Journey’s End: A pilgrimage destination at the end of our Camino – Santiago de Compostela

With just over a week left on our European adventure we landed in Santiago de Compostela, the end of one of the most famous pilgrimage landscapes in Europe.  Santiago, as it is known, has been the destination of pilgrims since at lest 800 AD, and it is still active as a pilgrimage destination hosting hundreds of thousands of pilgrims annually who complete all or part of “the Camino de Santiago”.  The Camino (way) is actually a series of several paths (each several hundred miles long) converging on the cathedral in the center of town.

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Although originally strictly a religious pilgrimage to visit the remains of St. James the Apostle (Santa Iago) located in the cathedral beneath the altar in a reliquary;

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modern pilgrims make the journey along the Camino for a variety of different reasons as evidenced by the numerous books written about the sojourn along the Camino.  Regardless of their motivation, it is difficult to make such a pilgrimage and not be changed.  Indeed, that is the point of pilgrimage, to set out on a journey with an understanding that the journey is more important than the destination in the process of transformation.  We go away and return a different person for the experience.  We walk the “straight path, the upright path” toward understanding.

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Pilgrims follow the signs along the way that point to their destination.  In the case of the Camino de Santiago, the paths have been marked for centuries by the sign of a shell which carries both shared symbolic meaning for all, and it is a symbol that takes on tremendous personal meaning for each pilgrim who makes the journey.

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One of the first hotels in Europe was established to house the pilgrims just outside the cathedral back in 1499 by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella (the same folks that brought you Christopher Columbus and the voyage to the new world), and it is still serving that purpose to this day.

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Ever since this hotel was established, religious tourism has been the lifeblood of the city of Santiago de Compostela as evidenced by the prominent religious and pilgrimage symbols located on the well-worn manhole covers that line the streets of the city.

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Inside the cathedral, the altar has been ornately decorated through the centuries by donations from grateful pilgrims who sent gifts back to Santiago after returning home from the journey.

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As a medieval site of pilgrimage, most of the faithful who journeyed here would not have been literate.  In order to educate them, the cathedral is filled with carvings and statues that tell the story of the life of St James (such as the carvings on the doors to his crypt),

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other carvings (such as this one on top of a pillar) offer a warning of the fate that awaits one who does not cultivate their spiritual salvation.  In this case it is a person tormented by demons and flames for eternity and it is left up to the imagination of the pilgrim to determine how this unlucky fellow earned his punishment (in this way, the carving acts as a warning against any “sinful” transgression that might give one a similar fate).

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The cathedral doesn’t just engage the visual and imaginative aspects of the pilgrim mind but all of the senses are awakened in this space.  One of the most significant ways this is done is through the botafumeiro.  This is the largest incense censer I have ever seen.  It is 5 feet tall, weighs over 100 pounds and hangs suspended from the ceiling above the main altar.  It takes 8 men to swing it by pulling up and down on the rope and it picks up tremendous momentum as it swings back and forth across the main aisle of the church.  It lives up to its name which translates as “smoke expeller”. I used to love to carry the censer as an altar boy growing up, so to encounter such a commitment to the “smells of heaven” was one of the most unexpected treats of the trip.  I was excited to see it in action, but they didn’t light it on the day we arrived, so I will have to come back someday for the full effect.

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The original botafumeiro was stolen by Napoleon’s forces over 200 years ago, but a replica hangs in its place based off sketches of the original that still existed.

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The pilgrimage to the cathedral in Santiago is an evolving experience.  Some journey to the cathedral, not from France or Portugal, but from across town as they express their hopes and dreams of a world without violence, particularly against women.  On the day we were there we encountered a street protest against domestic violence that was several blocks long and bound for the square outside the cathedral to rally and give voice to the marginalized.

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We too have been on a pilgrimage, a Camino throughout Europe over the course of three months.  I totaled my steps from the phone counter and we walked over 500 miles on the trip by the time we arrived in Santiago (that is slightly longer than the longest Camino path taken by land based pilgrims).  And so we took our rightful place on the streets of Santiago as pilgrims who had made a long journey far from home to arrive here in this sacred landscape, this site of transformation.

