Monday, March 17, 2014

Saint of the Month: Saint Patrick!

St. Patrick is underrepresented as a subject in the mainstream of Western art, but is a
popular subject for Western Christians painting icons in the manner of the Eastern tradition.

St. Patrick

AKA: Maewyn Succat (his birth name), the Apostle of Ireland, Patricius, Patrizio
Feast Day: March 17.

Really Existed? Yep.
Timeframe: There's some fuzziness, but the Fifth Century generally speaking.
Place: Ireland.

Credentials: Recognized by tradition.
Martyrdom: None, although he seems to have had his share of scrapes and lucky escapes.

Patron Saint of: barbers, blacksmiths, cattle, coopers, engineers, "excluded people," hairdressers, miners, and ophidiophobics. What? Ah, people afraid of snakes.
Symbolism: A bishop trampling on snakes, the shamrock, the harp.

It is the Feast of St. Patrick, patron saint of Nigeria, and also of Ireland! Here in the United States, where Infinite Art Tournament is ground out, March 17 serves as a lite holiday of Irish-American identity, and also as a day on which bars can drum up a little extra business through the simple expedient of putting a little food coloring into cheap beer. I frankly don't know if there is a significant religious observance of the day.

St. Patrick is generally known for bringing Christianity to Ireland, and for driving the snakes from Ireland. The latter is probably not true, since the biologists and paleontologists haven't found any evidence that there were ever snakes in Ireland in the first place. The former is probably reasonably truthy.

For a fifth-century historical figure, we have a relative orgy of evidence on St. Patrick: two letters written by the man himself and generally thought to be the real deal (though not by everyone). After that, there are some seventh century documents, including two hagiographies that present truly spectacular, if not superheroic, versions of his life; a document that warmly mentions him as an important guy; and another document that discusses the history of Christianity in Ireland without so much as mentioning the man. Probably he was a significant historical figure who has been blurred over time with another Irish evangelizer, St. Palladius, and inflated in the time-honored fashion by folks with a stake in promoting a major Irish saint.

Now, most articles in my go-to authority on famous saints, the 1911 Catholic Encyclopedia, are reasonably nuanced in their scholarship. They include discreet but clear markers between what is established fact, what is reasonable speculation, and what is charming folklore. The author of the St. Patrick entry, however, was not especially sensitive to these little distinctions. Patrick's life dates are given, without comment, as 387-493 -- that's 106 years, in human years. His life is filled with magic and supernatural combats and conversations with angels, and there is a real Old Testament flavor to the proceedings.  It's hard not to think that, conciously or unconciously, Patrick has been rendered as a kind of Irish Moses. The lengthy account is a graphic novel waiting to happen. I'll hit a few high points here.

It is as true as we'll ever know, anyway, that St. Patrick was the son of patrician Romans during the occupation of Britain. As a youth, he was kidnapped by Irish raiders and kept as a slave shepherd for six years before escaping and returning to his family.

At this point, the Encylopedia author is at pains to connect Patrick with every religious movement happening in Britain at the time, and who knows? I'm sure it was a fairly close-knit community in many ways. He also meets a number of saints on a trip to Rome, where Pope Celestine I gives him the mission of evangelizing Ireland. He's a good man for the job, as he knows the language, the culture, and a few of the people.

Landing on Ireland in 433, Patrick begins a whirlwind tour of preaching the gospel and having it out with the Druids, who (we are told) practice a dark and pagan superstition.  They of course want to supress Patrick's message of hope and redemption. Like any good hero, he acquires a sidekick. Then, on Easter Sunday, he engages in what can only be described as a Magic Duel against the Druids in front of the assembled Irish chieftons. It must be said that the pagans, even though they are of course eventually defeated, pack some extremely impressive magic -- more impressive, perhaps, then is entirely consistent with strict monotheism. They are kind of like the Egyptian priests in Exodus: if God is against them, and there's only one god, then from where do these guys get their mojo?

You'd think that winning a magic duel would do the trick, but there follow decades of mopping-up operations.  I will cut to the chase, and give you a taste of the classic account, by having a single paragraph stand in for the rest of Patrick's long working life:
St. Patrick continued until his death to visit and watch over the churches which he had founded in all the provinces in Ireland. He comforted the faithful in their difficulties, strengthened them in the Faith and in the practice of virtue, and appointed pastors to continue his work among them. It is recorded in his Life that he consecrated no fewer than 350 bishops. He appointed St. Loman to Trim, which rivalled Armagh itself in its abundant harvest of piety. St. Guasach, son of his former master, Milchu, became Bishop of Granard, while the two daughters of the same pagan chieftan founded close by, at Clonbroney, a convent of pious virgins, and merited the aureola of sanctity. St. Mel, nephew of our apostle, had the charge of Ardagh; St. MacCarthem, who appears to have been patricularly loved by St. Patrick, was made Bishop of Clogher. The narrative in the ancient Life of the saint regarding his visit to the district of Costello, in the County of Mayo, serves to illustrate his manner of dealing with the chieftains. He found, it says, the chief, Ernasc, and his son, Loarn, sitting under a tree, "with whom he remained, together with his twelve companions, for a week, and they received from him the doctrine of salvation with attentive ear and mind. Meanwhile he instructed Loarn in the rudiments of learning and piety." A church was erected there, and, in after years, Loarn was appointed to its charge.
Things get very paranormal in St. Patrick's old age, as he retreats to a mountain and does battle with demons, vanquishing them from Ireland.  (Biologists and paleontologists report no evidence that demons were ever indigenous to Ireland, but then they wouldn't, would they.)  After that, feeling perhaps that he is on a roll, he decides to "wrestle with God Himself, like Jacob of old, to secure the spiritual interests of his people." He does this with some truly world-class fasting and prayer, during which an angel keeps coming down from God to grant concessions. But Patrick doesn't stop fasting and praying until he gets his full slate of demands:
  • the right to free a large number of souls from purgatory
  • that reciting his hymn before death would result in salvation
  • that his Church would never fall to barbarians
  • that Ireland would be drowned by the sea seven years before Judgement Day, to spare the Irish from having to deal with the antichrist
  • the right to judge all Irish people on Judgement Day
These are some pretty extraordinary wins for St. Patrick, especially as it's kind of hard to see what kind of negotiating leverage he had. Kids, don't try this at home.

In real life, St. Patrick was likely a highly influential figure in getting the institutions of Christianity off the ground in Ireland, and I bet he converted at least a few key members of the ruling class. To be doing this while the Romans were withdrawing from Great Britain, and while that island was begining a long slide into fragmented, vulnerable protofeudalism, well: interesting times. His role in the long, troubled relationship between the two biggest British Isles? That's a book, not a blog post. I'm sure it's plenty of books. I haven't read any of them.

Happy St. Patrick's Day! Remember: Coors Light with green food coloring is still Coors Light.

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