Wednesday, 10 October 2018

Pilgrim walk at Ardfert with the Community of Brendan the Navigator

On Saturday 6th October thirteen of us gathered in the nave of the ruined Cathedral of St Brendan the Navigator, Ardfert for a pilgrim walk organised by the Community of Brendan the Navigator, led by Archdeacon Simon Lumby with the assistance of Sylvia Thompson of the Tralee International Resource Centre. The cathedral dates from the 12th century, but it is on the site of the monastery established by Brendan the Navigator in the 6th century. From there we walked to Tobar na Molt (Wethers’ Well), the reputed site of Brendan’s baptism by St Erc, about 10km there and back.
Pilgrims in the nave of the Cathedral of St Brendan, Ardfert

Simon and Sylvia led us in prayer in the cathedral before we set out. We also sang the hymn ‘This day God gives me’ unaccompanied - we did pretty well, I think! Then we set out on the road through the charming village and out into the country, walking two by two and chatting, getting to know each other.

About half way to the well we stopped to gather our thoughts. Simon reflected on a cottage overgrown with briers, and Sylvia read to us from Mary Shanahan’s book ‘In honour of nature’.

The hermit and his blackbird

I need to watch the sun, 
to calculate the hours that I should pray to God. 
But the blackbird who nests in the roof of my hut 
makes no such calculations: 
he sings God’s praises all day long.

I need books to read, 
to learn the hidden truths of God. 
But the blackbird who shares my simple meals 
needs no written texts: 
he can read the love of God in every leaf and flower.

I need to beg forgiveness, 
to make myself pure and fit for God. 
But the blackbird who drinks with me from the stream 
sheds no tears of contrition: 
he is as God made him, with no stain of sin.
A break to gather our thoughts on the way to Wethers' Well

Leaving the road, the green path to the Well is beautifully mown, as is the sacred enclosure around the well – it is clear that the place is much loved and regularly visited by pilgrims.

The Well itself was dry – no doubt a result of the summer drought, but as winter rains fall and the water table rises we know that it will be filled again. There are stone steps down into it, and the stone walls are covered with moss up to the level it fills to, with projecting stones upon which a pilgrim immersed in the water can rest.
Wethers' Well was dry on the day of our visit
Simon led is to reflect on the symbolism behind springs and wells reaching back to pre-Christian times – the water springing from the earth is a portal to another domain.

The legends of the site are that St Ita is buried in a grave here; the well sprang up in answer to her prayers; St Erc baptised St Brendan here, his fee was three wethers which sprang miraculously out of the well; mass was said on the altar in penal times – a priest saying mass there was surprised by soldiers with bloodhounds, but three wethers sprang out of the well and led the chase away, leaving the priest to finish the mass.
Medieval carved figures on the penal era altar at Wethers' Well,
said to be (l-r) St Erc, St Brendan, St Ita
I spoke briefly about my own back-to-front pilgrimage. Exactly a week before, I had been at St Brendan’s Cathedral, Clonfert – once the site of another monastery founded by Brendan, the place where he died, or as the early Irish monks would have called it, the place of his resurrection. A large stone outside the great hiberno-romanesque entrance is reputed to mark his grave. After his Christian birth in baptism at Wethers’ Well, Brendan’s travels were guided by God to his place of resurrection at Clonfert. I had travelled his path in reverse over a single week.

We returned from Wethers’ Well to the cathedral the same way that we had come. After a brief time of prayer in the cathedral, we finished the day with tea or coffee and packed lunches in the Community Centre opposite, where all agreed that it had been a most worthwhile and spiritual day out.

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