The Celtic Church in Northumbria (3)

Over the past few weeks I have tried to put the story of the Church in Northumbria into the bigger story of the early Irish Church, which obviously would be incomplete without speaking at some length on St Patrick and his mission. I did, however, feel it more appropriate to honour him close to his feast day, and now, that we have put the Irish Church in Northumbria in context, may be the ideal time to reflect on St Patrick, his contribution to the early Irish Church and its mission to the world. In focusing on his Confessions I would hope to dispel some of the myths and set down some of the facts about the life and works of Patrick our patron Saint and founding father of the Church in Ireland.

The Myth
Writing about St Patrick in his book Celtic Theology(1) Tom O’Loughlin suggests that: Patrick has been so buried by Hagiographers, so shamrock laden by the cultural politics of defining Irish identity that for many he has become an almost mythical figure. So, if we are to get to the truth of St. Patrick, in so far as it is capable for anyone to do so, we have got to clear from our minds and imaginations much, if not all, of what we presume that we already, know about him. At least that is how I felt when I first read Patrick’s writings some years ago, and ever since I have been revising the images I had grown up by contrasting them with those of his Confessions in my search for an authentic profile of the man Patrick. Growing up I had a very clear image of a strong and powerful, larger than life, personality, a hero who represented all that was good, true and pure in the Irish character. For me he was a model of Christian living and holiness of life, but, also, he symbolized all that was truly Irish, he was both saint and national hero, the archetypical Irishman.

I remember some years back watching a St. Patrick’s Day children’s programme on Irish Television. In the sketch Patrick, appeared on the stage complete with mitre and crozier, with a green cloak decorated with shamrocks and a variety of Celtic symbols, talking to a group of children who were gathered round him. The children were enthralled as he told story after story, with all the skill, humour and wit of a professional Irish story teller, about his feats and exploits, how he outwitted the Kings of Ireland, got the better of the fairies and cleared all the snakes and reptiles out of the country and how he used the simple shamrock to teach the people about the complex mystery of the Trinity. As the programme went on he became a little hoarse so someone duly presented him with a pint of Guinness, which he drank with great relish and after which he began to talk with renewed energy. He wasn’t presented in Tom O’Loughlin’s words as a mythical figure, in fact he was very human and entertaining, but the programme was certainly guilty of promoting the myth of St. Patrick. The question is how do we break through the many layers of myth that have corroded, disguised and disfigured the man Patrick, and gain a more authentic picture of that man, of flesh and blood, who was sent by God to preach the gospel to the people of Ireland in the 5th Century.

The Man – His Confessions
In answer to this question Tom O’Loughlin goes on to say, And Yet! The man of flesh and blood can still be glimpsed in two documents by him, which we possess. Of Patrick’s dates and background, and the extent of his labours, we know nothing beyond what he tells us; but we know more about him than about any other fifth-century British, let alone Irish person. So we have to confine ourselves to the only real evidence we have of Patrick, which is to be found in his own writings: In his Confessions he explains before God and his fellow Christians the integrity of his work as a missionary. In one sense The Confessions is a declaration of praise and thanks to God for the great works that God had wrought through him. In paragraph 34 he emphasizes this fact: Thus today I constantly praise and glorify your name, wherever I may be among the nations both for my successes and difficulties. He, also, sees The Confessions as a parting message, his last will and testament to the Church he had founded. Equally it is proper to spread abroad ‘the name of God’ with trust and, ‘without fear’ so that even ‘after my death’ I may leave something of value to the thousands, my brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, I have baptised in the Lord. (C.14) Another reason for writing seems to have been to justify his mission to his own family and his clerical critics (probably in Britain). Therefore, though imperfect in many things, I want my brothers and relatives to know what kind of person I am. Then they can understand the way I lived my life. (C. 5)

Letter to Coroticus
The second document written by Patrick is a letter; it is the shorter but also the earlier of the two. The letter is addressed to the Soldiers of a king or tribal leader named Coroticus, who had killed some of Patrick’s converts and taken others into slavery while, as he put it, they were still wearing their white baptismal garb and with the fragrance of the chrism, on their foreheads, still about them. (C. 3) The letter delivers a firm sentence of excommunication and it is assumed that Coroticus and his men would actually hear or read his words. The Documents provide us with little or no historical data on early Irish society or it’s Christianization, but together they do provide us with insights into Patrick the Christian man of faith.

