Wednesday, December 17, 2014

New Year retreats now open for registration!

Review the year that has passed . . .
             Release what you need to let go . . .
                     Celebrate the milestones of 2014 . . .
                               Reflect on your intentions for 2015 . . .

This year we are pleased to offer two retreat options to better help you move mindfully into the new year . . . 

Option 1:  At-Home, On-Line
Registration fee is $45. Click here to register.
  • Retreat materials sent to you ahead of time include readings, reflection activities, and meditation suggestion
  • Work through the exercises and activities according to your own rhythm and schedule
  • Periodic emails prompt times to pause for reflection.
  • Scheduled opportunities to learn from and share with others via social media or gather your own retreat community to work through the materials in community

Option 2:  In-Person, Half Day Retreat at Washington National Cathedral
Wednesday, December 31 from 10am - 2 pm
Registration Fee is $60. Click here to register.

In addition to the benefits of the At-Home, On-Line option, the half day retreat offers you time to . . . 

  • experience the retreat in a community of kindred spirits;
  • enjoy guided reflections and meditations;
  • explore additional resources and exercises not in the retreat packet; and
  • settle into a contemplative rhythm in the quiet alcoves of the Center for Prayer and Pilgrimage with all its resources available to you.

Friday, October 31, 2014

This week on the Celtic Calendar . . . Samhain

From ghoulies and ghosties 
And long-leggedy beasties
And things that go bump in the night, 
Good Lord, deliver us! 
                                       ~Traditional Scottish Prayer

Just as the new day in the Celtic tradition begins with nightfall, so too does the new year begin as darkness closes in around us. Samhain (pronounced sow-in) starts at sun down on October 31 and marks the beginning of the new year on the Celtic calendar. 

Like other threshold times and places, the beginning of Samhain, is a thin time when the veil between heaven and earth, this world and the next, is particularly permeable. It was thought that this liminal time allowed the ghosts of ancestors to come back and visit their former homes, along with more undesirable visitors from the other world who managed to sneak through. 

Many of our Halloween traditions come from this idea of discouraging the not-so-friendly spirits from visiting. Jack-o-lanterns carved from rutabagas or turnips were placed in windows or by doorways to frighten away trickster spirits. In case scare tactics didn't work, treats of food were left as offerings for the ghosties and ghoulies and faerie folk who might be out wandering on Samhain night. Later customs saw people dressing up as these creatures, going from house to house to collect the treats and sometimes playing a trick or two on their neighbors in the process.

Community bonfires are one of the earliest Samhain traditions. Bonfires were lit in the hills or in the center of towns to keep the evil spirits at bay. As people left their homes to participate in revelries with their neighbors they'd extinguish the fire in their hearths. Before returning home, they'd take fire from the communal bonfire in order to light their home fires afresh, often encircling their houses, barns and fields with the new fire as a form of purification and blessing.

In practical terms, Samhain was a time to finish bringing in the last of the harvest, move livestock from their summer pastures to shelter closer to home, and to begin to settle in for the long, dark months of winter where light and resources were scarce. It was a season not only to take stock, but also to plan for the year ahead.

Spiritually, Samhain offers us the opportunity to honor those who have gone before us. Festivals such as Dia de Muertos and All Saints and All Souls day on the Christian calendar invite us to give thanks for the wisdom of our ancestors and the inspiration of the saints who have shaped us. During Samhain as we reflect on those who have passed out of this life, we are also called to take stock and consider the things that may be germinating in the dark, waiting to be born into this world. Samhain is a time to douse the embers of the old fire and kindle new the sparks of new passion and energy in our lives.

Monday, September 29, 2014

This week on the Celtic calendar . . . Michaelmas

"On Michaelmas Eve and Christmas,    We will all taste of the bannock." ~ Scottish Reaping Blessing

September 29 is Michaelmas, one of the cross-quarter days on the Celtic calendar.  Ostensibly the feast day of Michael the archangel in the Christian church, in the British Isles the day was celebrated as a harvest festival marking the end of the growing year.  It was a time to celebrate the abundance of the fields and streams before the leaner, colder season shifted the focus from field to forest, from gathering to hunting. Like many harvest festivals, Michaelmas was celebrated with traditional foods.  So if you were a Celt in years gone by, what would have been on your table this evening?  

