miles to go before I was done walking on this journey through Europe, I decided to leave my “sandals” on.
I was joined on this adventure by my “twin” sister Katie (we were born on the same day three years apart) and her daughter Hannah. They came to travel through Ireland with us, an adventure in and of itself. Their willingness to trudge up this mountain with me made it possible to finally hike it and I am eternally grateful to them for the company and the memories.
It was a cold and windy day by the time we arrived at the foot of the mountain after a two hour drive north from Galway. The summit was shrouded in clouds and mist so we could not really see what we were getting into before we began.
Pilgrimages have a long history of metaphoric association with the journey of life itself. We are all, as it were, on a pilgrimage through life. This journey, if you are lucky has good company (as I did on this day), and it often seems easier at the beginning because you are full of anticipation and not quite sure what you are getting into. The “childhood” part of this mountain is an idyllic time of running streams, green pastures and orderly rock walls to contain the grazing sheep. It looks challenging, but in the optimism of youth (or the early stages of a hike) you think it will be easy.
Along the way there are points to stop and reflect, moments to mark your passage in the journey, to celebrate accomplishments and pause to reflect on how far you have come and how far you must still go. On Croagh Patrick these points are marked by stone cairns along the way. Pilgrims would use these points to add to the landscape by piling on a rock, saying prayers and pausing for a rest before moving on.
By the time you have reached the first saddle you know you are into an ascent. The wind picked up, the stream and pastures of the early climb are a memory, and the stark reality of life’s journey lies ahead. This point is already an accomplishment, we still couldn’t see the top, but some fellow hikers decided to turn around and head down having “been there and done that,” declaring that it all looks the same after here anyway. I considered this the young adult stage of my metaphoric pilgrimage. A time when you realize that this journey might actually be a bit more work than you thought. A time when you develop your own identity and pace on the journey and have to make the choice to continue the challenge wherever it might lead, or return to the childhood memories and glory days of a path already known. We chose to push on despite significant wind, cold and mist, ever forward into the unknown.
Not too far beyond this point, the mist cleared briefly and we could see signs of past travelers everywhere in the landscape. They had arranged the light colored rocks into names to mark their identity on the landscape and to remember their presence. This was not a graffiti that defaces this sacred landscape, but an attempt to merge a bit of their identity (symbolized by their names) for a time with this mountain and the life’s journey that it represents. In time these rocks would be disassembled and rearranged by future travelers interested in merging their own identities with the landscape. These identities are made of the landscape itself and the past memory of others who have trod the path before us.
And so we continued on our journey…. Life, like a mountain pilgrimage, is not always idyllic nor always a steep ascent. We were grateful for the times that the path flattens out a bit providing the opportunity to relax along the way and enjoy the view.
But soon enough the challenge returns, in this case in the form of a steep field of rock and debris. It seemed impossible to climb, but we were not the first to make such a journey. If we looked carefully, we could see a path through this challenge. One blazed by those who had gone before and taken the time to arrange the landscape into steps. They are not easy to discern at times and are often partially destroyed by the dynamic nature of the mountain, but they offer a direction and hope in dire times. This particular path took the form of stairs up through the scree field into the clouds as the voice of Robert Plant filled my head, “…and she’s climbing the stairway to, heaven…”
Finally we neared the summit of this climb and took heart at the site of more cairns at the top marking yet another place to stop, to reflect and to celebrate the journey and our lives, to feel a sense of accomplishment and connect with those who have made it here before.
On top of the mountain, I expected to find solitude and rest from the challenging ascent. We had made it to the top of this holy mountain as so many pilgrims (including perhaps my ancestors?) had before. We did find rest and a great sense of accomplishment and camaraderie, but we also encountered the strongest winds that I have ever experienced in my life! We were grateful for the shelter of the leeward side of the church (this one built in 1904), and for the breaks in the clouds for a few seconds for us to see the views.
The views were spectacular, if brief between the mist and the clouds. Like life, you never really see everything all at once, even from a point of reflection. The sun shines through to illuminate somethings while obscuring others, just as it did to highlight this island in the middle of Clew Bay below while obscuring the dozens of other islands in the scene.
These moments of clarity from the vantage point of a reflective place allow us to see how far we have come and how far we have to go (in this case back down the mountain).
It was on top of the summit of Croagh Patrick that I realized the limits of the linear metaphor of a pilgrimage as we normally conceive of it. We often think of a pilgrimage or a journey as working in a line toward a destination. Always advancing until we reach the summit or the destination, then we have arrived and completed the pilgrimage. But a pilgrimage, and indeed life’s journey that it metaphorically represents, does not end at the destination. It is about the journey itself, not the destination. We reach the destination and we journey back home, never the same for the travel. We don’t stop at the top of the mountain and go no further, we gain the insight that we needed from the summit and we return to our lives renewed, refreshed and changed. Life is not about getting “there” wherever “there” might be, it is about going “there” and back again. And so we left that cold and windy summit, that beautiful place of rest and insight and started our journey back to our family and our home below.
One might think it is easier on the way down than the way up, but that is the thinking of someone who doesn’t climb a lot of steep mountains. There were certainly challenges on the descent and I began to develop a new appreciation for the phrase “you’re over the hill” which is increasingly being applied to my advancing age. But the advantage of being over the hill, if you have taken the time to stop and reflect along the way, is that you are encouraged by the signs of enlightenment and perspective you have gained along the way. The light shines through to lift the spirit even as the body is saying, “why did we climb this mountain, and when can we rest???”
By the time we neared the bottom, we were tired but happy to be in such a peaceful landscape. The thought of returning home, of the accomplishment of the climb, of the insights we had gained along the way, made light work of the last twists and turns down the mountainside.
The pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick was over for the day, but the journey of life continues. I am grateful to have such good company along the way.
As I write this blog on the 52nd anniversary of my birth, the day I have always shared with my “twin”, I am happy to be alive and continuing on the pilgrimage. I will celebrate by visiting yet one more sacred landscape in Ireland (Glendalough) before climbing on a plane in a few days to return to my home in the mountains of Colorado. I am forever changed by the pilgrimage I have made through all the landscapes of Europe over the past three months, and eager to continue the journey wherever the path may lead.