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Charlotte Amalie
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St. Patrick: Myth And Legend In Religion

March 21, 2009 — I am writing this on St. Patrick’s Day.
Although my sainted Irish ancestors were among the Orange Protestants sent by the King of England to populate the northern tier of states in the ancestral homeland, it would be a shameful betrayal of my auld sod heritage not to write about the legendary slave-cum-bishop who rid the country of snakes, established Roman Catholic hegemony, and enabled a civil society on the Emerald Isle.
Never mind the fact that he did none of those things. His feast day is observed even by non-Irish non-Catholics.
A rabbi who for 20 years has not missed spending part of March 17 drinking green beer in an Irish pub and sporting a plastic shamrock in a buttonhole introduces himself to fellow celebrants as Hymie O’Leibovich.
In Ireland, today is a day of Solemn Obligation; the faithful attend Mass even if they don’t believe a word of the legendary blarney about the great man. It’s not the facts about Patrick; it’s what his mythological persona represents that makes him important.
Myth, legend, and saga play a major role in all belief systems. They don’t have to be factual or provable to perform their function as supportive adjuncts of the faith.
People believe what they choose to believe. I want to believe that George Washington could not lie to his daddy about chopping down the cherry tree, I want to believe that Moses really did part the waters of the sea, even if facts must be finessed, forged, or forgone.
Most prehistoric or early civilization myths were thought to be accounts of actual persons or events, true in their essence if not in their details. Truth does not depend on facts to be true.
Myth provides a mental vehicle for thinking about the incomprehensible, talking about the indescribable. “Myth” simply means “story." Early myths were tales about tribal deities, founding leaders or other heroes, or major events.
Myths are communal traditions, that is, they develop around a group, family, clan, tribe, culture, or nation as part of the group’s self-identity.
When an idea or story is passed along as unquestioned fact it is a rare and remarkable person who will ever doubt it unless their mind is subjected to the most powerful and persuasive reasoning.
It usually means unlearning wrong things we were taught. Mark Twain observed, "You can't reason someone out of something they weren't reasoned into."
But if faith is to be viable, sooner or later rationality must be exercised, belief must come to terms with reality. That can be a painful and almost impossible thing to do. The Flat Earth Society still has half a million members, there are some who believe the first non-human creature was a talking snake, and there are still people who truly believe that Jesus actually walked on water.
Crazy? Naw, just folks trying to make their journey through relentless uncertainty and confusing reality. I can’t buy their myth, but I’ll drink a green beer with them in honor, genuine, of St. Patrick.

Editor's note: W. Jackson "Jack" Wilson is a psychologist, an Episcopal priest, a sometime academic and a writer living in Colorado. He writes with humor, whimsy, passion and penetrating insight into the human condition. And in Pushkin, Russia, a toilet is named in his honor.

Editor's note: We welcome and encourage readers to keep the dialogue going by responding to Source commentary. Letters should be e-mailed with name and place of residence to source@viaccess.net.

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