St. Patrick Got it Right

Growing up, the extent of our St. Patrick’s Day tradition was green oatmeal. We might go to an Irish neighbor’s house for a party. I remember lots of music and lots of green jello, but not much about St. Patrick.

This week I read up on St. Patrick to have something to tell my kids.  I started with Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization, and I was stunned by how we have lost this awesome story.

I write a lot about finding your purpose, but I would be hard-pressed to find a better example of discovering one’s purpose and living from it than Patrick. You may know the basic story. Young Patrick grew up in Britain, but was captured and sold into slavery in Ireland. He spent six cold, hungry years tending sheep and pigs in the mountains. In desperation, he cried out to God, and God met him there, pouring His love and mercy into Patrick’s heart. One day Patrick had a vision of a ship that would rescue him, so he walked 200 miles to the coast and somehow convinced the captain to take a runaway slave.

Patrick returned home, but God continued to call him, and sent him a vision of the people of Ireland calling him to come back and minister to his captors. Despite the fact that he was now years behind in his education, he set out for a monastary where he was trained for the priesthood, and eventually given the opportunity to go back to Ireland.

Here’s the amazing part of the story. As Cahill describes it, Patrick is the first Christian missionary to venture outside the Greco-Roman world. The first in hundreds of years to take the Great Commission seriously and to go to what was then the literal edge of the earth. And he does what is almost unthinkable, he brings a whole people to God without trying to make them Romans.

The Irish were a creative, exuberant, and belligerant people. They lived in constant fear of pleasing cruel, capricious gods, and of being ruined by the spirits that filled the world around them (think leprachauns, banshees, etc.). They lived life deeply connected to nature but the world was a violent, uncertain place. Patrick did not call them into a life inside cold Roman cathedrals or the taxation and political struggles of the church of the day. Instead, his task was to teach the Irish that the one true God was good and loved them, that He was in charge of all creation, and that He alone was the source of stability and safety they they longed for in a dangerous world.

Patrick succeeded wildly. He was bold and fearless in the face of Ireland warlords and kings. He was unshakable in his faith in the goodness of God. Patrick lived in and among the people, shepherding them as he had shepherded sheep years before. He showed them how every event of their lives – from milking cows to planting crops – could be done to God’s glory and in His presence. Patrick did not separate the Irish from nature, nor did he cajole them to change their creative, exuberant nature. He taught them to see God in all his creation, and he encouraged their natural bravery, creativity, and generosity and directed it to heavenly puporses.

How have we lost this incredible story? I think we owe Patrick a little more than green beer and shamrocks. And yet Patrick is certainly no stiff, formal “saint” as we might picture it, who would be happy with pompous or empty ceremony. I think he would want his day to be a celebration of life – real life. I think he would welcome feasting and fun, music, being out in nature, the simple joys of family and friends, and deep thankfulness. Most of all, I think he would want St. Patrick’s Day to be a celebration of confidence in the great Creator, who holds all of life in His hand, and who loves His children and wants them to trust in His goodness.

So enjoy your St. Patrick’s day! Celebrate someone who I think got it right.

For a great version of the St. Patrick story, try this British film

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