12 March 2016

The Life of Saint Patrick and his message for us today:
4, the wearing of the green or of the faith Saint Patrick?

Saint Patrick and the Fire of Pentecost at Tara ... a stained glass window in Saint Patrick’s Church, Tara, Co Meath (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Readers Retreat,

The Church of Ireland Theological Institute,

12 March 2016.

2 p.m.: The Eucharist

Tobit 13: 1b-7; Psalm 145: 1-13; II Corinthians 4: 1-12; John 4: 21-38.

In the name + of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

We have come to the end of our “mini-retreat.” Next Thursday [17 March 2016], hundreds of Saint Patrick’s Day celebrations are taking place worldwide. In Dublin, Belfast, Cork, Galway or Limerick, if you find yourself in the centre of the major cities on this island, you will need to have your wits about you as you collide into drunks and revellers.

Writing some years ago in the Word magazine, Professor Vincent Twomey of Maynooth said that “it is time to reclaim Saint Patrick’s Day as a church festival.” He questioned the need for “mindless, alcohol-fuelled revelry,” and argued that “it is time to bring the piety and the fun together.”

I wonder sometimes whether we make too much of Saint Patrick’s Day … and whether we have emphasised the wrong traditions.

During the course of this “mini-retreat” this weekend, we have examined both the myths and facts surrounding Saint Patrick, and we have looked at the Patrician mission and the pre-Patrician roots of Irish Christianity.

But we cling onto Saint Patrick’s Day as if everything we think, say and do in regard to the patron saint’s day is part of sacred, national myth. People who say things like Vincent Twomey said some years ago are dismissed as myth-busters, killjoys and spoilsports.

But Saint Patrick’s Day never was at the heart of Irish identity, and never was at the heart of commemorating the arrival of Christianity in Ireland.

Let me share 10 things you may not already know about Saint Patrick’s Day:

1, Saint Patrick’s Day does not date back to Saint Patrick’s days. It is also a feast day in the calendar of the Western Church since the mid-17th century, thanks to Luke Wadding (1588-1657), a Franciscan theologian from Waterford who founded Saint Isidore’s College, the Irish College in Rome. He claimed Saint Patrick had died on 17 March, and encouraged his students to remember the saint on that date each year. But the commemoration was almost unknown, even in Ireland.

In 1629, Pope Urban VIII asked Luke Wadding to reform the Roman Breviary and calendar, his cousin, Patrick Comerford, Bishop of Waterford and Lismore, wrote to him, stressing the importance of including Saint Patrick in any new list of saints: “For your life … endeavour that at least a semi double be accorded to Saint Patrick.” And so 17 March entered into the official Christian calendar as a feast day in 1632.

2, If Saint Patrick is dressed for Saint Patrick’s Day in all those posters, statues and stained glass windows, then he is dressed in the wrong liturgical colour ... the correct liturgical colour for his day is white, not green. Despite all those songs about the “wearing of the green,” despite green floodlighting at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, for over 1,000 years Saint Patrick’s hue was blue. Blue is still the official colour of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, the official colour of the President and the official colour of the National Stud. Before partition, the strip of the Irish football team, representing the whole island, was Saint Patrick’s Blue.

3, The Saint Patrick’s Day Parade is not an Irish invention or tradition. The first recorded Saint Patrick's Day Parade in the world took place in Boston – on 18 March 1737. The first Saint Patrick’s Day Parade in New York was staged by Irish troops in the British army in 1762, most of them probably Protestants, perhaps as a recruiting drive for the British army. Today, the parade in New York is the longest and the oldest in the world.

4, The Cork village of Dripsey has the world’s shortest parade – a total of 23.4 metres from The Weigh Inn pub to The Lee Valley bar at each end of the village. But the Dublin parade only dates from 1931. It began as a military parade, and its present form, with bands and music, only dates from 1970.

5, At first, the Church of Ireland Gazette strongly opposed Saint Patrick’s Day becoming a public national holiday … because it would lead to too much drinking.

6, Saint Patrick’s Day has been a public holiday in Ireland for only little more than a century. In 1903, Luke Wadding’s hometown, Waterford, became the first city to declare Saint Patrick’s Day a public holiday. But 17 March only became a public holiday throughout Ireland later that year when Parliament in Westminster passed a bill introduced by the MP for South Kilkenny, James O’Mara.

