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Word of the day: vagevuur (purgatory)

Yesterday Petra told me that the students in her intensive intermediate group discussed the concept of VAGEVUUR. ‘Vagevuur?’ I asked. Astonished. Stunned. Eight people having a heated discussion about HET VAGEVUUR in this secularized day and age. In Dutch. 


Petra has two Catholic nuns from an Argentinian order and one Moslim in her group. Apparently the concept of purgatory transcends religions and is not confined to Roman Catholics. 

Well anyway, the word VAGEVUUR stirred up all kinds of emotions in me. Memories from the time when I lived and studied in Ireland at the end of the seventies in the previous century. Shall I tell you this story? Should I? Facebook is all about private affairs and human interest. So why not. Here it is. Face to face this tête à tête.

After my first girlfriend had left me and my first steady relationship foundered, I was heartbroken and financially broke. Sad and forlorn I roamed the streets of Dublin, until I saw an advertisement in a shop-window for a pilgrimage to St Patrick’s Purgatory (Lough Derg, Co. Donegal) for a weekend in June. The notice said: ‘Total cost (i.e. for Coach, Boat and Stay on Island) will be 9,50 punt.’ I needed a break, but, as I said, I was broke. So the prospect of having a weekend of rest and reflection away from my miserable home in an idyllic monastery was just what I needed.

In the Coach I sat down next to a friendly and elderly lady from Dublin, who asked me if I was Catholic. ‘No,’ I said, ‘I grew up without a religion’. She did not mind my atheism and she took me under her wing for the entire weekend without once trying to convert me. She did, however, explain to me what lay ahead of me: a weekend of fasting and staying awake. And barefoot all the time. Night and day. WEER OF GEEN WEER (come rain or shine)!

When we arrived on the island of Lough Derg I had to hand in my shoes and socks. Priests welcomed me and hundreds of pilgrims. Immediately after arrival we were sent on doing our Stations. A Station is a long religious exercise consisting of going from one holy spot to another saying all kinds of prayers. Because I didn’t know any prayers, I concentrated on thoughts and notions that bothered or worried me. You can probably guess what trains of thought I reasoned out. Two of them were belief and religion and my view of them in this holy island.

Why was the Island called Saint Patrick’s Purgatory? And what is a Purgatory?

The word ‘purgatory’ is a twelfth century word from Old French ‘purgatore’ which was derived from Medieval Latin ‘purgatorium’ (means of cleansing). The Dutch and German words are translations of Saint Bernard’s invention: Dutch VAGEVUUR and German ‘Fegefeuer’ literally mean ‘cleansing fire’. Medieval ‘vaghen’ means ‘clean’ and ‘vuur’ ‘fire’. It is related to the modern verb VEGEN (‘sweep’, ‘brush’, or ‘wipe’) which is still in use.

HET VAGEVUUR (Purgatory) is far from VAAG (vague). It is a process of purification somewhere between Heaven and Hell in the HEELAL (universe), with Heaven being somewhere above in the sky (HEMEL) and Hell somewhere below beneath the earth (HEL). The Italian poet Dante envisaged Purgatory as a physical place, a mountain in the southern hemisphere. In 1999 Pope John Paul II called Purgatory ‘a condition of existence’ and in 2011 Pope Benedict XVI said that Saint Catherine of Genoa (1447–1510) saw Purgatory as a purifying inner fire, instead of a location in space. These two Popes apparently imply that Purgatory should be seen as a spiritual process of purification.

Legend has it that St Patrick’s Purgatory dates from the fifth century, when Christ showed the Irish patron Saint an entrance to hell in a cave on Station Island. From as early as the twelfth century this popular place of pilgrimage was mentioned in literature and on maps. The cave must be still there, but it was closed and locked in 1780 and on its site a bell tower was erected.

The pilgrimage to St. Patrick’s Purgatory must be one of the oldest in Christianity. It continues even today, after fifteen-hundred years. Every year the main pilgrimage season begins in late May and ends on the 15th August, the feast of the Assumption of Mary. It is a three-day pilgrimage open to pilgrims of all religions, or none. All they ask of the pilgrim is to be over fifteen years of age, in good health and able to walk and kneel unaided.

What I remember most vividly of my stay there is not making my stations in the pouring rain kneeling on the sharp rocks and going round the beds of the small island in the footsteps of many thousands of saints and pilgrims, but the endless siberian vigil. Those tediously long hours of trying to stay awake fighting sadness and feelings of loss.

No, it is this experience. In the morning a priest came up to me and asked me if I was willing to carry the Bible to the altar during Holy Mass. Without hesitation I said yes. In the evening you could have seen me striding humbly towards the altar on my bare feet in the Basilica, the church which was full to the rafters with pilgrims. This short walk felt as a tremendous privilege and those moments were the closest I have ever come to a spiritual revelation.

After I had returned home and said goodbye to my elderly guardian angel, I felt cleansed by the spiritual fire that I experienced during this short pilgrimage. It was the overture to my new life with new loves.

There are several Irish writers who went on this pilgrimage. The 19th century Irish writer William Carleton tells in his story ‘The Lough Derg Pilgrim’ about his experience of the pilgrimage. ‘Station Island’ is a long poem written by Nobel prize winner Seamus Heaney. Denis Devlin and Patrick Kavanagh also wrote poems on St. Patrick’s Purgatory. I’ll conclude this posting quoting the words of Patrick Kavanagh which he wrote in 1942:

Lough Derg overwhelmed the individual imagination
And the personal tragedy.
Only God thinks of the dying sparrow
In the middle of a war.
A man’s the centre of the world,
A man is not anonymous
Member of the general public.
The Communion of Saints
Is a Communion of Individuals.
God the Father is the Father
Of each one of us.

(From Patrick Kavanagh, Lough Derg, The Goldsmith Press Ltd. The Curragh, Ireland, 1978)