That we can walk as companions in this so pleasant a path.
John Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress
Throughout my sabbatical I have been thinking about and chronicling the many various paths, trails, roads, alleys, aisles and streets I found myself upon as I have travelled over the past two months. This post contains pictures from these walks; nearby in Lexington; a little farther in Martha’s Vineyard; and even farther still, all over Ireland. In Dublin I averaged over 15,000 steps a day. Each time I set out, I was anticipating that most incredible of all days when I had the opportunity to hike the Croagh Patrick. I felt each step had led me there, as each step has now led me back home.
In each venue, I also imagined the other people, fellow sojourners, strangers all using these same paths from the past or in the future. I have considered with humble appreciation those who helped forge, prepare and maintain these living arteries of human travel. Sometimes we walk with purpose, sometimes we wander, sometimes we are lost and don’t know the where or the why of our going. Isn’t it amazing when you discover how the unexpected travel is often the path to the more interesting experiences? All of this made possible by these spaces, prepared and traversed long before our arrival.
Wherever we walk, we are never completely alone in our journey around the planet. Often, the path is made brighter with a companion or two. Yet, it can be equally good when we walk alone except for those imagined friends joining us through the mystery of time.
Pathways are metaphors of taking a spiritual pilgrimage. Bunyan reminds us how the faith-filled pilgrim makes “progress” upon the path. Stephen Dedalus carefully examines his existence upon his early morning stroll through the strand at Sandymount. Leopold Bloom doesn’t stop moving on his celebrated day on June 16, 1904. We “roam” with Berry in “A Homecoming.” All these works have inspired my sabbatical walking.
As we move through space and time, we seek after a deeper and more eternal meaning in the God who moves with us, ahead of us and behind us. We hope to follow the guiding light, or at least be comforted by searching for the the divine presence even while in darkness.
Below is a pictorial collection of some of these pathways. For fun, if you like, try and guess the different locations below. If you click on each picture, you will be able to find out more information at the bottom of the comments section about their location and the dates I was there. And someday, you might find yourself in one of these exact spots as well.
And the way-farer must not weep. So courage! my heart, don’t faint, don’t fear Though the rough rock makes the way slow, The easy track only leads me back, Up and on is the way I must go.
John Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress
A priest, who biannually directs the pilgrims on the 40 km hike from Ballinrobe to then climb Croagh Patrick, offers them an introductory word of advice. “First”, he tells them as retold to us by the manager of the hotel where we stayed in Westport, “take a rock and put in your pocket and keep it there for the entire journey. Once you are atop the Reek, take the rock out of your pocket and throw it off the mountain as hard as you can. Then pick up another rock at your feet from the top of the mountain itself and put it in your pocket to take back. Once home, place this rock upon the mantle in your living room. Then whenever you are having a back day, go bad and look at that rock, and say to yourself, ‘At least this day isn’t as hard as the one I had when I climbed up that blasted mountain!'”
I wish I had known this story prior to my day upon the Reek. It may have helped motivate my decision to press on. Ahead of me was only fog, hundreds of thousands of dangerous rocks and a very steep incline into the nothingness of the clouds above. And I was worried about time. It had taken longer than expected already. I knew Donna was waiting below. If she was not worried by now, then certainly she would be by whatever time it would take to finish and return back.
I made a deal with myself. I will try and go just a little bit more and if I find it too difficult, without guilt or hesitation, I will start back down. I put the rosary back around my neck and made my way. It wasn’t long before my lungs were aching and it was time to take another break.
Just above me was a young woman perched uncomfortably upon a larger stone. “Are you okay?” I asked. “Yes,” she replied. “I’m waiting for my sister who is going a little slower. Plus, I have recently torn my ACL and don’t have my brace with me and am trying to be careful.” “Oh, I’ve had knee issues myself.” Her eyes widen with surprise. “You must be the guy from Kentucky with the nice wife we met on the way up.”
Sure enough, Donna had engaged a few hikers on her way back down, including this woman, her sister and their friend. She asked them to be on the lookout for me. Two of them must of blown right past me during my inner deliberations upon the flats. They were from Cleveland, Ohio and had been traveling throughout Ireland, visiting the land of their great-grandparents for the past two weeks. On a whim, they had decided to tackle the Croagh on their last day on the island with little forethought or awareness of its challenge.
