Our pilgrimage, as a people in search of God, did not begin with Patrick. Before Patrick’s time, our Neolithic monuments and pagan Festivals are evidence of a yearning that had been in progress for over 3,000 years. The search of our ancestors for wholeness centred around four aspects of life:
(a) Their hunger for community,
(b) Their awareness of the transcendent
(c) Their relationship with nature
(d) Their regard for the heroic
Patrick must have become aware of their cultural longings during his years of captivity among them. And, indeed, it was during those lonely years that he himself became acutely aware of a longing at the core of his own being.
In prayer, he rediscovered, within his own heart, the God whom he had abandoned in his adolescence, namely the God of Our Lord Jesus Christ. And he must have sensed that it was for Christ that the heart of the pagan culture around him was also yearning. For when he returned, on fire with the Holy Spirit, he challenged the very core of their faith, their principal deity, whom they believed was embodied in the sun.
“You worship the sun,” he observed, “but it will perish!” But we worship Christ, the true sun that will never perish!”
When he spoke to them all about Christ, the Son of God, they listened. And he invited them to make an act of Faith in the One true God, as revealed in Christ.
For them it was the kairos, the moment of truth, in their search and in our story. By the grace of God, they made the leap of faith. They replaced all their cultural deities and especially their principle deity, embodied in the sun, with the God of Our Lord, Jesus Christ. They accepted him as Rí na nDúl, the lord of nature; he was the source and goal of community; he was the heroic figure that set them free from evil; he was the ‘thin place’ through whom they could access the transcendent.
The Cross, integrated into the circle of the sun, became the Celtic Cross, the symbol of this cultural transformation. It weaved its power into their lives and into their story. Their culture blossomed and bore fruit in a Golden Age that saw them bring renewed life and hope to the countries of Europe, then devastated by the Huns and the Goths and the Vandals.
Later, through the ages, when the initial fire of God’s love within them had died down, when the gods of power and wealth often left them broken, starving and persecuted, nevertheless the cultural and spiritual centre, symbolised by the Celtic Cross, held firm. And with a deep faith in Christ they dared to Hope.
But they didn’t take their hope from the nostalgia of a Golden Age. As in Patrick’s time, their hope was centred on Christ and his Kingdom that was both present and was waiting to become, through them. Christ was faithful to the trust they placed in Him, even when its fruit was distilled in the crucible of suffering.
For, with the eyes of faith, ‘They saw his blood upon the rose and in the stars the glory of his eyes.’ The crowing of the cock proclamation that Christ had Risen! And they buried the dead facing the east and the rising sun, in anticipation of that day when Christ will come in glory and the graves will stand empty.
Our present culture also ‘groans in travail’ in its search for community, for the transcendent, for the heroic and for harmony with our environment.
It is, however a confused and confusing time. The darnel and the wheat grow side by side, as in every age. But today there is confusion as to which is the darnel and which is the wheat, as to what is virtue and what is vice!
Our culture longs for community even as it undermines the family.
It grasps the integrity of nature even as it exploits it for profit.
It aspires towards transcendence even as it seeks ecstasy through cocaine.
It alludes to the heroic even as it headlines the fatuous.
In our cultural marketplace virtue is often sold as vice and vice is frequently marketed as virtue. God is being pushed to the margins. And if the core of our culture stands empty who or what is left to tell the difference?
Our story, our cultural and spiritual pilgrimage, may be at another kairos, another moment of truth. Pope John Paul, now St. John Paul, once challenged us. He said: “Ireland must choose’.
That same challenge and choice was put by God to his people long ago in the desert, when he said: “I put before you today Life or Death, a blessing or a curse. Choose life!”
In his loneliness and confusion, Patrick discovered within him, the God that he had so foolishly abandoned in the brashness of his adolescence. And that rediscovery brought new life, new hope into his life and subsequently into the life and cultural milieu around him.
May we too, in prayer and through his Word, deepen our relationship with the God of Our lord Jesus Christ within us, for then:
We will discover God in community, in the heart of friend and stranger and love Him.
We will discover God in the brightness of the sun, in the stability of earth and will adore Him.
We will discover God and the transcendent, ‘breathing his love in a cutaway bog’ and praise Him
We will discover God in the simple heroic deed of love and compassion and thank Him.
And, if Christ is with us,
wherever we are in the world,
we will have kept faith with our story.
And we will arise each day in the strength of Heaven.