Biographical Data and Place Names
The Confessions, however, do provide us with some biographical data and place names tho’ not their geographical location, which has been a source of conjecture and speculation over the centuries. According to the Confessions Patrick’s father, Calpurnius, had estates and lands near the village of Bannavem Taburnae. It is generally accepted that the village is situated some place along the West Coast of Britain, between Cornwall to into Southern Scotland. Many scholars seem to have favoured a location on the banks of the Bristol Channel, either on the south coast of Wales or on the northern coast of Summerset but in recent years a strong case is being made for a small fishing port somewhere near modern Barrow-in-Furness in Cumbria.

In a recent study by an archaeologist Steve Dickinson, (Durham University), based on excavations he made at an early Christian settlement near Barrow-in-Furness, in which he makes a plausible case for this being the place where Patrick’s family may have been located and from where he was taken into captivity by his Irish raiders. His study is entitled Beacon on the Bay and he does offer a convincing argument to support his theory that Bannavem Taburnae was situated around the location of present day Barrow-in-Furness which was an important Roman and early Christian settlement by the 4th century AD; when Patrick was born. He mentioned that the Roman name for the settlement was Banaventa Berniae, which meant “the place at the foot of the mountain pass.” Barrow-in-Furness or Great Furness as it was known comfortably meets that description and Banaventa Berniae sounds remarkably like Bannavem Taburnae. Whether this is so or not and whether there was a Christian settlement in this area is speculation; what we do know, however, is that Irish pirates especially from the northern half of the country could have, as was their custom, and more than likely did, make lightning raids on this area and take booty and people, especially young men as slaves, back to Ireland. Even though Patrick’s father was a deacon and was probably part of the establishment; the Roman garrison would have been thin on the ground at this time of the collapse of the Roman Empire and many Roman households, including Patrick’s, would have little protection most of the year.

Locations in Ireland
There are many other events and place names mentioned in his writings that should enable us to glean information on where exactly in Ireland he had spent his captivity as a slave shepherd boy. One tradition is that he was a slave on Mt. Slemish in Co. Antrim, (near modern Ballymena). While this is a popular tradition there is absolutely no evidence in Patrick’s writings to support it. Nevertheless, if Patrick was abducted from a fishing port in Cumbria, then Northern Ireland would have been a handy location to have sailed from and to, this we will never know for sure.

On the other hand, there is another tradition linking Patrick with Co. Mayo in the West of Ireland and it is believed by some that it was there that he served his time as a slave. In his vision, (recorded in the Confessions) in which he hears the Irish people pleading with him: I thought I heard at that very moment the voice of those who lived beside the wood of Foclut, which is near the western sea and thus they cried out with one voice: ‘We beg you, holy youth, to come and walk once more among us. (C:23) He makes it clear that these people are from the west of Ireland, on the western sea coast and he is greatly moved at their pleading. The voices seemed to be of those who knew Patrick; but whether or not these were the same people who had treated him so barbarously, forcing him into slavery is not easy to ascertain. I find it interesting that O’Muirchu, an Irish bishop who wrote The Life of St Patrick some two hundred years after Patrick died was not able to locate either Bannavem Taburnae or the Woods of Foclut.

