Archive for the ‘Ireland’ Category

The real St. Patrick — a slave for Christ

Published March 14, 2014

Near the entrance of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin a simple plaque marks the location of the well, where, legend has it, Patrick baptized converts to the Christian faith in A.D. 450.

I visited that Church of Ireland cathedral while in Dublin in 2010, and it brought back memories of worshipping, 10 years earlier, at another Anglican cathedral, in Belfast, where there was a big, beautiful mosaic of Patrick — or Padraig in Irish. The saint is said to have first landed on Erin’s green shores at Downpatrick (thus the name), in Northern Ireland, and in that town, both the Catholic and Anglican cathedrals are named for him.

We have all heard the myths of Patrick — how he drove the snakes from Ireland (there were never any there), and used the three-leafed shamrock to explain the concept of the Trinity. There are fantastical tales of his use of magic, such as the time when he changed his shape, and that of his companions, into deer to elude capture by fierce pagan warriors.

When I was in Ireland five years ago, I walked the Hill of Tara, where ancient Druids offered human sacrifices to their false gods. It was on the nearby Hill of Slane that Patrick, in defiance of the high king of Tara, lit the paschal fire of Easter that signaled to the king and his druids that the light of Christ had come to Ireland and would never be extinguished.

This tale, whether or not it is factual, comes closer to illustrating the truth about who Patrick was — not a wizard, but a bishop and evangelist.

As the 15-year-old son of an aristocratic Celtic Briton who was both a Roman official and a Catholic deacon, Patrick had been captured, probably near the River Severn, by pagan Irish raiders and taken across the sea to be a slave. He believed this was his punishment for a sin he committed, but in his writings he doesn’t say what the sin was. While he was a slave, his faith in God grew, and while tending his sheep herds, he prayed sometimes as many as 100 times a day, from morning until night, according to the written record he left behind.

Patrick escaped from Ireland, but had a dream, which led him to believe he was being called back to the Babylon of his captivity to spread the gospel. After being educated to become a priest and bishop, he did eventually go back and served the church as a missionary for the rest of his days. His writings consist of his “Confession,” similar to St. Augustine’s, and a letter to a British chieftain Coroticus, excommunicating him and his soldiers for slaughtering Christian converts in Hibernia (Ireland) on the day of their baptism.

I was preparing for a short mission trip of my own to Northern Ireland with Habitat for Humanity in 2000 when I read “The Spirituality of St. Patrick” by Lesley Whiteside, a thin paperback published in Dublin by Morehouse Publishing in 1996. It is an explication of Patrick’s writings. Here is an excerpt from his best-known work. It gives us a better understanding of the real Patrick and why he matters.

St. Patrick’s confession

The Spirit elsewhere is a witness that even uncultivated ways have been created by the Most High — I am, then, first and foremost unlearned, an unlettered exile who cannot plan for the future. But this much I know for sure. Before I had to suffer, I was like a stone lying in the deep mud. 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 must, therefore, speak publicly in order to thank the Lord for such wonderful gifts.

Who was it who called me, fool that I am, from among those who are considered wise, expert in law, powerful in speech and general affairs? He passed over these for me, a mere outcast. He inspired me with fear, reverence and patience, to be the one who would if possible serve the people faithfully to whom the love of Christ brought me. The love of Christ indeed gave me to them to serve them humbly and sincerely for my entire lifetime if I am found worthy.

Northern Ireland, a place of terrible beauty

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

On Sunday, I began a two-part column based on a journal I kept while on a mission trip for Habitat for Humanity in Northern Ireland in October 2000. This is the second part.

Saturday, Oct. 21

Northern Ireland is lovelier than anyplace I’ve ever seen. We toured the rugged North Antrim coast yesterday and encountered a magical sight: a vivid double rainbow that framed a white church and stretched from a verdant sheep pasture over a cliff into a purple and turquoise sea.

Dunluce Castle was more beautiful in ruins than Carrickfergus intact, and the Giant’s Causeway was fascinating: thousands of geometric columns of basalt rising out of the sea.

After touring Bushmills, we spent the night at a hostel where an Irish language school was held. Some of us were invited to join the students for a traditional music session.

