Thursday, July 26, 2007

Medieval Pilgrim

The First Chapter of an Abandoned Novel

(When I wrote this eight years ago the character of the Pilgrim Aonghus was clear in my mind, but I had no real story to tell about him. He was very much a character in search of a plot whom I had long forgotten about until tonight as I searched through old floppy discs. However, I think the writing is good and should be saved)

The going was tough, but the air was crisp and bracing. He could smell the clay as he climbed. The tufts of grass that sprang between the stones and rocks were a delight to him, the mosses that greened the mountainside a sure sign of perseverance, of survival in the bleakest of places. He began to breathe more heavily now as the steep incline took its toll on his ageing body. Soon there would be nothing but rocks and jagged stones with absolutely no signs of vegetation or growth. Those were the barren stony places of life. But still this ancient pilgrimage was always worthwhile, worth the sacrifice, worth the pain. The pain always blocked out or expiated the sins and shadows of the past - at least for a while anyway. It was a penance that was good for body and soul. Stopping to catch his breath, he looked down at his bloodied feet. However, on such a bountiful day as this, they did not grab his attention for long. He was almost half way up the Cruach. There was no one else on the mountain. He was alone in the world. He stood and looked around him. The water of Clew Bay spread a grey-blue cloak of mystery before his eyes, but alas, there was no sun today to coax her hidden treasures from the depths. Aonghus remembered all the times he had climbed this holy mountain during his sixty years pilgrimage on this sacred earth, especially the times when the sun had shone. Sure, there were the many times that it had rained, when the going was so much tougher. He thanked the Lord of the Universe now even for those tough days. Today was a fair day, almost a nondescript day, neither brilliant nor brutal. Yet for a pilgrim, it was a blessed day, a day to rejoice in being alive.

Taking some stale bread and a little cheese from the pocket of his coarse brown habit, Aonghus chewed pensively. He was glad that he had made arrangements to stay with his sister Aoife who lived with her husband Conall and their extended family or derbfhine in a small fortified settlement not far from the foot of the Cruach. The O’Connell’s were small landowners in these parts, owning thirty cows and enough grass to give them good grazing. He had delighted in the warmth of their welcome. He would spend the night with them. The ancient Gaelic traditions of welcome and hospitality for the stranger were what set our people apart. St Patrick had truly found rich soil for the new seeds of Christianity to grow in the Gaelic race, thought Longhops. He looked forward to the ancient stories of the Red Branch Knights and of the Fijians themselves that would greet his ears tonight. Still looking out over Clew Bay, speckled with its many tiny islands, he took his leather flask from his shoulder and slowly drunk some water.

From here on the going would be much tougher and rougher. The second part of the journey was the steeper, full of huge loose stones that were sharp, jagged and deadly. To fall up here on this lonely peak would inevitably mean death. Still, facing and overcoming that fear was half the challenge. Our people have been climbing this reek for thousands of years. Our history goes way back into the mists of the past, like this very mountain. There was something exhilarating in doing this climb, something that went deep into your very sinews and bones and deeper still into the marrow, into your very heart. Its secret lay in the struggle to climb, to keep going despite the pain, the sore and bloodied feet and the sweaty brow. The secret was the struggle and the struggle was the secret. To walk this way was to walk into communion with the Creator of the Universe, or with Christ, the Pantocrator. It was also in some small way a taste of the passion endured by the Saviour. Moreover to walk this way was to be in step with our pagan ancestors. At the great feast of Lughnasa, August first, we Gaels had always traditionally gone hill walking in honour of Lugh, god of the harvest, the inventor of all arts, of commerce and the guide for every road and journey. Our very own patron, Patrick had followed this way also, baptising and Christianizing this old Gaelic, Celtic way of the stones. Aonghus thought briefly of Amhairghin Glégheal, father of all the poets and one of the sons of Mil who led our forefathers, the Gaels in their invasion of Ireland. He was the first of the invaders to touch the soil of our motherland. Amhairghin had addressed the very land and the sea and all its native creatures in a beautiful and intense rhapsody of words and spoke with a voice which had experienced a mystical union with the very elements themselves:

I am a wind on the sea,
I am a wave on the ocean,
I am the roar of the sea,
I am a hawk on a cliff...
I am a creative, weaving god
Who counsels the head
Who else clears the stones of the mountain?

Our own God of the Christian Scriptures would agree with those very sentiments. Hadn't He said something similar to Job? Indeed He had. Where were we when He laid the foundations of the earth? Or who shut in the sea with doors, when it burst forth from the womb? Have the gates of death been revealed to us, or have we seen the gates of deep darkness? Have we comprehended the expanse of the earth?

Enough of this musing! It was time to press on as he wanted to have made his descent before the early autumn light would fade. Aonghus looked out over the sea for a few moments and then turned and bent his back towards the holy mountain.

Above I have posted a picture of the Mountains around Delphi on the borders of Galway/Mayo. I took this picture March 2007.

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