His Presence in Ireland as Slave and as Missioner God’s doing
Speaking about his presence in Ireland Patrick surmises: Was it without the inspiration of God, or on my own initiative that I came to Ireland? Who drove me to it? It is by the Spirit I am bound… is it from myself there springs this mercy I exercise towards the people who once took me captive and carried off the man servants and maid servants of my father’s house?… (Letter to Cor:10)… Here then, one more time, I testify in the truth…that I never had any reason other than the Gospel and its promises for ever returning to that race from whom, in an earlier time, I had barely escaped… In these words which are a form of inner dialogue Patrick seems to be clarifying both for himself and for his readers the reason for and the instigator of his mission to Ireland. (C:61)

He is very clear and open, however, and gives us a vivid account of his time of slavery in both his letters. He slaved in the woods, in the mountains, in all weathers, hungry and naked, doing whatever his owner commanded, usually herding sheep or pigs. He was also clear about the reasons why this had happened to him because he saw the hand of God at work in it. In his slavery he quickly came to realize that the one true God, whom he had abandoned through ignorance and indifference, like many others in his homeland, had not abandoned him! On the contrary, although the experience was a great trial and chastisement, God looked after Patrick as a father does his son. But after I came to Ireland I was daily herding flocks – and I used to pray many times a day – more and more, the love of God and the fear of Him came to me and my faith increased and my spirit was moved so that in one day I would pray as many as a hundred times and in the night nearly as often, even while I was staying in the woods and on the mountain and before daylight I used to be stirred to prayer, in snow, in frost, in rain; and I felt no ill effects from it, nor was there any sluggishness in me, such as I now see there is, because the spirit was fervent in me. C:16)

It is clear that the experience of slavery was a rude awakening for Patrick who, in the comfort zone of his own family and friends, a privileged class in Roman Britain, had developed a false sense of security which led him to neglect his Christian vocation. And no-one should doubt the outrageous humiliation that Patrick would have felt, a proud and free citizen of the Roman Empire, being made a slave to the barbarian Irish, as he would have regarded them!

Patrick’s Dream – His Liberation
The hand of God in his life was made very evident after he had spent six years in captivity and slavery, when Patrick was told in a dream that his exile was over and that a ship was ready to take him home to freedom. He escaped without any trouble, guided by the protection of the Holy Spirit and eventually managed to persuade the captain of a ship to give him safe passage. However, the crew were rough, dangerous and pagan seafarers who were demanding that they be recompensed in return for their favour. Patrick confident in God’s presence with him didn’t seem in the least afraid of them and refused to submit to their demands. He tells us that even these rough pagan Irish took a liking to him and began to respect him and even more so as he proved his worth and his faith to them when he miraculously got food for them when they were starving and saved them from many dangers on the journey. Having set sail from Ireland, after a voyage of 3 days, they reached land, possibly somewhere in the South of France. The area is not very clear but it may have been somewhere around present day Normandy; an area which would, in those days, have been heavily wooded and sparsely populated. In any case, according to Patrick, it was 38 days after they struck land before they saw another human being! Tradition has it that Patrick lived in France or Gaul for several years with a Christian community there, studied for the priesthood, was ordained there and eventually became a bishop.

The Call of the Irish – The Vision
After some years in exile in Gaul, Patrick returned to his own people in Britain who gave him a warm welcome and begged him never to leave them again. However, it was here, in his homeland and among his own family that Patrick in a dream came to realise that he was been called by God although the call came to him as the Voice of the Irish calling him: We beg you, holy youth, to come and walk once more among us. (C: 23). Not long after this he had another dream or vision as he called it; this time it was Jesus Himself who spoke to him: He who gave His life for you, He it is who is speaking to you; and at that, he says, I awoke rejoicing (C: 24). It was as if Jesus Himself was affirming Patrick and encouraging him to say yes to the invitation of the Irish. Just as Jesus laid down His life for him, surely he would lay down his life for others? Thus, Patrick willingly became the servant of the Irish, confident that the one who called him would sustain him bringing him through many trials and tribulations in his mission to spread the good news of salvation and of freedom from their slavery to sin to the people of Ireland; thus Patrick’s mission to the people of Ireland began. While there are lots of stories about Patrick’s miraculous and heroic achievements as he went around the country preaching the Gospel, for example how he challenged Loegaire the high King of Ireland, by lighting the Easter Vigil fire in defiance of the national tradition; with this there are many other wonderful stories told of St Patrick. However if we want to get to the truth about the man and great missionary Patrick we must confine ourselves to the two Letters that he bequeathed to the Church in his old age.

