This past weekend, 27th – 29th June 2020 I was pleased to accept an invitation from Monsignor La Flynn, Prior of Lough Derg, to come along to the island and take the traditional 3 day pilgrimage there. On one level there is nothing strange about that; I take the 3 day pilgrimage every year. However, as we know 2020 as not been a year like any other we have lived through. The global pandemic of Covid-19 has meant that there have been changes this year to how we go about our lives. Change spread around the world as quickly as the virus itself. And that change came to Lough Derg. Earlier this month, Mgr La announced that the 3 day pilgrimage would not take place this year due to the restrictions in place in response to the pandemic. It was a difficult decision for Mgr La but the right one for the times we live in.
The decision to cancel the public 3 day pilgrimage this year has, accordingly, left many people disappointed (although the response has overwhelmingly been one of understanding). The team on Lough Derg knew this would be the case and so in response they resolved to create a programme online for people to ‘do Lough Derg where you are’. This would involve streaming live from Pettigo, the mainland parish in which Lough Derg is situated. The team would keep vigil themselves overnight and broadcast all of the set prayers and liturgies from the church in Pettigo. They set this past weekend as the date, and indeed they were good to their word and the online 3 day pilgrimage was broadcast on loughderg.live Latest figures show that almost 1,100 people signed up to take part and ‘do Lough Derg’ where they were.
However, it was felt that it would be wrong for a year to go by with no-one taking part in the 3 day pilgrimage. Mgr La said he would do the pilgrimage to coincide with the online pilgrimage, to be in solidarity with those taking part and all those who wanted to but could not come to the island this year. And he invited three hardy souls to join him, me included. Along with La, my other two companions were Deacon Martin Donnelly of the Clogher Diocese and James McLoughlin, Youth Ministry Director at Clogher don Óige.
We arrived on the island at noon on Saturday 27th June and left on Monday 29th June. And for the whole time in between Lough Derg was caught in a storm! And when I say a storm, I mean a storm. We had incessant rain and strong winds every moment of our pilgrimage. For those who don’t know, a Lough Derg pilgrimage involves being in the elements for much of the time and moving between buildings on a frequent basis. Our layered, wet-proof clothing got a real test this weekend.
After being up all night on Saturday night, we gathered, tired, wet and wind swept for Morning Prayer together on Sunday morning. As part of the prayer, we prayed the Canticle, taken from Daniel:3. It led us to pray for the highest glory and praise to God from all God’s creation. As well as invoking the sun and the moon, fire and heat, mountains and hills and all the plants of the earth to bless the Lord and give highest glory and praise to God, we prayed these lines,
“And you, showers and rain, O bless the Lord… And you, showers and rain, O bless the Lord… and you, breezes and winds, O bless the Lord. To him be glory and praise for ever.”
Here we were, soaked and half blown away, tired and cold, praying that the rain and the wind would bless the Lord and in their very being bring glory and praise to God. It seemed counter-intuitive, ironic and maybe even just plain mad! How could it be so?
From the moment we stepped on to the island of Lough Derg we knew that we were in a privileged position; there are thousands of people across Ireland and far beyond who would love to be able to do this 3 day pilgrimage this year. In some way we wanted to walk the ground on Lough Derg for those who would not be able to do so. We also wanted to walk the ground to maintain the ancient tradition of Lough Derg being a storehouse of prayer. We had, all 4 of us, come with our prayer intentions.
The wind and the rain, extreme as they were (we believe it might have been the worst weather seen during pilgrimage season in almost half a century), were part of the experience and, as such, were part of God’s plan for our weekend. Perhaps the words from Daniel were meant to make us think and reflect on what God might want us to take away from this pilgrimage for ourselves and for others.
CHALLENGE AND TEARS
My own reflection led me to acknowledge that the weather was a real challenge. And that word awoke in me another acknowledgement- that many people come to Lough Derg facing into challenges much more serious that mere weather. In fact all of us, pilgrims to Lough Derg or not, face into the challenges of life every day. Lough Derg becomes an effigy of the challenges faced by those who walk its stony, holy, prayer-soaked soil. It is not only prayer that soaks the soil, of course. As the rain fell like countless tears this weekend I reflected that this year the many tears that pilgrims cry (in sadness, joy, forgiveness and more) will not fall on Lough Derg.
Facing into the challenge this weekend I had a real sense of God saying to me- ‘though no more will walk these steps here on Lough Derg this year, I am still here. I still know the challenges my children face. I know the tears they cry. And I am with them.’ God is with us in all of our challenges. God is our friend in those challenges and our guide through them. When pilgrims return to Lough Derg, they will find God has travelled through this time of exile and restriction with them. They will, of course, find God also on Lough Derg when they return. Lough Derg is a place where people encounter God because of the space it moves of compassion, contemplation, forgiveness and mercy them into, not because God is only on Lough Derg! But ask yourself, how many places do you know of that can provide the way to move ourselves into that precious space of connection? God is not to be found only on Lough Derg, but Lough Derg is a precious place of encounter with God nonetheless.
We left Lough Derg tired but happy. We had an experience of encounter and community there this weekend. We know it was an honour for us to be there. And so, as the staff of Lough Derg use this time to prepare for the days when pilgrims will once again come to walk barefoot and pray and fast and keep vigil, may God bless all those who will miss their chance to spend time on the precious island of Lough Derg this year. And may God bring pilgrims, old and new, to Lough Derg when the time is right.