Saint Patrick is a symbol of Irish nationalism. He and the Harp of Tara are quickly recognizable. They are good beer sellers. Green beer on St. Paddy’s day and dark as sludge Guinness every other day. Then there are the shoemaker elves- the Leprechauns -promising crocks of gold when captured. Wear your green lest you get pinched for dishonoring the day and your heritage. When people look at this stuff and think it is nonsense, they are correct. Because, as so many educated folks know, Saint Patrick was from Roman Briton. If you guess I am being sarcastic, good for you.
The Saint Patrick Tradition
How does this symbol of nationalism appeal to Progressive Christians? Without falling into the trap of anachronism, we see in his life the loss of privilege, slavery, escape, and return. Saint Patrick demonstrates the wholeness of liberation theology.
Living on the periphery of an Empire presents dangers different than those within it. Patrick, a 16 year-old Roman Briton is captured during a raid by Irish pirates. He is taken to the alien land and serves six years as a shepherd for his master. He escapes to eventually return home.
Saint Patrick developed his spirituality. He claims, “in a single day I would say as many as a hundred prayers, and at night only slightly less. Although I might be staying in a forest or a mountainside, it would be the same…I would hardly notice and discomfort, and I was never slack but always full of energy. It is clear to me now, that this was dur to the fervor of the Spirit within me.”
His spirituality was based in his previous religious instruction. But it was expressed within a new context. Saint Patrick was in slavery and out-of-doors a lot of the time. His faith practice was work and prayer. His practice developed a new expression of spirituality. Prayer became action.
The Letter to Coroticus
Slavery is a sensitive issue for every people who has ever practiced it. But it is a greater issue for every person who has slavery as part of their legacy. I have written in another place about the possible slavery heritage of Saint Paul the Apostle. Saint Patrick, living on the outskirts of the Empire, wrote more boldly than Paul could within it.
Saint Paul tells Philemon to treat his returned slave Onesimus “a beloved brother.” He continues, “So, if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.” Then he makes a sly suggestion. “Confident in your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.”
Saint Patrick lives among people who need their messages more directly said. Coroticus is a Christian who trades in Irish slaves. Many of these slaves were recent converts with the anointing oil “still gleaming on their foreheads.” His righteous indignation paired with his education allows for some striking imagery.
What makes it a love letter? Saint Patrick writes scathingly of Coroticus and his soldiers who have plundered and murder their fellow Christians. He counsels other Christians to have nothing to do with them. Patrick calls for their repentance while effectively excommunicating them all.
The letter expresses the missionary bishop’s love for the Irish. He identifies with them. “Because of all this my voice is raised in sorrow and mourning…They find it unacceptable that we are Irish.” The word we here is very telling.
Saint Patrick And The New Spirit
I have often heard someone declare their hatred for an entire race, ethnicity, or nationality based on perceived harm. Some times I hear people claim actual harm from one or two people of the other to use as a basis for racial or ethnic hatred. Patrick could claim such a justification to hate the Irish. But he chooses to love them instead. Beyond that, he chooses to identify with the Irish.
The choice to identify with the Irish comes from both the injustice of slavery and his sense of justice. What happened to 16 year old Patrick was evil. What Coroticus is doing is just as evil. Yet, he never lets on as though the Irish deserve what has happened to them. Two wrongs don’t make a right, in his understanding of righteousness.
The prayers Patrick practiced are working here. The Saint developed his spirituality in Ireland. He believed a divine call is on his life to be among the Irish. And, his spirituality continues to develop in Ireland. Ministers of the Gospel of Christ are effective when we learn this secret. Be where you are. Ministers should have their minds and hearts oriented to the place in which they live. They may not be of the people where they work. But they live among the people where they work. As one lay member told me, “you can’t leave here because you have Soddy-Daisy in your heart.” It did not occur to her that before moving there I could not have told anyone where the town was. I moved there. It became home. That was it.
Tolerance And Love
Tolerance is a wise practice. But tolerating evils done to other people is an evil one. Saint Patrick declares that Coroticus serves the goals of the Devil. Love overrules a desire to tolerate evil. It is behind and before the knowledge that prayer turns to action. And it causes it to happen.