Feast Day: March 17
What’s your St. Patrick’s Day celebration? Leprechauns? Pints of green beer? Corned beef and cabbage? My mother has always laid a festive Irish spread for our family’s holiday. The table decorations received an upgrade a few years back. My family had the blessing of visiting Ireland and my older sister decided to bring back a little stuffed sheep that now stands at the center of the table every March 17. His name is Patrick.
I think having a sheep named after St. Patrick is wonderfully fitting. If nothing else, a herd of sheep blocking the road is much more Irish than beer so watery that you can dye it. A sheep can also remind us that Patrick served as a spiritual shepherd in the tradition of Jesus and the apostles—but not just that. He first learned to be a spiritual shepherd by being a literal shepherd when the Irish kidnapped him as a boy and enslaved him. That is when he became a man of prayer. Through that transformation, a whole nation came to God. So let’s put aside our beer and beef for a few minutes, and let’s reflect on the great things God accomplished through a simple shepherd in prayer.
The Historical St. Patrick
The Irish have a reputation as fantastic storytellers so it’s not surprising that a garden of legends have grown up around Patrick. I’m afraid he did not use the shamrock to explain the Trinity (though he loved the Trinity) nor did he drive all the snakes out of Ireland (though I’m sure he, being a saint, would have been nice enough to drive them rather than making them walk, um, crawl). Fortunately, we know the historical St. Patrick thanks to two documents from his own hand: his Confessio or Declaration (a mixture of autobiography, defense of his ministry, and praise of God) and his Letter to Coroticus (a British warlord who had enslaved some of Patrick’s converts).
Patrick is only Irish by adoption. He was born to a wealthy deacon in late Roman Britain. Kidnapped by Irish raiders, he spent six years as captive shepherd laboring for them in the Wood of Foclut in western Ireland. He miraculously escaped back to Britain, was captured again for two months, and again gained his freedom. He became some kind of monk or priest. At that point, perhaps around age 30, he began to have visions in which the “Voice of the Irish” called: “We beg you, holy boy to come and walk among us again.”
So Patrick returned to the people who had attacked his family and enslaved him. He began to preach. People not only listened, but extraordinary conversions began to happen. Rich fathers howled in protest as daughters not only became Christian but joined new nunneries. Slave owners protested as their human chattel also begged to enter these religious institutions. The patchwork of petty kings ruling Ireland watched Patrick closely. At least one imprisoned him temporarily, but Patrick also found allies among other kings and among the learned poets who preserved the traditions that governed the Irish. His love of the people, his humility, and his knowledge of their culture began to win their support. Thousands of the Irish converted by the grace of God. And Patrick knew that this extraordinary work belonged to God, not him: “For I cannot prevail at anything unless He has given it to me” (Confessio 57).
The Shepherd at Prayer
Patrick’s God is an “awesome” God in the original sense of the word—a God whose actions are so mighty and wonderful that we stand in awe. The God who comes to us as a humble baby or suffering servant also comes to us as a Lord of power. I don’t think Patrick could have risked his life and freedom without knowing such a God. Yet it is a hidden grandeur and power. Patrick steadfastly refused riches and lived in danger, as did his flock. It took keen eyes to see the power of the Triune God actually at work. Yet you couldn’t dispute that something powerful had been at work when you saw so many conversions.
Patrick learned as a teenage slave to see and know God. Yanked from his wealthy home, maltreated, alone in land of alien customs, surrounded by strangers speaking a foreign tongue, Patrick had been stripped of everything including his self-worth. He was alone, hungry, and shivering in the silence of the Irish hillsides with his sheep. In that naked emptiness, God gave him the courage to acknowledge the spiritual emptiness of his apparently rich earlier life. Patrick, in that lonely silence, could feel for the first time the movement of the Holy Spirit in him and he stretched out his hands in prayer.
When God told Patrick that He had a boat waiting to take him home but that it was 200 miles away across the whole of Ireland, Patrick trustingly went. When the captain shouted and drove him off, Patrick patiently waited and prayed until a sailor ran up to say the captain had relented. When the ship made a forced landing in Britain in a region without food, Patrick calmly fasted as he had as a slave until the ship’s crew mentioned his God. Then Patrick prayed and a drove of pigs wandered into camp providing fresh meat. In those cold, quiet hills of western Ireland, Patrick had learned a remarkable trust. Life would be difficult, but God would accomplish His work in the end. Patrick just had to listen for what God wanted him to do.
Praying like Patrick
When I taught at a Catholic high school, the entire body of students, faculty, and staff would pause every day after lunch for three minutes of silent prayer guided by a few simple questions. The students struggled. Three minutes without phones or talking! Eventually the school started playing quiet classical music during that time, which helped. Silence and stillness are so foreign to our culture, which glorifies busy work and encourages us to stream music and videos every waking minute! It becomes scary to be alone with ourselves or with God.
I think what Patrick would tell us is to embrace the fear and loneliness we sometimes feel in the silence rather than trying to shut them out. We are weak by ourselves. We are not meant to be alone. Confronting those feelings hurts. But doing so creates space. God will fill that space as He did for Patrick.
When I was in the silent hour of Eucharistic Adoration the other night, my mind found so much to occupy itself (including planning this post) but I kept hearing the invitation to “be still and know that I am God” (Ps 46:11). There is so much that I want to accomplish so it is a hard invitation for me to accept. The secret that Patrick teaches is that God has even better things that He wants to do than we can imagine. And He has the power to do them. Perhaps including a sheep among our St. Patrick’s Day decorations can remind us to find quiet places into which our Good Shepherd can come and there we can listen to the Father as the Holy Spirit fills us.
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