In October 2003, Beliefnet inaugurated its spiritual travel program with a trip to Ireland. The goal was to provide a soul journey for our travelers--an experience they could bring back home. Here's what we did.
The spiritual adventure begins! After a morning of sleep to get over our night flight, the group gathers in our Dublin hotel for a Celtic Circle--a time to share our stories and get to know each other. Beliefnet guide Carl McColman lights four candles for each of the four directions, with a fifth candle in the center.
After Carl's brief introduction to Celtic spirituality--including bards, seers, druids, and the Irish concept of anam cara, the soul friend--we set off for a tour of Dublin. First stop: St. Patrick's Cathedral.
At the cathedral, we see the Door of Reconciliation, a wooden door with a slot hacked through it. The story goes that two earls were feuding; one decided to call off the quarrel, so he cut a slit in the wooden door of St. Patrick's and stuck his hand through to his rival for a handshake. The other had a decision to make: cut off his rival's hand, or shake it and declare peace. Guess what happened? It's a lesson to take the risk to forgive, says our guide.
Overhead: "When you say a prayer, it's received as song."
On to the Book of Kells, one of the oldest illuminated manuscripts of the gospels. We peer at the beautifully detailed images and debate which symbol represents Luke's gospel: is it an ox or something else? Heading out, we pause on a nearby street for a photo shoot with a statue of Molly Malone, immortalized in the "wheeled her wheelbarrow" song.
That evening, a night of good food and a lively Irish dance performance in the country's biggest thatched roof pub. They raise the floor so we can see the dancers' intricate steps. Riverdance, eat your heart out.
After morning meditation, Carl talks about the great gods and heroes of Irish mythology: Cuchulain, Maeve, Oisin, Danu, and more. Unanswered question: Were the fairies neutral angels?
We set off on a cloudless day for the hills and lakes of Glendalough, where Father Michael Rodgers meets us. As he leads us through breathtaking mountain scenery to sites associated with Saint Kevin, Fr. Michael recites lines from the poem "Child of Wonder": "Take off your shoes/The ground where you stand is holy." We look over the sparkling lake to see Kevin's Bed, a cave where the saint was said to have prayed and slept. The area, our guide explains, is a thin place--a place where earth and heaven touch.
Fr. Michael ends the tour near a second lake where St. Kevin was supposed to have met a wormlike monster. Rather than destroy it, Kevin took it with him, says the legend. "The question is, what [worm] is eating us?" asks Fr. Michael.
After quick sweater shopping and lots of salmon at dinner, several brave souls sally forth on a nighttime nature outing. Carrying candles, we stop at one of Glendalough's rocky streams to sing together, and then meditate in silence on the beauty around us.
Overheard: Guide Carl McColman saying the trip "will be one miracle after another."
Heady conversation at breakfast: some in the group discuss Orthodox icon-painting, others Henri Nouwen and Thomas Merton. We pack up and head for Kildare, a town steeped in the lore of the Celtic goddess/Christian saint Brigid. Brigid, Carl explains on the bus, was a "walker between the worlds"--a woman who, legend says, was literally born on a threshold and continues to speak to both pagans and Christians.
We're warmly welcomed at the home of Sister Mary Minehan, where we spend a few minutes in prayer and discussion about Brigid. Sister Mary takes us to the Cathedral of St. Brigid, with its prayer hole carved in one corner. Stick your arm through the hole and touch your opposite shoulder, they say, and your heart's wish will come true, so of course we try it. Inside the church, Carl points out one tomb's sheela-na-gigs, pagan stone carvings of nude females often found, surprisingly, in the British Isle's older churches.
On the cathedral grounds is the restored foundation of the ancient fire temple where priestesses, and later nuns, kept the flame of Brigid burning until the sixteenth century. After stairmaster types climb the round tower in the churchyard, we're off to two holy wells dedicated to Brigid. At the first, we gather holy water to take home; at the second, we dance a circle dance around several of five stones representing Brigid's aspects as peacemaker, earthwoman, and more. Hear an audioclip of Tread Gently, the music we danced to. An Irish family on pilgrimage to the site asks to join our dance, and then requests that we pray for their mother, who is ill.
Overhead: Carl: "Holy wells are the anti-McDonald's--every one is unique."
We say farewell to Kildare and head for Cashel, Ireland's most spectacular castle. There, we're met by Sister Susan Ryan and Father Tom Renaud, monks from Colorado's Spiritual Life Institute who now live in Ireland. Before dinner, Sister Suzie and Father Tom grace us with their considerable musical talents in the hotel's comfy sitting room.
It's a free night, so the group heads off to socialize in Cashel's pubs. Some have a little trouble finding veggie cuisine in the small town, but manage it.