IF YOU WERE NOT WEARING IRISH GREEN LAST THURSDAY, you ran the risk of receiving a friendly pinch or punch from one of the many Irish scattered around the western world. For March 17 was St Patrick’s Day.
On a stopover in Seattle airport travelling back to Europe last Thursday, I walked into a restaurant decorated with large paper green shamrocks. Of course, it was St Patrick’s Day! I realised. Newspaper photos showed George Bush recognising the Irish holiday by welcoming Irish women to the White House seeking justice for their brother recently murdered by the IRA. Later, a quick check on the Internet confirmed that St Patrick’s Day parades took place in at least 116 locations across America, not to mention Kyoto, Yokohama, Seoul, Oslo, Sydney, Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa, Vancouver, Munich, London and Copenhagen. And of course, in Dublin, where a million people join in the multi-day festivities!
So why all the fuss about this Paddy? Why is he remembered so fondly around the world, sixteen centuries after he first arrived in Ireland? Patrick, as almost everybody knows, is the patron saint of Irish Catholicism – but flew realise that he was neither Irish nor Catholic! He was in fact a key figure in the conversion of pagan Europe, and he and his Celtic brothers may have a thing or two to teach us about how to re-evangelise today’s pagan Europe.
Legends abound concerning Patrick (c387-c461). What is historical fact is that he was still a young man in 410 AD, when Rome fell to the Visigoths, and Roman legions were withdrawn from Britain to strengthen the heart of the empire. Europe was falling into chaos as Roman order crumbled. Hopes that the Roman empire would provide the foundations for Christ’s empire now lay in ruins. The shock of this sacking prompted one writer to explain history in terms of two cities, the earthly and the heavenly. The writer: Augustine of Hippo (354-430), ‘father’ of the western church. The book: The City of God, a blueprint for reconstruction in the coming age of chaos.
This same year – according to one legend – a young runaway slave clambered ashore on the island of Lerins, just offshore from Cannes on the French Riviera. Here on this rocky island survives western Europe’s oldest monastery, founded by Honoratus after the model of the Coptic monasteries in Egypt.
This young runaway had a strange story to tell to the brothers of this community. Six years earlier, he had been kidnapped by Irish raiders from his home on Britain’s exposed west coast. Forced to tend sheep, the sixteen-year-old had begun to think seriously about the God his father had told him about. He had longed to join the worship gatherings of the local Celtic church back home where his grandfather had officiated as priest!
`The Lord opened the understanding of my unbelief, that, late as it was, I might remember my faults and turn to the Lord my God with all my heart,’ Patrick later recorded in his Confession. `Many times a day I used to pray. Before daybreak I used to be roused up to pray, and I felt no harm whether there was snow, frost or rain, nor was there any sluggishness in me, because, as I see, the Spirit was then glowing within me.’
In prayer, Patrick had learned to recognize the persistent inner prompting of his master’s voice. This heavenly voice had guided him to flee from his Irish captors in the north, to a ship waiting for him. So Patrick had left the sheep he had been tending, headed south and arrived safely at the ship’s anchorage. But the captain refused to take the runaway aboard. Disheartened, Patrick turned to walk off, praying under his breath. Then he heard the captain’s voice calling him back.
After three days at sea, he landed in Gaul and began a twenty-eight day trek southeastward toward the Mediterranean. Almost starving at one point, the lad’s desperate prayers were answered by a stampeding herd of wild boar, providing a feast of pork. With new stamina, Patrick made the remaining journey to the coast and to Lerins. He stayed there for several years learning about monastic life, so the legend goes, before returning to his native Britain.
Just how significant his conversion would be both for the conversion of his land of captivity and of a still largely pagan Europe, neither Patrick nor his listeners had any inkling in the year 410!
`Come, we pray, holy youth, and walk among us once again!’ Back home, Patrick was hearing voices again – this time in a dream. A certain Victorinus had brought a great bundle of mail from Ireland and handed now a letter to Patrick. As he began to read, the former slave `heard the voice of those who were by the Wood of Voclut by the western sea’, he later wrote in his Confession. `Their cry pierced to my heart, and I could read no more; and so I awoke.’
Patrick knew what this meant. It was a Macedonian call to return to the land of his captivity, to the land of the druids – with their worship of merciless gods and human sacrifice! He knew that any attempts to overthrow this religion would be violently opposed. If he accepted this call, there would be no `quiet career’ as a cleric. Besides, British and Irish Celts shared little mutual affection. Yet…wasn’t that the very problem?! Although Britain had received the gospel centuries before, fear and hatred had prevented messengers crossing the Irish Sea. Yes, someone had to go – and he at least had learned the local dialect during his six year captivity!