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We too had been transformed, not so much by the destination of Santiago de Compostela in the province of Galacia, Spain in late November, but by the journey itself and the long route we took to gaze across the city and see the cathedral for the first time as so many pelegrinos before us had at the end of their journeys.

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As the fading sunlight spread across this pilgrimage landscape, it occurred to me that the heart of a pilgrimage is what you learn along the way and who you become when you return home.  I have attempted to chronicle in this blog some of what I have learned along the way, it remains to be seen what I will become now that I have returned home to my snowy retreat in the mountains of Colorado.  I am certain I will be different for the experiences and lessons of this sabbatical sojourn.  For now, I will sit quietly in my winter home, grateful for the warmth of a fireplace, the chance to learn and reflect, my family who traveled so far with me and those who greeted me on my return, and the beauty of the landscapes in my present and in my memories that make me who I am.

Glendalough and Wicklow Mountains National Park

We decided to spend our last few days of the journey back in Ireland so we could celebrate my birthday in the homeland of my ancestors.  We are getting quite familiar with the Irish landscape, and it is beginning to be our comfortable home away from home.  We have been to many parts of the island, but we had never yet ventured into the Wicklow Mountains south of Dublin so we made arrangements to spend several days in an area of Ireland that is at once close to Dublin (<30 miles)  yet very remote and more than a little challenging to access by public transportation.  We first made arrangements to visit the workshop of a wonderful instrument maker in Roundwood, just outside the park.  He specializes in stringed instruments and has recently been focused on making traditional Irish harps.  The next day was my birthday and after spending a bit of time with Erin knocking around the town of Wicklow, I enjoyed the rest of the day wandering among the ruins of Glendalough and the trails of the Wicklow Mountains National Park.  Glendalough is the remains of a 7thC monastic community established by St. Kevin.  It was inhabited for centuries and was an important site of pilgrimage in Ireland despite numerous raids by Vikings and others.  Here are several pictures from the visit including the ruins, the park, a 1000 year old labyrinth stone in the museum and a more contemporary labyrinth to walk outside.  This is truly a special place.

Gaudy Gaudi: Architecture as Art

{We have returned from our journey to greet a few weeks of re-acclimation, culture shock, and the pile of household chores that need our attention including getting a skunk out of our house!  Needless to say, I have been a bit behind on the blog and want to finish up a few posts before the New Year.  My thanks to all who have been following, I hope these last few posts will be worth the wait.}

When we added Barcelona, Spain to our list of destinations while in Europe, I immediately put the Sagrada Familia Basilica at the top of my list of must see sites.  I have been looking at pictures of this unique church for years, and often described it as “Salvador Dali does a cathedral.” (I am a huge fan of Dali’s surrealism, but one look at the exterior of this church should convince you that this isn’t just another run of the mill ecclesial building).

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It has been under nearly continuous construction since the foundation stone was laid in 1882.  Initially planned as a traditional basilica dedicated to the Holy Family (Sagrada Familia), in the hands of the chief architect Antoni Gaudi, it became one of the most unique churches in the western world.  Some love it, others hate it, but few forget an encounter with this fusion of art and architecture, form and function.  Gaudi was known for his unconventional use of curve and non-linear surfaces and there are examples of his work throughout Barcelona.  Perhaps the most famous area is the Park Guell where he experimented with a number of architectural innovations and design that would later be incorporated into parts of Sagrada Familia, his magnum opus. Park Guell is known for its curved surfaces and bright tiles.

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Ordinary flat surfaces of the walls are given wave-like texture and covered by mosaic tile.

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Archways are fit with stone to make the rocks seem organic rather than static.

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Even the hallways themselves take on a fluid character.  It is amazing to see something that looks so solid take on such a fluid “feel”, I marveled at how it was even possible to construct such “leaning: walkways.

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I remember a civil engineering friend from college tell me how challenging it was to construct bridges with continuous curve, and yet everywhere I looked in the park there were signs of Gaudi’s defiance of architectural convention and perhaps even the laws of physics.

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All of this was prelude to his greatest work, the Nativity facade of the Sagrada.  Here he incorporates symbolism and structure to tell the story of the pre-ministry years of Jesus using the same fluid dynamics of stone he perfected around other sites in Barcelona.  It almost seems as if something once considered “solid as a rock” is in a stage of melting like butter left on the counter too long.