The Confessions
Here I would like to concentrate just on the main document, Patrick’s Confessions. It is not autobiographical like The Confessions of St. Augustine, neither is it an Apologia in defense of his life and actions, because Patrick neither answers his critics nor defends his actions within the document. It is rather a setting down of Patrick’s own ‘faith story’ as he gives praise and thanks to God for the things that God had achieved in him and through him. Maire De Paor in her book Patrick Pilgrim Apostle of Ireland expresses this very concisely in the following words: it as a three fold Confession, a Confession of his sinfulness, of praise, and, of faith as a lived reality – a retrospective contemplative reflection on events of his life, including failures, offered as a single spiritual entity. The document has in fact the flavour of a farewell address as Patrick refers to Paul’s farewell speech to the elders of Ephesus (Acts 20. 19-35), this theme is referred to on a number of occasions in the Confession (Chapters 43, 48 and 55). Commenting on both of Patrick’s Letters Maire De Paor goes on to say that the documents themselves suggest that here we have two unique spiritual documents from the darkest of the dark ages, of 5th Century Northern Europe. In fact they are the only personal documents that can be claimed either in the Church in Britain or in Ireland from that troubled century. Although the earliest copy of these works available belongs to the 9th Century experts, after examining their contents, are happy that the language and presentation belongs to the 5th Century and the Latin used would be the Latin used in Britain in the 4th – 5th Century. So there seems to be no doubt about the authenticity of the documents.

Patrick the Sinner
Patrick gives the impression in the very first lines of his Confession that he is a very weak and uneducated man: I am the sinner Patrick. I am the most unsophisticated of people the least of Christians, and for many people I am the most contemptible. A little further on he acknowledges his ignorance and lack of learning and apologizes for the poor quality of his writing. Now today it is with great fear and shame that I expose my lack of expertise and polish. (C.10) However, there are some Patrician scholars who would disagree with him on this and say, that, on the contrary, these two works are classics in terms of their literary composition, showing definite literary patterns common to both classical and Biblical literature. I won’t go into this here but Maire B. de Paor presents us with a literary analysis and commentary on the text which would seem to prove that Patrick far from being a barely literate rustic was both an artist of astounding literary skill and a man of great spiritual depth. She justifies this claim on the grounds that Patrick as a middle class Roman citizen, whose father was a deacon and a government official, would have had a good grounding in the classics and in the art of rhetoric by the age of 16, when he was taken captive. Also, I mentioned the first evening that Patrick was believed to have studied for the priesthood at Lerins in Gaul, a monastery that was deeply committed to learning and scholarship both in the secular and religious spheres.


The Confessions – An Inspired Document
Whatever about its literary value I have no hesitation in accepting Maire’s second claim that the Confession is an inspired document written by a man of great spiritual depth: As the Holy Spirit spoke to Patrick, she goes on to say, so he speaks to us through and within and around his narrative, in harmonies that grow more complex, with resonances that reverberate through meanings that become richer and denser every time we return to his texts. By listening to him on his own terms we can hear him speak articulately, authoritatively, compellingly across fifteen centuries with a power he believed to be not his own but God’s.

Noel O’Donoghue, alluding to the paradoxical nature of the document in his book Aristocracy of Soul, Patrick of Ireland, is probably more accurate in his assessment when he says: The Confession may appear at first reading an unremarkable document, indeed a little more than the somewhat rambling reminiscence of a man of action who writes only with difficulty and by leaning heavily on scriptural quotations and references. It is only gradually that the reader begins to glimpse, to hear and to feel the mighty spiritual force that is always pushing through the text. (2) So, while he may not see it as a classical document in terms of its style and composition it is without doubt, in his estimation, a great spiritual classic.

