As many are no doubt aware, this Sunday marks the commemoration of our father among the saints Patrick of Ireland, Bishop of Armagh and Enlightener of Ireland. In a rare occurrence, this is actually true of the Eastern calendar(s) as well as the General Roman Calendar. This means, of course, that a long-winded and detailed defence of the day and a thorough condemnation and censure of the abuse of the day by Americans is forthcoming. In the past, I have written on the Great Famine, the Easter Uprising, the Irish in America, and, most recently, on this blog, the persecution of Catholics in Ireland and inappropriateness of the Feast of S. Patrick for a national holiday. As much as the intention of these posts has been to shame bad behaviour and abuse, it has also been to educate Irishmen in the diaspora about their identity and their history, so they, too, can see the shamefulness of American hedonism connected with this Holy Day.
So far, those lessons have been mostly recent history – within the last three centuries or so. Meaning, perhaps, that it’s time for a change of gears—a going back to the source, if you will, and a discussion of S. Patrick himself and what he accomplished sixteen hundred years ago. We’ve talked sufficiently, I think, about modern Irish history – let’s dip our hands in ancient waters. Granted, I’m making the very arrogant assumption that I’m interesting enough to generate an audience that reads my articles every year.
|Illuminator of Ireland|
As I hinted above, S. Patrick seems thoroughly tied to March 17 – it has been his feast day for as long as he has been prayed to in the Church, on all Roman calendars—of Trent, Pius XII, John XXIII, even the Novus Ordo calendar—and, of course, on the Eastern calendars, which have generally undergone fewer changes (though the New Julian calendar was rather a great change). This makes his feast day an especially significant one—the day is not just holy because of the Saint commemorated, but indeed the long history of the day lends to it some greater sanctity still. It is a day most worthy of this sort of sanctity, too, because of what a great man and great saint Patrick was.
|As son of a deacon and grandson|
of a priest, Patricius is actually more
in line with contemporary Orthodox
clerics more than Roman.
First of all, Patricius filius Calpurnii was born into a family of priests—his father was a deacon, his grandfather a priest, and, in all likelihood, his great-grandfather the same. Since it is unclear when Christianity first came to Britain, it is almost impossible to determine when (and who) among Patricius’s ancestors would have been the first converts, but it is certain that they were a stalwart bunch, since in the borderlands of the Empire, Christians often remained a persecuted minority. To convert was, therefore, by no means the most expedient choice for these outlying countrymen, unlike their urban counterparts.
Despite this background, Patricius did not convert properly until his capture during a raid by Hibernian Celts on his village (which places his birthplace near the sea in the northern reaches of Britain). It was during this time, when he was 16, that he prayed to God for deliverance which, according to his Confessions, was granted when he was 22. He walked to shore, took a boat and returned to Britain. It is important to note that at this point, there was no such thing as England. S. Patrick died in 461, only ten years after the Saxon invasions began—and no barbarian chief would claim the title “King of England” until the Christian Alfred the Great. If Patrick was from the far reaches of Roman Britain, that means in all likelihood he was a Romanised Celt himself, perhaps of the Parisi or Brigantes tribes that dwelled in the north of Britain. By blood, therefore, he was actually closer related to his captors than to Caesar.
Enlightener of Ireland
This is perhaps why, after his ordination by S. Germanus of Auxerre, he would choose to make a mission to Hibernia. It is important that we make that distinction too—for Bishop PatAdd captionricius, the land he visited was—as Bismarck once called Italy—a geographical expression. His captors he called Scoti – that is, Scots, and their country Scotia. In fact, the name “Ireland” wasn’t in use until the late twelfth century. Until that time, and indeed even after that time, the island was often referred to as Scotia Major, or “Greater Scotland”, while the country we know as Scotland today was known as Scotia Minor, “Lesser Scotland”. If there was ever a sense of a united Ireland, it did not arise until well after S. Patrick made his journeys there.
Needless to say, one of the first unifying characteristics of the tribes of Scotia was their common religion. We often talk about a “Gaelic” or “Germanic” or “Greek” paganism, but in reality there was no unifying doctrine or even institutional structure that makes any of these remotely identifiable as religions. In many places, for example, the Germanic god Óðinn or Woden (Odin) was completely unknown, while in others he was exalted above all other gods. The gods of these ancient Scots were no exception. Different tribes had different patron gods, and different chiefs were dedicated to different rites—while some forms of sacrifice and, of course, the language was mutually intelligible, as were the priestly practices, aside from superficial or aesthetic commonalities, you might as well have had as many different religions as you had worshippers. After S. Patrick’s missionary work, this changed dramatically: a distinct sense of oneness came upon the island for the first time in its history.
