As crisis after crisis erupts around the country and the world, more and more people are facing turmoil in their lives. At times like this, it can help to have somewhere quiet to go to gather your thoughts. One such haven of peace is to be found on the county border between Derry and Donegal.
Surrounded by beautiful countryside in the townland of Dundrean, at Burnfoot, St Anthony’s Hermitage is a gateway to another world – a world where worries can be laid at the feet of Mother Nature, as she soothes the senses with her birdsong and trickling stream and encourages a smile through the beauty of her flowers.
Leaving city and well travelled roads behind, the pace of life gradually slows down on the drive along the little country roads leading upwards to St Anthony’s and, by the time you turn in at the gate to the little white cottage, you are ready to embrace the solitude of this peaceful place.
The picturesque cottage is home to Fr Neal Carlin, spiritual director and founder of the Columba Community, which has its roots within the city of the oaks on the banks of the Foyle.
Fr Neal says “The primary reason for St Anthony’s is to give people an experience of a retreat, where they can get in touch with themselves and experience the Spirit of God within and the Spirit of God in nature. It’s an opportunity to get guidance for a more fulfilled and generous life.
“After sitting quietly and getting replenished, I feel I have more to give and in return I feel happier. Go to the well of living water to replenish yourself.
“People who have fallen out with the Church need to fall in with God. Unless we get in touch with the fountain of living water, the source of our joy and inner peace, we will not live fulfilled lives.”
Recalling a story about a man who had fallen out with the Church, Fr Carlin said: “Years later this man met an old friend who asked him if he was dying of thirst in the desert and was offered cold, clear, spring water through twisted, rusted pipes, would he take it. Of course, the man said that he would.
“Well, the Church is filled with frail, fault-filled sinners, yet God seems to choose to work through frail humanity. Accepting help, grace, blessing wherever you get it, seems to me to be the answer.”
The long, low cottage in which Fr Carlin lives also houses a little oratory and a reading cum dining room, known as the ‘upper room’ and is for the use of those who want to stay over in one of the five en suite hermitages at St Anthony’s.
Named after the four Gospel writers, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and St Colmcille, the hermitages are varied in size and offer simple and comfortable accommodation, with oil fire heating as well as specially fitted wood stoves.
Far enough apart for privacy, the hermitages are close enough for those who don’t want to feel too isolated, and each has its own little brick pathway, which is lit up after dark with sensor lighting.
A Pilgrim Garden in the grounds of St Anthony’s leads you through the life of Christ, beginning with a stone built crib and ending with a tomb, and has been inspired by scripture and Celtic Christian tradition.
The wild, natural beauty of the wooded garden and the intriguing little areas for private meditation combines to help you to unwind, to listen and reflect.
Passing through an open green area edged by a stone wall that has stood the passage of time, the garden path winds its way amongst trees and bushes, with little side paths leading off to secluded areas where you can sit and absorb the beauty and peace that abound.
Alongside the gentleness of nature there is a sense of strength emanating from the rock features you discover as you journey through the garden, from the almost hidden stone circle and Mass Rock, to the little shrines and raised mound giving a panoramic view of the countryside and Grainan of Aileach in the distance.
The garden also has a beautiful stream of spring water flowing through a Celtic cross, which is full of significance for Fr Carlin.
He reflected: “For me, the renewal of the church could be well served in us returning to models as laid out in our Celtic heritage; a semi-monastic model.
“I think the Irish church is called to finish the unfinished Cross of Kells, to build on the faith of the men and women of the Golden Age and their lifestyle.
“Scripture tells us to ‘return to the rock from which you were hewn’. Return to the quarry from which you were dug. That’s what the cross here is saying to me – ‘Go back and look at your simple, clear ancestors’, many of whom gave up positions of honour and riches to joyfully spread the Good News of salvation announced by Jesus Christ.”
On hand to give spiritual guidance to anyone seeking it at St Anthony’s, Fr Carlin explained that each of the hermitages has an information guide, which include some spiritual writings: “What we offer is mostly taken from Ignatian spirituality, which is essentially applying short scripture texts to wherever you are at on your own walk.”
Fr Carlin celebrates a special healing Mass, for all who want to attend, at St Anthony’s every Monday night, at 7.30 pm, and at Columba House, 11 Queen Street, Derry, on Thursday nights at 7.30 pm.
The Columba Community has also created a Celtic Peace Garden, which is located a short distance away from St Anthony’s, beside the IOSAS (Island of Saints and Scholars) Centre, which all are welcome to enjoy as well