Lough Derg on the river Shannon is one of Ireland’s great lakes. There are many islands in the lake but one in particular is well known. It is called Inis Cealtra which means church island, now called Holy Island. A large monastic settlement founded in the fifth century was established here. The most famous of the founders was St. Caimin 600 – 654 A.D.
On Saturday, June 23rd more than sixty people gathered on the mainland opposite the island to begin a day of reflection. They came from different parishes in Clare and Tipperary in the Diocese of Killaloe. The sun shone all over Ireland that day as it has been doing every day for the past week. At the heart of the village of Mountshannon where the people gathered, there is what is known as the Rectory field which has been developed by the local community in a unique way.
The key construction within the field is a maze called Aistear Inis Cealtra (The Journey of Holy Island) in which there are seven shrines or areas which represent the seven stages of development in time of human life in Ireland since the first people occupied the land around 7000 BC. It is quite an experience to enter this maze as a group and together imagine going back to the beginning in Mesolithic times when our ancestors were hunter gatherers. Moving to the next shrine we recalled Neolithic times when our ancestors built the megalithic tombs that are found all over Ireland in the period 4000 B. c to 2500 B.C.
The next two stages brought us to the Bronze and Iron Ages which highlighted the development of human understanding and creativity in bronze and stone artefacts. The fifth stage marked the arrival of Christianity in Ireland in the fifth century A.D which introduced a golden age of learning, enlightenment and creativity which was unique in the western world at the time.
The final two stages took us through the past century of recorded history right up to the present time. This is a history of triumph and tragedy, success and disappointment, but always progressing towards new insight and wisdom. It was a valuable experience to walk together through this maze of time and get a sense of who we are and where we have come from.
Outside the maze there is a large model of the Chartres labyrinth on the ground with pathways cut through the grass. We walked that barefoot and in silence, each one in their own story pondering the unique road they had travelled. It is a healing, balancing experience both for the individual and the group to do this together.
After a light lunch we went by boat to Holy Island. As we assembled on the shore we became aware of the holy ground we were standing on and the holy footprints we walked upon as we moved towards the ruins of the old monastery. There we had time to listen to the story of the monastery by an expert guide and then time to wander around for ourselves contemplating our own call to participate wholeheartedly in this great unfolding story of which we are all a part.
For our final ritual, we lit a fire to honour the ancient custom of lighting a fire for the mid summer solstice on the eve of the Feast of John the Baptist who is the one who foretold the coming of Christ the Light into our world. Each person added a piece of wood to the fire symbolizing their desire and commitment to keep the precious light and fire of faith which has been passed on to us burning brightly.
As we returned across the lake from Holy Island we felt in our hearts that we are part of a wonderful story and are holding a precious heritage for future generations. As we looked back from the mainland shore, we had a feeling that we are one of those privileged groups in which the old and the new can come together to create an inspiring and exciting future.