Our visit to Derry (or Londonderry) was an opportunity to better understand the Troubles from a republican point of view. Tom Kelly, our guide, painted some of the Bogside’s murals of Bloody Sunday,1972, when British troops opened fire on peaceful demonstrators, killing 14. Two who died that day were Tom’s cousin and the first girl he kissed. He told us he is now a “committed Christian,” neither Catholic nor Protestant. The only way Northern Ireland will know peace, he said, is through Christ.


Sunday, Oct. 22

On Friday, The Belfast Telegraph published an exclusive interview with President Bill Clinton in which he urged support for David Trimble and the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which he called a “beacon of hope for those who struggle for reconciliation.”

Monday, Oct. 23

Cornerstone, the ecumenical community where American Habitat volunteer Dan Wartman lives, is located on the peace line. Protestants and Catholics who live there take Communion together. We met Tom Hannon, whose 18-year-old daughter was crippled by a sniper’s bullet. It’s hard to forgive those you can’t see, but it’s necessary, he said.

Tuesday, Oct. 24

During morning devotions, I read from Wendell Berry’s poem, “Enemies.” It begins, “If you are not to become a monster, you must care what they think.” It reflects my belief that hope lies in the recognition that none are without fault and we must see one another in need of God’s grace.

Wednesday, Oct. 25

The Habitat project is halted. Yesterday Dan told us to put our tools away and get into the van. He looked worried. The area has been affected by infighting between two loyalist paramilitary groups, and we learned some of the homeowners are partisans. Davy McVeigh, estranged husband of one homeowner, complained to a sectarian tabloid about work site conditions and was causing conflict. “Certainly we know Davy has a history,” said Peter Farquharson, executive director of HFHNI. “But then most of us do.” Later we returned to the site and started clearing up bricks and debris from the scaffolds and filling in ditches before abandoning it until this blows over.

Saturday, Oct. 28

Randy Norris and I are on the plane leaving Belfast. We learned yesterday that one of the Habitat homeowners is a member of a Protestant terrorist group. The staff didn’t know of Mo Courtney’s connections until he had moved up — and out. I think it’s best for the safety of the staff and volunteers that the project remain shut down for awhile.

Our farewell dinner was at an Indian restaurant. We’ll miss our friends.

Monday, Oct. 30

How do I explain what this experience has been like? When people ask, “How was your trip?” all they really want to know is whether we had a good time.

The moderate first minister, David Trimble, and his party won the election. In the Lexington Herald-Leader, it got a brief at the bottom of A8. But what happens in Ulster is important and will have an impact on the future of the United Kingdom and Europe.

Spiritually, I believe Northern Ireland is a place where there is a great need for the gospel of peace, love and hope. The attitude of “No surrender” goes against what Jesus taught about surrendering to him and forgiving our enemies. It is the way to lasting peace.

The work of Habitat for Humanity Northern Ireland is significant because it is helping the poor, but also mending the broken body of Christ. I hope that in these past two weeks, I’ve contributed to its efforts to plant seeds that will grow into something strong and beautiful.

Politics still the (dangdest) in Kentucky

At the beginning of the last century, James H. Mulligan — a better political observer than poet — waxed ineloquent about blue-eyed maidens, slick pistol hands, clear moonshine, fleet horses and grand orators in a rhyme best remembered for its last line:

Mountains tower proudest

Thunder peals the loudest

The landscape is the grandest

And politics the damnedest

In Kentucky.

For those who cherish tradition, it’s nice to know some of those characteristics haven’t changed.

Politics in the Bluegrass State is still as strange as ever.

Take the 2014 United States Senate race. All eyes are on Kentucky to see if Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell will hang onto the seat he’s held for almost 30 years. Once the most powerful Republican on the planet, McConnell has plummeted in popularity polls, and it’s rumored he was out of the loop in recent negotiations over confirming executive nominees. Majority Leader Harry Reid instead dealt with McConnell’s old adversary, John McCain.

In January, my longtime acquaintance, political activist David Adams, told me McConnell would have a tea party challenger, and it wouldn’t be two-time loser John Kemper.

“It’s somebody else,” he said.

Now we know who it is — Matt Bevin, a Louisville millionaire and father of nine who looks like Nicholas Cage and sounds like Michele Bachmann on steroids.

McConnell, in a vain attempt to avoid a challenge from his right flank, tacked starboard and hired Jesse Benton, Rand Paul’s nephew and Ron Paul’s 2008 campaign manager, to run his campaign. But this wasn’t enough to satisfy the libertarian fringe, and now he has to fight on two fronts — against the increasingly conservative base of his own party and Democratic Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, her party’s likely candidate.

