Only dry toast to eat and black tea to drink, going barefoot and taking no sleep -- those are the key aspects of an Irish pilgrimage known as St. Patrick's Purgatory.

In overcoming these difficulties of discomfort, participants say a greater spiritual level is experienced by many who venture to Station Island in Lough Derg, situated in County Donegal, in Northern Ireland.

St. Patrick's Purgatory is an isolated lake island that provides a good setting for the pilgrimage. Pilgrims have flocked to the island each summer since the 12th century. And in the first maps of Ireland, the sole Irish landmark was a cave known as St. Patrick's Purgatory.

Medieval writings reveal that, people thought that the cave of St. Patrick's Purgatory in Lough Derg would lead the penitent through to purgatory. This made the place famous throughout 12th-century Europe and is thought to have inspired Dante Alighieri's poem "The Divine Comedy."

During this period, Ireland was considered to be at the end of the known world, consequently it was thought to be the pathway to the heavenly world, along with hell and purgatory.

Surprisingly, there are no written records of St. Patrick ever visiting Station Island but it is known that the saint, who died in 493, did find a place for prayer and contemplation during his life and it is believed this was it.

The reason why St. Patrick chose Lough Derg as a retreat is not clear but the place has had a special quality about it, which dates back to ancient civilizations, way before Christian missionaries came to the country.

Others soon followed in St. Patrick's footsteps and at the end of the fifth century, monks had set up a religious community on the nearby Saint's Island. The first abbot of the monastery there was Davog, a Welshman whom St. Patrick put in charge of the area and who was later canonized.

The name Lough Derg means "red lake," and according to legend, it refers to the blood of the last serpent slain by St. Patrick, when it is said he rid Ireland of snakes in his attempt to end pagan practice and to instill Christianity.

'Doing Lough Derg'

Today, Lough Derg attracts more than 20,000 pilgrims each year with ferries transporting pilgrims and visitors.

Pilgrims coming to the island fast from midnight before they arrive and remove all footwear once stepping foot on the island. Over the course of the three days, pilgrims pray at nine penitential stations called "prayer sequences." Each station involves a style of Celtic prayer where the silent praying of the Lord's prayer, the Hail Mary and the Apostles' Creed is repeated in a mantralike fashion.

Five stations are located outside around "penitential beds" and four are located within St. Patrick's Basilica. At each bed they pray, walking three times around the outside, kneeling at the entrance, walking around the inside and kneeling at a cross in the center.

Brian Martin, a 21-year-old philosophy student who lives in County Donegal, has been on the pilgrimage each year for the past three years and said Lough Derg is a place that gives the individual time out to consider things, to really think on a deeper level without the distractions of modern life. Like many families in Ireland, Martin's family has a tradition of "doing Lough Derg," as locals have come to describe the pilgrimage.

The second day, when the pilgrim has been awake for 24 hours and has completed nearly all of the stations, is particularly powerful, Martin said.

"You get an inner stillness that really makes you think about things on a deeper level," he told Our Sunday Visitor. During the year, he added, things will happen in his life that makes him say to himself, "That'll be worth thinking about at Lough Derg."

Fasting from sleep

The 24-hour vigil from sleep is observed from 10 p.m. on the first evening. This is considered one of the most important parts of the pilgrimage. On the second morning, the Sacrament of Reconciliation is offered, and at midday pilgrims renew their baptismal promises. After the evening Mass and eucharistic adoration and benediction and at about 10 p.m., the vigil is finished. One "Lough Derg meal" is offered each day, and this includes black tea, coffee, dry bread, toast or oatcake. A bell rings at 6 a.m. on the final day to wake pilgrims for a closing Mass. The final station is prayed, and boats leave at 9:45 a.m.

Since 1992, one-day retreats that do not require fasting or walking barefooted have been offered on Lough Derg. Mobile phones, newspapers and desserts are not permitted there.

Bonds form between pilgrims during a pilgrimage to St. Patrick's Purgatory. "Everyone there is going through a special internal experience," Martin said. "It's quite wonderful how groups come together."

Martin does the pilgrimage with his cousin and admitted that before he went the first time, he was worried about going hungry and being up all night because he had never experienced those occasions in his life before.

"But while you are there, you do gather an extraordinary strength from other people," he said. "Some of the elderly peo_ple have done the pilgrimage as much as 40 times before. So, seeing they could do it and that they keep coming back -- that gives you strength as well."

Making a pilgrimage

Three-day pilgrimages begin from June 1 and run through Aug. 13, and cost 45 euros or $59. One-day retreats are possible on specific dates in May, late August and September and cost 27 euros or $35.

For reservations or information, contact St. Patrick's Purgatory, Lough Derg Pettigo, County Donegal, Ireland, e-mail: info@loughderg. org or visit www. loughderg.org

Natasha Lavattiata writes from England.