Took a drop of the pure
To keep me heart from sinkin’.
That’s the Patty’s cure
Whenever he’s on to drinkin’!
-“The Rocky Road to Dublin”
Irish immigrants to Boston celebrated the nation’s first St. Patrick’s Day in 1737, and the first parade was held in New York in 1762. It is peculiar how Americans have come to honor St. Patrick since those early days. A religious feast that was celebrated quietly for a thousand years in Ireland has become a roaring beer fest in America. American culture has a way of savaging ancient culture, and that’s because America is a breeding ground for a new race of savages—a new race of pagans with a new pantheon of idols. The United States remains, even in the 21st century, a missionary country. Yet, by some mystical irony, the one saint that is universally “honored” in the land of the neo-pagans is St. Patrick, the Missionary.
Though his day has been damaged along with St. Valentine’s and St. Nicholas’s, at least St. Patrick is yet remembered as a saint. Granted, March 17th is usually kept by drinking green beer while wearing o’ the green. But still, the day is kept. Granted, the day is hopelessly littered with sequin shamrocks and leering leprechauns. But still, the day is the one day when “everyone is Irish,” and pagans hail the very one that saved the Irish—and in that lies a strange and subtle hope. Just as Mark Twain, a bitter atheist, honored St. Joan of Arc in his beautiful book and perhaps thereby unknowingly won the prayers of the Maid of Orléans, so too might the brash atheists of modernity unknowingly surrender their souls in some way to the prayers of St. Patrick, the patron of God’s pagans. May it be so, and may the good St. Patrick ignite his fire in this nation as he did in Ireland. It is good, therefore, to salute the Saint of Ireland with a drop or two on March 17th, but what should the conscientious Catholic Patty do when that famous day for the drop falls on a Friday in Lent?
The course that St. Patrick set in the 5th century Christianized the whole of Ireland within two hundred years of his ministry, making Ireland the only country in Europe to be brought to its knees before the Cross peacefully, bringing an end to slavery, human sacrifice, and intertribal warfare. Patrick’s life is legendary. From his abduction by pirates as a boy, his slavery under an Irish Chieftain as a young man, and his war with the Druids as a missionary priest, Patrick’s history dances with the energy of an Irish jig and weaves with the complexity of Celtic knot-work. The facts that are often forgotten among the fantastic marvels that drove the snakes out of Ireland are Patrick’s humility and devout orthodoxy. At heart, St. Patrick was a monk and followed the monkish modes of asceticism and intellectualism. Though tales of his miracles abound, those miracles arose from the miracle of St. Patrick’s soul—and his was a penitential soul.
Towards the end of his life of tireless service to the Irish people, Patrick often withdrew into the mountains, like Moses, to hold conference with his Lord. On the Mountain of the Eagle, now called Croagh Patrick, St. Patrick is said to have wrestled with God Himself, like Jacob, to secure divine redemption for the people he had fought for with his life’s blood and spiritual strength. Standing atop that mountain, Patrick took a stand against the raging elements and even against raging devils, battling for the soul of the Irish people. For forty days, Patrick fasted upon that wild summit, demanding Divine Mercy upon the Irish race. For forty days, he prayed even as the beleaguered demons ranged round the crags in the shape of black birds of prey, swooping and screaming to disturb the holy bishop in his meditations. For forty days Patrick suffered in isolation, until he was finally given heaven’s covenant: that those Irish who did penance for their sins would be borne to heaven; that the barbarians would never conquer the Church in Ireland; and that the Irish people would enjoy final perseverance even unto Judgment Day, upon which Day of Doom, it would fall to Patrick to pass judgment over his beloved flock. These promises made from on high, legend says the Patrick rang a great iron bell from the crest of the mountain, whose tolling echoed over Erin’s Isle, scattering all evil creatures—particularly snakes—who rushed in terror into the sea. The prayer of St. Patrick had been heard and answered.
Such was the love of St. Patrick, who brought peace and joy to the people he had evangelized and delivered from the bonds of paganism. Such was the power of St. Patrick’s forty-day fast—his Lenten trial for the salvation of Ireland. On this March 17th, when the juice of the barley is typically the order of the day, perhaps Irish Catholics in America might consider keeping the fast typical of a Friday in Lent in remembrance of the great fast of St. Patrick, and offer this small sacrifice towards the conversion and salvation of their fellow countrymen. This year’s circumstance of the calendar could invite a different sort of acknowledgement of the transfiguration of a nation that St. Patrick won by doing penance for forty days on the mountain of Croagh Patrick. The jolly jolly grog can wait. There’s always green tea in the meantime.