Posts Tagged ‘St. Patrick’s Day’

I bind to myself today
The strong virtue of the Invocation of the Trinity:
I believe the Trinity in the Unity
The Creator of the Universe.

(. . .)

I bind to myself today
The power of Heaven,
The light of the sun,
The brightness of the moon,
The splendour of fire,
The flashing of lightning,
The swiftness of wind,
The depth of sea,
The stability of earth,
The compactness of rocks.

(. . .)

Christ with me, Christ before me,
Christ behind me, Christ within me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ at my right, Christ at my left,
Christ in the fort,
Christ in the chariot seat,
Christ in the poop [deck],
Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks to me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.

– From the “Breastplate of St. Patrick” (text from New Advent)


Borchert, Andreas F.  “Church of Our Lady, Star of the Sea, and St. Patrick, Goleen, County Cork, Ireland.”  10 Sept. 2009.  Wikipedia.  https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Goleen_Church_of_Our_Lady,_Star_of_the_Sea,_and_St._Patrick_North_Wall_Fourth_Window_Saint_Patrick_Detail_2009_09_10.jpg#mw-jump-to-license’;

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“Noel-coypel-the-resurrection-of-christ-1700″ by Noël Coypel – http://www.1st-art-gallery.com/Noel-Coypel/The-Resurrection-Of-Christ,-1700.html. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Noel-coypel-the-resurrection-of-christ-1700.jpg#/media/File:Noel-coypel-the-resurrection-of-christ-1700.jpg

As Jesus was quickly approaching the “hour” of His trial and crucifixion, he offered these words of consolation to His disciples:

In the world you will have trouble, but take courage, I have conquered the world

-John 16:33

Before proceeding, a necessary clarification: When using the term “world “in this context, Jesus is not talking about the material universe.  All things God created, both spiritual and material, are good.  By “the world” is meant those forces which are opposed to God and His plan for humanity.  When we consider that these forces have the devil for their source (or at least instigator), we must conclude that the material universe itself has suffered subjection to “the world.”

But by His death and subsequent resurrection, Jesus Christ has reclaimed creation for Himself.  Now the world — that is, as we understand the term — is not only God’s precious creation, but can even become a sacrament or icon of the Divine.

Ancient Irish0910 Tracht der Kelten in Südpolen im 3. Jh. v. Chr” by Silar – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:0910_Tracht_der_Kelten_in_S%C3%BCdpolen_im_3._Jh._v._Chr.JPG#/media/File:0910_Tracht_der_Kelten_in_S%C3%BCdpolen_im_3._Jh._v._Chr.JPG

I’ll return to this in a moment.  In the meantime, given that we are about to celebrate the feast day of St. Patrick, one of Our Lord’s great saints and the patron saint of Ireland, it behooves us to take a look at how the Irish have viewed the world throughout the ages.

For the pagan Irish of ancient times, the world was charged with otherworldly forces.  Every rock, tree, stream and hill was haunted by the presence of some god or spirit, or else was a gateway into fairy realms.  Their mythology and its underlying worldview were certainly filled with romance and wonder…but also with fear and darkness.

In his book “How the Irish Saved Civilization,” Thomas Cahill interprets the frequent occurrence of shape-shifters in Celtic mythology this way:

[I]t suggested subconsciously that reality had no predictable pattern, but was arbitrary and insubstantial (pg. 129).

And furthermore…

[I]n the Irish stories the traps seem to lie hidden at every crossroads, and trickster-gods lurk behind each tree.  In such a world, (…) no one can hope to avoid disaster for long (pg. 131).

Quite possibly, the characteristic happy-go-lucky attitude and staunch bravery of the Irish came from a sense of “detachment” born of resignation to “how fleeting life is and how pointless to try to hold onto things or people” (Cahill, pg. 96).  Detachment, perhaps…but a detachment that probably masked deep sadness and dread (Cahill, pg. 128).

Before I move on, let me say this: “How the Irish Saved Civilization” is an interesting read, but I can recommend it only with caution.  Some of Cahill’s historical analysis is obviously suspect (his interpretation of Church history is nothing short of abysmal in certain spots).  However, the book does offer some worthwhile insights into what we can intuit of the character of ancient Ireland, as well as the difference the Gospel made.

Saint_Patrick_(window)“Saint Patrick (window)” by Sicarr – Flickr. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Saint_Patrick_(window).jpg#/media/File:Saint_Patrick_(window).jpg

St. Patrick brought to the Irish an entirely new vision, assuring them that every corner of creation spoke of the providential care of an all-loving and good God.  Again, Cahill:

This magical world, though full of adventure and surprise, is no longer full of dread.  Rather, Christ has trodden all pathways before us, and at every crossroads and by every tree the Word of God speaks out (pg. 133).

