St. Patrick

Psalm 111:7


There is an instinct in the human heart, that prompts us, not willingly to let perish the memory of illustrious names.  We cling with all the tenacity of heartfelt gratitude to the names of the world’s greatest, and they live upon the lips of men long after their labors are over, and their hearts gone silent.  Even the cold world strives hard to keep the memory of its greatest.  It inscribes upon its pillars the names of its heroes, its statesmen, its philosophers, its poets, and commits them to the care and keeping of the future.  But how often is the grateful effort vain!  “The fashion of the world passeth away,” the tide of time rolling through the centuries blots out full many a name, and the rust of ages eats in through the golden letters in which many a noble story had been written.

Even of the few on whom the world has kept a hold, it may be said that the memory of them is only a shadow of a name that once was great.  In this matter, as in so many others, it is only when the instinct passes under the influence of religion that we can discern the depth and beauty of the meaning that is in it – can discover why it was implanted in the soul, and where, and where alone, it can be satisfied. 

Only the saint of God can leave a memory that makes his name something far more than a memory – a living and abiding power.  It is only when a man’s life has been taken possession of by the Church of God – it is only when its purposes have been identified with hers, and its history has become a portion of her imperishable works – it is only then, that death has no power to arrest its influence.  Only when a name has been written above an imperishable altar may that name itself be said to be imperishable.  And this is so true, that the philosophy of human fame, so alluring to the heart of man, is fundamentally contained in the saying of the Psalmist - In memoria aeterna erit fusstus, “the just man, the saint, and only he, shall be in eternal memory.”

And if this be true of all the saints of God, even of those who seem to sit apart, wrapped round in the lonely majesty of their austere saintliness, how much truer does it not seem of those who were, in a notable manner, associated with the great work of human redemption – those who have planted the faith and founded Churches, whose work never dies and never ceases, the sheaves of whose successive harvests are being ever gathered into the granaries of heaven?

And it is the memory of an Apostle we celebrate to-day, the memory of him who, when our fathers were weeping without the porch, when they sat through the weary; years in darkness and in the shadow of death, brought them the glad tidings of release, who led them out of the house of bondage, and became the instrument of God in conferring on them the inestimable gift of faith.

If then we wish, as who would not wish, to estimate his merits, if we wish to recognize and to acknowledge the measure of our obligations to our national Apostle, St. Patrick, we must strive to bring home to ourselves, the value and the importance of the services he rendered, the use and the necessity of that sacred faith which, by sweat of brain and brow, he planted in our country.  Let us, to this purpose, ask ourselves – what would be taken from our lives if faith did not enlighten them?

With faith would go the foundation of hope and the motive of charity.  Man would find himself here, not knowing whence or why he came, or whither the fleeting years were bearing him away.  In the midst of such a darkness he would find within himself the aspiring’s of a rational and clashing with the instincts of the east, and he would discern in his inmost being the elements of a strife which could have for him no meaning.  Reason would find the limit of its sway – would guess that there was in the outer darkness a something that baffled all its power, and the guess would be a new trouble.  Conscience would claim a mastery over action, but would be able to produce no warrant of its claim, save that it would seem to speak as having power.  The human intellect would be keen enough to discover that there was presented to it a problem, which yet it was not keen enough to solve.  Life would be a mystery, death a horror; the world would be one vast prison-house; and the human heart, filled with desires to which it could give no voice, would dash itself in vain against the bars.  But with faith there comes, oh, what a change!  When man, hearing amid the darkness His voice Who said in the beginning, “Let light be,” when man first says, “I believe,” the darkness clears from him, the mists are rolled away, and there succeeds a light that heralds a creature, not less wonderful, but more, than that which sprang into existence when the voice of God first broke the silence of eternity.

And now, if faith be so great a thing as this, what honor does he not deserve at our hands who brought it to our fathers with God’s blessing, and the high commission of the successor of Peter?  Should not his sainted name be ever on our lips, and make sweetest music on our Irish ears – should not his memory be cherished in our heart of hearts, and his virtues be made the standard and the model of our lives?

With the pathetic story of that saintly life you are all familiar, but not the less does it delight us on a day like this, to recall the leading features of the well-known story.

St. Patrick was born in Gaul, towards the close of the fourth century.  Tenderly nurtured, his early life passed by without any indication of the high purpose for which God had destined him in His Church.  But son there came to him a change, and an event occurred which, judged merely by the world’s standards, bade fair to mar the use and blight the promise of his dawning life.  Not amid the quiet comforts of a home, was Ireland’s Apostle to be trained.  Such life might be a preparation for the world’s ordinary work, but it would seem that a rougher school was necessary for one whose high vocation it was, to win another kingdom to the Church of Christ.  And so, in his sixteenth year, Patrick was captured by pirates, and made his first entry into Ireland, not as an Apostle, but as a slave.  And here, in an alien land, a stranger like Daniel of old, he saw what the Druid sages saw not; and prepared himself unconsciously for the high vocation whose first beginnings, awakened by the sights of paganism around him, were stirring in his soul.  Out upon the lonely hillside his soul communed with God, and learned the mysterious secret by which the weak things of this world confound the strong – the secret of prayer, by which the weak whisper of a creature’s heart can move the arm of almighty power.  When he had been six months in captivity, acting under the inspiration of God, he betook himself to the sea-coast, and made his way back to his own country.  But, did he strive amid the comforts of a recovered home, to lose the memory of his place of exile?  Did the voices of earth murmur around him so loudly as to stiffly his solicitude for the people whose pagan blindness he had deplored?  Not so.  The graces of Apostleship were pouring on his soul, and in his musings by day, and in the lonely visions of the night, his heart was with his captors, and he saw the unborn children of the Irish, stretching out their hands to him for deliverance.  And so, having been ordained and consecrated bishop, with the call of the most high within his heart, and the blessing of Peter’s successor upon his mission, he came again to Ireland.

