It’s no wonder that celebration of Saint Patrick’s Day is huge in America, where people of Irish ancestry outnumber the population of Ireland 5 to 1. Saint Paddy’s festivities take the nature of a celebration of ethnicity, in large part due to the fact that the Irish had to struggle against prejudice in order to be regarded as equal in this country. But there’s often something lost in the celebrations of ethnic pride and the bacchanalia of Saint Patrick’s day: we forget the spiritual legacy of an exceptional historical figure. Patrick is a model not just for Catholics or Irish but for all people who value justice and faith.
There is a curious contradiction in studies of Patrick: one the one hand, we know him better than any other person who lived in Western Europe in the 5th century. He alone bequeaths us an autobiography that reveals the inner psychology of a person who lived in that time and place. Yet it is also true that we know very little about him; Patrick tells us only what he deemed valuable to reveal under a particular set of circumstances. Patrick’s Confessio is, like the epistles of Saint Paul, written to address a specific occasion (in Patrick’s case, a summons to return to Britain for a church trial). There are many things –which modern audiences are interested in– that Patrick saw no reason to reveal.
Patrick was born sometime between 360 and 400 CE. Historians have long opted for the latter date, but recent revision of dating Patrick’s writing advocates an earlier timeframe. For this article, I’m favoring a birth date around the turn of the century.
One thing we do know, he was NOT born in Ireland. The person most associated with Ireland was born as a Briton, in a town called Bannaven. Patrick’s own statement about his birthplace is unfortunately impossible to correlate with a modern place, since his is the only reference to Bannaven. There is strong reason to believe it may have been in modern day Wales, likely in Pembrokeshire; yet other historians argue for a birthplace in southwest Scotland, and I have an English friend who is sure Patrick hailed from Cumbria which is now part of England. It seems everyone wants to claim Patrick as their hometown hero.
He came into life as a Romanized Celt, part of the far-flung Empire. After three centuries of occupation he would have dressed, followed customs, and spoken like a Roman. Officially, the entire Empire was Christian following the edict of Theodosius and Gratian in 380, making Christianity the Imperial religion. Although all citizens of the Empire were now ostensibly Christian, for many their forced conversion was only skin deep and Patrick by his own confession was only nominally Christian.
In the year 410 the Roman Legions completely withdrew from Britain. For three centuries Rome had striven to demilitarize the occupied populace, to discourage rebellion; thus when the Imperial armies withdrew the Britons were left as sheep for the wolves (Irish, Pictish and Saxon) who rushed in to divide up the island. Large numbers of people living on the West coast of Britain were taken as slaves by Irish raiders. Patrick, 16 years old, was one of those captured.
Patrick spent six years in Ireland as a slave. Lacking human solace, his nominal faith became real. He says that he prayed more than 100 times each day. He not only spoke to God, but he learned to hear God’s voice speaking inside of him, and that led to the first great miracle of his life.
When he was 22, Patrick heard an inner voice, telling him “Get up! Your ship is waiting!” The boat that God indicated as his escape from bondage happened to be on the other side of Ireland, more than a hundred miles to traverse alone, an escaped slave who faced torture and death if caught fleeing. Nonetheless, Patrick acted upon this revelation and fled, eventually reaching the boat and—after a circuitous 2 year voyage—returning home to his family and friends in Bannaven.
His return was unprecedented: for someone to escape bondage in Hibernia and return to the Roman Empire was akin to Lazarus returning to life. Yet this is where the story takes an unexpected turn. Back among his kin and the culture of his childhood, Patrick had dreams at night. He heard “the voice of the Irish” in the local dialect of his captors saying “Come walk among us again” to share the Good news of Jesus.
It was beyond daunting to think of returning to the island of his bondage, especially as there was still a death threat on his head for escaping, yet incredibly Patrick obeyed the summons to go back to Ireland. Prior to his return there was a time of training and ordination; Patrick offers no details but there is speculation that his training might have taken place in France where Egyptian spiritual traditions had earlier taken root.
Patrick was enormously successful at sharing his faith among the Irish. Though he was—as far as we know—unarmed, he survived and flourished even as an escaped slave. His Confessio tells us that he observed the Irish custom of giving honor-gifts to regional chieftains, seeking their blessing for his ministry in each clan territory. His very presence attested to the authenticity of his message—risking death among the Irish, he modeled the reconciliation of Christ that he proclaimed.
