Thursday, March 17, 2011

Beannachtaí na Féile Pádraig: Remembering the Lessons

Days of remembrance like St. Patrick's day invite us to look back at the significant lessons handed down to us by those who have gone before us, by our elders, by those who transmit the wisdom of family to us through the very imperfect structures of real-life families.  For me, on St. Patrick's day, there's always the remembrance of certain key virtues highlighted for me in those stories told persistently in my own family circle--in this case, stories about my grandmother's mother, brother, parents, all of whom left Ireland in the early 1850s on the heels of the Great Famine.  People who left Ireland with hardly any worldly goods, who had known the brutal edge of hunger as they left, and who had seen four of their seven children die in infancy in those terrible years of starvation and disease.

In all the stories about these particular ancestors, over and over, the lessons were these: reach out to the unfortunate, because you have an obligation to do so and there's no excuse--ever!--for failing to reach out; and never turn away a stranger in need.  In the telling of these stories about key virtues that should identify our family  for who we were, my great-grandmother Catherine and her brother Patrick have become mythic figures (their sister Margaret died as a young mother in America, and the only stories told about her have to do with the tragedy her daughter experienced in losing a mother).  In every family line descending from these immigrant ancestors, I find--in far-flung family lines that did not grow up near where these ancestors are buried as I did--the same stories are told and re-told.  With the same motifs: give to the poor; feed the hungry; take care of the sick; and never turn your back on someone in need or a stranger at your door.  Christ is there, in all of these.

One of the stories handed down over and over in my family has to do with Catherine's skill at helping women bring babies into the world.  In the rural Arkansas community in which she married and raised a family, she was regarded as a midwife, and a skilled one at that.  And so, my grandmother often told me, on many cold, snowy nights when she was a girl, someone would knock at her family's door and ask my great-grandmother to come to their house and help bring a baby into the world.

This infuriated my grandmother.  Her mother had no business saddling a horse and riding through the woods in the snow--especially not for this or that family whose reputation was low, whose children might even have come too soon after marriage or with no marriage ceremony at all.

But as my grandmother insisted, there was not ever an occasion on which her mother failed to respond to these calls.  She went.  She did what she was able.  And she came home again and slept or, if daylight had come, made the strong coffee she loved, refusing even to hear her daughter's chiding about the foolishness of the ride through the snow, the help offered to the trashy neighbors who ought not to demand so much.

She did what she could because that was what one did.  That is what one is obliged to do.  Always.

Similar stories were told about Catherine's brother Patrick, who so excelled at hospitality, the stories told us, that when he died, people far and wide imagined he had been a rich man--he always had money to give a beggar, didn't he?--and they came to his house and dug all around the yard, looking for buried money.  My grandmother, a little girl when her uncle Pat died, could remember her mother Catherine taking her and several other of the smallest children in the family and moving into the house for a time, leaving my great-grandfather and the older children at their family farm.  My great-grandmother did this, my grandmother could only imagine, to help secure her brother's house, with all the digging, all the searching for buried treasure.

And the story goes that all this happened because Patrick never turned a stranger away from his door--no matter who the stranger was or what she wanted.  Patrick lived on the farmplace purchased by his parents Valentine and Bridget when they arrived in this part of Arkansas in 1859, following their arrival in New Orleans seven years earlier and a short sojourn in Mississippi.  It was on a stagecoach road and had a cold, good spring in front of the house, at which travelers from one town to another on the stagecoach road would stop to water their horses and take a sip of the refreshing water themselves.  The location of the farmhouse itself attracted strangers, travelers.

And when one of these--or anyone--would knock at the door and ask for help, we children were told over and over in family stories when we were little, Patrick would invariably hand money to them, and would say, "Now faith and be Jaysus, keep this coin and you'll nivver be a poor man again!"  Yes, that's how the stories were told to us, broad brogue intact.  Real-time stories, we were made to believe: I'm telling you the very words he said and precisely how he said them.

To reinforce the stories of Patrick's abiding concern to help strangers in need, other family stories--ones I wondered about as perhaps half-apocryphal--spoke of how he and his wife, who were childless, adopted a number of orphans and raised them as their children.  I say I wondered if these stories were apocryphal until I began doing family history and found in the county deed books notations of the official adoption of these orphans, with the very names I'd heard about as a child.  And the stories insist that in taking orphans into his home, Patrick was doing what his own parents had done previously in Ireland, when they raised at least one little girl orphaned during the Famine.

And the point of all these stories was clear, as clear as the gold coins of the stories themselves: this is how decent people behave.  This is how we behave.  This is how we expect you to behave.  

We have known privation so bitter that people died of hunger in our midst.  And we learned through those experiences that no one ever has so little that he or she cannot give some of his bread to someone even hungrier.  We learned that community holds together only when everyone in the community understands that our lives are shared lives: my being here depends on your being here, on my willingness to reach out to you when you are in need and your willingness to help me when it is my turn to need assistance.

This sense of what hospitality demands of us--always; on a daily basis--was sharpened in many Irish families by the Famine years.  But it is also deeply rooted in the spirituality of the Irish church.  From ancient times in Irish Christianity, there was a strongly ingrained belief in the sacred obligation to provide hospitality to strangers, to anyone in need.

And I would go a step further and say that this ingrained belief in the sacred obligation of hospitality reflects a belief that runs through all the most ancient traditions of belief and spiritual life around the world.  This belief is hardly unique to Christianity or Judaism.  It is found, as well, in Islam and countless other faith communities of the globe.  Within Christianity itself, belief in the virtue of hospitality is hardly the unique possession of Catholics, either.

And so as my gift to readers on St. Patrick's day, I'd like to recommend this page of rich resources for thinking about the virtue of hospitality, at the Spirituality and Practice website: as you'll see when you visit it (as I hope you will do), it contains meditative selections on the theme of hospitality from Jewish, Christian, and Islamic writers--each of whom points out the centrality and indispensability of welcoming the stranger in his or her religious tradition.  Stories intended to root in our hearts unvarying openness to the stranger run everywhere in the sacred literature and rituals of world religions, from the breaking of seder bread for the unseen stranger to the posada enactments of Latin American Christianity.

As Jewish-Quaker-Unitarian-Catholic-Episcopalian Jane Redmont writes, "The door is always open, the table always set, the arms flung wide, outstretched": and so, Beannacht lá fhéile pádraig!

The graphic is New Orleans's "Margaret Statue," a monument commemorating Irish immigrant Margaret Haughery, who, after her young husband and infant daughter died, spent her life and fortune providing for widows and orphans.  Though there's a cult, of sorts, surrounding Margaret in New Orleans and there have been whispers over the years about a campaign to see her made a saint, to my knowledge the church has never entertained the thought of canonizing this particular woman of exemplary virtue.

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