Monday, September 1, 2008

In Search of the Sacred at Gougane Barra, Ireland

Photo by Melinda Rothouse.

Gougane Barra, a valley withdrawn, a garden enclosed, the holiest place I know. Here, by this quiet pool, where, for a thousand years, tired souls have prayed, there is the peace that passes all understanding…With each step up a wider horizon. So it should be with life; our outlook ever widening towards the infinite rather than narrowing to the vanishing point of our own identities.

- Robert Gibbings

…when you walk in mindfulness, you are in touch with all the wonders of life within you and around you

- Thich Nhat Hanh

In the southwest corner of County Cork, Ireland, sits a forest park called Gougane Barra. The site of Celtic midsummer celebrations, a Catholic hermitage and pilgrimage site, and, more recently, national park and forest preserve, Gougane Barra, with its steep hillsides, lush forests, and jewel-like alpine lake, has captured the imagination of mystics and seekers for millenia. It’s off the beaten path – you can’t easily get there by bus or train, and you won’t find it in most guidebooks, but here, where boundaries begin to blur—boundaries of time and space, nature and humanity, the sacred and the profane—you may find the mists parting to reveal to you something about yourself and your place in this world.

While the others in my group tackle the steep paths up to the mountain peaks and the spectacular vistas they promise, I choose to stay in the valley, along the headwaters of the river Lee, here barely a stream. As Lao Tzu says in the Tao Te Ching, there is value in keeping to the low places, in following the example of a mountain stream:

The supreme good is like water,
which nourishes all things without trying to.
It is content with the low places that people disdain.
Thus it is like the Tao. (Stephen Mitchell translation)

I haven’t the energy or ambition on this particular day to climb a mountain or conquer the world, so I explore the valley, keeping the river on my left. I am accompanied by the gentle murmur of the stream, growing louder, more insistent, as it moves gradually up the valley, creating little waterfalls as it negotiates the incline, and I delight in its gurgles and cascades. It feels good just to breathe, to wander aimlessly but attentively, to feel the soft earth yielding slightly with each footstep.

As I walk around Gougane Barra in the rain, I am constantly brought back to the freshness and wonder of each moment ~ the smooth sheen of the lake’s surface, the fine mist and smoky dampness of the air, the lush greens of the forest and alpine meadows. A playful fog moves across the hillsides, now shielding them from view, now unveiling them. I hear from across the valley the steady splash of a waterfall, dropping sharply down its narrow channel. Everything is shifting constantly in a dynamic dance ~ the weather, the mist, the view. With each moment, with each step, a new perspective.

At times, off to the right, are dark alcoves created by thickly growing low pine trees and brush ~ dark, damp, uncertain places like a cave or a womb. Veering from the main path, seeing a marvelously green glade of moss-covered rocks, a fairy dwelling, sheltered by trees, I climb, my feet sinking and squishing in its mossy floor. This would be the perfect place to sit and meditate, but I have not yet quite let go of myself enough to plunk down on the soggy ground. I continue on into the forest, my feet sinking deeper into boggy, water-saturated mud, but after a few more paces, I stop, hesitant, unsure.

I don’t want to get lost here, already separated from the rest of my group, but it’s something more than that, something primeval and slightly sinister ~ the power of nature, the Tao, the goddess, somehow amplified and distilled in the place. I feel my insignificance here. Is it that we’ve just been talking of fairies and their devious ways? I fear I could be swallowed up by this vastness, sucked down into the watery earth, never to return. It’s a subtle but potent feeling, a nagging hesitation, and after a certain point I return to the main road, symbol of civilization and the way back.

Returning to the lake and to St. Finbarr’s island chapel, I admire the exquisite hues of the stained glass windows and ponder the Celtic designs on the walls behind the altar ~ symbols of Celtic Christianity, of the fusion of Catholicism and paganism, manifested in iconography. Although it’s peaceful and quiet inside the chapel, I’m finding it difficult to meditate there. There’s a deadness, a separation from nature; this interior space is thoroughly Christianized, tamed.

But stepping out through the massive wooden doors of the chapel, suddenly I am back, the connection re-established. I follow a stone walkway around to the back of the church. A huge, spidery, banyan-like tree glistens there, perched sensuously within a little glade. It’s stunning, and a bit unsettling, like some strange, octopus-like mythological creature. Could this be the true power-center of Gougane Barra, a sacred grove? Sanctuary of the goddess?

It’s said that the Christians placed their churches at the exact locations of previously-existing sacred sites, and it makes me wonder about St. Finbarr’s choice of location for his hermitage. The tree stops my mind completely, like a moment of satori in zen. It zaps me back, viscerally, into the present moment.

Walk mindfully through the natural world…Feel the wonders she is constantly offering.

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