Lenten Retreat: Two Weeks in the Wicklow Mountains

Glendalough is situated in the Wicklow Mountains in the southeast of Ireland, a little over an hour ‘s drive south of Dublin.  Glendalough’s two lakes, (lough in Irish), which lie in the valley, (glen in Irish), have been a destination of pilgrims and refugees since 650 A.D, when Saint Kevin arrived to be closer to his Creator. A waterfall descends from the mountains into the Upper Lake, and a river runs from there on to the Lower Lake. The two lakes were once one, but the silt running in the water, over time, created land separating the one into two bodies of water. From the Lower Lake, the river runs on past the Monastic City, which are ruins of the lively monastic life that was present in the 10th and 11th centuries. The Monastic City holds a round tower, a cathedral, the Priest’s House, St. Kevin’s Church, and close to that, St. Kiernan’s Church, as Kiernan was Kevin’s best friend, a relationship understood by the Celts as an anam cara.  (Even hermits had best friends, as Kevin and Kiernan were, and it was upon that relationship that the Catholic Church developed close friendships into a more formal relationship called a “confessor” and then further developed this into the sacrament of confession.) The best place to enter the Monastic City is not via the Visitor Centre, but past the Glendalough Hotel and continuing past its parking lot and then to the left. There you will see an enormous double-arched stone entranceway where remnants of the original cobblestone road are still visible, as is the etching of a crude Celtic Cross on the right-hand side after the second arch. Pilgrims and refugees for centuries knew they were safe within the sanctuary, the asylum of the Monastic City, their destination, once they passed that cross.  I stumbled upon this cross several days after my arrival. It was the day I had finally slowed down from the hectic pace I had left behind me and I began to understand Glendalough.

Standing in front of that cross, I imagined a wise old monk sitting across from me at an old wooden desk who was requiring me to fill out a questionnaire. Before entering the Monastic City, he explained, I had to identify myself as a pilgrim or a refugee. I did not know which to check.  Pilgrim is defined as a person who journeys to a sacred place for religious reasons while a refugee is escaping something, such as war, persecution, or a natural disaster. Pilgrims often arrive to their destination with a request or plea for their God, while a refugee is seeking peace.  I held no request or plea for my Creator, coming from my far too comfortable life in Virginia with a prince of a husband and two attentive loving sons. A refugee, then?  By choice, where I am staying has no Wi-Fi, no phone, no television, and no radio. When putting this journey together, I relished the idea of three weeks unplugged. I visit the library at my retreat center each morning to send my husband a short email assuring him I am ok.  Perhaps in running away from the busy world, I am a refugee.

My intent in coming to Glendalough was to be in the company of my Creator amidst the splendor of His creation. Glendalough is known among the Irish as a thin place, meaning the veil between this world and the other world is very thin. My first experience with a thin place was on the summit of Croagh Patrick, a holy mountain in County Mayo, which I climbed with my father in 1965. I was only eleven years old, but the experience made quite an impression. Thin places in Ireland are always places of exquisite natural beauty; nature being essential in Celtic spirituality. The Celtic monk Columbanus wrote around 600 AD: “Understand the creation if you wish to know the Creator.” In 1991, David Adam explains in his book entitled Border Lands, “Before any books were written, God spoke to us through his Creation in that he revealed himself through the things of earth.”  Celtic Spirituality is grounded on the understanding that God is all around us, if only we have the eyes to see.

I spent the better part of each afternoon hiking the mountains which surround the glen.  The first few days, I occasionally sensed a presence around me. In time, this sensation became more regular. One day I heard soft laughter when I was stopped in my tracks as the trail turned and I was struck with the beauty before me. This presence was more pronounced one afternoon when I was high on the mountain on a trail called the Wicklow Way.  I saw a darkish cloud, not far away but still in the distance, approaching me. From previous hiking experiences in Ireland, I knew this meant rain was coming right at me.  I pulled my rain pants out of my backpack and as quickly as I could I pulled them on over my hiking boots and trail pants. Then I stood on the trail and waited for the cloud to pass around me, a sensation I always enjoyed in spite of the rain that came with it. But this time, as the cloud came closer to me, I was suddenly surrounded by thousands of softly swirling snowflakes. They passed as quickly as they appeared, and I was not wet at all.  In fact, once cloud of snow passed, the sky was blue with the sun shining down on me. I started the difficult task of pulling off my rain pants, muttering Showoff under my breath.  I sensed (or maybe saw?) the flash of a smile and stood still for a minute or two trying to hold onto what had just happened.

