Wiseblood Books

The Dying of the Light

Tenebrae begins in a darkened chapel with fifteen candles burning on a candelabrum. As the choir sings sorrowful Psalms and the Lamentations of Jeremiah, the candles are extinguished one by one . . .

Tenebrae begins in a darkened chapel with fifteen candles burning on a triangular candelabrum. As the choir sings sorrowful Psalms and the Lamentations of Jeremiah, the candles are extinguished one by one . . .


TENEBRAE is Latin for shadows or darkness, and Tenebrae is the apt name for a dramatic celebration of Matins and Lauds that used to be commonly held throughout the Western Church during the last days of Holy Week. Thank goodness, Tenebrae is still publicly celebrated in some places. For one example, the following announcement is from the St. Ann Choir of Palo Alto, California, which sings a Tenebrae service every year on the Wednesday of Holy Week.

TENEBRAE, Wednesday April 16, 2014, 8:00 p.m. Anticipated Matins and Lauds of Holy Thursday. Lamentations of Jeremiah by Victoria. St. Ann Chapel, 541 Melville Ave. (at Tasso)
Palo Alto, 94301.

When I used to sing with the St. Ann Choir. I became acquainted with Tenebrae and learned to love it, and now that I sing with another choir that doesn’t sing at a Tenebrae service, I try very hard to keep on attending the St. Ann choir’s Tenebrae every year as a member of the congregation. The funereal singing of mournful psalms, the haunting polyphonic Lamentations of Jeremiah by Renaissance composer, Tomas Luis de Victoria (c.1548-1611), and the dramatic diminishment of the light and the growth of darkness during the ceremony that is enacted during the service, all set the tone for the last three days of Holy Week, when the Church solemnly meditates on Christ’s Passion, death, and burial.

St. Ann Choir Tenebrae Rehearsal 2013

St. Ann Choir Tenebrae Rehearsal 2013

Matins and Lauds, and Anticipation

Some definitions may be helpful. Matins and Lauds are first two liturgical “hours” in the traditional Divine Office from the Roman Breviary (Breviarum Romanum) that are “sung” (chanted or prayed) each day. Matins used to be sung after midnight and Lauds was sung in the morning, but both of these hours began generally to be “anticipated” the evening before. The 1962 rubrics said that Tenebrae should not be anticipated, but because this change made public Tenebrae services unlikely, it is often ignored.

The St. Ann choir sings a shortened version of the two liturgical hours. As Stanford Professor William P. Mahrt, the director of the St. Ann Choir explained, “We use an order that has been customary in parishes: we sing one Nocturn of Matins and then Lauds.”

Lamentations of Jeremiah

The Lamentations of Jeremiah that are sung during Tenebrae are songs of lament composed by the prophet Jeremiah after the destruction of Jerusalem and the beginning of the Babylonian captivity. They begin:

“And it came to pass, after Israel was carried into captivity, and Jerusalem was desolate, that Jeremias the prophet sat weeping, and mourned with this lamentation over Jerusalem, and with a sorrowful mind, sighing and moaning, he said.”

The destruction of Jerusalem was similar in the enormity of its importance to the Jews as the destruction of Troy was for the Trojans and the destruction of Carthage was for the Carthaginians, but it was even more of a blow to the Jews because their beloved temple was destroyed and most of them were taken into captivity.

The Lamentations have received a peculiar distinction in the Liturgy of the Church in the Office of Passion Week. If Christ Himself designated His death as the destruction of a temple, “he spoke of the temple of his body” (John 2:19-21), then the Church surely has a right to pour out her grief over His death in those Lamentations which were sung over the ruins of the temple destroyed by the sins of the nation.” “Jeremias.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 8. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. Link.

Fifteen Candles and Then There Was One

The service begins with fifteen candles lit on a large candelabrum, which is called a hearse. After the choir sings each Psalm and Lamentation, one candle is extinguished, until only one candle is left burning.

The remaining lighted candle is then hidden. After a pause, anyone in the church who wishes to participate can help create the “strepitus,” which is a loud noise made by banging on the pews with books or hands. As Prof. Mahrt, noted, “This is the only time in this liturgy in which a noise that is not musical is made.” After the strepitus, the candle is brought back, and the service comes to an end.

Prof. Mahrt wrote, “The service represents symbolically the death of Christ, the light, in the decrease of lighted candles and the disappearance of the last candle; the strepitus represents the chaos of His death; the return of the candle, His ultimate Resurrection.”

Without a doubt, the Tenebrae service of solemn music with its dramatic interplay of darkness and light is an evocative and moving way to prepare for the commemoration of the events of the Triduum, the last three days of Christ’s life during Holy Week.




From Dom Prosper Gueranger’s commentary on Tenebrae from The Liturgical Year Volume 6: “There is an impressive ceremony peculiar to this Office which tends to perpetuate its name. There is placed in the sanctuary, near the altar, a large triangular candlestick, holding fifteen candles. … At the end of each psalm or canticle, one of these fifteen candles is extinguished; but the one which is placed at the top of the triangle is left lighted. … Then the master of ceremonies takes the lighted candle from the triangle, and holds it upon the altar, on the epistle side, while the choir repeats the antiphon after the canticle: after which he hides it behind the altar during the recitation of the Miserere and the prayer which follows the psalm. As soon as this prayer is finished, a noise is made with the seats of the stalls in the choir, which continues until the candle is brought from behind the altar, and shows, by its light, that the Office of Tenebrae is over.

“Let us now learn the meaning of these ceremonies. The glory of the Son of God was obscured and, so to say, eclipsed, by the ignominies He endured during His Passion. He, the Light of the world, powerful in word and work, Who but a few days ago was proclaimed King by the citizens of Jerusalem, is now robbed of all his honors. He is, says Isaias, the Man of sorrows, a leper (Isaias 53:3,4). He is, says the royal prophet, a worm of the earth, and no man (Psalm 21:7). He is, as He says of himself, an object of shame even to his own disciples, for they are all scandalized in him (Mark 14:27) and abandon Him; yea, even Peter protests that he never knew Him. This desertion on the part of His apostles and disciples is expressed by the candles being extinguished, one after the other, not only on the triangle, but on the altar itself. But Jesus, our Light, though despised and hidden, is not extinguished. This is signified by the candle which is momentarily placed on the altar; it symbolizes our Redeemer suffering and dying on Calvary. In order to express His burial, the candle is hidden behind the altar; its light disappears. A confused noise is heard in the house of God, where all is now darkness. This noise and gloom express the convulsions of nature when Jesus expired on the cross: the earth shook, the rocks were split, the dead came forth from their tombs. But the candle suddenly reappears; its light is as fair as ever. The noise is hushed, and homage is paid to the Conqueror of death.”

NOTE: If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, you might be interested in the whole Holy Week schedule here. You can also follow the St. Ann Choir on Facebook or at their website.

Holy Week Schedule for the St. Ann Choir

Holy Week Schedule for the St. Ann Choir

The Seven Last Words of Christ


It’s Holy Week, which means that, like church music directors everywhere, I am operating in overdrive.  I’m pretty sure my hands were still conducting yesterday’s “Palm Sunday Procession” even while I was asleep.  So, in lieu of a real blog post, I hope you will accept my humble gift of a song.

I wrote “The Seven Last Words of Christ” while I was in college, somewhere around 1999 or 2000, and the fact that I did so has never ceased to surprise me.  Composition is definitely not my greatest strength, nor was this done as an assignment.  However, for reasons best known to the Holy Spirit, it popped into my head that I should write a song using as the lyrics the seven last words of Christ in Aramaic, the language in which He actually spoke them… so I did.

In case you do not know, the “seven last words” are the seven phrases attributed to Jesus while He hung on the cross, compiled from all four Gospels.  It was a little awkward to get them translated, since the only person on my university campus who knew Aramaic was a Jewish professor of religious studies who seemed a bit taken aback at being asked to translate the words of Jesus Christ.  However, he was kind enough to oblige me, and he even met with me to tell me how to pronounce the words correctly.

I recorded this in 2006 as part of a fundraiser for my parish music program.  Julie Cherry is on the piano and Chad Brouillette did the recording.  I hope that, during this holiest week of the year, my song might help you enter more fully into the mystery of the passion and death of Jesus.


If this file does not play, scroll down and try the .wma at the bottom of the page.


“The Seven Last Words of Christ”

Eli, eli, lema sabbachthani?

