Lessons from St. Patrick

One of my favorite days of the year, March 17 – St. Patrick’s Day – is almost here. It’s one of my favorites not because I especially love wearing green, but because there really was a man named Patrick who deserves to be remembered.

Patrick was not Irish by birth, but was actually born in England or Wales in the late 300s. By his own account, he was NOT a Christian as a young man. At 16, he was kidnapped by Irish pirates and taken as a slave to Ireland, where he stayed for six years. He spent much of that time tending sheep, and he also became a believer. Eventually he managed to escape his captors and return to Britain, but after studying for the priesthood, he had a vision of the people of Ireland begging him to return to their island and bring them the gospel.

Ireland at the time was a coarse, pagan land – tribal chieftains competing for power, constant battles, the people worshiping various pagan gods and goddesses, widespread kidnapping and slavery. Patrick brought his faith, and in one generation, Ireland was at peace and slavery had been abolished.

How he brought about such a great social change is too long a story to relate here, but part of it involved Patrick selecting a group of young disciples and pouring himself into them. He would spend about three years, teaching them and showing them how to walk out their faith – then he would send them on their way to put their Christianity into practice. Some of them would become farmers, some shepherds, some craftsmen – and some would become pastors and begin gathering followers of their own. Meanwhile, he would gather up another group of a dozen or so, and start over.Green_Celtic_Cross_by_dashinvaine

Their influence spread, and it changed the entire culture. For Patrick and his students, Christianity was not a set of doctrines to be studied – it was a way of life to be followed. The message of the gospel wasn’t just about saving people’s souls – it was about making a real difference, improving people’s lives in the here and now. Celtic Christianity wasn’t about going to church to find God – it was about recognizing that God shows Himself in every sunrise and sunset, every blade of grass and mountain stream, and we can see Him through His creation, if we will just look.

There are many legends about Patrick; one says that he used the three-leafed shamrock (already a sacred plant in Irish life) to teach the people the doctrine of the Holy Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. If that’s true, it certainly fits with what we know of Patrick’s teaching that we should never worship creation, but that the creation points us to the Creator, and we do worship Him.

If you want to learn more about Patrick, I suggest How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill. I think it’s one of the most entertaining history books ever written.

So Happy St. Patrick’s Day. And Erin Go Bragh!

2 thoughts on “Lessons from St. Patrick

  1. Catholics in particular respect Patrick for establishing a seamless emphasis on both scholarship and spirituality. The Celtic cast to Catholic culture is rooted in a period of time where the monasteries of Ireland maintained the records of classical civilization and further developed scholarship from it. Subsequently, Ireland served (albeit to a lesser degree than Scandinavia and Iceland) as territory upon which the Viking civilization thrived.

    Contrary to popular belief, which was made so during the “culture wars” of the 19th century, the Vikings were literate, cultured and remarkable liberal in the classical sense. They shunned empire when they could have made one, choosing instead to maintain the lightest hand of government on the people as possible. They were multi-ethnic — including said Irish — and created Russia when the Rus, generally congregated around modern Kyiv, paid them to come organize their social order and economy.

    And there is no record of any Viking, whether Dane or Irish or Icelandic, wearing funny hats with horns in them. It’s thought this is a misinterpretation of a sort of war crown that included pluming feathers to symbolize swiftness in battle. Mobility and shock tactics made Vikings the medieval period’s experts in maneuver warfare.

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