You may have heard the phrase ‘they had their purgatory done on this Earth’! On the Holy Island, the Donegal Lough Derg people are proactively immersed into a bit of purgatory on earth. This is done through prayer, fasting, sleep deprivation and penance. Madness, you might say but what’s the point in being a little crazy if you don’t demonstrate it! After all St Paul does encourage us to be fools for Christ’s sake!
We’re in the middle of Patrician Pilgrimage season. Croagh Patrick or Reek Sunday was last week and Máméan in the Maamturk Mountains is on this Sunday. The traditional pilgrimage to St Patrick’s Purgatory continues until the feast of Our Lady of the Harvest on August 15th. Almost 50 enthusiastic pilgrims from the parish of Ennis and some other locations in Killaloe diocese ‘did Lough Derg’ on the bank holiday weekend, following in the footsteps of St Patrick. Despite the poor means of travel in the 400’s St Patrick certainly got around the island of Ireland and was effective in his mission of sharing the faith with the Celtic people of the day.
It has been said of the Patrician Pilgrimages that Croagh Patrick is the most physical, Máméan is the most spiritual and Lough Derg is the most penitential. On Lough Derg the ritual movements of the body along with the many vocal prayers said breach the barriers between heaven and earth, by means of persistence!
No more than in the teaching of Jesus that effectively use very simple & basic elements that are so important to us the key elements of the pilgrimage follow suit with the focus on food, sleep, comfort, rest and movement. It’s often only when you are deprived of something important that you really appreciate it in life.
On Lough Derg you take off your shoes and socks and walk around the island in the cold and wet on flat stones doing the rounds of penitential ‘beds’. One of the greatest luxuries upon departing the island is to be clad once again. One of the many joys of life we take for granted.
At the end of the first night on the island a vigil candle is lit to mark the fact that you are beginning a 24 hour period without sleep. What a challenge that is and by mid-afternoon the following day it can become routine to even bob-off while standing upright. And you thought only horses could do that with grace! The delightful experience of seeing the vigil candle quenched the second night is certainly akin to the experience of a sailor sighting lands end to a safe harbour on a stormy night.
One of the great helps in coping with these challenges while on pilgrimage is the assistance, the kindness, the support of fellow companions on the way. Being radically social beings we need the support of each other and the experience of being pilgrim people in the same boat together on turbulent water has a calming effect.
Central to many of our Christian Pilgrimages is the experience of reconciliation or the Sacrament of Confession. The learned divine on the sacred island who preached a find homily on the topic of God’s mercy focused on the Latin word misericordiae. It’s a combination of meaning; one of sorrow and also the effect that has on the heart. Sorrow that bends the heart. The image of Mary in the famous painting of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour is one of sorrow or concern for her children. In the Sacrament of reconciliation, we experience that profound sorrowful bending of heart of a God that loves us dearly no matter how far we have drifted from safe harbour.
The tradition on Lough Derg is that if you look back over your shoulder as Dóchas Linn Naomh Pádraig is being sung you will return again at some stage in the future. Despite the penitential nature of the venture, the attraction of the affects that the cleansing effect of purgation can do for the mind, body and spirit is truly remarkable & well worth the effort it entails!
Bishop of Killaloe
Clare Champion Article 5th of August 2022