Ripples Out From The Center: A Pagan Pilgrim in the Celtic Homelands.
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Article ID: 8702
Age Group: Adult
Days Up: 3,511
Times Read: 3,857
Author: H. Byron Ballard
Posted: September 12th. 2004
Times Viewed: 3,857
Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
And bathed every veyne in swich licuor,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour...
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages...
Chaucer ~ Prologue to The Canterbury Tales
The old pilgrim paths sometimes beckon to us, teasing us from the routine of workaday lives with promises of spiritual glory and glimmers of the Divine, however we interpret that deeply human need. Santiago de Compostela, Ephesus, Mecca, Rome, Canterbury - the names are otherworldly and compelling, the stony paths call for our bare and reverential feet.
One never knows when the call will come, when the small voice inside grows clamorous and insistent. It is almost never convenient, barely rational. But the urge is there to be on the road, to call oneself "wayfarer," to find a cockleshell for the hat.
When the call comes, it is best to pack lightly, to take a sturdy stick and get on the road before it is too late, before the opportunity is forever lost. Make no mistake, each call is a limited time offer: once refused, it is gone. There will be other calls, if one listens, but each one beckons to a specific experience that, once denied, is irretrievably lost.
There is a strong pilgrimage tradition in both Christianity and Islam. Geoffrey Chaucer's tales continue to challenge the language skills of American students and the word "haj" has become part of our popular vocabulary. But there are older traditions of peregrination, traditions that predate the intentional wanderings of those Abrahamic cousins. The Greeks went to Eleusis and Delphi, the Celts left their homes to touch the Earth Mother in Dingle and Meath.
For peoples who revered all the planet as sacred, there was little need to visit a particular structure or relic for its inherent holiness. Tribal folk could look to the clan totems, to the burial mounds for inspiration and comfort. But our Ancestors kenned that some places are more lively, more powerful than other places, and this potency is explored through the medium of sacred geometry, through ley lines and stone circles.
There are also aspects of the natural landscape that command our attention: from the mountains to the deserts, rivers and springs, trees and stone outcroppings. The natural world is peopled with the elemental spirits that both delighted and stymied our Ancestors. Deity was to be experienced through rain and wind and fire - snowflakes on the tongue, avalanches through the spruce trees.
For those of us with Western European roots, the places of power are symbols of a Pagan past more legendary than historical, more remembered than currently experienced. Much of the lost language of European Paganism has been encoded in improbable locales. Fairy tales and ghost stories certainly contain the kernels of this story but it also lies deep in the strongholds of the victors, which hold bits and pieces of liturgy, worship practice and sacred lore. The Christian Church preserved much that was good in Pagan Europe, unknowingly saving it for the global revival of Earth Religions that we are experiencing at the dawn of this new century and new millennium.
Pilgrimage is traveling with intent, journeying physically as a symbol of an inward journey. As Pagans, we often talk of our connection on the Web of Life, but that is often more an intellectual exercise than a visceral one. Connection with the Divine, whether through art or ritual or travel, is a deeply-felt need for many people and yet our busy lives often keep us from achieving it.
How many times in your own work as clergy and counselor have you listened with patience and compassion to a litany of woes and troubles from a circle member or colleague? They are broke or jobless, ill or homeless. And yet, when you ask about their personal daily practice, you are met with a blank stare. They either don't know how to reconnect with the Divine or else they've forgotten that we live our lives "in the lap of the Goddess," as someone once wrote. That connection to the Web of Life and the life of the biosphere is a remarkable facet of modern Pagan practice that is often left out of discussions in both interfaith and intrafaith settings.
I was a pilgrim this spring. It is true that I spent the month of March in a formal pilgrimage to the Celtic homelands of Cornwall, Wales and Ireland. But as a priestess on a year-long sabbatical, every day is a new experience and I face the darkening of the year with something approaching the intensity I felt years ago, before there were congregational needs to press me, before I was a member of the clergy. The August sun seems brighter, the rainstorms of Lughnasadh more energizing than this time last year, as my beginner's mind grapples with the mystery of the changing seasons that make up the Great Wheel of the Year.
It was the time in the islands west of Europe, however, that set the tone for my "year off." We began planning it as a business trip in the autumn of the previous year. I confess to being a person who always gets a bit of wanderlust in the fall, though I'm not sure why. When the first cool air starts to nip the mountain evenings, there's always a sense of longing and sadness, a need to get on the road. Too much Tolkien in my youth perhaps, or a trace of the melancholy that haunts both the English and Irish sides of my family.
