Thomas Cahill’s masterful little history, How the Irish Saved Civilization, is an incredible piece of literature. Like the brilliant history writer David McCullough, Cahill has mastered the balance between history and readability. His book has been out for over a decade. I got a copy a couple of years ago when an elderly saint was cleaning out his library in a move and bequeathed me his copy.
SO…in honor of St. Patrick’s day, I wanted to revisit one of Cahill’s remarkable chapters. It is entitled “Good News from Far Off: The First Missionary.”
He never chased snakes out of Ireland or guzzled beer. In fact, Patrick wasn’t even Irish. Patricius was born in Roman Britain around A.D. 390. When he was a teenager, marauding Irish raiders attacked his home, took him to Ireland, and sold him to an Irish king who put him to work as a shepherd.
“The life of a shepherd-slave could not have been a happy one. Ripped out of civilization, Patricius had for his only protector a man who did not hold his own life highly, let alone anyone else’s…We know that he did have two constant companions, hunger and nakedness.”Through a miracle of God, Patrick was able to escape and sail back to Britain. And within a few years, Patrick did the unthinkable. He returned to the people who had been so cruel to him to share the gospel of Jesus with them.
We have some admiration for such an act. But the remarkableness of Patrick’s decision gets lost on us because we are so evangelistically focused. But Patrick went to Ireland in an age when the thing to do was go to Rome. His church culture viewed pagans with prejudice. They were people to be avoided, not evangelized. So Patrick helped rescue the church from cold and irrelevant faith and fanned the flames of evangelistic fervor.
In protest of our culture’s obsession with revelry on this day, let us honor one of the church’s heroes. Patrick was a selfless Christian, consumed and driven with a love for a people in darkness.
Patrick’s love was a wholistic love. It wasn’t just their eternal souls he loved. He loved them. That’s why he didn’t only witness and teach and show the glories of Christ, but fought against slavery, hunger and oppression. Cahill writes:
He worries constantly for his people, not just for their spiritual but for their physical welfare. The horror of slavery was never lost in him: ‘But it is the women kept in slavery who suffer the most—and who keep their sprits up despite the menacing and terrorizing they must endure. The Lord gives grace to his many handmaids; and though they are forbidden to do so, they follow him with backbone.’I have this passion that the purest expression of our Christian faith will be a wholistic expression of love. That is, we don’t just transform people’s souls, we transform their cultures. In an age when so many evangelicals (Southern Baptists in particular) focus only on baptisms and witnessing, it would do us well to revisit the saints of the past and Patrick of Ireland is one of the best to consider.