The story is not so ironic as just surprising because it has been so long forgotten. St Patrick’s particular story of redemption, the reason he is considered a saint, is so mashed up with corned beef and green beer that when we finally do hear it does seem a little surprising. In fact just like the story of St. Valentine it can actually sound surprisingly subversive. The big reveal that makes the story so interesting is simply this: St. Patrick wasn’t Irish. In fact, he had good reason to hate them.
When Patrick was a boy, the different people groups living in what we now call the British Isles were not being so, as they say, neighborly. The place was then, as it has been for centuries, a place wrought with conflict.
Sometime in the fourth century Patrick, a sixteen year old boy, was captured and sold into slavery with a number of other Welsh people. Yep, he was Welsh. So Patrick’s first encounter with Ireland was not one of shamrocks, beer and drinking songs. It was actually an encounter with violence, conflict and for Patrick, suffering. It is a harsh introduction to the people for whom he would one day be remembered.
Nevertheless, Patrick probably remained in slavery for 6 years or so before he escaped. He returned to his family in Wales and there entered the Church. Years later, after having been ordained bishop, he returned to the land of his enemies to serve them. Voluntarily. He went to genuinely, make peace in a place where he had know pain.
While he may not have actually chased dangerous slithering reptiles off the island, there is a still a sense in which Patrick shows us how to drive out snakes from our lives. One doesn’t chase out dangerous little threats with Gandalf’s staff or a piper’s pipe. One has to change the whole ecosystem. Transformation is not simply taking dangerous things away but by introducing a new goods to fill a space with a different kind of life.
Patrick turned great enmity into redemption. He refused to see his enemies as only that. He returned, literally, to a place of resentment specifically to offer new hope for that place and that people. He brought new life to chase out the would-be snakes of hatred and animosity. Patrick spent his life exorcising the little demons in his life and ended up tilting history.
Apparently it worked because centuries later we all think of him as one of them. In our minds, St. Patrick is a major icon of Ireland. We remember him not not for being from his birthplace, but from the place he made a home in forgiveness. So interestingly, St Patrick’s feast day, is above all else a day of peace and reconciliation.
“Forgive us our debts,” we pray, “as we forgive our debtors.” It is a simple line in a simple prayer which strikes hard against the spirit of our day. Forgiveness is not what Ireland is currently known for. Forgiveness is not what our entire age will be remembered for, at least not yet.
We want to be saints, we want to be rock stars. St. Patrick reminds us, that the path to sainthood always passes through the waters of forgiveness. It is not just forgiveness for us as we move through lent. It is not just chasing out our own snakes, but also introducing new forms of life into our own path, and to the paths of others. This is a deeper forgiveness than just forgetting. It is learning how to remember and yet still hope and work for the good of our enemies.
If I could live at all in that spirit, I wonder who history would think I belonged to.