He came again, and he came to conquer.  The Gospel which he announced found ready welcome in the Irish heart, and in an incredibly short space of time another kingdom was added to the Church of Christ.  Saints sprang up around him, and there was a halo of sanctity over all the land.  It was like springtide after dreary; winter, and the land was changed.  The frozen streams began to flow in gladness, the tree that had been barren to put forth its buds, rich with the promise of a golden summer and a teeming harvest.  And well was the promise redeemed.  When Patrick, after fifty years of apostolic toil, laid him down to rest, his deathbed was circled round by Irish saints.  He could see on every side, men who would be pillars of the rising Church, and whose promise well might prompt a joyful “nunc dimittis.”  When his dying eye, lit with the light of vision, looked onward through the centuries to come, his heart must have beat high with joy, and his eyes been dimmed with a haze of happy tears, when he saw the Church that he had founded, about to be a light to the nations, and the fruitful mother of a host of saints.

Since Patrick died, thirteen centuries have gone, and many a change has passed upon the land he loved.  Language, laws, customs – even the physical features of the country that are slow to change – have changed sine then.  But one thing has not changed.  The Church of the nineteenth century is identical with the Church of the fifth; and looking back through all the changing years that have come and gone, we miss no link in the golden chain that binds the days of Patrick to our own.  If one of the early Irish converts were permitted to come again in the flesh, if he were to walk through our cities or our towns, he would find the world greatly changed.  He would find old institutions upturned, and new and strange ones built over their ruins.  He would find that the ancient landmarks had vanished, and that a new civilization had supplanted the old.  But if, confused by sights he did not understand, and stunned by sounds that had for him no meaning, he were to pass from the turmoil of the streets to the quiet of this Church, if he were to kneel before that altar, and look upon the image of Jesus crucified above the tabernacle, all the newness and the strangeness would be gone, and he wuld seem to live again in the old time.  He would recognize the altar and the sacr;ifice, and the mysterious Presence in the tabernacle that makes our temples so unutterable sacred.  The grand old liturgy would speak to him as it speaks to u s, and amid all the chance and change, he would find a common ground where he and we might meet as brethren, and join our hands as children of the one great household.

And we should thank God that it is so.  It has not been the destiny of every Church.  Many a brilliant volume of Church history, blazoned with the names of saints and purpled with the blood of martyrs, has closed with the sad record of defection and decay.  The bitter time came, when the children grew ashamed of their sainted fathers, and when an ever-widening gulf came between their present and their past.

But God has been good to us: we are the children of His saints, and we can look back with pride to the long glories of the Irish Church, feeling that they are, in some sort, our very own.  We can go back through her early history, when her sanctity and her learning were a theme of praise in ta hundred tongues, when her sons went forth to enlighten, as they had themselves been enlightened; and when Irish heart will not throb with pleasure at the thought that through Europe, in many a dim cathedral, of which the massive structure may well be taken as an emblem of the faith and piety that  raised them, the names of Irish saints still live upon the lips of worshippers, and the shrines of Irish saints are still the object of veneration?

And will our jo be less when, passing from her days of triumph, we go back upon the story of her long agony, when our fathers braved death and torture for the faith they loved; when fire and the sword, the gibbet and the prison, were tried, and tried in vain, to shake their allegiance to their God, when persecution rolled over them, as the sea waves beat upon the rock, and left them, like the rock, unmoved?  Oh, my brethren, there is not a lonely hill-side in our land where our persecuted fathers have not met to worship; not a mountain cavern that has not echoed with the voices of their secret prayer.  The green sward of our country might well be rid because of the martyrs’ blood that it has hidden; and tread we where we will, our footstep passes over the dust of buried saints.  Yes, through good report and evil report, the sons of Patrick have clung to the faith that Patrick planted; it has been their one consolation amid many miseries, their one comfort when there was no comfort else; it has kept the bruised reed from breaking, and the smoking flax from being utterly extinguished, and kept unbroken still the spirit that surely must have broken under any support less strong than abiding faith.

And even yet Ireland sends forth her missionaries to bear the faith to distant lands.  When the Irish emigrant turns, with tear-dimmed eye and aching heart, from the homestead of his sires; when he bids eternal farewell to the scenes of his boyhood, and buries the associations of his youth in a grave so mournful that even memory well might fear to visit it again, still he carries with him the faith that makes strange places strangely like the home that he has lost.  They pass on through the far West, a band of pilgrims, bearing aloft the Cross; and when their day of toil is done, when they lay their weary; hearts to rest upon a foreign shore, far, far from the old churchyard where their fathers sleep, the faith that is in them whispers the sweet thought that there shall be a meeting in heaven, where there can be no parting any more.

But in thus reviewing the triumphs of our national Church, we do so in no vainglorious spirit.  We recognize in that brilliant story, not the workings of human prudence or human power, but the strong hand of a merciful God; and bowing down our souls in gratitude, we cry aloud before his altar – “Not us, O Lord, not to us, but to Thy name give glory.”