That day my hike ended where the Poulanass Waterfall, a powerful run of water that cascades down the mountain, dissolves into the calm waters of the Upper Lake. Mentally reviewing the day I had had, I asked myself why – Why was I gifted with this time in this place?  I was answered immediately – Your students sent you here, Susan. I knew this was right because I know what I had done in my classrooms.  Furthermore, I knew that my students would give this back to me, being the kind of people they are. I am now retired from teaching, which was a reason I initially started looking for a place for a retreat. I wanted to know what comes next. As I hope to live until I am 95, what am I to do with the next thirty years? I am not meant to simply bask in a comfortable retirement. I believe that our Creator has a plan for each of us. My time in Glendalough was to find out about that plan. Perhaps I am a pilgrim after all.

The Glendalough Visitor Center sells a small pamphlet delineating all the trails around the two lakes and the surrounding mountains. The map is similar to a ski resort map, as each trail is marked as easy, moderate, rambles, or hill walks. Some trails take an hour, others close to four. In my first week in Glendalough I hiked each one of them, as I was blessed with sunny days and blue skies in a country with a deserved reputation of relentless rainy weather. However, after a week of this, my body pleaded for a day of rest. I combed the library at the retreat center and found, much to my delight, a CD featuring the “spiritual” songs of Van Morrison. I had not heard any music for over a week, and Van Morrison is one of my favorite artists.  I checked out the CD and a CD player and returned to my abode. I laid down a fire that eventually roared in the fireplace, and I sat, transfixed, for the better part of the morning, as Van the Man soothed my soul and my weary body rested. After lunch, I decided to explore the grounds of the retreat center.

Trees are a primary symbol in Celtic culture. For the Druids, the ancient Celtic priests, each type of tree had its individual meaning, and trees were understood as a source of wisdom for they represented the eternal cycle. The grounds of the retreat center are wooded and a pebbled walk leads a visitor through a large grove of trees. A plaque was placed alongside the start of this walk explaining the meaning of each tree in the garden. The Evergreen Yew was known to the Druids for reaching great age, and because of this, this tree stood for everlasting life. The Hawthorne tree, in ancient times, was associated with spring. For Christians, this understanding developed into the Hawthorne tree being associated with fertility. The Birch tree is one of the first trees to leaf in the spring, and so in ancient times the Birch was associated with inception. Christians focused on how the Birch tree shredded its bark and associated this with the old making way for the new with repentance.

The Oak tree was sacred to the Druids, symbolizing power and endurance.  For Christians, the Oak stood for Christ, and traditionally it was said oak provided wood for the cross. The Rowan tree was emblematic of Brigid, the sun goddess who became Saint Brigid with Christianity. The Rowan tree guarded people from unwanted influences and brought peace and serenity. The Holly tree, being an evergreen, stood for immortality, an emblem of eternal life. For Christians, the prickly leaves came to represent the crown of thorns, the berries drops of blood.

Ireland was once a forest – the whole island, one enchanted forest. I have been told that it was Cromwell who stripped this forest from the land. As a result, it was once explained to me, when an Irish road passed through a wooded area, a traveler would be near one of the “big houses”, where the Anglo-Irish lived, as their forests, where they hunted, were not touched by Cromwell. I do not know if this holds for all of Ireland, but I have found it is certainly the case when travelling in County Mayo and County Galway, two counties with which I am more familiar than Wicklow.

Around St. Saviour’s Church, a ruin of a Glendalough church built by St. Laurence O’Toole in the 11th century, the evergreens that once surrounded the church have been removed and native trees planted in their place. In this way, native species can return to their natural habitat. Similarly, a Mayo man once told me of efforts to remove the rhododendron, as it was brought to Ireland by the English, and was overwhelming the native species and plants in the woods and hills of Mayo.

