St Patrick – Not a Tipsy Leprechaun

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March 16, 2018 by lucieromarin

The Feast of St Patrick is not for binge-drinking and dancing jigs in silly hats. That’s because it’s not about Ireland being awesome, but about the Blessed Trinity being awesome. My point is not that you should think as I do about the Blessed Trinity, but that we should be clear about the meaning of a calendar day, and this one is for remembering that modern technology is not the only power in the universe, and that, in the past, both men and women have warred over powers other than ours just as we fight over oil or internet rights today.

I apologise for my irritated tone. I become doctrinaire when annoyed, and men in fast cars who tell me that there’s no such thing as magic trigger my inner witch. I know it’s fun to dress in green, and yes, I will be dressed in green on St Patrick’s Day! I also know it’s easy to laugh at some of the old Celtic prayers, which always seem to be invoking God’s protection against goblins or spells or things we consider peasant superstitions, but I don’t really see why I should hold in contempt a woman who can spin her own cloth and bake her own bread just because she had a couple of superstitions, given that it’s our amazing age that invented social media and raised a generation of device addicts. It is true that a peasant might have superstitions. It is true that it might not be a curse that made the cow ill. But does that mean there’s no such thing as invisible, intelligent power? The Feast of St Patrick is a reminder to us to give our forefathers some credit.

There were Christians in Ireland before St Patrick, just as there were apostles, martyrs and virgins in Rome before St Paul. Like St Paul, it was given to St Patrick, not to be the founder of something, but to be its energy – the one who walked right into the spirit and the conflict of the age to yoke it to the service of God.

Celtic spirituality is not legal; it is a spirituality of connection. I do not mean this in a mushy way. It means that the Holy Trinity is invoked as you arrange the peat in three sections on the hearth every morning, not because you fear God and need to prevent Him judging and punishing you by grovelling before Him or making sure He hears you praise Him, but because you see no reason why you shouldn’t tap into His power every morning to get it to warm your house. Of course, the spirituality acknowledges that that power is His, but it is never categorised or contained.  It’s everywhere. You pray God’s blessing upon the loom before you weave. You pray His power into the cloth and then invoke that power again each morning as you clothe yourself with that prayer-laden robe. You cast God’s power over the cows, the butter, the field and the road, and you draw God’s power from the moon, the stars, even from the rocks. And we’re not talking about the power of high self-esteem here.

Patrick, too, as much as any pagan, invoked the power of the earth and the sea to protect him. But he invoked the Trinity first, and he invoked it, not as a point of philosophical disputation, but as a shield, because he wasn’t at war with imaginary goblins, but with something else. It was over these powers that the missionary and his adversaries fought.

Here’s a segment of a 6th century pagan poem, of St Patrick by one who received his memory as that of an enemy:

He is coming, Adzed-Head,

On the wild-headed sea

With the cloak hollow-headed

And curved-headed staff.


He will chant false religion

At a bench facing East

And his people will answer

“Amen, Amen.”

If you remember that every sci-fi movie or TV series you ever watched contained, at some point, a line to the effect of “It’s coming,” and if you feel how that line was always heavy with dread and the prophecy of war, you can enter into this poet’s feeling here. And you glimpse what St Patrick really meant for the druid who understood-yet-did-not-understand what a priest was. None of these ancients spent any time raising cheer to the Irish and waving shamrocks. They were caught in a flaming big cosmic war. The power of the druids was real. They sacrificed children. They were, if you like, worthy enemies of a saint, and they found themselves confronted by the possibility that the young man they’d once enslaved was being returned to them by his God, and His God was saying “You enslaved him. For that, you will become like him.” (Before donning that silly hat, think how much you would like to be enslaved, as St Patrick was, or, alternatively, how much you would like to see your escaped prisoner returning to you with a legion of angels at his side.)

Once you’ve absorbed that feeling, notice these two points:

First, the poet is not a woolly liberal relativist pretending that religion is a matter of personal preference and he’s not objecting to the imperialism of the colonising Roman social-cultural norms. He is grounded in the knowledge that that religion can be either true or false. He cares about this.

Second, he captures that ‘falseness’ by describing those actions which capture that religion’s essence. What does he see as the essence of Christianity? He does not reference preaching, purity, or massive youth rallies. He references the Mass. And the Mass is known by chant, and the ad oriens position.

I will write this again. This adversary of Christianity looked into the heart of Christian worship, knowing nothing of liturgical history, and experienced its power in the chant and the facing East.

The descendants of that poet have managed the power of the Eve of All Souls by turning it into everyone dressing up as witches for Halloween. And they’ve managed the legacy of St Patrick by turning his Feast Day into a costumed parade.

Thank goodness we can pray the Lorica and take it back!

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