The recent fine weather has encouraged us all to get outdoors for enjoyment, health and relaxation. No better place to be than the Northwest of Ireland when the sky is blue and the evenings are long. At this time of the year, I always look forward to visiting Saint Patrick’s Sanctuary for the annual Diocesan pilgrimage. Lough Derg has a reputation for being the “iron man” of pilgrimages, evoking a variety of reactions among people. Tradition, spirituality, adventure, curiosity, and trepidation are some of the thoughts that spring to mind. I certainly understood the trepidation part when I first stepped onto the island nine years ago. My shoes were quickly dispatched under a bunk bed in the army-style dormitory. There were few sightings of the shoes or bed for the remainder of the pilgrimage.
One of the most striking features of the island is the sense of being surrounded by nature. Looking beyond the waters of the lake you see forest, mountains and sky. The Celtic monks sought out isolated places of sanctuary to feel close to God and reflect on their faith. During this year’s pilgrimage, Fr La Flynn Prior of Lough Derg spoke to us about the central role of nature in the spirituality of Celtic saints. Kevin of Glendalough was praying in a narrow cell with his arm stretched out the window. A blackbird nested in the palm of Saint Kevin’s hand, and he held his arm motionless for weeks until the chicks hatched and fledged. Seamus Heaney’s poem on Saint Kevin pays homage to the gifts of endurance, faith and selflessness highlighted by the story of the blackbird. Saint Columba also had a close affinity with the natural landscape, choosing to build in close proximity to oak groves.
The three day pilgrimage to Lough Derg is a programme of prayer, fasting and reconciliation. By completing a 24 hour vigil and walking barefoot around the island, you are gently pushed outside the comfort zone. It is an opportunity to disconnect from the phone and social media for a short period of time. The renewed focus on the essential aspects of life is a humbling experience, opening the mind to prayer and reflection. Sharing these struggles with other pilgrims creates a strong feeling of community and kinship. During this time, I feel a greater awareness of my surroundings and the world outdoors. The weather and the natural environment play their part in providing a unique encounter each year. While walking around the penitential beds and praying at the lough shore, the beauty of nature is all around. From the daisies, buttercups and clover at ground level to the call of birds overhead.
Taking the boat back to shore always brings a great sense of achievement and gratitude. This year I was particularly thankful for the gift of warm weather. A flurry of excitement follows as friends old and new bid each other farewell. The statue of Saint Patrick and the magnificent panorama of Lough Derg are the perfect backdrop for photographs with fellow pilgrims. As I reflect on another trip completed, my thoughts return to time spent outdoors in the presence of God. The damp stones of the station beds underfoot, the darting swallows above, and the lap of water at the lough shore. The Celtic saints had great respect for nature, demonstrating devotion to their faith through service and care of the environment. May we continue to feel God’s love in the landscape around us, and protect all creatures great and small.
Charlie Mullan is a Parishioner of Iskaheen and hospital doctor