I want to climb the holy mountain
ascend over weight of stone
and force of gravity, follow the
rise of a wide and cracked earth
toward eternal sky,
measured steps across the sharp path,
rest often to catch my heavy breath.
I want to hear the silence of stone and stars,
lie back on granite's steep rise
face to silver sky's glittering points
where I can taste the galaxies
on my tongue, communion of fire,
then stand on the summit and
look out at the laboring world.
I want to witness earth's slow turning
with early light brushing over me,
a hundred hues
of grey, pink, gold,
speckles of Jackson Pollock light,
then ribbons of mist floating
like white streamers of surrender.
I want to look back down the trail
as if over my past, forgive a thousand tiny
and tremendous transgressions
because now all that matters
is how small I feel under the sky,
even the sparrowhawk takes no notice of me,
how enlarged I feel by knowing this smallness.
I want to be like St. Patrick,
climb the holy mountain full of
promise and direction and knowing,
forty days of fasting aloft among clouds
until my body no longer hungers
and something inside is satisfied
and my restless heart says here,
no longer dreaming of other peaks.
—Christine Valters Paintner
*This poem first appeared in The Galway Review
Dearest monks and artists,
March 17th is the feast of St. Patrick who is the patron saint of Ireland, and the most well-known of all the Irish saints. He was born in 390 near England’s west coast or in Wales. When he was young, about sixteen years old, he was captured by pirates and taken to Ireland where he lived as a slave for six years. He endured many hardships including hunger, thirst, and cold under the rule of a cruel pagan king.
It was during his enslavement, while spending long hours in solitude tending sheep, that he had a spiritual awakening. Through dreams and other voices, Patrick was able to escape and return back home again. He set out for Gaul for many years to learn theology and prepare himself for his future ministry. After many years passed, he had another dream where he heard the Irish people calling out to him to return to the land of his enslavement. Patrick’s name actually means “one who frees hostages,” and when he returns he is very vocal in his opposition to slavery, including women.
He returned to Ireland in 432 and spent the rest of his life preaching the message of Christianity and helping to establish the Christian church in Ireland. There is a great deal of evidence that Patrick was not the one to bring Christianity to Ireland, that it had already begun to flower, but certainly he was instrumental in this role.
I find his story intriguing. Here was a man enslaved, who escaped by divine intervention, and then hears the call to return to the land of his slavery and he goes willingly. He must have experienced more than his share of discomfort at the thought.
There are churches founded by Patrick in the area around Galway as well. One of my favorite sites is Inchgoaill island on Lough Corrib, just a few miles north of us. Legend tells us that Patrick was banished here for a time by local druids. The name of the place means “island of the stranger.” The island is now uninhabited, but there is a stone church at the site where Patrick’s 5th century wooden church would have been, as well as a marker stone where his nephew and navigator is buried, one of the oldest Christian markers we have. There is a later 12th century church nearby as well. We bring our pilgrims here for a morning of silence and solitude and you can hear the wisdom in those ancient stones.
Seeking out this “strangeness” and “exile” was at the heart of the monastic call. In going to the places which make us feel uncomfortable and staying with our experience, rather than running away, they cracked themselves open to receive the Spirit in new ways.
How are you being called in your life to stay with what is uncomfortable and to perhaps even return to a place where you did not feel free, in the service of freedom?
With great and growing love,
Christine Valters Paintner, PhD, REACE
Dancing monk icon © Marcy Hall at Rabbit Room Arts (click link to order a print)