A few weeks have passed now since I returned home from our Pilgrimage, just in time to attend my eldest’s class lead their whole school prayer. Afterwards, while still seated in the multipurpose centre, I received a massive bear hug from him (I don’t know where he’d get that skill from) and his little brother, oblivious to the onlookers who must have soon realised that my boys hadn’t seen their Dad in the flesh for nearly a month.
But what a month it was.
When people have asked me “how was it?” no words that I can come up with in those brief exchanges could do the answer justice so I simply say “Fantastic! I would go back in a heartbeat.” Which is true but barely only scratches the surface of the joy that I experienced on the Pilgrimage, and totally ignores the deep spiritual enrichment that came out of it.
The day after the pilgrimage had ‘officially’ ended I found myself in Tollymore Forest, which is just over the border in Northern Ireland. It was the day that the remnants of Hurricane Lorenzo was crossing the land, no doubt causing havoc for those who were travelling out that day. A perfect day for a stroll in the forest… and it was!
Having paid my money to get into the place, I wasn’t going to leave just because it was a little wet. I walked the shortest path and thought that was not nearly enough so I checked the maps and took a route that would take me along a river, maybe an old castle, a few ruins and loop around back to the carpark. About 5kms all up. That’s more like it. The rain wasn’t too heavy so I set out.
Often when I go for a bit of a walk I’ll have music playing in my head (sans headphones) and my internal stereo will accompany me along the trip. Often if I’ve got to pick up the pace a bit I’d get a traditional brass band march going and off I’ll go. However, after 2 weeks of reflecting, praying and deep learning, the song didn’t last long as I was soon ambling to the songs of the sounds around me. As I crossed the river at approximately the halfway point of the walk I found myself saying a little prayer of thanks to God for unmade plans. I had no intention of going on this walk at the start of the day. My plan was to simply see where some ‘Game of Thrones’ scenes were filmed and then be on my way. However, unless you had prior knowledge of the filming there, you wouldn’t have known as they don’t seem to use it as a selling point. There are no signs at the carpark on the maps telling where to go. If you find it, you find it.
Now, as I was heading up a hill I heard a crack off to my left and looked as a branch came down. I soon realised that this part of the trail was quite open- a perfect place to reach just as the storm had decided that it had had enough of tip toeing through the day with the light rain and so brought down the heavy stuff with a nice wind to accompany it.
While walking through this I couldn’t help but notice the tall, skinny trees rocking back and forth in the wind. Strong enough to keep standing, flexible enough to cope with what it was facing.
A couple of days later I had made my way to the top of the country to visit the Giant’s Causeway. I had heard the stories about the Causeway and had seen pictures of the famous rocks and ever since a friend had visited the Scottish side a number of years ago, I has wanted to see it ‘live’ as well.
For the first time during my time in Ireland I thought the phrase, “is this it?”. The rocks were great and all but I expected the actual causeway to be somewhat wider. I was about to turn around and head back up the hill when I noticed that the path continued further than the actual causeway. Crikey, I’m glad that I took this path.
I got talking to a number of people along this way, there just happened to be a lot of Australians there that day. I walked till the path ended due to a landslide. I remember one person saying as she was coming back around the bend, “Been around there yet? Nothing there, it just ends.” With a tone of disappointment.
I went around the bend and ended up taking so many photos. The sheer power that a cliff face has in just a small area is enough to completely wipe out anything in its path, in this case- a man made path. Looking down and seeing the stones and planks of wood (of what I took as being the barrier of the old walking trail) I found myself leaning in the corner of the ‘endest’ point of the trail- with no one around- for a bit of centering prayer. Allowing the time and place that I found myself in as an opportunity to commune with God. I can’t remember what the sacred word I used at that time was, and I didn’t hold the prayer for too long as after a few minutes I heard voices coming near, but it was centering nonetheless.
As I looked down into the amphitheatre once more I noticed the big boulders that were just beneath the surface of the water. I’m no tidal expert so I don’t know if the tide was in or out that day, or if those boulders ever get a chance to be exposed or if they spend their entire life just beneath the surface.
After climbing Croagh Patrick, nearly 2 weeks prior to the Giant’s Causeway, I was happy that I had been able to get up and down but now that I had there was no need to go and do it again. After a while, when people asked me about climbing Croagh Patrick again I’d jokingly reply that I would’ve needed to have started training at least a year ago. Now, over a month removed from the climb, I want to climb it again. That want came to be about a week ago and I was thinking yesterday ‘why the hell would I want that?!?” That mountain is incredible! It lulls you into a false sense of security in its first half, then smacks you upside your head and everywhere else as you try to navigate your way up. In places it seems straight up pile upon piles of stone until, eventually, materialising through the heavy cloud, the church upon the mountain appears. Then you have to go back down! (for a raw reflection on the climb check out my entry in the KM Pilgrimage blog). If something is this hard, why bother doing it?
The ocean that covered some of myself had gone when I approached the statue of St Patrick at the bottom of the mountain. Emotions, that I usually keep in check came flooding out. It was a great feeling to have made it up and down but I always knew that I was going to do it. Whether it was a bit of exhaustion, relief or the welcome I received as the last pilgrim down the boulders that I have just under the surface became exposed and though I didn’t like it, I am thankful for it.
I have just reread that last line and had to laugh. Taken out of context it could be mean something quite different. Originally, I had planned on a Bible link to Gen 1:28 to finish that part off linking conquering the mountain to subduing the land but my pen got away from me.
The laughter and mateship that we shared together went in no small way to creating the overflowing sense of joy and success that the pilgrimage gave us. The light hearted conversations interspersed between the prayer and the deep thinking helped to rest us before the next challenge, whether it that was climbing a mountain, braving a bit of wind and rain or sharing with each other our thoughts and reflections.
However, this was all done in the security of having people around who would support you. While at Mass Rock, I noticed a tree that was barely anchored to the ground as it overhung the ‘altar’ of this sacred place. I reflected that through adversity (that I am luckily enough not to have faced) these people were able to stand strong in dire circumstances and cope with what was beating down on them. Not only to survive, but ultimately, to live.
The tour of the Nano Nagle centres in Ballygriffen and more noticeably at Cork really opened my eyes and mind to what had come before us in Catholic education. Growing up in Mildura, I was familiar with the Sisters of Mercy and had a bit to do with them over the years. I was fleetingly familiar with St Brigid- she was the other statue in the church, the one that wasn’t Mary, but I had never heard of Nano Nagle. That changed when I began work here at Marian College, but it wasn’t until visiting these places that I really got a sense of accomplishment and achievement for what Nano had done.
The way that it was put to us, it was Nano who took the lead to make Catholic education what it is today. From Nano came Catherine McAuley for the Sisters of Mercy and Edmund Rice for the Christian brothers, two of the biggest facilitators of Catholic education in my diocese.
The pilgrimage ended with blessings, bearhugs and tears but our journey continues. We all have a duty now to bring with us our reflections, our experiences and share them with those around us, whether it be work, family or fun. The knowledge gained from the pilgrimage has inspired me to make changes to the curriculum I teach, to the liturgies I write, and to the life I lead.
Religious Education Coordinator
Marian College Ararat