“Joy is the noblest human act,” wrote Thomas Aquinas. Which is one of the reasons people love Saint Patrick, whose feast day is just around the corner. (You can learn more about the historical Patrick by reading Ned Bustard’s new picture book or my old book.)
The historical record for Patrick’s life is a little thin, but legends of his miraculous acts abound. And the legends tend to be comic. As the Irish poet Aubrey de Vere wrote, “Their predominant character is their brightness and gladsomeness.”
Here’s one of my favorite stories about Saint Patrick: After a visit with the Pope, he was boarding a ship to take him back to Ireland to assume his new position as bishop. A leper accosted him and begged to be allowed to come on the journey with him. Patrick was glad to have him aboard, but the sailors and passengers wouldn’t have it. The ship was full, they said, and besides, the leper “would be to them all at once an encumbrance and a horror.”
Patrick offered a solution that was both surprising and entirely characteristic of the saint of legend. He had with him a stone altar, a gift from the Pope. He threw the altar into the water; instead of sinking like the stone that it was, the altar floated. Patrick invited the leper to climb aboard the floating altar. When Patrick’s ship sailed, the altar sailed beside it, all the way to Ireland. Patrick praised God, and the sailors’ and passengers’ stony hearts were transformed into hearts of compassion and charity.
This story is typical of the body of legend that grew up around Saint Patrick. His compassion for the downtrodden is on full display (Patrick was, after all, a former slave himself). But even more uniquely Patrician is the sense of holy mirth that pervades the story. It’s funny, that picture of a man riding a stone altar across the sea. This is divine comedy. In a comic reversal, the outcast leper enjoys a first-class berth, borne along on the mercy seat while those who rejected him look on from the crowded deck.
Speaking of comic reversals, here’s another of my favorites from Patrick’s legendarium: 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. So happy St Patrick’s Day, friends.