Although the winter wooded landscape around Glendalough looks barren, every plant and tree are hard at work under the ground growing deeper, thicker roots in preparation for the burst of growth in the spring. Even the most amateur gardener knows that the best time to plant is the fall which allows a strong root system to establish itself before that burst of color in blossoms followed by the leafing of trees. There is not anything much sweeter than the lush shade of trees on a hot summer’s day except perhaps the magnificent display of earth tones in the leaves before they fall to the ground in autumn.

Margaret Silf, in her book, Inner Compass, follows the Druids in suggesting we have not only much to learn but much in common with our trees. Silf talks about this in the context of our desires. Our “root” desires are safety, comfort, a stable home, and physical, mental, and spiritual nourishment as well as a network of friends who know you and accept you. Our roots grow deeper into the soil each winter to nourish these ongoing root desires. Silf goes on to explain that we also have desires expressed in our branches, such as the desire to do work that is creative, work that expresses the “real me”, as well as our desire to express to trusted friends our deepest hopes and dreams. “Tree roots go deep because there is always something deeper to strive for. Tree branches reach up because the sky, the sun, and the air are always beyond and out of reach – but we strive to reach them as our branches grow toward the sun.”

To this I would add the lesson taught to me once by a Banyan tree. At the time I was living in Cuba, and was in the situation that my two sons and I were being evacuated, and my husband, active duty Navy, had to stay in Cuba.   I did not know where I was going to live with my sons, and I did not know when I would see my husband again. In the backyard of the house where we were staying there was what looked like a grove of trees with that exquisite lush shade under it. Distressed and anxious about my circumstances, I left the house and walked into this shade to sit down and have a moment to myself. When I looked above me into the branches, I could see that it was not a grove of trees, but one tree.  Examining the branches above me, I could see that as branches reach out toward the sun, a vine sprouts and grows down to the ground where it roots. As each branch reached toward the sun, it had the support it needed as the vine would grow into another trunk. Reflecting on this system of support in that magnificent tree, I understood I would be ok. My boys would be ok. Wherever we went, we would find the support, we would find the help that we needed. Druids did not have Banyan trees in Ireland, but I think they would have marked the banyan tree as symbolic of community.

The plaque in the retreat center’s garden not only described the symbolism of each tree for the Celts but also had a sketch of each tree so that a visitor would be able to identify the trees.  I as walked around, beneath Evergreen Yews, Hawthorns, Birches, Oaks, Hollies and Rowan trees,  I imagined myself a tree.  The first tree I imagined myself as was a mother tree. A mother tree’s children are her leaves, and children tend to leave parents in the prime of their lives when they are reaching their true colors, when they move away from us,  fall to the ground with their  seed intact,  and start their own lives. Mother trees are left with a winter to dig deeper and wider into the soil around the roots for the nutrients the branches will need in the spring. Then I imagined the next cycle in my life, my Teacher Tree. In this tree, my students were my leaves. When my sons were well on their own way, I gave my full attention to my students. I watched them grow and go on their way at the close of each academic year.  When I retired a year ago, I watched them fall away from me for the last time, in all their resplendent color to get on with their lives.

I am now in another winter, my roots thickening and deepening, but I am unsure what spring’s leaves are going to look like. This is my conundrum…what comes next?  My journey to Glendalough was partner to that winter task to thicken and deepen my roots, searching for nutrients which could make me stronger. But stronger for what? Am I being prepared for something wonderful, or maybe something devastating?

Whatever was ahead of me, I felt I would leave Glendalough well-prepared.

I met Father Oliver on my first day at the retreat center, as I set out for the shop in the small village to stock up on some groceries. As I approached him, he was messing around with the compost bin which was next to the driveway of the retreat center.  He introduced himself as Oliver, and I assumed he was the gardener. However, I was not certain as he seemed old for that type of work. Perhaps, I thought, the Sisters who ran the retreat center, in the goodness of their hearts, gave this kind elderly man some tasks that allowed him to feel useful around the place.

