We walked past a few packed pubs this past Sunday – at 2pm. Around here, the party gets started early. How on earth did the feast day of the Patron Saint of Ireland turn into another excuse to sip the happy sauce?
It may be that this is very close to how the Irish observed it from the beginning – eating, drinking and celebrating. There’s no doubt that this is how they do it today. But before you accuse me of being a teetotaling, party pooping, stiff, you should understand a few things.
My disgust for Paddy’s Day drunkenness does not come from a desire to return to the roots of a Catholic holiday or even to spare the Irish the indignity of the alcoholic label (I don’t think they mind). Instead, my motives come from an understanding of the man himself – his life, mission and legend.
Born in Briton as a citizen of the Roman Empire, he was kidnapped and sold into slavery by Irish raiders at the age of 16. For the next six years he became acquainted with hard labor and solitude as a sheepherder. But in his loneliness he declared:
But after I reached Ireland I used to pasture the flock each day and I used to pray many times a day. More and more did the love of God, and my fear of him and faith increase, and my spirit was moved so that in a day [I said] from one up to a hundred prayers, and in the night a like number; besides I used to stay out in the forests and on the mountain and I would wake up before daylight to pray in the snow, in icy coldness, in rain, and I used to feel neither ill nor any slothfulness, because, as I now see, the Spirit was burning in me at that time.1
This closeness with the Spirit helped aid him in escaping bondage – even winning a few converts on his journey home. But home would only be a rest stop. Soon after joining the priesthood, he received a vision of a man he knew in Ireland. The man hands him a letter entitled, THE VOICE OF THE IRISH. He then hears a multitude saying, “We beg you to walk among us once more”. “Stabbed in the heart”, he reluctantly returns to serve and wear out his life once again, but this time with the commission of the Almighty.
Because of the mingling of fact and legend, the rest of his life becomes a bit cloudy. We know of his admitted “lack of learning” and his apparent baptism of thousands. We know that he loved the Irish and counted himself among them. His experience as a slave made him an advocate for the weak and the lowly. When considering the pagan warriors that the Irish were, it seems that Patrick taught them in the only way they could be. They were astounded by the audacity of his faith – he came to them without sword or army but with the message of the God of Love.
As pagans they had a fearful reverence for the natural realm and an inclination for human sacrifice. Patrick built on this belief with a reminder that human sacrifices to the gods were no longer necessary – because of the One who was sacrificed for all.
Some have claimed that St. Patrick’s greatest legacy was the saving of civilization itself. The argument goes – Christianity in Ireland brought a monastic tradition which brought wide spread literacy, which brought an excitement for classical literature, book making and book preserving. This coincided with the fall of Rome by the illiterate barbarians to the east – with all of its horror (libraries being razed etc.). Thus, the humble Irish became the unsung heroes of the written word. (I tend to agree)
For me, its the way the Irish see Christ in the world around them that has had the greatest effect. No doubt their Patron Saint had a hand in this. We can see it manifest in their poems, music and literature.
I see his blood upon the rose
And in the stars the glory of his eyes,
His body gleams amid eternal snows,
His tears fall from the skies.
I see his face in every flower;
The thunder and the singing of the birds
Are but his voice—and carven by his power
Rocks are his written words.
All pathways by his feet are worn,
His strong heart stirs the ever-beating sea,
His crown of thorns is twined with every thorn,
His cross is every tree.
-Joseph Mary Plunkett
So, how will I be honoring the legend of St. Patrick? I think I’ll find a tree and read a good book.