Among Snakes and Clovers

Growing up in Southern California, to me, Saint Patrick’s Day meant wearing green, pinching people, drinking excessively, being Irish, and people eating corned beef and cabbage.  It wasn’t a big deal but now that I am older, I really like Saint Patrick’s Day.  It is a day of metaphor and stories.  Saint Patrick was a real person that died on or around March 17, 461.  He was born in Britain to a wealthy family.  At the age of 16, he was kidnapped by pirates and spent the next six years as a slave in Ireland.

During his captivity, he was a lonely shepherd and became a devout Christian.  Because Patrick was a writer, we know that he had visions, heard voices, and was guided by his dreams.   God spoke to Patrick in a dream and told him it was time to escape Ireland.  In a second dream, an angel told him he should return to Ireland as a missionary.  Following this guidance, Patrick entered religious studies for the next fifteen years.  He did not actually introduce Christianity to Ireland but he did popularize it.

Saint Patrick is not only falsely credited with introducing Christianity to Ireland, he is also credited with driving out the snakes.  Ireland is one of the few countries were snakes have never been native.  During the Ice Age, the island was too cold for snakes and later it was too far for snakes to swim. This myth was most likely a metaphor for what Saint Patrick really did, he helped Christianity to prevail over paganism in Ireland.  Metaphorically, for Christians, serpents are evil creatures.  They are low, they slither on the ground, and of course, it is the serpent that tricked Eve into eating the apple and introducing evil and suffering into the world.  In reality, the biggest obstacle to Christianity in Ireland was the established Celtic and pagan religions and celebrations.  Instead of trying to eradicate these traditions, Patrick decided to incorporate them into his lessons on Christianity.  By doing this, he helped popularize Christianity and thus banished the snakes (paganism) from Ireland.

What can we learn from Saint Patrick?

Saint Patrick’s most popular stories are false but his true history has much to teach us today.  Patrick listened to his inner voice and followed his dreams.  As a shepherd and slave, he dreamed of his escape, return, and conversion of the Irish people to the Christian faith.  He knew the importance of his dreams and he not only recorded them but he allowed his life to be guided by them.

Saint Patrick’s true success came from his ability to compromise.  His goal was to bring the Christian faith to the people of Ireland. He was not the first missionary to attempt this goal but he was the most successful because he knew the Irish culture.  Instead of just trying to convince others to believe the way he believed, he learned about their beliefs and incorporated them into his own.  These incorporation made the Christian beliefs more acceptable to the pagans of the day but also more interesting and rich for those of us that celebrate these holidays today.  Think about Easter without the eggs, Christmas without the tree, or Saint Patty’s Day without the green beer (our modern day compromise of turning a religious holiday into a secular drinking event).  I like to think that it was Saint Patrick’s example of incorporation that led to these other rich traditions of merged cultures that have become our new cultural traditions and old historical rituals to discover.

America has often been called a melting pot.  In a melting pot, all of the original ingredients are melted down into one new creation.  This new substance is usually most characterized by whatever element is most prevalent within the mix.  America isn’t and shouldn’t be a melting pot.  We can take our example from Saint Patrick and instead make a nice hearty stew of incorporation.  In a stew, all the elements retain their unique characteristics adding to the flavor, complexity, and beauty of the whole.  Carrots on their own taste great but when cooked in stew, the flavor remains but it is enhanced by the savory warmth and flavor of the meat and gravy.  Our country is great because it is not a melting pot, it is a hearty and ever changing stew.

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