St Patrick: Faeth Fiada

brown and black deer head

St. Patrick’s Day is today, so I thought I would talk a little bit about the saint that so many of us have heard about. He has a whole holiday attributed to him but other than shamrocks, vague references to snakes, and green beer most people know very little about him. He is one of the few saints from that long ago whose hagiography has a good amount of historical evidence to support it. We actually know a fair bit about the patron saint of Ireland.

St. Patrick was born in what is present day Scotland during the time of the Roman occupation in Britain. He was born into a family which was Christian and very involved in the church, his father was a deacon. At that time the old Pagan religions were still being practiced throughout Britain and Ireland and Patrick’s family would have stood out as being Christians in a predominantly pagan world. Raids between tribes were common then and Patrick was captured during one and sold into slavery in Ireland. He was put to work as a shepherd and it was during this time that the Lord came to him in a dream and told him that he would one day return to his home. Having faith in the dream from God he escaped from slavery and prayed for a miracle.

After travelling 200 miles by foot to the coast of Ireland he found a ship carrying dogs bound for Gaul (present day France) and was granted passage. He stayed in Gaul for some 15 years and took up study of the Christian faith. After he was ordained as a priest with the Roman Catholic Church he had another prophetic dream that he was to travel back to the land of his slavery and preach the Gospel to the pagan Irish. He was made a bishop and went on to Ireland to take the place of the bishop who had just died there. While in Ireland he performed many miracles and established the Catholic Church upon a strong foundation. There are many stories of what Patrick did during that time. He used the metaphor of the shamrock, or clover, to explain to people the nature of the trinity, which was central to his understanding of the faith. He also drove all the snakes out of Ireland. There are no snakes there today, however, many people say that there never were and that the snakes are a metaphor for the old pagan ways, which Patrick drove out of Ireland.

Snakes always seem to have a negative connotation in Christian tradition. They seem to be representative of sickness, temptation, and evil. One example of snakes from the Hebrew Scriptures can be found in Numbers 21:4-9. Snakes are often present whenever people are turning away from God and they always seem to be bad news for humanity. But the interesting part in the story of Moses was how the cure for snake bites was a bronze statue of a snake held up on a pole. The snake was somehow the cure for the sickness caused by snakes. All who looked upon the bronze serpent were assured of full recovery from their poisonous wounds. One key thing to notice here is that the cure for the snake bites was actually a snake. Somehow, the very thing which was killing them saved them in the end. In the Gospel of John (John 3:1-14) Jesus explains this a little. He tells us:

“Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”

Jesus was claiming to be the fulfillment of the story of Moses. Jesus was lifted up on an instrument which was universally know as a symbol of death in order to conquer death. He cured death by dying. The idea that Jesus defeated death by dying and that Moses cured snake bites with the image of a snake is not one that immediately makes a lot of sense. But if we think about vaccines, they work the same way. So does an antidote for a snake bite, by the way. To make anti-venom for snake bites you take the venom from a snake, inject it into a host and harvest the antibodies from the host’s blood. The antibodies from the host’s blood are then injected into the victim of a snake bite, and should rescue them from peril. The cure is in the poison.

In the same fashion the bronze statue in the story of Moses saved people by imitating their sickness and Jesus triumphed over death by meeting it head on from up on the cross. Before Jesus told us about his relationship to Moses’ snake he said that “Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit”. He warns that no one can enter heaven who has not been born of the Spirit. We commonly understand this to mean baptism, and one cannot deny that he is referring to baptism here. But he might be saying more than just that. If the things of this world bring about mundane things and the things of the Kingdom bring about spiritual things, then perhaps how we live our lives will affect the creation of the Kingdom of Heaven and our ability to enter it.

Maybe if we want to live in a world full of God’s miracles, we must first start living as if miracles were actually possible. And not just possible, but probable – perhaps even inevitable. What if being born of the Spirit means awakening ourselves to the existence of the Spirit all around us? What if baptism is meant to be a metaphor for our own birth into the realm of the magical? And wasn’t Patrick just full of magic? Wasn’t his life rich with the Holy Spirit? I think Patrick followed the same formula Moses did, he conquered his fear by embracing it. He must have been terrified to go back to Ireland after living there as a slave. He must have been scared out of his mind. But he was courageous enough to embrace that uncertainty. In fact, I would say that the cure for his fear was in the uncertainty itself.

There is a certain amount of fear involved when we follow our dreams directly into danger, as Patrick did. But just as the cure for the snake bites was found within the snake, just as the cure for death was found in the cross, so the cure for Patrick’s doubt was found in his willingness to embrace his fear and transform it into courage. Courage is not a lack of fear, no courage is a willingness to do what is right despite our fear. The cure for doubt is in uncertainty. The cure is in the poison.

