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History is an amazing presence--it is the place where vanished time gathers. While we are in the flow of time, it is difficult to glean its significance, and it is only in looking back that we can recognize the hidden dimensions at work within a particular era or epoch. St. Patrick has always been acknowledged as a pivotal figure in early Irish history and spirituality. Yet despite this importance, his significance has often become rather caricatured in legend and in the retrospective intentionality that nostalgia often confers. And yet we need not be limited by what legend has given us, since we are fortunate in having documents from Patrick's own hand.
The Confession of St. Patrick provides a window into a remarkable life. Patrick is a figure who inhabits a crucial threshold in the evolution and definition of Irish spirituality. To serve this threshold demanded a singular commitment that engaged every resource and depth of character he possessed. His story revolves around an initial irony which qualifies his centrality in the Irish tradition.
It was Irish pirates who kidnapped him from his British home and sold him into slavery here. They could never have suspected the spiritual tradition that would be born out of their brutal action.
Indeed, the structure of this initial moment sets the rhythm of Patrick's subsequent life, namely, the praxis of a spirituality of transfiguration. His physical slavery releases him into a life of inner liberation. His captors only controlled his tasks and location but they never got near the eternal spring that was awakening in his young mind.
Patrick understands his slavery as the door into divine recognition and friendship. In this awful experience of alienation and exile, he discovers God as his anam-cara. Anam is the Irish word for soul and cara is the word for friend. The Anam-cara is the Friend of the soul. This is one of the most beautiful concepts in the Celtic tradition. An ancient affinity and belonging awakened between two people in the Anam-cara relationship. This relationship cut across all other connections. In your Anam-cara you discovered the Other in whom your heart could be at home. The depth and shelter of this Anam-cara belonging enables Patrick to endure the most awful conditions. Prayer is conversation with his Anam-cara:
But after I had come to Ireland,
it was then that I was made to shepherd the flocks day after day, so, as I did so, I would pray all the time, right through the day. More and more the love of God and fear of him grew strong within me.
and as my faith grew, so the Spirit became more and more active, so that in a single day I
would say as many as a hundred prayers, and at night only slightly less.
Although I might be staying in a forest or out on a mountainside, it would be the same;
even before dawn broke, I would be aroused to pray.
In snow, in frost, in rain,
I would hardly notice any discomfort,
and I was never slack but always full of energy.
It is clear to me now, that this was due to the fervor of the Spirit within me.
Pascal said that in difficult times you should always keep something beautiful in your heart. Patrick is able to survive these harsh and lonely territories of exile precisely because he keeps the beauty of God alive in his heart. The inner beauty of the divine intimacy transfigures outer bleakness.
This inner intimacy brings his soul alive. It opens the world of the divine imagination to this youth. Consequently, he becomes available for his destiny in a new way. His dreams invite him to ever richer thresholds of his future. He is shown in a dream a ship that will take him away from slavery. The lantern of his dream guides him through two hundred miles of hostile territory to a harbor where strange sailors unexpectedly relent and take him aboard ship. Fascinating relics of ancient traditions glisten through this phase of the narrative.
His parents and friends are delighted at his return. He studies and becomes a priest and bishop. Yet his destiny is not to remain among what is familiar or complacent. Again the dream calls him to journey toward the next threshold. It is the dream of a letter from Ireland full of the "Voice of the Irish" calling him to "come back and walk once more among us." Patrick allows himself to be guided by the "vision in his dreams." He is "pierced to the core" by this request.
It is fascinating that the crucial new direction in his life is not determined by the clear calculations of the daytime but rather originate in the voices of dream in the depth of the night. Often the most original disclosures assemble in the unconscious and are deciphered through imagination and dream. Patrick is so attuned to this deeper dimension of soul that his sense of who he is is rendered ever more complex by such new inner disclosures.
His sense of soul complexity finds its most fascinating expression in the frame-breaking experience that happens at that tender threshold somewhere between dream, prayer, and vision:
And on another night, "I do not know, only God knows"
whether in me or outside myself,
I heard the most wise words which
as yet I could not comprehend . . .
In the moment of deepest divine encounter, the frames of normal perception are radically extended and intensified. Yet in contrast to some Oriental mysticism, the sense of the intimacy and belonging of the Self does not fade into anonymity of Nothingness:
And once again, I saw him praying within my soul,
it was as if I was still inside my body,
and then I heard him above, me, that is over my inner man.
Patrick is amazed at this intrusion or more precisely extrusion from his own depths. This new presence is not himself but yet is radically at one with him:
And as all this was happening, I was stunned and kept
marveling and wondering . . .
who he might be, who was praying in this wise within me.
But as this prayer was ending, he declared that it was the Spirit.
Patrick discovers that the deepest experience of prayer is not the mere verbal intention of an isolated subject directed at a distant deity. The deepest prayer is beyond subjectivity and objectivity. It is the echo of the inner membrane where the human soul dovetails into the divine. This is reminiscent of what Eckhart terms the Birth of God in the soul. This event liberates Patrick from oppression of outer constraint by absolutely confirming the depth, authenticity, and expressiveness of the inner wellspring He tells us:
in such ways I have learned, by my own experience.