Instead of a Thanksgiving turkey, you'd be enjoying a stubble goose, a bird fattened on the grain that remained in the fields after the harvest.  And if you were too poor to buy a goose for yourself, never fear.  Chances are you'd be given a goose in payment for services from the local lord or food would be shared with you from the community.  To soak up your goose juice, you'd have a slice of struan, a bread made from the grains harvested from those same fields that fattened your goose.  If you lived in Ireland, your struan would be a yeast bread, baked in the oven.  In Scotland, you'd have a slice of bannock (unleavened bread) cooked on a griddle. The ingredients of your struan would depend upon what grains you grew, usually some combination of oats,barley, rye, wheat or maybe even corn. 

If you lived in the Hebrides you'd also get one of your five-a-day with a healthy serving of carrots. The Sunday before Michaelmas, the women would take a three prong tool (designed to look like the trident of St. Michael) into the field and dig up the wild carrots, tying them with a triple strand of red thread keeping them covered with sand until time for cooking.  If fruit is more your thing, there would be apples from the beginning of the apple harvest and the end of the season's blackberries. According to legend, when Michael threw Satan out of heaven, the deposed angel landed in a blackberry bush and from then on has "spit on the blackberries" on the feast of St. Michael, making fruit gathered after September 29 unpalatable.  

No matter what was on your plate, however, Michaelmas was an opportunity to not only offer blessings for the harvest and all that helped bring it to fruition, but also a time to share that bounty with those less fortunate in the community.  So no matter what is on your plate this evening . . . be it stubble goose or KFC, take a moment to remember all those who made your food possible and all those whose plates are empty.

From a Celtic Blessing for Michaelmas
O Michael the victorious,
     Jewel of my heart,
     O Michael the victorious,
     God's shepherd thou art.

Be the sacred Three of Glory
Aye at peace with me,
With my horses, with my cattle,
With my woolly sheep in flocks.
With the crops growing in the field
Or ripening in the sheaf,
On the machair, on the moor,
In cole, in heap, or stack.
     Every thing on high or low,
     Every furnishing and flock,
     Belong to the holy Triune of glory,
     And to Michael the victorious.

Friday, August 1, 2014

This Week on the Celtic Calendar . . . Lughnasadh

August 1 marks the beginning of the harvest season on the Celtic calendar.  Traditionally, Lughnasadh was celebrated mid-way between the Summer solstice and the Autumn equinox.  Like harvest festivals in many cultures, it was a time to celebrate the abundance of the land while bearing in mind that leaner times were soon to follow.  In the  Christian tradition, Lughnasadh was known as Lammas, derived from the old English word for half-loaf and the custom of taking half a loaf of bread baked from the first harvest to the church for consecration.  Whether celebrating Lughnasadh or Lammas, this is the time of year to practice gratitude for the abundance of the land while being mindful of the times and places of scarcity.

Monday, July 7, 2014

This Week on the Celtic Calendar: Ordinary Time

Ordinary time. It's that season on the church calendar between Pentecost and Advent when nothing much is going on. No feasting or fasting. No preparation or celebration. Liturgical life is just . . . ordinary.  

Daily life, however, is another story. Rarely are our lives just ordinary. The human condition seems to swing back and forth between activity and rest, strife and peace, sorrow and joy. It's a rhythm we see mirrored in the landscape around us, in the turning of the seasons, in the turning of the tide.

Perhaps that's why the concept of ebb and flow features so strongly in Celtic spirituality. Nature, that first book of revelation, reminds us that what is ordinary is change, movement.  

The tide comes in, the tide goes out. The lesson for us in ordinary time is to learn to live in the moment and go with the flow.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Today on the Celtic calendar . . . the feast of St. Columba

June 9 is the feast of St. Columba, also known as Columcille or "church dove."  Although most commonly associated with Scotland and the island of Iona, Columba began his life in northern Ireland and spent his first forty plus years in that country.  He studied under St. Finnian at Clonnard Abbey (along with St. Brendan) first becoming a monk and later a priest.   It was another Finnian, Finnian of Movilla, who was the catalyst in Columba's exile from Ireland and subsequent founding of the monastic community on Iona.

