Thursday, March 11, 2010

St. Patrick's Confession: A Review

“I am Patrick, a sinner, most unlearned, the least of all the faithful, and utterly despised by many.” With these simple words Saint Patrick began his most famous epistle, his confession of faith. Approaching the final years of his life, Patrick reflects upon his journey and the gentle hand of God that guided him along the way. Overwhelmed by God’s abundant mercy, and the power of grace, Patrick humbly acknowledges his lowly place in the universe and reverence for the creator of all things. In the end, Patrick’s Confession offers us a window into his soul, and in doing so, it allows us a privileged glimpse at the heart of the Irish people.
Throughout the Confession’s sixty-two chapters Saint Patrick carefully takes us through the story of his life, retelling important moments in his journey from indifference to enslavement, and faith to freedom. The resulting portrait is that of a man deeply moved by the profound witness of Christ and the call to preach the Gospels to the ends of the earth. Patrick is a man not moved by glory or fame, but rather by an inspired belief in the power of God’s word, and the need to share it with those who have yet to encounter the living God. Faced with great obstacle and challenge, Patrick never backed down, and instead remained resolute because of his steadfast belief in the Gospels, and the people of Ireland. His resolute faithfulness, amidst hardship and toil, would become not only an inspiration, but also a model for a nation and a people. After all the Irish Church would one day come to witness boldly for Christ, proclaiming His message of love to the ends of the earth through the missions. The Irish Church’s experience of missionary zeal and radical commitment to spreading the Good News is born in the life of her Apostle, Patrick, whose life and Confession is rooted in the Gospel, which tells of the wonders of the risen Christ, and the profound effect he has on the lives His people.
Saint Patrick opens the first three chapters of his Confession by introducing himself and laying out the conditions of his youth, and eventual enslavement by Druidic raiders. Rather than dwell in the details of the occurrence, he chooses to place it squarely within the confines of his spiritual journey to Christ. Patrick understands his capture not to be a moment of great suffering, but rather joy. In it he places his belief that God was reaching out to rescue him. He adds “there the Lord opened my sense of unbelief that I might at last remember my sins and be converted with all my heart to the Lord my God…watch[ing] over me before I knew him.” Thus, Patrick acknowledges his core belief in the constant presence of God’s guiding hand. His understanding of the six years he spent in solitude is juxtaposed against his journey to Light. Patrick found God in the chains of slavery and the quiet hills in which he tended the flocks. Patrick transforms a difficult period in his life into a powerful movement of grace. One cannot separate this grace, according to Patrick, from God’s disdain for the sinfulness of his ways. Patrick not only sees God as saving him through the power of conversion, but also punishing him for his early sinfulness. This punishment however is ultimately counterbalanced and outweighed by mercy.
After establishing the sinful redemption process he endured, Patrick endeavors to declare his faith, especially in the Holy Trinity, before beautifully and humbly declaring his love for Christ. Patrick’s love is so great that he spends ten straight chapters discussing the sadness he has in his heart for not being a more learned man. Patrick ashamedly discusses how there are a great many scholars wiser than he who have mastered languages from their births. He on the other hand confesses his great ignorance both in learning and scripture. This sad ignorance is complemented by an intense love of Christ which overcomes any shame or embarrassment he might have. Saint Patrick forthrightly shares his initial reluctance to writing a confession, for fear of what others might say. This reluctance is overcome by the realization that God lifts all peoples up so that might proclaim His word. Patrick’s humility touches the human heart; all the while the implications of his message raise the spirit. For the uneducated masses, Patrick’s admission and embarrassment over his ignorance are all too well known, however his forceful declaration of faith in spite of this, reminds us all of the power of true belief. True belief takes the form of faith deep within the heart, transcending study and knowledge. Saint Patrick’s confession of simple faith is in fact a treatise far more insightful than many of the most complicated religious texts. When he says “in the light, therefore, of our faith in the Trinity I must make this choice, regardless of danger I must make known the gift of God and everlasting consolation, without fear and frankly I must spread everywhere the name of God… ” Patrick acts with great conviction. His faith is evidenced by his bold declarations and willingness to preach the Gospel to all, even if he felt unworthy and unable.
One cannot understand Saint Patrick, his Confession, nor his spirituality without understanding the incredible sense of humility with which it is embodied. Patrick’s humility is not born out of a macabre desire to punish himself, but rather out of a profound reverence for God, and an appreciation for the awe which He is due. Patrick’s notion of God is not “buddy Jesus” as contemporary “pop Christianity” would have it, but rather as a powerful creator who is in all things. Patrick’s God is one whose power is matched only by His mercy.