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Matthew 27:46 and Mark 15:34)

Abba, selach ‘ethon la nakhru mah h’mon pelalin.

Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. (Luke 23:34)

Amen, ‘amar ‘ana lekhon, yo ma dena tihyu immi befardes.

Amen, I say to you, this day you will be with me in paradise. (Luke 23:42)

Abba, beyadkha natan ‘ana ruchi.

Father, into your hands I commend my spirit. (Luke 23:46)

Ishaha, alu baraykh.  Alu immakah.

Woman, behold your son.  Behold your mother. (John 19:26)

Tsamey ‘ana.

I thirst. (John 19:28)


It is finished. (John 19:30)


Discovering the Camino

Fr. Greg Markey’s slender (75 page) book, Discovering the Camino de Santiago: A Priest’s Journey to the Tomb of St. James,) may be unique among the hundreds of books currently in print about the famous pilgrimage road–because it is written from the point of view of a devout Catholic pilgrim.

It meets a real need: I met a young Catholic married couple one Sunday at an after-Mass social at St. Margaret Mary Church in Oakland who were planning to walk the Camino this Spring, and they told me that they couldn’t find any books about the Camino as a Catholic pilgrimage. They were greatly relieved when I told them about Fr. Markey’s book, which is decidedly not a guide for the kind of trekker who is looking only to check “Walk the Camino” off a bucket list.

Santiago [Sant Iago] means St. James, and “Santiago de Compostela” is the short way to refer to the Cathedral Shrine of St. James at Compostela in Spain where the Apostle St. James the Greater is traditionally said to be buried. “Camino de Santiago” (often abbreviated as just “the Camino”) is the still shorter term used to refer to the network of roads across Europe that uncountable thousands have taken to the famous shrine of St. James. The ancient route to the shrine was even mentioned in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in the fourteenth century: the much-traveled Wife of Bath had made an astounding number of pilgrimages: three times to Jerusalem, another time to Rome, and other times to other major pilgrimage sites, Boulogne in France, Cologne in Germany, and most apropos to this review, she had also gone to Santiago, in Spain.

French Map of the European Network of the Way of St. James in Europe. Typically one would embark on the Camino from one's front door and travel to the Cathedral of St. James in Compostela (St. Jacques de Compostelle) in northwestern Spain along one of the many pilgrimage routes

French Map of the European Network of the Way of St. James in Europe. Typically one would embark on the Camino from one’s front door and travel to the Cathedral of St. James in Compostela (St. Jacques de Compostelle) in the northwest corner of Spain along one of the many pilgrimage routes.

Fr. Markey started researching his book as he prepared to travel prayerfully and contemplatively on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela during a sabbatical, from late June to late July in 2009. As he walked and gave thanks to God for the 10th anniversary of his ordination as a priest, he was only one of the one hundred forty five thousand eight hundred and seventy seven (145877) travelers along the the Camino that year.

Discovering the Camino de Santiago: A Priest's Journey to the Tomb of St. James

Discovering the Camino de Santiago: A Priest’s Journey to the Tomb of St. James

More About Fr. Markey

Fr. Markey is the pastor of St. Mary’s parish in Norwalk, Connecticut. He celebrates Traditional Latin Masses in the Extraordinary Form there along with reverent Masses in the Ordinary Form. He is an active member of the Church Music Association of America, and he participates in the yearly Sacred Music Colloquium with his music director and choir members and supports a high-quality sacred music program at his parish. For more about his work as a pastor, see this. article about Fr. Markey in Regina Magazine’s Fall 2013 edition.

Fr. Markey in 2006 at a Sacred Music Colloquium

Fr. Markey in 2006 at a Sacred Music Colloquium

Fr. Markey with his choirmaster, David Hughes, choir members, and parishioners at the 2006 Sacred Music Colloquium

Fr. Markey with his choirmaster, David Hughes, choir members, and parishioners at the 2006 Sacred Music Colloquium

In his book, Fr. Markey provides background information that explains why pilgrims began trekking to the northwest corner of Spain centuries ago. Fr. Markey’s book presents the evidence for the traditional beliefs that St. James the Greater evangelized Spain, that he returned to Jerusalem, that he later died as the first martyr among the Apostles, and that his body was brought back to Spain for burial.

He quotes from significant Church documents about the shrine and provides some of the rich history of the Camino, including the homily of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, which the pope gave at the Compostela Cathedral during a visit the year after Fr. Markey went there, in the Jubilee year of 2010.

Fr. Markey’s own journey to the shrine of St. James is humbly told, reverent, and inspiring. He describes how he walked along the road with a Vatican flag and an American flag hanging on his backpack and a rosary in his hand, handing out blessed Miraculous Medals as the opportunity presented itself, among a shifting stream of people who came from all around the world.

When asked why he wrote yet another book about the Camino, Fr. Markey replied that very few Americans know about its significance and that misinformation abounds. In his introduction, Fr. Markey says he wanted to write about the Camino “from the perspective of a believer” both because the Camino is rich in Catholic history and because the great contribution of the Apostle St. James to the evangelization of Hispanic peoples deserves to be better known. Because of the tradition of his having evangelized Spain, St. James the Greater is Spain’s patron saint.

A record of widespread devotion to the great Apostle remains in Europe, the Caribbean, and in Central and South America in the scores of cities and towns and hundreds, perhaps thousands, of churches, that bear Saint James’ name.

Fr. Markey walked four hundred and ninety-six often-painfilled miles along the popular portion of the Camino called the Camino Frances, which extends from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port near France’s border to Compostela, and his pilgrimage took him a month. He walked the Camino with the resolution to offer up any sufferings he might experience along the way. In this and other ways, he reminds me quite a bit of the Chaucer’s parson, the priest who Chaucer described as rich “of hooly thoght and werk.”

French Map of the Camino Frances

French Map of the Camino Frances

Spiritual Fellow Travelers

Fr. Markey’s times of greatest camaraderie occurred during the occasions when he fell in with a pious and joyful group of Catholic young people who are members of FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students) and who were apparently on the Camino for the same reasons as his own. After their paths kept crossing during the first part of the journey, they decided to join forces, and from that point on they read the Liturgy of the Hours, said the Rosary, and participated at Masses with Fr. Markey, until the end.

Fr. Markey’s goal was to arrive at the shrine by the Feast of St. James on July 25, and in spite of setbacks from “Brother Ass” that put his plan at risk, he made it–the day before the feast. He concelebrated with the Archbishop of Compostela and many other priests on the feast day, and a day later he was able to say a private Mass with the FOCUS group at the tomb of St. James.

At the end of the book, Fr. Markey wrote: “The experience of the Camino has been exhausting—perhaps the most physically demanding thing I have ever done in my life–yet filled with many graces. The Camino beats you down, wears you out and purifies you.”

Virgin of Orisson, a statue that Fr. Markey encountered soon after he had entered Spain on the Camino Frances and started climbing in the Pyrennes

Virgin of Orisson, a statue that Fr. Markey encountered soon after he had entered Spain on the Camino Frances and started climbing in the Pyrennes

Other Reviews

Magdalena Rodriguez, in a customer review said this about the book at Amazon: “My husband an I are planning on going on the Camino De Santiago later this year and have been looking for Catholic books to read in preparation. Sadly, there are so few Catholic books for this Catholic Pilgrimage, and all the reading material is trying so hard to appeal to secular travelers that it almost seems like Catholic pilgrims are not welcome on the Camino. This was a breath of fresh air, and a wonderful read. Definitely recommend to others.”


Jordan Saxony, in another Amazon customer review wrote, “There are many books on the practical aspects of the Camino (logistics, what to bring, how to get around). This is not one of them. Instead it may very well be the best book in English suitable for any reader. Most of the Camino books treat the pilgrimage as something entirely naturalistic, like the Appalachian Trail; if they get “spiritual” at all, it is only in the sense of a New Age kind of easy spirituality, or perhaps a kind of psychological journey. Father Markey’s book is entirely different. The Camino is an ancient CATHOLIC pilgrimage route and the book is written by a truly faithful Catholic “peregrino”(pilgrim). It includes the history of Santiago – starting back in the Bible – as well as something most people are not aware of – references to the historical accuracy of this place as the tomb of St. James. The book also includes Pope Benedict’s beautiful homily at the Cathedral Compostela during the Jubilee Year of 2010….[T]here is nothing else like it in English.”

