Reflecting on the Cross of the Scriptures at Clonmacnoise

clonmac crossThe High Cross at Clonmacnoise stands an impressive four metres tall, built of Clare sandstone around 900 AD.  The scenes depicted upon it are sometimes difficult to decipher and this has given rise to many alternative explanations.

There are two aspects, however, which are beyond dispute, and declare with a timeless eloquence the central paradox of Celtic Christology: that of the suffering and the glory of Christ.  On this face (above), the central figure is the crucified Christ. The usual explanation of the four roundels (at 12, 3, 6 and 9 o’clock), are the four gospels, pictorialized as lion, ox, eagle and man as the various metaphors explaining aspects of  Christ’s life and ministry (and/or of the gospel writers).

Here’s a detail of the central scene:

clonmac cross detail


Peter Harbison writes “Christ, represented as if wearing a short trouser-like garment and with his legs bound, is shown with his outstretched arms falling at an angle and with his large hands bearing the nail heads in the centre of the palms.”  (Harbison 1992, 52)

There are other interesting features in this scene.  The figures to the left and right of Jesus are traditionally identified as Stephaton (left), who offers Jesus vinegar on a pole and  Longinus (right) who stabs Jesus with a lance.  Stephaton and Longinus appear (unnamed)  in the passion story in the Gospel of John 19:28-34.

clonmac cross detail 2

On the reverse face, the center of the head of the cross and the arms form one integrated scene.  This is clearly a portrayal of Christ in glory and judgement.

Harbison writes:  “Christ stands . . . carrying a sceptre  . . . over his right shoulder and a cross-staff over his left shoulder.”  (Harbison 1992, 49)

It’s as if the very emblems of his humiliation have become the badges of office as He rises, rules and reigns in power.

What is the sermon the High Cross is intending to preach?

It’s a declaration of the two sides of Christ and how one aspect teaches the other. If there was only a depiction of power and glory then one would be left with a triumphalist, omnipotent god bent on conquest and ruling in total authority.

That’s true, of course, but only partly so.

If there was only a depiction of suffering and death, then one might be left with the notion that pain and sorrow was the end of the story, or that they were somehow redemptive and valuable by themselves.

Again, there is a sliver of truth here, but both sides have to be brought together.

This is how the apostle John approached the paradox: he began his gospel with an account of the glory of God in creation and revelation but then said “And the word was made flesh and dwelt among us. And we beheld His glory.” We behold the glory of God “made flesh”.

Yet it was a strange sort of glory, and many who saw and heard him perceived no glory at all. What is striking about John`s presentation is that, although his glory was manifested powerfully in his miracles or “signs”, it was above all to be seen in his present human weakness, in the self-humiliation of his incarnation.

As He came in lowliness we have an example of the paradox that John uses so forcefully later in the Gospel, that the true glory is to be seen, not in outward splendour, but in the lowliness with which the Son of God lived for men and suffered for them.

This becomes especially clear from the way in which John links glory with the cross. We may not be as surprised at this as we should be, since our awareness of the splendour of Christ`s accomplishment at Calvary can cast over his cross a cloak of spurious sentiment and so obscure something of its horror. But a horror it was to the first century world, a place of unspeakable agony, and, above all, of shame and curse. To explain the paradox was, indeed, a great part of John`s purpose in writing the gospel. Part of his goal, in writing an evangelistic book for Jews and proselytes, is to make the notion of a crucified Messiah coherent. The intrinsic offense of the cross he cannot remove. What he can do is to show that the cross is at one and the same time nothing less than God`s astonishing plan to bring glory to himself by being glorified in his Messiah.

But what do we do with the paradox? What should our reaction be?

As we come to Easter, those two aspects come into their sharpest focus. The cross at Clonmacnoise reminds us that Good Friday and Easter Sunday belong together, to speak out the one gospel of the living Christ.


A Celtic Charismatic: Now Published

This book is a study of the spirituality of Patrick through his own writings, the Confession and the Letter. It is shaped as a series of thirty meditations which may be read in the course of a month, including the author’s own reflections upon Patrick’s use of Scripture, and songs from the Carmina Gadelica.