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Gaudi completed the design for the entire basilica in his lifetime, but was only able to oversee the construction of the crypt, and this nativity facade before his untimely death in 1926.  Workers ever since have been trying to follow his vision and example in the rest of the building.

The centerpiece of the Nativity facade is the doorway depicting the birth of Jesus complete with all the characters of Christmas time, the shepherds, the wise men, the angels singing, the star, the barnyard critters and of course the Holy Family in the center.

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Looking closer at the detail, it is interesting to note how Gaudi embedded symbolism from the local region into the iconic scene.  Barcelona is located in the Catalonia region of Spain which has been known for its fiercely independent traditions and identity.  The shepherds are dressed as traditional Catalonian shepherds would dress so that the people can see themselves in their basilica.

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The door to the left of this entrance depicts life of the Holy Family shortly after birth of Jesus.  One image shows a soldier slaughtering innocent children on Herod’s order to kill all male children in the region in hopes of eliminating the threat Jesus posed.  This might seem a bit garish in many public art settings, but is very much in keeping with the Spanish religious artistic tradition of emphasizing the suffering of Christ and his followers.

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Another image from that doorway reminds visitors that the Holy Family were refugees early on taking shelter in the land of Egypt to avoid this persecution.  Images such as these have profound implications for the followers of Jesus as they consider the plight of contemporary immigrants and refugees fleeing from persecution and sometimes the same sort of genocide depicted in these stones.

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The doorway to the right of the Nativity entrance depicts events in the life of Jesus before he took up active ministry.  It reminds the viewer of the importance of listening to and learning from young people (Jesus in the temple at center), and that Jesus was an ordinary worker like so many who will pass by these doors before he began his ministry (see a young Jesus working as a carpenter in the lower right).

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Even the pillars on either side of the doorway are embedded with symbolism and significance.  They stand on the backs of turtles (an image for stability and foundation that speaks to not only the Catalonian tradition, but can be found in memorials and stories from Korea to indigenous North America, and even Dr. Seuss’ Yertle the Turtle, as well).  In this case, Gaudi used two different species of turtles, the one closest to the sea is a sea turtle found in the waters of Barcelona’s coast, the other (under the pillar on the mountain-side of the entrance) is a tortoise found in the mountains surrounding  the city.

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Together these images flesh out a humanity of Jesus before all of the preaching and parables, the passion and resurrection.  The symbols of this Nativity facade brilliantly weave together local identity and universal themes, the divinity and humanity of Jesus.  They invite the visitor into the story and into the building where one is immediately transported to another dimension that appears to pause both time and space.

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The roof is supported 60 meters overhead by a “forest” of columns (52 to be exact matching the number of weeks in a year).  Everything in the building is based on units of 7.5 meters or a multiple of that.  So the columns are 7.5 meters apart, the central nave is 15 meters wide, the transept is 30 meters wide, the overall interior is 90 meters long etc.  Everything is done with intention and detail even as the fluid nature of the structure seems to defy the precision we often associate with sharp angles and flat surfaces.

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Art and architecture come together in a merger of form and function throughout the building.  One of the biggest challenges of building such a large structure with huge open space is to keep the walls from falling in.  In the past, cathedrals were built with flying buttresses which the characteristic arches on the outside of most of the cathedrals I have shown in previous blog posts to prevent the building from collapsing.  Gaudi incorporated the buttresses into the interior by putting them at the top of the columns.  This had never been done before, but it allowed him to eliminate those arches from the outside of the building while still holding up the walls for this cavernous interior.

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The result of this fusion between buttress and column not only served to hold up the walls and roof, it allowed Gaudi to add an artistic flare to the building as the columns now look like the trunks and branches of trees in a forest.  Flares on the ceiling appear as the canopy above and the outside organic life of a forest is brought inside and set in stone.  My friends in the environmental movement often tell me that nature is their cathedral and they would rather worship God outside among the trees and mountains (this can be done at places like the Grotto in Portland);  I wonder what they might think of this mixture of the mountains and the images of a forest inside a building flooded with light from the glass windows all around.