In his Confession Saint Patrick shares his journey of faith and his personal spirituality. His spirituality is filled with a strong belief in the power of prayer. While held captive as a slave in Ireland, Patrick learned to pray often and to seek God as he tended to his flocks. Patrick describes this movement of prayer as being the result of the reception of grace. This grace, combined with Patrick’s willing reception of it, allowed for him to grow in his relationship with God. Patrick described best when he said “the love of God and His fear came to me more and more, and my faith was strengthened. ” Patrick’s faith was indeed strengthened by his encounter with God in prayer and his example is a powerful one for all of us. Patrick discovered God’s abiding presence not in an apparition or philosophical quest, but rather in the heart felt prayers of an uneducated shepherd boy. Through prayer Patrick encountered not only a deepening love of God and fear of Him, he also began to hear God’s voice.
The voice of God came to Patrick in a series of vivid dreams in which God spoke to his weary heart. The first and most famous is detailed in his seventeenth chapter where he hears God’s promise of escape from slavery and return to his homeland. In his sleep he heard a voice say “it is well that you fast, soon you will go to your own country… and … see your ship is ready. ” Patrick details the great faith with which he heard and obeyed the voice of God. His willingness to trust fully is evidenced by his obedience to the call to find “his ship” and to seek passage back to England. In the process Patrick encountered many challenges along the way. However, it is in each of these challenges that we see Patrick’s faith and hear the voice of God. Eventually Patrick journeys home and returns to his former life. It is in this moment, in his life of comfort with family and friends, that he hears once again the call and voice of God. The voice that speaks to him beckons him back to Ireland and the people he left behind. The voices said “we ask thee, boy, come and walk among us once more.”
The call of the people of Ireland is evidenced not only in Patrick’s dream but also in their response to him. In his own words Patrick details the movement of his heart, which was torn between the land he loved and the people who needed him. Patrick’s response is evidenced in his spirituality of surrender. In all things he willing follows the command of Christ and the voice of God. Patrick is first a sinner, but always a loyal servant. In his intense prayer he details the powerful moment in which he realizes that there someone is praying in him, saying “I was astonished, and wondered, and thought with myself who it could be that prayed in me. But at the end of the prayer He spoke, saying that He was the Spirit.” At this point, over halfway through his Confession Patrick begins to detail the movement of the Holy Spirit within him. The “groaning of the Spirit” is alive and well in Patrick and through this experience of prayer he comes to realize the role of God within his own being. Patrician spirituality recognizes not only God’s presence in all things around us, but also within us. Patrick’s prayer and his understanding of the Holy Spirit is evidenced in his assertion that it is the Spirit that completes the prayers of our hearts and those which we know not to ask. Saint Patrick’s Confession is a witness to this fact in explicit references to the Spirit and prayer, both in twenty-fifth chapter and throughout the entirety of his work.
For St. Patrick the Holy Spirit was not simply something to be invoked in prayer, rather the Holy Spirit manifests itself always in our lives. Patrick devotes eight chapters of his Confession to a scandal that plagued the mid part of his life. He attributed the strength he received from the Holy Spirit as being the critical component of his survival. Challenged by rivals within the Church, Patrick endured both deceit and treachery amongst his ‘friends’ as he painfully recalls the betrayed confidences of a friend who revealed his deepest childhood secrets from his early life. Patrick does not despair in his own misfortunes but rather is saddened by the loss of integrity and honesty of a once friend. Patrick asks God’s mercy on his turncoat friend when he asks “that it may not be reckoned to them as sin”. His intense humility comes through in his writing, as he admits his sinful ways all the while extolling God’s abundant mercy. Patrick seems to grasp an understanding of sinfulness that is balanced by mercy. Despite the embarrassing revelations of his childhood, Patrick remains unwavering in his faith as he knows full well his conversion is not his own, but rather the work of God. His understanding of his capture and enslavement yet again looms large in his Confession as returns to his theme of unbelief to enslavement, faith to freedom.
St. Patrick’s personal conversion serves as a dominating element of his understanding of faith. Having been lost and having found conversion through God’s grace, Patrick is fixated upon the conversion of others. His spiritual vision is one that is very much built upon Jesus’ call “to go and teach all nations.” Patrick understood the mission of the Church as one focused on the winning of souls. In fact he speaks with great exuberance of Jesus’ call to make us “fishers of men.” His life’s work proves his commitment to casting the net wide, at any cost. He said, “it was necessary to spread our nets so that a great multitude and throng might be caught for God, and that there be clerics everywhere to baptize and exhort a people in need and want”. Patrick’s vision of the conversion of an entire people seems well on its way to fulfillment in his writings. He speaks eloquently of the conversion process of those he encountered, from worshipping idols and “things impure” to the state of a holy people of God, as shared in his Confession. Patrick proudly boasts the conversion of many souls and the radical call of many Irish noblemen and women to lives of purity as virgins and monks.
