St. Patrick, coracles and journeys of faith

KristinBerkeyAbbott
03/15/2012

St. Patrick, coracles and journeys of faith

This time of year, as St. Patrick’s Day comes and goes, is one where many of us discover our Gaelic roots -- and often, this discovery goes beyond beer. We’ve seen an upsurge of interest in Celtic Christianity in the past two decades. But we often forget how hardcore the earliest Christians of the British Isles were.

For example, St. Patrick, arguably one of the most famous Irish Christians, was born to a high-ranking Roman family in England, but when he was approximately 16, he was kidnapped and spent six or seven years as a slave in Ireland. While there, he learned the language and the non-Christian customs of the land.

This knowledge would come in handy when he was sent back to Ireland in the fifth century to solidify the Christianity of the country. There are many stories about Patrick's vanquishing force, complete with druid spells and Christian counter spells. I suspect the real story was perhaps more tame.

Later scholars have suggested that Patrick and his compatriots were sent to minister to the Christians who were already there, not to conquer the indigenous people. Other scholars have speculated that one of the reasons that Christianity was so successful in Ireland was because Patrick took the parts of pagan religions that appealed most to its followers and showed how those elements were also present in Christianity -- or perhaps incorporated them into Christianity as practiced in Ireland.

All scholars seem to agree: Patrick was essential in establishing Christianity in Ireland. And he wouldn't have been so effective had he not spent time there as a slave, which meant he learned the language and the customs of the country.

So, when we despair over our bad fortune, perhaps we can remember St. Patrick, born into a noble family, sold into slavery -- an experience which would later make him successful in God's mission in ways he never could have anticipated.

Of Celtic monks and little boats

Of course, Celtic monks may not have been surprised. After all, they’ve gained a certain amount of fame (or notoriety?) for setting off in tiny boats, called coracles, to see where God, by way of currents, led them.

If you want to see modern people trying to use a coracle, look up a post by Dave Bonta at vianegativa. I knew that ancient Celtic monks set off in little boats, but seeing modern people in a coracle made me think about those monks with new admiration.

Dave reminds us, "Though the ancient ocean-going coracles did probably have rudders (and according to 'The Voyage of St. Brendan,' could be fitted with a sail), their relative unsteerability constituted part of their attraction to Celtic monks, for whom the ideal form of travel involved surrendering to the will of God and going wherever the winds and currents took them. Some of the more God-besotted ones set off without even an oar."

Without even an oar! Celtic monks have become famous for this kind of faith, for their willingness to go to the wildest places to bring the word of God. Think of Columba heading off to Scotland and looking for ever more wild places before settling down in Iona.

In many ways, modern people are living in as distant an outpost of an empire as those ancient Celtic monks. Many of us are far from the corridors of power, whether they be in the U.S., in China or in India. Most ELCA members reading this post are far from the places where Christianity flourishes today, in parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America.

But instead of despairing and longing for the mythical glory days of past times when the church was more influential in the U.S., perhaps we should think of ourselves as Celtic monks, trying to till a very rocky, thorny soil. We should take comfort and encouragement from how much God can accomplish, even in the most unlikely circumstances. There’s plenty of transformative work for us to do today. Let us launch our coracles!

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Kristin Berkey-Abbott is a lifelong Lutheran, a college teacher and department head. She has taught a variety of English and creative-writing classes for the last 20 years.

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