St. Patrick & Celtic Christianity

One of the most significant movements in Christian history was the Celtic movement of the 5th and 6th centuries. It found its genesis in the life of a key leader who went deeper with God to gain a new perspective on the world and our mission in it. This movement arose on the periphery of the established church, and came out of renewal to embrace theological breakthroughs and birth new structures.

Celtic Christianity was begun by Patrick around 431. Although St. Patrick’s name is well known, most people know little about his life, ministry and influence. He is remembered as the saint that drove out all the snakes in Ireland (not true), the teacher who used the shamrock to explain the Trinity (hoping not to pick a 4-leaf clover), and the namesake of our March holiday and parades (wear green everyone). In reality, he was a humble missionary of incredible courage whose life and ministry was to influence Christian history and impact all of Europe.

Patrick grew up in Roman Britain which had long since accepted Christianity. He had been raised as a Christian and attended a church in the ancient basilica style. His father was called a deacon, and his grandfather a priest or presbyter. There existed no prohibitions on clerical marriage at that time. His experiences as a boy were mostly of farming, but he probably heard his share of religious disputes and controversies.

The decisive event of Patrick’s life and future career came about when he was 16. Patrick was captured and enslaved by pirates from Ireland, and had to serve nearly 7 years as a shepherd in bitter isolation. These raiders were notorious as both slave traders and rustlers, and would guarantee the 2 constant companions of hunger and nakedness (extreme exposure to the elements). Like many in impossible situations, he began to pray. Now, there was no one to turn to except the God of his parents. During that time he developed an intimate prayer and devotion life, much like young David of the Bible.

After a miraculous escape from captivity (that took a few years), he received preparation for ministry from Eastern (not Western) Christian leaders. As Patrick reflected on his experiences, the conviction grew that his life was ordered not by blind forces, or his own plans, but by the power and providence of God. This core belief in the Spirit of the Sovereign Lord joined his deep sense of God’s grace and mercy to produce a strong confidence in the power of the Gospel. This confidence was to be seen throughout his life in his joyful Christianity and fearlessness in facing brutal paganism. Then, at 40 years of age, Patrick received a supernatural call from God. It was a dream, very similar to Paul’s Macedonian call.

Thomas Cahill recounts this defining experience, “One night in his parents’ house, a man he knew in Ireland visits him in a vision: Victoricus, holding “countless letters,” one of which he hands to Patricius, who reads its heading –VOX HIBERIONACUM, The Voice of the Irish. At that moment, he hears a multitude crying “We beg you to come and walk among us once more!” Stabbed to the heart, he is unable to read further –and so wakes up.”

After that, he tries repeatedly to put the Irish out of his mind, but the visions and conviction increase. Then, Christ speaks within him: “HE who gave His life for you, HE it is that speaks to you.” Patrick, the escaped slave, is about to be “drafted” once more…taken out and sent as Saint Patrick, the Apostle to the Irish!

Although not the first cross-cultural missionary in Northern Europe (Ulfilas went to the Goths in the 340’s), Patrick did spawn the beginning of the most influential missionary movement until the Waldensians in the 12th century, and the mendicant friar orders of the 13th century. There were 5 dominant characteristics of Celtic Christianity that were an overflow of the heart and experience of Patrick. The characteristics were 1) deep devotion 2) missionary passion 3) love of learning 4) respect for vernacular cultures 5) value and use of women.

The deep, personal devotion life of Celtic Christians was very unique. “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. This “Friend of the Soul” 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 that 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”-John O’Donohue.

Patrick speaks of this in his Confession, “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. Here, prayer becomes conversation with his Anam-cara, and the beauty of Divine intimacy transforms the outer darkness bringing life to his soul.

It was very similar to the heartfelt desires of Benedict of Nursia-who ultimately founded an order of Monasteries beginning at Monte Cassino in 529. They both were seeking deep devotion, true discipleship and to live a life more conducive to the gospel. Nevertheless, separating from the formalism, institutionalism and nominalism of the church often led monks to the extremes of Gnosticism (matter, natural, sex is evil), Pelagian legalism (austerity, works salvation, etc.), and isolationist lives. It seems the mainland monastic movement overreacted to the complacency and compromise of Constantine/ Edict of Milan Christian prominence, and fell into the pit of legalistic retreat. In both cases, the “salt loses its savor” and influence.

