For more on Croagh Patrick also see “Pilgrim Ways” (Chapter beginning at page 82)
Mountain tops – from Sinai to Tabor – along with the remote places and wildernesses have always been associated with numinous and significant spiritual experiences. Mountains can seem lonely, isolated or insurmountable, hostile for some but, for others, places of refuge. Our language is littered with idioms and expressions that invoke the imagery of mountains – faith moving mountains, mountains out of molehills, Mohammed coming to the mountain, and the rest.
The physical experience of climbing a mountain is accompanied by a commensurate spiritual experience as we set our sights on the high place where God is. In climbing we can both look down and back, considering where we were before: perhaps seeing it as a low place. On gaining the summit we may be rewarded by panoramic views and glimpse life’s bigger picture.
The metaphor “a mountain top experience” has often been used to describe those moments when we sense the presence of God. The night before his murder Dr.Martin Luther King said “I have been to the mountaintop and I have seen the Promised Land”.
The ancients pointed to Mount Olympus as the home of their gods and it was to the top of a mountain that they condemned the malign king Sisyphus to keep dragging a rock to the top of the mountain, only for it to ceaselessly roll back.
In the Book of Genesis, it was to the mountains in Moriah that Abraham was sent to offer up Isaac, his dearly loved and longed for son. It was on Mount Horeb (usually identified with Mount Sinai) that God spoke to Moses through a burning bush and where Moses, the most important prophet in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, learnt both who God is – and who he, Moses, was called to be.
Later Moses is told “Climb the mountain to God” – and, momentously, during his forty days and nights there God imparts the Ten Commandments. God tells Israel that following their liberation “you shall worship me on this mountain.”
Accompanied by Elijah, Moses makes another mountain top appearance, when the New Testament records the Transfiguration of Jesus. On Mount Tabor Jesus appears radiant, shining with bright shafts of light.
In many traditions sacred mountains are where men and women have encountered the divine. For Greek Orthodox it’s Mount Athos; the Sacri Monti are the sacred mountains of Piedmont and Lombardy; Mount Kailash, in Tibet, is sacred to four religions; many Koreans believe Baekdu Mountain to be the sacred place of their ancestral origin; Armenians regard Mount Ararat as the sacred resting place of Noah’s Ark; and there are others.
Unsurprisingly, it was to an Irish mountain, in Mayo, that in the fifth century St.Patrick went to fast and pray for 40 days and nights – like Moses and Jesus in the desert – before beginning the evangelisation of Ireland. Croagh Patrick or Cruchán Aigli, derives from Cruach – a variant of ‘reek’, a reference to its distinctive conical shape. Here Patrick fought with demons, claimed the mountain from pagan practice, and drove out the snakes of Ireland. Every year, on the last Sunday of July (“Reek Sunday”) around 25,000 pilgrims make the climb.
There were fewer people on the mountain when, in August, with my children and a group of friends, I made the climb. Coincidentally, the date was August 21st, the anniversary of the apparition in 1879 at Knock, also in Mayo. Fifteen people testified that they had seen the Lamb with the Virgin Mary. A century later, in 1979, Pope John Paul told the 500,000 gathered at Knock that “we are a pilgrim people” and that as Moses had guided the Israelites so “the People of God of the New Covenant are travelling on our pilgrim way under the guidance of Christ.”
We all have our own reason for making pilgrimages – and it’s anybody’s guess what brought together the climbers who were on the Reek this August day. I met a priest from Zimbabwe who said Africa owes so much to Irish missionaries and now it is time to return the gift of faith; a couple from Croydon introduced themselves as keen members of LIFE; and two young men from Australia were making the climb bare foot.
Three weeks earlier they would have encountered Ireland’s highly regarded Papal Nuncio, Archbishop Charles Brown. On Reek Sunday he and Archbishop Michael Neary of Tuam – a regular pilgrim – made the climb. During Mass, at the summit, Archbishop Neary reflected on the devotion of Irish Catholics who, during centuries of persecution – when it was illegal to celebrate the Eucharist – would gather around some lonely rock where a priest would draw them closer to God and to one another. His recollection was timely as a new survey suggests that the number of Irish describing themselves as religious is now 47% (down from 69%).
2013 has been designated by the Irish Government as a year for those with Irish ancestry to visit Ireland as part of a “Gathering.” During what is also the Year of Faith the Church should play its part in this –encouraging pilgrimage to Ireland’s holy places. At Croagh Patrick there should be a centre for evangelisation, the chapel at the summit should be left open for prayer, and at the end of the climb the many pilgrims should be able to spend time in prayer with the Blessed Sacrament.
For my own climb I was with Ronan Mullen – who serves in the Irish Senate – and members of the Irish pro-life movement. We were accompanied by Declan Ganley and two of his children. Declan has tenaciously and fearlessly championed the rights of the unborn along with his campaigns against the surrender of Irish independence to increasingly powerful European and banking bureaucracies.
We had decided to dedicate the Croagh Patrick pilgrimage to the continued protection of unborn children in Ireland – north and south – where new attempts are now being made to try and legalise abortion.
Since my late Irish mother first took me to Croagh Patrick when I was aged three I have climbed Croagh Patrick several times. For various reasons this year was special. Eighteen months ago, before some surgery on my spine, I would have discounted an arduous climb of 2,507 feet as improbable.
But our climb was also made special by the appearance, as we set off, of a glorious rainbow and by a double rainbow as we returned.
Ireland’s disaffected should never forget that the rainbow signifies God’s everlasting covenant with his people – and happily, in a waterlogged and sodden summer, during our time on the mountain not one drop of rain fell on us – and anyone who knows the West of Ireland will attest that really is a miracle!