Beth Webb looks at ancient Irish spirituality and finds the peace and hospitality engendered by the early pilgrims of the Emerald Isle has remained to this day.
ONL lasting impression I hate ,thout the ancient traditions of our faith is the wisdom ttithin rules. traditions and books wIiicIi
have heen passed down to he he teaching of the ancient religious. such as the Rule of St Benedict is dramatically relevant
today as are the stories contained
in I he Little flowers of St i.anci). We are still human beings living in a world where
hltle fundamental change has taken place since the days of ( hrist. despite alter the sociologists would have us think.
One practice, related to earl\ Irish spirituality in particular. was that of pilgrimages. Sonic say it
was a sort of wanderlust stirred up Os Chaucer would have it) by the onset of spring or a desire to sec new lands.
But then. who in their right minds would try ,to escape
securth of everyday life bs launching themselves in shaky little boats. sometimes willout sail or oar. to go wherever their God would have them land?
Not my idea of "a great little escape" bv a long chalk!
( in is have also Suggested that these early pilgrims wandered to cool their itching heels :Ind seek their fortune. but as a \ century talc of ,Si (olrrnliu (St (.011.11111)11s1 says: is the parting d souls :Ind bud) for a man to
leave his kindred and his country.
and go front them to a strange distant land. in exile and in perpetual pilgrimage".
There +s as something very pure and trait-Tat-cut about the early Irish spirituality. The act of going un n pilgrimage was an end in itself. to set Out in one of these tiny barques across the Irish Sea or the bliglish Channel. was an act of 1:11111: 111e) were being "cast on to Christ" as St Paul exhorted all true belio.ers to he.
The early Irish ascetics cited the examples of Moses and Abraham as precedent for their theology 01 pilgrimage. They left their homes :Ind families and all that they had to mos,: out in obedience to Indeed. Jesus himself told his disciplines to wander from town [0 tow n preaching the Gospel, "Poo. id e 1 oursel yes ah no gold
or Nil not even a few coppers for your purses. with no hasersitek for the journey or spare tunic or lootwear or a staff ..,"
True discipleship traditionally means to he cast completely at (iod's For these early pilgrims, their destinali 'A ;IN only perhaps half as important as the journey itself "Shun both in body and soul henceforth in thy pilgrimage, the sins and vices of the country ■■ herein thou bast up to this, dwelt in thy body." (Life of SI Colon:twine — in the Book of
The idea of leaving the "old man" and the sins of the past life behind by imposing self-exile and going away, was akin for them to the idea of baptism. launching out into a new life in Christ.
By this obedience. the pilgrims believed that they would earn a "great reward" that Our Lord promised his Apostles: "Everyone who has left houses, brothers, sisters, lather,mother or children for my sake or land, will he paid a hundred times over and also inherit eternal life."
But possibly even more important for them was the joy and fulfilment of obedience.
It was possible in the ancient mind to go on a spiritual pilgrimage without leaving one's country, "since it is not for the sake of their body that they continue in their fatherland, their goodwill in remaining at home avails them with the Lord as a pilgrimage ... it is not by the path (of their feet) nor by the motion of the body that one draws near to God. but by practicing virtues and good deeds." (mid).
There is also a seventh century poem, which may he roughly translated.
To go to Rome is much trouble and little benefit for the King you seek. unless you early him with you when you start (Jul. You will tun find hint there.
The places these ancient men often sought out (unless they Were just "casting themselves upon the waters") were shrines and Holy places where the Saints. or even Christ himself had lived, places 'steeped in God's love'.
Ironically, after the centuries of the ancient Irish saints and ascetics journeying across the waters on pilgrimages, places they left behind have now become areas of pilgrimage in their own right: Knock, Croagh Patrick, the Mass rock for example.
Even the less spiritually spectacular but very lovely monasteries or the land, many now in ruins, have become places where people of the twentieth century love to meditate and pray. But gems like this have to he sought out. In the end, it is essentially prayer that matters the place is only perhaps. an icon. a source of inspiration because of its history and associations.
Launching out in a shaky boat these days would probably lead to being chased by trawlers who thought you were breaking fishing limits. or sworn at by crews of big dinghys taking part in the Fastnet races. Travelling is simpler nowadays, and there are many surprisingly cheap and ed,.■ ways of getting to Ireland this autumn*.
The spirit of pilgrimages created by the ancient ascetics is still the same and perhaps something to be sought out. taking the time to "come ye apart and rest awhile" as Jesus encouraged his followers to do.
To take time with God is surely the best way to beat the inner city blues.
Another great aspect of earl% Irish spirituality is that of hospitality or Oigetlehaire literally "guest loving". I was astonished in Ireland just how "guest loving" the people are. I never felt so warmly welcomed anywhere else in my life — or so refreshed on leaving.
• The Irish Touris1 Board is at 15(1 New Bond Street, London, WIY OW. 01-493 321)1:13+1 lines. at London (11-734 4681 or Liverpool 051-227 3131: and Sealink Travel Ventre, Victoria London. 01-731) 1-140.
Right: Mellifont Abbey