A Bit of Background

“For about twenty years I have been intrigued by the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, a route that pilgrims have been walking for more than 1,000 years to the shrine of St. James the Apostle in Spain. I envied a fellow St. Ann choir member, Kerry McCarthy, a young professor of music at Duke, when I learned that she has walked portions of the Camino more than once. Before one choir dinner towards the end of one summer, Kerry gave me one of the tiny silver scallop shell charms she’d brought back to give away as souvenirs. Scallop shells are a symbol of St. James, and they are traditionally worn by pilgrims along the Camino.

“About a year later, I was visiting Kerry’s good friends, Susan and John Altstatt, while Kerry was on one of her summer treks along the Camino, and the Altstatts showed me a video of Kerry at a fountain along the way that has two faucets, one for water and one for red wine. They had prearranged with Kerry a time when she would be there, and John had figured out a way to capture the video from a web cam. So I got to see a grainy black and white clip that they captured of Kerry walking up to that fountain halfway around the world and filling her cup with wine. That is as close I’ll ever get to being there, I thought to myself, and I was glad to share vicariously in that bit of the pilgrim experience.”

The Wine Fountain was built in 1991 by a vendor and has the following messages: “We are pleased to invite you to drink in moderation. If you wish to take the wine with you, you will have to buy it.” “Pilgrim, if you wish to arrive at Santiago full of strength and vitality, have a drink of this great wine and make a toast to happiness.”

The Wine Fountain was built in 1991 by a vendor and has the following messages: “We are pleased to invite you to drink in moderation. If you wish to take the wine with you, you will have to buy it.” “Pilgrim, if you wish to arrive at Santiago full of strength and vitality, have a drink of this great wine and make a toast to happiness.”

Related Information

The Painted Veil

It took me a long time to warm up to this book, about 90 pages, in fact. As it’s not even 250 pages long, that’s a sizable warm-up period. I suspect that the original editors didn’t do such a good job, but, since it is at this point a book with a history, their original mistakes were left (lots of run-on sentences, a word missing from a sentence here and there, you get the idea). Also, it struck me as a trashy romance novel with no admirable characters. I was dismayed, as I generally trust recommendations from Heath Misley, a compatriot from my Wasting Time in the Western Tradition days in Manchester. So, I gritted my teeth, and pushed on. And I’m glad I did.

I know a movie was made based on this book. I think I even saw it a long time ago, but I don’t remember much of it. Do yourself a favor, though, and read the book, even if you have already seen the movie. I don’t want to say too much about it because I don’t want to give anything away (there were a lot of things that surprised me as I was reading, and I want you to be surprised, too). But, why should you read it? It admirably handles the problems of human weakness, pettiness, silliness and selfishness. All of the characters are real, and uncomfortably so. It’s never pleasant to realize that a writer so clearly understands human failings. It’s like when you go to mass and come away with the sure knowledge that the sermon was written with your unholy soul as a target. But, it’s also comforting to know you’re not the only one who’s ever been an idiot, to whatever degree that might have been. Maybe we’re not all so tortured as the whiskey priest in The Power and the Glory, but a failing is a failing. So, with that vague summary in mind, read it and prepare yourself to become attached to some less-than-worthy fictional characters.

The novel is set in the British Empire during the 1920′s. It’s primarily about the development of one Kitty Fane. Out of boredom and some curiosity, she acquaints herself with the Mother Superior of a Catholic convent (she herself is not Catholic.) As she leaves the convent for the last time, the Mother bids her goodbye. I’ve truncated the scene:

Kitty had a wild impulse to shake her, crying: “Don’t you know that I’m a human being, unhappy and alone? Can’t you turn a minute away from God and give me a little compassion?” To Kitty’s surprise the Mother Superior took her in her arms and kissed her. She held her for a moment. “Remember that it is nothing to do your duty, that is demanded of you and is no more meritorious than to wash your hands when they are dirty; the only thing that counts is the love of duty; when love and duty are one, then grace is in you and you will enjoy a happiness which passes all understanding.” (Vintage, 204-06)

Kitty is deeply flawed in many ways, but her biggest problem is that she is incredibly selfish. I suppose one might say that the book is really about her learning what it means to love. She goes through the paces of a few things, even marriage, because they are what she is expected to do. But, never having received real love from her parents, and being encouraged in a solipsistic existentialism, she’s a brat. The mother superior has told her exactly what she needs to hear, and, really, exactly what all of us need to hear.

If we gracelessly go through the paces of life, grumbling as we take out the trash, swearing at other drivers during the morning commute, blandly reciting our prayers, impatient at having to change yet another diaper, angry at disruptions of our dutiful routine, we’ll be utterly miserable, and so will everyone with whom we come in contact. It is far better to be 5 seconds later to work than to cut off someone trying to merge onto the highway. No one will be thankful that you took out the trash if you guilt-trip them about how much work you do around the house. A grumpy recitation of a 20-decade rosary has less merit in it than a 2-second shout-out to God of sincere gratitude for a piece of chocolate. And if you resent every diaper you have to change, or even every other diaper, don’t think your child will grow up unaware of that resentment. Kitty isn’t perfect at the end of the book; she does progress, but boy, she sure slips up pretty horrifically. Sadly, so will you and I (as we’re both already aware, I’m sure). I know it sounds trite and corny, but at least try to love people, really love them and be kind to them, as you go along making mistakes and inadequately performing your duties for them. Love covers a multitude of sins, and leads you to that happiness which surpasses all understanding. So go have some chocolate, or, better yet, buy chocolate for someone else, and thank God you can.

Sure and His Was a Wonderful Life: Part III

St. Patrick’s Vision of the Dimming of Ireland’s Faith
Since St. Patrick’s Day is upon us, there is only time for me to write one more post about him and his doings. (See here  and here  for two other related posts.) One simple rule I once learned while teaching others how to write in the past has helped me make the difficult decision on what final topic I would choose to write about out of my copious notes about many compelling stories and interesting controversies about St. Patrick’s life.

I learned this simple rule (abbreviated as WIRMI) at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis while doing graduate work on an MA in English with an emphasis in writing. (Students in that program would take courses in English along with courses in various genres of writing, and their master’s theses would be collections of their own writing; in my case my master’s thesis consisted of my own fiction, poetry, memoir pieces, and feature articles.) The head of the U of MINN MPLS composition department hired me and other graduate students, most of whom had never taught before, as instructors and put on workshops to coach them and give them support.

I had learned to write well by assimilating the authors I had devoured while reading constantly ever since I first learned to read. But I found out that for most students writing didn’t come naturally and that some skills could be taught. One of the things they taught us instructors in the workshops was to tell students to ask themselves certain helpful questions before and while they wrote — such as: “Who cares?” (It’s kind of funny, but “Who cares?” actually is useful to make a new writer think about what audience is intended for a piece of writing under construction and also give a thought to whether the intended audience would find the topic interesting.)

I also learned to teach students not to try to write a piece all in one sitting, but instead to write drafts with their inner critics turned off, to get their ideas flowing. Then I would tell them they should do the following after they wrote one or more drafts, “After you look at all the words you’ve gotten down, pretend you are starting your next draft with ‘What I really mean is . . .” I would write ‘WIRMI’ on the whiteboard.

WIRMI has often been helpful for me in my writing life. It has caused me to delete many a first paragraph or larger chunk at the start of a piece of writing that on second reading proved to be obviously a wind-up to what I really wanted to say. After I applied the WIRMI test to my wealth of the topics about the life of St. Patrick, the answer to what I really wanted to say with the time I have left came out as follows.

All the current speculation aside about whether St. Patrick really drove out snakes from Ireland, whether Ireland ever had any snakes, whether the snakes in the stories were really metaphorical Druids, or whether while escaping from slavery the saint was asked by sailors to perform a perverse bonding ritual, about which I wrote some things in my first two posts, not to mention the fascinating question of whether he ever used a shamrock to teach about the Trinity, which I never got around to, what I really want to make sure to write about are the alarming indications that the Irish are losing the faith that Patrick labored so mightily to enlighten them with. And then I want to tell you one of the stories from the life of St. Patrick that gives hope for a brighter future even though the light of the faith seems to be flickering these days in the Emerald Isle.

By the time he died, St. Patrick had baptized tens of thousands. As an old man, Patrick looked back on his life and wrote, “Those who never had a knowledge of God but worshipped idols and things impure, have now become a people of the Lord, sons of God.” Within a century after his death, Ireland was predominantly Catholic, and the faith of the Irish was so strong that Ireland established monasteries and schools and sent out missionaries around the world. This preeminence of the Irish in Catholicism lasted over a thousand years. When I was a child, most of the priests here in the U.S. still were Irish, either American born, or born and trained in Ireland.