It is the author’s contention that Patrick can be fairly understood as A Celtic Charismatic, in his commitment to Scripture, his emphasis upon mission and in a lifestyle directed and empowered by the Holy Spirit.
This book is intended as a conversation-starter, perhaps mostly with the Christians of Ireland, towards the recovery of a vital faith and vigorous response to the challenges of our day.
“He who wants can laugh and jeer, but I shall not keep silent nor keep hidden the signs and wonders which have been shown to me by the Lord…”

"A Celtic Charismatic: Now Published

This book is a study of the spirituality of Patrick through his own writings, the Confession and the Letter. It is shaped as a series of thirty meditations which may be read in the course of a month, including the author’s own reflections upon Patrick’s use of Scripture, and songs from the Carmina Gadelica.
It is the author’s contention that Patrick can be fairly understood as A Celtic Charismatic, in his commitment to Scripture, his emphasis upon mission and in a lifestyle directed and empowered by the Holy Spirit.
This book is intended as a conversation-starter, perhaps mostly with the Christians of Ireland, towards the recovery of a vital faith and vigorous response to the challenges of our day. 
“He who wants can laugh and jeer, but I shall not keep silent nor keep hidden the signs and wonders which have been shown to me by the Lord…”"

Climbing the Reek



Croagh Patrick is an impressive mountain in Mayo in the west of Ireland, where, according to legend, Patrick spent forty days and nights in a Lenten fast in 441 AD. Its name comes from the Irish Cruach Phádraig meaning “Patrick’s stack”. It is known locally as “the Reek”, a Hiberno-English word for a “rick” or “stack.”

On Reek Sunday ( Domhnach na Cruaiche)- the last Sunday in July-  there is an annual day of pilgrimage when pilgrims climb Ireland’s “holiest mountain,” some in their bare feet. The pilgrimage has been held yearly for about 1,500 years, but the Reek’s reputation as a holy place and a place of pilgrimage predates even that event and there have been archaeological finds there that suggest it had a ritual significance for centuries before that.

This melding of ancient Irish traditions with more recent Christian ones is not unusual. In their efforts to bring Christianity to Ireland, Patrick and those who followed him adopted a successful strategy of holding Christian celebrations in places that were already used for pre-Christian worship, thus easing the transition to a new religion; Croagh Patrick was one such place.

While it is not a high mountain, the tradition that pilgrims should make the climb barefoot is no mean feat since the slope is covered in rough loose shingle and sharp stones. The loose surface makes coming down again as hard as getting up.

There are a number of factors that make the climbing of Croagh Patrick a suitable metaphor for the pursuit of Patrick’s spirituality.

First, it is a journey into Ireland’s past, where legend and history seem to lose independent structure and cohesion. People speak of the “mists of time” and Croagh Patrick, with its endless swirls of fog and low cloud exemplifies both metaphor and geographical reality. The legends speak of the mountain as a place of confrontation between Patrick and the powers of paganism that threatened to overwhelm him.

Second, it’s a journey into Ireland’s present, with its overlay of “green beer” tourism, faux-culture and religious superstition across a deep sense of humility and God-consciousness.  Some find a value, a meaning for their lives which continues to sustain them. Others try on spiritualities like new clothes, and abandon them when they become tired of them.

Climbing Croagh Patrick indicates a different thing altogether – a spirituality which is very simple. It is a journey, and an unexpectedly arduous one. The majestic summit is clearly visible from a great distance but as one approaches, the summit vanishes and all we can see is the intervening slope. It requires grit and determination to succeed, and the way is often confused by the encroaching fog.

Patrick offered clarity in the confusion, and purpose for the lost. His sense of vocation was quite straightforward. He believed himself loved, blessed and called by God to Ireland, and to that sense of calling he responded. And he responded with a sense of loyalty and determination which made the most arduous journey possible.

It is an appropriate metaphor.



A shade art thou in the heat,
A shelter art thou in the cold,
Eyes art thou to the blind,
A staff art thou to the pilgrim,
An island art thou at sea,
A fortress art thou on land,
A well art thou in the desert,
Health art thou to the ailing.