The Confessions – Its Complexity
After reading it on a number of occasions I have been left with the image of a complex Celtic pattern like one of those carpet pages in the Medieval Celtic Manuscripts, with all sorts of interwoven images and symbols forming together a unified whole and a single theme. As I have already said the document is not autobiographical, yet, as his ‘faith story,’ Patrick opens his heart to us, as he would to God, revealing his deepest and most intimate secrets; he talks of his sinfulness and vulnerability, his hopes his dreams, his fears and disappointments, and his deep and intimate relationship with God, who, through the difficult and tragic circumstances of his life drew him to himself and loved him as a son. It was as a father comforts his son that he protected me. (C.2) He was a man with a clear sense of mission and destiny. Although he initially claimed to be ignorant of the true God, he saw his own presence, as a slave in an alien land, as God’s judgment and punishment for his sins, but, also, as God’s way in preparing him for his future missionary work. And now it is among the people of that alien land that my smallness is seen. But it is here also that the Lord opened my understanding and my unbelief, so that even at that stage I might become aware of my failings. And then remembering my need, I could turn with all my heart to the Lord my God. For it was he who looked on my lowliness and had mercy on the ignorance of my youth, who cared for me before I knew him and before I had gained wisdom or could choose good from evil. I tell you these things because this is how we return thanks to God, that after being corrected and having come to an awareness of God, that we glorify and bear witness to his wonderful works in the presence of every nation under heaven. (C. 2) In this passage we have a good example of the depth and complexity of his spirituality, with lots of allusions to biblical imagery and to scriptural texts, as his own faith story and personal history of salvation seems to be interwoven with the faith story and salvation history of God’s chosen people. Imagine living in the presence of that man of God, a presence kept alive after his death through his words, his last will and testament to the people of Ireland, indeed to the Church and to the world. What an impact his presence, and spirit contained in his words, must have made on the Church and on the faith of its members during its formative years; a faith that found deep expression and shone brightly in the lives of great Saints like Columba, Brigid, Brendan, Aidan and Hilda.

God’s Grace most Powerful in Weakness (St Paul)
In his life Patrick seems to hold a very delicate balance between, on one hand, the awareness of his sinfulness, of his smallness, as he puts it, and vulnerability, while on the other-hand of possessing the reassurance of faith, that inner conviction that, with God, all things were possible. We see this tension in his procrastinations on writing his Confessions in the first place. He admits that he had thought many times about writing this confession but fear of the criticism of those who were more educated, as well as fear of being misunderstood, held him back. However, like many of the great prophets of the Old Testament he had reached the stage when he could not resist the urgings of the Holy Spirit, who was compelling him to write and witness; and so he goes on to say: And although this letter is not learned, it is one delivered in strength,’ written in our hearts, not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God.’ And with great authority he calls for the reader’s attention with the words: Now be amazed you both small and great who fear God, all you learned ones and sophisticated speakers, listen and study what you hear. It is right and proper, in the measure of faith in the Trinity to make known the gift of God and his eternal consolation. And do this without hesitating at its dangers. (C 11-14)

Many writers on Celtic Spirituality give the impression that, in the early Irish Church, there was a real continuity and harmony between the old and the new; that the transition from the nature and sun worshipping Pagan Religion to Christianity went smoothly as the Church, apparently, without too much opposition integrated itself into the culture and practices of the time and Christianized them. It would seem that Patrick adapted local situations to Christian structures and set the foundations for a dynamic Church administration well suited to the society he encountered but I don’t think the process went as smooth as some present day writers on Celtic Spirituality might like us to think. We have already heard from historian Daibhi O’Croinin that Ireland in the 5th century was going through a dark age, which was a time of radical and dangerous transition in its social order. Also, it can be gleaned from his Confessions that there were many areas of conflict and tension coming from both within himself and from outside.