A poll released this week for two Democratic groups found McConnell and Grimes running neck-and-neck, with Grimes have a one-point advantage,  45 to 44 percent, and 11 percent undecided. Also, McConnell had a 51 percent disapproval rating.

If he gets past his primary, McConnell will have to win over some Kentuckians in the moderate middle by trying to convince them his Grimes is a liberal. Even with unlimited cash to spend on campaign ads, that may be a hard sell. It would have been easier if his opponent were Ashley Judd, who really is a Hollywood liberal. The actress decided not to get into the ring with McConnell after it leaked that his people wanted to exploit her marital problems, depression and cafeteria-style religion.

Grimes, 34, has been in government for less than two years and has no record to attack. She is from the centrist Clinton wing of the party, and is a family friend of Bubba and Hillary.

In any other election year, I would say Grimes is just another sacrificial lamb, but 2013 is shaping up to be no ordinary election.


Where’s Alison?

Grimes was supposed to have been in Bardstown Wednesday, but according to local Democratic leader Margie Bradford, she canceled at the 11th hour and “apologized profusely.” (I’m still waiting for her to apologize to me after she promised an interview following her speech at the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner, then slipped out while my head was turned).

Her excuse, Bradford said, was that she had some more stops on the way to Fancy Farm, and didn’t have time. But Fancy Farm, the annual church picnic at St. Jerome Parish, where the witty rhetoric cuts like a cleaver, isn’t until Saturday. I hope that means she’s going to be better prepared than she was for disastrous announcement a few weeks ago.


Echoes of Erin

I’ve never been to Fancy Farm, and won’t be going this year, as much as I regret it. I’ve always wanted to experience this Kentucky tradition, because I like candidate debates, pulled pork and hillbilly music, and this year, McConnell, Bevin and Grimes are all going to be on the same stage. It should be interesting.

However, the political shindig happens the same weekend as the Irish Festival in Dublin, Ohio, where the fiddling is hot, the stout is cold and the craic is good.

I first attended this huge Celtic céilidh soon after listening to session bands in pubs in Dublin, Ireland, in August 2010 with my buddy Randy Norris of Nicholasville, who now lives with his wife Kay in Dublin, Ohio. The last time I was at the festival, the weather was more like Jamaica than Ireland — horrid and humid. This time though, the forecast promises temperatures in the 60s and 70s, so it’ll feel like we’re back in the Temple Bar area along the River Liffey.

I’m really looking forward to the festival — especially hearing the High Kings and the Red Hot Chili Pipers, and taking part in an Episcopal U2 Eucharist on Sunday morning before I head back home (which will be about the time you read this in print). I’ll share some of the experience next week.

In the spirit of St. Patrick and the Spirit who led him

Northern Ireland has long been divided along sectarian lines, but one thing that unites Catholics and Protestants, loyalists and Republicans, is a reverence for St. Patrick, the 5th century British slave who became a missionary to his Irish captors and, later, the bishop of Ireland.

Part of the St. Patrick mosaic at Belfast Cathedral, showing the missionary's arrival in what is now know as Northern Ireland.

Catholics claim him because he was, of course, devoutly Catholic. Mainline Protestants claim him because of his disagreements with the Roman church hierarchy, his evangelical zeal and his emphasis on the leading of the Holy Spirit.

Patrick was an inspiration for me when I went to Belfast in October 2000 as part of a group of 12 volunteers for Habitat for Humanity from across the United States. It was two years after the Good Friday Agreement that people throughout Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, and the Republic of Ireland voted on, and which reflected the desire for peace in the war-torn province.

Almost everyone in our country knows that Habitat for Humanity is an ecumenical Christian organization that builds homes with and for people in need. But in Belfast, Habitat wasn’t just building houses, it was building hope — by tearing down the invisible walls that separate the two communities. The group works on both sides of the “peace line,” the visible wall that divides Belfast. Protestants and Catholics in Habitat NI work together building a society where, in the words of the Apostle Paul, we “are all one in Christ.” That attitude was exemplified in the leadership of our host affiliate. The leader of our work project was a former Irish Republican Army partisan who courageously left the IRA after he had a change of heart and dedicated his life to rebuilding the neighborhoods he helped damage. His right-hand man was a Protestant Ulsterman who had served in the British Army in Northern Ireland.

