160807 – Deirdre

Deirdre was our travelling companion and was a wonderful help to us on our recent trip to Ireland. She had quite a personality, but not much of an accent. It was kind of funny listening to her try to pronounce the names of places and roads in “the Irish,” but she probably did better than we did. deirdre
(As an aside, we met a young woman in a store with a nametag that said this: Caoimhe. We asked her how to pronounce her name. She said: Kweeva! So, Deirdre can be forgiven for mangling some place names.)

Deirdre had a penchant for the downtown area of every place we went. She loved them! You couldn’t say it was a shopping addiction, but she could not seem to avoid the downtowns! And I don’t think she was in a hurry or anything but she always seemed to want to take the most direct route somewhere, no matter how dodgy the road might be. In Ireland we constantly encountered roads like this. ireland-road-fast1Notice the speed limit!!!

But the thing that made Deirdre such a wonderful travelling companion was that she never seemed to get flustered when things went awry. Most of the time she just encouraged us to stay on the route we were on, but when we took a wrong turn she just quietly shook her head and with no frustration whatsoever simply said, “Recalculating!”

Yes, Deirdre was the name we gave our GPS. We thought about calling her Caoimhe (Kweeva) but honestly neither one of us could ever remember how to pronounce it so we picked Deirdre instead. “Follow the course of the road” was not only her favourite thing to say, it also became something of a mantra for our whole journey. We would select what we wanted to see, tell Deirdre where that was, and she’d figure out how to get us there. All we had to do was “follow the course of the road.”

I didn’t want to abandon the weekly “Noticings” emails we recently started sending out so I sent a couple of notes from our vacation. You may have read the one about the labyrinth at a place called Glendalough. I’d like to say some more about that.

First of all, getting to Glendalough was quite an adventure. It was the first day we had rented a car and we were driving through the twisty-turny Wicklow Mountains. It was breathtakingly gorgeous, but it was not unlike a roller coaster ride. And if you didn’t know this, in Ireland in addition to the insanely narrow roads they also drive on the left side of the road – so it was, shall we say, unnerving. Deirdre, of course, just told us to “follow the course of the road” – never mind that the road was designed by sheep!

So we got to Glendalough and saw the film and the exhibits and then walked up to the site. It was fantastic! The ancient ruins, the Celtic crosses, just knowing that you were standing in a place where prayers had been prayed and hymns had been sung for centuries was quite moving. ireland-glendalough4

The only problem was all the people! Dozens of them were walking (or running) to and fro around the ruins. You had the sense that if you stood in the midst of a place for a while to try to connect with the spirit of it that you were standing in the middle of someone’s photo-op – so I felt hurried there. It was a lovely site, and a spiritual place, but (and I know this sounds judgmental but I can’t help it) it felt like most people there were tourists rather than pilgrims.

It was as we were leaving that site that I got to walk the labyrinth there. Now I love labyrinths and the spiritual zone they lead me to. It never fails that I sense God’s Presence deeply in a labyrinth. Although, I tend to feel it much more deeply when I’m walking it alone. Alas, such was not the case that day. A dad and his two small boys were also walking it – noisily.

I was distracted by them and was feeling a bit miffed because they were interfering with my ability to focus on the Spirit, and I was just about to complete my walk and exit the labyrinth in a huff when it happened. In my final few steps, as the boys wanted to give up, the Dad said, “Just stay on the path!” Follow the course of the road! Seconds before leaving, even amid distraction and irritation, there it was – the Presence of God in the voice of a frustrated father. “Just stay on the path!” The source of my annoyance became the source of my gift. Just stay on the path! Follow the course of the road. The Spirit speaks in the most mysterious ways.

ireland-road-busThen it was back to the car and putting our trust in our invisible guide named Deirdre. Follow the course of the road, she said. But the thing is that even though staying on the path is a powerful spiritual thing if you blindly just follow the course of the road you’re going to miss a lot. From time to time you need to step off that road.
Especially when there are buses around!
We also figured out that we should be pulling over at these little “pull outs” that were all along the way so we could savour the sights and take great pictures. The road was designed for stepping off – but not too far (or you were over a cliff)!

One day we had a longish drive so we decided to pull off the main road in order to do a coastal cliff walk. Deirdre didn’t like us pulling off at first, but she got over it. (Recalculating!) We found ourselves in the small town of   [S-selfie] Ardmore and began our walk. We were just looking for fresh air and to stretch our legs but we ended up having the most spiritual experience of our whole trip. What we didn’t know was that Ardmore was the home of a great Celtic Christian saint called Declan who actually preceded St. Patrick (Patrick is the one who gets all the credit for bringing Christianity to Ireland – nope, not true, it was already there thanks to Declan and a few others)!ardmore-declan1

We discovered – well, it felt that way to us – Declan’s monastery, Declan’s oratory (prayer house), Declan’s round tower, Declan’s church, Declan’s well, and Declan’s stone! Plus we had incredible views of the ocean and cliffs. Standing in the ruins of St. Declan’s sacred spaces I was absolutely moved and overwhelmed with the Presence of God. It was, for me, the epitome of a “thin place.” I’m sure a huge part of it was that there were no tourists – just a few pilgrims, like us. And we never would have experienced that if we had strictly stayed on the path.

