Friday, June 13, 2008

A Pilgrimage to Wales: A Beginning

I look out the window of the passenger bus as the English landscape flashes by. Leaving Birmingham, we pass the Museum of the Motorcycle and then we’re almost in the countryside. But not quite: Large paneled trucks parked in fields serve as portable billboards. The only memorable message is one boasting: Birmingham’s Rubbish: We love it.”

With Birmingham and the rubbish behind us, we move through English midlands west toward Wales. Flat lowlands with gentle rising hillocks dotted with copses of poplars and oaks. Fields and Fields of fluorescent yellow Rape Seed hedged by rows of yellow gorse and white blossomed hawthorne from fields of green grazed upon by herds of sheep – shorn and unshorn, lambs and ewes and rams, usually white but often mixed with brown and black sheep. In some fields, horses and cows also graze, and once I spy a large brown cow browsing the lower branch of a shady tree.

Slowly the hills get higher and the topography more rolling as we enter Wales where the pilgrimage is to begin.

Of course it already has begun – and depending on how you view the term pilgrimage, it can be a metaphor for life. From this perspective, my life pilgrimage is now in its 69th year.

But in the usual sense, pilgrimage means a journey of moral significance often to a place of spiritual significance. Every major religion has these – Muslims journey to Mecca, Christians to Rome or the Holy Land, Jews to Jerusalem, even Buddhists – I am told – seek the important sites in the lives of the Buddha. When I was a child, I remember my Roman Catholic aunt, Jennie, journeying to Lourdes in France; I still have the rosary she brought me that contains a bit of holy water from the well there. And as a high schooler (and in College), I read Chaucer’s tales of Canterbury and the pilgrims that journeyed to the place Thomas a Becket had made holy.

In my case, the path has been made easier than those of earlier Christian pilgrims by modern transportation – a flight from Newark to Birmingham England followed by a chartered bus into Wales. I travel with 28 other pilgrims, all members of the Episcopal Church, mostly from the East Coast but including an Ohioan and two Californians.

As we move eastward, we spot the Malvern Hills, fields of white daisies and bluebells, even a red clay field reminiscent of the earth tones in my native Virginia. The valley grows narrower and the road also, as we cross the river moving closer to our evening stop near the ruins of Tintern Abbey. My first visit on this pilgrimage is the visit to this place: Tintern Abbey, which inspired Wordsworth some 250 years ago when he penned his reflections on time and memory.

The ruins are indeed all that remains of the memory of the monastery that once stood here. A grand but simple structure, as it first appears to me. Yet the more I explore it by foot, the more rooms I discover.

Behind the abbey, I make another discovery – an oak tree through which the late afternoon sun illuminates the transparent delicate leaves. I try with my camera to capture it, knowing that the photo will at best be a memento of what I experienced.

Like the pilgrims in Canterbury Tales, members of our group each have our own stories, and over the 10 days to come, I will learn a little bit more about some of them.

But we begin with simple introductions, picking up on a retired minister’s self-description as a “Virgin Pilgrim” the rest of us find a new part of our identity: a “returning pilgrim”, experienced pilgrims from other holy places, Virgin Pilgrims, and – my self-identification, an “almost Virgin.” (based on an Episcopal trip 20 years ago to Kenya).

Back in my hotel room, I get to know my roommate Julia from Georgia and guiltily unpack my suitcase while she speaks of hers lingering somewhere in the Newark Airport having missed the transfer from Atlanta to our trans-Atlantic flight.

The next day, I reluctantly leave beautiful Tintern for the first day of our journey to many holy places in Wales. I have been attracted to this trip, not only because it is in Wales and not only because it is a pilgrimage but also because the focus is celtic Christianity about which I have had a sense of kinship without much knowledge. In preparation for the trip, I read some books on the topic and immediately found the intellectual basis for my kinship: In my newfound personal theology, Celtic Christianity appealed to me because it focused on the innate goodness of humankind (as opposed to “original sin”) emphasizing the importance of finding the God within oneself and within all the aspects of the natural world (as opposed to getting direction from the authorities in Rome).

Many of the holy places we will visit are named for saints I’ve never heard of and yet they were real people who once lived. The first one we meet is an early Celtic saint, Issui, who was murdered near the spot where the bus stops on a country road; we enter a gate and walk uphill from the Nant Mair River along a farm path arriving first at St. Issui’s well, where we stop to pray and to dip our fingers into the water. I think about how many of these heretofore unknown saints have existed – before the church set criteria for sainthood, there were many ordinary people so recognized.

It reminds me of the second part of a passage from Ecclesiasticus that is read often around All Saints Day. It begins: “Let us now praise famous men,
and our fathers in their generations. The Lord apportioned to them great glory,
his majesty from the beginning. There were those who ruled in their kingdoms,
and were men renowned for their power . . . There are some of them who have left a name, so that men declare their praise.”

But – this is the part that reminds me of St. Issui and other men AND women -- “And there are some who have no memorial, who have perished as though they had not lived; they have become as though they had not been born, and so have their children after them. But these were men of mercy, whose righteous deeds have not been forgotten . . .”

St. Issui, I think, you may be forgotten but not this well which holds the memory of you. As we continue up the hill toward a 6th Century Patrishow (Patricio) Church, through a woods and a meadow, I recall an old saw, which even though often said is not untrue: The Journey is more important than the destination.

Our encounters along this part of the journey include a large mother ewe shepherding her young lambs into a barn and out of harms way from us the pilgrims, we see more hedgerows, bluebells, buttercups and rose colored “fire an enormous red poppy in a farmhouse garden, more hawthorns and wild roses, holly trees and horse chestnuts with their multiple yellow spiked blossoms.

At the peak of the hill we arrive at the destination – a small medieval chapel of stone overlooking the valley below where we can see how far we’ve climbed.

We take a different, more direct but steeper way back to the bus across the fields and down the hill rather than the the longer switch-back road that brought us here. On the way down, I’m ahead of Julia but I hear a cry and look back. As she tells me later, her walk turned into a run she could not control and so she tumbled over. I see others assisting her. As she tells me later, her knee hurt but more important, she was shaken by the fall and her dignity was awry as well.

On the Way to Carreg Cenon, Wales View from Carreg Cenon


Ann (and Logan) said...

This sounds like a great trip. What a great time of year to be in Wales. I am finding it very hard to do any work because I just have to read on.
I was in North Wales earlier this year and picked up a book of contemporary Welsh poets, then turned round and my mum had already bought another book on Welsh poetry. We usually buy fiction so that was the odd thing about it all. But now I have more of an understanding, thanks to you.
I am glad you are enjoying Wales. it is a great place.

Anonymous said...

Love your blog, Kay! Nice design, and I really enjoyed the pilgrimage story. I'm assuming you're Episcopalian--we should talk churches sometime.