Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Ancestors and Sacred Ambivalence: St. Patrick's Day Reflections

My ancestors sought the sea as others once sought the desert - that lonely expanse, that drifting horizon, that long voyage to the holy.

I woke up this morning thinking about my ancestors, the Christians who lived in Ireland for hundreds of years before making their way across the ocean to escape famine and disease. They washed up onto these American shores, stumbled their way into the Appalachian Mountains and set to work as coal miners and steelworkers. That is where my father was born and raised, dirt poor, and where much of my family still lives. Every time I travel home to see my parents, I cross those mountains, through the forests and dark valleys and tunnels carved into the rock. The mud and dust of those hills are in my blood, even as the green, soft turf and peat fires of Ireland are in my bones.

Yet there is also deep ambivalence there. The history of coal mining in central Pennsylvania haunts our modern conversations about clean energy and alternative fuels. I see billboards advertising "clean coal" and wince at the lie. And in the same way, I think of the lost history of my pre-Christian ancestors, the stories I will never hear, the art and music I will never know, because of the Christian imperative to evangelize and spread their religion to the ends of the earth.

How are these connected: the abuse of the land, the dangerous work and struggle for livelihood, the dreams and desires of civilization, the silence of the dead, the loneliness of the voyage west across an ocean, unimaginable void dark and churning, dividing the past from the present?

St. Patrick's Day is almost here. Regardless of what others say, I honor the day as a day of sacred ambivalence and the lessons of acceptance and forgiveness. Patrick in the field kneeling on the soft, green turf to pray; Patrick slipping away across the sea to find freedom; Patrick returning to the island where he had been a slave.

If we can't learn these lessons of our ancestors, how can we hope to listen for the stories so much more lost to us than these?

1 comment:

  1. My family is also of Appalachian stock. My grandfathers worked the coal mines of Kentucky rather than PA- but either way, I feel you.

    I think there is a dichotomy with St. Patrick's Day in the U.S. - A secular and a sacred.

    There is St. Paddy's day, an excuse to drink copious amounts of green beer and pretend you are Irish.

    And Saint Patrick's day, which I'm honestly a little fuzzy on in the sacred sense. As a Pagan, I am hesitant to call it a day of celebration. I think your proposal of lessons of acceptance and forgiveness would be a good meditation for any Pagan (or otherwise!) in this day and age.