Scotland Pilgrimage 2014, Report

Stephen Kelly & Stephen Smyth

Glasgow-2‘Oneness-Dream’ is an international male voice a cappella singing group whose members follow the spiritual teachings of Sri Chinmoy (1931-2007), the renowned Indian spiritual master, composer, artist and athlete. The group came to Scotland from 6th -14th Sept 2014 as part of an ongoing ‘world pilgrimage’ for peace.

Pilgrimage is a familiar practice in many religious traditions. It involves a journey which is both physical (to a place) and spiritual (to deeper faith, understanding and insight). Meeting with other people on the road helps to deepen each other’s experience and reflection. Pilgrims seek to be spiritually transformed, to return home refreshed and inspired. The Oneness-Dream Scotland Pilgrimage very much lived up to these expectations.

Stephen Kelly (Adarsha) has been a disciple of Sri Chinmoy and a member of Oneness-Dream for many years. He felt it was time for the group to come to Scotland, to visit some of our ‘sacred sites’ and to share their message of peace and harmony. He approached, Stephen Smyth, an old friend with many ecumenical and interfaith connections, to help in the planning of the trip. Stephen (Smyth) liked the idea and had the pleasure of travelling with the group on the pilgrimage.

The group consisted of 13 singers and a team of four technical support staff. They came from 10 different nations. Other disciples and friends joined the party at various points.

The Oneness-Dream repertoire is drawn from the thousands of devotional songs composed by Sri Chinmoy. Most of these are in his native Bengali, but many are in English. Some are based on Gospel verses. They sing in unison in a traditional Indian style. The style is meditative and deeply spiritual.

We had prepared an ambitious programme, involving 15 ‘events’ and travelling over 1,000 miles through some of Scotland’s most beautiful scenery. The weather was stunning, showing the countryside and venues at their magnificent best. Equally, the welcome we received at every venue showed Scotland’s people and religious traditions at their most open and engaging best.

Our first event, on Sunday 7th Sept, was at the Hindu Mandir in Glasgow. The Mandir celebrations were for ‘Ganesh Puja’, one of the most important days in the Hindu calendar. The group sang for 30 minutes and were warmly received and appreciated. Later that day the group sang in Gorbals Parish Church (Church of Scotland) who run several choirs, some of whose members came to support the event.

The following day was very ambitious. We left early to travel first to Whithorn where the group sang in the Visitors Centre and the crypt of the medieval ruins; then on to the Isle of Whithorn, a possible site for Ninian’s first monastery. There they sang in the ruins of the 14th century St Ninian’s chapel. Mid-afternoon found us in Samye Ling, the Buddhist monastery in Eskdalemuir: an increasingly popular and remarkable piece of Tibet in the Southern Uplands. That evening the group visited the extraordinary Rosslyn Chapel (Scottish Episcopal Church) outside Edinburgh. This was their only ‘concert’ of the pilgrimage, singing to an audience of 50 people and helping to raise funds for Rosslyn. By this time the group was beginning to appreciate something of the ancient Christian and the contemporary multi-faith nature of Scottish society – as well as the beauty of our countryside. The evening finished with very welcome dinner in the house of a family of disciples in Edinburgh.

On Tuesday 9, Oneness-Dream offered a ‘garland of song’ around Glasgow. They began in St Mungo’s Cathedral (Church of Scotland), followed by St Andrew’s Cathedral (Roman Catholic) and St Ninian’s (Scottish Episcopal Church) singing for 20-30 minutes in each. They finished in the Hidden Gardens where a yellow Sri Chinmoy rose has been flourishing for many years. Each venue offered important insights into history and tradition as well as how to overcome division and work together for the common good.

That afternoon we travelled to Kilmartin, near Oban. In the surrounding countryside there are over 600 sites of historical interest dating back to about 10,000 BC. The group sang in Kilmartin church (Church of Scotland), in the lapidary in the graveyard and beside the Nether Largie standing stones in the valley below. It was humbling to consider such a long history of human life and the search for meaning.

The following morning we were on the early boat from Oban to Mull on our way to Iona. The morning was beautiful, the sea placid and the sky immense. The day just kept getting better. On Iona, Oneness-Dream sang for 30 minutes in the abbey, where a group of about 40 people enjoyed the unexpected experience. Members of the Iona Community then met with the group to share stories of their history, spirituality and social action. Afterwards, the group sang for 10 minutes in St Oran’s chapel and had about 90 minutes to enjoy the island before heading back to the ferry. The journey back across Mull and onwards to Fort William was a time of quiet and appreciative reflection.

Thursday 11th was the only day with no commitments. There was time to simply enjoy being tourists. Some of the more athletic members of the group took the opportunity to climb Ben Nevis: setting off in the very early morning and getting back in time for lunch. We then journeyed up along Loch Ness (no, we didn’t see Nessie…) and stayed the night in Inverness.

Friday morning found us in Pluscarden Abbey where the community welcomed us warmly and generously and allowed the group to sing and record in the chapel. The subsequent conversations about singing, spirituality and community were very rich. We then travelled up to the Findhorn Foundation and sang in the community hall at the end of lunch. A group of the residents responded by singing some Taizé chants for Oneness-Dream.

Friday evening brought the final ‘event’ of the pilgrimage: a 45 minute meditative song cycle for a group of disciples and friends in the Sri Chinmoy Centre on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. It was a fitting and convivial conclusion to a deep, varied and transformational week.

The whole pilgrimage turned out to be a series of highlights with different individuals responding more deeply to different places. The landscape, the history, the venues and the people all played their part in making the experience so rich. The overall response from the singers was hugely positive. The deep spirituality of the group and the meditative offering of their devotional songs were much appreciated by their various ‘audiences’. We are sure that all who were part of this innovative pilgrimage experience came away touched, uplifted and enriched.

Stephen Kelly (Adarsha) is a disciple of Sri Chinmoy and works in a senior position in the arts in Glasgow.

Stephen Smyth is a Marist Brother and recently retired as General Secretary of ACTS (Action of Churches Together in Scotland).

They have been friends for almost 50 years, following different spiritual paths. They both grew up in Drumchapel, Glasgow, and met at a city centre youth drama group.

First published: ‘Open House’, Oct 2014, Issue No 242’.