This new worldview in no way guarantees the absence of evil or suffering, any more than did Christ’s words to His disciples in John’s Gospel.  But the great Conquest of the King of kings, Who is greater than the world, has made it so that even these can become instruments of Divine benevolence.  Rather than reminders of the futility of existence, they can become like the uncomfortable rigors of final exams before summer recess.

In other words…

In the world you will have trouble, but take courage, I have conquered the world

-John 16:33

The humor-filled attitude and generous bravery of the Irish were most certainly taken up into that worldview, and hence given a new character.

Arguably, it was this very faith that made the Irish bearers of light in the darkness that followed the fall of Rome.  The industry and intrepidity of Irish monks who labored in their scriptoria and traveled throughout Europe to convert the barbarians showed forth their zeal in preserving the wisdom of the past, as well as in looking toward Europe’s future.

Let us remember that as we raise our glasses this St. Patty’s Day.

Images from Wikipedia


Cahill, Thomas.  How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe.  New York: Nan A. Talese, 1995.

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Happy St. Patrick’s Day!  I was looking for a related video to share, and came across this.  Kind of cute…you might like it if you have kids who are learning their numbers.

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ImbolcThe ancient Celts seem to have been acutely sensitive to the changing of the seasons.  Four major festivals marked the Celtic year: Beltane, the beginning of summer; Samhain, the beginning of the darker half of the year (autumn); Imbolc, the beginning of spring; and Lughnasadh, the time of the harvest.  And there were various myths associated with each of these seasons.

Let me now dive right into what I feel this may have been preparing people for on a subconscious level — namely, the Church’s Liturgical Calendar.

From the Mass readings that occupy different times of the year to various feasts, memorials, and saints’ days, Advent during the season leading up to the winter solstice, and Lent and Easter coinciding with the coming of spring, the Church has developed a wondrous way of lifting up our lives and our experience of natural cycles into the rhythms of the Divine Life.

In the course of the year, (…) (the Church) unfolds the whole mystery of Christ …. Thus recalling the mysteries of the redemption, she opens up to the faithful the riches of her Lord’s powers and merits, so that these are in some way made present in every age; the faithful lay hold of them and are filled with saving grace.

Sacrosanctum Concilium, quoted in CCC 1163

In the liturgical year the various aspects of the one Paschal mystery unfold. This is also the case with the cycle of feasts surrounding the mystery of the incarnation (Annunciation, Christmas, Epiphany). They commemorate the beginning of our salvation and communicate to us the first fruits of the Paschal mystery.

– CCC 1171

New Jerusalem

The point of it all is to grow closer to Christ.  And in this, we have nothing less than the mystery of time and history.  As we see in the Book of Revelation, the purpose and end of both is the great Marriage between Christ and His Bride: The Church, the People of God…the New Jerusalem.  Throughout history, Christ is continually building up His Bride in her various members, never ceasing to draw all mankind into her embrace.  It is the cosmic love story…the greatest ever told.

And I think I’ll leave it at that.  There are probably many other things I could touch upon, but I think we’ve gotten a pretty good survey of Irish culture — and of Celtic culture in general — in its openness to the Word.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day — Erin go Bragh!

Images from Wikipedia

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Stone_CircleAfter part two of this series, which dealt with the ancient Celtic belief in the overlapping of the natural and the supernatural, this might seem redundant.  But I think of it as follows:

Man is a composite creature, made of both spirit and matter, soul and body.  Most religious systems will, in some way or other, attempt to appeal to both aspects of human nature.  Wednesday’s topic pertained more to the spiritual side of man’s religiosity, whereas this one pertains more to the material side.

It’s also necessary to mention that Celtic culture was by no means unique in what we are going to be talking about.  In fact, the ancient Romans coined the phrase genius loci, referring in a nutshell to a particular locality — be it a village, a hill, a tree, a very small geographic area, etc. — that was associated with a particular god or spirit that made its residence there and/or presided over it as guardian or protector.  From North America to China, from the barbarous lands of Northern Europe to the sun-kissed wilds of Africa, the ancient world abounded with similar notions.

But what we will call “inspirited places” are no less an important part of Celtic culture for their universality — just as cake, as a celebratory item, belongs to birthdays and other celebrations just as much as to weddings, but is not therefore any less of a wedding fixture.