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The architecture in this building does not stop with the stone, it is enhanced by all of the light coming in through the walls of stained glass windows.  In the morning the sanctuary is flooded with the cool and calm colors of blue and green from the east wall.

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Late in the afternoon the space is awash in the warm colors of reds and oranges and yellows from the west wall bringing the sunset images inside into this organic setting.

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Unlike the stained glass of so many other cathedrals with clear images of saints and stories, the glass in Sagrada Familia is abstract.  There are names representing places all over the world in the small circle panes halfway up.  These are supposed to make visitors feel welcome and connected to the space.  It is at once a basilica for the people of Catalonia (as evidenced by the local touches mentioned above), and for the people of the world (as evidenced by the names and abstract patterns in the glass walls).

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Gaudi did not live to see his vision completed.  In 1926 while crossing the street he was hit by a tram and killed.  According to his notes, he did not expect to see this building completed in his lifetime even if it hadn’t been so abruptly ended.  He sketched out the rest of the building and then encouraged the future artists to add their own touches and use the most advanced technologies to complete the vision.

The Passion facade (the entrance opposite the Nativity entrance) depicts events in the last few weeks of the life of Jesus culminating in his death on the cross.  Gaudi sketched out the symbols, but work did not begin on that facade until 1954.  The artistic style seems much different from the figures on the Nativity side.  It reflects a Europe that has just emerged from years of the Spanish Civil War and the devastation of World War II.  The figures are much more stark and angular, a post-war austerity and somberness fitting of the scene it depicts.

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This basilica is still a work in progress.  When completed it will have 18 towers, and one more entrance.  The plan is to finish it by the 100th anniversary of Gaudi’s death in 2026.  The model below shows how much still needs to be done.  The gray parts of the model are already completed, the yellow parts of the model are in Gaudi’s original design and under construction.

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I would have been perfectly happy to see a cathedral that looks like it fell out of a Salvador Dali surrealist painting, but what I encountered at Sagrada Familia in Barcelona was so much more than that.  It was a building that embodies the dreams of a visionary and the identity of the people; the story of a faith and the inspiration of aesthetics that defies words. Some might think it is gaudy and a visual assault, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I see it as a brilliant landscape that is ever evolving while remaining true to the Gaudi vision that created it.

 

 

There and Back Again: A pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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???”

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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.

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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.

IMG_5092As 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.

Dublin in Stone: An Irish story in memorials

The first time we came to Ireland four years ago, I was eager to fill little Erin’s head with Irish mythology and bought an illustrated book of Irish stories to read each night to her before she went to bed.  This was a book of Irish legend and lore, of heroes and struggles, the bedtime stories told to our ancestors.  I could hardly wait to dig in.  Quickly we realized these were no ordinary bedtime stories to fill young minds with hope and dreams as they fell asleep, these were tales that often ended tragically in death, mayhem, lost love, disappointment and despair; or as Erin became fond of saying, “they are Irish stories.”  There are few happy endings in Irish tales of myth and history.  Riding off in the sunset here can often get you burned…. So it has always been, and so it is with the memorials found around the town of Dublin.  These are not memorials to great conquerors of captains of industry as you might find in other cities, these are Irish memorials often remembering what many other societies would best leave forgotten, tales to be told that might otherwise be left unsaid.

Of course in the “land of poets and saints” you will find more than a few memorials to great authors such as James Joyce (although after reading his work, one might call him the most Irish of authors using Erin’s measure).

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In several places in Dublin, you will also find memorials to people who lost everything;  who were homeless, destitute, starving and forced to leave this emerald isle as a result of the great famine in the 1840s.  In every one of these depictions the loyal dog is present and also hungry with head hung low as if to say that loyalty is the one thing they were left when all other things were stripped away.

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There are statues not to statesman who changed the course of history with new systems of government, but of statesman such as Daniel O’Connell who fought valiantly (albeit largely unsuccessfully) on behalf of the marginalized, the poor, the disenfranchised Catholics of Ireland in the 19th Century.  He spoke up for the poor and now holds a position of high honor in perhaps the busiest of intersections in the city, even though his policy success legacy leaves much to be desired.  The people below him, largely peasants, represent the Irish people who remember far more of their oppression and lowliness in these monuments than of their triumphs.  Perhaps that is the Irish story once again, measuring success in determination and vision rather than pragmatic gains, wealth and power.