Carmina Gadelica

The right way of Dying for Ireland

st alban

The Matrydom of St Alban

 The good God often freed me from slavery, and from twelve dangers which threatened my life, as well as from hidden dangers and from things which I have no words to express. I wouldn’t want to hurt my readers! God knows all things even before they are done, and I have him as my authority that he often gave me warnings in heavenly answers, – me, a wretched orphan! (35).

The word “often” is noteworthy. Apart from the six or seven years of his youth that he spent as a slave, there are two or three other periods of forced captivity mentioned offhandedly in Patrick’s Confession. But God often freed me (so why should I go on about it!).

We don’t know what the twelve life-threatening dangers were exactly, though, again, the Confession itself provides material for a numerated estimate. What is more interesting is mention of hidden dangers and from things which I have no words to express.  Elsewhere Patrick uses this kind of language to express satanic attack and forms of spiritual warfare, and that would seem to fit here too.  He displays an intelligent reticence (I wouldn’t want to hurt my readers!) rather than modesty. These things are not really that important (he seems to say), and, in any case, Patrick is driving towards a different point.

He does note, however, that God  often gave [him] warnings in heavenly answers. Spiritual attack was met by supernatural provision.

The real point comes up in section 37:

It was not by my own grace, but God who overcame it in me, and resisted them all so that I could come to the peoples of Ireland to preach the gospel. I bore insults from unbelievers, so that I would hear the hatred directed at me for travelling here. I bore many persecutions, even chains, so that I could give up my freeborn state for the sake of others. If I be worthy, I am ready even to give up my life most willingly here and now for his name. It is there that I wish to spend my life until I die, if the Lord should grant it to me.

The point is quite clear here. It is, if I can phrase it this way, that Patrick had found the right way to die for Ireland.

There is no way that this passage can be construed to say that Patrick was seeking martyrdom –even that wasn’t the real point. The point, the all-consuming point, was the mission to which Christ had summoned him.

That was worth dying for.

God had made a way for him (It was not by my own grace, but God who overcame it in me) against all odds and obstacles so that I could come to the peoples of Ireland to preach the gospel.

But if God had made the way, Patrick still had to walk it, and there seems to be a developing resistance in both missionary and mission-recipients.  I bore insults from unbelievers, so that I would hear the hatred directed at me for travelling here.  The progression is obvious: persecutions… chains… [slavery] leading on, logically to the possibility of death. And so he stakes his case quite straightforwardly: I am ready even to give up my life most willingly here and now for his name. It is there that I wish to spend my life until I die, if the Lord should grant it to me.

It is there I wish to spend my life.

God has called me, and thus far God has helped me. He has protected me from many dangers and supernaturally warned me about them. If I’m honest, I can expect to die –perhaps quite soon- in this place where God has called me to be, but that’s just it. This IS the place where God called me to be, and I am His, whether to live or die. I’m at his disposal.

A Holy Ambition: “The Land of My Captivity”

saint patrick


 I must take care not to hide the gift of God which he has generously given us in the land of my captivity. (33)

The double reference here is to Paul’s injunction to Timothy to “stir up the gift” within him (2 Timothy 1:6) and to the story that Jesus told about the “Talents” which one hapless recipient hid, rather than put to use (Matt 25:14-30).  In Patrick’s mind, both the gift (of apostolic mission) and the place of service are one and the same. They are the land of my captivity.

It’s an interesting way of putting it. Patrick had been enslaved as a boy, of course, during which captivity he turned to Christ. Now as an adult he has returned as a “slave of Christ” and may still fairly call Ireland the land of my captivity.

In the following section (Confession 34), he describes the holy and wonderful work to which he is committed.  In the casual and highly personal terms of someone testifying in a church meeting, he says:

 In this way I can imitate somewhat those whom the Lord foretold would announce his gospel in witness to all nations before the end of the world. This is what we see has been fulfilled. Look at us: we are witnesses that the gospel has been preached right out to where there is nobody else there!

One catches the excitement of Patrick’s understanding of the missionary work to which he has been called. Even though what he does is but a pale imitation (In this way I can imitate somewhat…), it is part of something long foretold would happen before the end of the world. That is, quite simply, that the gospel would be preached to the ends of the world, and, as far his geography lessons can teach him, that’s exactly where he stands:  Look at us: we are witnesses that the gospel has been preached right out to where there is nobody else there!