The next morning, which was a Friday, I attended morning Mass. When the priest appeared at the altar in his vestments, I could not be sure if he and Oliver were one and the same.  Sitting in one of the rear pews, I could see there was certainly a resemblance, but the man I met was in gardener’s clothes, and this man was in flowing vestments.  However, in another day or two, I came to see clearly that Oliver was also Father Oliver. He is an unconventional man. On  the first Sunday I attended Mass, he stood at the pulpit  before starting Mass and reiterated the Bishop’s order that rather than blessing oneself with Holy Water when entering the church, we must avail ourselves of the hand sanitizer that was now in the font  in lieu of water. Covid-19 was just beginning to get people’s attention at that time. Then he produced a pump jar of hand sanitizer and told the congregation that he would demonstrate for everyone the correct way to wash your hands. (If we do this, he said, we will all be well.) However, Father Oliver could not sort out how to open the pump to get it started. He tried this way and that way while the congregation watched with silent interest, but to no avail. Finally, he put the jar down on the pulpit, looked out over his congregation, and holding his two hands up, IMAGINE I have the sanitizer on my hands, and he proceeded with his demonstration. The people chuckled, as did Father Oliver at himself, and once his demonstration was over, he proceeded with the saying of Sunday Mass.

At daily Mass, which was also during Lent, there were seven or eight regular attendees, all women in their sixties or thereabouts, like myself. Each morning, I sat in a back pew and could not help but dwell on the scene that would unfold before me each morning. This collection of the same women arrived each morning, some lighting the candles, some setting out the gifts, another checking the readings to be in good order. Once the stage was set, a man appeared to say Mass. That only a man can say Mass is archaic; any one of the devoted women in church that morning would do a fine job of saying Mass. Watching this scene each morning only further assured me that the dogma forbidding women to serve as priests must be eradicated as if it were a non-native species that threatens the natural habitat of the spirituality given to us by our Saviour.  Just as rhododendrons must be removed from the Irish landscape, similar Catholic dogma, creatd by men, not by Jesus, must be removed. Confession needs to be returned to the foundational role of an anam cara.

I had stopped attending Mass about two years before my trip to Glendalough. I was livid with the Church and with priests for the abuse suffered by the children and the church’s protection of the predators. I had dismissed all priests with a broad stroke, certain I could never return to the Catholic Church. But where would I go?  What was I to do? I went to Glendalough with an open mind and the hope that my Creator would guide me through this dilemma. I attended daily Mass, but I did not receive Communion. I did not feel so much a participant as I did an observer, as if I was watching the final act of a play.

However, I found that Father Oliver could not be dismissed. One morning Mass was being celebrated in memory of Lizzie, an aunt of Caroline who was a regular attendee of daily Mass. Her Aunt Lizzie had passed away earlier in the week. Father looked directly at Caroline at the start of Mass and spoke some words of comfort directly to her. He told Caroline that when her Aunt Lizzie reached the end of her final journey, God would see her and God would say “Lizzie! I have loved you your whole life! You are so welcome here.” Then Father Oliver looked around  at the rest of us,  pausing to look directly into the eyes of each one of us, and told us that that would be our greeting as well when we reached the end of our final journey because God loves each of us so much. Because God is love. I sat in the back pew and I imagined my Creator calling out to me “Susie! I have loved you your whole life. You are so welcome here.”  My whole life? Even that bit I messed up so much?   “Yes,” my Creator said, “your whole life.”

Who wouldn’t want to believe that?

Then, on a Monday morning, Father Oliver came out to the altar, and we all stood for the start of Mass. He stopped at the center of the altar, raised his head to look, again, directly at each one of us, and then this elderly priest started singing. Singing like it was High Mass, but he was singing these words:

Listen to me.

Listen to me in the silence.

I am always here for you.

Listen to me.