For any great spirit who must negotiate the great thresholds and indeed become a threshold the nourishment and sustenance of such inner confirmation is vital. He can travel on any dangerous or hostile outer journey because he knows he is at Home within. This is what sustains him in the lonely times of betrayal, misunderstanding, and scandal. Patrick is a strikingly modern figure in being ambivalent externally, however internally he inhabits the unity of innocence and authenticity. His singular independence is grounded in the sense of his own autonomy. It is reminiscent of Kierkegaard's statement: "Purity of heart is to will one thing."
Patrick's intimacy with the divine makes him painfully aware of his faults and unworthiness. Yet this recognition never becomes self-obsessive. He acknowledges that the tender mercy of God is deeper and more ultimate than mere human failing. His faults, therefore, do not become a barrier to either his destiny or growth. His difficulties with eros make Patrick real and interesting. They signal the charisma and passion of his personality and presence.
Patrick's presence is full of uaisleacht. The Irish word for nobility is uaisleacht; it also carries echoes of honor, dignity, and poise. Patrick exercised uaisleacht in relation to the people he shepherded. He served, defended, and cared for them, yet he refused any gifts or attempts to claim him. He also exercised uaisleacht in relation to his own destiny. He constructed no kingdom of the ego. He opened himself to the ultimate calling and challenge of Otherness in its social, territorial, and spiritual forms:
For I know full well
that poverty and adversity suit me better
than riches and delights.
The range and intensity of his inner and outer exposure is both admirable and fascinating. Only a great soul could engage such otherness and still remain gentle and free.
A threshold is a place where different territories meet. Patrick is a great threshold. In him the pre-Christian and Christian dimensions of the Irish sensibility find an acute and balanced tension. Frequently in the Confessions we sense this meeting. Near the end he aligns the pre-Christian Celtic sense of the divinity of the sun with Christ: "the true sun . . . who will never die." In the Lorica attributed to Patrick, even though it comes three centuries later, we find a lovely balance of the pre-Christian and the Christian.
The Lorica derives its particular nuance from the absolute recognition of the omnipresence of God. The new day is understood as a gift of the divine. The very energy of awakening and arising is made possible by the love and care of God. Whatever the day holds is welcome because the ultimate origin and destination of the day is divinity. It explicitly recognizes the day in the light of the Trinitarian embrace. A day is no mere segment of anonymous and contingent time. A day is full of latent divinity:
I arise today
in a mighty strength
calling upon the Trinity,
believing in the Three Persons
saying they are One
thanking my creator.
This lyrical and direct evocation of the Trinity is then followed by a recognition of the Christological depth of our experience. Next the forces of the invisible world that secretly contribute to our destiny and experience are named and invoked. Then he names the elements and acknowledges how their latent divinity calls the individual forth out of the night into the energy and celebration of life:
I arise today
through strength in the sky:
light of the sun
dazzle of fire
speed of lightning
The secret faithfulness of landscape is recognized here. It provides the where without which no life or object could exist.
Patrick draws constant attention to his rustic and unlearned sensibility. The depth and probe of his writings belie this. Yet it is true that the exploration and refinement of theological connections and nuance is neither his objective nor gift. Yet in his writings the pre-Christian and the Christian are always adjacent. Close enough to allow us to explore their embrace and recognize here a latent/nascent theology of Creation. A Celtic theology of Creation understands such continuity and interflow as vital, rich, and liberating.
A Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus: Part I
I am Patrick, yes a sinner and indeed untaught; yet I am established here in Ireland where I profess myself bishop.
I am certain in my heart that "all that I am," I have received from God.
So I live among barbarous tribes.
a stranger and exile for the love of God.
He himself testifies that this is so.
I never would have wanted these harsh words to spill from my mouth; I am not in the habit of speaking so sharply.
Yet now I am driven by the zeal of God, Christ's truth has aroused me.
I speak out too for love of my neighbors who are my only sons;
for them I gave up my home country, my parents and even pushing my own life to the brink of death.
If I have any worth, it is to live my life for God so as to teach these peoples;
even though some of them still look down on me.
I Cor. 15:10 Phil. 2:30
I myself have composed and written these words with my own hand, so that
they can be given and handed over, then sent swiftly to the soldiers of
I am not addressing my own people, nor my fellow citizens of the holy
Romans, but those who are now become citizens of demons by reason of
their evil works.
They have chosen, by their hostile deeds, to live in death;
comrades of the Scotti and Picts and of all who behave like apostates,
bloody men who have steeped themselves in the blood of innocent Christians.
The very same people I have begotten for God; their
number beyond count, I myself confirmed them in Christ.
The very next day after my new converts, dressed all in white, were anointed with chrism,
even as it was still gleaming upon their foreheads, they were cruelly cut down and killed by the swords of these same devilish men.
At once I sent a good priest with a letter.
I could trust him, for I had taught him from his boyhood.
He went, accompanied by other priests,
to see if we might claw something back from all the looting, most important,
the baptized captives whom they had seized.
Yet all they did was to laugh in our faces at the mere mention of their prisoners.
From the Paperback edition.