How the Irish Became Christian (Pt.3)

Derek Ouellette —  March 16, 2010

Intro . Part 1 . Part 2 . Part 4

Discussing who Saint Patrick was and what he accomplished proved too daunting of a task for just one post. As it turns out it remains too daunting of a task for two posts, even while only giving an overview! Let us continue in this post with who Saint Patrick was and more so, what he accomplished, while remaining unsatisfied with the lack of depth I am able to go (the story is much more fascinating in full detail then I have offered here).

… Continuing …

The day before Patrick’s ordination as a deacon he confessed to a fellow priest-friend a sin he had committed back when he was fifteen. Over a decade later when he would bid for the office of Bishop, his friend spilled his guts (as it were), telling all of Patrick’s enemies about the sin he had confessed to him. As a result, Patrick was denied the bishopric this first time around, but upon trying for the office again he was finally ordained.

Patrick writes, “I was attacked by a goodly number of elders, who [brought up] my sins against my arduous episcopate”. He continues:

“They brought up against me after thirty years an occurrence I had confessed before becoming a deacon. On account of anxiety in my sorrowful mind, I laid before my close friend what I had perpetrated… in my boyhood because I was not yet proof against sin… I did not then believe in the living God, nor had I believed, since my infancy; but I remained in death and unbelief until I was severely rebuked, and in truth I was humbled every day by hunger and nakedness.” (Confession 27)

What strikes me about the quote above is that despite the fact that his friend had betrayed him; Patrick still refers to him as “my close friend”.

Of this period of theological studies from deacon to bishop, a scholar writes:

“Patrick is no complainer, so we can only imagine what this course of studies took out of him and how often he may have wished for the chill and hunger of [Ireland] in preference to the torturous drudgery of studies for which he was so ill prepared” [Cahill, p.106]

Nevertheless Patrick devoted over twenty years to theological studies before he finally turned his face toward Ireland and the vision he had so many years earlier. Thomas Cahill continues:

“What is remarkable is not that Patrick should have felt an overwhelming sense of mission but that in the four centuries between Paul and Patrick there are no missionaries.” [Cahill, p.107]

Patricius was virtually the first missionary bishop in history.

No Fear Success!

No one knows for sure just what Patrick did to make his mission to the Irish so successful. What we do know for sure is that the Church had not seen a mission as successful as Patrick’s since the Apostle Paul, and would not see it again until John Wesley.

Picture Wesley’s outdoor revivals services. Preaching to hundreds in the open air and seeing literally thousands baptized into the body of Christ. Likewise Patrick personally baptized thousands of Irish people, often large groups of hundreds at a time.

But the question that has pestered any scholar who has ever studied Patrick is this: given the barbaric savage nature of the Irish, what could possibly have made Patrick’s mission so successful? Why would any Irish man or woman listen or care to what Patrick had to say, would they not just cut off his buttock’s and eat him for dinner (see post 1)? Well “we can also be sure” writes Thomas Cahill, “that the Irish found Patrick admirable according to their own highest standards: his courage – his refusal to be afraid of them – would have impressed them immediately” [p.124]. It was Patrick’s refusal to be afraid of the Irish that would earn their respect and their ear, but it would be his message that would capture their lives.

Cahill has offered some very helpful thoughts in how Patrick would accomplish this. Patrick was a British born Roman Christian who had spent several (terrifying) years as an Irish slave. He knew the Irish people, and that knowledge probably proved invaluable in connecting the Gospel story to Irish life.  From an outsider the Irish were simply savages beyond savagery. They were more beastly then demons (see post 1: I did not even scratch the surface of their brutality there). But from the inside, the Irish were not so brave or randomly cruel as they appeared; they were in fact a terrified people, ruled by fear. They were scared of their gods. Cahill writes:

“There were few idols that we have retrieved… that would not give a child nightmares and an adult the willies.” [p.126] “Beneath the bravado of this warrior society, constantly brandishing its flesh destroying weapons, rumbles a quaking fear so acute that it can kill. The conscious indifference to death that is a hallmark of all the heroes of the Tain [an Irish myth involving their gods] masks a subconscious fear of death that no public rhetoric can erase.” [p.127-128]

The Irish slept at night in one of two conditions; either they were drunk, or they endured nightmares.

Patrick held out to these warriors an alternative way to live in his own being. It was possible to be brave, to expect, as Patrick would later write, “every day… to be murdered, betrayed, enslaved – whatever may come my way”, and yet be a man of peace and at peace, a man without sword or desire to harm. He was “not afraid of any of these things, because of the promises of heaven; for I have put myself in the hands of God Almighty”.

Patrick could sleep at night without suppressing his fears behind the veil of drunkenness, and still not have nightmares. This thought alone would have seemed to be liberating on a heavenly scale. The Irish no longer had to be prisoner to the thoughts of their own mythology, their gods were no longer to be feared if they would only put themselves in the hands of “God Almighty”, the God who created the universe.

The Irish fear of their gods resulted in human sacrifices, a phenomenon long forgotten in the Roman world which must have horrified Patrick. They sacrificed prisoners of war to the war gods and newborn babies to the harvest gods. Yet this phenomenon must also have presented a keynote in delivering to the Irish a new message.

In Irish mythology there were two different types of sacrifices: the “take him not me” type, which was a most common attribute among such a fearful people, who valued bravery but often lacked enough of it themselves to say, “take me not him”. The other type of sacrifice was that of the brave and courageous warrior who, instead of allowing the gods wrath to fall on the people, would offer up and willing sacrifice his own life.

Patrick declared that there was such a warrior, and that this warrior’s sacrifice was so grand that no more sacrifices were required. This warrior, Jesus the Christ – the savior – had destroyed the power of all other gods by his death, so much so that the Creator God vindicated him by raising him from the dead!

No doubt Patrick would have turned to the oldest hymn in the Church, “Jesus, being God, emptied himself to the last and was obedient to death – even death upon a cross. And, therefore, God raised him up”.

“Yes, the Irish would have said, here is a story that answers our deepest needs – and answers them in a way so good that we could never even have dared dream of it. We can put away our knives and abandon our altars. These are no longer required” [p.141]

“And”, as Cahill would write, “that is how the Irish became Christians.”

When Looking At Rome, Can You Even See The Irish?

The period of time in which the story of Patrick and the Irish takes place is in history a period in which the Roman empire was rapidly spiraling out of control, breaking apart like a melting glacier so much so that historians have had their eyes riveted upon the whole scene. And in this they have failed to notice a transformation just a dramatic and even more abrupt taking place at the empire’s periphery. “For as the Roman lands went from peace to chaos, the Land of Ireland was rushing even more rapidly from chaos to peace.” [p.124]

Next we shall see how God used the Irish to save civilization.

*** Continued ***

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Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.
  • Derek Ouellette

    Just a devotional thought:

    Sometimes we tend to look at the “big picture” with anxiety (the Roman Empire is breaking apart like a glacier) that we fail to notice what is going on in our peripheral (God is doing something over there in little Ireland that will make all things work out for good).

    If your life seems to be falling apart, look over in your peripheral, for God may be over there preparing to do something amazing.
    .-= Derek Ouellette´s last blog ..Who Were The Irish? =-.