Columba was a poet at heart and lover of books.  While at Moville, Columba began secretly copying one of their psalters so he could have a copy of the book for himself.  Finnian discovered Columba's activity and, as books were such a rare and precious commodity, insisted that the copy must stay at Moville with the original text.   In what was probably the first battle over copyright issues, the conflict led to a literal battle in which many men were killed and the Irish proverb, "To every cow its calf, to every book its cop," was spawned.

Columba felt remorse over the deaths that followed his action and as others who had been held accountable were exiled from Ireland, he decided to submit himself to the same punishment.  Taking a dozen monks with him, they set forth in a coracle for a place where Columba could no longer see his beloved Ireland.  The monks first landed on the shores of southern Scotland but could still glimpse the green of Erin across the sea so they traveled farther north until they came to the island of Iona.  Columba spent the remaining decades of his life in Scotland, establishing a monastery on the island and continuing the work started by St. Ninian nearly two hundred years earlier in working among the Picts throughout the west and north of Scotland. 

The community on Iona was not only the heart of Celtic Christianity in Scotland and Northumbria in the sixth century, it also was key in the Celtic revival of the early twentieth century when the Rev. George MacLeod took a community from Glasgow to rebuild the monastery on Iona and established the ecumenical Iona Community that continues to welcome members and friends committed to justice and peace.   

A Prayer Attributed to St. Columba
Be Thou a bright flame before me.
Be Thou a guiding star above me.
Be Thou a smooth path beneath me.
Be Thou a kindly shepherd behind me.
Today and evermore.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

This week on the Celtic Calendar . . . The Feast of St. Melangell

Now they reached Melangell’s lonely church:
Amid a grove of evergreens it stood,
A garden and a grove, 
where every grave
Was decked with flowers, 
or with unfading plants
O’ergrown,—sad rue 
and funeral rosemary.   
                            ~Robert Southey

May 27 is the fest of St. Melangell.  Despite her popularity in Wales where her story has inspired countless poets, the tale of Melangell and her hare isn't widely known in the rest of the world.  Born in Ireland of royal parentage, like so many of the women Celtic saints of her era she fled her homeland to escape an arranged marriage and ended up in a secluded valley nestled in the Berwyn mountains where she spent fifteen years living and praying among the creatures of the forest and field and avoiding human contact.  

One day as she was deep in prayer, she heard the distant horns of a hunter and soon a frightened hare, pursued by a pack of hounds, ran into the clearing and under Melangell's skirt, seeking shelter.  Rather than attacking Melangell in order to get to their prey, the hounds were brought up short, stopped by a force field of holiness that emanated from her.  Soon the owner of the dogs, the prince of Powys, rode up on his steed, furious that a
trespasser interrupted his hunt. Brochwell tried to encourage his dogs to go for the hare, but when he blew his hunting horn, it stuck to his lips and didn't make a sound.  After hearing Melangell's story, Brochwell asked her if she'd be willing to accept the surrounding land as a gift and establish an abbey that would offer sanctuary to all who needed it.  Melangell agreed and spent the rest of her long life offering shelter and hospitality to those in need.  

In latter years the church and Melangell's shrine fell into disrepair.  The church and shrine were restored in the 1990s and the St. Melangell Centre was established to offer pastoral support for cancer patients and their loved ones.  In 2003 the Centre expanded their ministry to offer sanctuary to anyone in need by providing space and resources for quiet days, retreats, and educational programs.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Maytime in Wales

Exactly one year ago a group of 25 pilgrims and I were in northern Wales, a few days into our week long journey exploring the lives, legends and landscapes of the Celtic tradition.  

Here are a few postcards of the sacred places we encountered on our journey.  It's easy to see why the anonymous Welsh poet wrote the following words over 1000 years ago . . .

