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Notes from Exile

How St. Patrick Saved Civilization
Posted by David Irby on Mar 12, 2006 - 12:00:00 PM

IRELANDIt's fun time again! "Green Hats, Green Beer, Green Gills" time!  But for me, St. Patrick's Day is also always a time to seriously contemplate the saint.  I suppose such ideas are a "hard sell" for Canyon News readers; "The patron saint of a small, but charming country!  We wouldn't care about it at all if not for all the fun!"


But if I can hold your attention for just a minute, I would like to draw it to the greatness of the man, not only in terms of the tiny "bit o'heaven" where I live, but to the world as a whole, even for people who are far away from Ireland both in geography and in culture.


Patrick began his mission in Ireland around the 433rd year after Christ's birth, to effectively "repay" the people who had violently attacked his father's lands in Britain and carried him away into slavery; an act which in itself bespeaks Patrick's nobility. 

And this was a time when Roman civilization was breaking down, not only in Britain, but also in the rest of northwestern Europe. It seemed "sensible" therefore, to do what all of the other Christians and civilized Romans were doing, to preserve the Empire's possessions as much as possible; the soldier with his sword, and the monk with his books. 


Patrick instead begged to be sent as a missionary to a land which Rome had never conquered. Such an idea might have "made sense," if, for instance, he had begged to go among the Franks or the Goths, peoples who were threatening the centers of the Empire itself. But instead he wanted to go among the Irish, who were a nuisance to Roman Briton.  However, that province was already being abandoned.

And even among those few who saw value in an Irish mission, Patrick was thought to be too ill-schooled to be the right man for the job. 


Indeed, as his writings show, his Latin grammar was poor. 


Yet write he did, and the two works of his which come down to us; his letter of excommunication of a British chieftain named Coroticus, who had violently carried Irish Christians away into slavery, and his "Confession" which is really a combined autobiography and theological treatise, are the oldest written texts preserved to us from these islands.  And while brief (less than 20 pages total), these works are emensely valuable as windows, not only on the life and soul of Patrick, but on the nature of the world in which he lived.


And as a book called, "How the Irish Saved Civilization" (by Thomas Cahill, Nan A. Talese/ Doubleday, New York) shows; Providence decreed that, while Britain and northwest Europe sank into total anarchy, the mission which Patrick began created centers of learning and culture, which not only brought civilization to this wee island; but from which its missionary monks would spread to the lands to its east in the coming centuries; so that not only was Ireland civilized, but so was much of Britain, France and the Germanic lands. 


But these are not the only reasons that Patrick and his writings are important today.  A year ago, I told how his reiteration of the teaching of the Jewish priests of the time of the "Babylonian Captivity" over a thousand years previously; began the process whereby the fear-filled superstition of the pagans, whose "gods" demanded human blood sacrifice; was replaced with such understandings as that of the "materiality" of the Sun; which laid the foundations upon which modern scientific thought rests. 


But Patrick's writings also show that he was a soldier also in the theological battles within the Christian community as well.  And, in every instance he was on the side of the "Catholic Faith" insofar as it had developed at that time.  He clearly states his belief in the Incarnation of God in the man Jesus and of his place within the Godhead of the Trinity. 


But of special importance for today, is the fact that his writings indicate strong opposition to "Pelagianism," the heretical teaching of a monk which claimed that human beings could save themselves without the help of God, which we Christians believe comes to us through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, an idea which I'm sure that many readers share and indeed think to be the essence of "modernity."


And Patrick wrote of his hatred of liars and unjust perpetrators of violence too.  (Like "you know who!")   So he speaks against most of the ills of our "modern civilization."  Happy Paddy's Day t' all of ye!

Photo courtesy of Google

Westwood native, David Irby is a writer and social justice activist, who is now based in Dingle, in beautiful Ireland.  Contact him via




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