All of Patrick

So they asked him, “Teacher, we know that you are right in what you say and teach, and you show deference to no one, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth. Is it lawful for us to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But he perceived their craftiness and said to them, “Show me a denarius. Whose head and whose title does it bear?” They said, “The emperor’s.” He said to them, “Then give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
Luke 20:21–25 (NRSV)

  I love Saint Patrick and his story. His holiday, March 17, is my favorite Christian holiday after Christmas and Easter. Much like those holidays, my love for Saint Patrick’s Day has nothing to do with the way our culture celebrates. It has everything to do with finding Jesus in Patrick’s struggle.
Patrick was a Roman who grew up in Britain. As a teenager his village was raided by Celtic brutes who kidnapped him. They made him a shepherd, isolated him, abused him, and nearly starved him. On a fateful day in the fields he heard God calling him to escape by following the sound of the sea. When he reached the coast there happened to be a boat of merchants about to set off from the harbor. The merchants took him aboard and eventually he returned to his village.
I wonder if these waves of freedom terrified Patrick? For many, liberation can be a terrifying journey. Patrick had to take a gigantic risk to leave his flock for the shore. He knew his captors would feed him eventually, he knew the ins and outs of his blighted life, and he knew staying would at least mean he’d live.[1] He must have suspected that if he went to the shore there was a chance he’d starve to death, or be caught, beaten, perhaps murdered as a punishment. Blissful as they may seem, those waves of liberation are often fraught with risk. Yet, be it faith or courage, or both, Patrick took his chances.
Upon his homecoming, however, he discovered that his village was not the same as he had left it. The Irish marauders had murdered some of his family members. At this point he entered the priesthood and upon completing his education he believed he heard God calling him again, though not to the blissful and liberating sound of waves collapsing on the shore. This time the call was to be a missionary to the very people who had murdered his family and put him through a harsh and merciless adolescence.[2]
This time, the comfort of a priestly education must have tempted him to stay.[3] He probably had a bright future ahead of him as a peaceful abbot or an influential theologian.[4] No guarantee, but I can’t imagine either presented the risk of a return to Ireland. At the time, Ireland was the stuff of legend—palaces where heads decomposed on stakes as decoration, tribes often waged brutal and crude war campaigns against one another, and there’s even evidence that the Celts practiced human sacrifice.[5] I doubt the monastic life offered such a “romantic” atmosphere. Many an ignorant missionary have journeyed into violent and terrifying scenarios, others, like Patrick, were not ignorant. They were intent. In the way a victim never forgets their abuser’s voice, Patrick would have known the landscape of Ireland.[6] Nevertheless, he went and before he died much of the island had seen and accepted Jesus’ reconciling love.
What does Patrick have to do with the passage from Luke I quoted above? Well, I think this passage is so often read to mean that God wants us to pay our taxes.[7] In other words, we focus on the emperor bit. I’m not so sure it has that much to do with Caesar. What captures me is, “and give . . . to God the things that are God’s.” If I take Patrick as my example, it seems nothing escapes God’s gaze. What things are his? Well I suppose I get to choose, but I imagine he wants my whole self.[8] I imagine that he wants to draw every bit of me toward liberation and every bit of me into a land where I might love my enemies. Whether you need a call to the sound of freedom or to radical servanthood, I hope Patrick’s journey will inspire you to give to God what is his.
I’ll close with a sample of a medieval Irish poem inspired by Patrick:
I rise today . . .
Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me;
Christ within me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me;
Christ to the right of me, Christ to the left of me;
Christ in my lying, Christ in my sitting, Christ in my rising;
Christ in the heart of all who think of me,
Christ in the eye of all who see me,
                                                  Christ in the ear of all who hear me.[9]

The above is an excerpt from my book, The Upside Down Way. For info on how to get a copy just send me an email:

[1] It reminds me of the Israelites who wanted to go back to the security of slavery under Pharaoh (Num 14:1–4).
[2] For more on the life of Patrick click here.
[3] Comfortable compared to the life of an enslaved shepherd.
[4] In the fifth century those were about the most honored careers a man could achieve. An abbot is the overseer of a monastery.
[5] For a fascinating book on the subject see Thomas Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization (New York: Anchor, 1996).
[6] It’s worth noting that Christianity existed for a couple centuries in Britain before Patrick. Missionary activity to Ireland, however, was probably scarce. Ireland wasn’t a place people wanted to take the Gospel.
[7] Which I imagine he does, but I do not think it’s the point of this passage.
[8] In fact, Jesus has charged the religious leaders with doing just that, choosing to give God a piece of their lives. Part of Jesus’ accusation against them has been their straining to give God gifts that people can see, while keeping their hearts untouched by God’s transforming hands (cf. Luke 11:37–54).
[9] “The Breastplate of Saint Patrick,” translation from Davies and O’Loughlin, Celtic Spirituality, 118–120.


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