A Celtic pilgrimage

By Margaret M. Treadwell

It all started on a gray February day when I received an e-mail invitation from a colleague and clergyman to join his summer Celtic Pilgrimage, carefully planned and fine honed over the past 18 years. He wrote, “Tourists pass through a place and stay the same. Pilgrims pass through and they become different.” A readiness for change washed over me and I hit an instant “yes” reply.

My first reward was a bibliography of suggested reading, which provided me with light in winter darkness. Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization, John Philip Newell’s Listening to the Heartbeat of God, Ian Bradley’s Celtic Christianity and biography of St. Columba were among my highlights.

The pilgrimage itinerary, designed to trace the rise and decline of Celtic religion, began in Wales, moved 28 of us by bus and ferry to Ireland and Scotland, then ended in York, England. Monastic ruins, holy wells, ancient Celtic crosses, Iona Abbey, Durham and York Cathedrals came alive with historical significance under the tutelage of our superb guides. The guides suggested we ask two questions at each site, and a good friend asked me to return with my answer to the third:

1.What is it like to be in this place? What will you take away in your heart?

2. How is it different to experience this place with a group of pilgrims?

3. When did you first experience Jesus on the pilgrimage?

A heart takeaway occurred on the second day when we gathered around our first holy well at Penmon Priory, a coastal monastery founded by Seiriol in the 6th century on the island of Anglesey, Wales. The group became hushed as we approached the rock-protected well of clear, cold water hidden in a beautiful green vale. A clergy leader spoke about holy wells as the source of life for pagan Druids who built their communities near them to experience the womb of Mother Earth. Later, the Celts sought balance between the dark properties of water such as storms that destroy life and the light represented in holy wells where God shines in nature and the goodness of creation. This tension is reflected in their prayers and hymns, which we practiced on the bus from the Iona Worship Book for our daily worship services.

We then reflected on what water means to us individually. I recalled my near drowning terror at age 12 when at the last moment I was mercifully pulled from the darkness into air and light. Suddenly I realized on a deep emotional level a truth I have long known intellectually: Light can be fully appreciated only when we experience it in contrast to darkness.

Two pilgrims in particular gave me an opportunity to observe the balance of light and dark: One fractured an ankle requiring emergency room visits, a cast, and a wheelchair for the duration; another was hospitalized for three days. Both spoke about the pos- itive impact a community of fellow pilgrims had on their recovery. Observing their courage and humor despite intense pain offered us insight into the Celtic way of balancing the tension of opposites and strategies to promote that balance through our efforts to help.

I experienced Jesus for the first time in the most surprising way on the Island of Iona, known as a “thin place” between heaven and earth. I had not anticipated enjoying three pilgrims, a single father with his little girls ages 8 and 6, the exact ages of two granddaughters I adore but wouldn’t invite on an adult two-week spiritual journey.

My plan to distance myself shattered when the 8-year-old began talking with me about her love of reading and memorization. She recited her lines from last Easter’s pageant, when she insists to the soldiers that Jesus cannot have been killed “because I just saw him yesterday.” His presence was palpable at that moment. During our last service at Whitby Abbey before pilgrimage’s end she magnificently sang for us assembled wor- shipers, “To Everything There is a Season,” culminating in the words, “Until we meet again may you keep safe in the gentle loving arms of God.”

I had been slipping into tourist mode when a child, rising above the darkness of her parents’ recent separation, taught me what it is to be a pilgrim. I came home changed by her faith in Jesus, who opens our eyes to new possibilities in others and ourselves.

Margaret M. “Peggy” Treadwell, LICSW, is a family, individual and couples therapist and teacher in private practice.

Past Posts