IMG_0101When in 1898 Archbishop Patrick Reardon of the Archdiocese of San Francisco where I now live dedicated a seminary that he had built to train priests locally, he said this at the seminary’s dedication. “I have placed this work under the patronage of a great Apostle, St. Patrick, not indeed for personal reasons, but because he is the patron saint of a great Catholic race which has suffered more than any other for religion’s sake, the most devoted, the most generous, and most priest-loving race within the fold of the Church of Christ.”

The Way It Was in the early 1960s

Until 1970, you couldn’t get a drink in Ireland for the life of you on St. Patrick’s Day. All the pubs were closed by law. It was a religious holiday, a solemnity, and holyday of obligation, which meant mandatory Mass attendance.

For example of what it was like before 1970, here’s this one account from a 2012 article “Mobile area Irish faith leaders recall spirituality of St. Patrick’s Day” describing what it was like fifty-odd years ago for an Irish immigrant priest, Father John Lynes, when he was a boy.

“When the Rev. John Lynes, pastor of Little Flower Church in Mobile, was a boy in Ireland, St. Patrick’s Day was a time of prayer and reflection.

“’It was a 100-percent religious holiday,’ said Lynes, 55, who grew up in Tipperary. In addition to going to Mass with his family, Lynes learned the story of St. Patrick — who converted the pagans of Ireland to Christianity in the 5th century. Places having to do with the life of St. Patrick, he said, were ‘sites of pilgrimage, all very penitential.’

“He described a high school excursion climbing Croagh Patrick — the hill of St. Patrick — going barefoot up “the rugged, rough mountain. At the top there was an altar and cross, and prayers were said.’

“The American notion of St. Patrick’s Day as a party with green beer, leprechauns and ‘Kiss Me, I’m Irish,’ was in contrast to the day of holy obligation in the Irish Catholic Church.

“‘I never saw anything green on St. Patrick’s Day,’ Lynes said, ‘until I came to America.’”

St. Patrick Icon, in Blue

St. Patrick Icon, in Blue

Some say that blue is the true color of St. Patrick, but that’s another story.

The Way It Was In 1979

This second clue about the state of Ireland’s religious beliefs from the more recent past is from Pope John Paul II. For years I would pray while driving around in my car listening to tape recordings of Pope John Paul II saying the Rosary in Latin, until the tapes started to wear out. The tape on the Glorious Mysteries also included excerpts from a sermon that the pope gave at the shrine of Knock in Ireland in 1979. Here are some excerpts of his prayer to Our Lady on that occasion: “Help this land to stay true to you and your Son always. May prosperity never cause Irish men and women to forget God or abandon their faith. Keep them faithful in prosperity to the faith they would not surrender in poverty and persecution. Save them from greed, from envy, from seeking selfish or sectional interest. … Queen of Ireland, Mary Mother of the heavenly and earthly Church, a Mháthair Dé, keep Ireland true to her spiritual tradition and her Christian heritage. Help her to respond to her historic mission of bringing the light of Christ to the nations, and so making the glory of God be the honour of Ireland.”

Soon after the pope’s visit there in 1979, the Celtic Tiger phenomena of steeply rising incomes got loose to wreak damage across the land. From 1990s to the 2000s, Ireland experienced all the temptations of prosperity, followed by greed and envy. People went from trying to cash in on the technology boom to trying to strike it rich by selling houses to one another for higher and higher prices. The Celtic Tiger rise in prosperity in Ireland was short lived like other bubbles. The bubble broke in 2008. Many lost their jobs, many were left bankrupt because of job loss or speculations, and many lost their homes.

Prosperity may have lured many of the Irish people away from the old ways. But then the scandals about sexual abuse by priests rocked people’s faith some more.

The Way It Was in 2009

Attendance at Mass, the percentage of Catholic weddings and funerals, all began to decline.

By March 17, 2009, Cardinal Sean Brady, archbishop of Armagh and primate of Ireland, was asking the Irish people to rediscover the faith. In a St. Patrick’s Day message, the cardinal wrote, “St. Patrick’s Day unites Irish people all over the world” due to the saint’s image as a “symbol of Irish history and of Irish heritage.” But he went on, St. Patrick’s Day is “not just to celebrate Irish culture and identity, but also to remember the man who described himself as an ambassador for God and who prayed that it might never happen that he should lose the people which God had won for himself at the end of the earth.”

The Way It Was in 441

When reading the account of St. Patrick’s life from the Catholic Encyclopedia of 1911, I realize there is hope for the Old Sod yet. St. Patrick extracted a promise from God that although the faith in Ireland would dim for a while, it would shine bright once again and never go out.

It all happened after St. Patrick undertook his famous Lenten fast on Croagh Patrick, where pilgrims are still climbing in his memory and visiting the place where he stayed. The Book of Armagh, a manuscript written in the 8th century, states that Saint Patrick fasted on the summit of the mountain for forty days and forty nights and also built a church there. Like Christ and Moses, Patrick fasted on his Holy Hill a metaphorical forty days and forty nights. Also like Moses, St. Patrick bargained with God.

“His only shelter from the fury of the elements, the wind and rain, the hail and snow, was a cave, or recess, in the solid rock; and the flagstone on which he rested his weary limbs at night is still pointed out. The whole purpose of his prayer was to obtain special blessings and mercy for the Irish race, whom he evangelized.”

St. Patrick's Bed on Croagh Armagh

St. Patrick’s Bed on Croagh Armagh

He may or may not have driven out any snakes but he drove out a flock of demons. “The demons that made Ireland their battlefield mustered all their strength to tempt the saint and disturb him in his solitude, and turn him away, if possible, from his pious purpose. They gathered around the hill in the form of vast flocks of hideous birds of prey. So dense were their ranks that they seemed to cover the whole mountain, like a cloud, and they so filled the air that Patrick could see neither sky nor earth nor ocean. St. Patrick besought God to scatter the demons, but for a time it would seem as if his prayers and tears were in vain. At length he rang his sweet-sounding bell, symbol of his preaching of the Divine truths. Its sound was heard all over the valleys and hills of Erin, everywhere bringing peace and joy. The flocks of demons began to scatter, He flung his bell among them; they took to precipitate flight, and cast themselves into the ocean.


“So complete was the saint’s victory over them that, as the ancient narrative adds, “for seven years no evil thing was to be found in Ireland.”

St. Patrick felt that after the penitential purifications of his fast, he had the right to demand a lot of promises from God for the people he loved. “He had vanquished the demons, but he would now wrestle with God Himself, like Jacob of old, to secure the spiritual interests of his people. The angel had announced to him that, to reward his fidelity in prayer and penance, as many of his people would be gathered into heaven as would cover the land and sea as far as his vision could reach.” But St. Patrick demanded more, much more from God. “[H]e resolved to persevere in fasting and prayer until the fullest measure of his petition was granted. Again and again the angel came to comfort him, announcing new concessions; but all these would not suffice. He would not relinquish his post on the mountain, or relax his penance, until all were granted.

“At length the message came that his prayers were heard:
• Many souls would be free from the pains of purgatory through his intercession;
• Whoever in the spirit of penance would recite his hymn before death would attain the heavenly reward;
• Barbarian hordes would never obtain sway in his Church;
• Seven years before the Judgment Day, the sea would spread over Ireland to save its people from the temptations and terrors of the Antichrist; and
• Greatest blessing of all, Patrick himself should be deputed to judge the whole Irish race on the last day….

“He tells us in his ‘Confessio’ that no fewer than twelve times he and his companions were seized and carried off as captives, and on one occasion in particular he was loaded with chains, and his death was decreed. But from all these trials and sufferings he was liberated by a benign Providence…. The reward of his sufferings was an extraordinary vision that was granted him before he died.

“He saw the whole of Ireland lit up with the brightest rays of Divine Faith. This continued for centuries, and then clouds gathered around the devoted island, and, little by little, the religious glory faded away, until, in the course of centuries, it was only in the remotest valleys that some glimmer of its light remained.”

St. Patrick was not about to give up, after all that had come before.