I looked down to see the lagging behind sister. Soon, she had joined us and we fell into pace together for a while. “I hope you know CPR,” I joked. “Not to worry,” she said reassuringly, “I do and you’ll be fine.” It wasn’t long before they were too quick for my slow pace. I was making it, even if inch by inch, but they were gone.
When Christian began to climb the hill, he sang: I must climb up to the mountain top; Never mind if the path is steep, For I know that through strife lies the way to life.
John Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress
After another hour of careful climbing, observing some almost glide forward while others resorted to climbing on all fours, I found myself gutting it out. “I’ve come too far to quit now.” “When will I ever have this opportunity again?” “I don’t want to give up.” “I can do it.” “I hope I can do it.”
I had to get out of my own head, so I went back to the basics of counting. My mantra: “ONE! (big step), two, three, four (smaller steps).” “ONE!, two, three, four.” “ONE!, two three, four.” After I tired of this method, I remembered the mystery rosary still hanging on my neck. “Hail Mary, full of grace……pray for us sinners, now!” My shortened Protestant version of this beloved prayer had never seemed more relevant.
Other encouraging words were coming from those descending as I was ascending. “Almost there.” “Don’t give up.” “Just 15 minutes or so more.” In reality it would take me another 30 minutes of painful management. It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t graceful. But I was becoming more and more aware that it could be done, it would be done, it was getting done.
Earlier in the day, Donna said she had seen two coffee cups in a storefront window. One said, “I climbed Croagh Patrick!” The other said, “I almost climbed Croagh Patrick.” With gratitude, I was growing in the certitude that I would be able to claim the first slogan and join the ranks of pilgrims who have shared this special experience.
When I was within sight of the last horizon before the final summit, I noticed one of my Cleveland friends had been watching for me. “Come on, Mark! You’re almost done!” They were half -right. The way up was terrible. The way down still promised plenty of trouble. The legs were wobbly and gravity was going to cram your toes into the front of your shoes for 2 long hours. But those were worries for later. I had finished a goal of physical and mental determination and it felt great.
Some have been luckier with a final view at the top of Croagh Patrick. I’m including a picture below I discovered on facebook from someone else just a few short days later when the skies were clear. My time was masked by an opaque midst that hid such beauty. Again, the mountain is teaching a spiritual lesson for the faithful. Wonderful things don’t cease to exist just because you cannot perceive or experience them. Everyday requires commitment, patience and faith. And there is always something good to see, for those with faith enough to find it.
I fell into step with the Cleveland girls on the descent. We shared stories and filled in the pieces of our personal backgrounds. The sister who had told me she knew CPR admitted she had lied. She was afraid I was serious and wondered what my reaction might had been if she had revealed the truth. With sore bodies and relieved spirits, we laughed.
Then, near the place where I had said goodbye to Donna, she slipped. I watched her ankle turn and her arm and back hit hard against the rocky ground. I thought she had hit her head too, and braced myself for the appearance of blood. But, if she wasn’t lying again, she said she was overall okay, just a little shaken. Life can change that quick. We took a few moments and I carried her backpack the rest of the way down. I had needed them. Now, they needed me.
We started waving our sticks in the air when we could see the St. Patrick statue in the distance and Donna waiting patiently next to it. I said a quick goodbye to these unexpected angels. It was past 6 and they still needed to drive the 3 plus hours back to Dublin that evening. I envied their youth, but not their schedule.
Donna and I collected our 4 Euros for returning the walking sticks and limped our way to the car. “I’m proud of you,” she said and I was overwhelmed with gratitude; humbled by the opportunity, thankful for the result and joyful through its completion. Who knows? Maybe someday, with a new knee and a day promising clear skies, I’ll return and discover what the mountain can teach me again.
