Pilgrim Souls

I have heard it said that there are a small, number of events that have the power to fundamentally change society. One is a general mobilisation of a population in time of war, second is a political revolution and the third is a pandemic.
          The fourteenth century plague the Black Death was even more destructive than this current pandemic. It killed about one third of Europeís population; the huge loss of life led to a shortage of labour. This shortage of labour allowed farm workers to improve their working conditions.
          The Black Death was also partly responsible for the proliferation of superstition and magic into religious practice. In the face of almost certain death those who survived attributed their survival to a relic, talisman or good luck charm. Later many of these items were given the status of relics that became a focus of pilgrimage for the faithful.
          The Reformation set out to sweep away unscriptural practices such as pilgrimages.
          There was of course dishonesty in some perhaps or even in many of the shrines. For example Pamela who was working with Unitarian churches in East Lancashire told me that the local Catholic Church has a shrine containing the bones of some saint. Recent DNA testing of the bones confirmed that the bones are the remains of two different ponies!
          However despite the skulduggery there is something in our DNA that is drawn to pilgrimage. From the mists of time undertaking a pilgrimage was part of religion. Before churches were built people made pilgrimages to features of nature in the landscape. Croagh Patrick was a place of pilgrimage for thousands of year before Christianity came to Ireland.
          Post the Reformation the practice of making a pilgrimage declined in popularity. In recent times there is a rediscovery of these ancient pilgrim routes. The Camino in Spain and many other routes are once again being walked by pilgrims. These ancient pilgrim ways are now holiday destinations! The Guardian newspaper has a list of ten best pilgrim routes in Europe.
          Following the journey of a group of Pilgrims even makes for good television. Put together a varied mix of public personalities and different religions, send them on a challenging walk and drama is guaranteed. Aside from television ratings the pilgrims are always affected by their experience. The pilgrimage may reignite forgotten religious practices. It may confirm someoneís sense being a contented atheist. It may give the pilgrim a different perspective on their life experiences.
          All participants leave with deeper appreciation of the value of being alive. They have a greater sense of being part of the flow of life. They are part of the human chain of souls who were born, who lived and died. All of them have a greater understanding that other people may have a different relationship with the sacred.
          By in large Ireland avoided the Reformation so pilgrimages and pattern days have always flourished here. The best known pilgrimage is the annual climbing of Croagh Patrick at the festival of Lunasa which now takes place on the last Sunday of July. During Victorian times attempts were made by clerics to stop the practice of climbing the Reek. This was because of the perception that it was an occasion where there was too much alcohol consumed and there was too much social mixing of genders!
          To undertake a pilgrimage is to interrupt the everyday rhythms of life so that we shake ourselves out of the rut of habit. It is an opportunity for reflection and to find fresh perspectives on life and to refocus.
          While not essential travel to somewhere different is usually part of pilgrimage as is walking. Being outside of routine and walking are ways to be in the present moment; it is mindfulness in practice. The physical challenge of walking longer than usual or climbing a mountain brings us back to our body. The ache of tired muscles and blisters focuses the mind into the present.
          Ancient pilgrimages involved going to a feature of the natural world. Often the destination was to a well but most often it is a mountain that draws the spiritual searcher. Mountains are closely linked with religion. It was on Mount Horab that God spoke to Moses and on Mount Sinai that Moses received Godís commandments. Solomon built his temple on the Mount.
          The most concise summary of Christian teaching is in Jesusí Sermon on the Mount. Jesus was transfigured on Mount Tabor, he was crucified on a hill, he ascended into heaven from a mountain. The second holiest shrine in Islam is the Dome of the Rock on Temple Mount. There is a deep connection between human longing for the spiritual and the world of nature particularly mountains.
          Religious leaders would have us believe that God is found in their temple, their church and that God speaks from their sacred scripture. God is not confined to a religion. The sacred is found when humans find truth, compassion and all that is best within ourselves. God is found where we return to the divine spark in our nature.
          The world is such a noisy place where demands are constantly made on our time and attention that we easily loose sight of essentials of life. We need to take time out to reset our focus on what is important. Making a pilgrimage is a way of resetting that focus whose value has been tested over time. A pilgrimage is self care.
          We donít need to make logical sense of why we make a pilgrimage. Pilgrimage is more about feeling the rightness of something we engage in. Last week we were at Croagh Patrick. We chatted with a number of people who had just climbed the Reek and it was interesting to hear the reasons why those pilgrims made the climb.
          For one it was a way of noticing his aging; a reminder of his mortality. This was a veteran of the pilgrimage who noticed that with each climb he was slowing down. Some walkers were keeping a family tradition alive. One group of young men had made the climb a few years ago, recently one of them had died the others made the climb in his memory. Climbing that mountain did not benefit the dead its value was for those still alive. There are many reasons for making a pilgrimage.
          The Reek is the dominant feature of this part of Mayo. The surrounding landscape is rich in archaeology. There are the remains of many ruined monasteries which have connecting Christian pilgrim paths. Less obvious are ancient standing stones scattered in the fields. These stones are set there to mark the sunís passage on Croagh Patrick.
          It is difficult to find these stones. A helpful farmer giving us direction told us to look for a field with stones and sheep in it. Of course EVERY field there had stones and sheep. The standing stones were placed there in ancient times. Separate from the standing stones is a natural outcrop of rock. Its called the Boheh stone. This is just limestone sticking out of the ground. It is decorated with two hundred and sixty Neolithic carvings. The carvings probably date to when Newgrange was built - three to five thousand years ago.
          The carvers left these marks in tribute to their sacred mountain. Standing at the stone twice during the year at sunset on the 18th April and the 24th August the setting sun appears to roll down the side of the mountain. These dates in April and August together with the Winter Solstice divide the year in thirds.
          These were a people closely in tune with the rhythms of the earth and the movements of the planets. They have left us their marks carved in circles on rocks. We try to try decipher their meaning. It was in 1990 that a local archaeologist re-rediscovered this phenomenon.
          Standing at that ancient stone I thought of the people who thousands of years ago carved their marks on rocks. Without any tools they tried to leave behind their knowledge and wisdom. These were our ancestors, like us pilgrim souls now long dead. Their legacy to us is the carvings Ėfive thousand later their work tells us to look at the natural world and be amazed.
          What legacy will we leave for the people who will come after us? Will it be something of value? Or is our legacy likely to be mountains of plastic waste? Making a pilgrimage or making time to consider the purpose of life is an essential part of self care. We are all pilgrim souls journeying through a few short years on earth. It behoves us to live those years as best we can and to consider the souls that will follow in our footsteps.

Rev.Bridget Spain                                         Dublin 29th August 2021
Minister Dublin Unitarian Church