Saint Patrick’s Day is, as the song says, a great day for the Irish. Millions wear the green and celebrate their Irish heritage in parades, parties, bars, restaurants. Many who have no claim to an Irish heritage raise their pints and offer a toast to the land that is dotted with places with names such as Lisdoonvarna, Glenamaddy and Roscommon.
I was there in the summer of 1976. The trip ended up being longer than I planned. A fire broke out on the ship on my way back. It had to return for repairs and we were told that it would take several weeks before it would sail again for New York.
I called my pastor to tell him I would be delayed but got the bingo tape. So I left a message and that was that. He kept that message for years.
I stayed with a poor farmer in Ballyhaunis, in County Mayo. His name was Tommy Boyle.
Ballyhaunis is a small town. There were no strangers and very few secrets. News about everybody was shared in whispers, maybe some laughter, maybe some sorrow, in the places in town where people gathered. The post office, the small café, the grocery, the church steps — these offered opportunities to offer and hear the latest news of the place.
One night we took a ride to a nearby farm to visit Tommy’s friends and relatives. We sat in a room large enough to hold about 20 people. Chairs were arranged in a circle and against one wall was a table on which was placed food and drink.
And so the night began. It was a night of sharing stories. At that time, there were no cellphones, not many televisions, and the few radios that people had were taxed. A little kid was there. His name was Desmond Finnegan. He sat in his chair, staring at me wide eyed, with a kind of wonder.
I had the sense he wanted to chat with me, and sure enough when the time was right he came over and sat next to me. He asked me if I was really from America. I told him yes, that I lived near New York City. He nodded with pleasure, as if he knew he was moving in the right direction.
Then he asked me if there were really cowboys in America and if the sky was always golden. I laughed, and told him that there were some cowboys, in places like Texas, and that there are sometimes skies that look as if they were brushed with gold. He was happy about that, said he wanted to go America someday, and that maybe I could show him around, take him to where the cowboys live, and where the sky shines like gold.
That evening was 38 years ago. Desmond is much older now, probably married with kids of his own.
I do not know if he ever made it to this country. But he must know by now that America’s cowboys are few and far between, and that the sky has many more shades than gold. But I remember with fondness his dream of a place he had never seen, save through Western movies and Technicolor enhancement.
This Gospel on Saint Patrick’s Day was about mercy, and how we are called to be as generous to each other as God is with us. To many people, such a request might seem like the stuff of dreams. Making it real — living lives that are truly brimming with mercy — is way beyond our ability to realize.
Yet, there is something that resonates deeply within us when we ponder the truth of mercy. We somehow know that it can someday come true, that we will be able to find in our hearts the grace to be merciful, to be forgiving. Like making a dream come true.
It is kind of like cowboys and golden skies, the stuff of a boy’s dream, like hopes that he once believed with all his heart.
We grow old, and the dreams of youth give way to those of later and hopefully wiser years. Years that are inspired by the dream of God for us, to be good, kind, merciful. God, the persistent and stubborn dreamer — the one who dreamed cowboys, golden skies, little boys and Saint Patrick all into flesh and blood.
And his dream will haunt us, inspire us, till the day it all comes true with lives overflowing with mercy.
Father James Stephen (Jeff) Behrens, O.C.S.O., serves at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit, 2625 Ga. Highway 212 S.W., Conyers. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.