A stratagem. Resting his feet on the dwarf wall, he climbed over the area railings, compressed his hat on his head, grasped two points at the lower union of rails and stiles, lowered his body gradually by its length of five feet nine inches and a half to within two feet ten inches of the area pavement and allowed his body to move freely in space by separating himself from the railings and crouching in preparation for the impact of the fall.
James Joyce, Ulysses
There is a small gate that marks the official beginning of the traditional route for climbing Croagh Patrick in County Mayo, Ireland. It is a point of transition, just a few yards from the shamrock blessing of its most celebrated saint and the initial introduction of this unruly and rocky Reek (the Irish name for a “small hill” and the given name of this summit by the locals).
From the Parking Lot, you climb a wide staircase leading to the statue of St. Patrick, then a brief stony and bumpy incline, and next the gate. Taken together they offer a silent word of caution : “Be aware brave traveler, there is far more of this and worse beyond this entrance. Now, off you go, with a blessing and a little taste of what’s ahead.”
“I have done it a couple of times,” forewarned one of these locals, a woman I guessed to be near my age of 60 years gone. “It will be intense.” I expected her to say it would be “challenging,” “difficult,” or maybe, “extreme.” But she had chosen her word carefully and wisely. The exactitude of her on-point and clear description would return to me again and again in the hours spent beyond the gate.
The Reek will be intense and it has earned the right to be so. In 1994, Archeologist Gerry Walsh discovered glass beads dating from the 3rd Century B.C.E. and other pre-Christian evidences of the ancient and sacred significance of this holy mountain. Near the summit are indications of a Celtic hill fort, where settlers living in the Bronze and Iron Ages constructed thatched roof homes and carved-out ridges on elevated slopes as a means of protection and defense from outside threats.
It was the fabled Maewyn Succat, a former slave living in the later 4th or early 5th Century who would make this mountain famous. Taken from Roman Britain by Irish pirates at the age of 16, Succat would eventually escape his captors after working 6 years on Irish farms. Newly liberated and upon returning to his native land, he devoted himself more deeply into his Catholic faith, taking on a new name for himself, perhaps as a means to acknowledge his hard-won and elevated status, once a despised slave to become a respectable, noble and virtuous contributor to society.
But you can never completely leave your past behind, even those parts that shame and trouble you. The newly-named Patrick would hear the voice of his former captors in Ireland pleading for his return as God’s own claim and call upon his life. As immortalized on the columned statue bearing his name in the lovely and nearby town of Westport, it was those who had once abused and exploited him now pleading out, “We ask you boy, come and walk once more among us.”
Though never officially canonized as a “Saint,” the reputation of St. Patrick would grow to legendary proportions. Credited with bringing Christianity to the Irish, he is also remembered for spending 40 days and nights in fasting and prayer at the peak of Croagh Patrick.
Christian pilgrims have been flocking to scale its heights ever since. Twice a year, there are walking pilgrimages from Ballinrobe, also in County Mayo. This 40 kilometers trek culminates by scaling the south-side of the Reek and finishes with a service at the small chapel on the summit. On the last Sunday of July, you’ll find 25,000 on “Reek Sunday,” commemorating their Saint and his blessed mountain. Some even prepared to made the arduous climb barefooted or face down on hands and knees.
Christian now went to the spring, and drank thereof, to refresh himself [Isa. 49:10], and then began to go up the hill, saying— “The hill, though high, I covet to ascend, The difficulty will not me offend.”
John Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress
My decision to climb Croagh Patrick was planned in order to culminate my Sabbatical trip to Ireland. I had been introduced to the great city of Dublin and much of Ireland through the reading and studying of James Joyce’s Ulysses. But it was this Saint and his sacred mountain where I heard my name being called.
Ulysses is a complicated journey of one day in the life of busy urbanites. Climbing the Reek, is a challenging, most of the day (at least for me– some elite athletes have been known to finish the round trip in under 40 minutes) kind of commitment. It would be a journey of heavy-breathing, heart-beating, and hair-raising exhilaration.
“Could I do it, with a bum knee promised for a replacement?” spoke the quiet voice of doubt within me. Just last summer, I was laid up for a week from nothing more severe than a walk around my mostly flat, well-groomed, comfortably-paved and sidewalk lined neighborhood?” For six – months, the Reek was patiently waiting my answer. “I will be here, when you are ready, if you are ready.”
