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19/10/2021

OPINION (AN COLN): Following the Stations of the Cross up a Kerry hill

OPINION (AN COLN): Following the Stations of the Cross up a Kerry hill

One of the Stations of the Cross on Cnoc na dTobar in Kerry.

Inspired by the very enjoyable experience of walking St Finbarr's Pilgrim Path the previous weekend, I drove down to Cnoc na dTobar in Kerry on Saturday to follow the Stations of the Cross up the slopes of this mountain.
There are 14 Stations of the Cross on the hill and they were erected in the 1880s. The weather was lowlying cloud, windy and wet; so very different to the quasi Mediterranean conditions of the week before! My recently acquired, bright yellow gore-tex jacket provided some illuminative counterbalance to the greyness of the stratus!
At some of the crosses I stopped, said an Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory Be and sometimes an Our Father as gaeilge. I also reflected on each Station.
In the first station Jesus is condemned to death. Likewise we are all condemned to death from the moment we come into existence. We are all pilgrims travelling towards the same destination.
At the next station Jesus is made to bear his cross. Life itself is a burden for all of us, of varying degrees of weight. Sometimes the weight seems insupportable, sometimes relatively light.
The third station depicted Jesus falling the first time. Failure and falling are interwoven into all our lives. From time to time we are all rejected, we all fail to reach our goals, to reach the fulfilment of our dreams, we are all bullied and hurt by others. The emotionally cold, the unkind and the judgemental can seem to be legion; but there walks with us friends and lovers and relatives. Sometimes a Simon of Cyrene can appear in our lives when least expected and take up the burden of our cross, assisting us in this difficult pilgrimage through life; sometimes a Veronica will approach us with kindness, with affection, and wipe our bloodied, bruised and perspiring face bringing us some temporary relief, some brief respite.
At the tenth station Jesus is stripped of his garments. Sometimes we too are humiliated in front of others and treated with a lack of respect (normally, thankfully, not to the same degree as Jesus suffered, but the treatment is still unpleasant and it hurts us in our souls).
At another station Jesus consoles the women of Jerusalem, and at another they weep over Jesus. For us men, women are one of the great blessings of life, whether as friends, lovers or wives. Their kindness, their gentleness, is a balm for life's hurts. For us men, a life without a lover or a wife is an existence that is off kilter, an existence that has become darker. Women are one of the great sources of light in our lives.
When I reached the final station the wind was very strong, the visibility was of the pea soup variety and it was raining heavily. I passed about twenty pilgrims during the course of the day's climb and each one was in good spirits. I chatted with a few. One of them looked as if she should be in a dinner dance. She was wearing an ankle-length, red dress and black heels. She looked Asian.
Another woman, a Dubliner, told me she was thinking of climbing Croagh Patrick in bare feet. I advised her not to do this, going by the philosophy that this is bringing too much hardship into one's life. I told her I climbed Croagh Patrick in bare feet about 25 years ago and I would never do it again. The suffering was intense. Myself and a couple of friends had stayed up all night imbibing guinness and uisce beatha in a local pub and then had walked to the foot of the mountain. With no sleep and in a state of intoxication we began climbing. Near the foot of the mountain we left our boots behind a rock to pick up on our return, under the assumption that if we brought them with us the temptation to put them on might become too great and we would fudge the challenge. As we ascended we were among thousands of walkers (because it was Reek Sunday) and venerable men in long grey coats and tweed flat caps passed me out in their bare feet. They were probably in their 70s and they were evidently coping better with the barefoot challenge than I was.
After the last Station I walked to the trig pillar on the summit of Cnoc na dTobar (690 metres). It was very windy and bleak in this rocky, heathery place. I had planned beforehand that I would walk from here a couple of kilometres to a nearby Vandeleur-Lynam (hills above 600 metres). Until this point I had been following an obvious path up the slopes of Cnoc na dTobar. Now I was about to strike out across a slope of hill with no path, covered in a blanket of cloud that offered no more than 20 metres visibility. I had my ordnance survey map and compass at the ready, but I felt like chickening out. As so often, the temptation to stick to the beaten track was extremely strong, because it felt safer. With an effort I shrugged off this temptation to stick with the safer way and I set off through the cloud. The visibility was so poor that I stopped and checked I was still on the correct bearing every thirty yards. I would pick out a rock or a tuft of heather about thirty yards away and aim for that.
I remember many years ago when I began my hillwalking hobby, becoming lost on a number of occasions and coming down on the wrong side of the mountains or finding myself in the midst of dangerous cliff terrain and realising that this line of descent was impossible. I had a compass but didn't have a great knowledge of it. Sometimes I didn't trust the compass over my instincts and felt the way it was pointing me couldn't possibly be the way. This is a very common reaction. In fact the compass never lies.
In the same way, I suppose, our lower instincts can throw us off the path of happiness in our daily lives, and we wish afterwards that we had trusted the higher-trending compass pointing us towards a more illuminated way of being. In the fog of life we all need a guide to show us the way. For some this can be a religion, for others art, for others a hobby of some sort. The greatest, most infallible guide of all, though, is the love within our hearts, the light of which is never extinguished.

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