7, The Gaelic League, formed by Douglas Hyde, a rector’s son, to promote the use of the Irish language, also campaigned to have pubs shut on 17 March. One TD said “the drowning of the shamrock” was “a direct insult to the saint.” A senator claimed Saint Patrick would drown anyone drowning the shamrock. Countess Markievicz wanted hotels to stay dry too, declaring: “I do not see why rich people should not be kept off their drink as well as poor.”

8, When the law eventually forced pubs to shut in 1927, TDs were still worried about sales of wine from chemists and so-called “dairy shops.” One politician was worried about women getting prescriptions filled and slipping a sly bottle of port into their handbags.

9, From 1927 until 1961, the Dog Show at the Royal Dublin Society was the only place to legally drink alcohol on Saint Patrick’s Day. Huge crowds turned up. One TD complained it was a grand occasion “except for all the dogs.”

10, For decades, all broadcast advertising was also banned on 17 March, which was filled with traditional music, religious services and speeches such as Eamon de Valera’s address in 1943 when he spoke of “happy maidens dancing at the crossroads.”

So, before we finish this retreat and go from here, prepared to celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day next week, and to enjoy ourselves, let us take to heart Vincent Twomey’s recent comments as a timely reminder that the central truths of the faith Saint Patrick preached on this island – the life, passion, death and Resurrection of Christ – are more important than any commemoration – secular, civic or religious – of the saint’s life.

Let us, like Paul and Patrick, let us enter into the labours of those who have gone before us (John 4: 38) and seek to “Let light shine in the darkness … to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (II Corinthians 4: 6).

And so, may all our thoughts, words and deeds be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.


Almighty God,
in your providence you chose your servant Patrick
to be the apostle of the Irish people,
to bring those who were wandering in darkness and error
to the true light and knowledge of your Word:
Grant that walking in that light
we may come at last to the light of everlasting life;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion Prayer:

Hear us, most merciful God,
for that part of the Church
which through your servant Patrick you planted in our land;
that it may hold fast the faith entrusted to the saints
and in the end bear much fruit to eternal life:
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

(The Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This sermon was preached at the Closing Eucharist at a Diocesan Readers’ Lenten retreat on 11-12 March 2016.

The Life of Saint Patrick and his message for us today:
3, Celtic Spirituality, is there something there?

Celtic crosses and round towers … images of Celtic Spirituality reinforced in the monastic site in Glendalough, Co Wicklow (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Readers Retreat,

The Church of Ireland Theological Institute,

12 March 2016.

11.15 a.m.:
Celtic Spirituality, is there something there?

Some years ago, I spent an autumn’s afternoon in Glendalough, looking for what I thought would be the remains of a great Celtic monastery.

Imagine my surprise when I found that the most prominent Celtic High Cross I was taking photographs of – one that stands beneath the Great Round Tower – was a gravestone erected in the late 19th century.

A few more Celtic myths were shattered that afternoon: the Great Round Tower was capped in the late 19th century too, so as we see it today is not as it once stood; even Saint Kevin’s Church is an 18th century church, built according to plans derived from an earlier sketch by a French or Swiss artist.

Our images of Celtic spirituality are often shaped by Victorian romanticism. Saint Patrick’s Breastplate, as we know it, is based on a manuscript from the late 11th century now in the Library of Trinity College Dublin. But it was only published in 1897 by John Henry Bernard (1860-1927), later Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin (1915-1919) and Provost of Trinity College Dublin (1919-1927).

The hymn Be Thou My Vision (Church Hymnal 643) refers to Christ as “my high tower” ... the Round Tower at Glendalough (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Sometimes, our images of Celtic Spirituality are intricately linked with the nation-state-building myths created by an Irish nationalism that was often narrow in its vision. Yet, Be thou my vision (Hymn 643, the Church Hymnal, was versified by a member of the Church of Ireland, Dr Eleanor Henrietta Hull, using another translation of an earlier poem or prayer.

But often the vision of the nation myth-makers was of an Ireland in which anything they regarded as “Celtic” was wrapped up with a narrow, exclusive concept of being green, Gaelic, Catholic, nationalist and Irish.