The labor of love that defined Patrick’s life was his work for Christ. In brutal honesty Patrick’s Confession speaks of his desire to return home to his family and people. However, this desire and seemingly all desires are subverted to the will of God and the needs of his people. St. Patrick refuses to leave behind the Irish people, even in the twilight of his life. However, in all things there is a profound sense of abandonment. Patrick’s abandonment does not end with the desires of the heart, but rather those of the body. His spirituality is embodied with a strong sense of the need to reject the physical. Patrick says “I presume, I ought to do, but I do not trust myself as long as I am in this body of death.” He is abundantly grateful to God for the grace to avoid the bodily sins, however he is all too aware of the dangers there in. Patrick’s austere attitudes toward the material world manifest themselves throughout his writing and later in the spirituality that was born from his influence.
Honest as to his limitations, Patrick repeatedly admits his limited education and writing abilities. His style is simple, often repetitive and rather straightforward. Here, in its simplicity it finds added meaning and value. One cannot find an easily comprehensible structure to his work, but rather it is very much a free flowing exploration of his mind. Patrick writes not with the silver tongue of Augustine or Jerome, but rather as a simple man filled with faith and zeal. His limited oratorical skills in fact work to his advantage. One gets the impression, when reading his Confession that they are looking deep into his heart and soul and not reading a book or spiritual treatise. His ordinariness is a great gift as is his life. Patrick testifies to this fact, and to his purpose by saying “I testify in truth and in joy of heart before God and His holy angels that I never had any reason except the Gospel and its promises why I should ever return to the people from whom once before I barely escaped.” St. Patrick is adamant in the declaration of his personal motivations in Christ. This declaration is twofold as it reflects his desire to express humility, all the while his need to deny the false accusations of his enemies who accused him of taking bribes. Patrick’s humility is real, but it also serves to the greater purpose of his evangelization. When encountering opposition from Druidic lords, Patrick often faced false and ridiculous charges. The Final thirteen chapters of his Confession are spent balancing the need for personal humility with the practical need to refute false accusations.
St. Patrick’s Confession has the ability to be a powerful guide to the spiritual life for seminarians and for priests. Patrick’s profound humility, coupled with his intense zeal for prostalizing are much needed qualities for the priest today. Emerging from an age in which the Church enjoyed great power in the United States, and into a time of great struggle and resistance, it is helpful to seek inspiration in Patrick. Through his own words he declares a love for the people, and a desire to bring them closer to God. This desire is born not only out of love, but also out of an enthusiastic willingness to spread the Gospel to the ends of the earth. Patrick lived this command and so must we. He sought and saved souls at great cost. He never settled for maintaining the status quo or for enjoying the spoils of power. In much a contrary fashion he humbly surrendered himself to the will of God in all things. He rejected wealth, money and power and instead sought consolation and strength in scripture, prayer and the people.
Patrician spirituality is embodied with a profound understanding of God’s abiding presence around us. It is predicated upon the centrality of the Holy Trinity and the importance of prayer. The zeal of Patrick is fueled not by idle dreams, or hope, but rather by prayer. Patrick’s understanding of finding and embracing prayer in all things, and at all times, is a model for us as Catholics and as future priests. The busy nature of the life of priests lends to distractions which can lead one away from a life of prayer. Patrick’s simple reminders to pray at all moments and in small ways, is an easy and practical way in which to incorporate prayer into our life. His personal experience of praying hundreds of times a day while working, can serve to challenge us to pray in little ways such as when driving the car or even walking the stairs. By integrating prayer into our lives in small ways we become ever more aware of God’s abiding presence in all things. As Patrick’s breastplate boldly proclaims “Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ in me….” His spirituality is centered upon an understanding of God’s presence always and everywhere. It is in this understanding that Patrick finds the call to live a life worthy of Christ, always. God’s presence is the motivating force in all things and Patrick’s prayerfulness seeks to integrate God’s abiding presence with humble supplication.
Saint Patrick’s Confession builds heavily upon an understanding of humility and human sinfulness. Patrick is ever mindful of the fact that all things are made possible in and through Christ. Despite writing at the end of his life, after many great accomplishments, one leaves with an understanding not of Patrick’s skill and power, but rather of God’s gift of grace and mercy. As seminarians and future priests it is important to recognize that all things are made possible in Christ. Sins of pride are easy and attractive to the human soul. Through his example and writing, Saint Patrick challenges us to follow his lead and to truly see Christ in all things, including those accomplishments he works in and through us all. By remaining grounded in Christ, and in personal humility, we come to see God more fully as we no longer look simply to ourselves, but rather to He who made us, and He who works within us. Patrick’s writings challenge us not to simply look to the heavens with great wonder, but rather to look all around and within us. The key to understanding Saint Patrick’s spirituality is found in the embrace of God’s presence in every moment and in everything. It is precisely there that one encounters the living God, as Patrick did in the fields of County Antrim and in the lives of the Irish people.

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