So Patrick stands at the end of the known world, preaching the gospel, as he believes, at the end of the age. Imagine having that sense of destiny and purpose.

And if our understanding of both geography and history have extended –it wasn’t the end of the world, and it wasn’t the time of Christ’s return- our perception of spiritual reality falls far short of Patrick’s. We preen ourselves on our scientific knowledge but have little notion of our place in God’s scheme of things.

Patrick knew, and he had a “holy ambition” to see it done, and done well.



There is a strong connection between what I may call the “missionary heart” of both Patrick and Paul. It’s very evident in Paul’s declaration at the end of Romans (15:16-24), which reads thus:

For I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me to bring the Gentiles to obedience—by word and deed, by the power of signs and wonders, by the power of the Spirit of God—so that from Jerusalem and all the way around to Illyricum I have fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ; and thus I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named… but as it is written, “Those who have never been told of him will see, and those who have never heard will understand.” … But now, since I no longer have any room for work in these regions, and since I have longed for many years to come to you,  I hope to see you in passing as I go to Spain… (Rom 15:18-24)

Paul also possessed limitations in his own knowledge, but he understood “holy ambition” just as surely as did Patrick.

It’s there in v20: “And thus I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named….”

Paul, as Patrick, was driven by a holy ambition. He mentions being often hindered (v22) and yet longing to see the project through. That is to say, he was driven by his passion for mission. There was no way he could go to Rome until he had finished in the regions from Jerusalem to Illyricum. But finally, he says in v23, “I no longer have any room for work in these regions.” So: “I hope to see you in passing as I go to Spain.” (v24)

Both Patrick and Paul had a holy ambition to see people from all the nations who had never heard of Jesus believe in Him and become obedient to Him.

When Paul came to Christ (Acts 9, 22, 26), he was told this: “I am sending you [to the Gentiles, the nations] to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me” (Acts 26:18).

Where does holy ambition come from? It comes from a personal encounter with the living Christ shaped and informed by the written word of God and empowered by the Holy Spirit.

God doesn’t lead us into ambitions that are pointless—that you will regret at the end of your life. There is always a need to be met—not a need in God, but in the world—by a holy ambition. Holy ambitions are not about self-exaltation. They are always a form of love. They always meet someone’s need.

Now what is the need Paul refers to in this text? Verse 20: “Thus I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named.” That means that Paul has set his face like flint to preach the gospel to people who have never heard of Christ. They don’t even know his name.

So, we come to v19: “From Jerusalem and all the way around to Illyricum I have fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ.” That’s from Jerusalem up through Syria, across Asia Minor (Turkey), down through Greece on the east side and up the west to northern Italy where Albania is today. Paul says he has fulfilled the gospel there. And he underlines that astonishing statement in verse 23 by saying, “I no longer have any room for work in these regions.” And then in verse 24 he says, “I go to Spain.”

What does that mean? Surely there was much to be done in those regions? How could he say his job was done? Simply that Paul was not a local evangelist, but a frontier missionary, a pioneer missionary. That is, his calling and his ambition was not to do evangelism where the church has been planted. The church should do that! No, his call was to go where they didn’t even know the name.

This was Paul’s ambition. And since the great commission to make disciples of all nations is still valid and there are peoples today who do not know the gospel, therefore every church should pray that God raise up many frontier missionaries, and make all of us evangelists.

And this, I believe, was the central hub of Patrick’s missionary heart. He felt the honour and privilege of his calling, just as he understood its immensity and his own inadequacy.

Patrick’s Take on Evangelism

go into

For that reason, therefore, we ought to fish well and diligently, as the Lord exhorts in advance and teaches, saying: Come  after me, and I will make you  fishers of men. And again He says through the prophets: Behold, I send many fishers and hunters, saith God, and so on. Hence it was most necessary to spread our nets so that a great multitude and throng might be caught for God. (17)

Patrick takes a rather loose translation of Jeremiah 16:16 (perhaps quoting from memory) to give the two sides of the issue: fishers and hunters. Fishers wait, and hunters pursue.

