"Although I am imperfect in many things, I nevertheless wish that my brethren and kinsmen should know what sort of a person I am, so that they may understand my heart's desire."
- St.Patrick, 'Confession', 5th Century AD
So much is made of St. Patrick’s Day around the World. So much splendor, celebration and . . hype. It’s usually a brilliant day - exuding a real sense of communal spirit with many items of memorabilia stating, ‘Irish for a Day’ or ‘Irish-wannabe’. Having lived in Ireland for 11 years, I’m sure many people around the world who care anything about the day would be utterly discouraged and shocked to realize that St. Patrick’s Day isn’t celebrated anywhere nearly as enthusiastically there as in the US. Yep, it’s true! Only in recent years has Ireland begun to celebrate the famous Saint Day with similar gusto to America. From where I sit, America does have the edge on the St. Patrick’s Day market. The last place I lived in America before rooting in Irish soil, goes as far as to dye the river green through the middle of the city (Chicago). If that were done in Ireland it would be seen as being ‘corny’ or kitsch. That said, the tiny island on the edge of Europe that, in many ways, I consider ‘home’ has begun to ‘big up’ festive celebrations, (purportedly) in honor of their patron saint.
St. Patrick is possibly one of the best known extra-biblical saints within the Christian community and second only to good 'ol St. Nick (Santa Claus) in the general public’s knowledge. Although the day is supposedly held in honor of him, I suspect it’s become just another reason to party, and a general excuse for revelry for most. That is to be somewhat expected outside of the Church, but sadly Christians (by and large) have also forgotten why we celebrate the mythic man known as Patrick. We’d do well in our contemporary cultural climate to reflect on why this one man is remembered so fondly and has managed to remain in the imagination of people around the world. If you’d like to Dive deep into St. Patrick’s life you can read his autobiography which is one of Europe’s oldest surviving manuscripts from the 5th century A.D. His ‘Confession’ is very valuable historically in that it is an introspective account of one man’s thought processes, highlighting many unique cultural characteristics of that period. It’s even more valuable to Christians today because it gives insight into an early Christian’s faith journey and his relationship to the Trinitarian God of Christian experience. There is a second surviving document that Patrick wrote referred to as the ‘Letter to Coroticus’ in which he chastises a ruler in what is now England for abducting and killing some Irish people he led to Christ. Both are worth a read!
If we were to return to celebrating the original intent of the day in question, it would lead us to a very different motivation (and practice of) for our festivities. In essence, what we’re celebrating on St. Patrick’s Day is the coming of Christ to the Irish. Patrick is identified as the one who first shared the message of Jesus Christ with the Irish, but most scholars believe this not to be true. It is more commonly agreed that a previous ‘bishop’ was sent to the Irish who was known as Palladius. Something occurred which led to Palladius’ disappearance from the historic record just a year after his arrival. This may be linked to the reason Patrick arrived just a short time after. A lesser known tidbit of legend is that St. Kieran, originally from Clear Island off the coast of West Cork, purportedly preceded both of the aforementioned gentlemen and introduced Christianity to this ever-green island from his monastery near Roscrea, Co. Tipperary, at the foot of the Slieve Bloom mountains (where my office was!). Regardless of the actual historical record, just like the head on a pint of Guinness, St. Patrick has risen to the top as the man who permeated Irish culture and saturated Irish imagination. The Irish in turn have shared this same admiration for Patrick with the rest of the world - wherever they have made their home.
We can learn a lot from what Patrick left to posterity in his writings, was well as what has been transmitted through generations - spoken and unspoken. Not enough can be said for following crazy, inspired, God-sized dreams. Patrick was originally brought to Ireland as a sixteen year old slave boy from what is now Northern England, and he spent six years tending sheep for a Irish pagan landowner before escaping. Years later, Patrick had a dream in which an angel read him letters from the people of Ireland who begged him to return and share Christ with them. Knowing this was a prompting from God, he returned to the island of his captivity and served God by sharing the good news of Jesus Christ there til his last breath.
