E-pistle March 15

How the Irish saved the church

I have always loved St. Patrick’s Day. In Chicago where I grew up, they had a huge parade and dyed the river green. In New York where I went to seminary, local pubs featured Irish music “sessions” every week. In Dublin, I made a special effort to visit St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where John Donne himself was dean. Here in Portland, St. Paddy’s Day will be full of revelry.
It’s an amazing celebration of the bring the bringing of Roman Christianity to Ireland. St. Ansgar brought Roman Christianity to Scandanavia. St. Augustine of Canterbury brought it to England, though one could argue that St. Alban, the first English martyr, did many years earlier. Though these are names of local congregations, the feast days of these are left unobserved. Patrick, however, is different.
As a young man, Patrick had been a slave and a shepherd in Ireland. This meant that when he returned as a priest, he knew the people and their language, their culture, and their faith. Because of this he was able to “Christanize” Druid holy sites and religious practices, telling the people that their spiritual antennae were picking up something and that their spiritual intuition was tapping in to something. Patrick’s innovation was to give that something a name, explaining what he was talking about picking up a tree-leafed clover and talking about the Trinity.
Patrick taught the Irish people that they could – as they had before – experience God through creation, in nature, in the world around them, in the life force that filled their very being. This is God the father. Patrick told them they could also experience God in other human beings and find the holy in physical things, in thin places where this world and the next were very close to one another and in people whose lives were much the same. He taught how this was particularly true in the forgiveness and reconciliation that people like that could offer. This is God the son. Finally Patrick shared something they had already experienced, that power of God that exists in mysticism, in worship, in ancient practices and in the church. This was God the Holy Spirit. For Patrick, God the three in one and one in three was a model of unity in diversity that showed how to include variety and ways of experiencing the divine at the same time, all in relationship with one another. The doctrine of the Trinity helped Patrick to meld Celtic and Roman spiritualities – circular and linear, feminine and masculine, level and hierarchical – into the faith and people that we celebrate this week.
A few years ago, there was a book called ”

How the Irish Saved Civilization.” If we listened to Patrick and followed his example, we might be writing another one called “How the Irish Saved the Church.”
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