By Jonathan Lynch
“Wait a minute!” cry my readers. “St. Patrick is not a Doctor of the Church! Why is Jonathan writing about him? Has he made a mistake?”
“No,” I reply with solemn gravity. “You are correct. But this article is not part of my series on the Doctors of the Church. Nor have I made a mistake (I hope!). The fact of the matter is, St. Patrick’s Day is coming up, and if you don’t celebrate it, I want to give you a reason to. And what is more, I want to give you a reason to really celebrate every holiday, and PARTY LIKE A PRO! If you want to have a good time, read on.
Before I try to explain Saint Patrick’s Day, I’ll try to explain Saint Patrick. Let’s start with one quick fact: he wasn’t even Irish. (What?!) Yup. You read that right. Patrick was a British Roman. His father was a deacon, but Patrick was, by most accounts, not especially religious as a young man.
Anyways, his whole world got turned inside-out when he was sixteen years old. He was kidnapped by Irish pirates and sold into slavery. For the next six years, he would be sheperd and servant boy to a druid (pagan high-priest) named Milchu. Despite being thrust into such a toxic environment, Patrick found strength in turning to the God of his fathers, who had never abandoned him. In the following years, Patrick grew closer and closer to God through prayer and silence on the wild hillsides of Ireland. But things took another drastic turn when he fled his master at the command of an angel, traveling 200 miles on foot to where a ship was just about to leave for the British mainland. He haggled his way on board, and after a difficult voyage, returned home.
And it could have all ended there. Patrick could have said, “Good enough. I’m home, let’s enjoy life a little.” And if he had done so, he might have lived a comfortable and leisurely life, and then be lost to history as just another petty lord of Roman Britain.
But his six years of slavery had changed him profoundly, and God could no longer be ignored. He began to study for the priesthood and was soon ordained a priest and was assigned as a missionary companion to St. Germain to stamp out the Nestorian heresy in Britain. And it was Saint Germain that recommended Patrick to the Pope when he called for a missionary to the wild island of Ireland. Patrick was consecrated as a bishop and set out for the land of his own slavery. His welcome was far from warm; armed druids and chieftains came out against him, but he was miraculously unharmed by their attempts. He meant to go to Dalríada, the place of his slavery, to pay the price of ransom to his former master, and in return for all the abuse that he had received, to give the message of salvation. But Milchu, recognizing the power of Patrick’s God, knew that his demons had met a match and instead burned his house to the ground over himself and all his possessions rather than submit to his former slave.
There’s plenty of arguing about much of Patrick’s life, and whether one tale or another is fact or fiction. But there is one thing that can not be argued at all, and it is this: by the grace of God, Saint Patrick brought the Light of Christ to an entire country. Because of his efforts and sacrifices, countless souls have received that same light and have passed it down through the generations. Now that’s something worth celebrating.
Alright. Now it’s party time. (Wahoo!) So let me ask you a question: why do you celebrate? And why do you celebrate holidays in particular? While you are pondering what the answer would be, or else pondering why on earth I would ask such a question, I will postulate several likely answers:
1) Family Tradition: You always have because that’s the way it always was and will likely always be.
2) You like to see your friends and hang out together. I mean, seriously, who doesn’t?
3) Special food. You don’t get Thanksgiving turkey and pumpkin pie every day.
4) Entertainment. Those fireworks are just the coolest. They go “BOOM” and “BANG” and explode.
And I could go on with the list, though I hardly feel it necessary. All of these are excellent reasons to celebrate. But they are still only half-formed reasons. Or, more precisely, they are reasons that have forgotten where they have come from. Why is it a family tradition? Why do you meet with your friends to celebrate the event? Why do we go to ridiculous troubles to prepare extravagant dishes? What makes the fireworks so much a part of Independence Day?
And if we cannot answer these questions, or simply do not care what the answers may be, then we can perpetuate a tradition, see friends, eat food, be entertained, and then the next day have absolutely nothing to show for it. We walk away from the experience unchanged, back on the quest for the next fun thing.
The solution? We find it in the words of G.K. Chesterton, one of my favorite authors, and one of the most influential and prolific lay Catholic writers of his time, perhaps of all time. He writes in his book, Heretics:
“There are some people, nevertheless – and I am one of them – who think that the most practical and important thing about a man is still his view of the universe.”
The way that we see and perceive things matters. A lot. It doesn’t change what the thing is, but it profoundly changes how we understand and relate to it. Do you believe that your life is an adventure, and that God has planted you on this earth in a particular place to do some great work in his great story? Can you look at a roaring river, or behold the massive majesty of mountains, and feel a trembling run through you at the realization of the awesome power of God? Can you wake up in the morning and feel a wave of thanksgiving that God has given you another day to live, and not only that, but He has painted the entire sky with wild, bright colors, like the pictures of a child, to show you that He loves you?
This was the prevailing spiritual mindset of G.K. Chesterton. His life was an expression of thanksgiving and childlike awe at everything good that he saw around him. And when we adopt his eyes to see, we can see things about our celebrations that we’ve never seen before.