Pain and hardship are seed beds for steely character and personal discipline. During those six years of loneliness in the fields and on mountainsides tending sheep, one can imagine Patrick felt constant pangs of loss and intense yearnings to be reunited with his people and his family. He himself states in the ‘Confession’ that he prayed hundreds of times a day while alone in the wild places where He came to know the God that is ‘I AM’. To truly connect (reach) with someone, you must give up some of your own preferences for theirs. There is a necessary process of inculturation that takes place when one enters a culture not their own. I’m not referring to a cheap, cultural patronization which occurs by simply acting like the foreigners in the new place you call home. It’s a love for those you live among that leads you to walk with them and to take on their patterns of living life. Patrick in those early years learned Irish customs, language and folklore. He learned how people ‘worked’ in Ireland and, in fact, became somewhat Irish himself, no doubt. God took that process of assimilation and returned it to the Irish as a gift. Because of this Patrick was able to effectively communicate who Jesus is in ways the Irish could receive.
Another reality learned from Patrick’s life is that boldness and graciousness go hand-in-hand. From my readings of Patrick and the legends that accompany him, I get a sense of a boldness (not in the Irish use of the word today) that accompanied his direct and clear message . . a message seasoned with gentleness, while being gracious and appreciative of his hosts. In this way, immoveable and immediately likable, Patrick won the hearts of the Irish - with a warm heart and a firm hand. Patrick shows us that releasing responsibility and empowering others is key to continuity. Wherever Patrick travelled around the island of Ireland (I followed many of the same paths he walked), he is known for having brought companions along with him to help establish new communities of faith in the places he visited. The vibe he exuded in his relationships must have been joyful and extremely freeing. After coming to know Christ, people who came into contact with Patrick must have seen an intense belief in what God was doing and what they could be a part of with the Spirit’s help. History reveals that many communities of faith sprang up within a few centuries after Patrick’s death, which led to Ireland entering ‘center stage’ as a place of learning, light and the love of God. Thus it become known as ‘The Land of Saints and Scholars’.
It’s long been true that vision and passion are catalysts which help birth new eras into being. These two qualities alone are the means by which hearts are moved and minds are swayed. I can imagine that because of the Holy Spirit’s work in the fabled saint, Patrick was likely very compelling, not necessarily due to smooth speech, but because of his unflinching belief in God’s ability. Through a life being lived with authenticity among the pagan Irish people, many came to entrust themselves to this Jesus whom Patrick shared in word and deed. Finally, humility is fundamental for a life of unimaginable richness. As you read Patrick’s ‘Confession’, it soon becomes clear that in many ways this man, whom many hold in the highest regard, was very much like you and I. He did, however, regard himself as one with nothing to show for his existence except what God had done for him. Some may argue that his protestations were false acts of humility, but an honest heart will resonate with Patrick’s own words that point to the beauty, truth, goodness, light and love which can be known in intimate relationship with Daddy-God. If pride is the seed of human rebellion (sin) against God, then humility (knowing who we are and are not) is part of its cure.
How will our world be brought closer to God’s design by you living in passionate pursuit of the One who is passionately pursuing you? Don’t miss this unfolding dream. Live into it and invite the Father to write His story with your life. What wonders will He accomplish in and through you?
"By entering through faith into what God has always wanted to do for us—set us right with him, make us fit for him—we have it all together with God because of our Master Jesus. And that's not all: We throw open our doors to God and discover at the same moment that he has already thrown open his door to us. We find ourselves standing where we always hoped we might stand—out in the wide open spaces of God's grace and glory, standing tall and shouting our praise."
-Romans 5:1-2, The Message
Will these revelations redefine how you celebrate St. Patrick’s Day this year?
Have you come any closer to understanding the man with whom much of the world is acquainted but does not know?
In Patrick’s own words do you see the events that led him to Ireland, the people that kept him in Ireland, and the God that fertilized that island with his obedient life?
Whose life will God fertilize as you recklessly abandon yourself to Him?