St Patrick and St Patrick’s Day

Anyone who has followed this blog for a few years will know that I have written quite a lot about St Patrick. I don’t want to revisit any of my earlier points (e.g. see St Patrick and Slavery for some of them), but it may be worth spending a moment or two on the difference between celebrating the saint and celebrating the day.

St Patrick is an uncomfortable kind of saint, with a stern but joyful message for us all. To go from Romano-British society to six years’ slavery in Ireland, then return as a priest and insist on preaching the gospel to his former captors, maintaining a strict separation from the usual networks of kinship and patronage, suggests someone with a good deal of steel in his nature — not exactly what we might expect of a missionary today, who would be encouraged to adapt, as far as possible, to the customs of the people he comes to serve.  Then there is the Testament which lifts the veil on other aspects of his life and the part played by the long, unseen hours of prayer, the cold and damp, the sheer loneliness of being a missionary and knowing failure as well as success. All this makes Patrick a great saint who ventured everything for the love of Christ and wanted others to do the same.

So what of his ‘Day’? It is there that we often lose sight of Patrick and settle for a celebration of heritage rather than sanctity. The Irish have, understandably, claimed Patrick as their own and, wherever they are in the world, make this day one of great festivity. There is nothing wrong with that per se, for we certainly should rejoice in the saints and love of country is something most of us share; but there needs sometimes to be a boundary set lest we forget why we celebrate at all. We know that love of one’s own country should never lead to disparagement of another’s; nor should recognition of wrongs suffered in the past (and Ireland has suffered some tremendous wrongs) be a justification for perpetrating quarrels in the present. That said, we also know it can be hard to let go of old fears and enmities, yet unless we do no change can come about. Those of us old enough to remember the tragic events of the Troubles and the suffering experienced on all sides have reason to be wary of partisanship of every stripe. A younger generation does not always feel the same as the resurgence of violence in some areas indicates.

What, I wonder, would St Patrick have made of that? He preached Christ, and he wanted those to whom he preached to embrace the message of Christ in all its fullness, as he himself had done. Is there a case for trying to reunite the celebration of sanctity and heritage in a way that is more than mere pious recall or boozy party? I suspect it cannot be done unless all are prepared to sacrifice something for the common good; but it must be the common good, not just what is good for one part, and that is a huge challenge.

Today, let us pray for the people of Ireland; for a meeting of minds on the question of the Stormont Executive; and above all, for peace and reconciliation where hearts are still bruised and bleeding from the horrors of the past. And, as a Catholic, albeit with no Irish blood, permit me to say that I can’t think of any reason why prayer should not be followed by a pint (or two) of a well-known Dublin brew or anything else you care to name by way of rejoicing. Just don’t forget the prayer.


Tiddley Pom Moments

Some people will be thinking, ‘She should be writing about St Patrick.’ But I’ve done that many times before, so if you are feeling in need of Patrick material, may I suggest you revisit this 2014 post about St Patrick and slavery, which is, sadly, still topical. Today I want to write about tiddley pom moments — those fleeting intervals of time when we pass from one thing to another and allow ourselves a second or two of elation, a brief sense of mission accomplished. They are actually quite important. They give us time to register that one task is finished before another is begun. Monastic life is full of them because we have the habit of praying before we begin to do anything and after we have finished doing so. I suspect they contribute as much to our psychological health as they do to our spiritual well-being. A tiddley pom moment lets us say thank you, lets us give glory to God and rejoice in his presence. St Benedict urged that monastic life should always have a Lenten character, should always be pure and joyful and grateful. Is it so very strange, therefore, that I think Lent should be full of tiddley pom moments?


St Patrick and Slavery

As an Englishwoman, I have to be careful what I say about St Patrick. No matter that he was a Romano-British missionary, kidnapped as a young man and sold into slavery in Ireland, from which he eventually escaped, only to return later as a priest and preacher; the Irish claim him as their own. It is another case of the captive taking the captor captive. So, two thoughts this morning, if I can dignify them as such.

