The real history of a saint with a mission
This Sunday is Saint Patrick’s Day and most people, whether they are of Irish descent or not, will don some green, maybe drink a few green beers, wear shamrock pins, maybe even wear something that says, curiously, “Kiss me, I’m Irish.” Parades will march, pipes will play, and Chicago will dye its river green to honor the Irish and Saint Patrick.
All of this, however, is a rather strange way to celebrate someone’s life and, perhaps like no other holiday, is really an exercise in missing the real impact of that person on the history of the world. People will celebrate St. Patrick’s Day and have no clue as to why. Add to that the Protestant aversion to celebrating saints and you’ve got a day of revelry with no real connection.
To borrow from the late Paul Harvey: “It’s time for the rest of the story.”
The story begins in the late fourth/early fifth century after the time of Christ. It is the time of the Holy Roman Empire…the empire having become “Christian” (at least culturally) in the early fourth century with the emperor Constantine. The Holy Roman Empire stretched from the Holy Land in the East all the way to the British Isles in the northwest. Roman culture and Catholicism was the norm and people within the empire would have considered themselves to be Christian if not actually practicing. See, the Roman evangelism strategy was to conquer a people, offer them conversion to Christianity and, if refused, well, then they would end up dead…a fairly comprehensive church growth strategy, if you will.
Living outside the boundaries of the empire were a wide variety of peoples whom the Romans considered to be “barbarians” – Germanic tribes, various other European and Asian peoples, and the Celts in the far reaches of northern England, present day Scotland, and Ireland. The Romans generally saw these people as somewhat less than human, incapable of culture or proper religion, and spent most of their time defending themselves against the onslaught of these pagan peoples.
Near the edge of the empire, somewhere in northeastern England, there lived a Roman Briton named Patricius (later known as Patrick), who near the turn of the fourth/fifth century was 16 years old. His had been born into an aristocratic Christian family and though his grandfather was a priest, Patrick’s own family was only marginally practicing the faith. At 16 Patrick was a bit of a rebel, ridiculing the local clergy and, by his own admission, lived on the wild side of “alienated” and “ungoverned” youth. In other words, he was a fairly typical 16 year-old!
Sometime during that year, a band of Celtic pirates sailed from Ireland and conducted raids in that part of England. The Irish were famous for plying the slave trade and these raids would capture and cart off foreign people to serve the chieftains and warlords of pagan Ireland. Patrick was captured in this raid and taken against his will far from home.
Once in Ireland, Patrick was sold to a tribal chieftain and Druid (the dominant pagan religion in Ireland) named Miliuc, who promptly put Patrick to work herding cattle in the hills. It was lonely and dangerous work. He was given little food or clothes and was constantly exposed to the elements of those windswept places. Alone with his thoughts, Patrick began to pray to the God he had previously ignored. He writes in his Confessio:
“After I reached Ireland I used to pasture the flock each day and I used to pray many times a day. More and more did the love of God, and my fear of him and faith increase, and my spirit was moved so that in a day [I said] from one up to a hundred prayers, and in the night a like number; besides I used to stay out in the forests and on the mountain and I would wake up before daylight to pray in the snow, in icy coldness, in rain, and I used to feel neither ill nor any slothfulness, because, as I now see, the Spirit was burning in me at that time.”
Patrick was experiencing what theologians call the “natural revelation” of God—sensing the seasons, the creatures, and the natural world as the presence of God himself. He began to identify this presence with the Triune God he had learned about as a child. Without any outside help, Patrick was becoming a devout Christian and his captors began to notice a change in him.
At the same time, he somehow began to identify with the very people who had enslaved him. He learned their language and culture, understood their own view of the world and their religion. In time, he even came to love them as people who may one day turn to the Triune God. In a very real sense Patrick, who had grown up with the privileges of a Roman insider, came to identify with the outcasts. He began to see them as human.
Still, Patrick was a slave and sought his freedom. After six years captivity, he received a vision one night in a dream where a voice said to him, “You are going home. Look! Your ship is ready.” He awakened the next morning, walked 200 miles to the seacoast and negotiated his way on board a ship bound for Gaul (present day France) and then, eventually, back home to England.