One faith is bondage. Two are free. In the trust of old love.
Wendel Berry, Homecoming
OFundamental to any success I have every achieved is attributed to the supportive people who have helped me meet a challenging endeavor. For this adventure, I credit my wife, Donna. The day we had chosen for the climb began with overcast skies but held no promise of rain, which would have been an absolutely game-ending hazard for our plans. Though fog had settled upon the summit, the day was young. Even more erratic than our home state of Kentucky, the weather in Ireland can change in an instance. Perhaps it will clear up by the time we arrive to offer the stunning views we have heard so much about? Donna and I set out filled with excitement, optimism and a healthy appreciation for going as far as our legs, backs and common sense would allow.
The walking sticks were as essential to our progress as our mutual encouragement to one another. Rented at the base of the climb (4 Euros each with 2 Euros back if returned), I chose my companion wisely and thought of Stephen Dedalus’ ashplant in Ulysses, and the spiritual and metaphorical significance it entails. I also wondered about my link with the shared partners, all strangers who had also depended upon its support in the past, as I was also certain to do in the long moments ahead. I would soon discover its necessity by providing a minimum of three points of contact to the steady incline at all times. I imagined the trinitarian-driven and committed St. Patrick would be pleased. Two is better than one. Three the perfect balance. Four, the absolute most before things become over-crowded.
After the first 30 minutes, things were pretty manageable. We were fresh upon our journey. Children skipped their way up with their siblings and parents. Older folks, like us, had pushed up, sometimes with our free hands upon hips and knees but moving steadily forward. Before the hour was out, we began to feel the strain to the thighs and calves as the temperatures begin to rise with the warming sun. While still overcast, we were amazed at the incredible scenery our measured pace of walking allowed us to relish.
Wild in that wilderness, we roam the distances of our faith, safe beyond the bounds of what we know.
Wendel Berry, A Homecoming
Climbing the Croagh Patrick is a metaphor for the pilgrimage of life. Sometimes the path is easy and we can breeze through it without many concerns. Sometimes the path is incredibly hard and can only be endured with careful steps, all planned out in un-hurried and manageable stages.
During these tough times, your focus is limited to your most immediate surroundings. On the Croagh, it was often no greater than the cautious planting of one foot in front of the other. For a while, you felt like a slug wobbling across a large pebble, inching your way along. Will this ever end? But after a while, if you take the time to stop and turn around, you are amazed at your actual progress. And by taking this little bit of time; and granting yourself some patience, some moments to sit and process, and rest rather than work, and breathe those desperate breaths of renewal, you can realize a few treasured seconds to finally look all around, and ponder the magnificence of your existence enveloped within the awesome beauty of life.
I could not be more appreciative of Donna. Not only had she endured an inexperienced driver (me) on the narrow and twisting roads of the Irish countryside, at times traveling with held-breath on the precarious passenger side of a car skimming within inches of the hedges and stone-walls that hugged the roads necessary to get there, but she had set off on this risky venture as well.
All of this in the context of the past three years of her managing chronic back pain, scoliosis, and degenerative disk disease. She had nearly reached the half way point, close to the 400 meter mark of the 763 meters required to reach the summit. It was time for clarity, for upon the Reek there is always a constant assessment being made.
We found a rock large enough for both of us to sit and deliberate. Once the decision was made to separate, we had been at it for an hour and a half and I had no idea of the difficulty ahead. As first-timers climbers to the Reek, our minds were always busy trying to guess beyond our limited horizon, working through each section bit by bit, and attempting to envision past the next ridge of what we were about to ask our bodies to do. I was going to try, at least, to make it to the level section between the two hills.
Donna also brought the mystery rosary. In 2001, she had run a marathon in Rome for the American Diabetics Association. On the way, she had taken four different rosaries from family and friends, each in their own individual plastic bags to be blessed by the Pope: John Paul II. Surprisingly, upon returning to the States there was an extra rosary in her baggage. None of her traveling companions had placed it there and its origin has remained a mystery ever since.
