Saint Patrick for Today

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{A condensed, more polished version of this story can be read at Sojourners}

The rain drums steadily on the windshield of our rental van as we drive through winding roads in the Irish countryside. The landscape alternates between dense forest and rocky clearings. Shades of green and grey stretch for miles. Our plans to visit the Glendalough monastic site are spoiled by the weather, but today my husband and I don’t mind. The stars have aligned and all three kids are fast asleep in the back seat, so we take a long drive and relish the rare captive stillness and uninterrupted conversation. The kids are jetlagged and bedraggled from the long trek from our home in Bangkok, Thailand to America. We decided Ireland would be a good midway stopping-point with fresh air and the chance for our city kids to collect chicken eggs from the coop, pet sheep and for all of us to literally lie down in green pastures.

I glance back at their sleeping faces, buckled in their car seats and snuggled in jackets they’re not used to wearing. How sweet they are when the batteries finally die. They are the main reason for my theological shift the past few years, away from the Calvinistic foundation of my youth and towards a more contemplative approach influenced by Celtic spirituality. It was tender, beautiful prayers from the Celtic Daily prayer book said in the evening over candlelight with my children that held things together when my faith was in shambles.

Motherhood has a way of undoing things. Everything we think we know is unexpectedly flipped upside down. Things we considered black and white are now varying shades of grey, and we see things through lenses of greater understanding and compassion. Maybe this is what Paul meant by “Salvation comes through childbirth” (1 Timothy 2:15).

From the moment my son was born, I knew that something was amiss from my understanding of human nature. There was a stirring inside of me that left me confused and uncomfortable. I had always believed that our true self could not be trusted because our core being is evil and despised by God. But how could I look at my newborn baby and not believe he came from any other place than the very heart of God himself? If I believe this about my child, why wouldn’t I believe this about everyone else’s children? Even more confusing was living in the Middle East and Far East for the past decade and seeing so much light in non-Christian people and cultures. In a sense, I found Jesus in all the places he wasn’t supposed to be.

This isn’t to say that we aren’t all sinful, but when the starting place is original blessing rather than original sin, well, it just changes everything. It changes the way we see ourselves, our neighbor and the entire world

J. Philip Newell, one of the foremost experts on Celtic spirituality, says this about the fourth century adopted doctrine of original sin:

It teaches that what is deepest in us is opposed to God rather than of God. It means that we are essentially ignorant rather than bearers of light, that we are essentially ugly rather than rooted in divine beauty, that we are essentially selfish rather than made in the image of love—the list goes on and on. It is a doctrine that disempowers us. It feeds our forgetfulness of the sacred tune at the heart of our being. And its corollary is the belief that Christ embodies a song that is essentially foreign to us. The consequences, both individually and collectively, have been disastrous.

The rain starts to slack up a little as we spot the brown sign that points us to the Brownshill Portal Tomb. We park the car on the side of the road and take turns trekking through the rain to see a giant rock formation in the middle of a big field. It’s a burial chamber built by Ireland’s first farmers between 4000 and 3000BC. The plaque nearby tells me it’s the heaviest of its kind in Europe. As the only tourist, I stand with numb toes in the cold drizzle marveling at such an extraordinary thing. My modern brain cannot begin to imagine how these ancient people placed a 150-ton capstone on top of a group of rocks in the middle of a field. Who were these people and the Druids that followed? I imagine the love and care they must have had for each other to go through such great (heavy!) lengths to honor their deceased. The anthropological record doesn’t provide the full picture of what these people were like, but I imagine they must have been fully attuned to the sacredness of creation and the incarnation of the divine. Surely they saw evidence of the fingerprints of God, the Christ in creation, thousands of years before Christ became man.

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Centuries later, their decedents would encounter Christianity. The spread of Christianity has been filled with Christians who wanted to control, conquer or shame people into believing the right things, but the early Christians who came to the Emerald Isle had a different approach: choosing to see the light already present within the people they met.

We hop back in the car and continue in the direction of our AirBnB farmhouse, looking for a pub along the way for dinner.

“Wait! Let’s stop here real quick!” I spy an old church.

“We have lots of old churches coming tomorrow,” my husband dismisses it.

“The kids are still out—this one looks really cool!” As usual, he gives in to my impulsive requests.

The rain has picked up again. We take turns dashing inside the church while the other waits in the car with the sleeping kids. The doors are unlocked and the church is empty. I close the door behind me and enjoy the silence that rings in my ears with the roaring rain outside. It smells like an old library. The lights in the church are out, but the dark skies cast a soft grey light in the sanctuary. I walk slowly down the aisle. It’s hard to make out the shadowy alter, but I’m stopped in my tracks as my eye catches a single scripture etched on the sidewall:

And that rock was Christ

1 Corinthians 10:4

Having been raised an American Evangelical, this choice of inscription immediately strikes me as random and unusual. In this verse, the apostle Paul is telling the Corinthians that the rock that accompanied the Israelites in the desert for forty years that provided water whenever Moses struck it was actually Christ. Perhaps it’s just coincidental that the church nearest the heaviest dolman in Europe bears such an inscription on its wall. But for St. Patrick’s Ireland, it makes perfect sense.

