Friday 15 December 2017

Sile Seoige - My Lough Derg Diary: darkness before dawn

A pilgrim's way

Retreat: Sile Seoige on Lough Derg. St. Patrick's Purgatory, is among the oldest centres of Christian Pilgrimage in Western Europe. Photo: Mat Mackey.
Retreat: Sile Seoige on Lough Derg. St. Patrick's Purgatory, is among the oldest centres of Christian Pilgrimage in Western Europe. Photo: Mat Mackey.
Lake isle: Sile Seoige, already fasting, on the boat travelling across to the island
Sile Seoige doing the stations of the cross. Photo: Matt Mackey
Sile Seoige

Síle Seoige

After three gruelling days at Lough Derg, exhausted, hungry and with a head cold, Sile Seoige explains why, despite being glad she went, she won't be lured back to the Catholic church.

Sitting down to write about my Lough Derg experience is a challenge in itself, as I have so many thoughts on it. I have been on various types of retreats and workshops down through the years, so the concept wasn't alien to me; but I had never been on anything with such a deep Catholic focus before and I knew it would be a struggle.

My intentions were to observe the few days without judgement. I've been interested in delving deeper into spirituality for many years, because, like so many people, I've had challenges in my life, including cancer, that have encouraged me to look for other meanings beyond what we see in the material world. Experiencing difficulties in my life allowed me to embrace who I really am. I feel very lucky and I wouldn't change a moment of it, as it brought me to where I am today, allowing me to reinvent myself and become who I truly am. So with an open mind and heart I decided to participate, to see what it was like, who went there, and what they got from the experience.

For those who've never heard of it, the pilgrimage takes place on a small island in a lake called Lough Derg in the northwest and is Ireland's oldest place of pilgrimage. It's also known as Saint Patrick's Purgatory, and it has been welcoming pilgrims for 1500 years. On the island, I referred to it as a 'retreat,' to which one woman responded, "we call it penance!" And that's exactly what it intends to be, pilgrims come to the island, all with their own individual worries, in the hope that they will repent their sins and be forgiven.

The three-day pilgrimage starts the night before you arrive on the island. You begin fasting at midnight and your fast continues for three days. The only food you're allowed is one Lough Derg meal each day which consists of the following: black tea or coffee with sugar if needed, dry toast, wheaten bread and oat cakes. So on Thursday night I went to bed knowing I would not eat my 'normal' food again until Monday, and this was certainly something than made me anxious.

Lake isle: Sile Seoige, already fasting, on the boat travelling across to the island

That night I had a dreadful sleep, I kept waking up from nightmares and I was feeling uneasy. I wondered was my body simply anticipating the hardship to come. As I drove to Donegal, in the pouring rain, I wondered how many others would be there considering the weather was so bad. When I arrived on the island in torrential rain, I was welcomed by the wonderfully helpful staff. And I was amazed to see so many there. I put my bag in my cubicle, took off my shoes and socks and put them away, where they would stay until I left the island on Sunday.

We had to complete three Stations of the Cross before evening and for someone who doesn't say the rosary anymore, this was intense. I felt overwhelmed.

The Stations involve a ritual of sitting, standing, kneeling and walking while praying continuously. In the Basilica, around the Basilica, at the cross, walking around the beds, standing and kneeling by the water's edge.

Walking around the 'penitential beds' was the strangest part of all. These are the circular remains of monks' cells, about a metre high, with an entrance and a cross in the centre. Pilgrims circle the bed three times, then kneel at the entrance, walk around the inside, again three times, and then kneel at the cross in the centre praying all the time. You repeat this process for each 'bed' and there are six of them. When you have completed all 'beds', you have done one station.

Are you still with me? We had three to complete before the evening and I can't lie, I wasn't really praying. But what I did notice was how aware I became. Walking around the penitential beds in the pelting rain was tricky - one bad move and you could spilt your foot open or fall, which I saw happen to a few people. I felt the earth under my feet, and as there were no distractions it was easy to be mindful and tune into my breathing and be present. But the truth is, I felt a far deeper connection to the tree that stood beside the 'beds' than the 'beds' themselves.

Now, while the vast majority of people I met on the island were lovely, there were a small minority who made it clear that they were wary of me, wanting to ensure that I would write a positive review; as one said "a journalist was here before and made fun of it." I fully appreciate and respect people's love for the island, and the last thing I want to do is to upset or offend anyone. So, with that in mind, I will keep my own views of the church to a minimum. And as I said to a number of people over the few days, I am just one person, with one perspective on the experience.

There were 430 pilgrims on the island from Friday until Bank Holiday Monday. My group was made up of men and women, more women than men, two priests, and they were of all ages, from early 20s up to 80s. They were from all over Ireland, many from Donegal and the north of the country, members of the Travelling community, and those who had come from abroad. After we had completed our first three stations in the rain, I went for my Lough Derg meal, before mass in the Basilica. One of the more pleasant aspects of the few days was the music and singing provided by Simon and Dominique in the Basilica.

Sile Seoige

At 7.30pm there was a chance to rest before the night vigil, but I didn't sleep; I was too wet and cold. So instead of a 24-hour vigil, mine was a 38-hour one, as I didn't sleep from the time I got out of bed on Friday morning at 8am, until Saturday night at 10pm, which gave even further meaning to the phrase 'no pain, no gain'!

