In nineteenth century Appalachia, during the Second Great Awakening, fiddle music was believed to have come from the devil. Many musicians felt called to “lay it down”—not only quitting their fiddles but destroying them in great bonfires lit to purify their land from evil.
In his book Play of a Fiddle: Traditional Music, Dance, and Folklore in West Virginia, Gerald Milnes shares the story of a fiddler who chopped off his left fingers as an act of devotion to the Lord, taking Jesus’ instructions to avoid sin by removing body parts (Matt. 18:8-9) quite literally. Without fingers, the man couldn’t conjure the sensualities of dance from his four strings. But the fiddle’s draw was too overwhelming to resist. By the time he was an old man in the 1960s, the fiddler could be found playing in pubs with his stumps.
Today, most people shake their heads at such shortsightedness. Fiddle playing is not only benign, but also a blessing to others, prompting people to dance, worship, or just bask in the joy of music. But in another time and place, that flying rosin dust may as well have been hell smoke.
The first church I attended as a teenager and new believer did not hold fiddle bonfires, but it did apply other spiritual dividing lines that belied a damaging, black-and-white style of thinking that would take me years to shake.
I learned that “the church down the street,” as the pastor called it, did not teach the Bible. It was a Presbyterian church I had visited as a little girl for Vacation Bible School one summer. They seemed Bibley enough at the time, but now, as a teen, I was to understand that they peddled a watered-down version of the gospel that tickled ears instead of saving people. The church down the street was nothing more than a landscaped social club housing lost in their deception.
Other denominations, it turned out, weren’t considered Christian at all, and the very idea of sainthood elicited scoffs. And a holiday like St. Patrick’s Day was irrelevant, for Patrick was just a normal guy who needed the grace of God. Why should he get a special day?
Of course, some of these concerns held kernels of truth. Patrick was, indeed, a “normal guy,” in that he did not hold any more worth than the rest of us. Going to church or growing up in a religious household, regardless of the denomination, doesn’t make someone a Christian. And all Christ followers, not just a select few, are saints, saved by the grace of God and set apart for holy work.
The first church I attended as a new believer belied a damaging, black-and-white style of thinking that would take me years to shake.
But in that church, I learned to rush to conclusions about who was “in” and who was “out,” squelching opportunities to learn and grow. (The fervent new believers during the Second Great Awakening could have learned something about God by listening to the fiddle with sanctified ears. What a Creator, whose zest for life and celebration is reflected in humanity’s natural attraction to rhythm and dance, whose ordered universe is reflected in the logic of musical structure!). In my community, I would have learned that people like St. Patrick—the one who shared the good news of Christ with the people of Ireland—could very well be missing from heaven, because his life and worship didn’t match our community’s narrow definitions.
Now I say these lines from St. Patrick’s Breastplate, a fifth-century prayer attributed to him, as I take my morning walks:
Christ with me,
Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ in me,
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ on my right,
Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down,
Christ when I sit down,
Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.
This prayer, which places Christ in the physical realities of my life, centers me on God more than any strategies or mnemonics I’ve learned in church. As I say it, I thank God for believers like Patrick, who encourages me 1,500 years after death. It might not be the prayer for everyone, but that’s the beauty of the Holy Spirit: If we open ourselves to Him, He will speak to us exactly how and when we need it. By surrounding myself with a faith community that emphasizes the core truths of Christianity above all else–the death and resurrection of the divine Jesus Christ to save us from our sins—I’ve freed myself from those artificial restrictions placed on me by my high school church.
In honor of St. Patrick and those unfairly silenced for their “sins”—like those fiddlers in Appalachia—I will celebrate March 17 not with corned beef and green beer, but music. I will take out my perfectly scratched fiddle and play “St. Patrick’s Day Jig”, dancing in celebration of my freedom in Christ.