However, Patrick and Celtic Christianity were able to avoid these extremes and errors that similar groups fell into primarily because of their great love and knowledge of the scriptures. It was said of Patrick, “He constantly quotes the Bible. Its phrases seem to have impregnated his thought…He goes straight to the heart of the Biblical message, to the promises of God, to the redemption brought by Christ, God’s self-giving and love, the demand of holiness and faith, God’s trustworthiness and the presence of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of believers”-Hanson. It is clear from history that Patrick was biblical and evangelical in his ministry, and that the churches he started were independent of many Roman religious traditions and extremes.

Interestingly enough, Patrick found a balance between spiritual devotion and practical mission, between law and grace. The Celtic leaders were embracing a life of passionate worship and intercession, while being committed to missions and evangelism. The Celtic church, its schools and monasteries were not hiding from the world to find or keep their salvation; they were advancing into the world as lights and witnesses. More like the Dominican (O.P.) monastic movement of the 13th century than Benedictine 6th century. Patrick birthed the first missionary monasticism in history. When a group was converted, Patrick would train and leave both men and women behind to disciple and teach others. They were also training and sending many men and women as missionaries.

One reason for the vitality of Irish Christianity was that the historical and cultural conditions were right. It seems the tribal and rural character of Irish society played a significant role in producing a different ecclesiastical structure. For the Celtic churches, the center of life was not the diocese, but the monastery. Only here did they eclipse the concept of the diocese and develop an inversion of “jurisdictions” in which the church was under the leadership of abbots (rather than bishops). A diocese was usually organized with a town of political or economic importance at its center, but this Roman concept had never crossed over from the mainland, and Ireland had no such towns. Like other churches, these were Episcopal; however, the chief place in the monastery belonged not to the bishop but to the abbot.

This means that the church in Ireland developed free from the hierarchical systems, politics and compromise that were infecting Christian Religion elsewhere. Patrick had evangelized and organized differently, and the fruit of this would be seen for centuries. One history book said it this way, “Lacking the desire to establish church bureaucracies, Irish abbots encouraged their monks in the “real business” of the church –preaching, studying, and ministering to the poor.” These abbots were notable scholars reputed to live simple, devoted lives in tough circumstances…but above all else were “fatherly.” Many historians point to the “Book of Kells” as a primary example of the “amazingly vital piety” that was normal to these Celtic leaders. At least in the early years, they were very different from the legalistic, controlling extremes so common on the continent.

Many founders of the Irish monasteries did seek a remote retreat with few companions, but these communities became irresistibly attractive. The penalty for their piety and holiness was popularity. They found themselves pursued by waves of young men passionate to join these devoted believers. This astonishing flood of youth, eager to follow an example and commit to monastic life was to fuel centuries of study and missionary activity. Historian Stephen Neill says, “The Irish Christian youth felt with peculiar force the urge to ascetic devotion, and the busy life of the monasteries offered an outlet to native talent and energy in art and learning.”

Although these Irish were intense and austere in their devotional practices, they also had a love of art and robust enjoyment of life not found on the continent. This allowed for both the emphasis of music and the experience of personal fulfillment while embracing a radical commitment. This, no doubt, played a major role in the historic growth, expansion and enduring vitality of the Celtic movement.

The Celtic love for learning caused them to establish schools and monasteries for training. From the beginning, the Irish monks valued literacy, and the learning of antiquity was one of their major interests. This became a potent combination as educated monks filled with missionary zeal went out and founded these unique monasteries all over Ireland. These new structures allowed them to access and release many missionaries and influential Christians into the society surrounding them. Finnian of Clonard was seminal in this work, but Columba at Iona was the most prominent and influential.

The missionary passion of the Celts caused them to launch forth to reach the unreached (Patrick to Ireland, Columba to Iona Scotland, and Columbanus to Britain). It caused Patrick to initiate an indigenized form of evangelism-reaching Christians and city-state leaders first. It was his method to approach the leaders and decision makers of a people group, before ministering to and serving the community.

Like St. Olaf Haroldson of 1000 Norway, who sent bands as storytellers and singers; Patrick also used indigenous, culturally relevant ministry methods that proved very effective and efficient (birthing 300 churches, and baptizing 120,000 people). His respect for vernacular culture, a love and embrace of the best elements of the Irish is instructive to anyone desiring to reach others. In communication as well, he identified key Irish ideals of faithfulness, courage and generosity; and lived to model these while preaching to grow these concepts into a more biblical understanding of Christian faith, hope and love. However, his effectiveness had more to do with the type of man he was, than the methods he used.

