Returning to Hallowed Ground

The first time I came to Ireland was in May of 2012. I was also my first time to go on tour with the Notre Dame Folk Choir. I encountered so much beauty, joy, and warm hospitality during that tour, and it all certainly impacted my decision to apply for the House of Brigid at the end of that year. One moment that stayed close to my memory from that tour was my introduction to one of the most stunning displays of nature’s beauty nestled on this island. It was Glendalough, literally the Valley of Two Lakes, and former site of a medieval monastic city . The perfect serenity of that place was wonderful. We went on a sunny day, and I remember the sight of the upper lake with the light playfully dancing across its surface. I remember being dazzled by the brilliant green of the meadows just next to the small body of water and of the forests that covered hills on either side of the lake. I remember wandering up the path aways with my lunch and perching on the rocks next to a waterfall for a solitary prayer and a picnic. You could lose yourself in such a place, or find yourself.

This week, I was blessed to make a return to Glendalough, along with the rest of Teach Bhríde and Father Denis, Sister Mary, and Maura from Clonard, but this time the chilled autumn air and the golds and oranges of the foliage rendered it a different experience of nature, though just as captivating in its beauty as the first time I visited.

Autumn Monastery by Ben
Autumn at the Monastery*

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We spent the good part of Tuesday afternoon walking around the area, beginning with a tour of the old monastery’s grounds. We saw St. Kevin’s Church, the priest’s house, and a massive round tower, all of which are made out of stone and are remarkably well preserved, given that they date back to around the 12 th century, kind of the heyday of Irish monastic cities, before the raids from Normans and Vikings brought them to ruin. While in that time, the city was growing as a center of agriculture and trade, over the last couple centuries it’s only the graveyard that continues to expand, as many families wanting their deceased loved ones buried near to some of the holy Irish saints like St. Kevin have added impressive tombstones to the grounds, some of which stand taller than a child and jut out of the ground at different angles.

Glendalough Graveyard by Ben
Tombstones at Glendalough *
St. Kevin’s Church**

I took a peek into St. Kevin’s Church at the end of this route, and unfortunately all I could steal was a glance since the interior was gated off. I fondly remembered  cramming into the small but cavernous stone edifice to sing Rosa Mystica with the Folk Choir one and a half years prior. After this, our walk turned from these human artifacts of medieval Irish spirituality to the natural world of God’s creation that surrounds them with beauty. We spent a good couple of hours trekking through the forest on a path that ran alongside the lake’s edge but just up the mountain from it. One could still see the lake through the trees, but the most grand sight came when we came out of the woods and got a full view of the whole valley in all its greatness, and the mountain stream at the opposite end of it that poured itself out into the lake. Throughout our jaunt, it was all very clear why St. Kevin and the first monks that settled this area back in the 600’s chose it as a place to try to live a life of unceasing prayer.

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Though the monastic community that thrived in this place many years ago was founded on a spirit of asceticism and inspired by the hermetic self-denial of the desert fathers, I must admit that our pilgrimage to the area didn’t quite have the same ascetic flavor to it (though its true that for several of us, that walk was no simple stroll). However at the end of the night, we retired not in a cave at the lakeside as St. Kevin would have, but instead we returned to a hotel and dined sumptuously in their restaurant. We rounded out the evening by slipping over to the bar, where Ben and I traded the guitar that we’d brought along back and forth, and we all shared some songs, laughs, and drinks till sleepiness started to descend. It was a lovely time and a much needed rest from the increasing activity of our lives working at the parish.

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My last photo taken just before leaving this holy place the following day

*photo by Ben Zelmer, used with permission

**photo by Mary Atwood, used with permission