St. Patrick - A man of prayer, spiritual depth, unresting piety by Dermot Quinn
At this time of year, when every meal seems to be corned beef and cabbage and every drink a foaming pint of Guinness, spare a thought for the man we celebrate and the country he brought to Christ. Saint Patrick lived over 1500 years ago and is surely not forgotten today but he is still, somehow, the saint that everyone claims and the man that no one really knows. That is a pity, because to make his acquaintance is to meet an extraordinary human being.
Historians have been fighting over him for ages. Even the simplest things—his date and place of birth, his length of life, his years in Ireland—still produce good-natured scholarly squabbles.
Most authors have him born around 390 and dying around 460, spending roughly 30 years in Ireland. But one or two will place him a generation after that, perhaps dying as late as the 490s. We will probably never know for sure. The fighting Irish will fight about anything, even about the man who preached a gospel of peace.
In the absence of fact, legend takes over. The Patrick we commemorate today—the banisher of snakes, the wielder of shamrocks, the bishop with a beard and crosier—is a largely mythic figure. He was invented to symbolize a certain kind of Irish Catholicism and so, for centuries, he has remained.
Even during his life, and soon after his death, his achievements were being crusted over by myth. Within a couple of centuries, biography had given way to hagiography. By the early 17th century, when an Irish Franciscan called Luke Wadding persuaded Church authorities to include his feast day in the universal liturgical calendar, he was a fully fledged “National Apostle.” Now he is an excuse (if excuse were needed) for a party. The man has all but disappeared. Even the saint is hard to see. He has become, instead, a kind of trademark, a greeting card, a blur of green and gold. Soon he may be listed on Wall Street.
Most of this is innocent, of course. Here in New Jersey, the party has been going on for a long time, with few adverse consequences. In March 1780 George Washington, encamped in Morristown with an army bored to the point of mutiny, held a Saint Patrick’s Day Ball which, he hoped, would be conducted “with the least rioting or disorder.” In Jersey City in 1865, “the citizens (witnessed) the processions of the various Irish American associations of our city,” wrote a correspondent to The Daily News, and “in the evening, the more youthful and jovial (participated) in the grand Irish National Ball.” And so it has continued to the present. “We implore you to give us the right to eat meat at this (Saint Patrick’s Day) luncheon,” telegrammed one West Orange group to Archbishop Thomas Walsh in 1950. They need hardly have worried. It would have needed a reinforced miter to refuse.
But it is odd, all the same, to notice this distance between the man and the myth. For one thing, the legendary Patrick is not an especially attractive figure. In most accounts, he comes across as a somewhat imperious magician, more of a druid than a disciple of Christ. For another thing, the real Patrick, the Patrick of history, is a far more compelling figure—a man of prayer, of spiritual depth, of anguished and unresting piety. He is a saint for the modern world as much as for the dark and troubled world of the late Roman Empire.
“I am Patrick, a sinner, the most unlearned of men.” Those opening lines of his confession set the tone of his life and of his mission. As you read that confession, you know it is not false modesty. He really did think himself a man of poor learning and poor Latin, painfully inadequate to the task ahead of him. He knew one book inside out—the Bible—and that became his shield through all difficulties. Otherwise, he was more saint than scholar.
He had no particular reason to love Ireland. He was not even Irish. He was brought to that western wilderness against his will as a young man and for six years was a captive, a swineherd, an adolescent alone in the world.
Yet that captivity deepened his faith. “The love of God increased in me,” he wrote, “so that in the woods and on the mountains and even before the dawn I was roused to prayer and felt no hurt from it.”
And when his days of slavery were over, he still felt, he said, the “call of the Irish”; the need to be back among those who had taken his youth away from him. And so, returning to preach the Gospel, his very inarticulacy became a kind of eloquence. “The stammering tongues shall quickly learn to speak peace,” he wrote. “How much more should we earnestly strive to do this, we who are, so Scripture says, a letter of Christ for salvation even to the utmost ends of the earth?” And in this strange, magnificent outpost, three things grew greater in him: his love of Ireland, his love of Christ, and his love of the Irish in whom he could see Christ.
That love of Ireland and her people was, at root, a love of the world. It was also a love of the world’s triune creator, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Saint Patrick’s hymn to the Trinity—his breastplate—has a brilliant vividness.
For a man who insisted on his unlearnedness, he was not as inarticulate as he thought. For a slave, he was as free as the air. For an exile, he longed for his true home, in heaven. For one who was mocked and derided, he was full of gratitude.
That is the person who has prompted a thousand parades. When the last glass is lifted, when the banners are put away for another year, we should think of him again in the quietness of the night. Saint, apostle and man of peace, Patrick is worthy of our celebrations. Let us hope our celebrations are worthy of him.
A blessing on the Munster people, he once preached:
Men, youths and women;
A blessing on the land
That yields them fruit.
A blessing on every treasure
Produced on their plains
God’s blessing be on Munster.
A blessing on their peaks
And on their flagstones
A blessing on their glens
And on their valleys
On slopes and plains,
On mountains and hills,
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Dermot Quinn, Ph.D., is professor of history at Seton Hall University, South Orange. He is author of “The Irish in New Jersey: Four Centuries of American Life.”
Above image - Holy Water Font "Cruach Phádraig." ©bjm