Sunday, July 30, 2023

Journey to Croagh Patrick summit is really a pilgrimage to the heart (Tony Flannery)

Hiking Croagh Patrick: The Essential Information | Outsider Magazine

FROM the bottom of the mountain, it looks like a muti-coloured snake going all the way to the peak but the thousands of people who made the climb to the top of Croagh Patrick for Reek Sunday did so for reasons as individual as the footprints they leave behind. 

Whether they are motivated by religion, personal petition or merely the physical challenge, the climbers became part of the same tribe for the day, united by a common purpose, sharing snacks, tips and personal stories along the way. 

No matter what happens, they will never forget the day they climbed Croagh Patrick.

To understand why the attraction of this type of pilgrimage remains as strong as ever, we must step back in time to look at the origins of the concept. Going on pilgrimage is as old as Christianity itself, probably much older, and certainly not unique to Christianity. In fact, it is a feature of most of the major religions of the world. 

Christians go on pilgrimage to a whole variety of places, probably most notable being the Holy Land and the Shrine of St James in Compostela in northern Spain, which is now commonly referred to as the Camino. 

Islam believers flock to Mecca in their millions, and the Hindus go to bathe in the sacred river, the Ganges.

In the last two centuries in the Catholic Church the popularity of pilgrimages to places where apparitions of Our Lady are believed to have taken place has grown enormously, so people go in large numbers to Lourdes, Fatima and many other shrines, including Knock. 

Probably the two pilgrim places that have the longest history here in Ireland are both associated with our patron saint, Patrick, the mountain in Co Mayo we call Croagh Patrick, and the island in Co Donegal, Lough Derg, also known as Patrick’s Purgatory.

We also have a multiplicity of holy wells dotted all around the country. Many rural parishes have at least one, and the most popular ones would be associated with a particular feast day involving certain rituals. These usually involve walking around the well a specific number of times, possibly in your bare feet, and reciting certain designated prayers.

Lough Derg, which is the most difficult of Irish pilgrimages, involving fasting and sleep deprivation, has a particular variation on this. Instead of a well it has a series of what are most inappropriately named ‘beds’, which are really circles of rough stone. 

Bare feet are mandatory, and the pilgrim walks around each bed three times on the outside, kneels at the entrance, walks around three times on the inside and finally kneels at the cross in the middle of the ‘bed’ reciting ‘Our ‘Fathers’, ‘Hail Marys’ and the ‘Creed’. 

Having completed the beds the pilgrim then stands with back against a cross on the wall of the church, and with arms outstretched, recites three times “I renounce the world, the flesh and the Devil”.

People go on pilgrimage for different reasons. If we go back through history, particularly to the Middle Ages, the main motivation that sent people on pilgrimage, usually of a much more arduous nature than today, was to do penance for sin, and as such to attain salvation of their souls. The type of god that was commonly preached in church was strict, severe, quick to anger and who had to be placated. 

Hell was presented as a place of endless torture, and a reality for those who committed sin. So, the more difficult the pilgrimage the better, in the sense of doing reparation for the many sins.

In those centuries, pilgrimages were very much part of religious practice, controlled by the Church, with the gaining of indulgences being a primary purpose. 

When the pilgrim reached Compostela, for example, after maybe months, or even years, of journeying, they were given a plenary indulgence, which they were assured would mean that all their sins were forgiven, and they would now have a clean slate. 

Or if they wished to apply the indulgence to someone they loved who had died, that person would be immediately released from purgatory and enter heaven.

Nowadays we are much less likely to think of God in these terms and tend to relate to God as the divine spirit underlying all of creation and the motivations for going on pilgrimage are much more varied. 

Also the Church does not have anything like the same control over the pilgrim, indeed in some cases, the pilgrim might have only a tenuous relationship with the church, if any at all.

There is now a significant distinction being made between institutional religion and spirituality.

For many and varied reasons religious institutions have declined in numbers and influence, while many ways of practicing spirituality have emerged. 

 Some people who walk part of the Camino may do so for a motive that is in no way religious but may well have a more broadly spiritual dimension such as the desire to experience a life that is distant from the day-to-day materialism.

A feature of that pilgrimage, which is also characteristic of Lough Derg and others, is the camaraderie that emerges among the participants, which can often develop into sharing at a deeper level than they would normally do, and that they did not anticipate when they set out. 

It is as if the pilgrimage experience creates a life of its own, a life where the person is more reflective, more tuned into the things that matter, more aware of the blessedness of human existence.

Irrespective of a person’s belief and circumstances, life contains its own pain and hardship, and many people go on pilgrimage with a particular intention, often to do with the health of a family member or someone they love. Even if they do not pray, they believe that the action of the pilgrimage may bring some improvement to the situation that concerns them. 

A person can find a spiritual connection that is in no way related to a church, but that opens new meaning in their lives. The hoped for change may not happen but the person can experience a sense of peace with the outcome.

More and more we now come to believe in a god not remote or judgemental, but is the guiding force of all creation, and of our own lives. Pilgrimages, even small daily ones, give us time and space to discern and come to know this god.

To paraphrase John Main, the teacher of contemplation, the most important pilgrimage of all is the one to our own heart, which is where, if we are patient, we will come to know a mystery that will give meaning to our existence, a mystery that we call god, the divine presence that infuses all created things.

Tony Flannery is a Redemptorist priest and the founder of the Irish Association of Catholic Priests