Recalling St. Patrick: Saints and Snakes
The Reverend Peter Edward Lanzillotta, Ph.D.
When we think of someone as a saint, a variety of images can come to mind. Commonly, these images are associated with a person’s “goodness” or as an example of shining morality: ” He is a real saint or She is a sainted woman.” These expressions declare someone’s virtues or strengths and usually suggests that this person is unusually loving, patient and kind. Somehow, their particular closeness to God could intervene to solve a human problem or affect a healing solution to some chronic or acute difficulty.
Often, a saint will be created or be known for some outstanding or wondrous deed that was accomplished against daunting odds such as St. Joan of Arc. Saints will also be associated with certain social causes or professions and then will act as their protective agent that watches over that career, trade, that city or place. Lastly, there has been established a connection between saints and particular plants and animals…A few brief examples:
St. Francis of Assisi and birds, Italy, and the city of San Francisco; St. Nicholas with gift giving, reindeer, and the country of Sweden; and the saint of the day, St. Patrick with shamrocks, Ireland, and snakes! SNAAKES! Why not dogs, like St. Bernard? I will answer that connection a little later…
Each official saint (how someone becomes a saint is a lengthy and detailed process of witness and attribution… detailed in another sermon!) Is given his or her special, commemorative day… Considered to be their “birthday” it is celebrated by all those who identify with that saint, or who have a particular affiliation with his causes, countries, mission or purpose.
Actually, it is not their birthday that is celebrated as we have few birth records that could state when ancient saints were born, but it is their death day: Which according to historical Catholic teachings, is the day when they begin their eternal life, or life with God. It is the day when your spiritual goal is accomplished- when you win your heavenly release from ego, pain, suffering, that was so much a part of life on Earth. You might recall the now famous Irish toast:
“May your soul get to Heaven a half hour before the Devil knows you are dead!”
On this day, March 17th, I will offer a brief recounting of the storied life of St. Patrick and then focus on his legendary feat of driving all the snakes out of Ireland. This story, has been passed down to us in true Irish form: As Myth, legend, and yes, a story that has some “blarney” attached to it!
Remember, whenever you encounter the story of the life of one of these ancient saints, you need to keep your mythological and idealistic perspective. These stories are not necessarily factual, but they can be true… True to the heart that hears them; for they often arrive at our hearts without paying full homage to either science or common sense. It has been said that the fastest way to God is through a story, and that a story provides us with a doorway that opens us to holy mysteries.
Not much is actually known about St. Patrick. Even though it might be the most widely celebrated saint around the globe… And maybe that is just as it should be. Possibly only trailing St. Francis or St. Nicholas in the hearts of the faithful, he has earned his own special niche in the Catholic Christian world. This claim, of course, is hard to dispute- even if you are not Irish ( although I do expect that everyone is, at least a even a wee bit on the 17th, and as for all those who protest such goings on, then just content yourself with some Guinness or a draught of green beer, and enjoy the party!
St. Patrick was born in approximately 387 AD or ACE in a small, southwestern English village that was still a part of the Roman Empire. His real name, by the way, was Patrius Calpunrnius, which made him a Roman citizen, because his father was Italian! (I always knew that I liked him!) He spent his uneventful boyhood in this remote part of England and so the details are largely unknown. One event, when he was 16, was recorded for us. Something drastic happened to him!
One evening, as he was wandering outside the protective confines of his village walls, he was captured by a band of Celtic rogues who were also known as slave pirates. He was taken away from England , to Ireland, and there he was sold as a slave. He lived in bondage for six years and as could be expected, this ordeal changed his life.
Much like a cocoon is for a butterfly, this time of suffering and trial became his place for transformation or soulful metamorphosis. During his servitude, he develop a deep, sincere inward calling and fervent spiritual purpose. Through his adversity, he learned how to pray without ceasing( I Thess. 5) As his biographer notes it, even in the midst of a gale or a blizzard, he never forgot his daily prayers, or to give thanks to God for whatever might come his way!
Eventually, a way did open… And he escaped Ireland and returned home to England. Yet, he did not stay very long because his experiences set a new agenda and larger mission for his life. He left England for France, and entered a seminary to study to become a priest. After he completed his studies, his example was noticed by his bishops and it is said that he even came to be known by the Pope for his religious zeal, and all that fervor directed him back to Ireland as a missionary to the Celts!
After only a short time, he success spread and he was appointed bishop of Armagh. From that city, he traveled throughout the land, founding many churches and establishing monasteries all over the Emerald Isle. His greatest goal was to convert the native Celts from their Pagan and passionate ways and mold and make them over into Christians. It has been ascribed to his efforts, that Ireland, in time, became a bastion of monastic Roman Catholicism, and that the Irish are among the most devout Catholics in the world, even today.