St. Patrick mosaic in the Chapel of the Hoy Spirit, Belfast Catheral. Visit the website

Our second day in Belfast was a Sunday, and it’s been said that there is no day of the week when Christians are more segregated than on that day. Some of our team went to a Catholic church, while most of us went to the Anglican (Church of Ireland) Belfast Cathedral, also known as the Church of St. Anne. Its priest greeted us warmly and introduced us to the other communicants, calling special attention to two American women in our group who were Episcopal priests. He told us his church, whose motto is “Hope in the City,” gives thousands of pounds of pounds sterling each year to Habitat for Humanity Northern Ireland. He also showed us a large and beautiful mosaic consecrated in 1932, commemorating the 1500th anniversary of the coming to Ireland of St. Patrick.

Although we attended separate churches on Sundays in Belfast, I was especially heartened when one of our American friends who had been living in Northern Ireland took us to his home, an ecumenical, intentional Christian community deliberately located exactly on the dividing line in Belfast. The Protestants and Catholics who lived together in that house also prayed together and took the sacraments together — in contradiction of Catholic teaching. One of the residents told us about he forgave the British soldier who shot and paralyzed his daughter, who became an advocate for peace.

We saw evidence of that spirit again during a visit to Derry (or Londonderry), where our tour guide was a Catholic republican whose first girlfriend and his cousin were both killed on Bloody Sunday. Since experiencing repentance, he led an interfaith worship group. He brought tears to some eyes, including mine, with his stories, including one about the significance of the nearby harbor in the story of John Newton, the slave ship captain who became a Christian cleric and wrote the famous hymn “Amazing Grace.”

“Thro’ many dangers, toils and snares I have already come. ‘Twas grace that brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.”

It so happened that our visit also coincided with a visit by the Dalai Lama, the spiritual and temporal leader of Tibetan Buddhists, who was part of an international conference on meditation in Belfast. One day, while we were working on our house, we learned that he was going to be giving a speech on the peace line just a few blocks from our housing estate, so we all piled into our little blue bus and headed over to hear what he had to say.

The speech was bland, the kind of boilerplate one would expect from a syncretistic sermon. He said it was wrong to allow religious differences to divide us, and that violence is not the answer to problems.

What really touched me deeply, though, was the words of some children from a local school called Hazelwood Integrated College, who presented His Holiness a bouquet of flowers and thanked him for coming.

The kids’  words, unlike the Dalai Lama’s, moved me deeply because they came from the heart.

One of the students, Julie McCann, challenged the existence of the peace line walls and the spiritual walls that divide her people. “Break down these walls that separate us,” she said. “Tear down these walls of hatred and indifference.”

The other student, Patrick Fagan, prayed: “By the power of your Spirit, make us one. … Help us to do our part to bring peace to the world and happiness to all people.”

The event ended on a poignant note when a piper played “Amazing Grace” on the uileann and I remembered the story behind the song.

St. Patrick would have understood John Newton’s song of humility and appreciation of God’s unmerited favor because he knew what it was like to be lifted out of the mire, cleansed and put to good use in the work of the Kingdom — as an humble servant and a great witness to the God who is Love.

On this St. Patrick’s Day, I leave you with Patrick’s own words:


The Spirit elsewhere is a witness that even uncultivated ways have been created by the Most High—I am, then, first and foremost unlearned, an unlettered exile who cannot plan for the future. But this much I know for sure. Before I had to suffer, I was like a stone lying in the deep mud. 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 must, therefore, speak publicly in order to thank the Lord for such wonderful gifts.

Who was it who called me, fool that I am, from among those who are considered wise, expert in law, powerful in speech and general affairs? He passed over these for me, a mere outcast. He inspired me with fear, reverence and patience, to be the one who would if possible serve the people faithfully to whom the love of Christ brought me. The love of Christ indeed gave me to them to serve them humbly and sincerely for my entire lifetime if I am found worthy.

[The Celtic hymn, “Be Thou My Vision” is one I came to love while in Northern Ireland. We sang it often in our group worship and heard it sung in church. It is often one of the opening songs sung at the church I now attend, Apostles Anglican Church in Lexington, Ky. To hear it performed by Robin Mark, a Belfast worship leader, click on this link:

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