Walking through the Valley and the Legend of St. Patrick
This Sunday is Saint Patrick's Day and most people, Irish or not, will wear something green, maybe drink a few green beers, wear shamrock pins and perhaps even wear something that says, curiously, "Kiss me, I'm Irish." Parades will march like our own "PaddyFest," pipes will play and Chicago will dye its river green to honor the Irish and Saint Patrick. All of this, however, tends to miss the real impact of Saint Patrick on the history of the world.
Legend has it that Saint Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland. Well, the truth is that there were never, nor are there today, snakes in Ireland (at least not the slithering kind). That legend may be symbolic of the fact that Patrick did, in fact, drive out much of the evil and violence that had existed for so many centuries on that beautiful island. Patrick had first come to Ireland as a slave, but it was there that he would voluntarily spend the rest of his life capturing people with the love of God.
It begins in the late fourth/early fifth century of the Common Era (after Christ). Patricius (Patrick) lived somewhere in northeastern England. He was born into an aristocratic Christian family and although his grandfather was a priest, Patrick's own family was only marginally practicing the faith. At age 16, Patrick was himself a bit of a rebel who ridiculed the local clergy and, by his own admission, lived on the wild side of "alienated" and "ungoverned" youth. Some would say that he was like many, but not all, 16-year-olds then and today.
At sixteen, he was captured by a band of Celtic pirates who sailed from Ireland and conducted raids in that part of England. When he arrived in Ireland, he was sold to a tribal chieftain, a Druid named Miliuc. The chieftain put Patrick out in the fields herding cattle. Patrick also had to live outside in the elements with little food or clothing. Alone with his thoughts, Patrick began to pray to the God he had previously ignored.
Patrick prayed many prayers as he pastured his flock of cattle and as he rested in the cold and dark forests and mountains. It changed him. He started to identify with the very people who enslaved him. He learned their language and culture, understood their own view of the world and their religion. In time, he even came to love them as people who might one day turn to the Triune God.
In dreams and visions of being free, Patrick, who was still a slave, did receive his freedom and made it back home to England. However, Patrick had other visions that took him back to Ireland where he served as a priest to the Celts.
Now where is the connection between Patrick and Psalm 23 and "walking through the valley?" The imagery we see here in St. Patrick's work and in the psalm offer imagery that makes the mundane "sacred."
Rather than set up a church as the center of a parish and get people to come, Patrick and his entourage engaged in a relational strategy.
Arriving at a tribal settlement, Patrick would engage the chieftain in conversation, hoping for a conversion or at least for his permission to camp nearby. The team would then meet with the people, engage them in conversation and look for those who were receptive. They would pray for sick people, counsel those who needed it and mediate conflicts. On at least one occasion, Patrick blessed a river and prayed for the people to catch more fish. He found God and revealed God in the plainest of circumstances — good or bad.
He and his team engaged in some open-air speaking, using stories and parables that engaged the Celtic imagination and connection to nature. Legend has it that when Patrick wanted to preach about the Trinity he would pluck a shamrock — a three-leaf clover — and use it to describe how God is one and three at the same time.
Patrick encouraged the people to ask questions and express their hopes and fears. After a while, a community of faith emerged, and Patrick and his entourage would move on, leaving behind a priest to nurture the fledgling community. About 700 churches and monastic communities were planted by Patrick in this way even though that was not his focus.
So now what? On Saint Patrick's Day, we celebrate someone who was willing to use the common elements of life and nature to tell the story of God. He also was able to use a tragic and unfair circumstance in his life as a springboard to make a difference among the very people who had enslaved him...Though I walk through the valley of death, I will fear no evil for you for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.
Rather than run away from conflict or opposition, Patrick moved toward it. Rather than buy into fear and say, "Well, they're a lost cause," he instead grew to love the outsiders and gave his life over to them.
The psalmist reminds us that God never sees us as a lost cause, but a beloved child. And that same God will be with us in "the valleys" or the "green fields" of life.