Maytime is the fairest season,
With its loud bird-song and green trees,
When the plow is in the furrow
And the oxen under the yoke,
When the sea is green,
And the land many colors.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

This week on the Celtic calendar . . .

May 16 is the feast of Brendan the Navigator, the Irish saint whose wanderlust took him on the travels that made him famous.  Born in the southwest of Ireland in the late fifth century, he studied under St. Ita and was one of the "twelve apostles of Ireland" who were tutored by Finnan of Clonard.  His travels began in earnest after he was ordained a priest and he spent the next several decades sailing around Ireland,before undertaking the journey for which he is known.

Brendan's legendary voyage with a bevy of disciples (14 in some versions 16 in others) to the Isle of the Blessed follows the form of Irish seafaring folk stories of the time where travelers encounter a variety of fantastic characters and scenarios.  One of the Brendan legends intersects the  myth of the Children of Lir, the three sons and one daughter of an Irish king who were turned into swans by their jealous step-mother. The magic destined them to spend 300 years on a lake by their father's castle, 300 years on the Sea of Moyle, and 300 years in the waters near Inish Glora off the coast of County Mayo.  As Brendan stopped by the island, he discovered the swans whom he baptized, turning them back into the humans, albeit 900 year old humans who immediately died.

After returning from his exploration, Brendan continued to sail around the British Isles, studying with St. Gildas in Wales, visiting St. Columba on Iona, and establishing communities in Scotland and Ireland along the way.  He died on terra firma while visiting his sister, Briga, at the community he established for her at Annaghdown although reportedly his remains were buried at Clonfert.

While some scholars doubt the veracity of the Brendan tale, some of his descriptions seem to point to an encounter with real geographic places such as the icebergs in the north Atlantic and the volcanoes of Iceland. In the 1970s British explorer Tim Severin built a replica of Brendan's currach and sailed with a crew from Ireland to Newfoundland.  He chronicled their journey in his book The Brendan Voyage which inspired composer Shaun Davey to write an orchestral suite by the same name.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

April showers bring . . . pilgrims?

When April with his showers sweet with fruit
The drought of March has pierced unto the root
And bathed each vein with liquor that has power
To generate therein and sire the flower;
When Zephyr also has, with his sweet breath,
Quickened again, in every holt and heath,
The tender shoots and buds, and the young sun
Into the Ram one half his course has run,
And many little birds make melody
That sleep through all the night with open eye
(So Nature pricks them on to ramp and rage)-
Then do folk long to go on pilgrimage,
And palmers to go seeking out strange strands,
To distant shrines well known in sundry lands.
And specially from every shire's end
Of England they to Canterbury wend,
The holy blessed martyr there to seek
Who helped them when they lay so ill and weak.
(from the prologue to The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, modern translation)

Ah spring!  The time a young(ish) (wo)man's thoughts turn to . . . pilgrimage?  According to Chaucer, April showers bring not only May flowers but also an influx of pilgrims to Canterbury. 

I confess I haven't been to Canterbury . . . yet.  I've been to other English pilgrimage Cathedrals--Winchester (to see the shrines St. Swithun, and of course, Jane Austen); Salisbury and its neighboring pilgrimage attraction, Stonehenge; and most recently, Chester Cathedral. 

Chester, sitting on the northwest English border, is the place where I begin the northern Wales pilgrimages I lead, following in the footsteps of the many pilgrims of old who made their way along the northern pilgrim's path to Bardsey Island. Chester wasn't just a starting point for pilgrimages into Wales however.  The town  has its own saint who brought pilgrims to the area:  St. Werburgh, an Anglo-Saxon princess, became the patron of Chester after her remains were interred in the Benedictine abbey cum cathedral in the late eleventh century.  Her shrine  is still visited by pilgrim's today but it's to the chapel adjacent to her dimly lit stone monument to which I make a pilgrimage whenever I visit Chester Cathedral.  

The Martyrdom of Becket Boss at Chester Cathedral
For high up on the ceiling there's a remarkable carving that is overlooked by many visitors.  In 538 Henry VIII, who was engaged in a bit of a power struggle with the church, decided to try Britain's beloved saint, Thomas Becket, for treason. Unfortunately Thomas, who had been dead for nearly 500 years, was otherwise occupied and didn't appear at the trial.  The court found him guilty in absentia,  his relics and shrine at Canterbury were carted away, and Henry ordered the destruction of any and all iconography related to Becket throughout the rest of England.

