Friday, March 27, 2009

Lenten Voices: Understanding St. Patrick

by Ellen Hill

When I was growing up, I never understood Saint Patrick's Day or as they say in Boston, "Saint Paddy's Day. As a little girl it meant drunks on the subway and public drunkenness on the streets. If you watched the coverage this year from Ireland to New York, it remains the same. Well, except for Seattle, which seems to incorporate all of the above matched with a second soaking of rain.

I didn't understand it then and I don't now.

Especially since Saint Patrick's Day falls in the middle of Lent. Does this mean everyone has an exemption? My Irish grandfather told me the Irish did. It took me years to appreciate anything about March 17. I later learned that March 17 is thought to be the day Saint Patrick died and thus became his feast day. However in Boston, the story goes that March 17, 1776 is the day the British evacuated Boston during the Revolutionary War. General George Washington's password to his troops was "Saint Patrick". Today, March 17th is referred to as Evacuation Day in Boston and is an official holiday.

We learned in school that St. Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland and that was about it. Upon further reading, I found the biography of an interesting man who lived as a slave in pagan Ireland. A vibrant scholar who by force of character preached Christianity and in thirty years converted Ireland. He was an outspoken critic of slavery in the fifth century, something the papacy did not weigh in on until several centuries later. And one of the earliest advocates for women, he showed an unusual empathy toward the downtrodden. His building and support of monasteries where tolerance and learning thrived, was essential in the growth of civilization. It seems there was a whole wealth of information other than the snake story.

The first Saint Patrick's Day parade was in New York and was soon followed by Boston. The parades were a proud answer to the prejudice of their day when "Irish need not apply" signs were openly posted.

I'll try to remember that next year. I will recite the prayer for protection taken from the Druids, chanted by Saint Patrick against evil and spells,

"Be Christ this day my strong protector:
against poison and burning
against drowning and wounding,
through reward wide and plenty.
Christ beside me, Christ before me;
Christ behind me, Christ within me........."

-Saint Patrick's Breastplate

Ellen Hill is a longtime member of St. Paul's.

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