Shortly after he had rejoined his family, however, Patrick had another vision. In this dream a man named Victoricus, whom Patrick may have known while in Ireland, came to Patrick with letters from his former captors in Ireland. As he read the letters, Patrick says, “I read the beginning of the letter: ‘The Voice of the Irish’, and as I was reading the beginning of the letter I seemed at that moment to hear the voice of those who were beside the forest of Foclut which is near the western sea, and the were crying as if with one voice: ‘We beg you, holy youth, that you shall come and shall walk again among us.’”
When Patrick awoke, he interpreted this dream as a “Macedonian call” much like the apostle Paul had experienced. Patrick believed that he was being called to go back and “walk among” the very people who had enslaved him. He would now be the captor, capturing these people with the good news of Jesus Christ. He studied for the priesthood and got permission to go back to Ireland despite the protests of his family and some church superiors.
Ministering to a tough crowd
The task in front of him was a difficult one. After all, from at least the time of the second century there had never been a successful organized Christian mission outside the boundaries of the Roman empire. The Church assumed that barbarians were impossible to reach, for they were not literate and not intelligent enough to understand Christianity, let alone have the capacity to become civilized if they did understand it. Places like Ireland were isolated from the Roman empire and church officials knew little about the people there other than they weren’t Roman and that they were fierce in battle.
As one writer put it, “In warfare all the Celts…stripped before battle and rushed their enemy naked, carrying sword and shield but wearing only sandals and torc—a twisted golden neck ornament…while howling and, it seemed, possessed by demons.”
The Celts were also known to practice human sacrifice and to carry the heads of their defeated enemies around on their belts. They were a tough crowd, to say the least (these are my ancestors, which explains a lot!).
But while the Roman Church knew little about the Irish Celts, Patrick did know them and knew them well. He had survived in that violent and superstitious culture, knew the common language and had in his own soul a burning desire to bring these people a new hope and a new future.
In his dream, Patrick was called by the Irish to “walk among us.” Notice that the call wasn’t to preach to them, civilize them…but to simply be among them. As Patrick set sail for Ireland, he no doubt had this in the back of his mind. When he landed, he would not approach his mission in the same way that countless others had.
When everywhere, do as the Romans do
Typically, the Roman Church was focused on getting people as much “Romanized” culturally as “Christianized” religiously. Once a civilized population became Christian, they were expected to read and speak Latin, adopt Roman customs, and do church “the Roman way.” As George Hunter has written: The rule had changed from “When in Rome do as the Romans do” to “When anywhere, do as the Romans do!”
Patrick adopted a radically different approach, which Hunter (one of my seminary professors) describes in his book The Celtic Way of Evangelism. Rather than set up a church as the center of a parish and get people to come, Patrick and his entourage engaged in a relational strategy. Arriving at a tribal settlement, Patrick would engage the chieftain in conversation, hoping for a conversion or at least for his permission to camp nearby. The team would then begin meeting with the people, engage them in conversation, and look for those who were receptive. They would pray for sick people, counsel people, mediate conflicts. On at least one occasion, Patrick blessed a river and prayed for the people to catch more fish. They would engage in some open air speaking, using stories and parables that engaged the Celtic imagination and connection to nature (legend has it that when Patrick wanted to preach about the Trinity he would pluck a shamrock – a three-leaf clover – and use it to describe how God is one and three at the same time).
Patrick encouraged the people to ask questions and express their hopes and fears. After a while, a community of faith–a church– would begin to emerge as the people became engaged by the message and the relationships that were being formed. After a period of weeks or months, Patrick and his entourage would move on, leaving behind a priest to nurture the fledgling community. It is believed that some 700 churches and monastic communities were planted by Patrick in this way.
Interestingly, women were usually a part of Patrick’s ministry team, with men and women serving side-by-side in many cases. Patrick and other Celtic Christian leaders had a high view of women which contrasted the Roman view, expressed by Augustine and others, that women were merely temptations of the flesh!
