At the top of Croagh Patrick is a little white chapel, built by men who hauled themselves, their tools and presumably, the materials up the mountain, for a shilling a day if unskilled, and half a crown if skilled. On Reek Sunday, when thousands climb, there are masses, but when we arrived, it was shuttered and locked. I was disappointed not even to be able to get inside, and my groom took photos through the small window. There he was again, St. Patrick. Not only had he climbed the mountain with me, he got there ahead of me. No surprises there.
Too tired to do the requisite 15 circuits of the chapel that the traditional pilgrimage required, we took ourselves to the side, where we could look out over the bay and the fields and said a rosary instead. The glorious mysteries just seemed to fit, and it was, after all, Wednesday, the traditional mid-week day to meditate on the Resurrection and its fruits. As we were getting ready to leave, we saw that the group on top had grown to a dozen or so people, gathered on the back steps of the chapel, and a big, white ram was wandering among them.
Abraham answered, "God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son." And the two of them went on together.... Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. Mind you, I don’t generally think in Biblical terms, but Croagh Patrick seems to do something to a person.
It’s not exactly unusual to run into sheep in Ireland. They are everywhere--but usually where there is something to eat. Here on the top of this mountain, the forage (except for the handouts of tourists) was poor, yet here was this ram, wandering slowly from person to person. It was an irresistible subject for a picture and my groom didn’t even try to resist. As he was re-pocketing his camera and gesturing for us to start down, one of the men on the chapel steps approached me, a rosary with tiny garnet beads dangling from his hand.
There’s to be a mass in a few minutes, if you want to come.
A chill ran down my spine. If the ram hadn’t wandered up, we would have simply departed. If we hadn’t stood apart and quietly prayed the rosary, this man would never have thought to ask us to join.
And so it was a few minutes later, we stood in the little chapel. One priest was preparing the altar, wearing an alb over his bright red sweater, his hiking staff from Medjugorje resting against the chapel wall. Another priest, a visiting Dominican on the mountain by chance, stood to the side, a borrowed stole around the neck of his blue anorak. Nine good Irish men helped with the preparations: a tiny chalice and ciborium drawn from a backpack, a bright, white cloth folded three times three, sorting the readings of the day out among them. One of the designated readers came away without his glasses, so my groom donated his to the cause. I stood watching in a bit of wonder, realizing I was in the presence of muscular Christianity at its best: good men, strong men, unashamed of the faith, and exercising it through their own bodies in the walk, the mass, the serving, the songs, the hand under my elbows as I knelt and stood again, the only woman there..
One of the men sang, the offertory a song about meeting Jesus, the closing "hymn" one of those impossibly sad Irish songs about loss and separation at the hands of men and fate, eminently suitable because the intention the priest had announced for the mass was for those who were suffering from loss of jobs, those who were suffering from cancer and for those who had suffered at the hands of those in the Church who had failed so terribly in their responsibility of love. The very same intentions I had whispered in front of the statue of St. Patrick, the priest had announced aloud in front of him again as we began the mass, and again as we prepared for the final blessing.
Kneeling on the cold stone floor of the chapel, my watch cap an unconventional but very handy cover, gloves on my numb hands, as the rain and cold blew in the open door, I had waited for the moment when the priest would elevate the Blessed Sacrament, my Lord come to the Top of the Reek to meet me. And He did, as He always does. Even, it seems, when I least expect it, certainly when I most need it.
Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the earth. Or in this case, the ends of the earth.
The mass is a gathering in preparation for a sending. My groom and I came up the mountain together and alone. We went back down in the company of friends, in the Body of Christ, in truth and in image, our prayers answered and our needs met. I could feel the world closing in again around me as I made my hard way down the steep, wet slope, tired and refreshed at the same time. This time the encouragement came not from inside my head but by the conversations around me, good Irish craic with good Irish friends. And all because I had some cockamamie idea to climb the Reek even though out of shape and overweight and because I didn't turn back.
When I finally reached the bottom, one curve away from the start of the trail and the statue that had started me out, I held the heavy staff balanced in my hands for a long moment, reflecting on the day. I smiled to myself and lifted it up, kissed it and laid it carefully in the green grass along the side of the trail, not far from where I found it, but far enough along the trail that to find it, one would have to start out in faith. I breathed a quick prayer. Please be as good to the next pilgrim who uses this as you were to me.
Do you trust God to lead you where He wants you to go?