Here’s Jeremiah: “ But now I will send for many fishermen,’ declares the Lord, ‘and they will catch them. After that I will send for many hunters, and they will hunt them down on every mountain and hill and from the crevices of the rocks.”

In the short  section, Patrick lists a kind of concordance of evangelism proof texts:

Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.(Mat 4.19)

Behold, I send many fishers and hunters, says God,(Jeremiah 16:16)

Go therefore now, teach ye all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and behold I am with you all days even to the consummation of the world.(Matthew 28:19-20)

Go ye therefore into the whole world, and preach the Gospel to every creature. He that believes and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believes not shall be condemned.(Mark 16:15-16)

This Gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world for a testimony to all nations, and then shall come the end.(Matthew 24:14)

And it shall come to pass, in the last days, says the Lord, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. And upon my servants indeed, and upon my handmaids will I pour out in those days of my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.(Joel 2:28-29)

`I will call that which was not my people, my people; … and her that had not obtained mercy, one that hath obtained mercy. And it shall be in the place where it was said: “You are not my people,” there they shall be called the sons of the living God.'(Hosea 1:10,2:23)

The seven quotations give us an idea of Patrick’s take on evangelism. If these texts formed the thread of a seminar on “Outreach to Ireland 101,” then what the outline be?

For example:

1.”Fishers” -Work with subtlety, patience, diligence.

2. “Fishers and Hunters”- We need different kinds of cooperating strategies to do the job properly.

3. “Into all the world” – Stress mobility, fluidity, and ‘travelling light.’

4. “Make disciples” – Stress the building of character, and interpersonal relatiosnhips.

5. “In the name of…” – Mission is a Trinitarian enterprise.

6. Importance of baptism

7. Time-frame of Christ’s reurn – Urgency.

8. Empowerment of the Holy Spirit

9. Building Christian Community.




“Come over and help us” – Patrick’s Call



How did Patrick understand his calling to the Irish? The Confession contains his testimony, in one of the most well-known sections of his writings:

I saw, in a nocturnal vision, a man named Victoricus coming as if from Ireland, with a large parcel of letters, one of which he handed to me. On reading the beginning of it, I found it contained these words: ‘The voice of the Irish;’ and while reading it I thought I heard, at the same moment, the voice of a multitude of persons near the Wood of Foclut, which is near the western sea; and they cried out, as if with one voice, ‘We entreat thee, holy youth, to come and henceforth walk amongst us. ‘ And I was greatly affected in my heart, and could read no longer; and then I awoke. (23)

 Though the passage recalls Daniel 7:13: (“I saw in a vision of the night one like the Son of Man”),  a stronger reference would be to Acts 16:9: ” And a vision appeared to Paul in the night; There stood a man of Macedonia, and prayed him, saying, Come over into Macedonia, and help us.”

The Latin phrasing of Acts 16:9 (“visio per noctem…vir”) is quite close to Patrick’s  “vidi in visu noctis virum,” as is the concept of an identifiable foreign national. And in both cases, the response is a positive agreement.

The reasons for this passage’s fame are the historical puzzles it raises, (Who was this man named Victoricus? Where is the Wood of Foclut?) and the patriotic buttons pressed by the phrase coming as if from Ireland and of course, the resounding “Vox Hiberniacorum” ( The voice of the Irish). Of enormous interest too is the designation given to Patrick himself as  “sancte puer” (holy youth), the nearest approach he ever makes to understanding himself as “Saint Patrick.” It is more reasonably conjectured that “sancte puer” was something of a nickname that Patrick had  acquired during his time as a slave when he mentions praying constantly through the night.

It is interesting to notice once more the connection between eye and ear (while reading it I thought I heard), that even the import of written news is to be translated into prophetic voice. Patrick reads, and hears (somewhat like Augustine’s conversion experience of hearing a voice bidding him to “Take up and read”) and the result is that  I was greatly affected in my heart, and could read no longer; and then I awoke.

And this, of course, is the whole point.  There comes a time when text is not enough: it must be translated into action. As Paul said: “I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” ( 1 Cor 9:16). And later, he wrote: “ For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced...”(2 Cor 5:14). The vision was of a large parcel of letters of which Patrick only read the first. But one was enough to evoke the sense of  a multitude of persons begging for his help with one voice.

