St. Patrick’s Day has always been a holiday I pretty much ignored, but this year it holds more interest for me. Since I’m going to Ireland on a vacation later this spring, I’ve recently read 2 books on Irish history and St. Patrick. One book was: How the Irish saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill. Perhaps you are familiar with Cahill? He has written a series of historical books (of popular nature, not academic) where he shares how a certain country or culture has influenced humanity in a unique way.
The title How the Irish Saved Civilization may be a bit of an overstatement, but it refers to how Irish monks copied and preserved literature from Western antiquity that might have otherwise been lost when Rome fell and was overrun by the Germanic tribes. Ever hear of Ireland referred to as “the land of scholars and saints”? This is a reason why – scholars and saints were busy preserving knowledge. Ireland became a center of learning for a time.
Cahill also spends a lot of time on St. Patrick but for that I will turn to another book: The Wisdom of St. Patrick, Inspiration from the Patron Saint of Ireland by Greg Tobin. This book is more of a devotional, but it has a 50 page introduction that carefully reviews the historical study of St. Patrick, separating fact and fiction.
St. Patrick is a bit of an elusive figure. Studying ancient sources and analyzing long past history can be challenging. We do have two documents that St. Patrick wrote: The Confessions of St. Patrick and The Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus, and from these we can discern a fair amount about his life. Yet, many of the specific details about his person are unknown, and many fanciful legends and lore have developed about him.
Here is a brief synopsis of what can be considered historically accurate in regards to St. Patrick’s life: Born sometime in the late 4th Century, he lived in Roman Britain. As a teen he was taken captive by Irish raiders and taken as a slave to Ireland. There he was a shepherd. In Britain he had little interest in the Christian faith of his family, but had a spiritual awakening while a slave. He escaped from Ireland, and grew in his Christian faith. Eventually he returned to Ireland as a missionary with a tremendous zeal to introduce them to Christ and spread Christianity to “the ends of the earth.”
After the well done introduction, this book is devotional. Each chapter has a theme such as humility, faith, prayer, honesty, etc. Each chapter begins with an excerpt from one of St. Patrick’s two surviving writings. (The appendix of the book contains the documents in their entirety.) After the excerpt, there is a section of commentary where the author offers explanatory thoughts. Then there is a contemplation which provides spiritual interaction with the excerpt, and finally a personal prayer.
From the documents we have from St. Patrick’s hand, I would describe him as a very devout Christian, immersed in the New Testament Scriptures – especially the epistles of Paul. He was biblical and evangelical, in the sense that we would use those words today. I was deeply touched by his life and writings, and appreciated this quote about him in the book:
Unmindful of heresies and internal controversies that swirled through the fifth century church like locusts, Patrick hewed to the single, simple message of redemption through Jesus Christ as described in the four Gospels and the chronicles of the apostles following Christ’s resurrection and ascension.
Reading two books on St. Patrick hardly makes me an expert, but it leaves me scratching my head at modern St. Patrick’s Day celebrations – which seem mostly secular and about general Irish heritage. Parades, parties, drinking green beer, etc. Huh? It seems the day as it is typically celebrated would be better called “Irish Day” rather than St. Patrick’s Day. A day honoring Patrick would be more appropriately celebrated with a special church service, a focus on Christ, and going out to do some missionary work or service in the local community.
But I guess the secularization of religious holidays happens, and they end up with little resemblance to the original reasons behind them. On Wikipedia, I read that Christian leaders in Ireland have expressed concern about the secularization of St Patrick’s Day. It quotes a Father who says, “It is time to reclaim St Patrick’s Day as a church festival” and he also questioned the need for “mindless alcohol-fueled revelry.”
There you have it. From someone who knew next to nothing about St. Patrick until recently! How about you?