2023 has, in some ways, had an inauspicious start. After waking up on New Year’s Day with a heavy head cold, which I’m still trying to shift completely, I then managed to lose a filling by crunching on a throat lozenge. I had to then nurse a gaping hole in my tooth until I could get the first available dental appointment which, gratefully, happened yesterday, 6 days after the event. It was an emergency appointment so all I got was a temporary filling and another appointment a few weeks hence. I was living on a diet of soup and yogurt. For the first three days all I could think of was sitting down to a proper meal. It’s often said that you never feel hungrier than on a fast day, that on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, for example, you can feel totally ravenous; whereas, on any ordinary Wednesday or Friday you wouldn’t be bothered. It was a bit like that. But then, after the third day, I didn’t feel all that hungry at all, and I mentioned to someone that it was a bit like being on Lough Derg.
For anyone who doesn’t know, Lough Derg, also known as St. Patrick’s Purgatory, is a pilgrimage site in County Donegal. The pilgrimage takes place on Station Island, which sits in the middle of the Lough. In the early summer of 1975, just before I joined the Passionists, I was persuaded by a priest in Ayrshire, whom I had met through the old Passionist Retreat Centre at Coodham, to help him with a group of young people that he was taking on pilgrimage to Lough Derg. Neither me, nor the young people, knew quite what we were letting ourselves in for. It was a three-day period of fasting, sleep deprivation, bare-footed penance, and prayer. The prayer exercises were called “stations” (hence Station Island) and we had to do, I think, nine of those during the three days. A station consisted of a visit to the Blessed Sacrament in the basilica; kneeling in prayer at St Patrick’s Cross; praying at St Brigid’s Cross; circling the basilica four times, saying Seven Decades of the Rosary; complete the prayers on the six Penitential Beds; pray kneeling by the shore, and then standing at the lake’s edge, before blessing yourself with the lake water.; return to St Patrick’s Cross; and then end the station back in the basilica. There was, of course, Mass each day, Holy Hours, and the opportunity for Confession. When we stepped off the little boat, having fasted from midnight, we immediately had to take our shoes and socks off. There was no sleep on the first night, we prayed all through the night, and no sleep at all through the next day – that was the toughest part. We had an occasional collation consisting of black tea and dry toast. On the second night, heading into the third and last day, we were able to have a sleep, and I don’t think I ever slept as well. Before we left the island, we put our shoes and socks back on again, and as the little boat pushed away from the shore, we were led by the local monsignor in a rendition of Hail Glorious St. Patrick. That’s my memory of it anyway, 47 years later. I met people on the island who had made the pilgrimage an extraordinary number of times, and some who had met their wives or their husbands on Lough Derg. When I first embarked on the island, I imagined that after three days of black tea and dry toast, the first thing I would want to enjoy would be a big hearty meal, but I didn’t feel hungry at all, and didn’t do for days; all I wanted was my own bed, and a good night’s sleep, with a long lie-in, on my return to Glasgow.
Now that I have my temporary filling, and can begin to eat normally, I am just gradually getting my appetite back. Last Friday night I was drinking a bowl of tomato soup while Fathers John, Gareth and Justinian were wolfing into a lovely Chinese meal, but by the time this Friday night’s soiree in Bishopbriggs comes round, I should be well ready for it. I think it will be fish and chips. Yum-yum. Father John and I are just about recovered from our flu and cold respectively. Fathers Gareth and Justinian were unscathed throughout.
As ever, protect yourself, your loved ones and others, and protect Christ in your lives.