July 1, 2007

Abbeys and High Crosses

Ireland is full of religious artifacts and a rich Christian history. The change from a pagan history to Christianity is apparent nearly everywhere you look in Ireland. The Celtic cross itself represents a combination of these things. In one Irish legend it the Celtic cross was introduced to the island by Saint Patrick during his time converting the pagan Irish. It is believed that he combined the symbol of Christianity, a cross, with the symbol of the sun, to give pagan followers an idea of the importance of the cross by linking it with the idea of the life-giving properties of the sun. There is no proof for the actual reasons for the Celtic cross but this was a common story we heard during our time in Ireland.

We started the morning looking at pre-Christian tombs and hearing about fertility stones, sun-worshiping and the like of the early people of Ireland. This site really showed aspects of the early pagan roots of the Irish. You can read all about visiting Newgrange and Knowth.

After spending the morning here we headed off to view the famous High Crosses of Monasterboice. Driving through the winding country roads of County Meath and Louth was particularly interesting for Serona. As we learned how to navigate the "local gibberish" road signs and had to figure out what certain symbols and phrases meant even though they were written in English. Also the two lane narrow country hilly roads were very fun with stone walls sides and big trucks passing us.

Still he drove like a champion and we arrived safely after becoming lost several times using our "Everlost GPS system". Our theory is they added an N to the front to confuse people and lead them to believe this GPS who we named Brigitt will help you never get lost when in fact she causes more wrong turns and u-turns then she prevents in our experience. But I digress, back to the high crosses.

We arrived at Monasterboice in a rare moment of Irish sunshine. Still I wore my raincoat (wisely) and we returned to the car to rain. Monasterboice is a self-guided site - there was no visitor center open, no guides, you just park and explore on your own. I found I personally enjoyed these sites, especially when we arrived later in the day and had the sites mostly to ourselves. The site is a cemetery with some abbey ruins, a round tower and two intact high crosses. We took quite a bit of time at each of the high crosses just wondering at how and why they were made. To tell the stories of the bible to those who could not read at the time. The stone illustrations have held up considerably well since the 10th century when they were created. It is amazing to think about how much work it must have been to carve into the stone these intricate images, and the crosses are quite tall. The most famous and best preserved is the Muiredachs Cross pictured above.

The round tower was quite interesting as well. Even just walking through the graveyard and seeing the way the stone wall was built and ruins from the church. I had a sense of what the Christian faith came to mean to people here and an understanding of how important the churches were to the community and to the education of people during the earlier centuries. Having read so much about it in books gave me a deeper understanding but I really think being there helped me understand it much more.

The rain began to fall and we retreated to the cover of the car and on to our next site. We got extremely lost relying on "Neverlost" this time, of course it does not help that much of the directions in Ireland consist of something that sounds like (located approximately three miles between this town and that town) and then you are at the mercy of the brown signs to find your way around. To their defense there often are no street names but rather directions are given by landmark and distance so at times all bets are off and you hope you locate the site you are looking for. Eventually we made our way to Mellifont Abbey, or the remains of it.

The abbey is dated from the early 12th century and most of it is in ruins. The chapter house, which is among its most intact parts was under construction and unavailable for our viewing but we saw the rest of it and had the place mostly to ourselves. A few local children were playing an active game of hide and seek on the ruins and we could not help but think how much our own children would enjoy climbing in these ruins and playing the same game with us. It was not in any way disrespectful what they were doing and it was not even that distracting for us.

Walking through these ruins I could not help but think "who walked here before me" and "what was your life like" what was it like during the early Renaissance? What was it like to retreat here and contemplate God? To live a hard life of work and prayer and service? To experience such solitude. We could hear the rush of the river nearby and know that was a familiar sound to people of long ago. To sit in silence and walk and run our hands on building built and fallen so long ago. To see where the updates and additions were made, where brick was laid, what structures survived and which did not. To see how life makes a way as new plants and greenery grow up along the stone, where moss grows and where nothing grows. To get a sense of how big this place must have been for the time and yet how small the world was living just within these walls. What was studied? What was contemplated? What was discussed and created here? How they loved God and designed the building and built it with love to bring glory to God. There was a certain feeling of reverence even in the ruins as I walked through them, a certain connection through time to other believers who loved God and spent their lives trying to bring glory to him and understand him. You realize that while some things are so different over time, some things remain the same and people are people with common goals and character traits. Were we really that different, even if our worlds are?

We spent what seemed like hours here and the rain mostly stayed at bay as we explored the extent of the ruins, sometimes together sometimes off on our own exploring and contemplating. Hearing the joy and fun of the kids nearby. It was a very special reflective time for us, a quiet time. For me a time that bridged some of the gap of history that started that morning with the 5000 year old megalithic sites and would end in the bustling city of Dublin in the year 2007. Holding hands walking together, picturing our own children here playing like the ones we saw, stealing a kiss by the riverside, taking fun pictures in the archways, reflecting quietly as we ran our hands over the stone remains and taking in the view of the whole site at once from above - it was a great experience and one that created in me experiences that have become part of me and help me bridge the gap between head understanding and heart understanding of history and what has gone before me.

We finally felt ready to leave and headed back to Dublin after quite a full day of history and experiences. We returned to a rainy yet still busy Dublin town and a dinner once again in the hotel - this time quiet a late evening as the drive took us longer than we predicted. And we had an early morning ahead of us as we would begin our drive out to Galway and the Aran Islands.

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