For those of you chilling your green beer for a St. Patrick’s Day celebration tonight, listen up! Let me broaden your understanding of this holiday with a brief bio about dear Patrick! We started a new study at my church this week: Saints and Greats of the Faith. Since we commenced the study this week, it made sense to examine the life of the man behind all things Irish.
Patrick was born in Romano Britain, living during the 5th century. The exact details of his life are a bit sketchy. From his later writings we know that he was kidnapped by pirates at the age of 16 and carted off to Ireland where he served as a slave for six years. He tended the sheep of his master so another disciple of great faith understands what it means to know Jesus as the Good Shepherd of the sheep. His father was a deacon in the church and his grandfather served as priest. But young Patrick, at the time of his kidnapping, wasn’t a particularly devout disciple. Few 16-year-old boys are now, for that matter! But kidnapping and slavery can do a number on whatever construct you have of your teenaged life. During those unimaginable years of forced labor, his relationship to the God of his childhood deepened.
During his time of captivity God told him that he would soon go home and that a ship was at the ready. This didn’t mean, however, that his master understood this vision. The man who owned him certainly didn’t walk him to the boat, sending him off with a fond farewell. Patrick had to flee from his master, trusting the voice he had heard. He traveled some 200 miles, if you can imagine, to get to the eastern coast of Ireland. Even then, there wasn’t a ship’s captain holding up a sign with the name of Patrick inscribed on it. An exhausted and impoverished slave, he had to convince a skipper to take him aboard. God’s promises are true but don’t always come neatly wrapped with a bow! When his boat docked, he traveled by foot with other passengers 28 miles to find his way home. This wandering band of nomads grew weak with hunger. Patrick, with his fervent faith, prayed for God to sustain them. Not long after that public prayer, an unfortunate herd of wild boar appeared and a feast of roast pork ensued! The folks who traveled with this 22-year-old young man took note of his spiritual prowess and were impressed. This was the very beginning of his popular rise to Sainthood.
Patrick did arrive home, clearly changed by his experience. He pursued the Christian faith with great zeal, studying in France for a time. His spiritual accomplishments were noticed and God’s plan became clear in a vision. Patrick heard the Irish calling out for him, begging him to rejoin them. He took this vision seriously. I suppose you would have to, if you were being asked to return to the land of your enslavement! He left family and culture behind once again, this time by choice, and headed to the western coast of Ireland. He docked his boat in one town and they made it clear that he wasn’t welcome. Sometimes complete strangers help us in the task of discernment! These folks must not have been the ones Patrick heard in his vision. So he hopped back into his boat and paddled further north along the coast. Isn’t it interesting how we can assume we know where God is leading us, sacrifice to get there, then learn that we haven’t yet arrived where God will use us? The good news is that, a short distance up-stream, Patrick disembarked and was welcomed. That was the beginning to a lifetime of Christ-like leadership among a people who revered him. He baptized thousands. He ordained priests and sent them out to establish new faith communities. He made enemies when he inspired wealthy women from prestigious families to renounce their heritage and become nuns. He converted princes to the faith, who left highly privileged positions to enter the monastery. He is attributed with planting 300 congregations. The primary place of his ministry was in Armagh where both a Catholic parish and Church of Ireland were named after him.
There is plenty of folklore about this great man of the faith. He is reputed to have taught about the Trinity by using a three-leaf clover as a visual aid. He is credited with banishing all the snakes from Ireland after an uncomfortable encounter with some slithering reptiles. Ireland is still known as a land without such creatures. There were reports of his walking stick, completely detached from any root system or other form of nourishment, sprouting green shoots. All of this falls in the category of myth but it has made its way into revered memory. In stained glass images of the saint, you are likely to see him holding a shamrock, standing on defeated snakes and/or holding a walking stick bedecked with healthy greenery. We celebrate his inspiring life on March 17 as that was understood to be the date of his death.
This was all the more interesting for me to research this year since my Ancestry.com DNA panel was further refined in recent months. As more individuals send in their vials of saliva, looking for some sense of personal identity, the data base expands and my information becomes more specific. Before the recent report, my ethnic passport credited England with more than 75% of my DNA roots. I easily embrace the British, having lived three of my first five formational years in jolly old England. My dad picked up fish and chips wrapped in newspaper on the way home from work and I devoured it. I fed pigeons in the quaint British parks, Mary Poppins-style. I loved the Beatles music and laughed at Monty Python’s odd version of humor! James Cordon singing with celebrities in a car makes me smile. I readily embrace being a part of these people!
Another 12% of my DNA comes from Scotland. My great aunt Jean, after whom I was given my middle name, donned a three-piece wool suit on special occasions. It was tailored out of the bright red MacDougall tartan. I have a picture of her father, my great-grandfather, in full Scottish kilt attire, playing the bagpipes. Three sisters and I had the amazing experience of digging into our MacDougall roots in 2018 by visiting two of “our” castles in Oban, Scotland. The crisp seaside air invigorated me as I considered that my ancestors, perched at the top of impressive stone structures, breathed in this same air as they played their bagpipes and savored their beloved haggis (A lot like meatloaf, truthfully. Just don’t ask what’s in it!).
A token amount of “me” traced back to Nordic Vikings who conquered my ancestors then settled into family life with lovely Scottish lasses. No wonder I was drawn to St. Olaf College where Scandinavian immigrants welcomed the frigid temps of winter as reminders of home-sweet-home.
But all of that changed when a new breakdown of my ethnic constitution was emailed to me this year. COVID changed a lot of things about my life, one of which was connecting me to another homeland. What we thought was an overwhelming percentage of English blood was newly divided into two parts: half remaining with the English and the other half traveling across western waters to land in Ireland. More than one-third of my ethnic heritage is Irish! No wonder I’ve always favored green! How awesome that I can now add “Luck of the Irish” to my resume! Surely that’s an asset that I haven’t yet exploited! So, for my two classes on Saint Patrick this week, I’ve dressed the part. Even before knowing of my Irish roots, I purchased bright green suede pumps for just the right occasion. I even stopped by a department store today to check out their discounted St. Patrick’s Day swag. I guess I haven’t fully bought into my Irish identity yet since I wasn’t willing to pay full price to broadcast my roots! But I’ve got plenty of green in my wardrobe!
The lessons I learn from the Patron Saint of Ireland today are what impact me most. Just because God calls you in a new direction doesn’t mean that the path will be clear or easy. Just as you arrive at one place, sure that you have landed in the port of God’s choosing, you may discover that your gifts are rejected and you need to travel further. Following the prompting of Christ will often lead you away from all that is familiar. The very nature of the Christian faith is to avoid excessive attachment to the things of this world so don’t get too comfy at any one stage of your journey. When the layers of familiarity are peeled away, as they were for 16-year-old Patrick when pirates carted him far from home, we are most open to the moving the Spirit. We learn that God keeps pace with us all along. When we are famished for our physical needs to be met, God dishes up a healthy serving of reassuring Presence along with sustenance for our bodies. When we do what God asks of us, our life may not flow more easily but the imprint we leave in the communities to which God calls us will be immeasurable.
So raise your stein of green beer to St. Patrick today. May his tireless devotion to the poor inspire us to quiet acts of mercy. May his unflinching gaze upon the rescuing God be our inspiration beyond the shamrock shakes and green beaded necklaces of today.