I’m at the Glendalough Hermitage in County Wicklow, Ireland…my own free-standing cottage with all the modcons and surrounded by towering oaks, rowans, hawthorns, birches and yews…yesterday I did a laundry and was encouraged to hang out on the line—which of course I preferred to. Heavenly. Blue sky but coolish with a fresh, moisture-laden breeze smelling of hay and gently decomposing leaves—the early autumn smell of my New Hampshire childhood…
Glendalough is an ancient monastic and pilgrimage site, the center of which is “black with people,” as my friend Benny from Dublin puts it. Tourists—like me!
I made my way down there one early evening, thinking the crowds might have gone, but no. So instead I’ve been setting out from the Hermitage, which is on the other (north) side of the main road through town (the Monastic City as it’s called is on the south side), and though there is no mention of the face in any of the Hermitage literature, brochures, instructions, info etc., nor are any of them marked or pointed to, turns out there are MASSES of nearby trails, almost entirely empty, leading off in every direction.
Some of these are part of the Wicklow Way, a path that goes all the way back to Dublin I believe; some seem to be local; and many of them, I learned from asking the few people I did come across, go on for miles and hours. It’s the best kind of walking, to my mind—basically flat, wide, well-trodden trails, softly packed with dirt and hay, surrounded by ferns, bracken, wild foxglove, impenetrable brush, moss-festooned fallen branches, and dead quiet.
Just north of the Hermitage, accessible through a lichen-encrusted wooden gate, is St. Kevin’s Church. Though unfortunately open only at the moment for Sunday Mass (Father is on retreat and as it is, there are only two priests for three parishes), the church has a really beautifully thought-out and planned Meditation Garden, with four different “parts,” and is altogether practically the best feature of my little life here. St. Kevin was a 6th-century pilgrim who lived in a cave-cell above a lake in the Monastic City and has several legends attached to him, one having to do with a blackbird that I will save as I want to write a column on the Meditation Garden.
In the pasture above the churchyard sheep bleat, and all along the border grow in profusion wild blackberries. Which just happen to be coming ripe. There’s a cemetery there, too, and it’s so nice to walk along remembering the dead and plucking berries. I hope that’s okay. I have restrained myself from nabbing any of the flowers, some wild, some cultivated, that charmingly carpet the area and that I long to gather into a bouquet for my room. But I’m surrounded by green anyway, and am grateful for it.
I immediately checked out a bunch of books from the Hermitage library and since Saturday when I arrived have been pondering such questions as What do I want to receive while here, what does God want from me, what do I want from God, where is my life going, how am I, where am I, who am I? etc—pilgrimage questions, in other words.
I would like to lie down and rest is about the best I can come up with–and that’s not a joke.
I want to be like St. Paul—I want to run the race, I want to finish the course, I want to be in training till my last breath. But does my pace make me impatient and restless with others? Well, often, yes. And maybe that is just part of the tension we hold as humans, or that I hold (along with I’m sure billions of others). I don’t really know how to do it any other way, and I’m not sure I’m meant to.
We long for purity, we humans: purity of heart, purity of motive, purity of way of life. But life, culture, our era and place inevitably make it so we can never be as pure as we’d like to. We can abhor war, and the military-industrial state, for example, but honesty compels us to admit there’s a reason we don’t live without water, sanitation, medicines and food, subject to roving terrorist gangs (or not yet, not completely in the First World).
Human nature is such that the weak are always prey for the strong—we can not like that, we can know that’s wrong, but we’re recipients of and benefit from the people who’ve noticed, lived by, and capitalized on that fact. To truly repudiate “the dirty rotten system,” as Dorothy Day called it, would mean not taking or using a single thing the system provided. It would mean either 1) living in a wilderness entirely alone, or 2) voluntarily going to the worst hellhole on earth and offering ourselves up to die or be killed there. The latter is what Christ did, the worst place on earth being metaphorically the unredeemed human heart.
But before Christ came John the Baptist, who longed for integrity and tried to achieve it the first way, by going to the wilderness: living on locusts and wild honey and dressing in animal skins. They killed him, too, but that he was Christ’s precursor, “not fit to untie his sandal,” as John himself put it, maybe means that Christ was saying you don’t have to go to the wilderness and live alone. You can achieve a certain kind of integrity that way, and it’s genuine integrity—you’re suffering and sacrificing for it. But it may not be redemptive integrity, for lack of a better phrase.
Christ says, Be part of the world; in the world but not of it. Do to the least of your brothers. Participate and contribute as you can, whether under capitalism, communism, a monarchy, or a dictatorship. Don’t aim for a kind of purity that’s impossible to achieve and that will set you apart from your brethren in the wrong way. Know the nature of the battle—which is formidable.
Because maybe the one thing harder than trying to achieve an impossible purity is holding the tension of the fact that others are always dying so we can live; that every bite of food we eat, every drop of water we use, every mile we drive, does in a sense mean that someone else get less. Maybe the one thing harder than living entirely alone is living among people–especially people who may be following a very different light than yours—and for whom you’re in some way trying to lay down your life.
No wonder we’re tired! We are nailed to the Cross of the human condition and may it keep us humble, grateful, mystified, awake, contrite, and surrendered.
But in our search for integrity not despairing. Never despairing. For as Jesus said: “In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.”