What is it with pilgrimages? Martin Sheen's starring role in The Way tells the story of a man who feels compelled to walk one of the great routes in Europe, the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, after the death of his son. In This Must Be The Place, Sean Penn is drawn from exile in Dublin to cross America and "understand" his family.
A few years ago, Bill Bryson took on the Appalachian Trail with a vague idea that it would test him and help him "understand" his country. It seems that while the idea of a religious pilgrimage is old-fashioned, the idea of a journey that brings insight runs deep.
A journey of curiosity
I certainly took on Croagh Patrick, in County Mayo, out of curiosity rather than conviction. Having lived in not-particularly-religious Dublin, I wanted to see how Catholicism held such powerful sway. The physical challenge also drew me in. Pilgrimage is supposed to be arduous. The tougher the trip, goes the thinking, the greater the spiritual affirmation.
That's all very well, but few people are up to the effort, or believe their soul is sufficiently imperilled to justify a month (or even two) off work. Even Bryson's attempt on the Appalachian Trail took him weeks and he only covered a third of it.
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A mini pilgrimage
But the Tochár Phadraig Pilgrim Walk is a mere 35km, from Ballintubber Abbey to the foot of Croagh Patrick. And if even that seems like too much, you can climb Croagh Patrick in a few hours.
The religious element of Croagh Patrick is strong – I felt like a godless fish out of water at first. A pilgrimage might start out personal, but it ends up communal. The experience is made by the people you encounter on the way. When I set off, I thought only of the effort ahead.
But slowly you climb, you chat, you stumble. Hands steady you, people nod and offer a kind word as you pass. Then – blessings from above – the sun comes out and someone turns, gasps and suddenly, in silent wonder, you're sharing with strangers the heart-stopping view over Clew Bay.
By the time you reach the top you feel connected not just to the people around you, but to all the others back across the centuries who have stood where you stand. It's a dizzying feeling and it changes you.
How did Croagh Patrick change me? I confess I felt more open-hearted, fulfilled and, yes, strangely, at peace.