Sunday, November 08, 2015

Walking with saints

On Inis Caoil

Math Man and I have been away for the last month, on holiday first and then some work related travel for me interspersed with a bit more tourist time, hence the light posting for October.

This lengthy time on the road, so far from home, and the many miles of walking I did most days, had me thinking about the difference between going on pilgrimage and taking a holiday.

Pilgrimages have some spiritual destination attached to them, and holidays are meant to amuse, and divert (as long it's not your plane that's being diverted!).  But for me at least, the fabric of this trip, while certainly having as its warp vacation, had pilgrimage as its weft, weaving over and under the threads of rest and diversion.

We spent the first two weeks of the trip in Ireland where Math Man experimented with hard sphere trajectories (golf) and I walked.  One day I walked at low tide across tidal flats to an island with the ruins of a small chapel on it.

Ruins of St. Connell's chapel
There was a small church and monastic house, along with a cemetery with graves dating back to at least the mid 18th century. The church was dry stacked stone, with a few beautifully arched windows. Someone had numbered the stones in the apse, I suspect some reconstruction had taken place.   I said morning prayer sitting on the altar base, an altar stone lying a top it.  

I walked back along the shoreline, then climbed over a stile into the far pasture (no bull to be seen despite the signs, but I stuck to the path next to the cliff, in case I needed a quick escape route).  I walked to the far end of the island, maybe a mile or out, and stood at a little point and looked out over the Atlantic. The rocks were a deep, deep black, against the brilliant green grass and some bright green-yellow seaweed.  The ocean was calm, and deep blue out here; shading from turquoise through light bluegreen to deepest cobalt blue in the bay.  The contrasts between white foam on the waves and the black rocks and that grass was pretty incredible.  There were the remains of at least one other house in the middle of the island.  I had pretty serious hermitage envy. 

Wading back from Inis Caoil
The monastic ruins are said to be where St. Connell had a monastery in the late 6th century; St. Dallen and St. Connell are buried under the walls of the church.  St. Dallen was killed by pirates who stormed the abbey in 596 or 598.  Dallen was said to be a poet, and his severed head, tossed into the ocean by the marauders, was miraculously returned to his body and reattached, Connell then buried him under the walls of the church, where he himself would be buried a few years later.

I was very aware of the sacred history under my feet as I walked the ruins, and the rest of the island.  To pray atop the tombs of saints was an extraordinary experience, but to me the real miracle of the place was not Dallen's reattached head, but the courage of those who waded out here to celebrate Mass when it was forbidden, and those who worked to live out there in the 7th and 8th centuries.  I may fantasize about a hermitage, but it would not have been an easy life then.

If a pilgrimage is travel that moves your soul to new places, this day's walk was indeed a pilgrimage.


  1. How beautiful - in every way. Thank you for sharing your journey and your insights Michelle!

  2. I love the idea of making a pilgrimage and not simply getting away on vacation. I had this experience last June at what most people view as a tourist mecca. Thank you for this reflection and reminder.