It was Holy Saturday when St Patrick broke the law of the land, inviting the penalty of death upon himself. It was the practice of Christians then (and remains so today) to kindle a fire on the eve of Easter Sunday, a fire that represents the light of Christ casting back the shadows.
However, on this night in Ireland it was also a pagan festival, and it was forbidden for anyone to light a fire before the king burned his in the royal palace. The punishment for breaching this law was death. St Patrick, being holy and bold, did so anyway, lighting a fire that blazed so mightily it could be seen throughout the whole land.
The king’s druids saw this as an omen: They must extinguish the fire tonight lest it consume the whole land and their people become Christians.
So, they gathered a force of chariots and their best duelling druids and summoned St Patrick to the king’s palace to answer for his crime.
When Patrick arrived, no one rose to greet him. They had been warned by the druids not to rise in greeting lest Patrick seduce them into confessing the Christian faith. Instead, the druid Lochru challenged Patrick, speaking evil of the Catholic faith and blaspheming the living God. In response, Patrick prayed simply that God would deal with the pagan magician, and immediately the druid was flung into the air, landing violently and breaking open his skull upon a rock. The armed force was shocked by the display and rallied to attack.
With another prayer from St Patrick, darkness suddenly reigned amongst them and an earthquake struck, causing the wheels of the chariots to fall off. In the darkness and confusion, the king’s men slew only themselves.
The next day, Patrick was invited to eat with the king and his druids. There, the druids challenged him to a duel. The sorcerers proved their power by casting snow and fog over the land. Only, they did not have the power to remove them. Only Patrick did, with the simplicity of prayer. Finally, a challenge was made by Patrick.
The druid was to wear the holy man’s vestments and stand in a house of green, living wood, and be set on fire. This fire would be the judgment of the druid before the Most High. It was agreed. With a prayer from St Patrick, a fire consumed the whole house, burning the druid before the king and his men. The only thing left untouched by fire was Patrick’s vestments.
Witnessing the miracles that occurred at the hands of Patrick, the king came to believe in the Gospel, and the saint went on from there to baptise people into Christ’s Church.
This story is recounted in Muirchú’s account of the life and deeds of St Patrick, one of two hagiographical texts that were written within two centuries of the saint’s mission to Ireland. Patrick's own account, by comparison, is quite sparse and does not contain any of the colourful events later told by the authors. Still, historians recognise that the purpose of these legends was historical in nature: They wanted to preserve the stories that had been handed on amongst the Christian communities about Patrick’s life.
The legends themselves are biblical in style: They contain dramatic confrontations, miracles that occur with the simplest prayers, and narrative elements deliberately evocative of Old Testament prophets (such as Moses, Elijah, and Daniel).
On top of this, they are rollicking stories. The question is: What do we do with them?
The question of what to do with legends such as this is important especially as we raise our children, and future generations, with stories of the saints. St Patrick isn’t the only saint to have such legends attached to him. In Rome there is a church located by three fountains known as Sao Paulo alle Tre Fontane, because legend has it that when St Paul was beheaded, his head bounced three times and at each point a spring of water burst forth miraculously from the ground.
With some stories (such as St Paul) we have the evidence to suggest their fictional quality (like that these fountains actually existed prior to Christianity). With other stories, however, we don’t have the historical evidence to judge one way or another whether an account is embellished by time or not.
On the one hand, we don’t want to raise future generations to be superstitious and credulous. We want faith and reason to work in tandem. On the other hand, we don’t want to raise hard-boiled rationalists either – people who, in the words of C.S. Lewis, see through all things and thus see nothing at all.
Maybe we also fear that in telling these stories, people will come to see the Scriptures as being on par with them, as being made of the same fragile stuff as legend.
But is there another way of dealing with these stories?
Everything need not hang on the truth or falsity of saintly legends. If we hang everything on them, including our faith, the mere whiff of legend will shake us.
Faith, however, is a journey, a process, and a path. Its purpose is not to be a solid structure that weathers every beating. It is a disposition of tender trust; a willingness to believe that the God who reveals Himself does so truly – and this path of trust is a long one. This is why the legends we tell should not be seen as a zero-sum, all-or-nothing affair. What matters at the end of the day is our response to Divine Revelation, not our belief in the legends of the saints.
Still, if we take them up in the right way, they can be an important means of furnishing our imagination – evangelising it and the imagination of our children. Precisely because the faith and education of ourselves and our children is a journey, we have the freedom not to treat these legends as a zero-sum game. When questions arise, we can talk about them in a wholesome way, guiding people to receive them in a way that is both critical and edifying.
This isn’t just about reading them symbolically, either. It’s about keeping alive the idea that miracles do happen, that they didn’t end with the New Testament, and that God still works surprising wonders through His people.
It’s also about becoming a storytelling people again, about embracing the joy of legends, about enchanting the imagination in a disenchanted age.
And, with G.K. Chesterton, it’s about keeping alive that ‘ancient instinct of astonishment’ that comes with unbelievable tales, an astonishment that transcends the categories of belief and disbelief, of truth and falsity, of history and legend.
But it is also about the deeper symbolism. Maybe if we read these stories once again, we'll find ourselves in them. We might even find ourselves amongst the druids, who feared the Easter fire lest it consume the whole land. Maybe they can help us see a bit more clearly, as legends frequently do, that our God is a consuming fire, and conversion is about letting ourselves be consumed totally by this Divine Fire.
Archbishop Peter A Comensoli17 March 2022
Christian Bergmann10 March 2021