In my neck of the woods, St. Patrick’s Month is in full swing. Parades have begun, the rush of Irish events is keeping all calendars full, and yes, the Harrington house is decked out for the big day.
Since St. Patrick’s Day is only two weeks away, I’d like to share with you an article about the legacy of St. Patrick’s spirituality in 20th century Irish poetry The Catholic Advocate in 2012. I know that it’s not specifically about writing, but it’s something that I wrote—so I hope that you don’t mind seeing it from the Graceful Grammarian. It’s my early St. Patrick’s Day gift to you.
Enjoy and share!
“Deciphering Poetry and Legacy that Traces Life of St. Patrick.”
Who would expect a young man who had not completed his education, was kidnapped by pirates, enslaved, and forced into years of servitude in a foreign and barbaric land to lead the charge in evangelizing a fiery people living on the edge of the known world? As St. Patrick would learn, and as he teaches us, God is full of surprises, and one of the lasting legacies of St. Patrick in our faith is to expect and gratefully welcome the unexpected as opportunities for us to be more fully human.
The man we now know as St. Patrick never dreamed that evangelizing the Irish would be his mission, but, when prompted, he undertook it with great zeal. Much of the little we know about the life of St. Patrick comes to us through his Confessio, one of his only two extant writings. Written to defend himself against charges (of what, we do not know), the Confessio tells us little about the events of St. Patrick’s life, but reveals much about his attitude of humility and awe. Certainly, while forced to herd sheep for years on the land of his slavemaster, the future St. Patrick had no designs on becoming one of the world’s best-loved saints; he must have been very concerned about surviving from day to day. Yet this time in solitude afforded him the chance to learn about God and about himself, and to appreciate life in a way that he never imagined. Instead of seeing his enslavement as a curse, St. Patrick welcomed his time to meditate, as it reawakened his Christian faith, which he had learned in childhood but had not yet fully taken as his own.
Further, his time to reflect heightened his awareness of what he called “the great acts of goodness and the great grace which the Lord generously gave me in the land of my captivity.” To St. Patrick, the mundane was anything but; all experiences, however quotidian, pointed him in the direction of God’s plan for him—and he listened. Seeing himself as “a stone that lies in deep mud” that God “raised…up and exalted…very high and placed…on top of the wall,” St. Patrick became attentive to the promptings of God in his life. For St. Patrick, this process was facilitated by God’s direct messages to him in dreams; from time to time, at crucial moments, God would let him know what to expect, and in what time frame. But more significantly, God’s addresses to St. Patrick not only reassured him but also challenged him, and motivated him to take action. They guided him on his escape from slavery and led him to return to Ireland to free the pre-Christian Irish from their enslavement to pagan beliefs.
While “The Breastplate of Saint Patrick,” one of the best-loved medieval Irish poems, was almost certainly not penned by the saint himself, it certainly is in his tradition of attending to and heeding the challenges issued by the transcendence of God in the visible world. Beginning most stanzas with “I arise today,” this poem reflects the call to action issued by our faith. The poem begins with theological reflections on God and articles of faith, and then a transition occurs. Upon brief reflection on the natural world: “light of Sun, brilliance of Moon, splendor of Fire, speed of Lightning, swiftness of Wind, depth of Sea, stability of Earth, firmness of Rock,” the persona (Patrick or the individual praying this prayer today) is emboldened to invoke the direct presence and participation of God in his own life, noting that he derives strength from God working to “pilot,” “guide,” “hear,” “guard,” protect,” and “secure” him. This sense of transcendent spirituality and the connection between the Trinity and the human experience comes through a reflection on the visible world: God surprises us through reaching us on our own level and bringing us to higher ground. Located between the pre-Christian Irish before him and the Christian Irish after him, St. Patrick is on a continuum of individuals who see not a wall between the natural and supernatural worlds, but a mist.
We could review tomes of poems, from “The Breastplate of St. Patrick” to today’s literature, in which we see the tradition of St. Patrick brought to life, again and again. Finding God in the unexpected, God’s promise giving hope, and the concept of retreat to make the unfamiliar familiar and vice versa figure prominently in Irish poetry and thought, and doubtless they sustained the Irish through years of hardship and uncertain temporal future. The fact that these themes have persisted through Irish literature of the modern period reveals the staying power of St. Patrick’s spirituality in the Irish imagination.