This rosary, carried by Donna was given to me as I began to attempt the rest of the climb solo. After another 45 minutes, I had reached my goal. At 550 meters, the more leveled path is a most welcomed relief. And another area for some very serious evaluation. The hiker can look at the amazing views to the northeast and southeast of the ascent, before turning around to ponder the ominous and most arduous final section.
The calves were already on fire. I had moderated the knee pain with careful use of the walking stick. Breathing was being forced to the outside corners of the mouth. Watching my heart rate on the iWatch, I would rest whenever it peaked 160 bpm. I was alone. Cloud cover was still swirling around the summit. There was no promise of a more scenic view than the one I was now enjoying. What if I re-injured my leg or passed out or twisted an ankle or snapped my shin on the steep and rocky path going down? I was not coming off this mountain injured.
I set the mystery rosary in front of me as I faced the summit and spent 15 precious minutes trying to make a crucial decision. Was this the end of my first and perhaps only experience upon the Croagh?
Wait. Five months. Molecules all change. I am other I now.
James Joyce, Ulysses
I’ve played a little game while in Dublin on and off over the span of 10 days. Could I spot the same person in a different place separated by any small length of time? There was only one chap, a Dubliner whom I recognized from a neighborhood pub on Parnell Street walking through a different corner a few days later. He was described by the bartender as an “(adjective withheld) lunatic”.
In Ulysses, you are introduced to over 200 characters, many of them overlapping throughout the unfolding events of June 16, 1904. A principle theme driving the plot is wondering about the chance encounter between the two main characters: Steven Dedalus and Leopold Bloom. Stephen, like Joyce is a sensitive and gifted young man who lacks an older mentor and guide. Leopold is an equally sensitive and reflective older man who carries the consequences of estrangement and grief from the loss of his own son due to a premature death.
Throughout the novel, the son in search of a father-figure and the forlorn father in search of a son provides the tension of several near-misses until at the exhausting day’s end, they meet and carry forward the culminating interaction the reader has been waiting to experience with them.
I suppose this Dublin is still around for those who travel in familiar circles. I’ve enjoyed meeting many locals who pride themselves on the importance of extending kindness and hospitality as cardinal virtues. Whether inside the busy metropolis of Ireland’s largest and most diverse city or out in the beautiful countryside, the people I’ve met are some of the friendliest ever encountered.
David, an 84 year-old Jungian psychoanalyst from London has been regularly coming to Dublin for over 50 years to celebrate Bloomsday. He spoke of the city’s familiarity, well-known buildings along recognizable streets. The celebrations of Ulysses are still on-going. The life-blood of River Liffey still pours essential vitality into the heart of Dublin and Ireland herself. There was a great deal of celebratory joy in his annual pilgrimage to this Irish capital.
But it is seldom you hear English spoken upon the streets or in the buses and trams of the busy city. It seems this development has been occurring over the past 20 years. Dublin is an incredibly diverse city, more so than any I can ever remember visiting. Such complexity is a powerful challenge for any city. Most I spoke with considers it valuable. “It makes us more tolerant,” reflected one Irishman in his mid-60s. Another, in high-government challenged me when I said I was adjusting to being in a foreign country. “No!” he gently chastised me, “You are in my country and I am not calling you a guest, but a friend. You are in another part of your home.”
Lookout for the Irish. They have been at the intersection of migration and hosptiality for thousands of years. They were the first city in Europe to affirm same-sex marriage. They are extremely kind to the millions of tourists who come their way from every corner of the globe. They are a shining model of what a world of welcome, freedom and inclusion might be.
The void awaits surely all them that weave the wind.
James Joyce, Ulysses
This past week offered an incredibly wonderful unique occasion for myself and my two sons. As young adults with busy lives and often thousands of miles between us, we were together sharing Ireland memories for almost four days. Our trip included the Guinness Storehouse, the amazing 9th Century Book of Kells under the Long Room at Trinity College, enjoying the food and people throughout Dublin’s busy streets and sidewalks and taking quite a dubious, anxious and all-around thrilling adventure driving through the Wicklow mountains.
Every moment is unique, fewer still those we might call special.
