17 March 2009

Happy St. Patrick's Day

To counter the modern excesses in celebrating the Feast of St. Patrick it would be wonderful if we could practice the asceticism of this great saint. To be sure I will wash down tonight's dinner of corned beef and cabbage with a pint (or 2) of Guiness but it is sad that our whole recollection of St. Patrick involves parades, green dyed rivers and significant quantities of barley pop.

Msgr. Ronald Knox recalls in his brief essay on St. Patrick this description from his official obituary.

"He recited the whole psalter every day, and every day worshipped God three hundred times on bended knees. He divided the night into three portions; during the first he went through a hundred of the psalms, the second he spent immersed in cold water, finishing the other fifty, and in the third took his meagre rest, lying on bare stone."

How much of this programme (there is more of it) the saint really observed, how often and for how long, is not to my purpose. Enough that this is the picture of him his disciples have built up; presumably this kind of asceticism is in his tradition. It was like him to die in Lent. Irish spirituality must not be assessed by what we can remember of "Father O'Flynn"; there is a hard streak in it, and there are few pilgrimages in Christendom where the old rigours are practised as they are at Lough Derg.

. . . and certain it is that asceticism is meant to make the will function properly. The pity of it is that the remorseless energy of the saints (at least as painted with the firm brush of their biographers) is apt to prove a discouragement. Can we really think of ourselves as "imitating" St. Patrick if we abrogate in Lent those five or ten minutes of wondering whether to get up or not?

At the risk of anti-climax, let me deprecate this feeling of discouragement. A life which leaves no room for physical self-denial in its programme lacks, it is to be feared, either humility or love.

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