Bru_na_BoinneFirst, let us note the great earthen mounds scattered throughout Ireland.  Known as sídhe, these were believed to conceal the underground abodes of the Tuatha Dé Danann, a fabled race of gods or fairies that inhabited the island before the Celts came along.OwenagcatRelatedly, certain places — such as this cave in County Roscommon — were believed to be passageways to otherworld.  Had to mention that, as I feel it gives us an interesting connection to the previous post.

Like the otherworldly beliefs of the Celts, this stood in need of some correction.  But I would venture to say that what it communicated, deep down, was the desire — and perhaps Divinely inspired, subconscious preparation for — a robust spirituality in which the material world was incorporated, thereby becoming a means of access to the Divine. What would this have been preparing people for, specifically?  In brief, the sacramental life of the Church. Seven SacramentsLet’s look very briefly at just what a sacrament is:

The sacraments are efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us. (T)he visible rites by which the sacraments are celebrated signify and make present the graces proper to each sacrament. They bear fruit in those who receive them with the required dispositions.

-Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1131 (bold mine)

The Church’s sacraments are seven in number.  Divine grace is dispensed mainly through human words, signs, and actions in these sacraments; but material elements like water, wine, bread, and oil are used as the very material of these sacraments and as conduits of grace.

From the sacramental life of the Church comes a deeply embodied spirituality that announces itself through everything from votive candles to icons, stained-glass windows, statues of the saints, crucifixes, incense, shrines, Rosary beads, the distinctive garb of priests and religious, Gregorian chant, customary devotions and rituals, etc.


And yes, this embodied spirituality includes places.  Granted, we do not hold to the belief in genius loci; but there are places that God chooses as privileged meeting places between Him and believers, or as places specially suited to the gift of graces to those who are properly disposed.   In some cases, places are hallowed by the relics of saints who devoted their lives to God, as well as by the prayers and presence of saints and the blessings of bishops. Many of these places have been destinations for Christian pilgrims over the years, and their pilgrimages have almost always involved certain practices aimed at spiritual renewal and transformation.

In the wake of St. Patrick’s work, Ireland has certainly had its share of such places, many of which are associated with St. Patrick.  Here are a few:


Lough Derg (Ulster)


The Struell Wells (County Down)

Croagh_PatrickCroagh Patrick (County Mayo — which, incidentally, is where my great-grandfather was born)

EucharistI’ll just say one more thing, and then I’ll shut up.  The foundation of the Catholic sacramental view of the world is the Incarnation of the Son of God; His Incarnational Presence is perpetually available to us in the Eucharist, which is the greatest and most sublime of all sacraments.  Once the priest speaks the words of consecration over the bread and wine, these latter literally become the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, retaining only the sensory qualities of bread and wine.

In this, we see the whole purpose not only of human existence, but of the material world, which is in many ways ordered and drawn toward the Eucharist.  In offering the bread and wine to God at Mass, we are offering the whole of God’s creation back to Him; these are then given back to us with immeasurably greater worth…again, as the very Body and Blood of Christ, the Second Person of the Blessèd Trinity.  In this, we see our mission in relation to the created world, which we are called to order toward the worship of God.  He can thereby graciously hallow it, just as He hallowed creation by “resting” on the Seventh Day (see Genesis 2: 2-3).

Images from Wikipedia

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Note: For part one of this series, click here.


In part one, I expressed an interest in exploring the “seeds of the Word” in the Irish culture that St. Patrick encountered.  Without neglecting this, I would like to broaden my scope to include Celtic culture in general, not just Ireland.

The Celtic pagans — unlike their Germanic and Scandinavian neighbors, whose cosmologies were more or less mapped out so that different realms could be seen in their spatial relation to “Midgard,” or earth — believed in the interweaving of the natural and supernatural worlds.  Otherworldly realms of gods and spirits — including the realm (or realms) of the dead — were believed to have interacted with and even “touched” the everyday natural world, much as the ghostly mists of Ireland and Britain crept through the trees, cliffs, hills, and fields.


Many are familiar with the fact that the spirits of the dead were thought to have reentered the world every year on the night of October 31, during the festival of Samhain (an “ancestor” of the modern day Halloween).


And then you have stories of heroes such as Pwyll Pendefig Dyfed in Wales, which exemplify the “commerce” believed to be possible between our world and the otherworld (in the Welsh epic “The Mabinogion,” a hunting expedition into the woods brings Pwyll to the otherworldly realm of Annwn and back).

Finally, various supernatural entities (leprechauns, for example) were thought to have made their homes beneath the surfaces of streams, rocks, trees, hills, etc.  How’s that for eyeball-to-eyeball?

All this makes for fantastic storytelling.  But beyond that, for what might it have been paving the way?


