Saint Patrick: Practical Theologian, Social Activist
- Tuesday, March 08, 2011
WHO WAS ST. PATRICK?
Good question. Most of my knowledge about St. Patrick came from the Veggie Tales' Sumo of the Opera episode, so when asked to write this article, I had some research to do. Sorting out myth-story from history became difficult when studying about someone who lived at the far edge of the civilized world during the decline of the Roman empire, but there were a few facts I discovered about Patricius (Patrick).
Patrick lived after Christianity became mainstream in the Roman Empire. He was born sometime around AD 386 in Britain and died around 460 in Ireland. His grandfather was a priest, and his father was a Roman official who was also a deacon in the Roman church. Patrick left behind two documents: his Confession and Letter to Coroticus.
When I started reading both the legendary and historical material about Patrick, two key characteristics struck me. First, according to legend, Patrick was a practical theologian. Second, according to history, Patrick was a social activist.
PATRICK THE PRACTICAL THEOLOGIAN
Patrick's story as a bishop to the Irish began oddly: kidnapped by pirates at age 16, he was taken from Britain to Ireland. Sold into slavery, he spent six years as a shepherd. According to Thomas Cahill, he had two constant companions: nakedness and hunger. It was under these harsh conditions that Patrick learned to pray constantly. One night he heard a mysterious voice telling him it was time to leave Ireland, and after walking to a seaport, he miraculously found passage away from Ireland, and eventually, back to Britain.
Because of his captivity, Patrick missed a formal education. He later spent time training for the priesthood, but he lacked the classical training of his contemporaries. As a consequence, when he finally went back to Ireland, he had to rely on skills other than classical oration or philosophical theology to work with the Irish people.
His lack of training became a strength. When he came up against Druidic shaman and pagan kings, it was Patrick's prayer life that impressed them and not his rhetorical skill.
Patrick's belief that all the world belonged to God became part of his power. An example of his confidence in God's world was his legendary use of nature to teach about the Holy Trinity. According to legend, Patrick would take up a three-leaf clover and ask, "Does it have one leaf or three?" Those listening would respond, "both." Patrick then explained, "And so it is with the Trinity - Father, Son, and Spirit are one God. Three persons in one."
Patrick's ability to see God in nature paralleled both Paul and the Psalmist. In Romans chapter one, Paul declared that God provided the world with knowledge about Himself through His creation. Attributed to David, Psalm 19 proclaimed that the sun's movement through the heavens declared God's glory.
Patrick's practical emphasis on the Trinity extended beyond the shamrock. During the 19th century, a 10th century manuscript translation in Dublin included a hymn called "St. Patrick's Breastplate." Though it was impossible to tell if Patrick actually wrote the hymn, he still received credit for it.
"St. Patrick's Breastplate" was a protective prayer. Celtic monks used it to start their day. The prayer began:
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