“ St. Patrick prayed that the light would never be extinguished, and, as he prayed, the angel came to him and said: ‘Fear not: your apostolate shall never cease.’ As he thus prayed, the glimmering light grew in brightness, and ceased not until once more all the hills and valleys of Ireland were lit up in their pristine splendour, and then the angel announced to St. Patrick: ‘Such shall be the abiding splendour of Divine truth in Ireland.’:

Cardinal Brady expressed the hope that “more and more Irish people, who have lost their connection with faith, will rediscover it and rediscover what St. Patrick called ‘the joy and love of faith.’”

May it be so.

stPatrickSadSt. Patrick’s Prayer for the Faithful

May the Strength of God pilot us.
May the Power of God preserve us.
May the Wisdom of God instruct us.
May the Hand of God protect us.
May the Way of God direct us.
May the Shield of God defend us.
May the Host of God guard us.
Against the snares of the evil ones.
Against temptations of the world
May Christ be with us!
May Christ be before us!
May Christ be in us, 
Christ be over all!
May Thy Salvation, Lord, 
Always be ours,
This day, O Lord, and evermore. Amen.

Sure and His Was a Wonderful Life: Part II

Did St. Patrick Drive the Snakes Out of Ireland?

This week one of my Facebook friends posted a cartoon that shows St. Patrick driving a car. He’s wearing a green chasuble and miter, and he’s scowling. With him in the car are a bunch of snakes, and most of them are complaining: “ARE WE THERE YET? I HAVE TO GO TO THE BATHROOM. HOW MUCH FURTHER? I’M GOING TO BE SICK.” I’d love to post the cartoon here, but, alas, it’s copyrighted and I can’t find the owner to get permission. So I made my own version.

And today I came across this related joke, as told by the Irish: “What did St Patrick say when he was driving the snakes out of Ireland?” “Alright in the back there lads?”

Both of these jokes, of course, are humorously pooh-poohing the story that St. Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland. Something may have happened between St. Patrick and the serpents of Ireland, but it’s hard to discern exactly what that might have been, or if the serpents in the story are meant to be taken literally or not.

Over 100,000 people a year visit Croagh Patrick, a famous pilgrimage site in County Mayo, supposedly to commemorate St. Patrick’s driving the snakes from Ireland from that spot. Croagh Patrick (Patrick’s mountain) is where St. Patrick went to fast starting on Ash Wednesday in 441. Because of the similarity between the 40 days that Patrick spent on the mountain and the 40 days spent by Moses on Mount Sinai, Croagh Patrick is called “Holy Hill” and “the Sinai of Ireland.”

Croagh Patrick

Croagh Patrick

Pilgrims at Croagh Patrick

Pilgrims at Croagh Patrick

The Catholic Encyclopedia actually claims very little about St. Patrick and the serpents of Ireland, in its entries titled “St. Patrick” and “Croagh Patrick.” In the “Croagh Patrick” article, the Catholic Encyclopedia says, “The account given below is taken from sources that post-date the saint’s death by three hundred years. There are, however, good reasons to believe that the traditions they embody are genuine. …. From that sacred spot on Holy Saturday [after he had fasted for 40 days], Patrick with outstretched hands solemnly blessed the men of Erin that they might cling to the Faith, and the land of Erin that no poisonous reptile might infest it.” It says nothing about St. Patrick driving out snakes, just about him blessing the land of Erin (Ireland) so that poisonous reptiles would not infect it.

One thing wrong with those jokes at the top of this piece is that there were no automobiles in the fifth century A.D., and besides, Ireland is an island, so where would he be driving them to? [Insert smiley face here.] But seriously folks, another really significant thing that’s wrong is that some scientists claim that there were actually no snakes in Ireland for St. Patrick to drive out.

A National Geographic News article “Snakeless in Ireland: Blame Ice Age, Not St. Patrick” tells us that, as a keeper of natural history at the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin, a man named Nigel Monaghan “has trawled through vast collections of fossil and other records of Irish animals. ‘At no time has there ever been any suggestion of snakes in Ireland, so [there was] nothing for St. Patrick to banish,’ Monaghan said.” Elsewhere I’ve seen it noted that because snake skeletons are so small and fragile, fossilization is uncommon. But practically everyone has jumped on that idea anyway, that the lack of snake fossils proves there never were any snakes in Ireland, and then they treat it as a foregone conclusion.

The 2008 “Snakeless in Ireland” article also said that just because there have never been snakes in Ireland, at least since the last Ice Age (or since St. Patrick’s time), that’s not to say that snakes couldn’t start living there in the future, which might happen perhaps if owners of exotic pet snakes released their pets into the wild. That turns out to have been a prophetic statement. There’s a lot of exactly that kind of thing going on in Ireland these days.

As reported in a New York Times article “Boom Over, St. Patrick’s Isle Is Slithering Again,” in March of last year (2013), it so happened that after the bust of the Celtic Tiger boom, many of the Irish nouveaux riches who had bought exotic snakes as status symbols lost their jobs. Some of the newly poor snake owners got tired of the expenses of keeping them or simply left the country. “Some left their snakes behind or turned them loose in the countryside.”

But wait, in the same National Geographic News article “Snakeless in Ireland” quoted earlier, Mark Ryan, “director of the Louisiana Poison Center at the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center in Shreveport, agreed that the timing wasn’t right for the sensitive, cold-blooded reptiles to expand their range. ‘There are no snakes in Ireland for the simple reason they couldn’t get there because the climate wasn’t favorable for them to be there,’ he said.”

Ryan seems to be saying that even if snakes came over the water by ship, the climate was too inhospitable for snakes to survive. I’m starting to think that these different theories just don’t add up. Don’t you have to wonder why snakes would suddenly able to survive in Ireland in our day and age? I don’t think it could be global warming, since Ireland has actually had a warm climate for a long, long, time. As attested by Venerable Bede in 791 (as quoted a bit further down), Ireland is warmer than Britain, and Britain although colder than Ireland has three kinds of native snakes. Maybe it’s the high amount of precipitation, the rainfall that makes Ireland the Emerald Isle? Maybe that has made it too moist for reptiles? But wait, don’t reptiles like moisture?

You might remember that I mentioned in Part I of this series on St. Patrick that St. Bede, the author of “Ecclesiastical History of the English People,” did not write anything about the work of St. Patrick at all, even though St. Patrick had lived and worked in Ireland in the fifth century. Bede did write about the absence of snakes in the 8th century, and when he did so, he omitted St. Patrick entirely.

“Ireland, in breadth, and for wholesomeness and serenity of climate, far surpasses Britain; for the snow scarcely ever lies there above three days: no man makes hay in the summer for winter’s provision, or builds stables for his beasts of burden. No reptiles are found there, and no snake can live there; for, though often carried thither out of Britain, as soon as the ship comes near the shore, and the scent of the air reaches them, they die.”

Bede either didn’t know about St. Patrick’s missionary activity in Ireland and about the legend that St. Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland, or he wasn’t telling, but he did believe that snakes back then couldn’t even survive one sniff of the Irish air. Apparently they could now.

Of course, every Irish school child knows that the snakes in the legend of St. Patrick were actually Druids, and no snakes were killed in the making of this legend. Oh, and do they now?

More about snakes and Druids in Part III.

The Parenting Drug

drugsI went to see my dental hygienist the other day.  During the moments when her fingers were not in my mouth, she and I chatted (like we do every six months) about parenting.  My boys are three and five, her daughter is two.  There is always something to chew on about preschools, naptime rituals, kids who won’t eat vegetables–the usual.  This time, we talked about coping with the stress of parenting.  She told me that a few days before, she had been talking about the same thing with other working moms who looked at her and said, “Aren’t you on Zoloft?  Or Paxil?” with an air that clearly implied, “Because everybody else is.”

I did some reading, and it turns out, my hygienist and I have been living in a bubble.  Those other moms are right.  It’s not quite “everybody,” but prescribing antidepressants to frazzled moms is becoming increasingly common.  I, an incessantly frazzled mom, can absolutely understand why it would help.  My rose-colored parenting glasses came off when my oldest son was diagnosed with a developmental disorder affecting his language and motor skills just after he turned two.  I was three months pregnant with my youngest at the time.  My life ever since has been an unending whirlwind of choosing therapies, investigating schools, learning how to continue therapy at home, plus all the normal headaches that come from raising two boys.  While writing this paragraph, I have been interrupted to fish a naked toddler out of the bathtub and to engineer a way to keep him from scaling the built-in desk in the hall.  I also work full time.  Not a day goes by when I couldn’t use a good chill pill.  But, in the midst of all the chaos, it is easy to forget that our frazzled hearts will always be restless until they rest in God.

