WATERLOO | After six days on Ireland's Wicklow Way the hikers were exhausted and blistered, and they had 33 miles to go.
Still, they sang.
They drew inspiration from the natural beauty around them.
“Hear the wind in the trees,” their director whispered. “Match their rhythm.”
Director John Wiles would repeat those words when the hikers -- all with professional musical training -- found themselves struggling to perform after ending their pilgrimage in the wilderness and rejoining society.
“Here we were, singing in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, and we have people there who may have come in and bought a ticket to get in, but then there were people out there who walked some of that way with us, who understood who we were as performers in that moment differently than everybody else. But again, only the singers had the same blisters,” Wiles says now.
That journey -- physically, musically and spiritually -- was exactly what Wiles, a University of Northern Iowa assistant professor of music, had in mind when he dreamed up Vox Peregrini a year ago.
Vox Peregrini roughly translates as “the voice of pilgrims.” Wiles brought together about a dozen musicians to sing in the ensemble who were able to walk 100-plus miles and “willing to expose the soil of their soul” to strangers.
As with any pilgrimage, there was an element of sacrifice.
“I think that anything that is soul-enriching takes effort, and so whether that is music, or a piece of art, or a great piece of literature, or a beautiful equation or a relationship with a person, the things that really deepen us and that transform us require work,” Wiles said. “If the pilgrimage isn’t physically painful, you probably haven’t gone into it, you’ve not pushed yourself.”
The pilgrim’s journey
When Wiles conceived his multi-layered metaphor of a plan, his wife, Amy, had no doubt he’d make Vox Peregrini happen.
“I didn’t think much more about it, honestly,” Amy Wiles said. “But John is a dreamer and has a history of making his dreams a reality.”
His dream became reality through a UNI summer fellowship program, but it would not have come to fruition without people willing to join a hiking choral ensemble.
Wiles sought participants eager to discover something new within themselves in a foreign land. Few went in with any expectations, but they all had their reasons for going.
The first call he made was to an old family friend from his native Arizona, the Rev. Gil Stafford.
Stafford is an expert in both pilgrimage and walking the Wicklow Way. He has made three trips to Ireland as a pilgrim, some with groups as large as Wiles’ 13-member crew. He is writing a book about developing a language around all kinds of pilgrimages people make in their lives.
He offered guidance about the arduous 100-mile trek from Clonegal, Ireland, north to Dublin. He also offered insights into walking with purpose.
“People walk pilgrimages for every reason that there are people,” Stafford said. “I’m an Episcopal priest, so I spend lots of times with people that are suffering in all kinds of ways and trying to find a language to help them tell other people about their experience.”
People with cancer or suffering a family tragedy may go through profound changes. But many have trouble explaining how the experience has made them a different person. A physical pilgrimage is an intentional journey to seek such changes, or at least be open to them.
Stafford describes such changes as bringing “ecstasy and nausea” at the same time.
To Wiles and other musicians, learning and performing new music is its own kind of pilgrimage.
“Who we are as performers is affected by the music in such real ways that it’s part of what we were looking for in the pilgrimage,” Wiles said. “How does music transform us? How does the walk transform us? And what does that mean for us as people, as musicians, as a community of blistered, battered, tired walkers?”
Wiles said that quest touched a nerve with those who joined the journey. Stafford and his wife, Cathy, who acted as a support person, were the only pilgrims without professional music training.
“As musicians, it just seems intuitive to … make music in your search,” Wiles said.
Wiles and Vox Peregrini were not the first to hike the Wicklow Way, nor were they the first to go abroad for their music. Plenty of choirs travel to visit churches and concert halls to sing. Others find their pilgrimage taking a musical tour of Renaissance songs.
But few groups combine the experiences.
The union of a musical pilgrimage with a physical one led to a deeper and more enriching experience.
“There was an essence of stranger, and that is essential toward the pilgrim experience, that you’re actually a stranger in a foreign land," Wiles said. The same is true of Renaissance music. "We are strangers as a culture to those sounds.”
Wiles chose 15 pieces of music for his fellow pilgrims to learn before they embarked on their trek.
The musical challenge of the trip, however, was more about transforming a dozen strangers into a cohesive group in eight days. Only Wiles knew all the Vox Peregrini members when the trip began.
The performers practiced a few hours before their walk began and sang twice a day as they hiked. They then performed twice before audiences in Dublin. Wiles said students in UNI Choir rehearse four hours a week for eight weeks before a performance.
Arlie Langager, a member of Vox Peregrini who knew Wiles from college, said the opportunity to engage with others and dig into music was what appealed to her.
“Most everyone on the trip has earned money to present a concert of choral music at some point in their lives, so they’ve been professionals, and we’re paid for an end product. But why we love choral music is usually the journey of it,” said Langager, a conductor and educator in southern California.
Samantha Kantak, another member of Vox Peregrini and former student of Wiles’ at UNI, said the music was familiar and easy enough to learn. Her difficulty was the emotions connected to it.
“When John chose the music for the trip, it was very connected to the land, our journey and us,” Kantak said. “Living with the music in such a way that I never had before -- singing on deserted mountaintops when we were exhausted, raw and had nothing left to give -- made us all connect to it in a visceral way.”
Loss for words
The reasons Wiles friends, colleagues and students joined the pilgrimage were many.
Langager was looking for a reset, to reconnect with making music. Kantak was in a transition period, moving from completing her master’s work at UNI to getting a doctorate at University of North Texas.
Amy Wiles, pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Waterloo, said she tried to go into the trip with few expectations but with the hope she would encounter the divine in some way. That hope was “very much realized” regularly throughout the trip.
But the experience proved the need for a language of pilgrimage. Few are able to explain what they went through.
The physical part is easy to convey -- it was more grueling than people expected. Still, their feet blistered and joints aching, nearly all made it through.
The spiritual journey is harder to explain.
Kantak's journey had to be more than musical. She lost her voice due to an illness. Langager gained a greater understanding of what a pilgrimage is: spending time with oneself in a meaningful way, not just “sitting on the couch watching Netflix.”
Both are still processing the the trip are unable to fully explain the experience.
Perhaps because Amy Wiles and Stafford contemplate the divine more frequently, or because they regularly write sermons, they have an easier time describing their feelings.
“Things that I learned on the pilgrimage are still affecting my life in very real ways,” Amy Wiles said. “One that I think about a lot is the concept of ‘What are are carrying with us?’”
She overpacked for the trip. Much of what she carried she didn’t need. That led her to think about the things we carry emotionally, and how that baggage is often unnecessary too.
Stafford wrote a final piece of wisdom for the travelers to take with them: “As John said that first night, ‘Just because they show up to the concert doesn’t mean they get to understand everything.’ Such is the hidden wisdom of pilgrimage. The wisdom is found in the reflection. Without it, you simply walked 100 miles.”
As members reflect on their pilgrimage, they are eagerly awaiting word of the next trip. Wiles is debating between walking the 500 miles of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage in Spain, or revisiting the Wicklow Way. He and others feel they have unfinished business in Ireland.