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The freethinking of one age is the common sense of the next.
Patrick: A Reflection on His Writings
As a religious dissenter I have little time for the tomfoolery that surrounds the canonisation of saints. Thus, I will speak about Patrick rather than 'Saint' Patrick. Patrick, the messenger of the gospel who challenged slavery, militarism, and the forces of darkness, is someone whom I have a lot of time for. Patrick, the 'saint' of nationalist mythology who is celebrated with nationalistic fervour and gallons of green beer by millions who have never read his writings or believed in his message, is someone I can well do without.
It is almost impossible to unravel the tangled skein of legend and myth that time has woven around the few historical facts that we know about Patrick. Yet if we are to honour Patrick the man, as opposed to Patrick the myth, we must try to come to some understanding about who he was and what he stood for. Thankfully we have access to two short documents written by Patrick from which we can glean some knowledge about his person and character. Neither document - "The Confession" or the "Letter to Coroticus" - contain a great deal of biographical detail, but they do give us an insight into the mind of the man whom history has immortalised as the person who brought Christianity to Ireland.
One of the great characteristics of Patrick that comes through in his writings is his humility. In the opening sentence of "The Confession", written near to the close of his life, Patrick regards himself as " a sinner, most unlearned, the least of all the faithful, and utterly despised by many". The one whom later generations were to elevate to sainthood regarded himself as a humble sinner and the least of all the faithful. At the close of a life of service in which he courageously triumphed over the evils and the barbarity of his day, he wrote without any recourse to triumphalism. There is a humility about Patrick that all who would claim to honour his name would do well to emulate.
Patrick's determination to overcome his educational disadvantage should be an inspiration to all who have suffered from a similar disadvantage. One would have expected that someone who was the son of a church deacon and the grandson of a presbyter in Roman Britain would have been educated in the classics and in the teachings of the church fathers. Yet Patrick regards himself as someone who was "most unlearned". In his Confession he talks of his hesitation to write because "I was afraid of exposing myself to the talk of men, because I have not studied like the others, who thoroughly imbibed law and Sacred Scripture, and never had to change from the language of their childhood".
Obviously his six years in captivity would have denied him access to the quality of education that he might have expected if he had been left at home. Yet missing out on formal education in the classics does not appear to have hampered Patrick's capacity for learning. What he has missed out on due to his captivity he made up for upon his escape. Both his writings and the work that he undertook in Ireland suggests that he had a keen intellect and an astute mind. A lost youth, in terms of educational attainment, does not mean that a person's usefulness to society is lost. Educational disadvantage is just that - a disadvantage. It can be overcome.
His own experience of slavery made Patrick very conscious of the sufferings of others. Several commentators have suggested that Patrick was the first to condemn the institution of slavery. He certainly does this in his Letter to Coroticus where he writes, "they (the slavers) are enemies of me and of Christ my God" wherefore "it is not permissible to court the favour of such people, nor to take food or drink with them, nor even to accept their alms". Do we really have to ask what Patrick would say about a society that courts the favour of those behind Bonded Child Labour and who profit from the sweat of the 250 million child labourers across the world? Would a Patrick's Day march in support of Anti-Slavery International and the ICFTU campaign against child labour not be a more appropriate way to honour Patrick than the unbridled hedonism that characterises so many parades and celebrations on the 17th March?
If Patrick was ahead of the rest of Christendom in opposing slavery and the exploitation of the poor, he was equally ahead of his time in championing the cause of women. Compare the few sentences in which Patrick writes compassionately about women with the harsh sentiments of some of the Church Fathers. The sufferings of women in Ireland, especially those held in slavery, touched the heart of Patrick. He commends their strength and their courage in the face of suffering. Thomas Cahill says that "He (Patrick) is actually the first male Christian since Jesus to speak well of women" and Dermot O' Donoughue comments, "It is clear that (Patrick) is deeply and sensitively open to women and womanhood".
Patrick was a person who thought ahead of his time on many issues. Perhaps that is because the gospel, when it has been stripped of church dogma and honestly applied to the issues of real life, is timeless and contains a message that is for all ages. The triumpahlism, the religious self-righteousness, the slavery, the exploitation and the sexism that Patrick repudiated are still with us. We might honour Patrick better if we were to follow in his footsteps and tackle the same issues with the same fervour and courage that he did.
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