Wednesday 14 February 2024

An Island in the Rain

Many of us might dream of an escape to an island. Perhaps the island you think of is full of palm trees and coconut trees, hammocks strung between them and endless sunshine. Perhaps it is the calm of the beach that your fantasy island provides, sea lapping at the sandy shore, not a cloud in the sky nor a care in the world. Today, on Ash Wednesday, another island might come to mind to some. Despite the wild natural beauty of the place, the tranquility, the breath-taking sunsets and sunrises, this is no holiday island, but a place of pilgrimage and a place of penance. On Lough Derg thousands come each year, unshod, fasting, denying themselves sleep and replacing the chatter of conversation with constant prayer. Our fantasy islands are about escape from the world, getting away from it all, a change of scene. And although from the Maldives or the Seychelles we might come home rested (and poorer), that’s all. From this island we are invited to come back changed.

On this island, called, in fact, “Station Island”, the round of “Station Prayers” contains a gesture that is particularly striking. At a simple cross cut into the wall of the church, pilgrims stand facing out, with arms outstretched in the form of the cross, saying three times aloud, “I renounce the world, the flesh and the devil.” Watching this scene, a young man will come along and make this profound sign, then a teenager, and next in line perhaps a woman in her seventies. Bare-foot, hungry, there is an amazing equality in these pilgrims — even down to the wet-weather gear that is almost always needed on this island island lake in Donegal. There is equality in their penitence, in their penance, but also in their desire for the mercy of God. The three days they spend here are not an escape, but rather they think about their lives, they thank God for his blessings and, by disciplining themselves a little, they seek what is most essential, to strengthen their relationship with him. It is a powerful gesture of their need for God.

Lough Derg has always struck me as a sort of mini Lent. Lent is not a time of punishment for punishment’s sake, but a time of renewal of what is most important. Lent is a powerful gesture of our need for God. By paring back for a while, by denying ourselves, by praying more, by thinking of those who have much less than we do, we gain a different optic on our life. We look again and we seek to change for the better. Our Lenten penance is a bit like standing at that cross on Station Island: we renounce those things that can trap us so that we can be freer to love God. It sounds simple, but if only it were so. Rather in stretching out our arms we are reaching out to our God who comes to save us, to lift us up by his grace and help us.

At the end of the three-day pilgrimage on Lough Derg, the pilgrims (shoes on, faces washed) return to the world delighted, a spring in their step, a smile on their face. They have done it! The real joy comes from that reaching out to God, however, of having given him their small gesture, to receive much grace in return. Whatever you do this Lent — whether it’s giving up Mars Bars or merlot — remember that it is really all about the heart that is within our sacrifice, and if in our heart we too reach out more to him, then we too will skip off our own Lenten “island” closer to him and ready to face life a bit better off for it.