Like all other “seeds of the Word,” this points to the Word Himself, Jesus Christ.  By dying and then rising from the dead, He reunited God and man, heaven and earth, the spiritual and the material.  And in Him the faithful are united with one another not only across space and culture, but also across time and death itself.

Some of the great mystics of the Christian tradition have experienced this reality in a particularly profound way.  St. Maria Faustina Kowalska, a Polish nun who died just before the outbreak of World War II, wrote in her world-renowned diary (“Divine Mercy in My Soul”) about meeting the souls of deceased friends, the Blesséd Virgin Mary, and Jesus Christ Himself in convent hallways on the way to performing her routine daily tasks…usually because they had requested a prayer or act on her part.

It must be noted that few people are granted experiences like this; they are indeed very, very rare — even, from what I understand, among saints.  But they are merely intensifications of a reality that is true for all the faithful: The Communion of Saints.

As members of the Body of Christ, we are united with our brothers and sisters in the glory of heaven and in the purification of Purgatory.  In Christ, we are united to the Virgin Mary, the Apostles, all the saints, the prophets and patriarchs of the Old Testament, and the great multitude of the redeemed from the beginning of the world up to the present.  We are surrounded not only by them, but also by all the choirs of angels, from the lowest choirs that are nearest to us all the way up to the fiery seraphim who minister to the immediate presence of God.  We are reminded of this reality every time we go into church and are surrounded by sacred images in stained glass windows, statues, etc.

Let me quickly mention two more components of the Christian life on which this “otherworldly” reality comes to bear:

1. Prayer

PrayerWhen we offer to God sincere prayer — that is, when we take the time to commune with the Thrice-Holy God, leaving our worldly baggage behind as much as we can in order to approach the holy mountain — we are in a certain sense bringing heaven down to earth.

2. The Mass


Last but not least, there is the Mass, which is quite literally where heaven and earth meet.  When we participate in Mass, we join the heavenly liturgy in which all the saints and angels praise God (for more on this, I’d recommend Scott Hahn’s book “The Lamb’s Supper”).

Five more days until St. Patrick’s Day.  Until then, I do have a few more items I want to talk about.  Thanks for reading, and stay tuned.

Image of “The Mabinogion” from www.amazon.com; remaining images from Wikipedia

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Celtic_cross “Well,” says Sam Gamgee at the end of Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings,” “I’m back.”

And so am I, after a bit of an absence.  I wanted to kick off the month of March with some reflections on the “seeds of the Word” St. Patrick found and nurtured in my ancestors, the Irish people. Irish_cloverWe all know the famous story of how Patrick used the three-leaf clover to illustrate the Doctrine of the Trinity.  Just as the shamrock had three leafs and yet was but one flower, the Three Divine Persons of the Blesséd Trinity were one God.

Whether or not this actually happened is uncertain.  But it’s a great story, and wonderfully symbolic.  The shamrock was very important in Ireland’s ancient pagan religion, symbolizing life, rebirth, and immortality.  What better way to bring this notion to fulfillment than to use the very same plant as a “sacramental” pointing to the Author of Life? St. Patrick_Snakes And then of course there is the slightly more entertaining story about how Patrick singlehandedly banished all of the snakes from Ireland.  I have serious doubts as to whether this one happened (especially since there is no evidence for the presence of snakes in Ireland after the Ice Age).  But again, we have something wonderfully symbolic here.  After all, the serpent has been a key symbol of the devil, and of demonic influence, for thousands of years.

Between these two stories, we get a glimpse of what evangelization should be.  It is not a matter of going into someone else’s country and burning away their time-honored culture and traditions.  Rather, it is about:

  1. Finding what is good, true, and beautiful in said culture/traditions;
  2. Clearing away the weeds that are blocking their growth, keeping them from becoming all they can become; and
  3. Allowing the Sun (the Son) to shine upon them with healing and vivifying rays.

Sure, there were things that the Irish pagans had to give up (the worship of many gods, for instance).  But it may surprise many to know that the Gospel met with very little resistance among the people of good old Eire.  It appears that there was something in their culture that made them ready to embrace the Word.

Ronald_knoxNor were the Irish unique in this regard.  Monsignor Ronald Knox, a well-known mid-twentieth-century English priest, once said this:

…it seems to me, Almighty God didn’t want his revelation to reach the human mind as something quite strange, quite foreign to all its ways of thought, difficult to assimilate.  He would shape the human mind beforehand to receive it, as the bird, under some strange tuition of instinct, shapes the nest beforehand to suit its unimagined needs.

-“The Hidden Stream,” Chapter 7

So what were some of these “tuitions of instinct” on the Emerald Isle?  I plan to take a look at that in part two.