Difficult Transition
The preaching of the Gospel called on the Irish for a radical break from the past, which, I’m sure, meant a difficult and at times acrimonious and traumatic transition from the old pagan ways to the new Christian ways. A transition that must have been very painful; while there isn’t much evidence of blood being shed Patrick himself tells us of one such incident. There is also evidence in Patrick’s writings that he and the faithful experienced persecution. Even the process of conversion and ongoing purification deep within the very core of peoples lives as they had to die to the old ways and habits in seeking to respond to and live out the Gospel message, in the spirit in which Patrick himself lived it, must have involved in itself a form of inner crucifixion. Within that process, of transition and crucifixion it would seem, however, the old was not lost but rather purified and emerged in a new light, and in that sense the old was transformed and redeemed.

One can detect a thread of pain and struggle going right through Patrick’s writings. He was misunderstood, betrayed, unjustly treated and persecuted; on one occasion an attempt was made on his life and he was bound in chains for 14 days. The theme of exile, of being away from his home and family, having to live in a foreign land among an alien people, runs right through his writings, there is also that sense of spiritual exile, of one who is not at home in this world but is on a journey to his true homeland which is heaven. Here we could very well have the basis of great penitential practice and missionary outreach of the early Irish monks like Columba, Columbanus and Aidan in their Peregrinatio Pro Christo. This theme features strongly in Columbanus’ sermons.

St Patrick’s life modelled on St Paul?
In the Confessions I can see so many similarities with St. Paul, who claimed his authority as an apostle of Christ on a special revelation rather than indirectly through the Church, but like St. Paul, he, also, is deeply anxious to be accepted in himself and in his mission by his fellow clergy in Britain and by his family, whom it would seem stand for the universal Church. Both he and Paul came into the Church through very different routes, but both were called by God to preach the Gospel to the pagans, both acknowledge their ignorance and sinfulness, they are forthright and courageous in their proclamation of the message and, yet, are so vulnerable, enduring physical pain misunderstanding and persecution for the sake of the Gospel. In fact there are signs that Patrick gained much inspiration from reading Paul’s Letters, that Paul was in a sense his mentor and I would even suspect that they are quite similar in Character and personality.

The God they got to know, as is evident from Patrick’s profession of faith, is the triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but a God who could not be contained within the boundaries of any teaching or institution, whose power, goodness and might is reflected in creation yet who is greater than the world and all it contains. He was an awesome God, who was to be feared, but a God of love and compassion to those who feared him, and called on him in time of trouble. On a number of occasions Patrick states that he had been specially called to bring the Gospel to the ends of the earth. A belief in the early Church, still prevalent in Patrick’s time was that Jesus would return when the Gospel was preached to the ends of the earth. The preaching of the Gospel by Patrick to the boundaries of the then known world, combined with the break up of the Roman Empire in the early 5th Century was seen by many as a sign that the end was neigh. In his profession of faith he looks forward to the coming of Jesus in the very near future. In this one could say that the eschatological dimension in Patrick’s theology was strong as it was in Paul’s theology and he probably received it from reading Paul..

The Early Irish Church – Patrick’s Legacy?
I realise that I have only touched on The Confessions; it would take a series to do justice to them St. Patrick and his writings. So, to conclude this evenings talk and link up it up with the Church in Northumbria we can see that Patrick while he set up the church in Ireland, in accordance to the Roman, Diocesan structure, his vision of the Church as the Kingdom or reign of God on earth would have been his dominant vision of the Church.It was above all a spiritual reality, which, none-the-less, was deeply Incarnational, embracing all creation, within which all things in heaven and earth which were being drawn together in Christ, moving towards the consummation of the world, the fulfilment of Gods plan of creation and of redemption. His view of the Church would have been all embracing and mystical; probably fitting into Paul’s vision of what has become known as “The Mystical Body of Christ.” (Corinthians) In that sense the structures, tho’ important, would be secondary to the Spirit in which the Gospel was preached and lived; and that issue would seem to have been at the heart of conflict between the “Celtic” Irish Church and the Anglo Saxon Roman Church which was the subject of the Synod of Whitby.

(1) Thomas O’Loughlin, Celtic Theology, (London: Continuum, 2000)

(2) Noel Dermot O’Donoghue, Aristocracy of Soul: Patrick of Ireland, London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1987)

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