The rocky road to virtue

The real point of pilgrimage

Stories of black tea and toast, black toast and tea, bare feet and sleepless nights had conspired to keep me well away from Lough Derg over the past few years. But this morning I’m sitting by the shores of ‘St Patrick’s Purgatory’ having completed my first pilgrimage with a group of friends.  

The immediate temptation is to talk about the physical hardships: “It’s not the hunger – it’s the sleep.” But these are neither the main point of the pilgrimage nor an end in themselves. They are a means to an end; an ‘end’ that can be much trickier to talk about. 

At the final Mass of the Eucharistic Congress in Croke Park, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin encouraged pilgrims to return home and tell people “not just about the Congress but about Jesus Himself”.

In the same way, the challenge here is to talk not just about the bare feet, bleary eyes and rumbling bellies but about the real point of Lough Derg: Penance.

And often the most difficult penance is to look with absolute honesty at ourselves; our relationships, our faith, our reality. During the early hours of the morning comes a moment of searing and intense honesty. Just as Pilate presented the stripped and scourged Christ to the crowds with the words, “Ecce homo” – “Behold the man”, we are forced to look at ourselves stripped of the mask of our egos. Stripped of sleep, food and comfort, we see ourselves in a rare moment of glaring truth. Ecce homo. Behold oneself.


We look at the parts of our life we are usually too distracted and busy to face: our relationships, our purpose, our meaning. Locked in the night time prison of the basilica there is nowhere to run or hide from these questions.

And this happens in the midst of the community of the other pilgrims. The word ‘community’, often used so casually, means something much more here on Lough Derg. Here it means an unspoken but deep connectedness, communion and compassion. 

Then in those early hours, perhaps without ever finding an answer to our questions, our eyes lift from the sight of our bare feet. And the first light of the breaking dawn floods the experience with the dawning reality that we are not walking the often difficult path of life alone; we are accompanied on the way by the crucified and risen Lord, by the light and love of Christ. And though the ritualised experience of resurrection will not come until the morning Mass of the third day of pilgrimage, we already know that Christ is beside us in this.

Some might wonder if the constant repetition of the same prayers sounds uncomfortably like the babbling of the pagans warned about in the Gospel. But these prayers, in addition to being sincere prayers of petition, contrition, thanksgiving and adoration, are the tried and trusted way of reaching that intense moment of truthfulness about our lives and our lives in Christ.

Just as the physical hardships are not an end in themselves, Lough Derg, like any pilgrimage, is not an end in itself. The Book of Lismore tells us: “Going on pilgrimage without change of heart brings no reward from God, for it is by practicing virtue and not mere motion of the feet that we will be brought to Heaven.”

But here on this holy island the motion of our feet has started us once again on that rocky road to virtue.

Supporting Lough Derg

Positive media reports about the numbers coming to Lough Derg are not uncommon: 2009 saw on 8% increase on 2008 while there was a further 2% increase in 2010. However, these occasional upward blips have masked a downward trend over the decades. 

More than 15,000 come each year for the traditional three day pilgrimage, one day retreats and special day gatherings. Itís a good number but it wouldnít want to dip much lower.

Irish Catholics are great to fill planes for pilgrimages to Lourdes and Medjugorje but it's important we don't forget to keep the home fires burning.

Many people around the country have delayed a pilgrimage to Lough Derg often for want of an invitation to go. I came this year because a friend offered me a lift from Dublin. There was no excuse!

Maybe Parish Pastoral Councils might consider adding a Lough Derg pilgrimage to their calendars for next year. It mightn't even involve booking buses; several pilgrims I met came in a convoy of cars from their parish cluster.

And there's still a chance to do this yearís three day pilgrimage: the final session begins on Wednesday, August 13. No advance booking is needed!