Saint Patrick’s Window in Saint Edan’s Cathedral, Ferns, Co Wexford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The popular images of Saint Patrick at that time in stained-glass windows, road-side statues and popular postcards show him standing on a bed of shamrocks decked in the robes and mitre of a truly Tridentine bishop. Of course, I would point out that green is the wrong liturgical colour both for Lent and for a saint’s day.

But why was he never seen in those popular portrayals in convocation robes or in a simple alb and stole? Because the message was clear: Celtic Christianity was for Roman Catholics only, and at that for a particular type of Catholicism.

And yet we did something similar in the Church of Ireland in the 19th century. antiquarians posing as historians claimed Patrick, and every other Celtic saint they could find, for Protestant Christianity, as opposed to Roman Christianity … as if Christianity in Ireland before the 12th or 13th centuries was pure from heresy, undefiled by superstition and out of touch with the Continental European Church.

Nor was Celtic Christianity the only formative influence on the Church in Ireland as it moved from the mediaeval period towards the Reformations. The Preamble and Declaration of 1870 describe the Church of Ireland as “the Ancient Catholic and Apostolic Church of Ireland” – what a title. But that ancient and catholic church is not just Celtic; it was influenced and shaped too by other cultural forces, including the Vikings, Anglo-Normans, and many others. Hopefully this will continue in the future, with the Romanians, Nigerians, Chinese, or others.

It may be that the economic woes of the past decade or so have made us despise the Celtic Tiger. But Celtic Spirituality is still a fashionable commodity when you look at the shops around Christ Church Cathedral or go shopping for small presents in Dublin Airport before a flight.

Much of what passes as “Celtic” and as “Celtic Spirituality” is tatty and second-rate. But there are compelling reasons to have a sound grasp of Celtic spirituality in the context of ministry in Ireland today.

The Cathedral ... The largest and most imposing of the buildings at Glendalough, Co Wicklow (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

1, Firstly, many of the cathedrals and churches of the Church of Ireland stand on ancient Celtic monastic sites. If you have ever wondered why so many Church of Ireland cathedrals – Achonry, Ardagh, Clogher, Clonfert, Elphin, Emly, Ferns, Kilfenora, Kilmacduagh, Kilmore, Leighlin, Raphoe, Rosscarbery – are in small villages or remote locations, or why it took so long to build cathedrals in Belfast, Enniskillen, or Sligo, or why still we have no cathedral in Galway, then you begin to realise the lasting influences of the Celtic monasteries.

2, Secondly, Celtic Christianity is popular and marketable – it’s a lifestyle choice. The three most popular categories of books on religion or on “Mind, Body and Spirit” shelves in Irish bookshops are on Buddhism, new age-type books on angels, and new age-style books on “Celtic Spirituality.”

It is important to know the minds of people, to know what engages them spiritually, what passes as religion for many if we are going to be incarnational in our ministry and mission.

But much of the writing about Celtic spirituality today is superficial, amateur, new age material, making spurious claims for the writers and against Christianity. For example: “Perhaps it is this mixture of pagan and Christian that makes Celtic Spirituality so interesting and so accessible today ... It is easier to find spiritual truth in a sacred grove than a dusty half empty church hall.”

Or what do you make of this claim: “Celtic Spirituality … is not a religion, it is a series of beliefs and practices to help you become aware of the spiritual world around you and your place in it. Whether you find it suitable to work with Jesus, his apostles and the Celtic Saints, or Brigid, Mannán Mac Lir and the Celtic gods, it matters little. What matters is that your life is enriched; you are at peace with your inner-being and that you become aware of the magic and incredible world that surrounds us all.”

Patrick Wormald describes this as “... ‘new-age’ paganism,” based on notions of some sort of “Celtic spirituality,” allegedly distinguished by a unique “closeness to nature.”

3, And thirdly, modern spirituality, in a dynamic way, has drawn on and has been enriched by many resources associated with Celtic spirituality, enriching the life of the Church of Ireland at every level.

