Every Irishman on this beloved day is faced with a constant temptation to turn the rich heritage of Irish spirituality into a loose amalgam of shamrocks, legends and little people all tied up in a Celtic knot. But the faith preached to the land of our forebears by the Apostle of Ireland is not the stuff of ephemeral legends, but as real as the man Patrick, who was very real indeed.
When a little over a millennium and a half ago, Patrick died, 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 that Emerald Isle.
And its so important for us to understand that the kind of Passion for which Saint Patrick was renowned was different than the more common passions we might experience in our own day. Patrick’s passion was not the same as the passion of a presidential candidate whose fire enlightens only the path to power and glory. Patrick’s passion did not seek wealth or fame, or even sectarian advantage.
Perhaps that’s because Patrick’s passion was first ignited in suffering, on the day he was kidnapped 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 stark 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 a shepherd’s passion for the faith first 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."
That’s quite a Seminary…sitting out in the rain and frost amidst the sheep, meditating on the greatness of God and the littleness of man. Sitting there among the sheep, just praying and praying and praying with all the adolescent passion he could muster. He was falling in love with God.
At one point, that passion led him to flee Ireland and attempt to make the journey 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 for so many years.
But his soul grew restless with the comforts of home. The very depths of him burnt with a desire for the infinite, the eternal…the God he had come to know while sitting among the sheep. In the soft, warm comfort of his own bed and in his parents’ house, his heart began to dream.
He later writes that it was a dream in which a man named Victoricus 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, 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.'"
I have often wondered whether that letter was just from the Irish or whether it was also a cry from somewhere deep within the heart of a man who longed to follow that passion he had first come to know among the sheep. The same desire which burned in the hearts of Andrew and Peter the day they first heard the voice of the Lord. The same call which echoes in your heart when God whispers your name. The same call which insistently tugs at the heart strings of all those seminarians over there.
It is the Voice of the God of the Irish and the French, the Romans and the sons of Boston. It is a call to give yourself entirely to him, joined to his sacrifice upon the cross.
So Patrick, listening to the Voice of the Irish and the Voice of God, returned to Ireland, and for thirty years he labored in the Emerald vineyard. And there, as often is the case in the best of our lives, his youthful passion was transformed by God into a 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 a vision, Patrick was making his way through a part of Ireland now 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. Upon which, 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.
And it took every ounce of passionate perdurance which he could muster. 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.”
Now I always wondered why the liturgists of the Church placed the celebration of Saint Patrick’s day in the season of Lent, particularly when abstinence and corned beef too frequently meet each other on a Friday.
But today it makes real sense to me. For Patrick’s passionate perdurance is what Lent is all about. It’s about a people who through invasion, persecution and neglect have kept the faith.
Like the folks of Killeybegs in County Donegal, who in 1844 began to build a Church. The year after they had begun to dig the foundation, the great famine struck, and a visiting Quaker wrote this: “We found in that place the greatest possible want existing…the distress is increasing, and becoming daily more and more alarming.” (1)
The distress was due to the blight which had turned most of their potato crop into a slimy-black stinking mass. The blight and resulting famine spread to every corner of Ireland, until, as one Bishop wrote: “No imagination can conceive, no pen can describe it. To have anything approaching a correct idea of the suffering of the poor, you should be here on the spot and see them with your own eyes, the deaths from starvation average more than fifty per day…corpses were lying in the fields and the people are so terrified that none but the clergy can be induced to approach. I yesterday sent a coffin out for a poor creature who died in a field, of fever, and have just heard that no one could be prevailed to put the body in it.” (2)
But despite the death and suffering all around, in the midst of unbelievable suffering, the people of Killeybegs continued to build their Church. On the same day they were carrying their children and parents to unmarked mass graves, they were carry bricks and shingles to build their Church, finishing the new roof at the end of the first year of the famine! For they carried such an Irish passion for the faith deep within their breasts that they refused to let fear destroy them.
It’s what got them through the persecutions and the famines. Its what got them through the troubles. And its what will get them through the scandals, temptations and betrayals which face them today.
It is the lasting gift of Saint Patrick, our father in the faith: the passion and perdurance to walk with Christ along every via dolorosa in the sure and certain hope that it is the right thing to do.
So here you are in Holy Cross Cathedral on the Feast of Saint Patrick. And how can you honor him? How you can honor the Celtic heritage which you have so proudly received? By embracing the faith. Celebrating the faith. And listening to the Voice which is burning in your heart.
1 From a report of Joseph Cornfield to the London Relief Committee of the Society of Friends of his journey to Killybegs, (18 December 1846).
2 Bishop Haly writing in January, 1847.