March 17th, 2010. Hundreds of gallons of green vegetable dye are dumped into the Chicago River while hundreds of gallons of Guinness and Baileys are consumed. Beyond this massive and strange consumption of stereotypically Irish fluids, St. Patrick’s Day also provides us with a chance to consider the man behind it.
The most well known of the patron saints of Ireland, what we know about St. Patrick comes largely from two of his letters which have survived. St. Patrick was born in England sometime in the 4th century while it was under Roman rule. As a teen, he was captured and brought to Ireland as a slave where he toiled for 6 years before a voice told him that a boat had been made ready and that he should escape. His letters then say that he had been home for only a few years before he saw a vision in which he was called back to Ireland to serve as a missionary.
St. Patrick arrived back in Ireland this time as a Bishop. His letters detail that he worked in Ireland baptizing and ordaining new priests to lead the fledgling Christian community there. According to legend, it was St. Patrick who first used the abundant three-leaved shamrock plant to teach about the nature of the trinity, accounting for the humble plant’s fame as a symbol of the nation to this day.
Legends regarding St. Patrick abound, but the most famous is the legend that he was responsible for driving all the snakes out of Ireland. This legend can be taken either literally or metaphorically (the snakes representing pagans) but the significance is that this saint has strong ties to the Irish national identity. St. Patrick’s day then presents itself as a chance for the Irish to be proud of their nationality, and for those who’s Irish heritage is weak to exaggerate theirs. Either option serves to cloud the meaning of the saint’s feast day. Let us not forget St. Patrick amongst the revelry and pride.
What use is it to take the time to remember St. Patrick though? For the same reasons that it makes sense to consider any saint. The chief reason is the reason of prayer.
I was taught as a child that the best sort of prayer was the sort that was meant thoroughly and honestly and had its sources in the heart of the person praying. The purpose of praying to a saint as an intercessor is to enable our hearts to open up to a person.
When life is overwhelming or difficult it is our friends who we turn to for the human contact and conversation that our hearts find deep comfort in. In this way, the saints provide human, and fallible (albeit slightly) people whom we might pray to in a time of need. To state it simply, prayer is best when it comes from the heart, and it is sometimes easiest to achieve this sort of prayer when we consider a human as the being on the other end of the line. However, when we pray to St. Patrick or any other saint we understand that the ultimate recipient of our prayer is God.
The saints also serve as individuals after whom we can model our lives. St. Patrick’s faith and courage serve as an inspiration to anyone who remembers his life and works.