Therefore I should give unceasing thanks to God, for He has often been forgiving of my carelessness and stupidity.
—From Saint Patrick’s Confession, Number 46
I can’t celebrate St. Patrick’s Day without thinking of Croagh Patrick and I can’t think of Croagh Patrick without thinking of the June afternoon that I climbed Ireland’s holy mountain. “Croagh” —pronounced “crow”—means “hill” or “mountain” and this one got its name from the patron saint of Ireland.
Legend has it that in 441 A.D. on his missionary journey through Ireland, Patrick spent forty days of Lent on this mountain. He fasted and prayed and allegedly drove all the snakes away. Thousands of devout or adventurous climb Croagh Patrick every year.
But my climb up the holy mountain was tainted by tragedy.
There Could Have Been Three
I did not twist an ankle on the treacherous scree because I was watching the sheep down below or accidentally bump another hiker on a narrow pass and watch him fall and crack his phone. It’s not those. Those would have been less tragic. Because bones heal and phones are fixed and those would have been accidental.
But what I did was on purpose.
W.B. Yeats said that the Irish had an abiding sense of tragedy which sustains them through temporary periods of joy. So my sadness should come as no surprise, Irish daughter of Eve as I am.
What happened at Ireland’s Holy Mountain can no longer stay on the mountain. No, it did not involve treachery amid loose mountain scree.
But there could have been three.
There should have been three by that Croagh Patrick sign at the summit. But the third sister didn’t arrive because of me.
There were two because I stole a mountaintop memory from one.
The Croagh Patrick Tragedy
This is almost too painful to write. It was after 4 p.m. by the time we arrived. We would have had plenty of time because sunset in Ireland in June doesn’t come until 10 p.m.
But Ms. Abigail was feeling fragile and wanted to get to bed before dark, so she wouldn’t get sick and all. That bed was hours away which meant back to the car by 8 p.m.
Which might not sound like a set up for heartbreak, but it was.
Because it meant that no matter where each of us was when the clock struck six, we would all turn around. We would head back down the holy mountain, whether we had reached the summit or not. We all hike at a different pace, and my plan did not allow space.
Are you sure you need to be back by dark? Can’t we all just hike to the top?
But I bulldozed. I pushed my impatient case. We’d meet back at the car by eight.
We three embarked together but within minutes had separated. (The trek looked a lot like this, including the sheep and the scree, but minus the 15 laps.) When the clock struck 6 p.m., only two had reached the summit.
But it was too late to change the rules. We had no phones to annul my selfish plan and urge the third sister up. We would not meet until the lot.
Why, oh why, oh why was I so stupid and worried about getting to bed?
That is when my heart was rent.
The Sacrifices of God
As it should have been, because when we three gathered at the base of Ireland’s sacred mountain, her blue eyes were wet.
That is when I met mercy.
She knew we couldn’t re-do. If we were to turn around climb together, the sun would set before the summit and Croagh Patrick did not glow at night. But she smiled through tears and talked about Dingle Peninsula tomorrow.
We all knew we might never get back to the Holy Mountain, being from across the sea. I couldn’t get over or under or around the truth that my stupid impatient, selfish sin got in her way. It kept her from scaling the mountain. Somewhere in the setting sun heading back to our B & B, I remembered.
As much as I wanted a do-over, a pilgrimage to the top together, God’s mercy had to be enough.
And it was. It always is. Always, His mercy is more.
The Love of a God Who Laughs
Sister Three assured me she can laugh about it now. Which is quite a gift to me. She’s like her Lord Jesus, who was anointed with the oil of gladness (Hebrews 1:9). And like Saint Patrick too.
Walking through the Irish countryside, Patrick and some of his disciples came across a huge sepulcher. It was so huge, in fact, that Patrick’s followers refused to believe that a man could be buried there. In order to prove that there was indeed a man in the tomb (and, more to the point, to erase his followers’ doubts regarding resurrection) Patrick prayed to bring the sepulcher’s inhabitant back to life. “Then stood one before them horrible in stature and in aspect.” This terrible giant broke down weeping in gratitude: Patrick had not only brought him back to life, but he released him from the torments of hell. The giant begged to join Patrick’s retinue, but Patrick refused him. No one could stand to look on such a terrifying figure, he said (indeed, it would hard to evangelize people who are running away in horror.) But Patrick did the giant one better: he invited him to believe in the triune God and thus to escape hell permanently. The giant believed, was baptized, died again, and was buried, this time to rest in peace.
The monstrous, the horrible, the barbaric, are folded into the love of a God who laughs. A terrible giant weeps for joy and gratitude at the sight of the saint who released him from his torments. This is the divine comedy—a vision of the universe that says, in spite of all appearances, love and joy get the last laugh.Jonathan Rogers, “Saint Patrick and Divine Comedy”
A day will come when joy prevails over regret and tears and unfinished Croagh Patrick trails. All will be swallowed up in victory. The Lamb will reign and in his presence will be fullness of joy—perfect joy, untainted by my impatience, selfishness and stupidity.
But for now St. Patrick’s Day is a little bittersweet.
That’s okay. Because stuck smack dab in the midst of Lent, bitter reminds me of his wounds, all for sinners’ gain and sweet because of God’s mercy.
When I asked the sister who didn’t summit if I could post this, she said, “Sure. Just don’t be too heavy. Make ’em laugh—there’s grace.”
I don’t know if I’ve succeeded with that. But I pray I will tread as Patrick trod, by grace and with unceasing thanks to God who has been forgiving of my carelessness and stupidity.
If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, O LORD, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared.
If you’re new to the blog, you might not know that I’m a scála mór fan of Saint Patrick. Since that priceless week in County Clare at the B & B near the Cliffs of Moher that bears my maiden name, Considine, I have been smitten by the Irish people, their language, and by their patron saint.