Fortunately for Chester, by the time Henry's henchmen reached the north of England they must have had stiff necks for they neglected to look up and the image of the martyrdom of Becket was spared.  The abbot of Chester was also spared during the dissolution of the monasteries after choosing to renounce Rome rather than staying faithful to the Catholic church and losing his head in the process.  He was allowed to become a Protestant priest and was made the first dean of the abbey turned Cathedral at Chester.

Although I don't know anything else about Thomas Clarke, that former abbot/first dean, I like to imagine him walking to the rear of the cathedral and slipping into the chapel every now and again, glancing up at the ceiling with a sly smile and giving a brief nod to that image of Becket, one survivor acknowledging another.  

Monday, March 24, 2014

Finding Sanctuary

In today's vernacular, the word sanctuary has come to mean a safe haven, a place of protection.  We have bird sanctuaries, elephant sanctuaries, donkey sanctuaries and more generic wildlife sanctuaries. There is political sanctuary for endangered humans and plant sanctuaries for endangered plants. But a soul sanctuary? Where do we find one of those?

The original definition of sanctuary indicated a sacred site, someplace that was holy (as the root word, sanctus, indicates).  These holy places could be literally the sanctuaries in churches where pilgrims could shelter and rest from the elements as well as worship and pray or they could be holy wells, ancient trees, misty mountain tops, or fertile valleys. In Celtic lands, sacred structures were often built on ancient holy places, creating enclosures (the origin of the prefix llan in the Welsh language) and building churches near the sacred springs or trees where their ancestors worshiped. 

It is often easy to find rest for our hearts and minds in thin places like these with their gossamer veil between heaven and earth. And while some of this may be the expectations we bring to a site that is steeped in history and tradition, these aren't merely peaceful places where we relax and unwind-- they are places where we are re-created.  There's something about prayed up spaces, places where ritual and mystery have been honored for centuries, that seems to change the very atmosphere.  When we cross the threshold into these liminal landscapes, we  step out of our daily life and concerns and into sanctuary.

One of the challenges and opportunities for those of us who live in the "new world" is discovering our own places of sanctuary.  Many of the sacred sites of those who walked through these forests and fields before us have been  forgotten over time or worse, purposefully erased from memory.  But just because there isn't a plaque marking a healing spring or crumbling stone structure in our neighborhood doesn't mean sacred places aren't there to be found.  We can be open to noticing those places in nature where our mind begins to slow and quiet, where our restless heart eases and opens, where our soul can find sanctuary.

Friday, March 21, 2014

From Effort to Offering

Today is one of those days where my motivation to work is nonexistent.  I've answered a few emails, straightened up my desk, tested all my pens to see if they're still in working order, mulled over a some themes for future blog posts . . . and here it is, lunchtime.  Half the day gone and I've still not set my mind to the one big task I have to do today.  It's a job that usually seems more like play than work to me, yet for some reason today it feels onerous, ponderous, heavy.  

And speaking of work versus play, in my effort to procrastinate even further I decided to look up the definition of work and found the synonyms listed quite revealing: drudgery, labor, toil, enterprise, project, job, responsibility, industry, occupation, business, job, trade, calling, vocation, profession, product, achievement, feat.

Not too many happy, energizing words in that list.  No wonder I'm not eager to get to my work.

Which brings me to today's postcards, from Lynn Cerrig Bach, a little lake on Anglesey Island in sight of the RAF base where Prince William was recently stationed.  