The religion that S. Patrick taught was also focused on oneness. Despite being rather late in terms of ancient Christianity (he was preaching, remember, after three oecumenical councils and the death of such great Church Fathers as Ss. Jerome, Augustine, Ambrose, and Hilary of Poitiers), Patrick’s theology was focused heavily on the mystery of the Trinity. His primary attribute, the shamrock, is part of this. It is highly ironic that the Shamrock should be so degraded today considering what a high place it actually occupies in Irish history: it is a uniquely Irish symbol representing God as Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. To see shamrocks on banners, littering the ground, used for plastic goggles, and all sorts of other uses and abuses, then, is an especially offensive aspect of the American perversion of S. Patrick’s feast.
Many people remember a certain passage from the so-called “Lorica of Saint Patrick” or “Deer’s Cry”. If it is not a prayer penned by the saint, it is at the very least inspired by his theology. Everyone remembers the simple and inoffensive lines
Christ with me, Christ before me,
Christ behind me, Christ in me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ in breadth, Christ in length, Christ in height,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of every man who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.
Fewer remember the other, arguably more significant part of the chant (for it was meant to be chanted by a group):
I arise today through the strength of the love of Cherubim,
in obedience of Angels, in the service of the Archangels,
in hope of resurrection to meet with reward,
in prayers of Patriarchs, in predictions of Prophets,
in preachings of Apostles, in faiths of Confessors,
in innocence of Holy Virgins, in deeds of righteous men. …
I arise today through God's strength to pilot me:
God's might to uphold me, God's wisdom to guide me,
God's eye to look before me, God's ear to hear me,
God's word to speak for me, God's hand to guard me,
God's way to lie before me, God's shield to protect me,
God's host to secure me:against snares of devils,
against temptations of vices,
against inclinations of nature,
against everyone who shall wish me ill,
afar and anear, alone and in a crowd.
How many, I wonder, who celebrate the American version of the day do so thinking of imitating “the obedience of Angels, the service of the Archangels”? How many “against temptations of vices,” or, better still, “against inclinations of nature”? When his hagiographers say S. Patrick “drove the snakes out of Ireland,” it seems fairly clear what they are referring to.
|What S. Patrick drove out of Ireland.|
One of the most important parts of S. Patrick’s mission to Scotia is that not only is he responsible for establishing the Faith in that land, but he is responsible specifically for establishing one of the most visible outward signs of the Faith in the Middle Ages (or any age), which is the monastery. It is for this reason that S. Patrick is remembered in the Church lists as a “Confessor” (one who suffered but was not martyred for the Faith), “Venerable” (a monastic) and “Enlightener of Ireland” (missionary to Ireland) – three titles for the great preacher of the Trinity.
The question that remains, then, is “what is a feast-day?” After all, I have spent the last five years preaching against all forms of celebration on the Feast of Saint Patrick – calling to wear the black of mourning for the fallen, the starved, the murdered rather than giving ourselves over to hedonistic excess awash in cheap green beer and ethnic slurs. I say it as a challenge to the American exploitation of my people, our history, and our sacred memory. However, while I say this (and will continue to keep my own vigil for the vile rape of Irish culture committed by ignorant Americans every year), it is worth remembering that we call saints’ days “Feast Days” for a reason: because we are called to celebrate the life of the saint, because he was holy and worked great things in the Name of Christ. This means that celebration—in moderation, temperance, and ever mindful of why we celebrate—is not out of order.
We are very fortunate this year, since the Feast falls on a Sunday, and (for Roman Catholics) in the midst of Lent. As such, hedonistic behaviour which is out of line at any time of the year is an especially heinous act this year. However, we likewise have an opportunity to celebrate the day in the true spirit thereof: as a religious celebration, with a Mass for S. Patrick followed by a proper Sunday feast. We may eat, but not to the point of gluttony; we may drink, but not to drunkenness, and we may be joyful, but mindful of the Saint and his great works—and the centuries of bloodshed that would follow his bloodless conversion of the “land of the Saints”.
I will therefore suggest this year that our vigil continue to be kept in the black of mourning (as I will be doing out of protest), but likewise implore those who do choose to celebrate to at least awaken this Sunday and recall the Lorica of Saint Patrick, and rise with the Venerable Saint’s words on our lips,
I arise today
through a mighty strength,
the invocation of the Trinity,
through belief in the Threeness,
through confession of the Oneness of the Creator of creation.
Salvation is of the Lord.
Salvation is of the Lord.
Salvation is of Christ.
May Thy Salvation, O Lord, be ever with us.
|Holy Bishop Patrick,|
Faithful shepherd of Christ's royal flock
You filled Ireland with the radiance of the Gospel:
The mighty strength of the Trinity!
Now that you stand before the Saviour,
Pray that He may preserve us in faith and love.
-Troparion IV, Feast of St. Patrick