Crossing many paths in Ireland

By Willard Roth
March 4, 2010

The third in a series of 2010 Lent blogs from Willard Roth focusing on places of particular spiritual intensity and interest across Britain and Ireland.


Most days of my adult life I have worn a cross — a mark of my choice to walk the way of Jesus. I do so as a way of being in solidarity with many other walkers around the world, today and yesterday. Lent is an apt time to for me to explore why I continue collecting and wearing crosses.

Most of my crosses are metal or wood or ceramic, but one is unique. It is made of reeds from the rushes near St Brigid’s well just outside Kildare, west of Dublin. In the trilogy of foundational Celtic Christians, Brigid is often overshadowed by Patrick and Columba. But she is a major mover in the story. On her birthday, many Irish families still hang her cross. A year later, a new cross is made and hung in the house, and the old one is taken to the barn. The following year, a new cross is hung in the house, the old one again is hung in the barn, and the one in the barn is plowed into the fields. This ritual is a way of blessing home, animals, and crops of the field.

During her lifetime 1500 years ago, Brigid started many churches. The most famous was a convent for both men and women in Kildare. There she lit a fire and the job of keeping it burning was given to 20 sisters whose work it was to keep the fire alight as a symbol of faith and hospitality. That light continues to burn because Brigidine sisters continue to nourish the flame.

Come June 2010, a day in Kildare with Sister Mary will offer American Mennonite pilgrims, who I am co-leading, an opportunity to witness the flame and craft of Brigid’s cross of reeds. We shall remember a woman of wonderful simplicity who sought to love Jesus in all she said and did.

Not far from Kildare we will spend another day with Fr Eoin de Bhaldraithe and the Cistercian monks of Bolton Abbey. Friend Eoin, a leading authority on Irish high crosses, will go with us to the world famous Moone cross as well as the crosses at Castledermot — a striking contrast from the fragile reed cross of St. Brigid.

I remember when I walked solo through the fields in 1989 to see for my first time these ancient crosses inscribed with biblical scenes and symbols and stories. I had come a day earlier from Birmingham, England (where I was on sabbatical) as a lone pilgrim for an Advent personal retreat. Weary from an all-night trip by coach, ferry, bus and on foot, I rang the Bolton buzzer just before noon. When I introduced myself the guest master seemed perplexed; my booking made by an Irish friend was unrecorded in the register.

“When Brother Thomas’s brow turned from perplexity to warm welcome,” my journal records, “my travel-weary body relaxed with gratitude and my three-mile walk was rewarded. Quickly I sensed the monastic tradition of warm hospitality embodied so charismatically by the guest master. Breaking of bread, whether in the liturgy of the hours or the family table, is an act of sacred love.” Our bread breaking in June will be picnic-style in the monastery garden after noon prayers; anticipate it.

Along with Kildare and Bolton Abbey, we also anticipate time in greater Dublin: worship at the historic cathedrals of Christchurch and St Patrick’s; a peek at The Book of Kells, artistic marvel of intricacy and creativity fashioned by monks on Iona in the 8th or 9th century working with reed pens and iron-gall ink; and Sunday lunch with traditional music at Ireland’s oldest pub, The Brazen Head, established in 1198.


The first article in this series is 'Iona remembered' (, and the second is 'Celtic Christianity revisited' (

(c) Willard E. Roth is a retired pastor in Mennonite Church USA, having held many posts for the Mennonite church nationally and world wide. He has also been involved with the Academy of Parish Clergy (ACP), and has a specialist interest in journalism and communications.

** Willard Roth is co-leading, with Marlene Kropf, a Celtic Pilgrimage on behalf of the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS) in Elkart, Indiana. It will take place from 11-28 June 2010. For details, visit The Pilgrimage, which will move across Scotland, Ireland, Wales and England, is now fully booked.

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