Reek Sunday and The Pilgrim’s Path

This Sunday, the last Sunday in July, is Reek Sunday in County Mayo, Ireland. What is that you might ask? I cannot begin to explain or describe it all. It is a tradition in Ireland that began at least 1500 years ago. It is a day and the night before of pilgrimage to climb to the top of Croagh Patrick. The Reek is Croagh Patrick’s nick name and is about 2500 feet above sea level. It’s also one of twelve mountains (called the Twelve Bens) that form a mountain range in Connacht.

Now Croagh Patrick is a holy mountain. Patrick, one of Ireland’s patron saints, is said to have climbed to the top where he fasted and prayed for forty days and nights. Thousands of people climb the mountain each year. I’ve heard all kinds of stories of how people do the climb: husbands and wives join hands and arms to climb it together; some people climb in bare feet as an act of penance. There’s a chapel at the summit where Mass is celebrated.

I’ve had a few climbs of the mountain myself. I was sixteen years old the first time. A student in boarding school, I was dating a local boy, Michael Rice. I had no idea the import of the Reek Sunday. All I know is that on the Saturday evening, we went to Murrisk where we climbed to the top of the mountain and when we got down, we went into a church in Westport for Mass.

The next time, I climbed was not on Reek Sunday. It was a beautiful summer day. It was just an opportunity to go for a hike. One of my cousins came with me. I will never forget the view of Clew Bay. The West of Ireland in all its beauty. Its sacredness.

Then when I was much older, one summer I took part in the Pilgrim’s Path. This does not occur on Reek Sunday. It about a 26-mile walk from Balintubber Abbey along the path that Saint Patrick took to the top of the mountain. We walked on roads and through fields. We stopped at a holy well. The priest who led the walk said Mass in a cemetery just as the priest’s did during Cromwell’s times. And, finally we came to the backside, south side, foot of Croagh Patrick. There was no path. No guide. Just sheer determination to climb and reach the summit. And I did it! But how you might ask. With a set intention!

At the beginning of the walk, we each received a walking stick (staff) to use along the way. Our priest guide also suggested that each of us go into the church at Balintubber Abbey, light a candle, and make an intention to guide us through the day. At that time, my father had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. So, I went into that church and lit a candle to the Sacred Heart that I could do this walk for my father. I kept that candle’s light in my heart and soul that entire day.

When we finally reached the summit, we still had to make our way down the mountain on the well-trodden, dry, slippery stone path that is normally taken by pilgrims.

I arrived home that evening at our family cottage in French Hill. My Uncle Willie and Aunt Celia Hughes came by to see how I was and if I’d done it. I was so happy to see them.

That day, for me, was a pilgrimage to a sacred summit. I still have the walking stick. I have wonderful memories of my Aunt and Uncle. They and my father have gone on to another spiritual place. But their love, their guidance, their faith, their light remains.

So…. let us not despair when all seems awry in this world or in our personal lives. There are sacred places and people in this world. We each have our mountain to climb. But light your candle and set your intention. There’s good energy around us. Seek it out. Throw your arms around it. Bring others into it. And, get to the summit.

Keep the love going, Martha

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