What if we applied that lesson to our faith life? Are we supposed to stay on the path, or step off? It’s confusing. I mean, in one ear we hear verses like Deuteronomy 5:32-33

“You must therefore be careful to do as the Lord your God has commanded you; you shall not turn to the right or to the left, You must follow exactly the path that the Lord your God has commanded you, so that you may live,

and Proverbs 4:25-27

“Let your eyes look directly forward, and your gaze be straight before you. Keep straight the path of your feet, and all your ways will be sure. Do not swerve to the right or to the left; turn your foot away from evil.”

And it seems like we’re supposed to be laser-locked into the Way and never deviate. Jesus says in Matthew 7:13 Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it.”

But then the bible is also filled with encouragement to take time to stop and take in the sights – to live an abundant life. In Psalm 34:8 we hear,

“O taste and see that the Lord is good!”

Ecclesiastes 3:12-13 says,

“I know that there is nothing better for [humans] than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as [we] live; moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil.”

And the word “behold” is used 1215 times in the bible, starting in Genesis 1

“And God said, ‘Behold, I have given you everything on earth for your benefit and enjoyment’…And God saw everything that God had made, and, behold, it was very good.”

So, clearly we’re supposed to take time to behold, to look, to see, to experience, to enjoy – but at the same time to stay on the path. Even Jesus’ disciples were confused by all this talk of staying on the path. In John 14:5-6 Thomas asks Jesus, “How can we know the way?” And Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”

Christianity is not a destination religion, Christianity is a journey religion.
Jesus didn’t say “I am the goal” he said “I am the Way.” If you’re hurtling toward the next thing, or the ultimate goal, you can’t be present in this moment and enjoy the now. From time to time you need to step off the path in order to really see the best sights.

Had we taken the direct route that Deirdre prescribed – had we strictly stayed on the path – had we just followed the course of the road we would never have met St. Declan, which for me was the highlight of the whole trip.

Staying the course, especially if you’re talking about persevering in the journey of faith, is profoundly important for your spiritual formation – but it’s never meant to be a straight jacket. We cannot journey with blinders on just because we may have a clear sense of direction from Jesus. While keeping the destination in view we also need to give ourselves permission to meander and drink in the sights along the way. Ireland taught me that!

And another thing Ireland taught me was that my spirituality needs quiet – that for me, the more “touristy” something was the less spiritual it felt, mostly because I couldn’t really be present in the moment. On our last day we visited two places with impressive Celtic high crosses. These are crosses that are 15-20 feet tall with intricate carvings telling the Christian story. Amazing!

The first place we saw was Clonmacnoise. It was well marked, had several support buildings in place, and was very well kept and well preserved. Because of these things it was also crowded – including busloads of people. We enjoyed it very much, but needless to say, we didn’t linger.

ireland-monasterboice2Then we drove to Monasterboice and the experience was entirely different. First, it was harder to get to, and there was only enough parking for about 10 cars. And no buses! The grounds were not as pristine, and there were no fancy videos or exhibitions – just this ancient site with its fantastic high crosses. There were a few other people around but they were all moving reverently among the ruins and taking in the Spirit of the place, like us. This time we lingered!

As we reflected on our trip we realized that our agenda really dictated how we experienced things. When we were on a mission to check off the sights that we’d planned to see we enjoyed them well enough but we were constantly attentive to Deirdre to get us to the next photo-op.
But when we allowed ourselves to pause, to be present, to savour the moment – when we paid more attention to the journey than the destination, we experienced things on a wholly different level – on a holy different level.

ireland-cross-selfiePausing and being present is vital, but if that’s all you do you don’t get anywhere. So staying on the path – following the course of the road – was also essential for us. And without Deirdre showing us the way we would have been so, so lost. Her job wasn’t just to get us somewhere but to give us a goal and then guide our way, and to “recalculate” with us when we went too far astray.

Unfortunately, we can’t type our spiritual journey into Deirdre and get turn by turn directions. I guess we’ll have to just rely on a different guide. Unlike Deirdre that guide may not offer the most direct route, but the journey will definitely be filled with joy. As the psalmist says…

6 How wonderful are your gifts to me [O God]; how good they are!
7 I praise [you], because [you] guide me.
8 I am always aware of [your] presence; [you are] near, and nothing can shake me.
11 You will show me the path that leads to life; your presence fills me with joy and brings me pleasure forever.           
[Psalm 16, adapted]

Amen.