While in Ireland for Christmas, I decided to climb Croagh Patrick.That's where the father of Irish Christianity fasted for forty days and nights.
So, two days after Christmas, Austin, my son-in-law, and I got up, had a small breakfast and then drove old winding roads to the holy site. We glimpsed it after an hour or so, its mighty peak towering above everything else. It was beautiful and inspiring but also a bit intimidating for a middle age American used to driving a car whenever he must go somewhere more than a few blocks away.
About a third of the way up that mountain, I discovered three important things.
One, I should have had a more substantial breakfast.
Secondly, there is a reason sensible people climb the mountain in June.
Thirdly, it was going to take more time to get to the top than I had thought.
Even a third of the way up, the scene is stunning. Streams rush down it’s face, outlined by stone walls as ancient as humanity. Small villages dot the landscape as far as the eye can see as the ocean, covered by a thin fog, meets the rocky Irish coast.
We walked back down the mountain and found a pub. The fire was hot, the food was delicious and, since we were the only customers, we enjoyed the full attention of both cook and the waitress. As we ate, we talked about the age of the pub and the memorabilia that covers the walls.
We drove into Westport then, a beautiful postcard village at the base of the mountain. We walked around the monument in the town square, reading various quotes from St. Patrick’s short book inscribed there.
Deciding we should have a cup of coffee before heading back to Galway, we went into a coffee shop near the square, called Christie's. When I ordered my coffee, the lady behind the counter asked me what had brought me to her town. I told her that my wife and I were visiting our family in Galway and that I had decided to climb the mountain before going home.
She nodded and smiled.
“I didn’t get to the top. Just about a third of the way, “ I added.
“I discovered I was older than I had thought,” chuckling at my funny self deprecating remark.
“No!” she blurted. “That must not be said. The truth is, you have not been as active as you should be. It is a temporary situation. You can change it.”
She was smiling but rather firm.
“Also,” she continued without my encouragement, “never say ‘when I was young.’ Say instead, ‘when I was younger.”
I looked at her for a moment without replying.
She was not finished.
“Listen more to Bob Dylan.”
Well, that was over the top. What did Dylan have to do with anything?
“Bob Dylan” I mumbled?
“My husband is a wise man. He reads his Bible faithfully. And he listens to Bob Dylan. Sometimes, when he makes a wise statement, I ask him “Is that the Holy Scripture now or is it Bob Dylan?”
“It doesn’t matter now, does it," he always says.
“Well, he’s right you know. So get more active. Read your Bible and listen to Bob Dylan. There it is. You have a good day now.”
The wind bit my face as I walked out of Christ’s shop. I now had a cup of great coffee that I would soon consume. I also had some words for my journey that I could savor but never consume.
I pondered the lines I had read on that old, weathered monument:
“My name is Patrick. I am a country person and the least of all believers. I am looked down upon by many. If I have achieved any success, it has been a gift.”
I tried to ignore the fact that Christie is the female version of the word Christ.
I thought about the coming year, when, God willing, I will enter my sixth decade.
I am trying to keep it all together as I walk my pilgrimage. There are days when I get tired. There are days when I get cold. There are days when I think I was a fool to ever believe there was anything to this journey than just putting one foot in front of another. There are days when I think there are no saints on this path after all. But then, in an unsuspected moment, some voice says, “you are more fit than you think. All that can really stop you are words you speak about yourself that needlessly limit your journey.”
Or, as Dylan would say it,
Cast down your crown
On this bloodstained ground.
And take off your mask!
For he sees your deeds
And He knows your needs
Before you even ask.
Nothing can hold you back
Nothing that you are
Nothing that you lack.
Patrick once stood here, looking at a nation he hoped to win for Christ. But how? The task was like a huge mountain before him and he was but a poor, wayfaring pilgrim. But he took some time to pray, right here, where these many centuries later stands a humble coffee shop. Right here where one of his children reminds me to stop whining and to keep walking.
Another line on that monument says:
“Because there were many fish, I asked for a large net.”
Patrick climbed this mountain by putting one foot in front of him until he reached the top. He knew his flock would have a difficult time doing that sometimes. So he left them a little book and a prayer to say every morning when they awoke:
Christ within me
Christ around me
Christ before me
Christ behind me
Christ on my right hand
Christ on my left
Christ beneath me
Christ above me.
Christ! Be my strong defense!
I arise today with a mighty power.