Perhaps most important, Patrick held Irish culture and customs in high regard. The Imperial means of evangelism was to occupy a territory (usually urban) and enforce Roman culture—and Christian faith—upon the populace. Patrick, by contrast, came without force and sought cultural bridges, ways that Christianity could be understood from an Irish cultural perspective. In the fifth century Hibernians had a complex society, extraordinary fine arts, and a nature-based religion. Scholars in the Roman Empire saw all those outside the Imperial fold as “Barbarians” but this largely reflects their xenophobia. Patrick, by contrast, was able to see the beauty in Irish society.
In Ecclesiastical art, Patrick is most often portrayed holding a three-leaf clover, due to the legend of his using the shamrock to communicate the concept of Trinity. There are no extant accounts of his doing so that date to the Early Middle Ages. However, this legend may be seen as typical of the general attitude Patrick had toward faith-sharing; that is, when explaining the new faith, he would have used experiences common to his audience.
By the end of his life, Patrick persuaded great portions of the Irish in the central and northern parts of the Island to receive Christ as their heavenly sovereign. However, this tremendous achievement seems to have been poorly received by his Christian colleagues back in Britain. He was summoned to an Ecclesiastical trial of some sort. We don’t know the details. Were his fellow church workers jealous of his success? Was he creating the wrong kind of Christian churches—not Imperial in nature? Did the gifts that he gave to chieftains cost too much, so that his mission ran over budget? We don’t know the answers to those questions, but we do know that the summons upset Patrick terribly. “I almost fell into the wreckage of sin” he tells us.
Patrick’s faith was bolstered by another voice from God. “We are very angry with them” (IE, the church authorities in Britain) God said—and that gave Patrick strength to carry on. Notice how in each crisis of Patrick’s life, it was a direct experience of God’s voice—not through another priest nor through the Scriptures, but directly heard by the saint—that enabled him to fulfill his extraordinary mission.
After his death, Patrick left behind an amazing legacy. He ushered in the so-called “age of saints and scholars” lasting from 500 to 1100 AD in Ireland. This included a great tradition of scholarship. Patrick regarded himself as “rude and uneducated” yet he established faith communities in Ireland that became the centers of literacy and scholarship for all of Europe during the Early Middle Ages.
He championed social justice. Because of his time spent in slavery, he despised oppression. When King Coriticus—theoretically a Christian monarch—took captives to be slaves, Patrick wrote a letter damning the king. “If you don’t love your neighbor, you are not a follower of Christ” he told him.
An often overlooked aspect of Patrick’s legacy is his mysticism. He certainly valued the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments—in his relatively short writings there are hundreds of allusions to the Bible—yet in the great existential decisions of his life it was an unmediated Divine voice that guided him. If not for these direct communications from God, he would never have escaped from Ireland, never have returned to Ireland, and would not have stayed to complete his mission there. The Celtic Christian tradition that followed in his wake has been characterized as a form of “nature mysticism.”
So what can Patrick mean for us today? According to the latest Pew survey, the largest religious grouping in the US is now comprised of those who identify as “no religion.” What can a fifth-century saint say to that reality?
I believe Patrick’s concern for social justice is more important than ever before. Violence, prejudice, climate change, and poverty threaten humanity. Religious leaders in diverse traditions—from Pope Francis to the National setting of the United Church of Christ—call us to action on behalf of the poor, and of refugees, and those who are still slaves in our world today.
At the same time, Patrick’s mysticism may be the most relevant aspect of his legacy. Jesuit Karl Rahner, one of the most important theologians of the 20th century, predicted that “The Christian of the future will be a mystic or will not exist at all.” Patrick’s experiences hearing the Divine voice throughout his life testify that “God is still speaking” in the 5th century and the 21st. Many activists became embittered and desperate in their struggles against the tides of injustice—work for God’s peace can devolve into the shrill rhetoric and anger of unenlightened political action. The mystical experience of the Divine word, encouraging and guiding action, is an essential component for the spiritual pursuit of social justice.
So I wish all of you a glorious celebrations of Saint Patrick’s Day. And, in the midst of the green beer and parades, I hope you will pause for a few minutes, take stock of your spiritual practice, and ask yourself “What would Patrick do?”
photo credit: Kenneth McIntosh; Medieval Sculpture of Saint Patrick at Rock of Cashel, the seat of Irish Christianity in the Middle Ages.