As we planned the trip, we considered every possible area of Britain as fair game - from Inverness to Penzance, from Dingle to Canterbury. For reasons of time, we sadly postponed Scotland for another trip and we concentrated our efforts on the Celtic lands in Cornwall, Somerset, Wales and the east coast of Ireland.
We scanned books and websites for stone circles and ancient monuments and even secured permission to do a dawn ritual within the precinct at Stonehenge. If you looked at our itinerary you'd think we were bouncing from quoit to holy well to stone circle and you wouldn't be far wrong. We scheduled rituals - sometimes several in one day - in both famous and obscure sites. There were a couple of significant dates - including the Vernal Equinox and a full moon - and for reasons of my own, I very much wanted to be in Kildare on 17 March, to spend a traditionally "Irish" day in the land of Brigid. One of our group had never seen London, though, so we arranged to fly into the airport at Gatwick, spend a little time in that grand old city and travel by train across the island to Bristol.
We left Atlanta and spent the next day connecting with the Thames and Boudicca and supporting in our own tired way the Iraq war protestors outside the Houses of Parliament. There's a charming photo of my travel companions giving the statue of Oliver Cromwell a one-fingered salute. But it was in the West Country that the real journey began, in lands steeped with Celtic legend and pre-Celtic ruins.
We took the train from Paddington Station to Bristol and passed white horses rampant on the greening hills. We picked up a car at the airport outside Bristol and began our sojourn into the West Country with a stop at Tintagel and Boscastle. Penzance was our destination for the evening and we arrived there already full of the energies and sights and smells of the area.
In our three weeks in Cornwall, Wales and Ireland, we saw amazing sites and felt remarkable spirits abroad in the land. In one day alone, we did our dawn ritual inside Stonehenge, traveled to Avebury, the Ridgeway and Silbury Hill and finished the afternoon with a ritual (including libations) to Sulis Minerva in her sacred precinct at Bath.
I can't tell you how important and life-changing this trip was for me at this time in my life, both temporal and spiritual. And while I realize not every American Pagan has the resources for this sort of pilgrimage, I encourage each and every one of you to take up your staff and become a pilgrim in whatever way seems appropriate for you. See the world with new eyes, even if it's the world of a familiar city park or the apple tree in your own backyard. Go outside, onto the breast of our Mother, and see what riches lie spread before you.
But if you can swing it and your heart tells you it's the right place and the right time, if you lean toward the ancient Celts and their predecessors for your spiritual juiciness, then take yourself to the homelands. Eat the food, touch the dirt, drink the beer, experience the terror and joy and transcendence of opening yourself fully to your world, your Ancestors and your Gods. It will change you in ways you cannot even guess from the comfort of your computer chair.
Now, several months later, I continue to process what happened to me on this journey. I met new firends and reconnected with old ones. I laughed and cursed and cried, often in the span of a few minutes. We heard the trees speak to us at the Madron Well, crawled through the holey stone at the Men-An-Tol and met Basil Fawlty in Penzance. We argued and giggled and sang and danced. From my dark night of the soul in Bristol to the unforgettable whirlwind tour of Anglesey, my spirit was honed and shattered, broken again and again. I heard the voices of the Ancestors, I felt the chill of the Goddess in her wrath and splendor.
In Anglesey, on Ynys Mona, standing on a hillside surrounded by the ancient stone foundations of circular houses, a stone was thrown into the deep still pool of my own spirituality and the ripples keep moving out, ever widening, from this center.
How does a fact-finding business trip turn into a life-changing pilgrimage? What happens when a modern day Witch opens her soul to the Ancestors? A pilgrimage is a wonderful thing. Wonderful and terrible. Worlds collide, souls are broken and reforged and lives are irrevocably altered.
Not your average three week vacation.
Try it, my friends...it will transform you.
H. Byron Ballard
Location: Asheville, North Carolina
Bio: Byron Ballard is a garden variety Pagan who is also a writer, gardener, traveler and Goddess-junkie who takes great joy in flying a Jolly Roger on her vintage Toyota. If you want to join her for her next pilgrimage, it's Sacred Cornwall in September, 2005. You can contact her at byron@ceres_wnc.org
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