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.
I don’t know any other place on earth that better exemplifies purgative suffering than Lough Derg. Otherwise known as St. Patrick’s Purgatory, this Irish island was purportedly visited by St. Patrick in the 5th century. The saint came 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.
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.
“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.”
– Father Robert Barron