Let me be clear.  Depression is very real and very dangerous, and it can definitely affect mothers.  Some of the dearest people in my life require psychiatric medications, and I am truly grateful that science has developed ways to help them.  Anyone–man or woman, parent or not–who believes he or she may be suffering from a mental illness should seek the help of a psychiatrist.  If you need medication, please take it.  I am only here to say, there is something else you need, and it is more powerful than any drug.

It’s called prayer.

Mothers do not always neglect prayer because we lack faith.  We neglect it for the same reason I haven’t had a haircut in six months; there is no time.  For most of us, the only way we have been taught to pray is to carve out a few minutes of silence, which is a very good way.  For me personally, however, “finding time” proved to be impossible.  Prayer became just one more thing to add to the agenda, another gratuitous source of stress.  I had to give up the idea of finding time and learn how to find opportunity instead.

God does not exist somewhere outside our busy lives, like a kind old uncle we need to visit now and then.  He is there in the very midst of headache, heartache, and frustration.  He is there every time your child cries, and every time he smiles.  Every hug is an opportunity to thank God for the gift of that beautiful little person in your arms.  Every sleepless night is an opportunity to throw yourself upon His mercy and experience His grace.  I cannot tell you how many times my prayer has been as simple as, “Holy Spirit, I can’t do this.  You’re going to have to take over.”  If and when I get to heaven, I’m going to throw a barbecue for my family’s guardian angels.  They do a marvelous job of catching us in the moments when I fail–and those failures are another opportunity to praise God because He has not left us orphans.  We are right when we say, one person cannot do this job on her own.  One person does not have to.  We have whole legions, both in heaven and on earth, ready to answer our call.

This is what prayer can do:

In the three and a half years since my son’s diagnosis, he has gone from being completely unable to communicate to being at or above normal in every linguistic category except social skills.  The advances in his motor skills are more difficult to describe–he still looks awkward when he tries to gesture–but he tries.  We expect him to overcome the need for therapy in another two to three years.  For all of this, his magnificent team of therapists deserves a big round of applause.  My son deserves a standing ovation; he is the one doing the work.  My husband and I will accept a pat on the back, because we have hardly been idle bystanders.  But behind it all there has been a small army of people praying.  Every night, God has gone to bed with countless of those persistent, hungry friends from the parable (Luke 11:5-8) knocking at His door.  Just as He promised, He got up and answered.

My radical solution to the problem of motherhood stress is this: pray, but don’t just pray.  Ask others to pray for you, too.  Then, instead of restlessness, weight gain, and anxiety–the side effects of antidepressants–we might find that motherhood brings love, joy, and peace–the side effects of prayer.

Sure and His Was a Wonderful Life: Part I

Magonus Succetus: The Boy Who Would Be St. Patrick, Apostle of Ireland

StPatrickMineIn preparation for St. Patrick’s Day on March 17, this is the first of a series of stories about St. Patrick. Many details were collected from the entry, “St. Patrick,” by Cardinal Patrick Francis Moran in The Catholic Encyclopedia of 1911; other details are from St. Patrick’s Confessio, and other sources that I’ll mention as we go along. This first part today will cover the saint’s life from his capture and enslavement in Ireland until the time he was able to escape and return to what was left of his family six years later.

The details of St. Patrick’s life are even more amazing than the broadly sketched stories I heard about him as a child in the 1950s and early 60s, from the sisters at Mount Alvernia Academy in Chestnut Hill and at Notre Dame Academy in Roxbury, MA, from my father’s relatives, who were the Irish side of the family, and, by absorption, from the predominantly Irish-American culture in which I was immersed, while growing up in Eastern Massachusetts. I learned back then that Patrick was from a family of Roman citizens, and that he was taken prisoner at a young age by raiders from Ireland and forced to be a sheepherder for an Irish pagan master. The young captive was led by this terrible misfortune to repent his earlier lack of belief, and he prayed to God many times a day and night during his exile. After a long time of captivity, he was told by a voice to escape, go to a port hundreds of miles away and board a ship back to Roman territory.

As the story went on, Patrick miraculously got away, managed to find his way after the long journey to the port, found a ship that was just about to depart, and was allowed to board. After being reunited with his parents, Patrick experienced several visions in which the voice of Ireland begged him to return. After a time of preparation during which he became a priest and then a bishop, Patrick was able to travel back to Ireland as a missionary to the pagans he had lived as a slave among for so many years. We all know that his attempts at converting the Irish met with a great deal of success, to put it mildly.

St. Patrick was said to have used the famous shamrock — which is now trademarked by the Irish government as a symbol of Ireland — to explain the Trinity to the pagans. The shamrock with its three leaves on one stalk served as visual metaphor of how the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost could be three persons but still be One God.

It was also commonly said of St. Patrick that he drove all the snakes out of Ireland, and that they never returned. I have some things to say to the debunkers who claim that Patrick’s use of the shamrock and the story of him driving out the snakes are completely fictitious, but I’ll save my rebuttals for a later post.

ShamrockSeamrogSt. Patrick and the SnakesSt. Patrick’s Birth Name and Birth Place

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, St. Patrick was born in 387 and died on March 17, 493, although the date of his death is disputed and some think he died in 460 or 461. St. Patrick’s birth name was Maegwyn in Celtic and Magonus in Latin. The name of his noble family is Succat in Celtic and Succetus in Latin. Magonus is known to have been born on an estate called Enon, which was first owned by his grandfather, Lord Potitus, who was a priest, and then by his father Lord Calpurnius Succetus, who was a deacon.

Several places are put forth as the location of the estate, including Wales. The Catholic Encyclopedia says that he was born at Kilpatrick, near Dumbarton, in Scotland, in the year 387. In its favor as a plausible site for St. Patrick’s birth, Kilpatrick (Patrick’s Church) has many memorials of Saint Patrick, including the St. Patrick’s Church, and the Catholic Encyclopedia states that “Frequent pilgrimages continued far into the Middle Ages to perpetuate there the fame of his sanctity and miracles.”

Kirkpatrick Clan Crest at St. Patrick's Church, Kilpatrick, Scotland

Kirkpatrick Clan Crest at St. Patrick’s Church, Kilpatrick, Scotland

However, almost 100 years after the Catholic Encyclopedia article was published in 1911, in an article titled “Saint Patrick’s Family,” which was copyrighted in 2007, the author, Lord Aurelius Joseph Michael Isamat Anax of Catalania, scoffs at any scholar who attributes any birthplace to St. Patrick that was located outside of the Roman province of Brittania. Anax writes that in St. Patrick’s own writings “his native land is called by the plural, Britanniæ ‘the Britains,’ which could only refer collectively to the two Roman provinces named Britannia (both on the island), or universally to the old province of Britannia (the entire island South of Hadrian’s Wall).” Anax believes that St. Patrick was born in one of the two Roman provinces named Britannia Prima and Britannia Secunda.

Anax points out that Wales couldn’t be where St. Patrick was born because it wasn’t one of the Britains (it isn’t on the island). He also points out that the region of Kirkpatrick in Scotland could not have been in Britannia, because that part of Scotland lies north of Hadrian’s Wall. Anax writes, “[A]t the time of Saint Patrick’s birth, the Romans had abandoned all territories to the north of Hadrian’s Wall… for two centuries. Moreover, even during the short period of Roman occupation, the area between the two walls was conquered but not colonized. Near the Clyde River there was never any palatial Roman estate such as villa Enon.”

Anax speculates about other St. Patricks that might have been the source of the devotion to St. Patrick (Patricius) at Kilpatrick. One reasonable candidate would be another saint, St. Palladius Patricius, who was sometimes also called St. Patrick. This saint first tried to evangelize the Irish and failed, just before Magonus was given the same title, Patricius, and sent to try his luck with the same violent folk who had defeated his predecessor. St. Patrick’s predecessor went to Caledonia in 432, and founded a church near Aberdeen, Scotland. Anax speculates that this first St. Palladius, who was also called St. Patrick, possibly might have spent his last few months in the area that might later have been called Kilpatrick after him.

St. Patrick, Roman Citizen, and Speaker of Latin

We still have documents in Latin that were irrefutably written by St. Patrick himself, the most significant of them is, of course, his Confessio (translated as The Confession of Saint Patrick), which Saint Patrick wrote in 455. Magonus grew up speaking Latin because he was from a family of relatively high rank in what was left of Roman Empire on the island of Britain at the beginning of the 5th century A.D. But his Latin apparently wasn’t very good, and he apologized in his writings for his lack of knowledge.