Patrick was a gentleman. Hanson says, “The secret of his success as an evangelist was his integrity. He was a holy man without self seeking, with no ulterior motive beyond the desire to spread the Gospel. He also remained an entirely human person…this is an unusual combination.” Another writer says 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 constructed no kingdom of the ego.” Cahill agrees by speaking of Patrick as “one of humanity’s natural noblemen. Among simple, straightforward people, who could unreservedly appreciate his core of decency, the success of his mission was assured.”

This character of Patrick and his sincere care for the Irish was probably best seen in his opposition to slavery and valuing women. It has been said that Patrick was the first human being in the history of the world to speak out unequivocally against slavery. The combination of his horrible slave experience and love for people produced constant worry and tireless vigilance in protecting souls. As faulty mainland criticisms and accusations arose about Patrick, it became apparent that even activities that seemed similar to corrupt continental practices were pursued by Patrick with opposite aims and motives. One example of this was the Catholic tradition of placing bishops next door to kings in pursuit of political favor and power. However, when Patrick moved bishops near chieftains, it was to serve them and protect the people by keeping a watchful eye out for raiding pirates.

Patrick’s great respect for woman was very unique and rare for those times. In his Confession he writes with honesty and admiration of the “blessed and beautiful” Irish women that are baptized. He goes on to write, “The Lord gives grace to his many handmaidens; and though they are forbidden to do so (by rulers or captors), they follow HIM with backbone.” Patrick had become a man “who could give far more credibility to a woman’s strength and fortitude than could any classically educated man” (or continental/Catholic leader of his day)-Cahill. He was committed to valuing and using women in ministry and monastic endeavors, and this aided Patrick and his followers in reaching many. His unique respect for the Irish culture and women partnered with his theology of grace, joy, providence and integrity in the schools and monasteries established to release generations of leaders into the harvest fields. Some writers and historians believe they were the major hope in preserving devotional heartfelt Christianity, and saving western civilization (from the ravages of 7th century Islam and Viking invasions).

The Celtic movement was birthed and propagated as a renewal movement that embraced missionary goals with practical strategy and passion. They were conscious of being a covenant based community and served as catalysts on the periphery of the existing church-for renewal and expansion.

Patrick’s Lorica

This powerful prayer known as "The Breastplate of St. Patrick" is one of my favorites from Christians in history. It has blessed my devotional life and provided good theological study and reflection. It has also stirred and guided my heart in intercessory prayer many times. This Lorica emphasizes the omnipresence of God, is a direct evocation of the Trinity, and fully recognizes the Christological depth of our experience. It acknowledges the real dangers from forces of the invisible world…affirming both the necessity and power of spiritual warfare prayer in the lives of people of faith. It views each new day as a Divine gift, and asserts that even our waking and rising is made possible by the love and care of God.

Patrick composed this as a hymn in the year 433. He wrote it to protect himself and his monks from their many deadly enemies who lay in wait for priests. It was used when Patrick was aware that there was an ambush to try to kill him and his group on their way to the King's court. It was during the march that they chanted the sacred Lorica - later known as St. Patrick's Breastplate. Legends tell us, that as the druids lay in hiding, ready to kill, they saw not Patrick and his men, but a wild deer followed by twenty fawns. St. Patrick and his men were saved. Because of this story, the prayer has been used as a hymn of faith and protection also called Faeth Fiada –The Deer’s Cry.

I arise today through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity, through belief in the Threeness, through confession of the Oneness of the Creator of creation.

I arise today through the strength of Christ with his Baptism, through the strength of His Crucifixion with His Burial through the strength of His Resurrection with His Ascension, through the strength of His descent for the Judgment of Doom.

I arise today through the strength of the love of Cherubim in obedience of Angels, in the service of the Archangels, in hope of resurrection to meet with reward, in prayers of Patriarchs, in predictions of Prophets, in preachings of Apostles, in faith of Confessors, in innocence of Holy Virgins, in deeds of righteous men.

I arise today, through the strength of Heaven; light of Sun, brilliance of Moon, splendor of Fire, speed of Lightning, swiftness of Wind, depth of Sea, stability of Earth, firmness of Rock.

I arise today, through God's strength to pilot me: God's might to uphold me, God's wisdom to guide me, God's eye to look before me, God's ear to hear me, God's word to speak for me, God's hand to guard me, God's way to lie before me, God's shield to protect me, God's host to secure me: against snares of devils, against temptations of vices, against inclinations of nature, against everyone who shall wish me ill, afar and anear, alone and in a crowd.