On the previous Saturday night, I had attended Lectio Divina, which is a traditional monastic practice of reading scripture and meditating on the words in order to increase one’s knowledge of God. That evening, the six of us who had gathered in a small prayer room for Lectio Divina read and meditated on the gospel for that following Sunday.  Father Oliver was with us that evening, but one of the Sisters was running the Lectio Divina.  Towards the end of the meditation, the Sister allowed time for any of us to repeat any words in the gospel that had a special meaning to us. The gospel for that Sunday was the Transformation, and in that gospel God says to those gathered as bright lights shone down on his son ”Listen to me”.  One reason I had come to Glendalough was for the silence, as God’s first language is silence. If I were within silence for a good amount of time, I had reasoned, I hoped I might possibly hear him. I could listen to Him. To what he has to say. When Father repeated that message in his song, I felt he knew me and, somehow, he understood my journey.  In that moment, Father Oliver went straight into my heart.

About a week before my departure from the States, I had been talking with my sister, Maureen, who told me this story for the first time.  I was born on February 6, 1954, and Maureen turned 12 four days later, on February 10. I was my mother’s seventh child. Every year, when Lent began (usually late in February) my father would attend an early daily Mass which was celebrated in a small chapel in the local convent which housed the nuns. Maureen told me that during Lent that year, she and Dad would wrap me up in a blanket each morning and, with Maureen holding me on her lap,  Dad would drive to the convent and they would attend this 6 am Mass together.  I am sure this arrangement was to give my mother a break as her mornings were quite busy with the rest of my siblings. What I am getting at is when I was just a few weeks old, I was attending daily Mass with my father and my sister.

Funerals have now become a “Celebration of Life” for the dearly departed. Sitting in the back pew at daily Mass, I felt to be attending a “Celebration of Mass”, ending my years as a Catholic, with all the ancient rituals and sacraments and mysteries. Father Oliver was the perfect celebrant for this final good-bye. I imagined my own father beside me, knowing how much he would enjoy daily Mass in that setting. I had attended many Masses with Dad in a variety of settings, and if he was ever at Mass and realized there were no altar boys, he would spring to his feet and go to the altar to offer his services. I would always watch with interest, amazed that he knew exactly what to say and what to do. It was when I was older that I heard the story that my father had spent a year in seminary studying to be a priest, before he left and eventually met my mother. All these thoughts were with me at daily Mass at St. Kevin’s. Several times one of the Sisters asked if I would do the readings for that day, but I had to decline. I knew that if I, standing at the pulpit, reading from the Bible, I would get stuck visualizing my father sitting in the pew watching me with such pride, and hoping that this meant a change of heart for his daughter. I would not be able to hold back the tears that were sure to come, so I always declined to read.

Each morning at 9:45 the Sisters held Morning Prayers and each evening at 6:00, Evening Prayers.  There were other people at the retreat center, but as the center was non-denominational, no one was required to attend Mass or Morning or Evening Prayers. One or two of these people were at Mass once or twice, and the same for the Morning or Evening Prayers. Many times, it was just me and one Sister at the morning or evening prayers. I felt drawn to Prayers, feeling rekindled and fortified upon leaving. It became clear to me after my first week that Morning and Evening Prayers was one reason I was at Glendalough. In these prayer sessions, the Sisters were teaching me how to pray.

The prayer sessions were held in the Prayer Room, which was next to the library at the retreat center. Seats were in a semi-circle, facing a large window overlooking the Wicklow Mountains.  Centered on the windowsill was a piece bog yew that is around five or six thousand years old. This centerpiece in the room served to link participants in the prayer session to their ancient roots in early Christianity.  A scarf was always draped from the bog yew to the floor, where a low table held a candle and a picture rested against the table.  The scarf would change every few days, the picture every day, the candle moved here or there. There were two skylights as well as the large window, so the room was full of natural light.  The area outside the prayer room was heavily wooded, so that at any time, sitting in the intense silence of the prayer room, there was birdsong.