As someone once said: “If we but hear the voice of a desperate world the way that God does, then perhaps we would do as God did…”


One in Three in One?



Patrick’s emphasis on the Trinity is reflected throughout his writings. He regarded its teaching as pivotal to the telling of the gospel story, as is evident in the opening words of section 14 of the Confession: In the knowledge of this faith in the Trinity.

The strength and centrality of this emphasis can be seen in the way it found expression in the much later writings collected in the Carmina Gadelica and was invoked at the commencement of every action and event, large and small.  Here’s a night-time prayer, for example:

I lie down this night with God
And God will lie down with me
I lie down this night with Christ
And Christ will lie down with me
I lie down this night with the Spirit
And the Spirit will lie down with me. 

A prayer for protection:

The arm of God be about you, 

The way of Christ guide you, 

The strength of the Spirit support you.

The holy God encircle you and keep you safe;

A final example from the Carmina Gadelica is more explicitly explanatory, and yet it is still simple and natural, even homespun, and far removed from the intellectual and abstract conceptualising of the Church Fathers.

Three folds of the cloth, yet only one napkin is there,

Three joints in the finger, but still only one finger fair,

Three leaves of the shamrock, yet no more than one shamrock to wear,

Frost, snow-flakes and ice, all in water their origin share,

Three Persons in God: to one God alone we make our prayer.

The Trinity was accepted in Celtic spirituality as simply the way things are. This is how nature is; this is how God is, and this is how we are, in our true being, as made in the image of God.

What are the implications of this way of thinking?

Working and extrapolating from the facts of Patrick’s life, a key consequence of so emphasising the Trinity would be the balance between being true to ourselves and yet being a person for others. Of course, our culture is dominated by the former consideration but it would be a mistake to think that the ancient people whom Patrick encountered would have been so very different at heart, even if “true to ourselves”  had a strongly tribal connotation.

“True to ourselves” for Patrick indicated the passion of his missionary calling, and “being a person for others” indicated the people to whom he was sent.

Secondly, the doctrine of the Trinity would have implications for an understanding of creation. God, unlike the gods in other ancient creation stories, did not need to go outside himself to create the universe. Instead, the Word and the Spirit were like his own two hands (to use the famous phrase of Irenaeus) in fashioning the seen world.

God created by speaking (the Word) as the Spirit hovered over the chaos. Creation, like regeneration, is a Trinitarian act, with God working by the agency of the Word spoken and the mysterious movement of the Holy Spirit.

Third, the Trinity would have implications for the way Patrick understood evangelism and cultural engagement. As a missionary, Patrick would have encountered two opposite spiritual tendencies: one would have been a unity of language, culture, and expression—without allowing much variance for diversity.

But at the same time, there would certainly have been a wide diversity of opinion, belief, and background—without attempting to see things in any kind of meta-unity.

In this context, a teaching of the Trinity would allow for both diversity and unity. If God exists in three distinct Persons who all share the same essence, then it is possible to hope that God’s creation may exhibit stunning variety and individuality while still holding together in a genuine oneness.

And this would carry enormous implications for the communities that Patrick sought to develop.  Patrick celebrated a God who he understood was in constant and eternal relationship with himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

This is the underlying reality of Christian community, for it is only here that interpersonal community can be seen as the expression of the nature of God. Without a plurality of persons in the Godhead, we would be forced to think that God created humans so that he might show love and know love, thereby making love a created thing (and God becoming a needy deity!).

But the Trinity shows us that we can say that God did not create in order to be loved, but rather, created out of the overflow of the perfect love that had always existed among Father, Son, and Holy Spirit who ever live in perfect and mutual relationship and delight (Quoting Kevin DeYoung).

Is this the reason that Patrick so emphasised the Trinity? Its teaching celebrated both unity and diversity (and so provided a bridge into Celtic culture); its teaching encapsulated the gospel story (and so simplified evangelism); and its teaching provided method and means of creating Christian community.