By 9pm, we were all up and making our way to the Basilica for the Night Prayer and Benediction. The priests spoke to us about the night ahead, they told anecdotes and they were sincere and funny. I discovered that there were a handful of people, like me, on their first pilgrimage, with others having done it many times before, anything from five to 10, 20, 30, 40 times. One woman, who must've been in her 70s, was on her 60th pilgrimage to Lough Derg. I was in awe. Chatting to people over the few days, I found out the many different reasons people came to Lough Derg - from a feeling of duty, habit ("I've always come"), a desire to pray for sick family members, relationship problems, and everything in between.

We had four Stations of the Cross to complete inside the Basilica during the night. Each station took about an hour and involved walking and kneeling as a group as you prayed. I'm currently studying yoga and meditation, so I can appreciate how powerful it is to move and pray as a group. Saying the same words over and over has its own rhythm and is incredibly calming for the mind, almost hypnotic.

The night vigil was tough going; the hunger, the cold, but most importantly the tiredness, were starting to grab hold of me. Between the stations we sat around in the 'Flood Room' sipping water, chatting and keeping each other awake.

I want to give a special mention to sisters Dee and Barbara, from Tipperary, and Anne and Carmel, mother and daughter from Co Derry. They were wonderful, great craic and really looked out for me. Dee hit the nail on the head when she said, "Everyone is on the same level here . . . it doesn't matter what you do, where you come from, or what you earn. We're all hungry, tired and barefoot. It's a leveller."

And that is the essence of Lough Derg. It strips everything away; as you take your shoes and socks off, your ego is left aside as well. I'll never forget standing barefoot and freezing outside the Basilica looking up to the full moon as it illuminated the lake below. I was exhausted, cold, and hungry but in that moment I felt so alive and connected.

The night was long and difficult, but just as I was really starting to wilt, dawn broke and the sun gave me a renewed sense of energy and strength to keep going. What also struck me is how powerful our minds are and how our subconscious mind will believe whatever we feed it.

Having a deep faith and trusting in the process brings people through their Lough Derg pilgrimage and has them coming back for more, year on year. Getting through the night gave me a great sense of achievement. Walking, reading and writing without the distraction of technology was divine. Having no phones or computers to check was a blessing and is something I always value when I get away on a retreat.

But as time moves very slowly on Lough Derg, I found staying awake was the greatest challenge of all on the second day. Hunger wasn't my main concern anymore. Keeping busy was vital for fear that you might nod off.

That day I had another very interesting chat with a fellow pilgrim there for the weekend. When I met him the night before, I had no idea that he was a priest until I saw him the following day. But as we sat beside one another in the Basilica at the end of mass, we got talking. He asked if I had noticed anything in particular about the pilgrimage. I think it was a combination of tiredness and hunger but I didn't understand what he meant. So I asked him to explain.

He said "Did you see all the women involved in the readings, offertory, Communion at mass?" And he was right, so many women were fundamental to the service. Then we got talking about the church and he shared his frustration and annoyance with the decisions the church has made, and his heartbreak at seeing parishes closing down.

Sile Seoige Lough Derg 13.jpg
Sile Seoige doing the stations of the cross. Photo: Matt Mackey

We spoke about everything, from the child-abuse scandals, the cover-ups and priests marrying, to women being involved in the church, and he said change was needed. I was talking to a man who must have been in his late 70s, who was so full of love and compassion and who just happened to be a priest, and it made me think, if only there were more people like him, and some of the other priests I met at Lough Derg, in positions of power and influence within the church.

By the time it was 10pm, I was practically giddy, a combination of tiredness and joy at the thought of getting to bed. It took a while to nod off but once I did, I slept until the following morning at 5.30. It was glorious. Oh and a big thank you to Kathleen who very kindly passed her hot water bottle to me as she headed for the boat, it was very much appreciated that night!

For some, the pilgrimage was an intense experience of suffering and hardship, falling over at the Penitential beds, cuts on the feet, vomiting, headaches and fainting. When I came off the island, my feet were aching, my knees were sore, I felt a little dizzy and I was smothered with a head cold, but the aspect I struggled with the most was the lack of sleep.

Leaving the religious aspect aside for a moment - and I fully accept that it is central to the experience - nonetheless, travelling to an island, disconnecting from the outside world, being barefoot in rain and cool temperatures, surrounded by nature, sleep-deprived and hungry, is going to have an impact on all aspects of you, physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually.

Afterwards you will naturally feel a deep sense of achievement. I felt the same after I climbed Kilimanjaro, or any other physical challenge I have taken on that also tests your mental and emotional state. So if you're Catholic or if you're comfortable being an observer like I was, and you want an experience that will offer you pause for reflection and give you new-found awareness, why not give it a go? Lough Derg and other retreats of that nature offer a space to sit with thoughts and emotions without judgement or manipulation.

People who had completed the pilgrimage before spoke to me about the beautiful feeling I would get as I left the island, and they were right. I felt content and strong, but instead of going outwards to connect with God, I felt the divine within me.

I'm glad I did it but it won't lure me back to the church.

Too many prayers spoke of the Devil and hell, and from what I could see, fear played a big part in the few days. One of the prayers involved standing with your back to a cross, arms fully outstretched, saying "I renounce the World, the Flesh and the Devil."

I didn't do this, because these words are the fundamental reason I can't connect with the church. I believe that by demonising the bad, you encourage negativity to grow even stronger in your life. By being afraid of 'evil' you hand it even more power and control. For me, all of us exist with good and not-so-good; it's the duality that makes us human.

As the 13th century poet, Rumi said, "Who has seen a shadow separated by the light?" To truly become our best selves, we must embrace all aspects of ourselves, even the parts we don't like.

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