A prayer session began with a theme expressed in a poem read aloud. The theme always related to the picture leaning against the low table. Following the poem, which could have been written by any one from Seamus Heaney to Robert Frost, there would be a reflection that delved deeper into the theme. Sometimes this reflection was a story, read aloud, relating someone’s life experience to the theme.  A psalm usually followed, but the psalm was always taken from Nan Merrills’ Book of Psalms, psalms which were written from a women’s perspective and addressed current issues, concerns, celebrations, and aspirations. Then there would be time for something from the gospels, but not read verbatim from the Bible. The gospel story would be told by one of the sisters as a story, in her own words, as if it only happened yesterday down in the village.  The next reading was a blessing, sometimes taken from John O’Donoghue’s Benedictus, sometimes from elsewhere.

After each reading I have listed, there were always several moments of silence to review the reading and reflect on it. If anyone present felt certain words or line had special meaning for them, they were invited to read that aloud. No explanation was asked for, just read your favorite bit aloud. Morning and Evening Prayers always ended with a song, played from a CD inserted in the CD player at the Sister’s feet. Then an incredibly comforting silence would fall over the room as attendees sat, still together but addressing their individual thoughts and reflections.

The library, which was next to the Prayer Room, was well-stocked with books on various aspects of spirituality, many with a focus on Celtic Spirituality.  In my own comings and goings at the retreat center, I sometimes came across the Sisters as they went about their work at the retreat center. In watching them I realized that just as I would go into my kitchen in the evening to put together a meal for my family, or to my office to put together a lesson plan for my students, the Sisters go into this library to put together a morning or evening prayer session. I not only deeply admired them, but I also became very fond of them. They never asked me any questions, but they were always there should you need to talk. Their presence was a great comfort.

Margaret Silf, in her book entitled Inner Compass, spends a lot of time explaining to the reader the difference between being driven to something versus being drawn to something. In summary, she says that if we feel driven to do something, that drive is coming from forces outside of us. However, if we feel drawn to something, that is coming from deep within us, from the spirit of God within us. I had felt driven to attend Mass, even as the horrors of the sexual abuse became repeated headlines. If you are a Catholic, you go to Sunday Mass. The Baltimore Catechism had taught me it was a sin to not attend Mass.    At Glendalough, as days passed into a week, and then one week into two, I felt drawn to Morning and Evening Prayers. I understood that something deep inside me had brought me to this place.  It was hard to hold back my tears in the final silence of morning prayers on the day of my departure. I was going to miss this part of my day at Glendalough.

In 1965, my father, at sixty years of age, decided he wanted to find his roots in Ireland.  For the same reason I was taken to Mass during Lent in 1954, my father took me, and a brother two years older than me, to Ireland in the summer of ’65, the same summer I first climbed Croagh Patrick.  Mom stayed home and got a break from looking after middle schoolers during the summer. I recall sitting shotgun in his rented car, eating Cadbury chocolate bars while Dad hit dead end after dead end on his search for his ancestors.  But one day all that driving around ended when the car pulled over at the ruins of what appeared to be a small square fortress-of-sorts in County Clare, a place known as Dysert O’Dea. My father beamed as he walked around those ruins. Pictures were taken, and we drove off. I returned to this place twenty-five years later only to find the ruins having been restored and advertised to tourists as Dysert O’Dea. Visitors could watch a video that told the story of Dysert O’Dea presented as a former O’Dea clan stronghold built between 1470 and 1490. However, it was in the 8th century that St. Tola established an early Christian monastery on the site, establishing the area originally as a disert.

David Adam, in his book entitled Border Lands, explains that the words disert, dyserth, or dysert appear in many place names in all the Celtic lands. What all these have in common is that it is a place, initially, where someone wanted to be alone, as in a desert. They were places of spiritual battle, a place where “someone was willing to face the noughting of the world to find the glory of the Presence…..and they are situated in places of great beauty, where we can find our Creator amidst his creation.”

I am not the first O’Dea who wanted to be alone somewhere beautiful, pristine, and quiet to listen to my Creator, be that O’Dea a pilgrim, a refugee, or both. My time in Glendalough immersed in Celtic spirituality has allowed me to understand better my journey – where I came from, who I have become, and a suggestion of what I am to do. Most importantly,  I know my Creator loves me; and has loved me my whole life. He will go on loving me as I return to family and friends and endeavor to perceive His divine presence in that busy world.


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