Two 20th-century Irish Catholic poets, Joseph Mary Plunkett and Patrick Kavanagh, demonstrate nicely the sacramental nature of the experience of the visible, hearable, tangible world, and the staying power of St. Patrick’s legacy of finding and appreciating God’s surprises for us.
Plunkett, a leader of the 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland, which touched off the War of Independence and led to a chain of events that established an Irish Republic (a seemingly very unlikely prospect after more than 700 years of foreign rule), was a sickly man who knew his days were numbered, even before he undertook his military maneuvers and was executed. His poems reveal great depth of emotion and his mystical spirituality, always connected to stimuli present to him in the natural world. For Plunkett, his love for Grace Gifford, whom he married in prison on the night prior to his execution, was a source of great inspiration, as were the wonders of the natural world. His most famous poem, “I See His Blood Upon the Rose,” reflects his self-imposed retreat upon his full experience of elements of nature, and provides him—and us—with an impetus to action. Cataloging natural things that reveal to him the presence and action of Christ, Plunkett mimics a common practice in love poetry. But this particular love poem, about agape, specifically, takes the reader by surprise right away with the unexpected take on the familiar image of the rose in a poem. The speaker sees echoes of the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ everywhere he goes, to the point that he visualizes Christ’s blood when he sees a rose, “And in the stars the glory of his eyes.” While these are perhaps standard poetic images, the impetus behind the poem becomes stronger when the persona reveals that “carven by his power rocks are [Christ’s] written words.” The activity of God in the world and in human experience is highlighted in the image that “His strong heart stirs the ever-beating sea.” The pulse behind all movement in the world stems from God. Christ’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection have transformed Creation, to the extent that all elements of the visible world bear the indelible mark of the divine presence among us. How we respond to God’s personal message to each of us, revealed through our encounters with the everyday, is the challenge that both St. Patrick and Plunkett issue to us.
Writing during the mid-20th century, Patrick Kavanagh, a farmer by trade, further explored the Irish Catholic imagination in his poetry, reminding us in a rapidly secularizing world that Creation itself denies secularization, and that God’s surprises for us are around every corner. Using a refreshing mix of high poetic diction and simple, awe-inspired speech, Kavanagh begins his poem “The One”: “Green, blue, yellow and red – God is down in the swamps and marshes, / Sensational as April and almost incredible the flowering of our catharsis.” God’s presence springs forth from the unlikeliest of places; His renewing action is unfathomable and life-giving. And in Kavanagh’s schema, God’s outreach to us is not something that we should simply look at from afar; instead, it gives us life and cleanses us, allowing us to flower, in our new cleanness (catharsis): our rebirth. As St. Patrick experienced his conversion while, as a slave, tending sheep, in “The One” we read of God being present today in “A humble scene in a backward place / Where no one important ever looked.” In his reference in the poem to the “local farmers” who will be called out to witness God’s manifestation for them, Kavanagh emphasizes the humility tied to the appreciation “That beautiful, beautiful, beautiful God / Was breathing His love by a cut-away bog.” Even in an area in which the turf has been cut away, repeatedly, for generations, in order to create fuel, God regenerates life by means of his love, as demonstrated in the springtime of each year.
While we make the extraordinary ordinary by our lack of awareness and by our rushing through life, St. Patrick’s legacy invites us to take a step back: to appreciate the miracles that we witness every day. God is active in our world today, through the resiliency of nature, through our relationships with each other, and through the Sacraments; and He is active not so that we can merely admire him and move on with mundane existence, but so that He can call us into the action. As St. Patrick’s legacy teaches us, we should not limit ourselves by disbelief or worry about our inadequacy; instead, we should accept with gratitude God’s surprises for us.
As we honor the feast of this great saint with parades, family dinners, and other celebrations, let us keep in mind why we celebrate: because St. Patrick points us in the direction of Christ, whose Resurrection, which we will celebrate in just a few short weeks, is the greatest surprise gift of all.