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There are plenty of statues to rebels in this town, most of whom lost their struggle and died in English gaols (jails) as a result.  The US celebrates 1776 for the success of the American Revolution, the French celebrate 1789 for the changes that came about in the French Revolution, and the Irish celebrate 1798 in the defeat of the rebellion led by this man, Wolfe Tonne, who tried to achieve a new democratic society but met the gallows instead.

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If at first you don’t succeed at revolution, try, try again.  In 1848 when the students and workers in Paris rose up to the call of Karl Marx and the Communist Manifesto, the Irish too tried again to rise for freedom only to be overwhelmed by their British colonial rulers and hung for treason.  So, the Irish remember the efforts of such rebels as William Smith O’Brien with a memorial just outside the General Post Office in the center of Dublin.  His story did not end happily ever after, it ended in defeat and the end of an unforgiving rope.

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Perhaps no date in Irish rebel history is more important than Easter 1916 when once again the Irish rose up to declare their independence.  Hanging on my office wall at CMU, I have the proclamation read by these rebels in front of the General Post Office on this very street.  There are literally thousands of memorials all over Ireland remembering this failed revolution and the dozens of leaders who were executed shortly after they were captured in the ensuing fight.  Although people were often indifferent to their cause while they were alive, in death they became martyrs of principle even if their plan to take over Dublin in rebellion were not terribly pragmatic.  One of my favorite heroes of the 1916 struggle was another champion of the poor long before the Easter Rising as it is known here.  James Connolly was a labor organizer who fought for the rights of the worker in Ireland.  Working with the rebels was the best chance to advance the rights of the working class in Ireland, so he joined the rebellion and paid with his life.  Behind him in this statue is the image of the plough and the stars (the Irish name for the Big Dipper constellation) symbolizing the dreams of the farmers and agricultural workers of Ireland.

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It seems that revolution lingers around every corner in Dublin, it is in the air you breath and in the quotes you find on so many stone statues and pillars around the city.  It is firmly embedded in the Irish identity as it has been created in their myths, their stories and their stone memorials.  Sayings, such as this one in downtown Dublin, aptly capture the “fighting” spirit of the Irish who seem to identify with the underdog in any fight.

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{Note: It has come to my attention that screen reader software and small phone screens will not be able to pick up on the text in these images so I will be rewriting them below in these brackets to improve accessibility.  This plaque is in several languages, in English it reads “The great appear great because we are on our knees:  Let us rise”}

Eventually the Irish gained their independence, but lest you think there is a happily ever after lurking somewhere, I remind you, dear reader…. this is an Irish story.  Workers continued to struggle for their rights even after political independence and the founding of the Irish Republic.  Although O’Connell and Connolly were no longer able to be a voice for the workers and the marginalized, the workers and the outcast found new champions in leaders such as Jim Larkin also given a place of prominence in the Dublin Pantheon of great underdogs and failed rebels.

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Jim Larkin was a great orator (something highly valued in the Irish persona) who could fight for the little guy and rally the workers to give them hope.  My distant relation, Sean O’Casey described the audience, the method and the message aptly here.

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{“…he talked to the workers, spoke only as Jim Larkin could speak, not for an assignation with peace, dark obedience or placid resignation; but trumpet-tounged of resistence to wrong, discontent with leering poverty, and defiance of any power strutting out to stand in the way of their march onward.” ~ Sean O’Casey}

Larkin was a contemporary rebel even in a time when the formal colonial powers were losing their grip on Ireland after hundreds of years of occupation.  He fought to correct the legacy of poverty left behind in their wake.

