Traveler- Are You a Tourist or Pilgrm?

It's much more rewarding to travel as a pilgrim rather than a tourist.  A tourist goes to see the sites, eat the food and experience the culture .... all worthy initiatives.  A pilgrim does the same thing, but travels within the context of a story.

A tourist might visit Dingle and see Mount Brandon (above) on the tip of the peninsula and be stunned by the beauty, take many photos and readily share descriptions of the landscape with friends at home.  But a pilgrim would travel to Mount Brandon knowing the story of the mountain ... that St. Brendan the Navigator launched his small fleet of curraghs toting his loyal followers from the foot of Mount Brandon in search of the promised land.  And the pilgrim would come with his or her own story.  Upon seeing the Holy Mountain, the pilgrim would knowingly become an image in the same landscape where St. Brendan, his followers and all the subsequent pilgrims appear - with Mount Brandon as the anchoring force holding all the memories of pilgrims past.  The pilgrim might bring questions on the journey, or bear certain worries, or be looking to achieve a specific personal goal, and traveling to the place within the context of the story makes the pilgrim a living character.  Thus, the purpose of the trip has a deeper meaning.

I traveled as a pilgrim to Mount Brandon.  I knew the story of Brendan, that he was seeking greater gifts away from his homeland, that he was a leader and one that started many communities of learning and prayer.  I knew he was a mystic and that Mount Brandon had been believed to be a sacred site in his time - and before his time.  It is still known as a site of great spiritual power today.  I knew all these things.

When I walked out onto the strand (beach) just below Mount Brandon, the weather was dismal, but nothing could overcome the stunning glory of that mountain rising out of the Atlantic.  As I started to reflect, I thought of how desperately I wanted to write about thin places.  But, as often happens when I dream of the book I will eventually write, I was overcome by the fear that I wasn't a good enough writer... that I'd never be able to write words worth reading. I imagined all the great writers whose shadow I'm not worthy to walk in. Angst  crept into my prayer there at the foot of Mount Brandon and the desire to write began to wane.  I stood for awhile on the strand hoping to have the fear quelled, to be encouraged ... but nothing happened.  It began to rain.  I hung my head and slunk back to my car to get out of the rain.... but ... in my path I noticed an image in the sand.  It looked like a man, handing me something with his right hand.

You may not be able to see the image well in this photo, but I'll never forget it.  My worries washed away just as the waves washed him away.  I was encouraged, and as a pilgrim, I could feel part of that ancient landscape.

As I drove up the road that leads to the Mount, the clouds broke and rainbow appeared.  It was there for 15 full minutes.  I snapped several pictures.  One of them appears below.


Stones Hold the Memories - the Stones in my Window

The great Celtic mystic, John O'Donohue writes in Anam Cara that stones and mountains carry memories of the place where they stand.  That concept grips me.  I love surveying the landscape and imagining what the stones and hills have seen, especially in an ancient place that has changed little in thousands of years.

In Western Europe and in my own country, I have visited many thin places...places I want to remember ... places from which I'd like a memento to carry home.  Instead of finding a local gift shop and purchasing a trinket to keep the place alive in my mind and spirit, I find the perfect stone to be the best memento.  Then I have a "piece of the place" to hold at home - a piece, that according to O'Donohue holds the memories of the place.  Stones from thin places are all around my house clustered on end tables, mantles, sideboards, our wrap around porch - even in the garden.  I give each stone a marking so I can identify its origin and elaborate on where I found it when someone asks.  My four year old granddaughter Grace recently found a cluster on the table and asked me about each one.  She was so fascinated.  She wanted to remember the location for each stone in that cluster.  It was cute watching her try to pronounce names like Castleruddery Stone Circle and Thoor Ballylee.

My desk (where I write and spend long stretches of time) sits in front of two windows that allow me to look out over my yard. My office is on the second story of our house and there are many large trees - maples, magnolia, crepe myrtles, lombardy poplars, and pines - outside these two windows.  I feel like I'm in the trees looking out from the tree tops.  The view always inspires me... and it's never quite the same from day to day.  On the window sill I have some of my favorite stones from memorable thin places I have visited.  They appear in the photo above.

To the far left of my window sill of stones are two heart-shaped red sandstones from a beach on Prince Edward Island.  The island earth has been rendered red by the abundance of this soft stone.  When hunting for "memento stones" Dan and I decided to specifically look for stones that were heart shaped to bring back to our friends from Dorchester County as gifts from our trip (cheap!). Dorchester County is a heart-shaped land mass known as the "Heart of Chesapeake Country."  So it seemed fitting to find a gift - in this case a stone in the shape of a heart - that linked the thin place of our travels to the homeland of our friends. Looking for stones that have a particular shape or theme is always fun.  These two heart-shaped PEI stones on my window sill were two I kept for myself.

The pointed stone to the right of my pink hearts is one I got from the shores of Lake Pend Oreille in Idaho.  We camped there for a few days and the campsite - the whole lake was magical. This stone reminds me of a nativity figure of the Virgin Mary kneeling at the side of the manger.

Next to the Pend Oreille stone is a round red stone from the beaches of Lindisfarne, also known as Holy Island located in Northumberland - England. I spent a few days there a about twelve years ago and picked up this stone when walking with a special friend, Geoff Porter who was giving me a tour of the island.  While walking on the rocky shore near the Lindisfarne Castle, Geoff and I discussed communing with the saints (particularly St Cuthbert) and receiving messages and signs. During that conversation I slipped and nearly fell.  As I gained my balance I picked up this stone.  It had a perfect cross etched across the surface. Geoff and I marveled at that for a few minutes. It was one of those moments when words weren't necessary and time seemed to freeze.  I've always had the Lindisfarne stone near my work desk since.

The stone to the farthest right is from a lake on the Hill of Uisneach in Ireland.  The geographic center of Ireland is said to be on this hill.  It is a very thin place.  A long oral tradition tells that the Hill of Uisneach is sacred. It has special energy, and is a place where many lines of energy meet. I'd heard there was enchanted lake on the hill, and when I traveled there three years ago, I spent hours ... just taking in the landscape, which was magnificent.  I found several lakes (more like ponds really), and at the largest lake I scooped up this stone from the mucky lake shore. I imagined how long it had been there hiding in mud at the shore of a  possibly enchanted lake on the Hill of Uisneach.  I wondered what memories it held.  This stone looks remarkably like a bunny... but upon closer examination, it looks like it was once used as some kind of working implement - hammer or grinding stone. A human thumb fits perfectly in the cleft (between the bunny ears and bunny back).

Every day when I look out my windows past my sacred stones, I can't help but feel their energy and memories.  Sometimes I pick up a stone and imagine I'm transported back to the thin place where I collected it.  These contemplative moments do transcend time and space.  I gather strength in holding the stones and remembering.  Sometimes I wonder if there isn't some kind of mystical connection between the stone and its prior home in that thin place. 

I also have a fifty pound stone I heisted from the Rock of Cashel.  It sits near the pond in our front garden.  How did I transport it home?  That's another story .... another post.

Below are photos of the thin places where I gathered the stones in my window.

Prince Edward Island - North Rustico.

Lake Pend Oreille in Idaho.  This photo was taken from our campsite at sunset. The stone was found just at the shore in front of where we were camping. 

Lindisfarne Castle

The lake on the Hill of Uisneach.