For those who missed it we had a great meeting last Thurs. night learning about the life of St. Patrick and reading his few but insightful works. I must say, the time really was both educational and inspiring for me. After some chat, tea & bickies we sat down to watch the first half of Patrick, a documentary about the Saint, looking at his background, his culture, his struggles and achievements. It allowed us to see through the fairy-tale version of Patrick - the Patrick who cast snakes out of Ireland, who wore funny hats, had a funny staff and had a glowing halo, the Patrick who makes sense to have in a Paddy's Day parade. The DVD not only brought the readings to life for me, but brought the individual to life.
So, what did I/we learn?
Patrick grew up a Roman citizen in Wales, part of a very affluent family. His father was a deacon and his grandfather a priest but in his early years he admits the faith really meant little to him. He was about 16 when Irish slave traders kidnapped and sold him in Ireland. At that time Ireland was not part of the Roman Empire. Ireland was a land of waring tribes and its unwelcoming ports and rocky shores made it hard to invade (the town of Blackrock is famous for many of its early shipwrecks on its own rocky shores). Thus, when Patrick arrived on the beaches of Ireland, making his way up to the Northwest of the country (Co. Antrim), he knew there was no return, that there was no way his family would come and get him and that he'd probably spend the rest of his life as a slave. His owners put him to work minding sheep which gave him tons of time to do some deep soul-searching and it was in these times he remembered the faith passed down to him from his family. He states that in these times his love and fear of the Lord grew. He came to the point in his relationship with God that he was praying, "from one up to a hundred prayers, and in the night a like number."
In times of solitude you learn not only to speak to God, you learn to listen. After six years of slavery he heard a voice telling him to flee and so he made his way across the island believing that a ship would be at the end of his journey, ready to take him back to Britain. I write this rather easily but for Patrick, this was a life-and-death decision. To flee as a slave was to commit a crime punishable by death. What's more anyone abetting an escaping slave through shelter, food, or travel was deserving of the same sentence. So even here, young Patrick find's himself dependent solely on God for his survival. Most likely only traveling at night, Patrick finally arrived at the Southwest coast of Ireland and found a ship there waiting for him. He begged it's owners to let him aboard but they denied him. Rejected, he again turned to God in prayer and began to leave when suddenly the men started shouting after him to come back and get in the ship.
He wasn't home long before he heard the call to return to Ireland. He devoted himself to study in the church and once in his thirties finally returned to Ireland as one of its first missionaries. He was preceded by Palladius who had fled Ireland after receiving severe opposition from a Wicklow chieftain. But Patrick was a different kind of missionary. He knew the Irish culture - could speak the language, knew the customs and etiquette and knew the Druidism, so prevalent in the country. For example, Patrick knew the gift culture of Ireland and quickly went to the king of the area and gave gifts, asking for permission to be there. Patrick was able to speak to the Irish in their native tongue, presenting the gospel in ways that they could understand. Their pagan religion taught that lakes were holy places. Patrick saw this as a connecting point with the Irish people, inviting them there to be baptized. This unorthodox approach to missions brought forth claims of unorthodox teaching, which is why Patrick wrote his confession, to make sure his brothers could see his intentions and his heart.
We're only half way through the DVD (will be finishing it next Thurs. night if you want to join us) but a few main ideas were discussed last Thursday night and I've added a few more questions I've been pondering since then:
1. God chooses the unlikely. Looking at Patrick from a conventional standpoint you'd assume that he'd have been better off if at the age of 16 he evaded the kidnappers and finished out his years in Wales (or wherever seeing as the Roman-Empire was coming to an end at this stage many families were moving throughout Europe). The reality is, God ended up using an unbelieving boy-come-slave to express God's love to a Nation. Patrick wouldn't have been the obvious choice to return to Ireland. Even after schooling, Patrick was quick to note that he didn't have the eloquence of many of his peers who probably seemed like much more likely candidates but God had uniquely trained Patrick to uniquely minister to the Irish. Have you ever had one of your perceived weaknesses become a strength? How about your perceived strengths, have they ever proven to be weaknesses? How is God using your life-experiences to encourage others?
2. He was Christ-like in mission. His experiences in the culture as a teen had allowed him to communicate the gospel to the Irish in a way that made sense to them. Just as Christ came to humanity, speaking in terms we could grasp, so Patrick looked to the Irish culture for ways to express the gospel. The reality was that the gospel was already in Ireland. Christ had (and has) already died for the Irish. Patrick looked for the means available within the culture to express this ultimate reality to the Irish. What means are available to us today? Do we view the gospel as an import rather than something Irish?
3. Patrick had to defend his actions to the majority of his Christian contemporaries and the Church as an institution in general. His whole reason for writing the "Confessio" of St. Patrick was to defend himself against assertions that he was unorthodox: "6 I am imperfect in many things, nevertheless I want my brethren and kinsfolk to know my nature so that they may be able to perceive my soul's desire." How much of our orthodoxy is dictated by our Irish culture, by the Christian sub-culture?
For Further Study of St. Patrick:
The Catholic Encyclopedia on St. Patrick
Wikipedia Article on St. Patrick
The Confession of St. Patrick
A Letter to Coroticus (PDF)