A few years ago, our CATHOLICISM series film crew arrived at the shores of large lake in far northwest Ireland, in the county of Donegal. We stepped onto a ferry and were taken to an island in the middle of the lake. On the island was a collection of buildings, which in both architecture and color reminded me vividly of Alcatraz prison. The weather that day was horrific: temperature around 50, heavy winds, and a steady cold rainfall. Our hosts offered us tea and scones and then we made our way onto the island to begin our work. Out of the mists and the rain emerged the figures that we had come to film. They were swathed in raincoats, hoods, and jackets, but their feet were bare. Most of them carried rosaries in their hands, and some of them were praying aloud. A few were making their way, on their knees, around rude “beds” of stone, and one woman was standing against a wall in the attitude of the crucified Christ. Some of the more elderly denizens of the island were walking with a halting, pained gait. We had come to Lough Derg, otherwise known as St. Patrick’s Purgatory.
I had wanted to find a place which would be a fitting visual accompaniment to the section of our CATHOLICISM series dealing with Purgatory—and I wasn’t disappointed. I don’t know any other place on earth that better exemplifies the idea and practice of purgative suffering than Lough Derg. Tradition has it that St. Patrick himself came to this island in the 5th century in order to spend a penitential retreat of forty days and forty nights. And from the Middle Ages to the present day, pilgrims have journeyed there, in imitation of Patrick, to do penance and to pray. When the retreatants arrive, they are instructed immediately to take off their shoes and socks, and they endure the three day process barefoot, regardless of the weather. That first day, they fast (eating nothing but dry bread and a soup composed of hot water and pepper), and they move through a series of prayers and spiritual exercises. The first night, they are compelled to stay awake, fasting from sleep. If someone dozes off, his fellow pilgrims are expected to wake him up. The following day, they continue with their fast and their exercises, but they are allowed to sleep that night. The third day involves still more prayer and culminates with confession and Mass. After the liturgy, the pilgrims put their shoes back on and are ferried across to the mainland. Though we didn’t want to disturb the prayer of the retreatants, a few of the pilgrims approached us. One, a man in his mid-seventies, told us that he has made the Lough Derg retreat every year since 1957; and another, a woman in her sixties, told us that the feeling of freedom and inner peace that she has upon leaving the retreat is incomparable.
Now I’m sure that many people, especially in our largely secularized culture, would raise a number of questions about a place like Lough Derg. Why would anyone willingly endure such suffering? Why would a gracious God expect this of any of his children? Isn’t all of this a sign of neurosis, the fruit of low self-esteem and the product of a sick culture? Well, I know lots of people who quite willingly go through an hour or more of intense physical exercise every day—running on tread mills, climbing on stair masters, lifting heavy weights—in order to assure the health of their bodies. And soon the Chicago Bears and the other professional football teams will commence grueling two-a-day workouts in the late summer sun in order to prepare for the rigors of the NFL season. And young people all across the country regularly move through hours and hours of practice in order to master the guitar, the flute, or the violin. No one accuses these people of neurosis or low self-esteem or construes their exercises as the fruits of a dysfunctional culture. The point is this: whenever we take something to be of great importance, we are willing to suffer in order to achieve it or participate in it.
Those who come to Lough Derg take their spiritual lives with utter seriousness, and that is precisely why they are willing to endure hardship—even imposing it on themselves—in order to deepen their communion with God. They know that there are certain tendencies within their bodies and souls that are preventing the achievement of full friendship with God and therefore they seek, quite sensibly, to discipline themselves. John Henry Newman commented that the ascetical principle is basic to a healthy Christianity. He meant that Christians, at their best, understand that our sinful nature has to be chastised, disciplined, and rightly ordered. When the ascetical instinct disappears (as it has in much of Western Christianity), the spiritual life rapidly becomes superficial and attenuated, devolving into an easy “I’m okay and you’re okay” attitude.
The whole point of the Christian life is to find joy, but the attainment of true joy comes, in a sinful world, at the cost of some suffering. That’s why I, for one, am glad that a place like Lough Derg exists.