Several years later, in 432, Patrick returned to the Emerald Isle as a consecrated bishop of the British Celtic church, to begin one of the most remarkable missionary careers in history. Clashes with powerful druids came as expected – but amazingly no martyr’s blood was shed. Kidnapped, imprisoned and often threatened with his life, the warm-hearted bishop eventually won the confidence of ruler and peasant alike as he preached throughout the island. He planted two hundred congregations and baptised one hundred thousand new converts before his death three decades later – on March 17, 461, the date now celebrated globally.
Pagan Ireland was well on the way to becoming the `island of saints’ – within one generation! Many of the druidic sanctuaries had been abandoned, destroyed or converted for Christian use. The typical fate of a golden idol called Cromm Cruaich, Lord of the Mound, which demanded human sacrifice at Hallowe’en (the Celtic Samhain), is described in these stanzas from the ancient Book of Leinster:
To him without glory they would kill their piteous, wretched offspring
With much wailing and peril, to pour their blood around Cromm Cruaich.
Milk and corn they would ask from him speedily
In return for one-third of their healthy issue: great was the horror and the scare of him.
Since the rule of Herimon (the king), the noble man of grace,
There was worshipping of stones until the coming of good Patrick of Macha.
A sledge-hammer to the Cromm he applied from crown to sole,
He destroyed without lack of valour the feeble idol which was there.
Patrick demolished the ancient druidic religion – but not the social structure. The druids were replaced by Christian priests in the new network of churches and bishoprics Patrick established. And those ancient instructors of Irish lore, the bards and brehons, were to maintain their role as the scholar-monks of the monasteries which began to flourish throughout the island.
Fifth-century Ireland had no towns, let alone cities. Irish society was a uniform patchwork of some 150 rural, tribal kingdoms or `tuaths’. Within a generation or two of Patrick’s death, something entirely unprecedented in Christendom began to happen. Monasteries began to mushroom across the countryside within the tribal pattern as clan chiefs donated land. Abbots were appointed from the ruling tribal families, which had often led the whole tribe into the new faith. Soon the monastery
became the centre of cultur
e and higher education for the `tuath’. Among the young, it became enormously popular. No sooner had a monk withdrawn to some remote spot with a small company to found a new community, than hundreds of Irish youth enlisted to join their disciplined lifestyle!
Some sixth-century monasteries attracted as many as three or four thousand monks. Probably a larger proportion of the total Irish population joined these monasteries than in any other Christianised land. Bishops continued in office, but as functionaries within the monastery and accountable to the abbots – a situation unique in Christendom. The abbots had become the spiritual leaders of the land. Irish monasticism had become the main structure of the church of Ireland.
Not all the communities were large and at the heart of society. Scattered along Ireland’s rugged coasts and islands were numerous ascetic communities – like Skellig Michael perched on a 250-metre craggy rock off Ireland’s south-western tip.
Interestingly, Patrick believed that having arrived at Ireland’s Atlantic coast, he had reached the final missions frontier! He saw himself as `predestined to preach the Gospel even to the ends of the earth’ and thus to culminate the Great Commission! After all, he concluded, `the Gospel has been preached to where there is nobody beyond’. He had followed `those who [were sent to] preach the Gospel for a testimony to all nations before the end of the world’. Ireland was the last nation. Now the end could come! (Good eschatology, Patrick! For that we’ll excuse your geography!)
What Patrick had reached, however, was a turning point of the spreading monastic movement. After steadily advancing to the north-west through Europe, the movement was now to draw fresh resources from the native Irish soil, and then to turn and send wave after wave of travelling monks across to Scotland, down through England to the continent, across the Italian Alps and as far east as Kiev! Others went north to Iceland and even to North America. These monks became known as ‘teachers of nations, disciplers of kings’.
For over six hundred years, this missionary movement was to make an immeasurable contribution to the spiritual, cultural and social welfare of the new emerging Europe. In the title of his book about Celtic Christianity, historian Thomas Cahill goes so far as to say that ‘the Irish saved civilisation’, no less. Europe’s pagans were attracted to the dynamic, holistic, joyful, creative, life-affirming, community-oriented, nature-loving, Trinitarian spirituality Patrick’s Celtic successors demonstrated.
And therein lies a lesson for us today.
Till next week,