The Confession begins with St Patrick’s memorable self-description as “Ego Patricius, peccator rusticissimus.” The whole sentence has been translated I am a sinner, a simple country person, and the least of all believers. I am looked down upon by many. “Rusticissimus” carries the meaning of uncultured, rustic, rural, uneducated, unlearned.
It’s a very self-effacing term, to be sure, and a concept that is reiterated throughout the text. He describes himself as “originally uncultivated, in exile, very little educated” (12); and “a poor ignorant orphan” (35).
Did St Patrick mean it, or is there something of a pose about it? The whole of the Confession was a defence of his own spiritual experience and his ministry in Ireland before his educated peers. Is he -so to speak- abasing himself before them? These statements simply cannot be the whole truth of the story, and, at the very least, St Patrick is downplaying his own intellectual capacity.
And yet, as we consider themes in Celtic spirituality, one finds such a quality of humility and gentleness in rural Ireland (Rusticissimus!) that is still evident in to this very day. It’s seen in fireside conversations, and the readiness to listen, and share the conversation.
I think that gentleness and humility was evident in St Patrick himself, but it also reminds one of St Paul’s missionary work in Corinth. He wrote that “To the Jews I became a Jew” (1 Cor 9:20). That is to say, he saw his own intellect and cleverness as something to be laid down so that he might communicate the gospel. What did it matter to be considered wise and important if all that did was to cut you off from the very people you were hoping to challenge and reach?
There’s a very full statement of this in 1 Corinthians 2: “And I, brethren, when I came to you, did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring to you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. I was with you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling. And my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power.”
This could almost have been written by St Patrick, and it may well form the backcloth to the Confession. St Paul didn’t come as a philosopher or a salesman (with excellence of speech; he came as a witness declaring to you the testimony of God.
St Paul was certainly a man who could reason and debate persuasively, but he didn’t use that approach in preaching the gospel. He made a conscious decision (I determined) to put the emphasis on Jesus Christ and Him crucified. Ambassadors are different from salesmen.
In taking this approach, Paul understood he didn’t cater to what his audience wanted. Corinth put a premium on the veneer of false rhetoric and thin thinking. He already knew the Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:22), but he does not seem to care. He will preach Jesus Christ and Him crucified.
Another interesting comparison between the two evangelists is in the phrase I was with you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling: Paul was not brimming with self-confidence. Knowing the need and his own limitations made him weak and afraid.
Yet it kept him from the poison of self-reliance, and let God’s strength flow.
Humility or strategy?