Eamonn McCann: The virtual pilgrimage can offer same blessings as physical treks

‘The last pilgrimage I took part in was of the low-tech kind – a three-hour walk along Tóchar Phádraig’

Pilgrims climb Croagh Patrick,  Co Mayo, on Reek Sunday, July 26th.  Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Pilgrims climb Croagh Patrick, Co Mayo, on Reek Sunday, July 26th. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

Those among the faithful forced by bad weather to abandon the annual climb up Croagh Patrick last weekend might consider a cyber-pilgrimage next season. Cyber-pilgimages can deliver the same blessings as physical treks along stony paths.

There’s a tendency among the hardier elements of the of the pilgrim community to reject as ridiculous the notion of embarking on a pilgrimage by clicking onto the internet. New-fangled nonsense for a soft new age . . . They should check out Our Lady of Lourdes North American Hospitality volunteers’ offer of “an experience like an actual pilgrimage . . . a holy encounter with God under the watchful care of Our Lady.” Or the First United Methodist Church of Seattle’s cyber trips to Santiago. For sadly obvious reasons, Shia shrines in Iraq and Syria are increasingly reaching out to worshippers over the ether.

You watch what’s afoot at the shrine, join in the prayers, follow any dietary or other required code. Bare feet, no sleep and black tea if you have logged on to Station Island. Purity of intention is key.

The cyber pilgrimage appears to be a modern version of the spiritual pilgrimage – of which, more later.

The last pilgrimage I took part in was of the low-tech kind – a three-hour walk along Tóchar Phádraig, a rutted path through brambles and bushes encircling Lough Derg. Our guide was Darach MacDonald, author of Tóchar: Walking Ireland’s Pilgrim Paths. “It won’t be weird,” he had assured us. “We get plenty of pagans and atheists.”

My own experience suggests that what pagans and atheists might gain, if only in the moment, is peace of mind – a precious thing in a world where you have to wince at watching the news.

We didn’t meet another soul along the way but chattered as we ambled and stumbled and mused in appreciation of the clumps of beauty on every side. We stopped at sites of special interest . . . A gnarled bush hidden down at the water’s edge dangling with pictures of departed loved ones, poems scrawled on cardboard, a Liverpool FC scarf, scapulars, a memorial card for Elvis Presley.

Later, we partook of tea and buns in the tiny visitors’ centre and agreed we’d all had a good day out and that our heads felt shired.

Darach has walked a dozen of Ireland’s pilgrim paths – Glencolmcille, Clonmacnoise, Slemish, St Declan’s Path in Tipperary among them. Many pre-date Christianity. Perhaps the pagans are most in tune with authentic tradition.

Mountain

Tipperary is the real cradle of Irish Christianity. St Declan was preaching the gospel in these parts long before Patrick lit on Slemish mountain. “What he lacked, obviously, was a good public relations campaign and strong political lobbyists,” says Darach. “Otherwise, we would be parading hither and yon for St Declan’s Day on July 24th, and there would hardly be a peep on March 17th.”

The pilgrim walk in Donegal was, I dare say, a more rewarding experience than scrambling up a mountain in Mayo on skinned knees to prove your piety.

The day didn’t change anything I believed. But the peace of mind was real, a sense of spiritual – which is not to say religious – serenity wafting over us from the Lough’s ruffled water.

Certainly, my dander with Darach lifted the heart in a way that the spiritual pilgrimages of my youth never matched.

The spiritual pilgrimage took place annually at the same time as the Derry Diocesan Pilgrimage to Lourdes. Only the better off could afford to travel. But for half a crown you could acquire an embossed certificate confirming your entitlement to the same booster-shot of sanctifying grace as would irradiate the souls of those chanting orisons at the actual shrine. We prayed to Our Lady of Lourdes every day, so as to maintain spiritual connection with the far Pyrenees.

On the last evening of the pilgrimage all would gather in St Eugene’s cathedral at exactly the same time as the climactic service for the Derry contingent in the Basilica of Notre Dame. We’d bow our heads for the same benediction, sing the same Marian hymns, listen to a sermon setting out the same Marian message.

The sense of oneness across a thousand miles wasn’t entirely fanciful.

Blessings

Our half crowns had helped subsidise the venture. Say 2,000 spiritual pilgrims at half a crown each, £250 – or £50,000 in today’s money. It was only fair that blessings should cascade upon us in the same measure as was descending on our representatives to Lourdes.

(It is sometimes argued in this secular age that there is no essential difference between the main Christian denominations. But it strikes me there never was a Protestant born who could have thought up a scam like the spiritual pilgrimage.) Pilgrimages, cyber-pilgrimages, spiritual pilgrimages. All tastes and tendencies catered for.

“Cyber-trips to Santiago?” You could write a hymn about that.

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