I summon today all these powers to protect between me (and these evils): against every cruel and merciless power that may oppose my body and my soul, against incantations of false prophets, against black laws of heathenry, against false laws of heretics, against craft of idolatry, against spells of witches, smiths and wizards, against every knowledge that endangers man's body and soul. Christ to protect me today against poisoning, against burning, against drowning, against wounding, so that there may come abundance in reward.

Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ on my right, Christ on my left, Christ in breadth, Christ in length, Christ in height, Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me, Christ in the mouth of every man who speaks of me, Christ in every eye that sees me, Christ in every ear that hears me.

I arise today through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity, through belief in the Threeness, through confession of the Oneness of the Creator of creation. Salvation is of the Lord. Salvation is of the Lord. Salvation is of Christ. May Thy Salvation, O Lord, be ever with us. Amen.

This “Breastplate” of faith is to protect body and soul from devils, men and sin. A lorica is a mystical garment that was supposed to protect the wearer from danger and illness, and guarantee entry into heaven. It becomes apparent that the lorica Patrick discusses is no piece of garment, but Christ and the Word of God. This is reminiscent of Paul's words to the Ephesians 6:10-18:

“Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil's schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.”

In the end, Patrick’s life-story is often told with strong emphasis on his miraculous power encounters with the One True Living God, as well as in confrontations with pagan priests. It will always be difficult to separate fact from fiction about him, but there is no disputing that he was one of the first and most influential Christian missionaries. His life was a vessel of honor…passing on genuine faith and spiritual life (and much legend, lore and tradition). However, ultimately, it’s not just Patrick’s spiritual life, boldness and intercessory prayer that captivates and inspires, but his humanity and humility. “The historical Patrick…is very human, distrustful of himself, full of a delightful humility, by no means successful in everything he undertakes, a holy man of integrity, no fool in his Episcopal office, courageous…compassionate, full of admirable faith”-Hanson.

My favorite paragraph about Patrick is found in the book “How the Irish Saved Civilization.” It declares, “Patrick’s emotional grasp of Christian truth may have been greater than Augustine’s. Augustine looked into his own heart and found there the inexpressible anguish of each individual, which enabled him to articulate a theory of sin that has no equal--the dark side of Christianity. Patrick prayed, made peace with God, and then looked not only into his own heart but into the hearts of others. What he saw convinced him of the bright side--that even slave traders can turn into liberators, even murderers can act as peacemakers, even barbarians can take their places among the nobility of heaven.”

That captures the essence of the work of grace in his heart that transformed his perspective of the world and its peoples. This is Gospel centered faith and living at its best, and is desperately needed among Christians and leaders again today. Reinhard Bonke said it best, “The Gospel is the most elevating force on earth…The Gospel was not given in order to level us all to the lowest common denominator, but to create new creatures, and to give to all the dignity of the Sons of God! Men who once were savages are reclaimed and walk as princes. Hallelujah!” What glorious Good News…how unbelievably thrilling, adventurous and worthwhile to communicate the greatest message, to meet the greatest need and participate in the greatest work known to this life.

After 30 years of selfless ministry, Patrick died in his seventies. His feast day was first recorded on March 17, 797 with this comment, "The flame of a splendid sun, the apostle to the Irish, may Patrick with many thousands be a shelter of our wickedness." His final words were, “But I beg and beseech all those who believe and fear God, whoever comes across this writing and takes the trouble to read it through, namely the writing of Patrick, a sinner who, though he was never taught, wrote it down in Ireland, that no man ever say, if in my ignorance I have accomplished any small thing, however trivial, or if I have shown the way according to God’s good purpose, that this was my own ignorance at work: but rather, know and believe it to be the undeniable truth that it was the gift of God. This is my confession before I come to die.”

Most of this writing came from a Fuller Seminary essay exam I took for a Christian History class in the 90’s. I received an “A” with some very positive feedback from my professor, and thought it would be beneficial to make it available for you to read. It also includes some paragraphs and favorite quotes from book reports and short reflective essays I wrote on the topics of St. Patrick, Celtic Christianity, and other historical missions movements. It is not, was not a research paper, and does not directly list all references. These were not needed for this format of Essay Testing or class homework. All references are in my reading/book lists online, and will be added here in the future, when I have the time to expand this. I pray that all who read this will be blessed, convicted and inspired by the testimony of the life and ministry of this wonderful hero from history.