It all began on Monday when I arrived fasting to a small lake island four miles north to the village of Pettigo, in the center of the rolling lush green hills and fishing inlets in County Donegal. The place I arrived to is known as Lough Derg or St Patrick’s Purgatory.
The area around Lough Derg breathtakingly beautiful. Unfortunately, the day I arrived with my fellow pilgrims it was cold and wet. I was hungry, cranky and in a bad mood. The sky above me was dark. The heavy rain relentless. Getting into a boat in a murky lake to travel to a patch of green land with religious edifices jutting up into the ominous skyline was the last thing on my agenda.
But before I wallow in any more self pity lets pause for a moment as I tell you about the history surrounding this island. Lough Derg is one of the oldest pilgrimage in Ireland. It was founded in in the Celtic monastic period around the 6th century A.D.by St Davog and his monks. Legend has it that five centuries earlier around 400 AD Maewyn Succat the son of Calpurnius-a Christian Roman living in Britain, was kidnapped by pirates and sold into slavery in Ireland,to heard and tend sheep on Slemish mountain in Co Antrim. During his six year captivity he became fluent in Irish and turned to God in prayer. He escaped after having a dream sent from God in which he was told to go to the coast where there would be a boat waiting for him to take him home. Subsequently, he traveled to France to become a priest and later a bishop. Maewyn took the name Patrick, when he became a priest.
When Patrick was a bishop in France, God sent him another dream where the people of Ireland were pleading with him to walk among them once more. So he returned to Ireland and traveled all over the country, converting the people to Christianity. The date cited when Ireland was converted to Christianity is 432 A.D. It is said – but there is no proof of this to date, that he returned to his place of captivity in Co Antrim, after which he traveled to a cave in an isolated island in central Donegal – Lough Derg. Word has it that he received visions of hell and purgatory while fasting and praying there.
St Patrick is not the only mystic, saint or visionary to pontificate the horrors of hell . St Teresa of Avila, St Therese of Lisieuxas well as the American Mystic Marie Rose Ferron all warn against visiting hell at all costs because once you go you can never leave- apparently. On the other hand, while Purgatory is also associated with suffering, it is also a place of healing and redemption. Hence the name St Patrick Purgatory came into being as a means of redemption from the fires of hell
Returning now to the story of my trip there.Once we arrived on the island we were shown to our dormitories which were bright clean and fresh. I had a ‘double cubicle to myself which was nice and private. The other pilgrims were in fine form and the feeling of support and encouragement was tangible. We were advised to wear plenty of warm cloths as the body can get cold when you are in bare feet! Yup you have guessed it, this pilgrimage in done in bare feet! Nothing like frozen toes to bring the mind galloping back into the body.
I have done this pilgrimage before so I know the drill. It’s a good idea to get the three stations finished as early as possible. Stations consist of walking over the stones in the penitential beds. The penitential beds are the remains of the beehive huts used by the early 6th century monks. You walk three times on the outside, three times on the inside stopping at the entrance and the cross in the center. You walk in circles, always moving forward in a clockwise direction, reciting prayers. Each station takes about an hour and you have three to do on the first day.
As I started the first station my body felt heavy. I was weighed down by my own personal concerns and concerns of others who asked me to think of them while on this ancient holy island.Somewhere during the second station the sun filtered out from behind the clouds in the milk blue sky.I felt the soft heat infuse into my tired bones.
By 4 30 pm I was finished and I headed towards the dining room.
The dining room in Lough Derg is large and bright. Long tables and benches extend from one end to another.The spacious ceiling to floor windows facilitate spectacular views of the lake . Empty clean tea cups, saucers and plates are placed carefully on either side of each table. The center is adorned with silver pots of piping black tea and coffee, dry hot toast, and oatcakes. There is not a milk jug or butter plate in sight! I eat slowly and with gratitude. I am aware of the warm black sweet coffee as it settles in my awaiting stomach. The taste of oats in the cakes more prevalent without butter. We eat with delight the pilgrims and I, savoring the moment. Our days’work done. Time to talk until 6 30 pm when we will attend another religious catholic service called Mass.
For those who are unfamiliar with this service I will make an attempt to explain what the Mass is all about. First let me say that in Lough Derg there is a lot of singing at mass and the experience of song is in itself, immensely uplifting.
