One of the most important places of pilgrimage in Ireland is Croagh Padraig, Patrick's Mountain. It is situated near Westport, in County Mayo, up past the vast and empty loveliness of Connemara. It's only about 780 meters high (about 2500 feet) – not a big climb by most standards. But even for me, someone who has hiked the mountains of both on the east and west coasts, it was an arduous trek.
The reasons for the challenge are twofold: About halfway up the summit, this eerie rock pile begins to show up. The Irish call it scree. And it is an accursed pavement: each stone is about the size of a large hand, and all the rocks move around – there is barely a sense of footing.
The other challenge: this entire field of scree is situated on a pretty frightening incline. So steep and direct is the ascent (and descent) that the rocks seem to be in constant movement. Every step, therefore, is a decision. And if you choose unwisely, you could begin an avalanche of stone and humanity.
Now think of doing this entire journey as the Irish sometimes do: barefoot.
As I was trudging up this slope, grateful for a pair of sturdy hiking boots lent to me by my friends, I couldn't stop thinking about what it would be like to take on this mountain without shoes. As you get closer to the top, the rocks smooth out a bit, but for the most part they are a jagged, menacing landscape, and hardly the thing you would willingly inflict upon your feet.
As we were starting out, our longtime friend Tony Murphy stopped us, and put into his hand a small stone. "It is a custom with the Irish," he said, "to carry a stone to the top, and use that as an intention for your pilgrimage."
I found a small rock with a streak of granite white in it, that looked somewhat like the Greek letter tau, and held onto it for the climb to the top.
One other detail of note: the day before, Sunday, was what the Irish commonly call "Reek Sunday." It is the day many people of the country go to this mountain on pilgrimage. The day we climbed, it was fabulous weather and the beginning of summer holidays for some of the Irish; as a result, there were several hundred people making the journey.
But the day before, on Reek Sunday, twenty thousand people climbed this mountain. Twenty thousand! Look at these pictures, and try to imagine the assemblage of such a horde of folk, making their way slowly and painfully up the steep and dangerous slope.
When I made it to the top, I took out my small stone, and laid it in the cairn with the thousands of others on the summit.
I prayed for the continued success of the House of Brigid, and for the young people of Ireland.
There are many, many things being written about the state of the Irish Catholic Church at present. Her liturgies, her lack of administration toward the young, her vocational plight. But still and all, when I hear stories of this kind, of thousands upon thousands of people making a sacrificial ascent in the name of Ireland's great saint, I can't help but think that all is not lost, that, indeed, all will be well.
All will be well. We walk upon God's holy mountain.
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Location:Croagh Patrick, County Mayo, Ireland