St Patrick’s Day has always been one of my favourites and not for the right reason. My Lenten experience is nothing great at the best of times but St Paddy gives me an undeserved break from the Lenten disciplines. This year, however, I’m going to approach him a bit differently.

St Patrick’s Day is often a raucous affair and on this feast we are permitted to ease our fasting (and you should, so go ahead). But instead of withdrawing from the Lenten desert entirely, maybe we should see Patrick as the perfect Lenten saint who puts this ‘desert’ season in perspective.

I know as moderns we love the city. We love its thriving street culture, its promise of opportunity, its restaurants and bars and bookshops. The idea of a city has a captivating allure to it. They become monuments of our infrastructural and cultural achievements. The desert, though, is a revered space in the biblical tradition. It is the place of exile and of wandering, yes, but also the place of freedom from the allure of false gods. It is the place where we encounter the living God.

The prophet Elijah provides us with a striking example. After slaughtering the prophets of Baal, Israel’s queen begins a quest for vengeance and starts hunting Elijah. So, naturally, he flees. Forced into the desert, Elijah travels towards Mount Sinai, reaching mental and physical breaking point on the journey. It is only through God’s provision that he survives. It is there, at Mount Sinai in the desert, that Elijah hears the ‘still small voice’ of God and receives his next mission: find Elisha (1 Kings 19:1-18).

The desert, in the biblical reading, is the place where our brokenness is laid bare so that we can learn to trust in who God is and learn to hear his voice.

St Patrick lived this desert experience early in life. According to his Confessions, he was taken captive by raiders at the age of sixteen. Interiorly he was already at a distance from God. Despite being the son of a deacon – who was himself the son of a priest – Patrick described himself as being ‘quite drawn away from God’ (§1). Patrick was already an old man when he wrote his Confessions and so interpreted events differently than he would have at the time. In the same way that Old Testament writers interpreted the scattering of the Israelite tribes as God’s punishment for idolatry, so Patrick interprets his ‘scattering’ as being due to the unbelief of his people (§1).

Yet, as with all things ‘punishment’ in the biblical tradition, its purpose is not punishment for its own sake but to draw the people back to faithful worship. This is what happened to Patrick. Sold into slavery, he spent six years working as a shepherd-slave in the middle of nowhere and during this time, he says, ‘the Lord opened my mind to an awareness of my unbelief’ (§2). For the remainder of his years as a shepherd-slave, he spent his days in prayer and fasting in this “wilderness”, two hundred miles from anywhere. Of his prayer life he said: ‘I would wake up before daylight to pray in the snow, in icy coldness, in rain, and I used to feel neither ill nor any slothfulness, because, as I now see, the Spirit was burning in me at that time’ (§16). During this time, he heard God speak very clearly to him, saying: ‘behold, your ship is ready’ (§17). Escaping Ireland, Patrick returned to Britain for a time in order to study. When he later returned to Ireland on a missionary endeavour, he built the foundations for a thriving Christian culture that would last for centuries.

Before he became Pope Benedict XVI, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger spoke to this idea of encountering God in the wilderness in his seminal work, The Spirit of the Liturgy (Ignatius Press, 2000):

‘What is significant is this, that monotheism was not able to develop in the great cities and fertile countryside of Mesopotamia. No, it was in the wilderness, where heaven and earth face each other in stark solitude, that monotheism was able to grow – in the homelessness of the wanderer, who does not deify places but has constantly to put his trust in the God who wanders with him.’[1]

There is something about the desert that is designed to break us down. It is designed to remove us from the trappings of everyday life in order to uncover our mediocrity, our unbelief, our false loves. It is designed to take us away from the noise so we can learn to hear God speak.

Each Lent I am confronted by my own mediocrity and my own lack of faith – but every Lent I’m supposed to be confronted by those things so that I can undergo the difficult process of dying to myself and experiencing the joy of resurrection at the end. It is this process that digs deep foundations for the future.

Which brings me to a final point: the other thing about being in the desert is that God uses that time to build foundations strong enough to establish something that lasts. That is precisely what St Patrick did. His desert experience was fruitful because it was the starting point for something more. As St Patrick writes:

‘So I shall make a return to him for all that he has given to me. But what can I say, or what can I promise to my Lord? There is nothing I have that is not his gift to me. But he knows the depths of my heart, my very gut feelings! He knows that it is enough that I desire very much, and am ready for this, that he would grant me to drink of his chalice, just as he was pleased to do for others who loved him.’ (§57)

St Patrick left behind strong Christian foundations for his people that lasted long after he was gone. (§14) If we want to rebuild strong Christian foundations in our own time, and in our own lives, then this Lenten desert experience is essential. It is the canvas upon which God the Creator reshapes us and prepares us for the journey ahead.

So this St Patrick’s Day, by all means, celebrate. But also set aside time for contemplative prayer – your own little ‘desert’ before entering the noise. Read St Patrick’s Confessions. Reflect on his life. Consider that the purpose of the Lenten desert is actually to build foundations strong enough to last.

[1] Joseph Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy (Ignatius Press: San Francisco, 2000), 98-99.