Faith Matters

Lough Derg: The pilgrim journey can be as significant as the destination

As the annual three-day pilgrimages get underway at Lough Derg, and ahead of further one-day retreats, Fr La Flynn, Prior at Lough Derg, says the pilgrim journey can be as significant as the destination

Lough Derg in Co Donegal has been a place of pilgrimage for more than 1,500 years

LAST week I had the joy of saying hello to an acquaintance I had not met in recent years.

He wished me well in my role as Prior of Lough Derg, and he commented on how pilgrimage is making a comeback in recent years, instancing the example of the Camino de Santiago and how in almost any random group there seems to be at least one person who has a story to tell about their experience of it.

It is now 10 years ago since I walked the final 160km into Santiago, and had the good fortune to reach the cathedral on one of the occasions when the Botafumeiro - the huge smoking thurible slung from the dome - was in full swing.

My pilgrim companion then was the Church of Ireland rector of the parish where I was ministering at the time, and the Camino had been his suggestion.

On our final days into Santiago, we found ourselves meeting other pilgrims on the trail who were saying to us: "Oh we heard about you two - you're the two Irish priests, a Protestant and a Catholic, walking the Camino together."

Ireland was not at that time famous for warm Catholic-Protestant relations...

One of the blessings of pilgrimage - any pilgrimage - is the people you meet and the conversations you can have.

It seems to me that every pilgrim is answering a call - a call to make a journey that is physical, but at the same time emotional and spiritual.

Not all of the destinations are as high-profile as Santiago or even Lough Derg; there are many who make a regular pilgrimage to the grave of a loved one - a journey that is physical, emotional and spiritual, although they might not think to call it a pilgrimage.

To me, the call is a key element. The occasion may be a suggestion from a friend, like my pilgrimage to Santiago, a poster in a church porch or a line in a parish newsletter, or even an advertisement in a newspaper.

But the real call comes from within; from that deep place where the 'still small voice' can be heard by those who are open to pause and listen.

On pilgrimage, the journey may be as significant as the destination.

I suggest that pilgrimage always, in some sense, is inspired by a hope of being able to move on. And by God's grace it can be the case that the pilgrim even comes home transformed in some measure.

Few pilgrims would name penance as a motive for coming here. They are more likely to talk about the sense of peace that pervades Lough Derg, getting away from it all and opting out from the demands of the digital age 

The spiritual landscape in which we live continues to change, so we need hardly be surprised that the traditional contours of the map of pilgrimage seem less familiar.

Take Lough Derg for example. In past generations, the three-day pilgrimage to Lough Derg was synonymous with doing penance.

Now, few of our pilgrims would name penance as a key motive for coming here.

They are much more likely to talk about the sense of peace that pervades the Island, the store that they put on getting away from it all, the blessing that it is to choose to opt out, if only for a few days, from the relentless demands of the digital and technological age, and the expectation of being perpetually available to respond right now.

Many people also value the deep sense of connection they experience here with family members of past generations who sought and found God's presence at Lough Derg, especially as they walk barefoot the same ground walked by faithful people who went before them.

For me, it is particularly interesting to note the wide range among our pilgrims: from those who are frequent church-goers to those for whom Lough Derg may be their only religious 'appointment' in the year, apart from occasional attendance at funerals.

The current demographic on the three-day pilgrimage is better balanced than ever I remember it, between women and men, younger and older, devout and searching, while our one-day retreats have a particular appeal to former three-day pilgrims for whom the time has come to find a different form of prayer but still maintain their contact with the Island.

In a recent newspaper article a journalist who had done the three day pilgrimage a few years back described it as "the Iron Man of pilgrimages".

Less colourfully, on a one-day retreat just a few days ago I overheard someone telling her companion about the three-day pilgrimage: "Yes, it is demanding, but it is very doable."

So, dear reader, these are some of my thoughts about pilgrimage and a little of my experience.

May you find the right time to hear and answer the call to be a pilgrim, however it may come to you.

And wherever your pilgrimage may take you, Lough Derg or elsewhere, may you too find grace to move on and, perhaps, come back transformed.

  • For more information about Lough Derg's programme of three-day pilgrimages, one-day retreats and 'special days', visit www.loughderg.org, telephone 00353 (0) 71 9861518 or email info@loughderg.org

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