I tend to fall in love with places that I have never seen. I don’t think this is unusual; many of us have seen a place in a photograph or movie and found ourselves struck by the desire to see it in person. Sometimes I have wanted a location for many years: I fell in love with the columns of Durham Cathedral in the UK at the age of 18 and nurtured that desire for 12 years before being able to actually reach out to touch them. . This desire is a deep magic to me – the kind of magic that sometimes takes hold of my life and guides it down unforeseen paths.
Earlier this week, The wild hunt‘s Sean McShee reported on the Harvard Celtic Colloquium and the new research into medieval Irish manuscripts presented there. Reading the article, I found my mind drifting to another one of those dream lands I set my sights on: Station Island, located in Lough Derg in County Donegal, Ireland, the site of a pilgrimage. Catholic called St. Patrick’s Purgatory.
I first read St. Patrick’s Purgatory in a pilgrimage seminar I attended during my graduate studies – this is the subject of a chapter in Edith and Victor Turner Image and pilgrimage in Christian culture, a book that I have spoken of elsewhere about the influence on me. According to the legend of the practice, Saint Patrick prayed to his god that, in order to convert the Irish, he had to be able to show them proof of the Hereafter, and especially of the dangers of Hell and Purgatory. His god then revealed to Saint Patrick a cave on Station Island where Saint Patrick saw Purgatory for himself and was able to demonstrate the same to any reluctant pagans. (The Turners note that finding purgatory inside a cave is likely a holdover from pagan traditions, in which caves often have some connection with the afterlife.)
The Turners used Station Island as an example of an “archaic” pilgrimage, where current practice appears to reflect the survival of an earlier religious form. The theory intrigued me, but I was more interested in their description of ritual practice on the island. Once the pilgrims arrive at Station Island, they embark on three days of almost continuous and roundabout prayer, with barely sleep and little food. The ritual revolves around a series of stations – hence the name – that dot the island, including a set of stone circles that are said to be the remains of beehive cells in which the monks once lived. These stations are each dedicated to particular saints, including many typically Irish – St. Brigid is one of them. A circuit of the stations takes about an hour and 15 minutes, and over the course of a pilgrim’s three days on the island, nine are needed.
Four of these tours, however, take place during a vigil in St. Patrick’s Basilica, during which priests lead pilgrims through the Stations of the Cross throughout a sleepless night. Hundreds and hundreds of Our Fathers and Hail Marys and Symbols of the Apostles are intoned during this night, as the pilgrims try to fight the urge to sleep. (In the past, if a pilgrim fell asleep, it was said that he risked being damned in hell; today, he simply loses his chance to have indulgences, which are already an archaic notion to most people. Catholics.)
Now, many readers can read this description and say to themselves “that looks horrible” and I can’t blame them for feeling that. Certainly, St. Patrick’s Purgatory sounds like an ordeal – both in the modern and classic sense. But to me, anyway, it also sounds like an amazing ritualistic experience, the kind of thing that, if concluded with a willing heart, could put a participant in a fellowship with the divine that would not be possible by means. less arduous. Certainly the poet Seamus Heaney, one of my heroes, thought so; his long poem “Station Island” is inspired by his own trips to Purgatory.
I have often thought about what a ritual like this might look like for modern pagans. I remember the Vision Quest ritual that I participated in for many years at the Heartland Pagan Festival at the Gaea Retreat, which also involves taking a trip through a number of resorts. I’m playing with the idea of something that involves a similar kind of path through shrines and altars over the days – something that takes resilience and dedication to complete, and with a similar emphasis on repetition and devotion, a ritualistic action repeated over and over again so often that it becomes encoded in the rhythm of the breath.
There is a part of me that thinks about this and then thinks of all that would be left out – it’s a form of ritual that assumes that one’s body is “capable” in a way that many are not, sometimes including mine, and just because it’s not a problem for Irish pilgrims doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be a problem for us. The logistics for such a pilgrimage to be both welcoming and stimulating are formidable. But it seems like something worth doing to me, which is why every once in a while I open my notebook and jot down new notes on how this could be accomplished.
I have not yet visited St. Patrick’s Purgatory myself, although they note that pilgrims of all faiths are welcome there; I hope to see him someday, just as I saw the columns of Durham Cathedral. Until then, I will have to make my stations in pen and ink.