Images from Wikipedia

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The lore of St. Patrick’s Day tells us of a pot-o’-gold at the end of the rainbow, guarded by a wee leprechaun.

In one particular sense, the Irish version of the rainbow myth is closer to the truth than others.  Based on common observance, it observes that the pot-o’-gold is impossible to get to, since one does not get any closer to a rainbow by walking in its direction.

Let it never be said that God doesn’t have a sense of humor.  We might say that this is His way of reminding us that we cannot attain salvation by our own efforts or powers.  It is a gift of grace.

Also, while the rainbow may appear to give us a link to Heaven, the truth remains that Heaven and earth can only be united by the One Who created both.

Christ Crucified by Velazquez

Insofar as Christ is the fulfillment of the Noahide Covenant, the rainbow, like the symbols of the other covenants (for example, the Ark of the Covenant with Moses), leads to the Cross.  So we can say that what we find at the end of the rainbow is not a pot-o’-gold or a leprechaun but, in fact, the Cross.

How does the St. Patty’s Day yarn point to this?  Well, I would venture to suggest two analogies:

1. The true “leprechaun” is Jesus Christ

True, leprechauns are impish, mischievous little creatures, and as such bear no resemblance to the Lord of lords.  But in a sense, Christ is like the leprechauns in that He makes Himself “little.”

St. Paul says it best:

Christ Jesus … though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.  Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2: 5-8)

He manifests this littleness above all in becoming a helpless victim on the Cross for our salvation.

2. The true “pot of gold” is the gift of the Holy Spirit

Having reconciled mankind to God, Christ is able to pour out His Spirit upon the world to sanctify humanity and gather His children scattered by Babel into one Body — the Church.

PentecostThe Holy Spirit is, above all, the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity.  As Jesus is the Father’s Word, the Spirit is the Father’s Breath.  And He is given to us, so that we might have a share in the divine life.

…the Spirit is also personally the living water welling up from Christ crucified as its source and welling up in us to eternal life. (CCC 694)

This is our true treasure.  And I hope you would agree that it puts any “pot-o’-gold” to shame.

So on the day we Irish celebrate the great saint who brought the Gospel to us, we should keep in mind that perhaps those little green men skipping among the clovers have something to teach us after all.

Image of Christ crucified obtained through a Google image search. Other images from Wikipedia.

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St. Patrick’s Day is nearly upon us.  While there is much to be said about the great saint being commemorated — my Patron Saint, incidentally — I think most people’s attention would be more easily captivated by popular images of leprechauns and their pots-o’-gold under the rainbow.

Given this traditional affiliation, I want to preface my comments on leprechauns with a focus on the rainbow.

Rainbows have captivated mankind’s attention for ages, and so many cultures have attributed various forms of significance to it.


To the Vikings it was the Bifrost Bridge, believed to connect earth to Asgard, the realm of the gods.


According to Greco-Roman mythology, what we call the rainbow was in fact the path made in the sky by Iris, a minor deity whose job it was to relay messages between Heaven and Earth.


The ancient Chinese would have said that the rainbow came into existence as a result of a slit torn into the veil between heaven and earth, which the goddess Nüwa sealed using multi-colored stones.

Across the world’s many cultures throughout the millennia, interpretations of the rainbow included the clothing or paraphernalia of gods, omens, and the very form of a particular god itself.

Descartes_RainbowAnd then of course we have the modern scientific explanation of the rainbow, which is well beyond my expertise or powers of explanation and has something to do with the refractions of light.

This, however, gives us the how of the rainbow.  Before we dismiss the ancients as stupid primitives who understood nothing about the world, we should keep in mind that they were more concerned with whys than with hows.

If we take a look at the various cultures in question, we notice that most of them conceived of the rainbow in terms of some sort of connection between heaven and earth — whether in the form of a connecting apparatus or a revelation (intentional or not) on heaven’s part of itself.

NoahWith all this in mind, let’s take a look at the Biblical conception of the rainbow.

In the Book of Genesis, we read about God’s Covenant with Noah and all of creation after the Great Flood:

God added: “This is the sign that I am giving for all ages to come, of the covenant between me and you and every living creature with you: I set my bow in the clouds to serve as a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.  When I bring clouds over the earth, and the bow appears in the clouds, I will recall the covenant I have made between me and you and all living beings, so that the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all mortal beings.  As the bow appears in the clouds, I will see it and recall the everlasting covenant that I have established between God and all living beings – all mortal creatures that are on earth” (Genesis 9:12-16).

It is with this understanding of the rainbow in terms of a Covenant in mind that I intend to explore the leprechaun/rainbow symbolism in relation to Christianity.

Images obtained from Wikipedia.

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