How many people celebrating St Patrick today with ‘the wearing of the green’ and other forms of jollification will give a thought to the real St Patrick, the man who burned with zeal for the souls of those who enslaved him? How many will read his Testament, or think of the long hours of prayer, the endless journeys, the ready acceptance of his position as eternal outsider in Irish society, refusing gifts from local kings and chieftains and thereby placing himself outside the usual network of kinship and patronage? How many will think what it was like to confront power armed with nothing more than a conviction of truth and a desire to share the blessings of the gospel?

Not only have we tended to lose sight of the real St Patrick in the celebration of all that has become associated with his name — love of country, pride in national culture, a sense of belonging — we have also tended to gloss over those six years he spent as a slave. He was allegedly 16 when he was torn away from all that was familiar. We can only speculate what effect slavery had on him at that age, but we do not have to speculate about the effect slavery has on millions of people in the world today. The shocking truth is that even here in Britain there are men and women who are enslaved. Slavery is not a problem afar off; it is close at hand; we just do not give it its proper name.

Why are we so mealy-mouthed when it comes to slavery? Why do we prefer to close our eyes to the degradation it imposes? We may not think of the illegal immigrant we employ at less than the going-rate as a slave, but he/she is not a truly free person any more than the one who works as a gang-labourer in British fields or as a bonded worker in a far-away factory. Even if we are not ourselves involved in such dealings, we are complicit if we enjoy the fruits of slave labour; and that’s a thought should give us pause.

In 1102 the Church in England formally condemned the slave-trade after centuries of  individual opposition to it, but it was not until 1706 that Sir John Holt, the Lord Chief Justice, ruled that a slave setting foot on England became free; not until 1807 that the slave trade was abolished throughout the British Empire; and not until 1834 that slavery itself was abolished (though territories controlled by the East India Company and Ceylon had to wait until 1843). It is a sad history, but maybe one of the best ways of celebrating St Patrick today would be to consider some of the things that gave his life shape and purpose. Prayer and service of others naturally top the list, especially during Lent, but I think we should also give serious consideration to the subject of slavery and doing what we can to eliminate it wherever it exists. That beats ‘the wearing of the green’ any day, for freedom is everyone’s birthright.



Patrick and Rowan: a tale of two bishops

I first met Rowan Williams when, as a youthful Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity, he came to tea at the monastery and three of us spent the afternoon discussing the psalter with him. It was, if truth be told, a slightly sticky occasion and only really lost all trace of self-consciousness when we moved from small talk to theology and poetry. I suspect that for many of us who are not Anglicans (and possibly for many who are) it is that ease with monasticism, theology and poetry that we first think of when we think of the archbishop. All that he has done, or tried to do, for the Anglican Communion during his tenure of Canterbury, the difficulties he has faced, the obloquy he has endured, remind me of Paul VI, with whom I think he would have had an affinity. He has done an impossible job to the best of his ability, and those of us who are less able can only be grateful. As I said on Twitter yesterday, Canterbury’s loss is Cambridge’s gain; and I am already looking forward to the books he will be writing.

St Patrick was bishop in very different times, but, mutatis mutandis, the challenges he faced bear comparison with those faced by Archbishop Rowan. To proclaim the gospel loud and clear, to help others understand subtle points of theology, to question the values of society, to retain in the midst of busyness a monastic calm and focus (though not a monk himself), these sound very contemporary, rightly so. A bishop can never be ‘popular’ in the way that a singer or movie star can be popular: he must stand up for what he believes to be right, no matter what the cost to himself. In the case of Patrick, his steadfastness led to Ireland’s becoming a missionary centre of the Church for hundreds of years, no mean achievement for an ‘outsider’.

Britain owes much to Ireland; in the person of Patrick, Ireland owes much to Britain — a reminder that, from a Christian perspective, so many of our quarrels and disagreements are unnecessary. They generate heat, as family squabbles always do, but they do not always serve to advance the message of the gospel. Today, as we pray for all who look upon St Patrick as their patron, let us also pray for Archbishop Rowan and the world-wide Anglican Communion.