St Patrick on the Defensive

ben-bulben Emer O Shea

One time I was put to the test by some superiors of mine. They came and put my sins against my hard work as a bishop. (26)

Here we see Patrick on the defensive; this odd couple of sentences has led to a lot of (odd) theorising about exactly why he wrote the Confession.

For the main, of course,  the whole text is a declaration of his faith and of God’s dealings with him, but here Patrick tells us that he was subjected to criticism from others, including those whom he calls” senioribus meis” (“My bosses”). The charge brought against Patrick referred to something which had happened in his past and which had been disclosed through a betrayal of confidence on the part of a close friend.

They brought up against me after thirty years something I had already confessed before I was a deacon. What happened was that, one day when I was feeling anxious and low, with a very dear friend of mine I referred to some things I had done one day — rather, in one hour — when I was young, before I overcame my weakness. I don’t know — God knows — whether I was then fifteen years old at the time, and I did not then believe in the living God, not even when I was a child. In fact, I remained in death and unbelief until I was reproved strongly, and actually brought low by hunger and nakedness daily. (27)

There have been many guesses as to what crime a 15-yr old could commit that could so blacken the reputation of a 45-yr old, but guesses they remain. Patrick himself refers to it as my weakness which he later overcame by turning to Christ. In fact he refers to his time as a slave (being brought low by hunger and nakedness daily) as the very circumstance that enabled him to find God, and so leave his sinful past behind.

But the point here is not quite the sin, but the betrayal. Patrick seemed  to feel the pain of his friend’s betrayal long afterwards, and the memory of it was still fresh with him as he wrote his Confession.

But I grieve more for my very dear friend, that we had to hear such an account — the one to whom I entrusted my very soul. I did learn from some brothers before the case was heard that he came to my defence in my absence. I was not there at the time, not even in Britain, and it was not I who brought up the matter. In fact it was he himself who told me from his own mouth: ‛Look, you are being given the rank of bishop’. That is something I did not deserve. How could he then afterwards come to disgrace me in public before all, both good and bad, about a matter for which he had already freely and joyfully forgiven me, as indeed had God, who is greater than all? (32)

The implication here is that certain sins may be overlooked for a mere deacon, but upon news of Patrick’s promotion, (Look, you are being given the rank of bishop)  his friend felt duty-bound to report this ancient pecadillo to the powers that be. If it was a sense of duty, it certainly hints of jealousy too.

Memo to self: Be careful when you “confess your sins to one another.”

There are other references too, to Patrick being on the defensive. He doesn’t explain it fully, but it may be that there was a charge of financial impropriety. He writes that he returned the gifts which wealthy women gave him, did not accept payment for baptisms, nor for ordaining priests, and indeed paid for many gifts to kings and judges, and paid for the sons of chiefs to accompany him. Was the charge that he had obtained his position as bishop with a view to making money out of it? (44)

From this same evidence, something can be seen of the shape of Patrick’s mission. He writes that he baptised thousands of people  (45) and ordained priests to lead the new Christian communities. He saw wealthy women converted, some of whom became nuns in the teeth of family hostility. He also dealt with the sons of kings, converting them too (46).  Consequently, his position as a foreigner in Ireland was not an easy one. His refusal to accept gifts from kings placed him outside the normal ties of kinship, fosterage and affinity. Legally he was without protection, and he says that he was on one occasion beaten, robbed of all he had, and put in chains, perhaps awaiting execution (47)

Patrick knows that much has been accomplished by his work in Ireland (38, 41), and yet we are struck by his humility. Nowhere does he try to hide the fact that he has made mistakes (46). He is open about that early sin (whatever it was) (26). In the same vein, he shrugs his shoulders about his lack of education (1, 9, Letter 1) and claims to be completely unworthy of the fruit that has resulted from his work (55).

A key background text for Patrick’s  “defensive strategy” is clearly 2 Corinthians 12:7-10. Listen to Paul: “Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong.” 

Patrick knows how easily one can be deceived (44) and moved away from a proper attitude towards God, and hence his weaknesses and failings serve as continual reminders of his need for dependence on God.

I remember hearing a quote some years back which helps me understand Patrick’s perspective. Here it is: “Royalty is my identity; service is my assignment; intimacy with God is my source of strength.”