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{And tyranny trampled them in Dublin’s gutter until Jim Larkin came along and cried the call of freedom and the call of pride and slavery crept to its hands and knees and nineteen thirteen cheered from out the utter degradation of their miseries. ~ Patrick Kavanagh}

Perhaps this is why it was so hard for the Irish to shake the rebel image after they gained independence.  It had too long been memorialized in poetry, song and stone.  It was and is part of a national identity.  So the struggle continued as the fight moved north to Belfast.  The IRA, formed by Michael Collins at the turn of the 20th century to fight the British, continued to fight after independence during the Irish Civil War that raged, and beyond.  Ireland has always been divided about the role of rebellion in their identity and many do not support Sinn Fein and the IRA, but they do remember the victims that have died as a result of the political struggle.  Even the sidewalks speak of a time of rebellion, and of suffering such as this tile remembering a bomb that killed so many innocent people in 1974.

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{“In Remembrance. This stone marks the site where the second of three no warning car bomb explosions occurred on 17th of May 1974 in which 14 people including an unborn baby lost their lives.  Installed by Justice for the Forgotten.  May 2008”}

This year we celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Peace Accords that was supposed to bring peace to Northern Ireland.  For the most part it did, but this is an Irish story and the walls are still there dividing Belfast and its people.

There is a lot of desire to move beyond the identity of rebel and tragic victim in the Irish identity, but the stones won’t let the city forget entirely.  Most people pass beyond the statues without a second thought to their significance, they have become part of the background noise of the cityscape; but just like those background songs during the Christmas shopping season, this background noise has a way of getting stuck in your head.  The rebel, the victim, the fight for justice especially for the marginalized remain a part of the Irish identity, because they remain a part of the Irish landscape and the memory it nurtures.  We are left with the words of the great north Dubliner, Bono, in the song “40”, “…..how long, to sing this song, how long, how long, how long, to sing this song.”

Killarney National Park, Ireland

In the far west of Ireland lies the Ring of Kerry, a picturesque drive around one of the peninsulas in the southwestern counties of Cork and Kerry.  At the place where the peninsula meets the rest of Ireland is a mountain range known as the Kerry Mountains and they are home to one of the largest and oldest national parks in Ireland.  A magnificent landscape known as Killarney National Park.  Here is just a sample of some of the images from that landscape.

A Tale of Two Stone Circles: Stonehenge and Avebury

In the words of the immortal Nigel Tufnel (lead guitarist and singer of Spinal Tap) when describing Stonehenge in song, “No one knows who they were or what they were doing…”

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Perhaps we might not be able to explain why the ancient people of the Salisbury plain in England put up Stonehenge, or even how they moved these stones miles across this landscape and up into place; but we can say that there is hardly a person alive that is not familiar with the image of Stonehenge.  The internet, books, popular culture and our memories are full of stories and images of this iconic stone circle.  It is one of the best known archeological sites in the world even if few can say much more about it than it is very old and mysterious cluster of big heavy stones.  Many could locate it in England and some might associate it with Druids, ritual and even the solstice.  Fewer still are familiar with another larger stone circle just 27 miles to the north in Avebury.

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I visited both sites in the span of two days and was struck by the similarities in terms of archeology and the differences that a bit of notoriety can make in the experience of the two.  Both are managed by quasi-governmental organizations (quangos) who preserve them on behalf of the public and the state.  Avebury by the National Trust, Stonehenge by English Heritage (I am grateful to that organization for the management and the free passes to all their sites in the Salisbury plain during my visit).

First, the similarities: both are neolithic and thought to be over 4000-6000 years old; both had fallen into disrepair over the intervening centuries and needed restoration starting in the late Victorian Era; both are part of a larger landscape of burial mounds and other ritualistic sites surrounding them; both are made of enormous sarasan stones and smaller (relatively) bluestones hauled from great distance to be deliberately placed in circles with specific orientations to astronomical events such as the rising and setting of the sun during the solstice; both are thought to have been used for rituals; and both are located on the Salisbury plain to the west of London, England.  Both are simply amazing to see and contemplate in terms of structure, construction and significance, but they are very different in reputation and thus in experience when you visit them.  These differences are largely due to the broader public awareness and tourism of each site and thus worthy of some consideration in a comparative study.

Stonehenge is crowded!  Millions of visitors come every year to see the site.  There is a well developed museum/tourist center and a 20 euro entrance fee for each visitor.  There is a shuttle bus to take you from the visitor center to the site (although you can walk the 2km trail through the countryside).  Even in the middle of the week in the cold of early November we had a crowd.

