Sunday, March 18, 2012

St. Patrick and His Mission

Where were we?  I remember: Patrick, now a bishop, sets out on his mission to Ireland, where he remains for the rest of his life.  And what does he accomplish during those 30 years?  Enormous things.
     1.  In Cahill's words, he becomes "the first human being in the history of the world to speak out unequivocally against slavery."  Having been a slave himself, he is able to feel empathy for the dregs of society.  "Within his lifetime or soon after his death, the Irish slave trade came to a halt."
     2.  He establishes indigenous monasteries and convents, whose inhabitants provided the people with an alternative ideal to the warlord/kings' might-equals-right: monks and nuns, by devoting themselves unselfishly to God, demonstrated that "the sword was not the only instrument for structuring a society."
     3.   He became one with the Irish people, and as a result, "found a way of swimming down to the depth of the Irish psyche and warming and transforming Irish imagination - making it more humane and more noble while keeping it Irish."  He did this by the brilliant technique of stabilizing the Irish worldview without sacrificing its magical underpinnings.  In ancient Celtic lore, "traps seem to lie hidden at every crossroads, and trickster-gods lurk behind each tree."  As I discussed in my previous post, "An Offer You Can, But Shouldn't, Refuse," the cailleach, or hag-goddess, was one of those shape-shifting, terrifying, untrustworthy creatures whose presence made life so precarious and unpredictable.  Patrick pulled off the trick of accepting the existence of magic, in the sense of a force inexplicable and unknowable to us, but he attributed this magical force to God - making it comforting rather than frightening.  In Cahill's beautiful words: "This magical world, though full of adventure and surprise, is no longer full of dread.  Rather, Christ has trodden all pathways before us, and at every crossroads and by every tree the Word of God speaks out."
     Of course, even after converting to Christianity, many of the Irish clung to their pagan ways, to a greater or lesser degree.  And it's this tradition that led, through a long and torturous path that violently intersected with Puritanism, to the burning of witches in Salem, Massachusetts.  But none of that was Patrick's fault.  More than just a saint, he was a visionary, a man ahead of his time, and he spread his kindness out over Ireland like a warm cloak.  Let's try to remember who he was when we celebrate his day.

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