Kidnapped as a youth, forced into slavery, he escaped and returned to his homeland only to be called back to serve his former captors in a very different way. To fill in the life journey of Patrick, Patricius or Padraig scholars have only two fifth-century letters in Latin attributed to him, the Confessio and the Epistola, to rely on. The rest of his story comes from other early writer’s accounts of his deeds or the rich oral history of a story-telling people.
Patrick was an outsider, a foreigner. Kinship, links to a clan, placed one in Irish society. To be outside that social framework left one bereft of protection, subject to the not-too-tender mercies of a fragmented society barely above the subsistence level. “Why is this fellow throwing himself into danger among enemies who know not God?” (Confessio:46) Patrick challenged long held values and ways of life. He expected “to be murdered or betrayed or reduced to slavery if the occasion arises.” (Confessio:55)
Patrick stepped back onto the island that had been his prison, though, with a mission. His unswerving dedication to his purpose and the people he came to serve allowed him and his cause to persevere. As Patrick himself noted though, “As the prophet says: ‘Cast your burden on the Lord and he will sustain you.’” (Confessio:55) Patrick along with others like him in the fifth and sixth centuries converted the peoples of Ireland to Christianity.
Never officially canonized by a pope in Rome, Patrick, as was the case in the early days of Christianity, became St. Patrick because the people themselves believed him to be a saint. The conversion of the Irish, though, did not erase their past or its traditions. As with other millennia-old cultures, Celtic beliefs met and melded with the new Christianity brought by Patrick in a dynamic syncretic process. The symbols incorporated into the Celtic cross offers a clear, visual example of the union.
Contemporary authors on Celtic spirituality like Diarmuid O’Murchu note the resonance of this mixed heritage in the environmental challenges facing us today. “Over many thousands of years our ancestors danced and chanted, proclaimed and celebrated, their faith in God, who was not merely incarnate in the human soul, but was embodied in the very depths of the earth itself.”
After centuries of ignoring this dimension we have come to recognized that objectifying the Earth is as disastrous as was the treating of people with different coloured skins or from different cultures as slaves. Commodifying the environment or people is destructive. O’Murchu issues a contemporary call to conversion that demands systemic changes now similar in many ways to the dramatic introduction of Christianity to Ireland by Patrick 1,600 years ago.
“Yet, deeper than all these is the challenge and invitation to revision the very way we conceptualize the living earth, and relate to it. In this regard, ancient wisdom, and its integral spirituality, has a great deal to teach us.” This ancestral understanding, a mutual conviviality, “an interdependent way of relating and living” brings us closer to a sustaining relationship with the living web of life that we are just a dependent part of argues O’Murchu in his 2007 book Ancestral Grace: Meeting God in Our Human Story.
Conversion today is fraught with no less danger and sacrifice that it was in Patrick’s time. As well it offers no less hope.
Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.