Sense and Nonsense: On Being Greatly Pleased

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This is March and it seems fitting to begin with something about Saint Patrick. Almost everyone knows that his Feast is March 17, two days before the Feast of Saint Joseph and eight days before the Feast of the Annunciation of Our Lady, on March 25. These days, throughout the land, in places like the “Old Brogue” or “Ireland’s Own” or “The Blarney Stone,” I suspect that Saint Patrick is more remembered than Our Lady and Her Husband. Guinness is more familiar than grace, though I have nothing against the former, especially when it is cut with about half beer.

New York seems to have tried to have a Saint Patrick’s Day Parade that includes everyone but the Irish with principles, or at least to include so many others that the Irish are lost in their own marchings. One of the signs of the disorder of our time, I suspect, is that we insist that being ourselves and among our own is either anti-human or anti-American.

Incidentally, I like that expression, “the signs of the disorders of our time.” John XXIII and Vatican II spoke frequently, and seemingly glowingly, about the “Signs of the Times.” But when discerning those signs, we should consider whether what is really going on in our time is a “progression” into disorder, not order.

In an essay on “Saint Patrick” undated in my edition of his Selected Essays, Belloc, the greatest of essayists in our tongue, wrote, “When I was last in Ireland, I bought in the town of Wexford a coloured picture of Saint Patrick which greatly pleased me.” I read that passage on the coldest night of the winter.

On reading Belloc’s sentence, I thought, how marvelous it is, our very capacity “to be pleased.” We are beings who can be pleased. This is almost our ontological status: an awareness that what we want most, we do not already possess. What we want must come to us from beyond our own making or control.

We have often heard the expression, I suppose, “it is impossible to please him.” This expression usually refers to a rather finicky person who will never be satisfied with anything. In another sense, however, this sentence could be the sign of a perfectionist, or at least of someone who thinks that the “perfect” is worth striving for. In this sense, the expression would mean that someone was not going to be satisfied with what did not really please him until he got it right. We think of the pianist who practices again and again just to get it right.

But Belloc said that it was the picture of Saint Patrick that pleased him. He found this picture in Wexford. We are not to suppose that this picture was a famous painting or even a reproduction of a famous stained-glass window in an Irish church. He may not even have thought it a good picture. Belloc in fact described the picture. It was mostly “green in colour.” In it Saint Patrick had a mitre on his head and a crosier in his hand.

In the picture, moreover, Saint Patrick was evidently bent on the business for which he and Ireland have become famous before the invention of Guinness, namely, he was “turning into the sea a number of nasty reptiles: snakes and toads and the rest.” I must confess that I had heard that Saint Patrick had driven the snakes out of Ireland, but I did not know that he had also driven the toads out. I wonder if there are no toads in Ireland? That seems to me like carrying grace too far. I have been startled by an ugly toad now and then, but I know that they usually just sit there and eat flies and other bugs. Surely there are bugs and flies in Ireland?

Belloc even tells us just why he bought the picture — “I bought this picture because it seemed to me as modern a piece of symbolism as ever I had seen.” Since it was this modern symbol, he purchased it “for my children and for my home.” I certainly would like to see this picture. I wonder if it still exists somewhere in Belloc’s memorabilia? Does Belloc mean that a mostly green picture of the great Irish bishop, in ecclesiastical garb, driving the snakes and toads out of Ireland, is symbolic of something? Or is the picture just itself, not symbolizing anything but itself?

Belloc tells us that after he paid for the picture of Saint Patrick, there were “a few pence change.” He did not want this change, so he gave it “to the person who sold him the picture.” We do not know this person’s name, gender, age, but presumably we know, unlike a random marcher in New York’s Saint Patrick’s Day Parade, that he or she was Irish, there in Wexford.

Belloc then uses what seems to me to be bad grammar to make a lovely point about our faith. “The person who sold me the picture said they would spend the change in candles for Saint Patrick’s altar.” Since this passage was written before the feminist depredations on our language, and since Belloc would never have yielded to such nonsense, I have to assume this is just bad grammar on his part. That is, person is singular and the pronoun, they, which modifies it, is plural. “The person… they….” It should be either, “the persons… they” — presuming, which does not appear to be the case, that more than one clerk were involved in the selling of Saint Patrick’s picture — or, “the person… he….” But perhaps there is some obscure principle of grammar that I do not know about to cover the case. I am always loathe to think Belloc ever used bad grammar.

In any case, what does Belloc conclude from this fact that the clerk or clerks would not accept the few pence change for him or themselves but offered it at the Altar of Saint Patrick at the local Church in Wexford? He concludes, “So Saint Patrick is still alive.” Belloc is obviously pleased to observe this in Wexford.

I cannot think of a more Christian message for Saint Patrick’s Day than that one, that the Great Saint of Green Ireland is still alive. This is, after all, our faith. I confess it greatly pleases me, too.


The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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