Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Pilgrimage - Act IV: Sealing the Practice

Sister Cintra at Bryn Celli Ddu

By the middle of the second week, the end of this trip was in sight. In my yoga class in America, we often do a final pose in which we seek to integrate what we’ve learned; my instructor calls it “sealing the practice”. Likewise, these final days of our journey reinforce what we had learned in the earlier days of our pilgrimage: During these last days we step back to prehistoric times at a burial site at Bryn Celli Ddu, at the ruins of Segontium, a Roman fort dating from the first century, in anointing ourselves from St. Seriol’s well dating from the sixth century holy, and visiting Caernarfon, the 13th century castle built by Edward I after conquering Wales.

Before heading off to Caernarfon and Segontium, Julia and I had walk into Criccieth to look around – Along the way, I noticed a monolith in a nearby field set just like the stones we had seen at Pentre Ifan – much of Wales is like that – you feel that everywhere is holy land.

Criccieth is a town catering both to the locals and to tourists. At one shop, I admire the photographs of landscape, thinking they were made by the shopkeeper, who accepted my compliments as if he were the artist; only later in Caernarfon did I see the same photos in another shop, obviously intended for tourists like me intent on taking a piece of Wales back home.

Segontium, the Roman fort, was occupied from 77 A.D. until the close of the 4th century. What remains are foundation ruins and a museum with artifacts. Set high on a hill, the fort overlooked the approaches from the river and the sea as well as Anglesey Island providing a strategic site to protect from the Irish.

Below the fort are remnants of a later era in the life of this much invaded country: the city of Caernarfon, which has grown up around the castle built in the 13th century by Edward I. The castle overlooks the Menai straits and the Isle of Anglesey. There, during our tour, a fascinating guide brought alive the period: As conqueror, Edward promised the Welsh that he would give them a prince who did not speak English and was born on Welsh soil; to the dismay of any Welsh who got their hopes up, Edward’s promise was fulfilled when his son, the future Edward II, was born there. Of course the baby didn’t speak at all and he was born on Welsh soil. Edward II thus became the first Prince of Wales, and ever since, the heir apparent to the English throne has been invested as the Prince of Wales. In the 1960s, Charles was so named, amid much pomp and circumstances at Caernarfon.

This is perhaps the most visited of all the castles in Wales. The day we were there, a mold was being made from one of the walls of the castle, reportedly for a film that will include a medieval castle. Today, the area enclosed by the castle walls is a beautiful green lawn cut by walks, but I could imagine how it must have been in medieval times, with animals roaming about, and people traipsing through the mud.This our final day of pilgrimage: driving past Caernarfon to Anglesey Island, we visit Bryn Celli Ddu Burial Chamber, a Neolithic burial site, dating to approximately 2,000 B.C. The setting is truly exquisite – in a meadow that we approach by walking down a country path. I could hear the thrush song and observed and heard Chaffinches, the Great Tit and several bramblings, finches whose markings resemble a cross between a Towhee and American Robin.

The site sign explains that there was a circle henge with a ditch built here first, but then the stone burial site and entranceway to the tomb were constructed with a mound over them.

Bryn Celli Ddu means literally “the mound in the dark grove,” but today, the mound and the grove are gone. Recently, it was discovered that as the sun rises, the midsummer solstice sun lights the entranceway to the tomb.

Leaving Bryn celli, we passed through the longest name Welsh town, perhaps the longest named place anywhere:
Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwillantysiliogoggogoch. Literally, this means “The Church of Mary in the Hollow of White Hazel near the Fierce Whirlpool and the Church of Tysilio by the Red Cave.” Later in the evening, two of our fellow pilgrims vied to see who could say the name most accurately.

From Anglesey Island, we could look back at the coast of Wales around Bangor. Nearby is another Edwardian Castle at Beaumaris, built in concentric circles and a companion castle to Caernarfon.

On the way to Penmon Priory on Anglesey Island, we prayed

“Release in me the freedom of your spirit
that I may be bridled by nothing but love,
that I may be bridled only by love.”

This prayer was the theme for my visit at St. Seriol’s Eglwys [Church] where I spent time in the chapel and the holy well before “sauntering” (my favorite term after our experience at St. Hywyn’s in Aberdaron) in solitude on the adjacent grounds and then re-grouping for communion at the well.

