I’ve become mildly fascinated with St Patrick’s work among the Celts, which I alluded to on St Patrick’s Day. That, along with a general favoring of history, led me to read How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill. I found the following paragraph about Patrick’s ministry among the Celts especially fascinating:
None of this would be surprising if we assume that there were characteristic aspects of Irish culture that Patrick had taken to hear and on which he chose to build his new Christianity. These aspects would have included Irish courage which he admired greatly, but even more would he have been impressed by the natural mysticism of the Irish, which already told them that the world was holy–all the world, not just parts of it. It was on this sturdy insight that Patrick choreographed the sacred dance of Irish sacramental life, a sacramentality not limited to the symbolic actions of the church’s liturgy but open to the whole created universe. All the world was holy, and so was all the body.
Cahill argues that Patrick was the first missionary to actually take the gospel beyond the edges of the Roman empire. Usually, a group of people was conquered by the Romans before the Gospel made it’s way to them, both before and after Constantine. In effect, people became Roman before they became Christian, and over time, the difference between the two became more and more blurry. This led Patrick to help shape a form of Christianity among the Irish that was different from, and even controversial among, those in the Roman church.
Zach and I were talking earlier today about how our nature is to fear and think less of those who are different from us. As a result, we often want people to be like us before we will share in life with them. I think this had a lot to do with the fact that early Christianity struggled to take the gospel beyond the edges of the empire. Once they were Romanized, it seemed safer to approach them.
Patrick had a love for the Irish even though they were very different. In a way that was extraordinarily unique for his time and ours, he was able to strip away his own culture from the gospel. He was able to see how he could insert the gospel into another culture.
As North America becomes more and more post-Christian, those of us who are here need to learn lessons from Patrick. We need to strip away and step out of our somewhat ridiculous Christian sub-culture. We need to understand what is going on around us so that we can point to the beauty in it. Only when we understand a culture can we truly insert the gospel in that culture and redeem it.