Don’t be afraid…of what others think of you.
There are stories – both real and fictional (or a mix of both) – that I re-visit regularly. Among them are the writings of St. Patrick (Confessions and Letter) each March. This year Patrick’s story was joined by some research about Brigid (whose feast will be a new bank holiday from next year).
However, usually, I don’t read with the intent of writing about it afterwards.
The first thing I have to say is that while we have Patrick’s story in his own words, most of what we know about Brigid are myths and legends.But they share one important aspect – both were slaves in Ireland before starting their new lives.
Patrick, as he tells us, was abducted from his home (probably somewhere in the Northwest of England) when he was sixteen and then sold into slavery in Ireland. He stayed for six years, living as a shepherd, and then managed to flee back home. Then. of course, he came back later – but I haven’t quite been able to figure out how much time passed – and stayed until he died in the early 460s.
Brigid’s mother, Brocca, was a Christian woman who was abducted from her homeland by pirates and – likewise – sold into slavery in Ireland. It is unclear where Brocca was from: one account I have found was that she was a Pict (i.e. from what is now Scotland) another says that she may have been from Portugal. Brocca may have been baptised by St Patrick, but it is unlikely that Brigid and Patrick would have known each other very well – Brigid was only 11 when Patrick died. Her father was Dubhthach the chieftain of Leinster who seems to have sold Brocca to a Druid when she was pregnant. Later he tried to sell off Brigid to the King of Leinster because she continually gave all his food and possessions to the poor. The King was a Christian, however, and convinced her father to set Brigid free.
Secondly, while it is fortunate that we have St Patrick’s story in his own words, I think it need s to be taken with a few grains of salt. Why? Throughout the Confessions he keeps calling himself unlearned and a simple country person. Now, he clearly knew how to read and write – his father was a Roman official and a Deacon, his grandfather a priest – even if he wasn’t a scholar. And he knew his Bible well enough to quote from it, presumably without having to look up the quotes while he was writing the Confessions. He also seems to have modelled his Confessions after biblical examples – the shepherd/ herdsman (Abraham, Moses, David), the Lost Son and St Paul’s call to Macedonia to name but a few – whether consciously or subconsciously.
And that doesn’t happen from just hearing about it once or twice in a sermon or from preaching about it a couple of times. However, I’m not denying that he was a herdsman when he was brought to Ireland. It would have been an unpopular job, being outside all day without a proper roof over your head, so something a slave might be expected to do.
When I was reading the Confessions this year this passage particularly struck me:
This is why I have long thought to write, but up to now I have hesitated, because I feared what people would say. This is because I did not learn as others did, who drank in equally well both the law and the sacred writings, and never had to change their way of speaking since childhood, but always grew better and better at it. For me, however, my speech and words have been translated into a foreign language, as it can be easily seen from my writings the standard of the instruction and learning I have had. As it is said: ‘The wise person is known through speech, and also understanding and knowledge and the teaching of truth.’
However, even though there’s truth in my excuse, it gets me nowhere. Now, in my old age, I want to do what I was unable to do in my youth. My sins then prevented me from really taking in what I read. But who believes me, even were I to repeat what I said previously? I was taken prisoner as a youth, particularly young in the matter of being able to speak, and before I knew what I should seek and what I should avoid. That is why, today, I blush and am afraid to expose my lack of experience, because I can’t express myself with the brief words I would like in my heart and soul.
If I had been given the same chance as other people, I would not be silent, whatever the reward. If I seem to some to be too forward, with my lack of knowledge and my even slower tongue
Particularly the first sentence, because I think we all know how that feels sometimes. How may times in our lives have we not done something – be it a change of career, taking up a new hobby or just getting a new hairstyle – because we worried about what other people were going to think? However, not caring too much about it – because it is out of our hands – seems to be easier when we are children and then get easier as we get older, but not if we start something new (because we may doubt ourselves).And, I believe, it can be practiced.
As it happens, “Practice!” is the motto of this year’s Lenten Campaign by the Protestant Church in Germany. The headings for the seven weeks until Easter (counting Wednesday to Wednesday) are: My goals! – Let’s get started! – Keep at it! – Rejoice! – Loosen knots! – Silence! – Trusting anew!
In the coming weeks there will be new people coming here who “did not learn as others did”, whose” speech and words have been [or rather will be] translated into a foreign language”. So, let’s be patient, if we don’t understand what each other wants to say the first time around (in either direction) – and let them tell their stories, if they want to. Unlike, Patrick, who had to learn the hard way – switching from Latin to Irish can’t have been an easy thing – we have technology on our side to help us communicate. And we need to hear those stories in whatever way they want to tell them. Not just from the Ukrainian refugees who will arrive in the coming weeks, but also from all the people who are here already – whether they were born here, moved into the country as migrants or refugees (or came back from a stint abroad) or belong to marginalised groups in Ireland.
The thing that struck me about both Patrick’s and Brigid’s lives – uncertain though many of the details may be – and that unites them is that fearlessness. The not caring what other people think about what you’re doing. I’m sure very few people understood why Patrick would want to go back to a country where he had previously been kept enslaved, but he felt like he had no choice. This part, by the way is the parallel to St Paul’s being called to Macedonia (as recounted in Acts 16) I have mentioned before.
Brigid was said to always have given away food from her father’s or mother’s stocks – once even her mother’s entire store of butter – and other items to help the poor.From the little I could find out her father wasn’t too happy about it, but that didn’t stop her.
Of course, they seem to have had what so many people in our times seem to have lost – or rejected – for various reasons: that unshakable certainty that God would be by their side and help them out with whatever they needed, I was going to leave out the legends about St Brigid, but I particularly like the one about how she got the land for her convent. She asked her father to give her as much land as her cloak would cover and he agreed, given that her cloak was not very large. However, when Brigid and some friends walked out on the field and each took a corner of the cloak it spread out in all four directions to cover a big enough area to build everything she needed.
Naturally there are things we need to take care of, and will worry about to a certain extent – rising costs of living, refugees or global heating – but if we focused on what we can do, rather than what still isn’t done (and what’s probably out of our hands to change anyway) things might get a little easier.
That sounds like a good thing to practice to me, no matter when we start. Let’s get going!