Through these eyes, we can feel our hearts pounding like battle drums in our chests when we remember that on July 4th, 1776, our forefathers stood up against the most powerful and ruthless nation of their day and said, “We will serve you no longer! We have been created by God as free men, and we would rather die than surrender that freedom!” And then we see our flag in every scrap of red, white, and blue that is flung high in pride at being a free American, and in the thunder and lightning of the fireworks, we can recall the terrible roar of the cannons that bought that freedom against all odds, and we remember the nameless thousands who since that day have given their lives in your place, so that you could live free. And once you realize that, you can never be the same again. Independence Day takes on an entirely new meaning, and once that last rocket has burst in the heavens, the brats and hamburgers are gone, and the party is over, you carry the memory of what you have received with you till the end of your life.
And Independence Day is not even a directly spiritual holiday. Think of the meaning that we can find when we consider a holiday like Easter! Imagine, or rather, realize the darkness of sin that all the earth was plunged into by the original sin of Adam and Eve. Realize that all mankind had fallen from grace and that not even God’s chosen people could remain faithful to Him. The gates of heaven were closed because the human race as a whole had incurred a debt that they could never hope to pay. And then, in one, great, sweeping act of love and mercy, the Eternal Father gave us His Only-Begotten Son to be like us in all things but sin, to suffer and die for us: as a man, to pay the debt of sin for all mankind, and as God, to make an infinitely perfect and adequate sacrifice, like no mere man could do. On Good Friday, the power of darkness seemed to prevail; Jesus Christ was crucified, died, and was buried. And then – on the third day, in accordance with the Scriptures, and even as He Himself had promised – the Word of the Father conquered death and rose victorious from the grave. By His death He conquered sin, and by His rising, He conquered death. He opened the gates of heaven to us, and gave us in His own resurrection a pledge of our eternal life in the age to come. And in the rush of exuberance that follows from this realization, we see symbols of resurrection and new life in eggs, and baby bunnies – for this, of course, is where those traditions came from. And when you see this and realize what it all means, you cannot go back. Your life is different, because you have been redeemed, and you know it.
I could go on. Just about any holiday that we celebrate we celebrate for a good reason. I could explain Valentine’s Day, New Year’s, Thanksgiving, Veteran’s Day, your birthday… heck, even Groundhog’s Day has Christian origins. These celebrations are part of our legacy, our story, part of who we are as a country and even more so as Catholics. That is why these traditions started in the first place. Our ancestors recognized something that changed their lives so dramatically that they could not go on living like they did before. And so, to remind themselves and their children about that momentous occasion, they instituted holidays, that the wonder could be renewed year after year. And let me tell you, as Catholics, we have more to celebrate than any other nation, people, race, or creed on the face of the earth.
But perhaps you are thinking to yourself, “This whole concept of Chesterton’s novel wonder is all fine and well for someone with a wild imagination, who can picture things that happened long ago and make it feel real today.”
But G.K.C. has something to say about that, too, in his essay, “The Advantages of Having One Leg”:
“The way to love anything is to realize how very much otherwise it might have been.”
Once you realize how different your life would be if you did not have your freedom, or if Christ had not come to redeem you from your sins and open heaven’s gates for you, then you can hardly help but fall in love with everything that you have been given. And this part does not take much imagination at all. It is the easiest thing in the world these days to read, learn, and see what it was (and is) like for people who do not have what you have. The horrors of Nazi Germany, Communist Russia, or the slave trade in America before the Civil War are no secret; read up on them, and you will realize what your freedom means – no imagination necessary. You don’t even need to open a book to see what life is like without the resurrection. All you need to do is open your eyes. We live in a world that has, by and large, abandoned God, denied His very existence, and attempted to set up a worldly paradise without Him. And what do we see? Despite all their efforts, those who cut themselves off from Christ and the power of His resurrection are the most miserable people who have ever lived! They may succeed in life in a material sense, they may be popular or famous or pretty or smart, but none of that does them any good because they are empty inside, and sooner or later, it will show.
Now, I’m gonna bring this whole article back in a loop to finish it off. If you know who Saint Patrick was, and what he did, then it casts Saint Patrick’s Day in a completely different light. It is no longer just a day when shamrocks festoon every conceivable place and food is so full of green food coloring that its very edibility is highly in question. In a sudden burst of understanding, you realize that the shamrocks recall Patrick’s teaching on the Holy Trinity; that green is the symbol of Ireland, the land of his long labor; and that they are worth celebrating because, without Patrick’s life of sacrifice, countless souls may never have heard the gospel and passed it down from generation to generation so that in your time, you might hold the light of Christ, carry it valiantly throughout the race, and pass it on to another generation when your eyes behold the finish line, and you hear the voice of Christ calling you home.
Till next time, may Christ be with you all, and may His Mother shield you beneath her mantle.
All for Thee, Sweet Jesus,
Through the Immaculate Heart of Mary,
For the glory of God
And the salvation of souls.