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    green hill against a blue sky

    With Saint Patrick on Slemish Mountain

    His enemy’s last desperate act failed to derail the great saint’s mission to heal and save Ireland.

    By Brandon James O’Neil

    March 17, 2022
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    • George Marsh

      Thank you for this wise essay. The wind is at your back.

    Like many Americans, I come from a family with roots deep in Irish soil. Every year as a child, I eagerly awaited the celebration of our heritage on Saint Patrick’s Day – coincidentally my birthday – when my grandparents, aunts and uncles, and all the cousins gathered to sing songs and repeat the stories we had been told about the motherland. My favorite story was of a young man, Patrick, who was kidnapped and brought to Ireland as a slave and then was miraculously led home, became a bishop, and returned to Ireland to preach the gospel. The rest, as they say, is history. In our celebrations of Saint Patrick’s Day, I never wanted to forget the real man whose brave, Christian life was the reason we gathered.

    It was later that I was introduced to the various hagiographies of Patrick, including Muirchú’s Vita Sancti Patricii, one of the earliest texts recounting his remarkable story. Of course, hagiographies are not meant to be objective history or unbiased biography; their purpose is to awe believers with tales of a saint’s otherworldly powers and divine communication. And in Muirchú we do find a bit of that. But as a frequent reader of hagiography, I learned to keep my eye out for an aspect the hagiographer often tries to suppress: the humanity of the saint. Readers can be surprised at moments of tenderness, puzzlement, and vulnerability that, regardless of their best efforts, the writers could not keep from slipping into the narrative.

    Muirchú’s Vita Sancti Patricii contains one powerful example of the human interrupting the usual hagiographic tone, and it comes early in Patrick’s ministry. Having just been ordained a priest on the continent, Patrick plans to return to Ireland for the first time since his kidnapping, bringing with him enough gold to buy his freedom twice over from Miliucc, the northeastern landowner who enslaved him. In his highly formalized ethics, Patrick viewed his escape as theft from Miliucc since it robbed him of chattel property. Once gold passes hands, he could stand free without regret, having satisfied the common law of restitution. We sense the excitement, even naivete of the young priest, counting the treasure and eagerly envisioning the reunion with his former oppressor. Redeeming himself would officially rewrite his identity, casting off forever the brand of the victimized, the runaway.

    Word quickly arrived to Miliucc that his former slave had landed on Ireland’s eastern coast, and that he carried the authority of a new kingdom. According to Muirchú, “[Miliucc] did not want to become a subject to his former servant, nor that the servant should now rule over him,” and so “he gathered all his possessions in the house where he was once a king and set fire to them and himself” (translation from Oliver Davies, Celtic Spirituality).  It is not hard to reconstruct Miliucc’s logic. He was robbing something from the man who robbed something from him: refusing to be the servant of the God of his former slave, refusing to grant Patrick any hope of reconciliation. In Miliucc’s mind, he died on top, the winner in the cycle of “an eye for an eye.” Miliucc’s prideful act of self-harm, aimed to thwart Patrick’s goal of closure, would deny Patrick dignity and the opportunity to set things right.

    green hill against a blue sky

    Slemish Mountain Photograph by Tim Khanna

    Patrick stood at a distance and witnessed it all from Slemish Mountain, where years before he had tended Miliucc’s flocks and first heard the voice of his guardian angel. “Standing there he was speechless,” Muirchú relates, “and for two to three hours he wept, sighed, and mourned without saying one word.” Despite everything Patrick had experienced – kidnapping, enslavement, escape – it was perhaps in this moment that he grew up, his naiveté dying in the silence from his vantage point on Slemish Mountain. When he could speak, he could only repeat a phrase borrowed from Saint Paul: “I do not know; God knows” (2 Cor. 12:2). Feel the immediate despair in these words as they fall from his lips over and over. Patrick did not deny himself this moment of private pain; it is his “Jesus wept” moment, the juncture of human vulnerability in an otherwise heavenly career, when the defenses come down to reveal such a career’s high cost.

    Closure is not always what we think it will be. Patrick’s plan while loading his ship to cross the Irish sea was a happy reunion with Miliucc. The Vita Sancti Patricii suggests that Patrick even envisioned Miliucc as his first Irish convert (this honor would go to the swineherd Díchu mac Trichim). Patrick planned to go full circle, back to the site of his captivity, to reclaim it as a site of peace and reconciliation. His plan literally went up in flames.

    “I don’t know,” Patrick repeated. I don’t understand. God does. Patrick prayed this affirmation over and over, after hours of stunned silence. Maybe it took a couple of times saying it before Patrick could get past the first phrase. Head in his hands, he stammers “I don’t know.” Pity, grief, hopelessness. Then the Comforter responds, “God knows,” wrapping Patrick in the assurance that God does understand our pain in the face of senseless violence. God even understands how scared Miliucc must have been as he lit the fire of desperation. God understands that pride is usually the mask of fear and terror is its inevitable outcome.

    And God knew that this horrible act of self-destruction could never derail Patrick’s mission to heal and save Ireland. Often, we discover that dropping our plan for God’s soothes the wounds suffered during our moments of vulnerability. Jesus wept and raised Lazarus from the dead. Patrick wept and shortly thereafter lit his famous Paschal fire in defiance of the pre-Christian spiritual and civic authorities, marking the true beginning of his mission among the Irish. Miliucc’s suicide marks a dramatic turning point at which Patrick is no longer directing the narrative. Rather, his work among the Irish is to follow heaven’s direction – not his conscious planning.

    How many of us, like Patrick, have dreamed up a perfect scenario in which to bestow our gift of forgiveness to a person who has wronged us? We imagine his or her face as we say the perfect words – we have practiced them a dozen times – and perhaps feel more superiority than love in the absolution. But then the plan abruptly changes. We move away, or the person dies, or they have forgotten what happened. Then we are left with a treasure chest – whatever it was we thought could set things right – that the other person does not want, cannot use, or will not accept. So much for human planning.

    Forgiveness as taught in Christianity breaks the cycle of “an eye for an eye.” Patrick’s mission of peace communicated more than the price of gold ever could. He expressed his forgiveness of Miliucc in every subsequent conversion, baptism, and ordination he performed in Ireland. Today, as I meditate on Patrick’s vulnerability and his sudden change of plans, I find myself asking: How can I express my forgiveness of those whom I cannot forgive directly? How can I circulate in my community the grace that dissolves the burden of resentment from my heart?

    Contributed By BrandonONeil Brandon James O’Neil

    Brandon James O’Neil studies English at the University of Iowa and is managing editor of the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review.

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