Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Prayers, Penance and Purgatory

To slightly misquote the famous part of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr's speech in Washington humpity dumpity years ago, last night "I Had A Dream".

Ok so it wasn't as historic or even memorable a dream as he had but, as I rarely remember my dreams, I feel the need to get it down 'on paper' as it stirred long dormant memories - which dreams tend to do I suppose.

Back when I wore short pants and people laughed at my glasses and hairstyle (no, not last week, Daphne) my mom and dad took me to Lough Derg. If that sounds like a lovely day trip to a scenic Irish lake where we paddled and boated and generally had a fabby time, then you'd be as far from the reality of the trip as you could possibly get.

Oh the lough (or lake) WAS beautiful and we did go out on a boat but there endeth the fun and enjoyment. From that point onwards, for 3 days, we had the 3 P's mentioned in the title of this post.

An Irish Catholic has 2 pilgrimage sites within his or her shores and both need to be visited and experienced, Mecca like, at some time in their lives. Amazingly I went to both before my 18th birthday but Lough Derg was by far the most memorable for reasons that will become obvious in a moment.

Lough Derg is the second largest lake in the Republic Of Ireland and out in the middle of it lies Station Island, the location of St. Patrick's Purgatory, where pilgrims have been going to pray, meditate and perform penance for over 1,500 years.

"It is said that, during his missionary work in Ireland, St Patrick went to the island in Lough Derg and stayed in a cave there. During this time, he was subjected to many temptations and was given a vision of hell - hence the name sometimes given to the island: St Patrick's Purgatory".

Given a vision of hell ? I'd no idea Big Brother was being shown back in his day !! You live and learn.

Purgatory is the 'place' betwixt heaven and hell where your soul goes when you've not been quite good enough to go straight to Heaven, but haven't been bad enough to go to Hell either.
A bit like Fox tv.

One of the many issues I've had with Catholicism over the years surrounds this idea of purgatory and the various ways The Church has invented to give you a spiritual version of a 'get out of purgatory free' card. Actually it's anything but free for the simple reason that one never knows how long one is doomed to spend in purgatory. So devout followers simply say prayers and do penance in the hope that they are shortening whatever time they may rack up there after death.

It's a bit like having never ending mortgage repayments. You pay and pay over the years but in reality you're only ever paying off the interest and, much as you'd love to get rid of it, the principal is a distant dream (or nightmare) just over the horizon. The horizon here being death.

Of course that doesn't stop the devout from trying. My sainted mother had hundreds of little prayer cards gathered over the years from gift shops at places like Lough Derg and Knock and basically any religious location where 2 or more pilgrims would congregate. Most had very specific 'rewards' like if you said the prayer on the card so many times, you'd have 3 weeks knocked off your time in purgatory. Awesome.

Needless to say most card holders would be saying the prayers every waking minute, which is why you'd often see them in cars looking as if they're talking to themselves. Can't waste valuable praying time you know.

Even as a teenager with serious questions about being a Catholic mounting up, I used to wonder if people would swap prayer cards ? I mean why say one that only gives you 3 weeks off your time in purgatory when others might give you a month or more ? Maybe with a free trip to the buffet thrown in ?

But back to Lough Derg.

"The reasons why people make such a pilgrimage are as varied as the people making them. Some may be seeking a way of showing repentance - some may feel that their spiritual life has become flabby - others may simply feel a call to face the challenge of the exercises of the island - still others may go and have no clear idea of why - simply knowing that it is something they have to do.

The classic Lough Derg Pilgrimage lasts for three days. The pilgrim undertakes to begin fasting at midnight on the first day and travels to the island by boat during that morning. Once there, they remove all footwear - for the pilgrimage is undertaken barefoot.The pilgrim then begins a series of "Stations" - a series of prayers - gestures - walking - kneeling - all conducted in silence".

You're probably starting to see why the place is so 'memorable'.

Ok so you've been fasting (only water) since midnight on the day you get there. At 10pm on that first evening you start 24 hrs where you stay awake. So in other words you don't even get the benefit of sleeping through 7 or 8 hrs of the fasting period. The fasting lasts for the full 3 days of the pilgrimage but you are allowed one meal of dry toast and black tea or coffee per day.

Lough Derg is probably the only place in the Northern Hemisphere where there isn't a Starbucks.

So by 10pm on day 2 (by which time you've probably been awake for 36 hours or more), when you CAN go to sleep, the noise from hundreds of empty pilgrim's stomachs is enough to wake the dead.

You know, I feel a retail opportunity is going a-begging. There are many smaller islands nearby and one at least should be bought by an enterprising McDonald's franchise so that illicit midnight boat trips could be made to fill up on speciality VHM's (Very Happy Meals) like a McPrayer & Fries or a McPenance Muffin with Egg and Bacon. Hmmmmm.

In between not sleeping and not needing to go to the toilet, pilgrims fill the time by walking around circular outdoor stone beds, called stations, on their bare feet whilst praying.....probably for a McPenance & Fries with or without the bacon.

I know I'm being quite irreverent here and I don't mean to upset any devout Catholics at all but I'm just telling it as I look back on it now. Even at the time I didn't appreciate the fasting or the lack of sleep and felt that I'd not really done much of anything up to that point to warrant this penance.

I have since then of course !! Maybe it was penance for future acts and in that case, fair enough I say. My feet had healed and my stomach was full again after the first meal stop on the way home and I'd managed to catch up on my sleep during Mass on the 3rd day. So as penance goes, it wasn't really that bad.

So why did I dream about it last night ? I've as much idea about that as I have about why places like St. Patrick's Purgatory exist. And I'm not going to try and work it out either. A dream is just a dream, as Hans Christian Shakespeare used to say.

Maybe it was a sign. A message. Maybe I'm being called back to do another 3 day pilgrimage to Lough Derg.

Yeah right. I'll go when I can get a Bigmac from the neighbouring island and wash it down with a skinny cinnamon dolce latte.


Daphne said...

Religion like this is SUCH a foreign land to me. Fascinating to hear about though. But a card that gives you three weeks off your time in Purgatory? No, I can't believe in that kind of religion. I'm not surprised it's still in your dreams though.
I make an annual trip to Caldey Island, near Tenby. It's peaceful and beautiful with a monastery. And a cafe. And ice-cream. My kind of pilgrimage.

Anonymous said...

Ah come Ian - - purgatory - - heck we took you to Okeechobee !!!!!!

Silverback said...

Clair......I don't think one is supposed to make a financial profit in Okeechobee must be one of the other two places.

Joan said...

I think a trip like this uses the same techniques as torture and brainwashing.

Anonymous said...

Wow, fascinating post! I don't know much about Catholicism but I went to a fairly strong Methodist school from 11-16 during which time we had chapel 4x a week (was a boarding school) which was quite intense.

A big part of me admires people who have faith. It must be such a rock for them. Also, you read about these ultra-brainy scientists who discover atoms and crazy stuff like that who are fairly devoutly religious. There is so much more to religion than meets the eye.

I can never seem to spend long enough considering it though (i.e. is it for me or not).

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