His father, Calpurnius held the office of Decurion (municipal councilor), probably in Nentria. His mother Conchessa was a relative of the great St. Martin of Tours (some sources say St. Martin was Patrick’s uncle). Magonus had one brother for sure, named Sannan, according to Anax, and perhaps a second brother named Ruchti. And he had four sisters, Saint Tygrida, Lady Lupait, Lady Richella and Saint Liamain “Der-Erc.”

St. Fiacc’s Hymn of St. Patrick

St. Fiacc’s Hymn of St. Patrick tells more than St. Patrick did about the circumstances of his abduction. St. Fiacc was a bard before St. Patrick made him a Bishop. An article titled, The Real St. Patrick, Bishop of Ireland by Fr. Kristopher and Matushka Elizabeth Dowling, has this to say about St. Fiacc’s hymn, “Although some modern writers believe that St. Fiacc’s Hymn of St. Patrick was written many centuries later; this thought is based on later additions of footnotes following the hymn.” The article also speculates that modern critics may doubt the validity of this hymn because they are “uncomfortable” with the miracles it sings about.

The hymn, as paraphrased in the above-mentioned article, tells how the raid was done by “the seven vengeful exiled sons of a king of the Britons. This happened after Rome required that all Briton soldiers under Roman authority go to Rome to defend that city from barbarians, leaving Britain without any army or police, as recorded by St. Bede….St. Patrick’s father was killed.” [St. Bede is the author of “Ecclesiastical History of the English People,” which he completed in 731, and oddly enough, he did not mention the work of St. Patrick at all, even though St. Patrick had lived and worked in the fifth century in one of the British isles.

While everyone knows that Magonus was captured by Irish marauders at around the age of 16, it’s much less well known that two of his sisters, Tygrida and Lupait, were captured too, along with thousands of others. Magonus was sold to four men as a shepherd, and he didn’t know where his sisters were taken (although they lived past the time of their captivity and their lives are in the historical records of the time). Later one of the men, a Druid chieftain named Milcho or Milchu MacCuboin, bought out the shares of the other three men. For six years Magonus tended Milchu’s flocks, possibly on Slemish Mountain in Dalaradia, a territory of the present county of Antrim in Ireland.

In his Confessio, Saint Patrick wrote, “I went into captivity to Ireland with many thousands of persons, according to our deserts, because we departed away from God, and kept not his commandments, and were not obedient to our priests, who used to admonish us for our salvation.

“Then the Lord made me aware of my unbelief, so that — however late– I might recollect my offences and turn with all my heart to the Lord my God. It was He who took heed of my insignificance, who pitied my youth and ignorance, who watched over me as a father would a son. That is why I cannot remain silent… about the great favours and graces which the Lord deigned to grant me in the land of my captivity. For the way to make repayment for that revelation of God through capture and enslavement is to declare and make known His wonders to every race under heaven….

“I know for certain, that before I was humbled I was like a stone lying in deep mire, and he that is mighty came and in his mercy raised me up and, indeed, lifted me high up and placed me on top of the wall. And from there I ought to shout out in gratitude to the Lord for his great favours in this world and for ever, that the mind of man cannot measure.”

He also wrote the following about how he grew in love, in faith, in fear, and in the spirit of the Lord:

“But after I had come to Ireland, I was daily tending sheep, and I prayed frequently during the day, and the love of God, and His faith and fear, increased in me more and more, and the spirit was stirred; so that in a single day I have said as many as a hundred prayers, and in the night nearly the same; so that I remained in the woods, and on the mountain, even before the dawn, I was roused to prayer, in snow, and ice, and rain, and I felt no injury from it, nor was there any slothfulness in me, as I see now, because the spirit was then fervent in me.”

In Magonus’ time as a slave, he learned the Celtic tongue and he learned the Druidic pagan beliefs, and in that way he was prepared for the mission God had in mind for him.

The Rest of the Story in His Own Words

As for how he escaped and made his way home, let St. Patrick tell the rest of that part of his story in his own words from his Confessio.

“And it was there of course that one night in my sleep I heard a voice saying to me: ‘You do well to fast: soon you will depart for your home country.’ And again, a very short time later, there was a voice prophesying: ‘Behold, your ship is ready.’ And it was not close by, but, as it happened, two hundred miles away, where I had never been nor knew any person. And shortly thereafter I turned about and fled from the man with whom I had been for six years, and I came, by the power of God who directed my route to advantage (and I was afraid o nothing), until I reached that ship.

“And on the same day that I arrived, the ship was setting out from the place, and I said that I had the wherewithal to sail with them; and the steersman was displeased and replied in anger, sharply: ‘By no means attempt to go with us.’

St. Patrick did not tell how he had abstained the wherewithal to pay his passage, but other sources of his life story say he obtained the money in a miraculous way.

Hearing this I left them to go to the hut where I was staying, and on the way I began to pray, and before the prayer was finished I heard one of them shouting loudly after me: ‘Come quickly because the men are calling you.’ And immediately I went back to them and they started to say to me: ‘Come, because we are admitting you out of good faith; make friendship with us in any way you wish.’ (And so, on that day, I refused to suck the breasts of these men from fear of God, but nevertheless I had hopes that they would come to faith in Jesus Christ, because they were barbarians.)”

What a strange thing for our saint to mention so casually! According to several sources, including Jane Gray in her article “Life and Confession of St. Patrick: Captivity in Ireland,” the act of breast sucking that Magonus refused to perform was a practice of binding between men, a “common pagan practice of submission, a practice both crude and unchaste.” To paraphrase the crew’s words in St. Patrick’s account, it was a “way of making friendship,” what one source referred to as a ritual of adoption and loyalty. Philip Freeman wrote in his book St. Patrick of Ireland: A Biography, “This short phrase in his Confession has struck readers as so utterly bizarre that medieval scribes even tried to change the text to say something else entirely, but ‘suck their breasts’ is clearly the original reading…. The sailors saw it as a simple ritual for joining the crew — they had all done it and expected anyone else wishing to become one of their number to do the same.” St. Patrick proudly wrote that “he refused because he feared God.” Perhaps miraculously, the crew offered instead to let the young man “make friendship with us in any way you wish,” and allowed him to travel with them.

“And for this I continued with them, and forthwith we put to sea.

“And after three days we reached land, and for twenty-eight days journeyed through uninhabited country, and the food ran out and hunger overtook them; and one day the steersman began saying: ‘Why is it, Christian? You say your God is great and all-powerful; then why can you not pray for us? For we may perish of hunger; it is unlikely indeed that we shall ever see another human being.’ In fact, I said to them, confidently: ‘Be converted by faith with all your heart to my Lord God, because nothing is impossible for him, so that today he will send food for you on your road, until you be sated, because everywhere he abounds.’ And with God’s help this came to pass; and behold, a herd of swine appeared on the road before our eyes, and they slew many of them, and remained there for two nights, and the were full of their meat and well restored, for many of them had fainted and would otherwise have been left half dead by the wayside. And after this they gave the utmost thanks to God, and I was esteemed in their eyes, and from that day they had food abundantly. They discovered wild honey, besides, and they offered a share to me, and one of them said: ‘It is a sacrifice.’ Thanks be to God, I tasted none of it.

“The very same night while I was sleeping Satan attacked me violently, as I will remember as long as I shall be in this body; and there fell on top of me as it were, a huge rock, and not one of my members had any force. But from whence did it come to me, ignorant in the spirit, to call upon ‘Helias’? And meanwhile I saw the sun rising in the sky, and while I was crying out ‘Helias, Helias’ with all my might, lo, the brilliance of that sun fell upon me and immediately shook me free of all the weight; and I believe that I was aided by Christ my Lord, and that his Spirit then was crying out for me, and I hope that it will be so in the day of my affliction, just as it says in the Gospel: ‘In that hour’, the Lord declares, ‘it is not you who speaks but the Spirit of your Father speaking in you.’

“And a second time, after many years, I was taken captive. On the first night I accordingly remained with my captors, but I heard a divine prophecy, saying to me: ‘You shall be with them for two months.’ So it happened. On the sixtieth night the Lord delivered me from their hands.

“On the journey he provided us with food and fire and dry weather every day, until on the tenth day we came upon people. As I mentioned above, we had journeyed through an unpopulated country for twenty-eight days, and in fact the night that we came upon people we had no food.

“And after a few years I was again in Britain with my kinsfolk and they welcomed me as a son, and asked me, in faith, that after the great tribulations I had endured I should not go any where else away from them.”