Now there are many legends and stories associated with St. Patrick- none, however, any more famous that his miraculous feat of driving all the serpents or snakes out of Ireland. With all the Irish jokes aside, such as still being able to see the snakes floating in your fourth glass of Jameison’s whiskey, let’s see if we can make out the significance of this remarkable tale that goes far beyond biological facts. Q: is there a connection between Catholic saints and snakes???
Snakes show up frequently in world mythology, and they occupy an active role in many cross cultural teaching stories… From the most remote parts of the globe, even among the Eskimo lore and legends, there are snake stories! (Climatic shifts!) One example: Among the African tribes, as the famous mythologist and story teller Joseph Campbell teaches it, there is a story of how the great God Umbate created man, then antelope, and then snake, and then woman. Later, when the antelope and the man, and the woman disobey one of God’s commands, and then asked who told you that you could eat the forbidden fruit that grows in my garden? The woman answered saying, “The snake, the snake did!” Does that sound familiar? Snakes, over the centuries and across the cultures and continents, have been given very little respect in the Mythologies of our world. (Rodney Dangerfield of animals?)
This highly prejudicial and paradoxical attitude towards snakes contradicts what many other world faiths teach- that the snakes, even the dragons, are all bearers of wisdom, healing, and fertility. However, in Judeo-Christian theology, such related reptiles were considered to be evil creatures and villains- the Devil’s accomplices- painful sources of egotistical pride and slithering disobedience.
In the New Testament or The Christian Scriptures, we are also given another interpretation. Snake symbolism in the Gospels have both meanings; we recall Jesus in the Gospel of Luke accusing the Pharisees of being a “brood of vipers” but we are also given in the Gospel of John the passage where we hear Jesus’ heartfelt recommendation that his disciples are to walk among the people “as wise as serpents but as harmless as doves.” In the later editions/editorials added to the Gospel of Mark, we are given snake handlers, and then in the Acts, we are given the story of how Paul shook off a snake’s bite with no harmful effects.
So, back to Patrick… It seems as if Patrick feat refers to the malefic snake of Genesis, and to the virtuous elimination of the snake as a symbol of Celtic stories of rebirth and wisdom. His legendary act of casting all the snakes into the sea, was ridding the people of all the Celtics teachings about holy eroticism and female fertility- to be replaced by the images of the ever Virgin Mary! By doing so, as the legends tell it, he made the people ready for God’s truth that faith is more important than wisdom, and furthermore, the real God is male! He was the original snake buster! However, more closely to the point, Catholic teachings were the literary prototype for Irish writers and playwrights for centuries such as in G. B Shaw’s writings, and as the antagonist for writers such as Joyce. Saints, after all, were always considered to be God’s champions against all rival religions, against the forces of evil, against the wiles of women, and the ravages of sin.
But what can we make of saints and snakes today?
In my heretical way, I believe that the metaphors for chasing out the snakes can be an instructive one- but only as long as you are willing to keep or accept that snakes function to convey positive virtues and values, too. In that ancient Western context, I believe that everyone is capable of ridding their personal world of lurking snakes: known symbolically as those lies, deceptions, and deceits that will come back to bite us or that will poison us against ourselves and other people.
If we are in charge of our own beliefs, values and behaviors then our sense of truth and faith can prevail. If we are willing to chase evil thoughts out of our reactions and behaviors, then we can more fully pursue the answers and the inspiration that we might need to live more harmoniously and more compassionately. If the origin of evil and pain is an original lie, then we need to assert the understanding of our original blessings. Original Blessings is the title of the text book in Creation Spirituality written by Matthew Fox)
Just as Patrick had to handle his fears about losing his comfortable life, becoming an economic slave, and then be willing to go away from his comfort zone to seek out his deepest answers that led him to live by his deeply rooted new convictions, then we can also learn how to overcome… Or at least work though whatever lies and deceits or sources of false reasoning that bite and poison us. Whatever serpentine maze of false beliefs we might have nesting inside us, we can root them out! We can release them or chase them away so they occupy harmless distances. We do this best by following the saintly example of persistent truth seeking, and by opening our hearts to God.
The legend of St. Patrick teaches us about the spirituality that requires us to clear our conscience and to allow new thoughts and behaviors to grow within us. Spirituality is a deliberate clearing away process, and it is the process of living in a way that we are making ourselves ready for new growth in both faith and wisdom.
What the stories such as the one that revolve around St. Patrick can teach or remind us is that we can live beyond our childhood fears and any thoughts or feeling we have that poison us. Your experiences in life act as your repository of wisdom, and when uncoiled become pathways to understanding, healing, and peace. We can shed our old skins, and be renewed; we can leave our old skins for a new coat of blessings.
On this St. Patrick’s day, celebrate your trials, affirm your personal progress, and make a toast toward living your lives more openly, spiritually, and lovingly towards yourself and others… Who knows? Maybe sainthood awaits you, too!