How I Met Mercy on Ireland’s Holy Mountain
Therefore I should give unceasing thanks to God, for He has often been forgiving of my carelessness and stupidity.
—Saint Patrick’s Confession #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.
Their 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 four 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.
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 eight.
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 guarantee 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. Even if we didn’t all summit.
We three embarked together but had gone our own ways within minutes. (The trek looked a lot like this, including the sheep and the scree, but minus the 15 laps.)
When the clock struck six, only two had reached the top. 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 again until the lot.
Why, oh why, oh why was I so stupid and careless and concerned about my silly bed?
That is when my heart was rent.
The Scrifices of God
As it should have been, because when we three gathered at the base of the sacred mountain, her blue eyes were wet.
I 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.
As we crammed into car, I desperately proposed we cancel plans to Dingle Peninsula and Gallarus Oratory our last two days. We might never get back to the Holy Mountain, being from across the sea.
We’d best keep our plans, dad said.
I couldn’t get over or under or around the truth that my stupid sin got in her way. Somewhere in the setting sun heading back to our B&B, I remembered.
As much as I wanted a do-over, a pilgrimage for all three, God’s mercy had to be enough.
And it was. It always is. His mercy is more.
Folded Into the Love of a God Who Laughs
Sister three assured me she can laugh about it now. Which is quite her 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”
Patrick was joyful. In fact, as Jonathan Rogers deftly notes, many of the legends about him are funny, even comical. Like the one about the giant and the sepulcher.
A day will come when joy prevails, even over regret and tears and tragedy. It will all 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.
And that’s okay. Because bitter reminds me of my Lord’s scars, wounds for sinners like me, and sweet for God’s mercy. His mercy is the air we breathe.
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 huge fan of Saint Patrick. Ever since I spent those seven timeless days in County Clare, at a B & B near the Cliffs of Moher that bears my maiden name, Considine. I am still smitten by the Irish people, their language, and their patron saint.
Here are some links to previous Patrick posts. A few years ago I introduced a grateful saint. Then there was one about our common reason for writing and the post about our mutual love for the sun.
What do you love about Patrick?