Celtic Christianity and St Patrick
Set aside the silly hats and Guinness now that the 17th is past and meet St Patrick. Born in Britain in 385, Patrick was the son of a deacon and grandson of a priest. Christianity was long established in Britain by that time. At sixteen, he was seized by Irish pirates and enslaved in Ireland, where he lived as a shepherd and turned to prayer. Legend says he recited the entire book of Psalms each day. Six years later, in 407, he managed to run away and escaped across the Irish Sea to Britain, then went to France where he entered monastic life at Lerins. He studied for twelve years with the great Bishop Germanus of Auxerre, who eventually ordained him a priest. He was ordained bishop in 432.
In his final official act before his death, Pope Celestine I sent Patrick to Ireland, where Patrick fulfilled his dream to become missioner to the Irish. The Book of Saints says he knew “weariness and painfulness, long journeys through difficult country, many perils… When he came to Ireland, as its enlightener, it was a pagan country; when he ended his earthly life thirty years later, the Faith of Christ was established in every corner.”
St Patrick’s greatest achievement may well be that he accomplished his mission without force. He used the knowledge and lore of the Irish people to lead them to Christian faith. The well-known image of the shamrock as symbol of the Trinity may be legend, but it is clear that Patrick took the basic faith of his people and led them gently into a deeper understanding, without stomping on their values or visions.
From St Patrick, we can learn diligence in our own mission, love for the downtrodden peoples of the world (like those among whom he worked), the desire to free the enslaved, and non-violence in sharing our faith. St. Patrick is the genuine article for the whole world.
Celtic Christianity has interested many people in recent years because it represents – or so many think – an alternative to top-down, organized, clerical structure that colors so much western Christianity, without losing wholeness.
In 664, a conference at Whitby Abbey was convened by the Abbess Hilda, another of the great Celtic saints, to sort out the relationship between Roman and Celtic forms of Christian faith. As so often happens. Something was lost and something gained in the conclusion to the conference. Celtic Christians acceded to the governance of the Roman church, which gave them entry to a bigger world of Christian unity. At the same time some distinctive characteristics of Celtic Christianity, which originally came from the desert Christianity of the East, began to diminish, among them a decided emphasis on spiritual friendship between people who were not clergy. Celtic Christianity donated in return a love for words, for poetry, for song in praise of God.
There is a natural approach to Christianity evident in the Celtic world, which treasures the way you sense the Presence of God in small things: in flowers, the breezes, in the grass under one’s feet, in the twinkling of an eye.
The Breastplate of St Patrick shows this spirit. Here are some of its words:
Christ shield me this day:
Christ with me,
Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ in me,
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ on my right,
Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down,
Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every person who thinks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in the ear that hears me.
published March 20, 2009