It is said that, during his missionary work in Ireland, St Patrick went to the island in Lough Derg and stayed in a cave there. During this time, he was subjected to many temptations and was given a vision of hell - hence the name sometimes given to the island: St Patrick's Purgatory.
It has been a place of pilgrimage ever since and generations of pilgrims have taken the boat to the island and spent time in deep prayer and reflection.
It is most particularly known as a place for penitential pilgrimage and, over the years, a rigorous rhythm to the time spent there has developed.
The reasons why people make such a pilgrimage are as varied as the people making them. Some may be seeking a way of showing repentance - some may feel that their spiritual life has become flabby - others may simply feel a call to face the challenge of the exercises of the island - still others may go and have no clear idea of why - simply knowing that it is something they have to do.
The classic Lough Derg Pilgrimage lasts for three days. The pilgrim undertakes to begin fasting at midnight on the first day and travels to the island by boat during that morning. Once there, they remove all footwear - for the pilgrimage is undertaken barefoot.
The pilgrim then begins a series of "Stations" - a series of prayers - gestures - walking - kneeling - all conducted in silence. During the course of the three days, the pilgrim will complete nine Stations. Part of the Stations involves walking around the "beds" dedicated to various saints - Brigid, Brendan, Catherine. Columba, Patrick, Davog and Molaise. These may have been part of cells built and used by early monks.
The Pilgrimage requires great frugality in eating and drinking - only one meal of black tea or coffee and dry toast is permitted on each day. Even when the pilgrim departs, they commit themselves to continue the fast until midnight that day.
A further exercise is to undertake an all-night Vigil of prayer - repeating the Stations. It goes without saying that one does not "catch up" on the lost sleep the next day!
The challenge of the Pilgrimage is obvious and those who oversee the pilgrimages make it clear that only those who are able-bodied should undertake it. The pilgrimages are only available in June, July and until 14 August but even in those months conditions can be wet and uncomfortable.
The challenge also forces one deep inside oneself to find the resources to meet it. One is confronted by discomfort - and learns to endure it. Stripped of almost everything that clutters our lives, one cannot hide from oneself - and, in facing that reality, we can learn to depend on stronger resources than our own - those of God.
Although the pilgrim is, in effect, in solitude they are not alone - others are following the same path - and here too is a solidarity and strength which is often not perceptible in everyday life.
Such a pilgrimage is not for everyone - but for those called to undertake it, it can be a source of renewed strength as they learn that they can endure because when their own resources are almost used up - they find encouragement and strength from God and from the people who are sharing their experience.
The photographs are taken from the Lough Derg site
and are used with the kind permission of Maureen Boyle
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