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Archive for the tag “Ireland”

St Patrick’s Day

It is said that St Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland, which is why there are now no native snakes there.

There have been various explanations of this, and of how it was done. I rather like this one, hat-tip to Casher O’Neill.

Here’s another one, with a more scientific explanation: nourishing obscurity | St Patrick’s Day mood setter.

On a more serious note, there’s this:

Saturday 17th March 2012
* Tone 6 – Third Saturday of Great Lent
* Memorial Saturday
St Alexius the Man of God, in Rome (411)
St Patrick, Bishop of Armagh, Apostle to the Irish (?461)
St Withburga, Solitary at Holkham and East Dereham (c 743)
Martyr Marinus, Soldier, at Caesarea in Palestine (260)
St Ambrose, Deacon, and disciple of St Didymus (400)
Monk-Martyr Paul of Cyprus (767)
St Macarius, Abbot, Wonderworker of Kalyazin (1483)
Hieromartyr Gabriel of Mtsyr (Georgia) (1802)
Revised Julian (New Style) Calendar

And, from Orthodox Church in America: lives of the saints:

Commemorated on March 17

Saint Patrick, the Enlightener of Ireland was born around 385, the son of Calpurnius, a Roman decurion (an official responsible for collecting taxes). He lived in the village of Bannavem Taberniae, which may have been located at the mouth of the Severn River in Wales. The district was raided by pirates when Patrick was sixteen, and he was one of those taken captive. He was brought to Ireland and sold as a slave, and was put to work as a herder of swine on a mountain identified with Slemish in Co. Antrim. During his period of slavery, Patrick acquired a proficiency in the Irish language which was very useful to him in his later mission.

He prayed during his solitude on the mountain, and lived this way for six years. He had two visions. The first told him he would return to his home. The second told him his ship was ready. Setting off on foot, Patrick walked two hundred miles to the coast. There he succeeded in boarding a ship, and returned to his parents in Britain.

Some time later, he went to Gaul and studied for the priesthood at Auxerre under St Germanus (July 31). Eventually, he was consecrated as a bishop, and was entrusted with the mission to Ireland, succeeding St Palladius (July 7). St Palladius did not achieve much success in Ireland. After about a year he went to Scotland, where he died in 432.

Patrick had a dream in which an angel came to him bearing many letters. Selecting one inscribed “The Voice of the Irish,” he heard the Irish entreating him to come back to them.

Although St Patrick achieved remarkable results in spreading the Gospel, he was not the first or only missionary in Ireland. He arrived around 432 (though this date is disputed), about a year after St Palladius began his mission to Ireland. There were also other missionaries who were active on the southeast coast, but it was St Patrick who had the greatest influence and success in preaching the Gospel of Christ. Therefore, he is known as “The Enlightener of Ireland.”

His autobiographical Confession tells of the many trials and disappointments he endured. Patrick had once confided to a friend that he was troubled by a certain sin he had committed before he was fifteen years old. The friend assured him of God’s mercy, and even supported Patrick’s nomination as bishop. Later, he turned against him and revealed what Patrick had told him in an attempt to prevent his consecration. Many years later, Patrick still grieved for his dear friend who had publicly shamed him.

St Patrick founded many churches and monasteries across Ireland, but the conversion of the Irish people was no easy task. There was much hostility, and he was assaulted several times. He faced danger, and insults, and he was reproached for being a foreigner and a former slave. There was also a very real possibility that the pagans would try to kill him. Despite many obstacles, he remained faithful to his calling, and he baptized many people into Christ.

The saint’s Epistle to Coroticus is also an authentic work. In it he denounces the attack of Coroticus’ men on one of his congregations. The Breastplate (Lorica) is also attributed to St Patrick. In his writings, we can see St Patrick’s awareness that he had been called by God, as well as his determination and modesty in undertaking his missionary work. He refers to himself as “a sinner,” “the most ignorant and of least account,” and as someone who was “despised by many.” He ascribes his success to God, rather than to his own talents: “I owe it to God’s grace that through me so many people should be born again to Him.”

By the time he established his episcopal See in Armargh in 444, St Patrick had other bishops to assist him, many native priests and deacons, and he encouraged the growth of monasticism.

St Patrick is often depicted holding a shamrock, or with snakes fleeing from him. He used the shamrock to illustrate the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. Its three leaves growing out of a single stem helped him to explain the concept of one God in three Persons. Many people now regard the story of St Patrick driving all the snakes out of Ireland as having no historical basis.

St Patrick died on March 17, 461 (some say 492). There are various accounts of his last days, but they are mostly legendary. Muirchu says that no one knows the place where St Patrick is buried. St Columba of Iona (June 9) says that the Holy Spirit revealed to him that Patrick was buried at Saul, the site of his first church. A granite slab was placed at his traditional grave site in Downpatrick in 1899.

Saints and wild animals

Yesterday sort of didn’t happen, and so I missed the fact that 17 March commemorates a couple of saints who are known, among other things, for their relationships with dangerous wild animals.

But other bloggers didn’t forget them, and two of them had some rather interesting posts, so I point you to them:

On Pilgrimage: Saint Gerasimos of the Jordan:

Among saints remembered for their peaceful relations with dangerous animals, not least is Gerasimos, shown in icons caring for an injured lion.

and

The Snakes and the Slaves: The Website of Unknowing:

So when Patrick expelled the snakes from Ireland, was this a mythic way of saying he brought about the end of the native, druidic religion? It might be easy to interpret things that way, and I suppose many, both Christian and Pagan, would agree with this way of reading history. But I am not so sure. I think indigenous Irish spirituality did not so much vanish under Christianity as adapt and evolve. The old gods and goddesses may have retreated undergone and became the fairies of myth and lore, but many practices associated with them — from the veneration of holy wells to the Imbolc ceremonies Christianised under devotion to St. Brigid — have lived on, into the present day.

