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MythBlast | May the Blessings of St. Patrick Behold You

BY Bradley Olson March 7, 2017

We are all familiar with the trope of St. Patrick driving the snakes out of Ireland, but the real St. Patrick was even more remarkable in real life than the pied piper we have come to know through a rather casual relationship with March 17th of each year. Patricius was kidnapped by Irish pirates sometime in the 5th century from his home in Great Britain when he was 16, taken to Ireland where he became a shepherd-slave to an Irish chieftain, Miliucc, and charged with the bitterly lonely, excruciatingly hungry life of guarding his master’s goats or sheep. He took this opportunity to return to, and deepen his Christian faith, becoming, I think, something of a mystic. After six years of isolation and hardship, a mysterious dream voice told him, “Your hungers are rewarded; you are going home” (Confessio). He arose, made a long, treacherous journey to the Irish Sea, found passage on a ship, and sailed back to England. After finding himself comfortably at home and reunited with his family, he has another vision in which he is handed a “letter,” the heading of which simply says, “VOX HIBERIONACUM,” the voice of the Irish. He develops a desire to return to the pagus, the uncultivated Irish countryside, and walk among the pagans who, to civilized Romans such as Patricius’ family, were the uncivilized, unreliable, threatening inhabitants of the pagus. He is ordained a priest and later a bishop and becomes, in all probability, the first missionary bishop of the Roman Church.

Once he returns to Ireland, Patricius finds that he loves this place and these people, these raucous, crude, exuberant Irish; he refers to them lovingly as his “warrior children.” He became one of them, he identified himself as Irish and felt his Irishness down to the depths of his soul. And while he never did, in fact, drive the snakes out of Ireland, he did almost singlehandedly transform Ireland in other ways. He attacked the slave trade with a passion that only a former slave could possess, and by the end of his life (or shortly thereafter) slavery was no longer an undisputed reality, and in fact murder and other forms of violence that had been commonplace in Ireland greatly declined.

The important thing for me, contemplating the life of Patricius, is not the mythology surrounding him; driving snakes out of Ireland, using a shamrock as a parable, or even his walking stick growing into an Ash tree. What’s important to me is understanding that sometimes, while in the midst of living one’s familiar, commonplace life, we can be abducted by our own life’s purpose and subjected to hardship and grief. These violent psychological, and sometimes physical tribulations, while presenting us with all sorts of problems, are perpetrated upon us by our own futurity—our own life’s purpose or meaning—reaching back to us, manhandling us, and roughly placing us upon our own life’s path. I don’t think it would be wrong to think of this as one of the modi operandi of bliss.

For more thoughts on Patrick and Celtic mythology, see Romance of the Grail: The Magic and Mystery of Arthurian Myth.

Image: Saint Patrick stained glass window from Cathedral of Christ the Light, Oakland, CA.  Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

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