There are at least 20 hymns from the Irish language in the Church Hymnal, and many more tunes with a Celtic air to them. We have all been enriched by the prayers of the Iona Community, the hymns of John Bell, Graham Maule and the Wild Goose Worship Group, the active and engaged spirituality of the Corrymeela community, or the resources of the Northumbria Community near Lindisfarne.

The global reception of the hymns of John Bell and Graham Maule show how there is a fresh and new interest in Celtic Spirituality that is not confined to Ireland.

At an academic level, this interest has been stimulated by scholars such as James Mackey, Ian Bradley in the Church of Scotland, the Jesuit Diarmuid Ó Laoghaire (1915-2001), the Carmelite Peter O’Dwyer and the Redemptorist John Ó Ríordáin, and writers such as the late John O’Donohue, poet and author of Anam Cara (1997) who died about six years ago [4 January 2008].

The Celts: who were they?
‘As the deer pants for the water’ … the base of the ‘Market Cross’ in Kells, Co Meath, has two friezes, including a deer hunt (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

If we are going to talk about Celtic spirituality, I should begin with caution: it is difficult to say if there was such a group of people as Celts. The name for Celts comes from terms used by the Greeks and Romans to describe the people who lived in Gaul (France). But scholars differ when they answer the question: Who were the Celts?

Did they originate in southern Europe, or in what is now southern Germany and Austria? Or did they come from the Pontic-Caspian region? Strabo suggests that the Celtic heartland was in southern France. Pliny the Elder says the Celts originated in southern Portugal and Spain. But how did they reach the remote Atlantic coasts and islands of Western Europe we now know as the “Celtic fringe”?

“Celt” is a modern English word. There are few written records of ancient Celtic languages and most of the evidence for personal names and place names is found in Greek and Roman authors. The names used by Greek (Κελτοί, Γαλᾶται) and Latin writers (Galli) refer to speakers of similar languages, but not to a people. The one group of Biblical Celts are named in two New Testament letters: the Letter to the Galatians, and also I Peter (see I Peter 1: 1). Saint Jerome (AD 342-419), in his commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians, notes the language of the Anatolian Galatians at his time.

Romantic antiquarian interest popularised the term “Celt,” but only from the 17th century on. Because of the rise of nationalism and Celtic revivals from the 19th century on, the term “Celtic” is now used to identify the languages and cultures of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, the Isle of Man and Brittany. But the term “Celtic” also applies to Continental European regions with a Celtic heritage but no Celtic language, such as northern Iberia, and to a lesser degree France.

“Celticity” refers to shared cultural indicators, such as language, myths, artefacts and social organisation. But does that shared culture and family of language imply a shared ethnicity?

There is little archaeological evidence in Ireland for large inward Celtic migration. European Celtic influences and language may have been absorbed gradually. But did the Celts arrive in Ireland by invasion? Or did their culture and language spread gradually to other peoples already here? As one writer in The Irish Times argued, just because we all eat pasta and pizza, drink Chianti, holiday in Tuscany and are decked out by Versace and Gucci, does not make us Italian, even culturally. Nor does it indicate there was ever an Italian invasion of Ireland. Were the Celtic languages and cultures adopted as some sort of early fashion statement?

Can we talk about a Celtic Christianity?

Saint Kevin’s Church, Glendalough ... named after the founder of the monastic settlement, has a steep roof supported internally by a semi-circular vault (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Can we talk about a “Celtic Christianity” with distinguishing, unique traditions, spirituality, liturgies and rituals that mark it out from other traditions in the Church in the neighbouring sub-Roman world?

“Celtic Christianity” broadly refers to early mediaeval Christian practices that developed around the Irish Sea in the 5th and 6th centuries, among many people on these islands. By extension, the term can refer to the monastic networks founded from Scotland and Ireland on Continental Europe, especially in Gaul (France).

The term “Celtic Christianity” is sometimes extended beyond the 7th century to describe later Christian practice in these areas. But the history of the churches on these islands diverges significantly after the 8th century, with great differences even between rival Irish traditions.

It is easy to exaggerate the cohesiveness of the Celtic Christian communities. The term “Celtic Church” is inappropriate to describe Christianity among Celtic-speaking peoples. Celtic-speaking areas were part of Latin or Western Christendom as a whole. But we can talk about certain traditions in Celtic-speaking lands, and the development and spread of these traditions, especially in the 6th and 7th centuries.