St. Seriol was a 6th Century monk; he and St. Cybi used to meet on Anglesey Island – Interestingly, we had visited St. Cybi’s Well on the Llyn Peninsula earlier in the week. St Seriol’s well and meditation hut were said to have been constructed in his honor by monks after his death. According to the sign at the church: “The lower part of the well chamber and the nearby oval hut may go back to early Christian times, but the masonry above was rebuilt in the 18th century." There was also a dovecote and other out buildings as well as a pond where several coots were swimming. I also saw a Greylag Goose and several Canada geese along with black and white Martins.
I wandered through a small enclosed garden and then walked to a hilltop meadow, surrounded by ferns. I could view the water in the distance, the flowers, and listen to birds. I felt today a tremendous sadness about the loss of my friend Jerry, who had died a few months ago. I wept for him and for all he had meant to me.

“Bridled by nothing but love that I may be bridled only by love.”

At the same time, I felt a wonderful peace in this place, which was so still and beautiful. After an hour or so, we gathered for communion at the holy well, a beautiful ending to this lovely place. As I had done on other days, the few wildflowers I had gathered and tied into a nosegay were left in a cranny in the well house as my offering of thanks.

Here at St. Seriol’s, I feel the beginning of our leaving this beautiful place and the leaving of our pilgrimage.
Although I have written mostly about my experience of place, the people were also important, although it is hard to write about them. Each person played an important role in the journey and is distinct in my memory; yet, with some I learned important aspects about their lives while others I simply shared a moment of beauty or a prayer or meal together. Although we were strangers when we met, my roommate Julia and I formed an instantaneous sisterhood, and were able to laugh and share as though we had been friends for a long time. She is the person I will remember the most from this journey together.

The night we returned from Anglesey to Criccieth was our final evening time together. Collectively, we had written a journal with each day written by a different person. We each read aloud our day’s entry and thus relived each of our 9 days journey. After dinner, we enjoyed a talk and music by a local harper.

Early the next morning, we leave Criccieth and the Bron Eifion knowing that this day would end at an English hotel near the Manchester airport. But that doesn’t stop adventures along the way. In Conwy, I thought of the Conway family of Culpeper, Va., who for generations were linked through friendship with my family: sisters Jane Conway Nelson and Betty Conway Bell were contemporaries of my parents – and their children, Jane and Lewis Nelson and Dickie Bell, who had played with my brother and me as children. Conway is their ancestral home. However, I decide to visit Plas Mawr, a medieval home, which provides quite a nice audio tour and some fabulous views of the town and the castle as well as interesting insights into the medieval village.
Then it’s on to Bodnant Gardens, the place I’ve been yearning to see, where there will be lots of flowers and shrubs and trees but hopefully with identifying tags. I’m like a kid in a candy shop – my eyes are so much bigger than what I can actually take in – birds, flowers, all varieties of bushes and trees. One of the biggest attractions is the Laburnum Arch, where the trees’ flowering yellow branches wrap over a long arbor dripping yellow blossoms and filling the entire arbor with a spectacular yellow. But also there are other colorful flowers with wonderful Latin and English names: Butcher’s Broom (a shiny leafed lily with yellow/beige flowers); candelabra primula (yellow and pink primroses in showy stalks – like a candelabra), quercus petrea (a woodland oak related to English oak), betula pendula (I love the rhyme here of this weeping birch); ceonanathus, (a blue American Lilac). I swoon at azaleas in so many hues, including several varieties of the yellow we have so enjoyed in the Welsh countryside and swear that I will plant tall pink lupines in my home garden. The walks are lovely, with winding paths, and benches and streams with bridges The larger garden is divided into hundreds of smaller “rooms” of plantings.

As we are leaving I discover a lovely art store where I buy a three prints of water colors of Wales – one of a farm with the Snowdonia Mountains in the background, one of a small woodland waterfall and one of Menai Strait – lovely water colors to remind me of my pilgrimage to Wales 2008 and of the spiritual gifts I received here.

Flame Tree at Bron Eifon identified at Bodnant Gardens as a Gibraltar Azalea

As we are leaving I discover a lovely art store where I buy a three prints of water colors of Wales – one of a farm with the Snowdonia Mountains in the background, one of a small woodland waterfall and one of Menai Strait – lovely water colors to remind me of my pilgrimage to Wales 2008 and of the spiritual gifts I received here.

No comments: