I traveled to Iona, Scotland, and Lindisfarne, England, in hope of finding “thin places,” May 6-19, 2016.
The sun’s low rays strike the windows of Iona Abbey just before the evening worship begins. Two fellow pilgrims about to enter.
Three months later, I am finally ready to begin speaking about the impact of this trip. The first thing I did was organize my photos into an album in order to make a slide show.
I didn’t want to write a mere trip report. I’m finished with that kind of writing!
The words had to call me.
I couldn’t call them.
I especially have waited tor the answer to the question of how the Celtic Pilgrimage in May would relate to the fellowship I will begin in September when my study/writing topic will be Jubilación: Vocation in the Third Act of Life.
I knew it would, I just didn’t know how.
I still don’t, but I have a beginning.
The trip, the topic, the fellowship all started as little inner tugs that I literally feel — sparks –electrical charges.
I call this infusion of energy “this little light of mine,” and I consider it a gift from God.
I wait. I ask for help. Get a little jolt of electricity. Then wait some more. Then I try to remember to say thanks.
Do any of you relate to this pattern?
Today the words that came to me were from W. B. Yeats. I have always loved this poem. If you want to listen to a beautiful voice reading them, click on this link as you read below.
When You Are Old
When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;
How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;
And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.
When I taught this poem to English majors, we broke the New Critics rule about not assuming the speaker was the poet himself nor the poem about his life. That’s because the biography was so juicy and fit the poem exquisitely!
This was one of Yeats’ first poems, written when he was only 28 and the woman he loved, Maud Gonne, was 27. Maud Gonne rejected his ardor, refusing many proposals of marriage, but was happy to be his muse and his political ally.
The standard interpretation of the poem says that the “you” of the poem is Maud and the speaker and “Love” of the poem is Yeats. The poet is saying that when you are old you will finally realize that I alone loved your soul. And you will murmur sadly. The poem is about lost opportunity, especially Maud’s.
These lines that came back to me yesterday morning as I was meditatively observing the
When I returned to the poem, I had a new way of viewing it.
What if the speaker of the poem is the Creator and the woman in the poem is the reader? In other words, the woman in the poem is you (regardless of your gender) and the speaker is God.
Let’s go back to the poem and see what changes.
You can read more or less literally and assume the Bible, or other sacred book, is pulled down from the shelf. And the ending can be about our inability to understand a God on the mountains, hiding himself in the stars.
The reading can “work” because the words cohere into an image of loss, just not the same kind of loss of the romantic biographical interpretation.
My reading today, however, focuses on two places in the text and reads them spiritually rather than literally, finding two major themes:
1. What joy we can have in aging if we believe that God is our lover, hiding and seeking, playing, dancing, challenging, changing us throughout a lifetime.
2. Human accomplishments and even our friends and family, so precious to us, can bring us close to joy, but they fade and die, just as our former beauty dissipates. This is the glory and terror of aging. Only Love itself lasts.
The most powerful words of the poem: “one man loved the pilgrim soul in you, and loved the sorrows of your changing face” move us so much because they take us beyond the realm of human love and they redeem aging (the sorrows of your changing face) from something that makes us less worthy to something more worthy and more beautiful spiritually.
Reading the first two stanzas of the poem in this way leads to a more hopeful interpretation of the last one. All is not lost in the end. Why? The aged visage is just one more “sorrow of your changing face,” and we know that Love is still there and has not given up his claim on us as he paces on the mountains and hides himself in the heavens.
The joy under the pain is that the woman (reader) can find him by taking down a book and sitting by the fire to reflect. And he is never going to disappear. He knew her from the foundation of the earth and will know her again as she finally sees his hidden face “amid a crowd of stars.”
The poem will last forever because it is a thing of beauty.
Our lives will not last, but they can matter, they can be full of passion, right up to, and beyond, the end.
And that is why I travel.
There’s a “pilgrim soul” in me, planted by God, that loves this world and wants to embrace it before I die. There’s a restlessness in my heart that seeks to be at rest in God both in the familiar and the strange.
A final story from Iona.
A few minutes after the picture above was taken, our Celtic Pilgrimage group attended the evening service inside the Abbey. One of the hymns was one completely new to me.
Guess what happened when we sang it? Yes, I felt a shock of electric recognition: “Pay attention, pilgrim. This song, these words, are for you, now.”
I invite you to listen to this lovely children’s choir (in England this song is often sung by children).
The interesting thing to me about this song, is how relevant it is to all of life from youth to age.
One more step along the world I go,
one more step along the world I go;
from the old things to the new
keep me traveling along with you: Refrain:
And it’s from the old I travel to the new;
keep me traveling along with you.
Round the corner of the world I turn,
more and more about the world I learn;
all the new things that I see
you’ll be looking at along with me: Refrain
As I travel through the bad and good,
keep me traveling the way I should;
where I see no way to go
you’ll be telling me the way, I know: Refrain
Give me courage when the world is rough,
keep me loving though the world is tough;
leap and sing in all I do,
keep me traveling along with you: Refrain
You are older than the world can be,
you are younger than the life in me;
ever old and ever new,
keep me traveling along with you: Refrain
The “you” in this hymn, addressed so intimately and trustingly, is the Spirit, Creator, Love, God. Choose the name that speaks to your condition and experience.
“From the old things to the new” and “you are older than the world can be” and “you are younger than the life in me” — these are the phrases that sent the familiar hot chills through me. Age and travel are both metaphors for life itself. Some day both time and space will become “no more.” Until then, we press forward toward the mark.
Update: My next travel takes me to Myrtle Beach and to my beloved children and grandchildren. Soon thereafter, I travel to a visit with my Pilgrim Sisters in Illinois and then on to my new home for the semester in Collegeville, Minnesota. I plan to write regularly about the theme of Jubilación as I travel from the old into the new. I promise future posts will be much shorter!
Now about YOU. I’m eager to hear about your pilgrim soul. And by the way, I don’t think you have to make physical journeys to be a pilgrim. How do you hear the voice within as you take “one more step”?
Beautiful post Shirely. It touched me deeply! That inner voice speaks to me too in my creative pursuits. I felt the deep call to make my pilgrimage at 60 (now almost 63!) through painting. I travel a lot with work so to be still in one place and paint is a form of deep knowing, meditation and learning. Alone in my studio I now have the time and silence to commune with my creator and co-create! If I am loyal I feel a deep satisfaction and yes I feel those little electrical jolts, especially when synchronicity happens. My best to you on your travels Shirley. I may not be far behind!
Sue, thanks for starting the conversation. I’m eager to go see what you are up to — and to deepen my own relationship with seeing through your wonderful gift of Berger’s Ways of Seeing. Have you seen this Youtube? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0pDE4VX_9Kk
I love how you reverse the idea of pilgrimage. You TRAVEL physically for work. To travel spiritually, you stay at home and still yourself. Wonderful!
What a lovely post, Shirley. When I pray, I try to tap that inner place, which I see as a communion of souls, our collective spirit. But for me, the gathering (usually in church) of people trying to be good inspires and lifts me in a way as necessary as private communion. I have always been rather solitary, but increasingly believe we are not meant to be alone (duh!), that others coming together in hope and praise are what’s vital.
Me too, Richard, me too. And you remind me that a very important part of this journey was collective, communal. I went with 23 other pilgrims and my good friend Gloria. We had worship together every day and often worship in an abbey or church also. The bonds between us were very strong. My friend Gloria has a talent for drawing people out, both in the group and in our places of pilgrimage. I needed more alone time, but I benefited SO much from her curiosity and love for people. We laughed so much and ate so well.
Beautiful post, beautiful photos! Thanks for sharing of your trip. David and I hope to make it to Ireland someday… that is where the Furlongs came from.
Thanks for sharing of your trip. I also had the feeling, when I saw the group of people, of wanting to find a place all alone by the sea, to “tune in” to nature and the still place within.
I’ve never been to Ireland, Saloma, but I feel a deep attraction to that place even though my ancestors didn’t come from there. They were, however, Celts in central Europe before they became Christian, and they therefore have some DNA in common with the Celts who left the continent and settled the British Isles.
The place in Maine would be close to the sea, right? I’m sure you will pay attention to your longings as you consider the next stage in your own journey. Many blessings.
Shirley, this post resonates so strongly with me!
“The words had to call me. I couldn’t call them.”
That is how inspiration happens for me too. “Those little inner tugs” are for me definitely calls from God’s Spirit, that Holy Spirit that inspires, gives new energy, teaches us a new language!
Also loved how you “spiritualized” the poem by Yeats. At university they tried their best to stop me from doing that, but I cannot help it! God’s language of love sustains me when all else fails, and gives me the strength and energy to pilgrim my way until that final day “when I shall see him face to face and sing the story saved by grace.”
This post was truly “inspired”. Thank you for it!
Oh yes, Elfrieda, I chuckled at the thought of my own grad professors reading this. Spiritualizing poetry was never the goal, at least not for the last two centuries. I think Yeats himself might have liked what I did. He was deep into mysticism, theosophy, even the occult. And he might have liked that the “he” moved from himself to God. 🙂
Glad you too know what it’s like to get a hot chill or electric thrill. And I join you in naming it the Holy Spirit!
Following the link you provided, I completely, totally, and thoroughly enjoyed looking at — drinking in — your slide show.
After listening to the Yeats poem, I enjoyed reading it through the spiritual lens of the two themes you shared. I strongly resonate with your observation:
“Our lives will not last, but they can matter, they can be full of passion, right up to, and beyond, the end.”
The last solitary pilgrimage I had was when I went on a hermitage to the Lama Foundation in New Mexico (http://www.lamafoundation.org/visit/295-hermit). This is where I received the still (to this day) most important thing I’ve learned thus far in my life: “Whatever you are not changing, you are choosing.” And while it was not spark-like or electrical in nature, there was no doubt, whatsoever, that I was touched by the hand of God.
The last group pilgrimage I had was when I traveled to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. I wrote about seeing the face of God in this post: https://tuesdayswithlaurie.com/2012/12/04/i-saw-the-face-of-god/
I am excited about your up-and-coming travels because I know that some how, some way, I (and your other readers) will benefit from them.
Wow, Laurie. Your journey through the slides took me back there again too. Thanks for your comments. It was fun to relive the journey pictorially as well as from inside the body and mind.
One of my FB friends and Goshen College alumna, Rachel Halder, worked at the Lama Foundation for a number of years. Did you happen to meet her. I know she deeply loves the place also. How exciting that you found your mantra, which I have always loved, there.
I need to check out the face of God post. I think perhaps it was written before we met? . .
Don’t you love the fact that blogs allow us to archive and then search our memories. A gift!
Shirley – I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting Rachel. If she worked at the Lama Foundation, then I know she’s wonderful!
And yes, I love that WordPress acts as a “brain-extender” for me and holds onto things I might otherwise lose 🙂
Oh dear, typo… some how, some WAY 🙂
Thank you for inviting me and other readers to a graduate seminar in Creative Contemplation. Love this – and appreciate the methodical way you organized your “Emotion Recollected in Tranquility” – visual to the verbal.
Today I am occupying that thin place between the old and the new, forming new patterns and helping my body accept new rhythms in our new home. Only when I gaze at the lake and the floating ducks do I feel myself advancing ever so slowly from disequilibrium toward what I visualize as eventual balance. Like your pilgrim journey, this process can’t be rushed. Not one little bit. One . . . small . . . step . . . at a time.
Just now some lines from Krista Tippett’s “Becoming Wise” come to mind: “I think any one who travels knows that you’re not really doing it in order to move around – you’re traveling in order to be moved.” Fortunately, the passion behind your movements translates into thoughtful meditation informing, even transforming, your readers’ perspectives. True in my case.
Your enthusiasm (God-inspired) is palpable in every word, photo, and sound in this post. I think I heard the children’s chorus when you posted it on Facebook in May, but I listened to it again, so soothing.
Enjoy the beach!
Wow, Marian, for someone disoriented, you certainly find a way to connect at a very deep level. I’m moved by your words, so I guess I’ve traveled just sitting here on the divan. 🙂 Thank you for that Krista Tippett quote. I’m sure I underlined it, but you pulled it back for me.
I’m thinking of you trying to find your bearings in new space. Do spend as much time as possible with the water and the ducks. They will pull you through.
We had our own bird visitation last Sunday when our small group from church was sitting at the dining room table with us. A red-tailed hawk landed on the deck railing and stared at all of us through the patio door. I’ve been wondering what that was about, since it never happened before. I’ve been reading about the symbolism of the hawk. That was very interesting, so I looked up duck for you. I think you’ll like it! http://www.universeofsymbolism.com/duck-symbolism.html
Ah, thank you, Shirley. I am a lucky duck. But I think I’ll stick with the floating and gliding, just going with the flow and skip the bread crumbs. Cliff thinks, and I agree, if we start feeding them they’ll deposit unfriendly droppings on the patio. Very informative link.
Lucy Kalanithi, Twitter handle @rocketgirlmd, offered Psalm 139 as the guiding light of this post. I agree and thought I’d just copy the whole chapter here for reflection.
Psalm 139New International Version (NIV)
For the director of music. Of David. A psalm.
You have searched me, Lord,
and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue
you, Lord, know it completely.
You hem me in behind and before,
and you lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
too lofty for me to attain.
Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,”
even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place,
when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed body;
all the days ordained for me were written in your book
before one of them came to be.
How precious to me are your thoughts,[a] God!
How vast is the sum of them!
Were I to count them,
they would outnumber the grains of sand—
when I awake, I am still with you.
If only you, God, would slay the wicked!
Away from me, you who are bloodthirsty!
They speak of you with evil intent;
your adversaries misuse your name.
Do I not hate those who hate you, Lord,
and abhor those who are in rebellion against you?
I have nothing but hatred for them;
I count them my enemies.
Search me, God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.
This post is profound, Shirley. Particularly moving for me was the delightful song and that lovely children’s choir. So, on my journey music is what moves me deeply. Your word crafting is very inspiring and I thank you for the gift you share in preparing these posts. I resonate with Marian Beaman’s comments, also, and find myself ‘searching’ more than ever in my life, trying to find equilibrium after a major move as well as some health issues. Thank you, thank you for speaking to me.
Dear Phyllis, it’s always wonderful to see your quilt on any blog post. So glad that song and choir spoke to you also. “From the old things to the new” can refer to friendship we have shared for so many years. It was so wonderful to celebrate old and new together in Harrisonburg recently.
I’m glad you read the comments as well as the post. When I come back to old posts, I often find that the comments speak more to me than my own words. I’m grateful for the community that gathers here and takes my own inspiration to a whole new level.
I’m thinking of you looking out from the windows of your lovely new home at the dam pond, hoping some ducks are floating by, that Bud’s veggies are bountiful but not a burden, 🙂 and that your health concerns are all addressable by a caring physician.
Thanks, Shirley, To be sure I’m on a healthy track but much more aware of certain limitations. It’s wonderful to be inspired by your blogs/words. As Stuart says, “Onward!”
Shirley, you definitely have the beautiful, sharing pilgrim soul. This is a remarkable post that I will view again and again. Thank you so much for sharing it.
Thank you, Marylin. Your own pilgrimage at this stage of life is probably greatly affected by your mother’s health. The journey you are taking with her is a very deep one. Blessings as you take “one more step.”
Wow, wow, wow, Shirley. Your words, photos, the poem, and thoughts are very touching and I resonate with what you have to say. I especially love the hymn and the joy with which it was sung.
I like to think that we are on a pilgrimage every day. Even the most uneventful moments that holds no excitement, have lessons for us and those small, almost unfelt electrical sparks.
I am spending time looking at “the book” of my life through my journals and blog posts, remembering the inner places I occupied at certain times. That is my current pilgrimage.
Thanks for this lovely post.
Dear Joan, I had to go back to the choir and hit “play” again after reading your words. Every single time I hear those children sing, my eyes fill with tears.
I’m enjoying your current pilgrimage very much, since many of the posts you revisit were written before I knew you. And “the book” you have written and are about to share with the world is very much about the journey of “the pilgrim soul in you.”
Shirley, thank you. I opened your post and reflection this morning after my AM meditation. I believe my meditation opened my heart to take in all that you have written in a deep way. I was very touched by your post, particularly the questions and the Yeats poem.
I have long been a spiritual wayfarer. I so resonate with the phrase “pilgrim soul.” And to reframe the voice of a human person, and old love, into the ever present Divine Mystery, speaking gently “But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you, And loved the sorrows of your changing face.” Tears welled up in my eyes. Yes, being seen as my deepest self, my soul-spirit, my pilgrim soul will rejoice. I plan to revisit this post in the coming days to explore it further.
You will be near my location as you travel through Illinois to Minnesota. I will be asking for blessings on your travels and explorations this fall.
After meditation would be the perfect time to read this poetry and this post, Audrey. Thank you for your kind words.
If you haven’t clicked on the link to hear the poem read aloud, please do. It adds a whole new layer of depth.
Thank you so much for wishing me traveling mercies. I’m at that stage where the reality of leaving (for one semester) my husband, my house, my church, and many of my friends is beginning to make an impression. I have no doubt that I am on the right path, just aware that “ever new” sometimes means deeply missing “ever old.”
Such a beautiful and inspiring post, Shirley! I found your alternate explication of the Yeat’s poem very interesting, although I myself prefer the more common interpretation. It is a wonderful poem either way, and you are right that the reader does a lovely reading of it.
Although I don’t believe in God or Creator, I am nevertheless often struck by beauty of nature, and by moments, such as the one you had at the church. While you would say God, I’d say coincidence or if I’m feeling more fanciful, perhaps synchronicity of the universe. It doesn’t matter how we label such moments though. I think feeling them and recognizing the feeling is more important.
I think my “pilgrim soul” has been lately inspired to create in words, and perhaps art, too. I feel poetry in my soul these days, I suppose.
Wishing you all the very best in your physical and spiritual travels!
Oh thank you, Merril, for choosing what is for you and what is not in my language. And you are right, inspiration itself is the important thing.
I love the traditional interpretation of the poem also. It has the piercing quality of both unrequited love and youthful awareness of aging and death that gives it true poignancy. I think my best claim to the spiritualized interpretation (see Elfrieda’s comments above) is in the words “one man loved” the “pilgrim soul.” He is placing his love above Eros into the area of Agape.
You are indeed exploring your own pilgrim soul through poetry and other art forms. I’m so impressed by how seriously you take both form and meter and word choice. I’ve not written much poetry at all in my life and only published a few of them in small publications. I get these hot chill inspirations often, but they seldom lead my to write poetry. So hats off to you!
Do you want another Iona story? When I was there in May about 10 years ago I was told the weather could be very unpleasant. We did have some rain, but it never was very cold and most days we had some sun. One morning at the end of prayers as the congregation started to leave the church, the sun was shining brightly. The pianist spontaneously started to play, “O what a beautiful morning.” As we filed out the congregants joined in singing along. It was one of those serendipitous moments I’ll never forget as long as I have life and memory.
I can just imagine how joyful that pianist and the congregation were, Richard. If you flipped through my slideshow, you saw something that is very, very rare. The Iona weather app had sunny and 70 degrees for a whole week! We only had one light drizzle on the whole trip. Locals could hardly believe it. We were happy to let all that rain gear in our suitcases. I never opened my umbrella. Oh what beautiful mornings indeed. I’m glad we both were blessed.
We also sang as a group inside Oran’s Chapel and in the nave area of the abbey. Talk about spine tingling! You would have loved it. “Over My Head, I Hear Music in the Air” was the best!!!!
How interesting that, listening to the poem (yes, I clicked the link), I heard it from the frame of your second interpretation. God, the author, the reader, I. Love in the stars.
There is so much happening in my journey that I won’t be able to write it until next year, or the year after. I’m keeping little notes on 3×5 cards, in a box by my bed. But, since you will be right here where I live now, perhaps we can get together for coffee.
P.S. One more step in my journey–On September 17 I become a Benedictine Oblate Candidate at St. Joseph monastery (their college is the sister to St. John’s).
Tracy, what a good idea to take notes on cards. Just like we were taught in school. They are portable and adaptable.
I do hope we can have coffee. It would be wonderful to meet you in person and connect as pilgrim souls.
Shirley, Long, juicy pieces like this, including all the comments and conversations, are so wonderful. Thank you for waiting to share about Iona, and thank you for sharing the process of getting inspired.
I’m inspired to learn this song and, maybe, to sing it with others.
Dolores,learning the song would be delightful. I’m sure you saw the link with the hymnal page in it.
I should warn you, it’s a bit of an “ear worm.” 🙂 Andy Raines, one of our great guides, is quite sick of it. But hey to us it is new!
Thanks for your kind words about the post, and I so agree about the comments. Your own will inspire others, I’m sure.
Yes, I found the hymnal page you photographed, and I enjoyed all the other photos, especially the birds (chickens too) and the butterfly. Thank you!
As others have written, a beautiful post about our inner relationship with God, Spirit, the Divine Within and Without. Thank you for sharing your pilgrimage. I look forward to more. I like your interpretation of the poem and can hold both interpretations at the same time. In the end, even if surrounded by people who love us, we journey with the Divine as our guide and comfort.
In my inner worlds, my divine image feels closest to the daVinci’s drawing of Mary sitting on the ample lap of the Great Mother or St. Anne (http://www.wikiart.org/en/leonardo-da-vinci/the-virgin-and-child-with-saint-anne-and-saint-john-the-baptist). A copy of this drawing is at the top of the stairs, the entry to what Vic used to call “The Woman’s Quarters.” Thank you for reminding me that the Divine is with me and I am on Her Lap today.
Test message. I wrote two others here and they disappeared.
Okay, apparently the internet is going to play nice today. I love the idea of sitting on the lap of the Great Mother. In fact, in the new post I am finishing up right now, I end up with her in a slightly different form again.
Thank you for taking us into your private space and the world you and Vic traversed together for so many years. I am impressed by how material culture (the drawing, in your case) comforts us, expresses our longings, and accompanies us on our journey.
Shirley, your post is profoundly moving. As I seek a writing coach (a “new voice” moved me to this decision), I realize how many have struggled the journey of a writer before me and how many will come behind. Writing itself is somewhat a pilgrimage, whether we write nonfiction, poetry, or children’s books. We are creating story, a something new, out of our past, the something old. Continue to let your writing juices flow out of your recent experiences. Also, I loved hearing the children sing that meaningful hymn.
Yes, Sherrey. You are so right about writing (and all creative work) and pilgrimage. “We are creating story, a something new, out of our past, the something old.” Exactly. We keep experimenting with the forms that will allow us to say what only we can say. May your voice ring strong and clear on the page today.
Hi Shirley, I’m so pleased I found you! I loved your post, the singing, the comments, your responses to them. I also find that comments from others on my post teach me much. Yeats’ poem is not necessarily to Maud in my view – it speaks to all of us and reminds me of Oscar Wilde: ‘Where there is sorrow, there is holy ground’. I believe we’re all pilgrims as we traverse our worlds and all within and without it, finding meaning in all that is. I see Nature in all her wondrous glory and the hand behind it on a daily basis even if the weather is grim and dark.
Thank you again, I’ve signed up to receive your posts.
Welcome, Susan! You must have a living directory of quotes inside you, and I love all of them.
I also resonate with your personal philosophy/theology. I want to keep traveling along with you also.