For as long as I can remember, my family has celebrated St. Patricks’ Day like many other Irish-American families: corn beef and cabbage, homemade Irish soda bread, green dye in everyone’s beverages all served on Mom’s best Irish linen tablecloth. Typically, the sound of The Chieftains or Tommy Makem and The Clancy Brothers can be heard on my parent’s stereo. Over the years, I’ve tried including The Pogues, The Waterboys and of course, U2. But tradition in my family runs strong – St. Patrick’s Day isn’t the complete without a rousing rendition of “My Wild Irish Rose”and “O Danny Boy,” designed to bring a tear to your eye.
Early in my career as a school teacher, I was introduced to another saint commemorated in March: St. David. Like St. Patrick’s Day, there are associated traditions for St. David, and as a young school teacher with a new teaching assignment, I found myself carrying on another cultural tradition of sorts when I was conscripted by a friend and co-worker to make St. David Day cookies for our faculty colleagues. In preparation for St. David’s Day, we’d spend the last weekend of February making dozens and dozens and dozens of a little Welch biscuit so faculty members could literally fill their pockets with these addictive little morsels. It was in discovering more about St. David and this new tradition I participated in that I also discovered more about St. Patrick and the rich tradition of Celtic Christianity.
Who St. Patrick is to the Irish, St. David is the Welsh. Both men were early Christian bishops who helped spread Christianity and converted Druids and other pagans throughout Ireland and Wales. Both are two of only a handful of Celtic saints, who are also recognized and canonized by Rome for their influence on the Christian faith. Celtic saints were the men and women of Ireland, Scotland and Wales who, whether they were of noble or peasant birth, lived a life dedicated to God, and sought with heart, body, mind and soul to share and express God’s love to others. Many Celtic saints are known only in their localized area – their holiness revered and cherished among the people who witnessed that the successive generations continue to benefit from the life of the saint who once lived there. Whereas the status of Catholic saints of the Roman church is conferred by a far-away pope after a lengthy documentation process that verified the saintly credentials of a person, Celtic sainthood is conferred by popular veneration.
Often times, particular Celtic saints may have legendary stories attributed to them. The famous Lorica of St. Patrick is attributed to an incident following Holy Saturday in 433 when Patrick kindled the paschal (Easter) fire on a hill across from Tara, the center of the country and seat of the Druid High King. Patrick’s fire undermined the high king’s authority and power, who, by virtue of their office, ritually lit bonfires, thereby symbolically claiming they were the givers of light and warmth. When summoned by the Druid king to what would likely be his execution, Patrick and his companions robed themselves in white and found miraculous protection in chanting the Irish hymn invoking God and heavenly protection from the “powers of corrupt and distorted powers of the world.” The tale does not describe the king’s reaction, but the resultant successful spread of Christianity throughout Ireland suggests he did not have much of a fight left in him after being thwarted by God’s miraculous protection.
A similar story is told of St. David, but instead, the subdued chieftain is credited to say, “the kindler of that fire shall excel in all powers and renown in every part that the smoke of his sacrifice has covered, even to the end of the world.”
But for all the miraculous stories and the supposed powers that rivals today’s superheroes, Celtic saints became saints because the community in which they lived recognized their life of holiness and relationship to God. Perhaps one reason there are so many Celtic saints is because they saw no separation between what was secular and religious – all of life was sacred, and therefore consecrated to God. It was intertwines, much like the famous knot work still popular today.
In the centuries before furnace units and central heating, Celtic women who kindled the day’s fire in their hearth didn’t just clear the night’s ashes, they prayed and asked God’s blessing upon the fire that would give their families heat and light throughout the day. The prayer underscores the understanding they shared with St. Patrick and St. David, that light and life was a gift from God.
This morning, as I kindle the fire upon my hearth, I pray the flame of God’s love may burn in my heart, and the heart of all I meet today.
I pray that no envy or malice, no hatred or fear, may smother the flame.
I pray that indifference and apathy, contempt and pride, may not pour like cold water on the fire.
Instead, may the spark of God’s love light the love of my heart, that it may burn brightly throughout the day.
And may I warm those who are lonely, whose hearts are cold and lifeless, so that all may know the comfort of God’s love.
In our contemporary lives, when the light and heat of our homes can be programmed and controlled by remote from miles away by computer prompts, it takes a little imagination – or a power outage – for us to understand how present day humanity is still dependent upon the provisions of the earth – God’s creation – for our sustenance.
But understanding that God’s presence is infused into all of daily life like the Celtic saints of old did does not require we heat our homes with peat dug from a bog. Spiritual sight to acknowledge God’s sovereignty in all things comes with practice as we avail ourselves of divine grace. Like the Psalmist who was content “to be a doorkeeper in the house of the Lord” (Ps. 84:10), may we also embody holy lives and open the doors of heaven, pointing the way to God for others.