The phrase the violent bear it away fascinated the 20th century Irish-American storyteller Flannery O'Connor, who used it as the title of one of her novels. O'Connor's surname connects her to an Irish royal family descended from Conchobor (pronounced Connor), the prehistoric king of Ulster who was foster father to Cuchulainn and husband of the unwilling Derdriu. In the western world, the antiquity of Irish lineages is exceeded only by that of the Jews.
The Jews started it all-and by 'it' I mean so many of the things we care about, the underlying values that make all of us, Jew and Gentile, believer and aethiest, tick. Without the Jews, we would see the world through different eyes, hear with different ears, even feel with different feelings ... we would think with a different mind, interpret all our experience differently, draw different conclusions from the things that befall us. And we would set a different course for our lives.
Wherever they went the Irish brought with them their books, many unseen in Europe for centuries and tied to their waists as signs of triumph, just as Irish heroes had once tied to their waists their enemies' heads. Where they went they brought their love of learning and their skills in bookmaking. In the bays and valleys of their exile, they reestablished literacy and breathed new life into the exhausted literary culture of Europe. And that is how the Irish saved civilization.
In becoming an Irishman, Patrick wedded his world to theirs, his faith to their life…Patrick found a way of swimming down to the depths of the Irish psyche and warming and transforming Irish imagination – making it more humane and more noble while keeping it Irish.
We normally think of history as one catastrophe after another, war followed by war, outrage by outrage - almost as if history were nothing more than all the narratives of human pain, assembled in sequence. And surely this is, often enough, an adequate description. But history is also the narratives of grace, the recountings of those blessed and inexplicable moments when someone did something for someone else, saved a life, bestowed a gift, gave something beyond what was required by circumstance.
Throughout our world the cry of the poor so often goes unheard. The prophets harangued Israel and Judah unceasingly about the powerless and marginalized, the overlooked widows, orphans, and "sojourners in our midst," who are still with us today as single mothers, hungry children, and helpless immigrants, wraiths invisible in our prosperous societies.
The Irish innovation was to make all confession a completely private affair between penitent and priest - and to make it as repeatable as necessary. (In fact, repetition was encouraged on the theory that, oh well, everyone pretty much sinned just about all the time.)
Throughout the world, half of all children go to bed hungry each night and one in seven of God's children is facing starvation. Before such statistics, believers should never forget Dostoevsky's assertion that the suffering of children is the greatest proof against the existence of God; for without justice, there is no God.
We can hardly get up in the morning or cross the street without being Jewish. We dream Jewish dreams and hope Jewish hopes. Most of our best words, in fact - new, adventure, surprise; unique, individual, person, vocation; time, history, future; freedom, progress, spirit; faith, hope, justice - are the gifts of the Jews.