Of his diligence in prayer, we shall try to write down only a few details out of the many things that might be said about Patrick. Daily, whether he was staying in one place or traveling along the road, he used to sing all “the psalms and hymns” and the Apocalypse of John “and” all “the spiritual songs” of the scriptures. No less than a hundred times in each hour of the day and each hour of the night he made the sign of the triumphant cross upon himself; and at every cross he saw as he traveled, he used to get down from his chariot and turn toward it in order to pray.
~ The Life of Patrick 2.1
For St. Patrick the saying of St. Paul, “I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2), was a matter of daily practice, a matter of spiritual discipline. He did not reduce it to a matter of theological speculation. That is not to say that we ought not to think philosophically about the cross, but that it is a danger to reduce it to that. It is also, importantly, a present reality. The cross of Christ becomes our cross as we “take up [our] cross daily, and follow [him]” (Luke 9:23).
For every doctrine of the cross, for every theological explanation, there yet remains a mystery. I am reminded of C. S. Lewis, who wrote,
Theories about Christ’s death are not Christianity: they are explanations about how it works. Christians would not all agree as to how important these theories are. My own church—the Church of England—does not lay down any one of them as the right one. The Church of Rome goes a bit further. But I think they will all agree that the thing itself is infinitely more important than any explanations that theologians have produced. I think they would probably admit that no explanation will ever be quite adequate to the reality.
Paradoxically, the cross, which ought to be a symbol of everything that is wrong in the world—human sin and suffering and the rejection of God—turns out to be the very means by which all these evils are set right. The Son of God endures injustice so that we might be made just. He suffers death so that we might have eternal life. He is forsaken so that we who have forsaken God might return to him. And by the sign of the cross, the very means by which this tragic victory was wrought, we too triumph over sin, endure suffering, and turn our hearts back to God. Not just then, but now.
St. Patrick knew this; he must have. He saturated his daily practice with the sign of the cross: “No less than a hundred times in each hour of the day and each hour of the night he made the sign of the triumphant cross upon himself….” I’ve worked out the math, and if a person could make 20 crosses per minute (once every 3 seconds), he/she could make 100 crosses in 5 minutes, though I may be taking this Celtic story too literally. However, it is worth noting that the Celtic saints practiced an austere asceticism, commonly reciting all 150 psalms everyday while standing with their arms outstretched in the form of the cross. In any case, St. Patrick held it in such high regard that he could not even pass by a cross without stopping to pray: “at every cross he saw as he traveled, he used to get down from his chariot and turn toward it in order to pray.”
And how, I would ask, can we ever be like St. Paul and know nothing “except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” if we fail to notice the cross all around us or if we neglect to cross ourselves when we pray, before we work or eat, when we rise in the morning and before we sleep at night? Furthermore, knowing that at the sign of the cross demons tremble, to paraphrase St. Antony, why would we neglect such a resource in every nervous thought, in every grief, and through all the suffering that we can endure only by the cross of Christ’s passion? I make no apologia here—there is a time and place for that—but instead I insist that, in practice, the foolishness of the cross proves far more effective in overcoming every crisis than the wisest explanation about how it works.