On St. Patrick's Day millions will tip back a pint of Guinness, order cabbage and corned beef, wear shamrock T-shirts, and stream the Dropkick Murphys. In New York City, thousands will boisterously parade down Fifth Avenue, while others protest that the festivities discriminate against gays and lesbians.
But who was Patrick? How would he feel about his name now framing a day where no one wants to be the designated driver and we all pretend to be Irish? Last spring I went on a quest to find out and traveled to the Emerald Isle to walk in the saint's footsteps.
Patrick lived in the fifth century, when the walls of Rome collapsed into rubble and a metal horseshoe was a major innovation. Nobody paid attention when Patrick, a 16-year-old British boy, was kidnapped by Irish pirates along the shores of England, shackled into a flat-bottomed boat, and transported across the turbulent Irish Sea. He had been raised in a household waited on by servants and was thus ill equipped for a slave's life herding sheep. Savoring lamb sprinkled with rosemary as a child, he now watched others gorge themselves while he slept hungry under the Irish stars. On those lonely hills Patrick began a conversation with God. Six years later God's voice instructed him to flee and he escaped to England and become a priest.
Life expectancy at the time was about 35, but when Patrick was in his 40s he dreamed the Irish were begging him to return and teach them about God. He wrote, "I sold my noble rank without shame or regret for the benefit of others." On his return, however, Patrick struggled with the language and called himself an "untaught refugee." Slowly he gained followers and eventually baptized thousands.
Sensitive to the plight of those held in spiritual or economic captivity, Patrick focused on the marginalized and, unusually for the time, on women. This focus was abrasive to many and he was often imprisoned. At the core of Patrick's self-identity, however, was the fervent belief that God had granted him a second chance, and this faith fueled a steady resolve to persevere. "I was like a stone lying in the deep mud," he wrote. "Then he who is mighty came and in his mercy he not only pulled me out but lifted me up and placed me at the very top of the wall."
I finished my pilgrimage summiting Croagh Patrick, a 2,500-foot mountain in County Mayo where Patrick supposedly banished snakes. As I ascended past babbling streams and over shifting quartzite rocks, I marveled at a very different kind of St. Patrick's parade. On the mountainside I waved to Pakistanis in turbans, African women with contagious smiles, overweight Irish men who had trained for months, and a Dutch father and daughter who climbed to honor the spirit of St. Patrick.
What is that spirit? To me, Patrick's life is an encouragement to those who have been metaphorically kidnapped by pirates and held captive. He assures us that even in our later years we can act on a dream and experience success. Patrick would be dismayed that a parade in his honor would exclude anyone, especially men and women on the margins of society. However we might conceive of God, Patrick believed the sacred and holy is invested in orchestrating second chances.
So this St. Patrick's Day I invite you to climb your own Croagh Patrick. It might be a bluff overlooking a churning sea, a green hill under twinkling stars, or a mountain whose ascent draws the breath from your lungs. As you climb, honor a man whose life compels us not only to dream of leprechauns, but to be resilient, inclusive, and to embrace the possibility that tomorrow can in fact be better than today.
Enjoy this short video of my pilgrimage walking in the footprints of St. Patrick.