Welcome to the Church of the Oak

I arrived yesterday in Kildare, a town whose name in Irish is Cill Dara, which means “church of the oak.” The name was given because the town began when a woman named Brigid (more about her later) established a church on the site under a great oak tree sometime around 480 AD. Over time, the church gave birth to monasteries for both men and women, eventually becoming one of the most important religious centers in Ireland. Unfortunately, because of its importance and associated wealth, Kildare became a repeated target of invaders, and its significance diminished. However, in the 1200’s a cathedral and a Celtic round tower were built at the location of Brigid’s original church, and these buildings—along with other religious sites—remain today.

Most of the day yesterday was spent simply getting here and settling in. My trip from Dublin to Kildare proved to be a bit of an adventure. After leaving my hotel in Dublin, I had to board a local tram service to get to the main train station. However, there was a “disturbance“ along the way, and all of us passengers were told to get off, forcing me to walk the rest of the way to the station with two bags in tow. Thankfully, once I boarded the train, I was able to sit back and watch the countryside transform from urban to rural. And when I arrived in Kildare, it didn’t take long for me to find the B&B in which I’m staying, to grab some lunch, and to set off for some exploration.

The highlight of the day was a visit to the cathedral and round tower that I mentioned earlier. I was able to climb to the top of the tower, which took a bit of doing, because the trip upward is made using a series of rather steep ladders. However, the view of the surrounding countryside is worth it; and as far as I’m concerned, the interior of the cathedral is beautiful, too.

Today began with a trip to the nearby town of Naas to pick up the bicycle I’ll be using for the rest of my trip. To be honest, the fact that I had to go to Naas was a bit of a surprise. When I ordered the bike, I thought that the bike shop was in Kildare. However because of the way in which addresses are written in Ireland, the shop was actually in the COUNTY of Kildare— a little more than 13 miles away from the city of the same name. Fortunately, I was able to catch a bus to Naas, and the guys at the bike shop were fantastic! Then, it was just a quick ride back to Kildare, and I was ready for something else.

My sweet ride for the rest of my pilgrimage.

After getting cleaned up and finding some lunch, I set out to explore some of the other sites in the city. For example, in addition to “The White Abbey” pictured above, there’s also a “Grey Abbey” and a “Black Abbey,” all of which are named for the color of the robes that were worn by the monks who lived there. However, for reasons that I could not find described anywhere, both the Gray Abbey and the Black Abbey are in ruins.

Remains of the Black Abbey, which housed knights who were dedicated to protecting pilgrims who were traveling to Jerusalem.

For me, there’s always something uniquely powerful about seeing the silent remains of a once vibrant religious center like this. On the one hand, I find myself wondering what went wrong. Was the community attacked by enemies from without, or eroded by dissension from within? Did the members of the church become complacent, or did they lose sight of their mission? Are there lessons that we need to learn from a place like this, lest the buildings in which we’ve invested so much meet a similar fate? On the other hand, I’m reminded that even though particular religious communities might come and go, the “Word of our God stands forever,” and His mission endures. Like it or not, the buildings and institutions we’ve constructed may not last. But we can still invest our lives in something that will: the kingdom of God, and the people whom we are called to invite into it.

Finally, today also included an opportunity to learn a little about Saint Brigid, the founder of Kildare. It turns out that there are many wondrous stories about her, some of which are probably Christianized versions of tales that were told about a different Brigid—a pagan goddess after whom Brigid was named. What does seem true is that Kildare’s Brigid was the daughter of a druidic chieftain. She was led to faith in Christ, perhaps through the ministry of Saint Patrick, and she decided to devote her life to prayer and ministry. However, when a visiting bishop was leading the ceremony to make her a nun, he was so awestruck by the sense of holiness about her that he read the words for consecrating a bishop. When a colleague objected, he replied: “I have no power in this matter; this dignity has been given by God to Brigid.” She went on to be an extraordinary leader, who was known for her hospitality and her generosity to the poor; and along with Patrick and Columbia, she is now considered to be one of the patron saints of Ireland.

I have two more days in Kildare. And part of my goal is just to “be” here. Oh sure, there are a few more things to see. But the real gift is simply to have some time in which there are no other pressing demands, and I get the chance to rest, reflect, and renew. I hope that you are getting those opportunities, too! And I will look forward to sharing more with you in the days ahead.

3 thoughts on “Welcome to the Church of the Oak

  1. Sounds like an adventure and learning fascinating information in a beautiful country. I pray it is all you hope and pray for.

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