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Avebury, lesser known, is relatively free of tourists.  We might have encountered a dozen people at the entire site the day before we visited Stonehenge.  It is free to visit and has a modest museum and visitor center with interpretive signs to orient your stroll around.  The largest crowds are sheep.

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The paths to Stonehenge are paved to manage the traffic of tourists and minimize their impact on the landscape.

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The paths to Avebury and around the site are not paved and could use a bit more management to protect the tourist from the sheep (Watch your step!).

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Tourists are not allowed to interact with or approach the stones of Stonehenge and there are ropes and signs to keep them at a safe distance.

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There are no restrictions to approaching the stones of Avebury unless they are on private land.  The visitor are able to encounter the massive stones and see up close the scale and texture of the features.

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Stonehenge was part of an estate when it was restored.  Heritage England can maintain it isolated from modern development because it was one large piece of land when put into the public trust as a site.  It sits alone and can be seen without interruption as you approach from a distance.  It is a site suitable for drone flights and imagination of an earlier time.

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By contrast, the town of Avebury grew up in the middle of the massive stone circle. Modern roads (following earlier footpaths and dirt roads) transect the site breaking up the experience and straining the imagination to picture how it looked in days gone by.

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Because of the development of the town of Avebury in the middle of the site it is necessary to use interpretive signs to help one see the site as it was designed and as it has been changed by the development.  The following two images show a “before and after” map of the site as well as provide some detail about its origin and restoration efforts.

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One could argue that Stonehenge is more impressive because they lifted the massive stones on top of each other to create the iconic arches we know today in our images of the site.

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But from an engineering standpoint the Avebury site is much larger and completely surrounded by a ditch, dug by hand.  It is the largest stone circle site in England and much larger by size than the standing stones of Stonehenge.

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The stones may not be stacked, but they are still enormous!  Moving them in place, still quite a feat.

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Sometimes the scale gets swallowed in the open landscape, so I asked my faithful companion Erin to stand next to a few of the stones for comparison.  The house in the background was built long before the site was restored and adds to the sense of scale and the dynamic nature of the landscape.

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I am not arguing that one site is “better” than the other, that is for the reader or visitor to decide for themselves.  What I am suggesting is that two very similar cases of stone circles “diverged in a wood” to use a line from Robert Frost.  One a well-known iconic protected site with high volumes of tourism and the source of active imaginations; the other, a circle “less traveled,” that has a much more intimate feel even as it has more development of houses and roads that interrupt the site.

The old and the modern come together in Avebury in an interesting way.  I thought this thatched roof house with a modern SUV in the middle of the original circle site is a fitting symbol of the paradox of dynamic landscapes at once very old and still living.

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By way of contrast, I thought this picture of the plain where Stonehenge sits “undisturbed” and “preserved” for all time, seemed a fitting symbol of a landscape that has been set aside to remember one particular moment in that landscape. The dynamic interaction between humans and landscape that has taken place in this space for millennia is frozen by an imagination that no longer sees humans as dwellers in the land, but merely visitors to be managed lest we disturb the preferred imagination.  The only visible sign of human impact on the plain of imagination is the fence and gate keeping us in our “proper” place.

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Stonehenge is carefully preserved so no one can change the landscape except the expert archeologists and planners.  They set the stage at the visitor center to frame your experience and understanding.  Then the stones stand timeless before you to be viewed as if they had never changed.

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Avebury is a dynamic and interactive landscape.  Old like these trees but changing like the color of their leaves and the ribbons tied onto them by New Age patrons who want to add their own presence and prayer to the sacred site.

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A series of quotes on the wall of the Stonehenge Visitor Center museum brings us back to the realization that what seems unchangeable as stones in place over a long period of time is indeed in flux.  The stones may not move, but our imagination does.  It brings me back to the definition of landscape in the European Landscape Convention.  Landscape is “an area, as perceived by people, whose character is the result of the action and interaction of natural and/or human factors” (ELC, 2000, Article 1)  In the end they are right we get the Stonehenge (or Avebury or other landscape) we deserve – or desire.

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