Briefly, mass is divided into four basic parts or ‘rites’; the introduction,the liturgy of the word,the Eucharist and the concluding rite. The introduction allows time to reflect on our actions in other words, what we have done or failed to do, that may have hurt others. In the second part,the liturgy of the word, we listen to gospel stories from the Bible and the priest gives us ‘a take’ on his interpretation of these stories in a homily. In the third rite known as the Eucharist we offer ourselves with the bread and wine to be liberated by Grace so that we become one with God in communion. Finally, the concluding rite is quite short we ask that the Grace we have received, will be transferred into our everyday life.I am not a theologian, this is just my understanding of what happens at Mass.
Returning once again to my story the time is 6.30 om and I am still on day one heading to mass in the large domed Basilica. In your minds eye imagine that you are at The Phantom of the Opera. Can you hear it? Yes? well would you believe me if I told you that the singing at our 6 30 Mass was like the phantom would believe me? I honestly felt it was and what’s more we were all encouraged to sing along, which I was delighted to do.I mean who gets to sing at an opera?
At 7 30 pm most of the pilgrims head back to the dormitories for a rest to prepare for the vigil of sleep deprivation.At 9 20 we return to the Basilica for night prayer and Benediction.
At 10.00 pm the vigil candle symbolizing our commitment to remain awake for 24 hours by walking and reciting prayers and drinking hot water.It’s a bit like a marathon really, except unlike a marathon we are not running alone, the pilgrims work together as a group.
We remained in the Basilica during the entire night walking and praying. There was a station at 12 30 am, 2.00 am, 3.30am and 5.00am. Each station lasted for about an hour or so. Some pilgrims were better than others at leading. I preferred the speedy leaders as it allowed more time to relax and get a cup of warm water between stations.
Dawn broke at 4 30 am. I took a sneaky photo (the use of camera’s and phones are not allowed on the island) I just couldn’t resist it. The stillness was so tangible that you could almost taste it. That is why there are only two similar photos with this post.
The 6 30 am mass was excruciating, the pull of sleep overpowering.
8 30 am was time for the Sacrament of Reconciliation followed by the eight station which was performed outside.
The Sacrament of Reconciliation provides the pilgrims with an opportunity to address wrongdoings and give voice to concerns. The priest assured us not to worry as there is no such thing as a bad confession. We are told that once the intention is set we do not have to say anything as some hurts and pain can find no words of expression. It is a powerful feeling to surrender all to a God of Compassion.
Then from 9 30 am the day stretched out before us like a warm haze. All we had to do was stay alert and awake. We were advised not to stretch out or lie down, even support for the back was discouraged. I kept myself busy walking and talking Then miraculously,sometime around 12 midday my mind stops working.
I am free
In the moment
Without thoughts, plans or activities.
The world slows down.
I notice small creatures in the earth below and sky above.
I am part of all.
At one with all.
The day continues.
At 2.00 pm and I visit the dining room for a meal of piping hot sugary coffee and oat cakes.
My mind stimulated by the coffee and food wakes up again. I start to interact with other pilgrims, we talk about our future and comment about life in general. The sensation of ‘Oneness with all, starts to submerge into short term memory. The feeling remains and energizes.
At 6.30 pm we have mass and more exquisite singing.
By 8.00 pm I am absolutely exhausted. I feel a migraine headache coming on. My mind continues to waken. Old habits die hard. Pilgrims are chatting with each other confirming that the 24 hours are almost over. I am unable to engage so I just surrender to the discomfort and passively listen.
At 9 20 we have night prayer. Once again I am blown away by the music and I join in with abandon and I am free once again.
Then at 10.00 pm sharp the vigil candle is extinguished and we ran with glee to our dormitories .
At 10.15 pm I am fast asleep. It is a sound contented deep slumber.
I awake totally rested at 5.00 am.
On the third day we rise at 5 30 for mass at 6.00 am.
We continue to fast but by this stage the hunger has left us.
We leave the island at 9 30 am to the sound of music.
Our fast continues throughout the third day until midnight. We can drink soft minerals if we choose and have one meal of black tea or coffee with dry toast.
I am feeling energized and alive.
At one with all.
It is a good wholesome feeling
And that my friends is a short rendition of my visit to Lough Derg on this Friday 17th July in 2015.
On our next post on Day 8: The Inward Journey: Finding the Real Me we will resume again with a reminder on Monday to keep up the mindful exercises outlined in previous posts.