Lynn Cerrig Bach, Anglesey Island
During World War II when the area around the lake was being dug up to make runways for the base, a horde of iron age Celtic artifacts was discovered-- shields and swords, chains and chariot wheels, horse gear and household implements.  The treasures, which seemed to have been broken deliberately before being tossed into the lake by the druids (priests of the pre-Christian Celtic religion), were likely votive offerings, symbols of work offered to the deities in exchange for blessing and good fortune.
Pilgrims preparing to make
 their own votive offerings

More evidence of this Celtic idea of seeking blessings for one's work is evident in the many task-related blessings in The Carmina Gadelica, a source book for Celtic prayers collected by Alexander Carmichael in the late 19th century.  Carmichael dedicates a whole section to prayers for "Labour" including invocations for herding, weaving, milking, fishing and  assorted other tasks on the to do list of a Scottish crofter.  

What does all this have to do with my inability to get to work today?  Last month I led a retreat for a group of thirty women and during our weekend together we talked about ways to weave the strands of Celtic spirituality into our daily lives.  One of these ways was writing blessings for a specific aspect of our work or daily routine.  A few weeks later while having lunch with one of the women, she mentioned how a few days before she'd been having a hard time facing a looming task on her to do list when she remembered my suggestion to write a blessing for it.  So she sat down and did just that.  That act of putting pen to paper and recalling the big picture reasons for why she needed to do what had to be done and inviting the Holy into the process transformed what had been mundane into an opportunity for mindfulness.  

So in a moment I'll  post this to the blog and move onto the big task for today.  But not before taking a moment to light a candle and invite the Holy One to bless the work I have to do.  Work that isn't labor, toil, drudgery or effort.  Work that is creation, nourishment, discovery, offering.

If you don't feel like writing a specific blessing for your own particular work, here's one by John O'Donohue for work in general.  

For Work from To Bless the Space Between Us (Doubleday)
May the light of your soul bless your work
with love and warmth of heart.

May you see in what you do the beauty of your soul.  

May the sacredness of your work bring light and renewal
to those who work with you
and to those who see and receive your work.

May your work never exhaust you.

May it release wellsprings of refreshment,
inspiration, and excitement.

May you never become lost in bland absences.

May the day never burden.

May dawn find hope in your heart,
approaching your new day with dreams,
possibilities, and promises.

May evening find you gracious and fulfilled.

May you go into the night blessed, 
sheltered, and protected.

May your soul calm, console, and renew you.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Welcome to Postcards from the Pilgrim's Path

The Feast of St. Patrick seemed like an auspicious day to begin a new blog about Celtic spirituality.  So for the very first Postcard from the Pilgrim's Path, I offer you a postcard of a path perhaps walked by St. Patrick himself.  
Path leading to Ffynnon Badrig, Patrick's Well
This steep grassy incline is the path leading down to Patrick's cave at Llanbadrig on the northern tip of Anglesey Island. Legend has it that Patrick was shipwrecked along the Welsh coast during a storm on one of his voyages to or from Ireland.  After swimming to shore, he sheltered overnight in the cave at the bottom of this path.  In the morning when the seas and winds had calmed, Patrick climbed up the hill and vowed to build a church on terra firma as a votive offering in thanksgiving for his survival.

When I led a group of pilgrims to Wales last May, two brave souls crawled down the path and entered the cave where they found the fresh water spring that kept Patrick nourished through the night.

Maybe the next time we visit I'll be brave enough to attempt the descent for myself.    And if I do, I'll be sure to call to mind the words of the Breastplate of St. Patrick, especially the invocation for protection against "drowning and wounding" as the seas around Llanbadrig seemed stormy even on a gloriously sunny afternoon.

Llanbadrig Church
The familiar words of St. Patrick's prayer, "I arise today . . . " follow the format of a lorica, a Druidic prayer of protection.  From the Latin word for body armor, these types of prayers were often said in the morning or before the start of a journey.  A lorica wasn’t recited as much to invoke the Spirit, which is always present, rather to remind the one praying of the presence of the Holy that is always with us.  When a lorica was said,   it was customary for those praying to stand and draw a circle around themselves with their index finger to symbolize the encompassing power of protection they were  invoking.

Yet another auspicious reason to be beginning this blog with postcards from Llanbadrig is that, in some small way, this blog is my own votive offering, a symbol of the work of Anam Cara Retreats and my writing and teaching on the Celtic path.  So here I go, tossing my first post into the vast sea of the internet with a prayer of thanksgiving for all who read it.