Patrick adapted many of the symbols and sacredness of the Celtic way into this brand of Christianity, rather than having them abolished. The churches that formed had an earthy sense about them—a carryover of the Celtic emphasis on nature—and symbols like the Celtic cross which was, before Christianity, a symbol of the sun and the knot (a symbol of eternity) were made sacred to these new Irish Christians. Even their ways of praying for just about everything from rising in the morning, to milking cows, to putting out the fire at night, were simple adaptations of Christianity to the culture.
A transformed culture
The effect of Patrick’s ministry on Ireland was nearly a complete transformation. By the end of Patrick’s life, or shortly thereafter, the slave trade had disappeared in Ireland—Patrick himself being one of the first persons in world history to openly speak out against slavery. The previously illiterate Irish soon became the people who, according to Thomas Cahill, “saved civilization” by copying by hand many of the classic works of Europe that may have been lost forever in Europe’s Dark Ages. Irish missionaries began to move out to places like Scotland and converted the Picts to Christianity following many of Patrick’s methods.
Legend has it that Saint Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland. Well, the truth is that there were never, nor are there today, snakes in Ireland–at least not the slithering kind. That legend may be symbolic of the fact that Patrick did, in fact, drive out much of the evil and violence that had existed for so many centuries on that beautiful island.
Patrick had first come to Ireland as a slave but it was there that he would voluntarily spend the rest of his life capturing people with the love of God.
But Patrick’s ministry was not without controversy. The irony of the story is that the very people who had sent Patrick on this mission were the ones who savagely criticized him. The bishops of the Catholic Church in Britain believed that the primary role of a bishop (which Patrick was) was to administer the churches and care for the existing Christians. According to them, Patrick was spending way too much time and energy among pagans, sinners, and barbarians and this offended their high church sensibilities.
The same charges were levied against Jesus, you’ll recall.
I think that’s why Patrick’s story both inspires and convicts me at the same time. Patrick inspires me because he was willing to use a tragic and unfair circumstance in his life as a springboard to make a difference among the very people who had enslaved him. Rather than run away from conflict or opposition, Patrick moved toward it. Rather than buy into fear and say, “Well, they’re a lost cause” he instead grew to love the outsiders and gave his life over to them. His tenacity and his devotion to Christ is a model for all of us who call ourselves Christians.
The legacy of Saint Patrick for the church today
But Patrick also convicts me. See, as a pastor I was trained in the Roman way of doing church…build it and they will come. My role puts me mostly in contact with church people, administration, and churchy things like worship. Church folk are like that. Heck, even our denominations are like that…focused more on building institutions than building people’s lives.
Patrick convicts me because I don’t want to be the kind of pastor in the kind of church that simply throws open the doors each Sunday and hope that people come. I want to be part of a church that sees itself as a body of Christians who are walking among people every day who are in need of a word of grace, a moment of conversation, a new interpretation for their lives beyond the material.
I want to know how we offer Christ to our neighbors in a way that respects where they are in the midst of life, yet calls them to a relationship with Christ and a community of love. I want to spend more time engaging people outside these walls, listening to them, learning their stories, offering them a kind of grace that is all too rare in our culture.
One of the characteristics of Saint Patrick’s mission and the communities he set up was a kind of radical hospitality that welcomed guests as divine visitors. When someone came to them, they opened their lives and made sure that the stranger had every opportunity to be part of the community…and that was the whole community’s focus…not just that of a select few. If you’ve been part of a church community for awhile, what have you personally been doing to make visitors feel welcome? If you don’t know someone, assume that they are someone who may be there for the first time and, if not, see your role as helping them get further connected.
My prayer is not that the people of our communities come to know us as an institution, but that they get to know us as a people who, like Saint Patrick, see themselves as representatives of Christ. They only way that they’ll know that, and know us, is if we follow the call to meet them where they are and walk among them.
So go ahead and wear your green, but if you’re really going to honor St. Patrick the best way would be for you to offer some holy conversation to a person who needs it…or engage that person at work who may be difficult for you…or offer some help to a neighbor without being asked…or drop a note to someone who could use some encouragement…or begin by connecting with someone you don’t know. Know that as you walk out the church doors you walk among the people of our community as a representative of Christ!
That’s what we should be known for!