Celtic spirituality

At various times I have come across and even got involved in discussions about Celtic spirituality and the Celtic Church, topics that seem to be very popular in certain circles.

One of the things that surprised me was the misinformation and disinformation circulating about the topic. People expressed interest in the Celtic Church, but when they came to give reasons for their interest, the reasons were often spurious, and their understanding of the Celtic Church was often completely a-historical.

Hat-tip to A conservative blog for peace for giving a pointer to this article, which gives a good historical summary: Celtic Spirituality: Just what does it mean? [Thinking Faith – the online journal of the British Jesuits]

But what would St Patrick – arguably the most famous Celtic saint – make of the practices and beliefs called ‘Celtic Spirituality’ today? Liam Tracey OSM examines whether the Celtic church was really anything like the romantic picture often painted of it.

Tracey says of this phenomenon:

What is so attractive about these long forgotten figures and cultures? Why has there been such a remarkable renaissance in interest in what ultimately is a small windswept island on the Western fringes of Europe? It’s hard to know and one sometimes gets the impression in looking at the phenomenon that is called ‘Celtic Spirituality,’ that what you are encountering is a screen on which is projected many contemporary desires, anxieties and preoccupations, little to do with the past and more especially with the past of these islands. Of course, one of the major problems with many of these treatments of things ‘Celtic’ is the lack of historical awareness that groups all manner of practices and writings together, with little reference to the social, religious and political context of the past and a failure to note that the same thing, seen as ‘Celtic’ was happening right throughout Western Christianity.

Scottish Presbyterians, have, of course, long been interested in Celtic Christianity, and may have been partly responsible for the popularity of the topic, because it was Irish missionaries who first took Christianity to Scotland, and in fact the Scots were originally immigrants to Scotland from Ireland, displacing the native Picts. Calvinists are not usually given to naming churches after saints, but Celtic saints, like St Columba and St Mungo are exceptions, and one sometimes finds Presbyterian churches named for these saints.

Anglo-Catholics, too, have sometimes stressed the role of the Celtic Church in evangelising the heathen Anglo-Saxon invaders, to diminish the idea of the Church of England’s dependence on Rome. The Roman mission to Kent, led by St Augustine of Canterbury, cannot be denied, but it was mostly Celtic missionaries who evangelised the northern English.

All this is interesting from the point of view of church history, especially if one lives in the British Isles, or is a member of a Christian denomination that had its origins there. It has even been made the subject of a popular historical novel, Credo by Melvyn Bragg.

But it is also interesting missiologically.

An interesting book to read is The coming of Christianity to Anglo-Saxon England by Henry Mayr-Harting (London, Batsford, 1991). ISBN: 0-7134-6589-1. It gives a good example of premodern mission methods, and the differences and similarities between the methods used by Celtic and Roman missionaries. They were far more similar to each other than either were to modern mission.

As with Kievan Rus some centuries later, mission began with royal courts. It was King Oswald, who had just united Deira and Bernicia into the kingdom of Northumbria who asked for a missionary. He had become a Christian before he had become king, while he was living among the Irish. The first missionary proved unsuitable, so Oswald chose another, Aidan, who established a monastery on the island of Lindisfarne. Though he was bishop of the Northumbrians, he appointed an abbot to rule the monastery to whom he himself, as a monk, was subject. This was a characteristic of Celtic Christianity that has often been distorted in modern telling.

Both the Irish and English societies, like that of Kievan Rus, were warrior and tribal societies, with economies based partly on trade, and partly on conquest and looting. In such a society a “royal mission” can seem almost a contradiction in terms. The kings in such a society were warlords whose authority in the eyes of their followers was based, at least in part, on their success in conquest. After a war raid, the warriors would return with their booty and have a feasts to celebrate. The generosity of kings in giving such feasts for their victorious followers was what cemented the bonds between leader and followers. Today we would call it “organised crime”.

Christianity, with its ethic of love and meekness, hardly seemed calculated to appeal to such people. Yet it did appeal, and, once accepted, it transformed the societies into something else. Prince Vladimir of Rus, for example, abolished capital punishment, and though he still gave feasts and banquets, he invited the poor and weak, and not just the strong, the warriors.

The contrast between the royal courts and monasteries was perhaps significant in this. Many of the monks, including the abbots of important monasteries, refused to ride horses, but rode donkeys. Monasticism was thus a counterbalance to royal power. And several kings in that era retired to monasteries in their old age.

Monastic missionaries in the medieval period seemed to use similar methods, from the forests of northern Russia to the British Isles, and south into the mountains of Ethiopia. The monastic missionary was

  • the exorcist, delivering people from the power of evil spirits
  • the angel, living the angelic life, constant in prayer
  • the healer, taking no money
  • the lion tamer, protecting people from dangerous wild animals

And, unlike modern medical missionaries, they did not heal by building clinics; they healed through prayer, fasting, the sign of the cross, holy water, saliva and miracle-working ikons.

I’ve sometimes wondered what might have happened if the court of King Shaka in Zululand had he had a missionary like St Aidan in Oswald’s court, rather than the post-Enlightenment missionaries with their many words and rationalising arguments.

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