Spirit Daily


St. Patrick Brings Up Thoughts Of Irish Mysteries Such As 'Island Of Purgatory'

It's that time of year when we think of St. Patrick, and that means Ireland, a nation that is in current spiritual turmoil but brings us to the very roots of Catholicism.

In many ways, it is a mystical touchstone.

By turmoil, we mean the fact that Ireland is currently going through what America already has: a slackening of faith, declining church attendance, abuse scandals (the other day, 102 priests named), and scarce vocations.

Secularists there are pushing the abortion, free sex, and birth-control agenda. More than sixty percent in one poll favored the availability of abortion to some degree, this in a nation that just a few short years ago would hear nothing of it.

Once the top of the heap, when it came to Catholicism -- sending missionaries around the world and providing a phenomenal number of priests in the U.S., Canada, and other countries -- the Emerald Island is now handing that role over to the Philippines (along with Africa).

But let us hope (and argue) here that the spirituality of Ireland is too deep -- too entrenched in the island's very bedrock -- to be eradicated.

The secularists may try tearing down what kept this island pure, but there is just too much history soaked into the terrain, and the blood of too many martyrs.

When it comes to that mysticism, we may think first of Knock, one of the most famous places of apparition. When we think of Ireland, we think of the devotion to Mary. At the entrance of many villages is a Lourdes grotto. There is a statue of Mary at airports. There are also the splendid cathedrals.

Less well known is the connection between Ireland -- and St. Patrick -- to the deep mysticism of purgatory.

In County Donegal in northwest Ireland is one of the most mysterious such links in the way of Station Island, or "St. Patrick's Purgatory."

This is in the  "sacred lake" of Lough Derg, a bleak landscape of coniferous forest and heather-covered bog -- where, legend has it, the saint stayed as a testimony to the truthfulness of his faith.

It was here, according to such accounts (skeptics differ), that Patrick had visions of heaven, hell, and purgatory.

There are three great legends. The one connected to St. Patrick holds that Station Island (or simply "Lough Derg," as it is commonly known) is a place where the "brave and virtuous" can descend into the cave and experience the secrets of the region beyond the grave.

On this little island, it was said, in the way of that cave, was an entrance to the underworld.

"One of the earliest surviving accounts dates from 1186," notes one informational website. "Giraldus Cambrensis wrote in Topography of Ireland that Saints Island was visited both by good spirits and evil spirits. Each were present on one part of the island. He described the evil part of the island as covered with rugged crags. It contained nine pits and those who stayed over night in one of them were tormented."

The northwestern part is called Kernagh and means “Island of Clamor.” Here, it was said, back in medieval times, was the residence of Satan and his satellites.

We see then that it is indeed a place not only of penance but of the spiritual warfare that often accompanies it! In the southwest part of the islet is an area called "Regles" that is dedicated, alas, to the angels.

The legend is that purgatory can be tasted and even visited here and that with the proper penance an individual's soul can be purged of the stains of sin.

"The pilgrim could return to life again but would not have to revisit purgatory after death," is the belief of the many penitents -- as many as 32,000 a year -- who visit the chill, windswept island.

So intense is the penance, in fact, that pilgrims must be over 14 years old, and free from disability. “The nature of the penances excludes anyone under doctor’s care and the very old,” states a sign. Tourists are not welcome and cameras are actually forbidden.

The penance is not for the faint of heart -- strong on physical mortification such as walking barefoot and depriving oneself of food and sleep.

There is a one-day fast in which light food and footwear is allowed, but the island is famed for the three-day fast of dry bread and sugared tea, coffee, or Lough Derg soup (hot water with salt or pepper added to taste). Some have done this for as long as nine or even 15 days! 

"Arriving on the island, the pilgrims remove their shoes and stockings and do not put them on again until the morning of the third day just before leaving," says a historian, John Cunnigham. "Gravel and sand stick to the pilgrim's feet and the sharp rocks of the penitential beds can produce agony on the soft, white soles of the modern person's foot but it is all part of the penance. There is a great leveling of rich and poor, of sophisticate and peasant."

The island's penitential beds are the circular remains of monks cells about a meter high with an entrance and a Cross in the centre. The pilgrim circles the bed praying, then kneels at the entrance, walks around the inside and kneels at the centre repeating the same prayers. There are six of these beds, each of which constitutes a Lough Derg station.

To "do" a station, prayers are said at the beds, in and around the basilica, at the lake edge and at two ancient crosses. The pilgrim completes three of these on the first day, four during a night long vigil when it is forbidden to sleep, one on the following day and one more on the morning before leaving.

Was St. Patrick really here?

The only sure thing is that, tough as it sounds, many are those who return time and again to the island, and many are those who testify to its cleansing power.


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