In the 6th century, a holy man (later declared a saint) named Kevin came to the valley of two lakes in what is now County Wicklow. He lived there simply, some say “in the hollow of a tree,” other times up the steep lakeside cliffs in a small stone hut. Much legend surrounds his life but we do know that by the time he died in 618, although he had wanted to be a hermit, other monks had gathered around him there at Glendalough. A monastery community was founded that lasted until 1398 and has been a place of pilgrimage all these years.
The day we visited was chilly and misty — very Irish! The Irish hikers we came across seemed to think it a “fine day,” a phrase that several greeted us with as we passed. The scenery is stunning, whether the sun is shining or not.
Scattered around the valley are the remains of seven churches, as well as other outbuildings and a magnificent round tower. Surrounding the ruins of the small cathedral is a cemetery, with gravestones as ancient as the 10th century and as recent as the 21st! What a testament to the resilience of Christian faith which has survived the Vikings, fellow Christian foes in the English army, and the forces of secular modernity!
The natural setting is spectacular. Two lakes, separated by a small piece of land, are surrounded by steep hills. Brooks and waterfalls tumble down into the lakes. The day we were there, the upper lake seemed to disappear into drifting mist of distant hills.
This is another “thin place” for me (see post of 9/10 on Holy Island).My imagination is captured by the introverted faith of St. Kevin who, wishing to be a hermit, couldn’t help but draw others to him through his authentic faith. Here he and others began living in simplicity and even harshness. But over the centuries Glendalough, like the other Irish monasteries of Clonmacnoise and Iona, grew and developed, becoming centers of scholarship and teaching. The monks were artists who created some of the most beautifully decorated scrolls and metal work of all time. The Irish monasteries also sent out intrepid and vibrant missionaries who reached into eastern and northern Europe.
It’s easy to romanticize what life would have been like in such a place (although a dose of wet, cold Irish weather reminds me of the deprivations these monks went through!). But as I visit these sites, their center is still clear, even in the stillness of a damp and chilly day — the worship of the Triune God and the proclamation of the Good News that God became human in Jesus. Their faithfulness, creativity and innovation in creating manuscripts of great books and passing on learning to others, remains a great legacy. I’m pondering the same message that Taizé offers me — the power of the simple faith of one person with a vision, the attractiveness of that vibrant, winsome faith to others, and the creation of community as others come alongside.
Where are people with such vision today? Do you see people with faith that is so attractive that you want to come alongside, stay and learn?