Tuesday, March 4, 2014

With Patrick on Ash Wednesday

When a little over a millennium and a half ago, Patrick of Wales died in his beloved Ireland, it was after living a life filled with a passion for God: a passion so evident, that his very presence ignited a fire of faith which still burns, in good times and in troubles, on this Emerald Isle.  

That passion was first ignited, ironically enough when he was taken as a sixteen year old slave.  His seminary, he tells us, was lived out in a solitary pasture, where he was forced to tend sheep, living in exile among a strange people in a strange and craggy land.

Yet, he reflects in his confessions, those days of suffering, far from the comforts of home, were days in which God’s love and his faith flourished.  He writes of the lonely days he spent as a young shepherd:

"Many times a day I prayed. The love of God and His fear came to me more and more, and my faith was strengthened. In a single day I would say as many as a hundred prayers, and almost as many in the night. I used to get up for prayer before daylight whatever the weather--snow, frost, rain-- without suffering any ill effects. The spirit within me grew fervent."

At one point, that passion led him to flee Ireland and attempt to return home.  With unbounded determination he was undeterred by mere physical realities in this quest.  If God (or at least his passions) wanted him to do it, no mountain or bog would remain unclimbed or uncrossed as he walked almost two hundred miles to get home.

He was in his twenties when he arrived home, overjoyed to be away from those troublesome Irish.  He must have dreamt about that moment on endless star-lit nights in Irish pastures and longed for those who spoke his language, with whom he felt at home and among whom he had grown up with for many years.

Yet no sooner did he return home than he had a dream in which a man named Victorious came to him with a big stack of letters.  This somulant mailman was, scholars suggest, Saint Victorious, a saint of whom Patrick’s father, an ordained and learned deacon himself, may often have spoken.  Victorious, we are told, was a vociferous advocate for missionary activity, especially to the dark and mysterious lands which lay north of Britain.  

One of the letters was addressed to Patrick himself, and it began with the words: ‘The voice of the Irish.’  It said:  'We beg you, young man, come and walk among us once more.'"

So Patrick returned to Ireland, and for thirty years he labored in the Irish vineyard.  And here, as often is the case in the best of our lives, his youthful passion was transformed by God into full fledged perseverance.  One of the more obscure iconographic signs of the great Saint illustrates this well.

It is of a crozier stuck in the mud, or the bog, to be more precise.  It seems that after responding to the vision, Patrick was making his way through a  part of Ireland now known as Aspatria, a place so stubbornly pagan that he could preach until he was blue in the face and these stubborn celts would just sit there and scowl.  And so, the ever persistent evangelizer jammed his wooden crozier into the ground and swore he would not shut up until the faith had taken root in that obstinate land.  Roots sprang from the base of his crozier and the great walking stick grew into a small tree, at which the people repented and were baptized by the hundreds.

Such was the perdurance of his faith that he could wait a lifetime, if that’s what it took, for the faith to take root. 

Of his life preaching the Gospel he once wrote, "Daily I expect murder, fraud, or captivity. But I fear none of these things because of the promises of heaven. I have cast myself entirely into the hands of God Almighty who rules everywhere."

And that is what Lent is all about…doing everything we can to rekindle the perdurance built on the foundation of passion for Christ and for his Church.  And it is right and just that we begin such a Lent in the land of Saint Patrick.  Encouraged by his example, let us seek to place ourselves entirely into the hands of God Almighty.