The flowering of Celtic Christianity

A late Celtic high cross at Saint Edan’s Cathedral, Ferns, Co Wexford … Saint Edan was once claimed as pre-Patrician bishop in Ireland (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Britain was the most remote province in the Roman Empire. Christianity reached England in the first few centuries AD, and the first recorded martyr in England was Saint Alban, perhaps between 283 and 304, certainly long before Saint Patrick’s time in Ireland.

The Roman legions were withdrawn from England in 407, Rome was sacked in 410, the legions did not return to England, and Roman influence came to an end. In the aftermath, these islands developed distinctively from the rest of Western Europe, and the Irish Sea acted as a centre from which a new culture developed among the “Celtic” peoples.

Ireland was never part of the Roman Empire. But Christianity came here from the former Roman outposts, and a unique Church organisation emerged, focussed on the monasteries, rather than on episcopal sees, with their own traditions and practices. Key figures in this process included Saint Ninian, Palladius and Saint Patrick, the “Apostle of Ireland.” Ireland was converted through the work of missionaries from Britain such as Patrick and others.

Celtic missions

Early Celtic saints and founding figures of the Church included Saint Martin in France, Saint Ninian in Scotland, Saint Patrick and Saint Brigid in Ireland, and Saint Samson and Saint David in Wales and Brittany.

In the 6th and 7th centuries, monks from Ireland established monastic settlements in parts of Scotland. They included Saint Columba or Saint Colmcille, who settled on Iona. Ireland became “a land of saints and scholars” and missionaries from Ireland became a major source of missionary work in Scotland, Saxon parts of Britain and central Europe.

As the Anglo-Saxons colonised what is now England, Celtic missionaries from Scotland and Ireland worked among them. In the year 631, Saint Aidan was sent from Iona to evangelise them from the island of Lindisfarne, on England’s north-east coast. Celtic practice heavily influenced northern England, and the missionaries from Lindisfarne reached as far south as London.

Irish monks were also settling in Continental Europe, particularly in Gaul (France), including Saint Columbanus, and exerting a profound influence greater than that of many Continental centres with more ancient traditions.

Meanwhile, in 597, Pope Gregory sent a mission to the English, led by Saint Augustine. These renewed links with the greater Latin West brought the Celtic-speaking peoples into close contact with other expressions of Christianity.

Distinctive traditions

Some of the customs and traditions that had developed in Celtic Christianity were distinctive or gave rise to disputes with the rest of the Western Church. These included the monastic tradition, fixing the date of Easter, differences on the use of tonsure, and penitential rites.

1, The monastic tradition

The ‘Market Cross’ in front of Kells Heritage Centre once stood within the monastery grounds in Kells, Co Meath, associated with Saint Columba and the ‘Book of Kells’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The achievements of Christianity in the Celtic-speaking world are significant. Irish society had no pre-Christian history of literacy. Yet within a few generations of the arrival of Christianity, the monks and priests had become fully integrated with Latin culture. Apart from their Latin texts, these Irish monks also developed a written form of Old Irish.

Some of the greatest achievements of the Celtic tradition were during this period, such as the Book of Kells, and intricately carved high crosses.

Episcopal structures were adapted to an environment wholly different from that in the sub-Roman world. Apart from parts of Wales, Devon, and Cornwall, the Celtic world was without developed cities, and so different ecclesiastical structures were needed, especially in Ireland. This ecclesiastical structure developed around monastic communities and their abbots.

2, Calculating the date of Easter

Celtic Christianity was often marked by its conservatism, even archaism. One example is the method used to calculate Easter, using a calculation similar to one approved by Saint Jerome.

Eventually, most groups, including the southern Irish, accepted the new methods for calculating Easter, but not the monastery of Iona and the houses linked to it.

At the Synod of Whitby in 664, the rules of the Roman mission were accepted by the Church in England, and were extended later throughout Britain and Ireland. But the decrees of Whitby did not immediately change the face of Christianity on these islands. There were pockets of resistance to the Roman mission, especially in Devon, Cornwall and Scotland, and the monks of Iona did not accept the decisions reached at Whitby until 716.

