Church of England Diocese of Guildford Dunsfold

THE GOSPEL AND GUINNESS: HAPPY ST PATRICK'S DAY

17 Mar 2021, 6:45 p.m.
Lent

A blog by David Cole, Brother Cassian.

Arguably the most celebrated saint’s day in the West is St Patrick’s day. The feast day of a saint is marked by the day that they shifted their existence from dwelling in the ‘temporary earthly tent’ to dwell in the eternal ‘Divinely constructed house not made with hands’[1]. For Patrick this was 17 March. Coincidentally, this year this date falls on the Wednesday of week four in my Celtic Lent book, which just so happens to be a story about St Patrick!

There are two common misconceptions about Patrick: Firstly, that he was Irish, and secondly that it was he who first took Christianity to Ireland.

Patrick was not Irish, but was, most likely, Romano-British. As I mention in my Celtic Saints book, I believe he was from the north part of the British kingdom of South Rheged, which stretched from the north of what is now Wales to the western end of Hadrian’s Wall. Based on collected historical evidence I believe Patrick was from somewhere around the Lake District or Cumbria.

As for the second misconception, there are numerous historical evidences that Christianity was in Ireland before Patrick went there. For example, as I mention on 19 December in my Celtic Advent book, there is a story in Irish history of Déclán from the Déisi tribe. Déclán planted his first monastic centre in Ireland in 416, whereas Patrick didn’t start his missionary journey to Ireland until 432. Patrick’s missionary journey, though not the first, was certainly the most successful single mission to Ireland. But why was this?

The life story of Patrick written by Muirchú in the 7th century is an amazing collection of stories of wonder and miraculous power. Many of these are of Patrick’s confrontation with disgruntled Druids, which read much like the confrontation between Gandalf and Saruman in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, where Patrick, by practical example, shows the power of Christ as being greater than the former power. Muirchú was not, however, anti-Druid or anti-Pagan, but had ‘a developed sense of the relationship between Christian revelation and the pagan religion… That religion was not simply darkness, but a preparation for the gospel, and hence his people were always in some relationship with the true God and under the protection of his Providence’[2]. As Philip Newell says, ‘Christ was preached [by Celtic missionaries] as the fulfilment of everything that was true, including the wisdom of the tradition that preceded Christianity in Celtic [lands].’[3] I see this as a similar way of mission to that of the Apostle Paul with the Jews. Paul preached that Jesus was the Messiah/Christ, the fulfilment of everything they had believed thus far, and therefore those who heard Paul’s message and believed became Messianic Jews. Rather than feeling they had to completely abandon their former beliefs, these Jews simply refocused them to become Christocentric. This is the most likely reason, I think, that Patrick’s missions were so successful, as he taught a shift of focus to Christocentric spirituality for those with a Druidic belief, rather than the need for a total abandonment of all previous beliefs and the need to pick up something completely different and new.

In a world where there are so many different beliefs interwoven in close living communities, it is an important lesson for us to learn that there is, dare I suggest, some elements of Divine Truth in spiritual beliefs outside of Christianity. As Patrick journeyed around Ireland speaking to the people who had, for generations, lived in a Druidic belief system and had seen the good it can do, and the positive aspects of it, he showed the example of Christ, both by his lifestyle and miraculous signs and wonders. Although there is no real evidence of syncretism in Patrick’s message, there is evidence that he did not necessarily see the need to abandon all former beliefs. We can learn from this, for example, Muslims who become Christocentric can keep their rhythms of, and dedication to, prayer; Buddhists who become Christocentric can keep their practice of meditation and mindfulness. Twentieth century examples of this way of sharing the Gospel to Hindus in India can be found in the lives and teachings of both Anthony DeMello and Bede Griffiths.

As you celebrate St Patrick’s day this year, whether that be with just a quiet pint of Guinness on your own or a louder more exuberant (COVID safe!) celebration, perhaps think about how you present the gospel of Christ to those who already have a different belief. Do you preach an abandonment of all former beliefs? Or a shift to Christocentric understanding?

David Cole's Celtic Lent book is published by BRF.