Would Patrick have called himself a “Saint”?

To answer the question properly, it’s best to do a quick study of what the New Testament says about “saints.” The word “saints” is a translation of a Greek word (“hagioi”) which means “holy ones.” So who are the saints (and how do you get to be one?!)

In 1 Corinthians 1:2 Paul calls his readers “the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, saints by calling, with all who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours.” Paul defines the church of God at Corinth (the Christians at Corinth, his readers) as “those who have been sanctified (Greek – hagiazo) in Jesus Christ, saints (Greek – hagioi) by calling.” There are not two groups here that he writes the letter to, the church and the saints, but one group, the church of God in Corinth, who are saints!

It’s the same across the New Testament. In the book of Acts, Ananias refers to Saul of Tarsus and “how much harm he did to Thy saints at Jerusalem (Acts 9:13). We are told of Peter who “came down also to the saints who lived at Lydda” (Acts 9:32); and Paul who tells King Agrippa that while in Jerusalem, he locked up “many of the saints in prisons” (Acts 26:10).

The word “saints” is Paul’s normal designation for those who receive his letters. He writes to the Christians at Rome, “to all who are beloved of God in Rome, called as saints” (Rom. 1:7); to the Corinthians, “to the church of God which is at Corinth with all the saints who are throughout Achaia” (2 Cor. 1:1); to Ephesus (“to the saints who are at Ephesus, and who are faithful in Christ Jesus” Eph. 1:1), Philippi (“to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi” (Phil. 1:1); “to the saints and faithful brethren in Christ who are at Colossae” (Col. 1:2) among many other references.

In other passages, Christians communities are referred to as a holy “temple,” “building,” or “house“; or they are called “priests” or a “priesthood,” which clearly refers to their holy status before God.

Paul tells the Corinthians, “Do you not know that you are a temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If any man destroys the temple of God, God will destroy him, for the temple of God is holy, and that is what you are” (1 Cor. 3:16-17).

He reminds the Corinthians, “Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world” (1 Cor. 6:2)?

Paul prays that the Ephesians “may know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints” (Eph. 1:18).

He commends the Colossians because of “the love which you have for all the saints” (Col. 1:4);  and he does the same to Philemon: “I hear of your love . . . toward all the saints.”

So who are the saints, according to the New Testament?  -These passages –with many others – present living Christians on earth to be saints, holy ones, holy priests before God. Also, there is no evidence of a distinction being made between “ordinary” Christians on the one hand, and saints on the other.

So how did they become saints?

According to the New Testament, the holiness that a saint possesses, that makes him a holy one, is not his own holiness, but the holiness of Jesus Christ that has been imputed to him through faith. It is a holiness received not a holiness achieved.

Paul tells the Corinthians that Jesus, by His life and death became “sanctification/holiness” for us: “He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption (1 Cor. 1:30).

Paul tells the Colossians that the result of Christ’s death on the cross for them was reconciliation with God and holiness: “yet He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach” and that the only way to remain holy in God’s sight is to continue to believe the Gospel, “if indeed you continue in the faith firmly established and steadfast, and not moved away from the hope of the gospel that you have heard” (Col. 1:22-23).

When Christ appeared to Paul, He explained Paul’s mission in these words, “I am sending you, to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the dominion of Satan to God, in order that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who have been sanctified by faith in Me” (Acts 26:18).

So we come at last to ask the question: Would Patrick have called himself a saint?

The answer, of course, is yes, since Patrick took his stand upon what the New Testament said, and not upon his own efforts, works, triumphs and failings.  He begins and continues the Confession with a total awareness of his own inadequacy. The emphatic descriptor is peccator, sinner, a stone in the mud, sure, but a stone raised and set on high.

Patrick’s confidence was not in his own ability or unique importance but in the grace of the God who had rescued him, restored him, commissioned him and who sustained him through every trial.

One more point. It’s interesting to notice that the word “saint” never appears in the New Testament in the singular. Not once.

That’s surely because the holiness of God is in Jesus, and it is as we are in Him, corporately, that we share His holiness. So would Patrick have allowed a personal designation that robbed Christ of His central place?

Emphatically not.