Reflections by Jerry Webber

Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Feast of St. Patrick . . . A Day Later

March 17 is the traditional feast day for St. Patrick, the 5th-century priest known for shamrocks and evangelizing the Irish. Many folks find his feast day, coming in the middle of Lent, a welcome break from the rigors of the penitential season. For example, traditionally the Church has discouraged consumption of alcohol during the observance of Lent; yet, those restrictions are typically lifted for the Feast of St. Patrick. His day is cause for celebration far beyond Ireland, where he has come to be recognized as the patron saint.

His story, in over-simplified form, is extraordinary. As a British youth, he was kidnapped by Irish raiders and held captive in Ireland. After escaping to a boat bound for Britain, he returned home and studied for the priesthood. Later as a bishop, he heard God ask him to return to Ireland as a missionary to bring Christ to the Irish people. So in a remarkable turn-around, he took Christ to the very people who had enslaved him.

Philip Newell has written often and well of Celtic spirituality. He is the former warden of Iona Abbey on the Isle of Iona in Scotland.

[Iona is the place where, a few years after Patrick brought Christianity to Ireland, St. Columba is said to have landed in his small coracle, bringing Christianity from Ireland to Scotland.]

In his book, Christ of the Celts, Newell tells an intriguing story about Patrick that comes from Irish tradition.

This is how Newell writes the story:

There is the wonderful story of Saint Patrick on the Day of Judgment that comes down to us in the oral tradition of ancient Irish legend. Patrick is summoned to the One, in whose presence the sound of all living things can be heard and whose voice is like the flowing waters of every river. When the message is conveyed to Patrick, he responds by saying, "I will not come unless all my people may come with me." Again Patrick is summoned, and again he responds, "I will not come unless all my people may come with me." A third time Patrick is summoned, and a third time he declines. So finally the One seated on the throne at the heart of the universe says, "Tell Patrick to come, and he may come with all his people, but there is one thing Patrick must do." And there the story ends. We are not told what Patrick must do, but we know that whatever it is, he will do it so that all his people may come with him.

[J. Philip Newell, Christ of the Celts: The Healing of Creation (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008), 26 - 27.]

I am drawn to the story. I don't know why yet. I've read it a number of times over the last few weeks. I've imagined it in different ways.

Most difficult of all, I've tried to imagine myself in Patrick's place. What would I have said and done? I don't yet know.

But as the Patrick offered himself to the Irish in forgiveness and love, and as the Irish have shared the life and legend of Patrick with the world, and as Philip Newell has shared this extraordinary story with his readers, now I share it with you.

I hope you'll receive it as the gift of St. Patrick.

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