Glendalough (translated “Land of Two Lakes”) in County Wicklow, Ireland is situated in such a naturally beautiful location that the country has protected over 20,000 hectares acres of the area, known as the Wicklow Mountains National Park.
One simple way to visit this special park is to take the bus, called St. Kevins, that leaves and returns daily from a stop on the north side of St. Stephen’s Green and nearly directly across from Dublin landmark, the Shelbourne Hotel.
Once arrived in Glendalough, there is an informative and modern visitor center where one can learn more about the valley and its history.
There are artifacts, displays, and interactive exhibits as well.
But what makes Glendalough so special goes beyond the area’s great natural beauty? It’s the spiritual history that makes Glendalough one of Ireland’s most beloved sacred pilgrimage sites where the sense of “thin place” is palatable for those with a seeking heart.
To the Celtic mind, a thin place can be described as where the veil between the present and all eternity is thin, described as almost membrane-like.
Richard Rohr talks about living with an awareness or positioning of the thin or liminal places in life, as well as the idea of thresholds and doorways, actual and spiritual, which are prevalent in the ruins of Glendalough.
St. Kevin: From Solitude to Community and Back Again
Born in 498 AD, a young monk from a royal family found sanctuary in Glendalough’s beautiful surroundings. Trained for spiritual service from a young age, Kevin first founded a monastery in Glendalough’s Lower Valley. However, drawn to a life of solitude and prayer, Kevin (the anglicized version of his Irish name, Coemgen or Coemhghein) chose a remote cave alongside the upper lake to build his cell, now called St. Kevin’s Bed.
“Kevin was at heart a hermit and a Christian mystic. He was a determined ascetic whose great strength and endurance sprang from his extraordinary faith and commitment to monastic celibacy and the teachings of the desert spiritual tradition” – Andrew Jones, Every Pilgrim’s Guide to Celtic Britain and Ireland
Kevin was known as a gentle soul with a great affinity for nature and for animals. As Kevin’s fame spread as a holy man, more and more followers were attracted to the area and a monastic city rose up and flourished. For centuries after his death, Glendalough was a thriving community with both monks and a large lay population living together. Centuries later, Glendalough became known as a center of learning that rivaled Clonmacnoise in influence.
Retreat and Pilgrimage
As the centuries passed, Glendalough became famous as a pilgrimage center, with pilgrims traveling to the lakes to confess sins and seek healing. Glendalough is filled with the stone ruins of the past centuries: a round tower, a gateway, chapels, churches and many graves marked with Celtic crosses.
The saying “Visiting Glendalough is seven visits to Rome” became common, and many still pilgrimage to Glendalough today.
“Great is the pilgrimage of Coemgen,
If men should perform it aright;
To go seven times to their fair is the same
As to go once to Rome.”
A pilgrimage typically can take the form of an outward physical journey, often to a quiet or holy place, where an inward spiritual journey can take place. Seekers of God, of peace, of self and of healing participate in a journey of trust that God (Life!) will lead them on and speak to them in so that sustaining peace will be found for living. Not all pilgrimages (or pilgrims) are necessarily religious. Of all the sacred places that I visited in Ireland, it was continually and simply stated that ALL humans are on a journey and that ALL were welcome to these sites.
There are two main retreat facilities in Glendalough, as well as a tourist hotel.
Meeting with the spiritual Fathers and Mothers that tend the retreat centers and care for pilgrims was a wonderful blessing to me. Participating in a silent prayer walk with Father Michael brought an incredible time of deep spiritual affirmation. Those of us that gathered were encouraged in the Celtic Way, the history of the sacred sites and in the wonder and awe of creation. Thinking about the eternal was fostered as we walked around the ruins and through the archways.
The connectedness of all life was illustrated in the beauty of nature, much on display, particularly in the giant oak trees and running water along the pathways.
Father Michael himself has lived in Glendalough for 24 years and has written two books about it. Before living in Glendalough, Father Michael served in Kenya for 2o years. For him, poetry, nature, and prayer are all a part of the streams of true Life. Silently walking through Glendalough with his guidance, this reality was palatable to me. There are others too that give guided walks, each with its own focus or time of silence and prayer. For me, spending time in this spiritually peaceful, naturally beautiful “thin place” was a marker in my life’s inward journey, as well as an outward journey that I look forward to taking as often as the opportunity is given.
What pathway is calling you? What threshold awaits?