One of my favourite stories of St. Patrick, when he places his life in the hands of the Holy Spirit and trusts in something that seems completely unreliable from the outside, is the Faeth Fiada. It is a traditional tale told of Patrick in which he is trying to get to the hill in Tara (which was a public and sacred place where he was hoping to spread the Gospel). A pagan king had sent his men after Patrick and his companions to kill them and Patrick decided to make an invocation, to put his trust in something outside of this world and his own control, in order that their lives might be spared. Faeth Fiada means “deer’s cry” and upon the recitation of this prayer the Lord turned Patrick and all his men into deer so that they could pass by the enemy soldiers unharmed and fulfill God’s mission. There are many different versions of the prayer that have survived until today. The one I have here is one of the shorter versions, as some of them can get quite long. It goes like this:

Faeth Fiada

I bind unto myself today

The strong Name of the Trinity,

By invocation of the same,

The Three in One, and One in Three.

I bind this day to me for ever,

I bind unto myself today

The virtues of the starlit heaven

The glorious sun’s life-giving ray,

The whiteness of the moon at evening,

The flashing of the lightning free,

The whirling wind’s tempestuous shocks,

The stable earth, the deep salt sea,

Around the old eternal rocks.

I bind unto myself today

The power of God to hold and lead,

His eye to watch, his might to stay,

His ear to hearken, to my need;

The wisdom of my God to teach,

His hand to guide, his shield to ward;

The word of God to give me speech,

His heavenly host to be my guard.

I bind unto myself today

The strong Name of the Trinity,

By invocation of the same,

The Three in One, and One in Three.

Of whom all nature hath creation,

Eternal Father, Spirit, Word:

Praise to the Lord of my salvation,

Salvation is of Christ the Lord.

One of the things I really love about Celtic Christianity is the way in which the sense of magic and the importance of dreams is not lost. I mean, what is magic besides a miracle? And when did we decide that God no longer performs miracles? When did we decide that magic has no place in our lives? I can’t imagine that if I were in a situation like that one that I would decide to recite an invocation and turn myself into a deer, but why not?I want to live in a world where people call upon the starlit heavens, the glory of the sun, and the flashing of the lightning when they are in need. I want to live in a world where miracles are considered to be a genuine means of solving people’s problems. I want to live in a world where God’s power is really and truly known amongst his people, where his power is felt in the world and not just talked about on Sundays. Patrick’s life was full of magic and I wish mine was too.

But maybe it is. Maybe all our lives are filled with magic and we have just shut it out. We have decided to turn a blind eye to the miracles that surround us and in so doing have lessened them and reduced them to the realm of coincidence or luck. I wonder if, when God’s Kingdom is finally realized, magic will be real again. The Bible is full of it. Moses parting the sea is one commonly remembered example but there are many others. In the book of numbers Balaam has a talking donkey. Joshua prays to the Lord to stop the sun and moon in their circuits and God does exactly as he asks. Jonah lives in the belly of a whale for three days and lives. The snake in the Garden of Eden talks. The walls of Jericho fell at the blowing of trumpets. Aaron used a magical stick to call all the frogs out of the water in Egypt. Samson was thirsty and God opened a bare rock and made water pour out of it for him. The list goes on and on, there are so many examples.

So maybe we should embrace a little more magic in our lives. Maybe we should pray for miracles and actually expect them to happen. Maybe the more people really believe in miracles the more we will see them in the world. I for one would like to be born again, born into the world of magic and miracles, born into the world of God’s Kingdom, born into the real world. For I believe the world of miracles is the real world, and our world, our boring magicless world, is actually the one that is fantasy. How could we ever have the audacity to say that the sacred is imaginary and the mundane is what’s real? God is the most real thing there is, and this world we have created separate of him is nothing more than a passing illusion compared to the eternal grandeur of the Kingdom of Heaven and the magic of the Holy Spirit.

So, my friends, in the spirit of St. Patrick let’s go about our lives with an unshakable faith in God and his miracles. Let’s go out into the world and remember that God sent us the Holy Spirit, so we can have no doubt that there is magic all around us and within us. Let’s let that magic in, let’s not turn away from the Holy Spirit anymore. Let’s turn to the glory of the starlit heavens, the sun’s life giving rays, the beautiful shining moon, the flashing lightning free, the stable earth, and salty sea around the old eternal rocks when we are in need. When fear and anxiety grasp at our souls, when the wickedness of the world stands between us and the glory of the Kingdom of Heaven, let us turn to God made manifest in the beauty of his creation for our strength. For when we come to walk in harmony with the winds and waves, with the trees and the birds, with the symphony of life which God has created then we will have communion with God. Let us go out into this beautiful world and see Christ before us, Christ behind, Christ to comfort and restore us, Christ beneath, Christ above, Christ in quiet, Christ in danger, Christ in hearts of all that love, Christ in mouth of friend and stranger. Life is a miracle, we are born of magic, and the spirit of Christ is present with us always. So be bold in your faith, fasten to the old eternal rock of Jesus Christ and live in beautiful harmony with all of creation.

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