Friday, 17 March 2017

17 March - Ireland's Noble Sinner

Like Father Christmas dressed in green, Saint Patrick has become the focus of many myths and legends. What we can be sure of, however, are two texts composed by Patrick, a bishop from Britain who preached the gospel in Ireland in the 5th century.

Patrick’s Confession is a defence of his life and work. His Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus protests at the scandalous attack of a Welsh king on a community of Christians and shows his passion for the people with whom he had come to identify himself. These documents are marked on the one hand by anxiety as Patrick acknowledges his weakness in the face of life’s difficulties and on the other hand by a strong and enduring trust in God’s care.

‘I am Patrick, a sinner’, the Confession begins. We could even think of it as meaning ‘I am a noble (patrician) sinner’. What gives Patrick’s confession its nobility is his simplicity and truthfulness: ‘my life is not as perfect as other believers’, he writes, ‘but I confess it to my Lord and I do not blush in his sight because I am not telling lies’. Born in the humiliation of slavery, Patrick’s humility is that of the man with nothing left to lose. What if men muddy his name? In one of his graphic images Patrick speaks of himself as a stone lifted out of mud by God’s grace.

We probably all remember the story of Patrick’s enslavement and of his escape back to Britain and on to France where he studied for the priesthood. He speaks of the benefits and grace the Lord conferred on him in the land of his captivity. There is a kind of freedom, he says, which is only gained through suffering. Later he hears the voice of the Irish calling him back to a new kind of slavery, to become ‘the servant of a foreign race’. He chooses to ‘sell his nobility for the good of others’ and returns to the Irish as a preacher of the Word of God. Having been their slave, he becomes their servant.

It is interesting to reflect on the course of Patrick’s vocation. Like Saint Paul in Acts 16:9 he meets a man in a dream who asks him to ‘come and walk among us once again’. In prayer he believes he receives the endorsement of Christ and the witness of the Spirit confirming his plan to return to Ireland. But then comes the time of testing. Patrick must struggle with the difficulties involved in a mission beyond the civilised world of the Roman Empire. Worse than that, he ends up ‘resented and very much despised’ by colleagues in the British church for reasons that remain unclear.

Patrick’s strength in all this is his unwavering faith in God. Although the shamrock is a later invention Patrick’s sense of God is always Trinitarian. He speaks of the Father’s providence, of Christ’s companionship ‘in’ or ‘beside’ him and of the Spirit’s presence ‘in’ and ‘over’ him. His Confession contains a wonderful early Christian creed. He sees the hand of God in the haphazard turns and twists of his life. The presence of the Trinity is his protection from the dark, from superstition, and from demons: ‘I leave myself in the hands of Almighty God who rules everywhere’.

The daughters of Leogaire are curious to know where Patrick’s Trinitarian God dwells and he teaches them that God resides in all creation. In terms reminiscent of Saint Paul’s speech in Acts 17 Patrick says that we, and all things, live and move and have our being in God. Such teaching helped to strengthen an appreciation of creation as alive with the presence of God, a key characteristic of ‘Celtic’ spirituality.

Patrick believes that dreams and visions give him guidance and illumination and he tells us much about his prayer in the Confession. The famous Breastplate of Saint Patrick – Christ be beside me, Christ be before me, and so on – although it dates from long after Patrick’s time may still be taken as a reliable witness to the way of prayer taught by Patrick and his generation. While God’s answer to our prayer may not be the one anticipated, prayer cannot but bring us into God’s presence to restore confidence and courage.

In the Confession of Patrick we meet a fascinating and endearing personality, at once humble and great in the service of God. ‘Although I am imperfect in many ways I want my brethren and relatives to know what kind of man I am, so that they may understand the aspirations of my life’, he writes, ‘My success was the gift of God and this is my confession before I die’.


This homily was first published in the newsletter of St Dominic's Priory, London

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