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Author Thomas Cahill tells that St. Patrick’s approach to spreading the Gospel in Ireland was unique among early missionaries in that he didn’t try to erase the culture and religion of the people in the land. He took what they already intuitively knew, of the divine being present in all living things, and he added to their story. Druid folklore and the concept of “soul friends” was celebrated and passed down with new converts. St. Patrick told them of a good God that wasn’t shape shifting.

Patrick, indeed, seems to have been attracted to the same kind of oddball, off-center personalities that attracted Jesus, and this attraction alone makes him unusual in the history of churchmen (Cahill)

With his own “earthiness and warmth”, he won the Irish’s affection and influence, rejecting the way of the empire surrounding them. While the rest of Europe was bloody and chaotic after the fall of the Roman Empire, he led Ireland in the way of unprecedented peace.

The monastic communities that followed in Patrick’s stead grew into large population centers throughout Europe. It was a time of great scholarly and artistic flourishing—fruit that is still enjoyed today and felt in the warmth and hospitality of the Irish people. Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization painstakingly documents this priceless contribution. What would have been lost to the Dark Ages was rescued and preserved by the unconquered Island. Irish monks and scholars spent the better years of their life copying ancient literature and history, all the while illuminating beautifully detailed Gospel manuscripts with brightly colored swirls and knots and animals—all for the pure enjoyment of it.

For the Celts, says Alexander Shaia, “Nature tells the story that the gospels amplify.” After a period of darkness in winter, the light begins to grow again. Their understanding of the gospels was a marriage of two great incarnations—Christ in all of nature, that divine spark or energy that animates the universe and lights up humanity, (or what John calls the Word or logos of God), and Christ as human dwelling on the earth.

This is hard for a modern day Protestant like myself to wrap my head around the divinity of the earth and all that is in it because my tradition is one that has completely divorced God’s self in the cosmos with God’s self in Jesus the Christ. This isn’t some romanticized idea from yesteryear that I’m trying to usher in to the present. As a mother grappling with what theology to teach my children so the next generation will be more loving, it has huge implications for how we treat our fellow humans and the earth.

Tragically, the separation of spirit from matter has tainted the way we see all of humanity. It’s much harder to love our neighbor if we don’t see the divine, the Christ, within them. It makes it much easier to characterize entire swaths of people groups who don’t have “Jesus in their hearts as being the enemy. In the past, it was used to justify violence against the Native Americans, and in the more recent past we’ve dismissed thousands of casualties from wars in the Middle East. We currently have US Senators who consider war in Korea palatable because “if thousands die, they’re going to die over there.” This is a direct result of a theology that cares more about souls than it does bodies. It continues to pervade modern day missions that typify non-Christian cultures around the world as savages living in darkness, rather than looking for the light that is already present and using that as the starting point.

The rain cleared the next day and we made it to the Glendalough monastic site, founded by St. Kevin, a sixth-century hermit who lived in a cave. Legend has it that Kevin was so connected with nature that a blackbird laid bird eggs in his hands and he held still until the chicks took flight. His statue marker today with a bird next to his serene face has an uncanny resemblance to the Buddhas I see in Thailand.

Embellished tales notwithstanding, our modern theology that divorces spirit from matter has wreaked havoc on our environment. If Christ isn’t seen in creation, then who cares about what happens to our rivers, oceans, and lands?

JP Newell threads together a long chain of mystics throughout the ages that have preserved this theological tradition, usually in opposition to the dominant empire and religious elites. It’s been passed down from the misunderstood Pelagius to Ninian, who’s church formed St. Patrick. Then onwards to the ninth century Philosopher John Scotus Erugina, to Julian of Norwich, Teilhard de Chardin, George MacLeod, and in the imagination of George McDonald. In the tradition of John who heard the heartbeat of Christ when he leaned against Jesus at the Last Supper, the mystics in the Celtic tradition tuned their ears to the heartbeat of God in the whole universe. From the pulsating stars to the drumbeat of music, the forgotten tune of the presence of God in all things is both a symphony all around us and a stirring deep within.

The “Garden of our Origins”, says Newell, is the forgotten tune, a yearning for love, unity and wholeness, buried deep inside mankind. Sin and evil have corrupted and altered our natural state, but deeper still is something holy and beautiful. Salvation is more of a reminder of who we are in Christ—made in his very image and born out of unending love.

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This St. Patrick’s Day has a new meaning for me that goes beyond green clothes, Guinness and leprechauns. Living in a foreign land, I want to follow the tradition of St. Patrick and look for the light within my neighbors, the Thais. I hear the heartbeat of God in their meek, gentle, and peaceful culture. I see their desire for balance and harmony as coming straight from the heart of Christ. I admire their intuition to experience God through stillness and silence. I marvel at their reverence for all living things, like the way they won’t squish bugs and love potted plants so much that some of the taxi drivers keep them on their dashboards. I see their goodness. I see Christ in them. And though I don’t have all the theological answers for my kids, each year on St. Patrick’s day we will remember his legacy and look for the light all around us.

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