It was great to have Father Gary Donegan with us this past 9 days for our annual Novena to Our Lady of Sorrows. Father Gary provided an inspiring nine days during which, as well as his reflections on the Sorrows of Mary, he gave us an insight into his peace and reconciliation work in the North of Ireland, his own personal faith journey, and provided us with many moments of humour and laughter, which of course are very important on the, often difficult, journey of faith. At one point, Father Gary was speaking about his feet, and he illustrated it by recounting his pilgrimage to Lough Derg, one of the oldest pilgrimage sites in Ireland, with a connection to St. Patrick, where penitential stations are done barefooted throughout the island. I was immediately reminded of my one and only, and somewhat disastrous, pilgrimage to Lough Derg which took place in 1974, the year before I joined the Passionists.
I had been invited by a priest in the Diocese of Galloway, whom I had got to know through the Passionist Retreat Centre at Coodham, to help him out with a group of young people whom he was bringing to the island. At that time, I didn’t really know anything about Lough Derg, also known as St. Patrick’s Purgatory, but I readily agreed as it sounded like a bit of an adventure and I had a lot of respect for the priest concerned. Apart from the penitential stations, also called beds, barefooted on jagged stones, the most difficult aspects of Lough Derg, at that time anyway, were that, apart from the occasional black tea and dry toast, you fasted for three days, and also, from the day you arrived, and all through that night until the night of the following day, you were deprived of sleep. It was really tough.
Even during the first day I could sense the young people’s spirits flagging, I don’t think they had really grasped the reality of what they were coming to take part in, but when I tried to pick their spirits up I was immediately pounced on by one of the priests on the island who berated us for too much laughter. It was then that the torrential rains came which meant that, instead of doing the penitential stations through the night outdoors, we had to do them inside the basilica, which really made them quite tedious. The priest that we were with had been asked to lead one of those stations and, when it got near to the time, he asked me to ring a bell to gather the people together. No sooner had I begun to ring the bell than I was pounced upon by the same priest who thought I was messing around, and I had to convince him that I was in fact asked to do this. Having survived the night, the most difficult part is always trying to stay awake throughout the whole of the following day. Ironically, the rain stopped and the sun came out, and in a moment of drowsy weakness I nodded off on a bench, only to find myself being prodded awake by the same priest yet again. I don’t know if anyone was ever banned from Lough Derg but I imagine I must have come pretty close.
As an aftermath to the story, when I joined the Passionists the following year there was a celebration at the Graan in Enniskillen, shortly after I arrived, to mark the tercentenary of the death of St. Paul of the Cross, the founder of the Passionists. As postulants we were to serve the invited guests at table, and who did I find myself serving only this same priest. It may have been my imagination, but I felt he was giving me some strange looks trying to remember where he had seen me before, but I kept schtum. Now, I know Lough Derg is a wonderful place, and I have a friend who has spent many a summer there providing prayer ministry, spiritual guidance and counselling, and who keeps encouraging me to return, but, 44 years on, I still haven’t found the opportunity, or perhaps the courage, to go back.
I bind unto myself today the power of God to hold and lead, His eye to watch, His might to stay, His ear to hearken to my need. The wisdom of my God to teach, His hand to guide, his shield to ward, the word of God to give me speech, His heavenly host to be my guard.
(Extract from St. Patrick’s Breastplate)