Joyce’s Ulysses takes place on June 16, 1904, but was written throughout the First World War and the 1916 Easter Uprising in Ireland. Looking back through the benefits of history, we read about the ordinary lives of over 200 Dublin characters and how radically their lives are certain to change in the 10 – 15 years coming.
The same can be said for us. The winds of history and circumstance can turn in a moment. The slow, steady and relentless march of time waits for no one. It just keeps moving and we are constantly left wondering how to find ourselves at peace within it.
It’s time for some new definitions. Every moment might be unique, but any day there is shelter, food, companionship, and a meaning we can gather from the seemingly capriciousness of life is, indeed, very special.
I will treasure the time I shared with my sons in Ireland. It was exceptional. And so too, this moment of reflection, memory and gratitude.
“We should not judge people by their peak of excellence; but by the distance they have traveled from the point where they started.”
― Henry Ward Beecher
Near the current place I’m staying are the ruins from the St. Jude Church of Ireland. Built in 1864, this building was sold in the 1980’s and demolished before the end of the decade. All that remains is the impressive spire in Early English Gothic Style. While there remains a hint of the building’s majestic status, a closer inspection at ground level reveals cheap boarded up entrances, gapping holes, trash, graffiti and an iron fence toped with rusty spikes. From a distance, it looks grand. Closer up, it’s pretty spooky.
A little further down the road stands the infamous Kilmainham Gaol (or Jail). It was the site of numerous abuses, but is best known as the location for the imprisonment, torture and execution of the leaders of the 1916 Easter Uprising by their British overlords. Today, tour buses line up as folks traveling from all over the world come to visit its hallowed grounds. And yet, across the street is a brand-new Hilton Hotel. As I ate dinner overlooking these two sites, I thought about how strange these neighbors, once you remove the 100 years separating them. At one time prisoners sat in darkness, isolation, hunger, thirst and fear as they awaited interrogation, torture and eventual death. Now, across the street folks sleep in comfortable beds and start their day with the convenience of a good night’s rest, a hearty Irish breakfast and a bevy of taxis to take them wherever they would like to go.
Things change. Times change. But do people? Are we stuck in an endless loop? Creating the same problems over and over again, refusing to learn our history lessons, distrusting one another, chasing power and seeking domination over one another, fearing one another, turning a blind eye to oppression, especially if we are not threatened and waiting for a few courageous souls to finally say enough!
The 1916 rebellion organized and planned by Padraic Pearse, James Connolly, Thomas Clarke and others was badly received by the Irish public they had hoped to liberate. Upon their surrender, they were jeered and spat upon because of their failure and the blame placed at their feet for the destruction that had been caused by the overwhelming British force employed to squash them.
But, once they were in custody, it was their unfair and inhumane treatment, secret trial, and quick execution that turned the mood of the public to reflect more deeply upon the common plight they all shared for freedom and the necessity of joining a resistance movement that would eventually produce greater liberation and create the Republic of Ireland.
The struggle of freedom still continues. Brexit threatens the hard-won easing of tensions from the last generation in North Ireland. I believe the humanitarian needs of the immigration and asylum issues occurring at our southern border and our slow, callouss and indifferent response to them will one day prove as shameful as any chapter in American history. Brown and black- skinned Americans are still detained, arrested and incarcerated at a higher rate than demographics should allow. Women continue to earn less for equal work done by male counterparts. Over 60 percent of LGBTQ youth deal with depression due to past experiences of bullying, rejection of family and friends, and a hopelessness about their future.
The Republic of Ireland’s flag speaks to a new hope. One side is green representing Irish nationalism and their Catholic faith. The other side is orange representing the Protestant influence mostly from the British. The white in the middle represents the peace that now exists between them. May we not tire in the struggle for freedom and work toward the resolutions that are so possible and yet elusive in the midst of all our challenges.
I can’t get these compelling images by Turkish photographer Uğur Gallenkuş out of my head, and hope not to. As I travel and take advantage of the privilege this world has offered me, all these members and those they represent from the masses of struggling humanity are never far from my thoughts nor my willingness to help when I can, as I can.