But, tempting as the prospect must have been for Magonus to stay close to his kinsmen after all he had endured at the hands of the Irish, the good God who had cared for the lonely shepherd boy and who had led him out of captivity had other plans.

Continued in Part II

Hemingway Fan Fiction

Over the last few years, there’s been a surge of interest in Lost Generation writers and artists. I, of course, am a little annoyed by this, as my previously held and possibly unhealthy fascination with that lot now seems to be merely a part of the cultural shift in attention back to the days of flappers, gin fizzes, and desperation. But, I’ll have you know, I owned the book Gatsby Cocktails long before the Baz Luhrmann movie came out, and I was positively stuck on Hemingway’s stark prose—and dark machismo—eons before Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. (“Your blood coagulates beautifully.”) But really, I can’t actually be as snobbishly annoyed as I might wish, because this widespread interest means I get company in nerding out, and I get to read and watch the fan fiction and movies that have sprung up around those stories and their authors.

A few months back I was in an airport bookstore. They are, as you well know, horrible places. As I scanned the shelves of trade paperbacks, tried not to be sick all over the harlequin romances and the popular selections for today’s teenagers, I prepared myself to leave with the aloof sense of intellectual and moral superiority that customarily and scantly comforts me in lieu of a good book in such scenarios. But, my preparations were all for naught. Somehow, my eyes got around a slightly corny cover (yes, I do judge by them), complete with “artistic” scroll work, and saw “A beautiful portrait of being in Paris in the glittering 1920s.” ‘Nuff said.

The Paris Wife, by Paula McLain, is a novel about Hadley Richardson, Hemingway’s first wife. It begins with their meeting and subsequent courtship, and follows their story through their years in Paris until their separation. From Hadley’s perspective, we see Hemingway’s emergence as a young novelist, insecure and raging and eager as he rubs shoulders with Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, and, of course, the Fitzgeralds. In one of my favorite passages of the book, Hadley is awake, pregnant and hungry in the early morning:

I wanted muskmelons and a really nice piece of cheese, coffee and good jam and waffles. I was so hungry thinking about this I couldn’t sleep.

“Waffles,” I said to Ernest’s curled back near dawn. “Wouldn’t that be lovely?”

When he didn’t rouse, I said it again, louder, and put my hand on his back, giving him a friendly little shove.

“Oh, for crying out loud,” he said, rolling out of bed. “It’s gone now.”

“What’s gone?”

He sat on the edge of the thick mattress, scratching one knee. “The right words for the sketch.”

“Oh, sorry then,” I said.

I watched him dress and move toward the kitchen. Within minutes I could hear the coffee boiling and smell it and it made me hungrier. I heard him get his coffee and then heard the chair squeak back as he sat at the table. Silence.

“Tiny?” I said, still in bed. “What do you think about the waffles?”

He groaned and pushed his chair back. “There it all goes again.” (161)

Somehow, Paula McLain manages to write about famous writers without sounding like she’s writing about writers. She’s a good writer on her own merit, and doesn’t skate by merely with writing about people whose lives are already popular. Also, even though Hemingway was an indisputably flawed, oftentimes selfish and arguably morally depraved man, and even though the story is told from the point of a view of the wife whom he cheats on and ultimately leaves, McLain somehow manages to keep him a sympathetic character. Though his faults are blatant, they are nonetheless understandable on some level. And while she paints the characters admirably throughout, makes them real and believable and even lovable, she has also done the research to make her story historically accurate.

Be warned, however, that since most of these characters are artist-y sorts of “liberated” people, there’s a fair bit of promiscuity, some of it less licit than desirable. (See what I did there?!) That being said, none of it seemed gratuitous or written lasciviously or salaciously. So far I’ve lent my copy out to three people. All of them, readers and writers themselves, have loved it. I imagine you will, too.

Singing Our Contrition:


congregation-singingPenitence is a quiet thing.  Certainly, one who has found freedom and redemption wants to shout it from the rooftops, but that comes later.  The first movement toward acknowledging our failings turns us inward, to contemplation and remorse.  Who dances into the confessional?  We rejoice in forgiveness, but who feels joyful when he cries out, “Forgive me”?  I have never known anyone who wanted to sing about his sins.

I was surprised, then, when the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops released the 2008 document Sing to the Lord, and I read this statement: “In Lent, instruments should be used only to support the singing of the gathered assembly” (#114.)  I was not the only music director who thought this strange.  What better season is there for a contemplative piano solo, maybe a flute or a violin, to gently coax our souls along their penitential path?  Movies have conditioned us to feel the way the instrumental music sounds.  When the orchestra is soft and prayerful, we automatically follow suit.  Yet here the bishops were hamstringing directors, requiring in the very same paragraph that Lenten music exercise “restraint,” while ripping from our arsenal restraint’s most obvious friend: the instruments.  Why not dial back all that awkward minor-mode singing and just let the music flow?

I did not understand the bishops’ orders, but, like a good little Roman soldier, I marched.  Gone were the soft organ preludes before Mass, the subtle “doodling” underneath the spoken prayers.  In came more sung hymns to add to our sung “Kyrie” and sung “Lord, hear our prayer,” which were already Lenten traditions in our parish.  We created a relentless, unbroken strain of congregational songs supported by piano and organ.  The entire mood felt forced.  For several years, our hamstrung Lenten music dragged itself impatiently toward Easter.  So, last year I finally said, “Fine, bishops.  You don’t want instruments in Lent?  They’re gone.”  For every Lenten Mass, I programmed two pieces (one was the same every week) to be sung completely a cappella.

The pastor nodded reluctant approval.  The organist declared me to be completely off my rocker.  The other cantors all said, “Great, but you’re going to lead it.  We’re out.”  The choir was skeptical, but they have followed me on wilder liturgical adventures and lightning has yet to strike us, so they warily came along for the ride.  Our congregation is a singing one, relative to some, but no one thought it possible for them to sustain a cappella verse for more than the length of “Thanks be to God.”  Nevertheless, we armed ourselves with hymnals, screwed our courage to the sticking place, and set out to restrain Lent.

That’s when God, in His infinite wisdom, saw fit to give me tonsillitis.  Thus did I discover how truly penitential singing can be.

Fortunately, the congregation never noticed the agony their cantor was enduring as I led them into these uncharted waters of pure unison song–uncharted, except that the Church has been navigating them for its entire history.  It’s the pipe organ, the piano, the guitar that are new-fangled; the human voice had been praising God for millennia before such contraptions came along.  My parish threw down its mechanical crutches, and an amazing thing happened: God said, “Get up and walk.”  Our twenty-story ceiling echoed with the plaint that had always been singing in our hearts, the melody of contrition.  We did not end up hopelessly flat; our tempos did not drag down into breathless dirges.  Instead, something simple, new, and beautiful was born.  It was true Lent.

Not surprisingly, it turns out the bishops know good liturgy better than I do.  They know that “engaging human hearts in the mystery of Christ” (#113) also means engaging human voices.  They know that the healing presence of Our Lord Jesus Christ is made manifest in the communion of the assembly much more readily than in a movie-style soundtrack to the Mass.  In Sing to the Lord, the bishops affirm the power of instrumental music to glorify God in the Mass, and so do I.  But the quiet, inward turning of repentance should lead us toward the place where “God dwells within each human person, in the place where music takes its source” (#1.)  The source of all music is the instrument God Himself fashioned: your voice.  Sinfulness may not make us feel much like singing, but song is the way God leads us “to the realm of higher things,” (#2) to mercy, grace, and salvation.

You who are reading this may or may not have any say-so about how liturgy happens in your parish.  Even if you do, my little experiment might serve no purpose in the context of your parish life.  But, no matter what your liturgies sound like, during this Lenten season, I challenge all of you to sing.  “Music is… a sign of God’s love for us and our love for him….  Thus, it is no wonder that singing together in church expresses so well the sacramental presence of God to his people” (#1.)  If it is truly God’s presence you seek to know in your Lenten journey, then forget about giving up cake and give up your self-conscious silence instead.  Kick your ego to the curb, ignore your neighbor’s dirty glares, and proclaim your sorrow, your sinfulness, and your hope of salvation to the One who will always listen.  Let the song of the Church at prayer guide your heart through desert dryness into the oasis of Easter.  Then, when we have found true union with the Body of Christ in our assemblies, we can let the trumpets, lyres, and the rest join in to proclaim our joy.