3, Monastic tonsure

Irish monks kept a distinct tonsure, or method of cutting their hair, to distinguish their identity as monks. The “Celtic” tonsure involved cutting away the hair above one’s forehead. This differed from the prevailing custom, which was to shave the top of the head, leaving a halo of hair – in imitation of Christ’s crown of thorns.

4, Penitentials

In Ireland, a distinctive form of penance developed, where confession was made privately to a priest, under the seal of secrecy, and penance was given privately and performed privately as well. Handbooks, called “penitentials,” were designed as a guide for confessors and to regularise the penance given for each particular sin.

In the past, penance had been a public ritual, but had fallen into disuse. But the Irish penitential practice spread throughout continental Europe, and Saint Columbanus is said to have introduced the “medicines of penance” to Gaul.

By 1215, the Celtic practice had become the European norm, with the Fourth Lateran Council issuing a canonical requirement for confession at least once per year.

Renewed interest in ‘Celtic Spirituality’

A replica high cross from the 19th century beneath the Round Tower of Glendalough (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In the 19th century, there was a revival of interest in Celtic spirituality in these islands, with renewed interest in the poetry, customs or household prayers of the western Celtic fringes. It coincided with a similar revival in political and artistic circles.

Hymns mentioning high towers were written in the same decades in the late 19th century as the Round Tower was restored and capped in Glendalough, a Round Tower was erected at the grave of Daniel O’Connell in Glasnevin Cemetery, and, as part of the Victorian Arts and Crafts Movement, my great-grandfather decorated the top storey of the Irish House, a pub that stood beneath Christ Church Cathedral, with a series of rising round towers.

The Gaelic Athletic Association was formed in 1884, the Gaelic League by Douglas Hyde, a rector’s son, in 1893. Our most popular English-language version of Saint Patrick’s Breastplate, Frances Alexander’s I bind unto myself today (Church Hymnal, 322) was first sung and published as late as 1889. The English-language version of Be thou my vision by Mary Byrne and Eleanor Hull (Church Hymnal, No 643), which refers to God as “my high tower,” was only translated and versified in 1905, and was first published in a hymnal in 1915.

The pediment of the Irish House, on the corner of Wood Quay and Winetavern Street, was decorated by James Comerford in 1870 with a series of Celtic motifs, topped by a collection of rising round towers

In Scotland, many ‘Celtic’ poems and prayers were collected and edited by Alexander Carmichael in his Carmina Gadelica (1900) and in Ireland by Douglas Hyde in the Religious Songs of Connacht (1906).

In 1938, George MacLeod, a Church of Scotland minister, rebuilt Iona’s ancient Abbey, and founded the modern Iona Community.

Since the 1980s, Celtic-style books of prayers by the Revd David Adam, Vicar of Lindisfarne, have become widely popular, as has a wave of books about Celtic Christianity, study courses, and Celtic interest networks.

Themes in Celtic Spirituality

For centuries, the riches of Celtic spirituality were transmitted orally. These included prayers sung or chanted at the rising and setting of the sun, in the midst of daily work and routine, at a child’s birth, or at a loved one’s death. There were prayers of daily life celebrating God as Life within all life, with creation as his dwelling place.

1, Creation:

David Adam says: “Celtic Christians saw a universe ablaze with God’s glory, suffused with a presence that calls, nods and beckons – a creation personally united with its Creator in every atom and fibre.”

There’s no plant in the ground
But is full of his blessing.
There’s no thing in the sea
But is full of his life...
There is nought in the sky
But proclaims his goodness.
Jesu! O Jesu! it’s good to praise thee!
– (Carmina Gadelica)

Long before Saint Francis of Assisi, Saint Patrick called Christ the “True Sun.” Ray Simpson writes in Celtic Blessings: “A good way to experience Jesus is to use what I call the Sun Bathing Exercise. Imagine Jesus as the smiling sunshine of God pouring rays of light upon you. Just soak these up, relax and feel better! Celtic Christians see Jesus as the divine light that permeates all creation. So by spending time in nature we can also be spending time with Jesus.”

2, Humanity

Christ enthroned ... the Book of Kells

O Son of God … dear child of Mary, you are the refined molten metal of our forge. – Tadhg Óg Ó Huiginn

Christ is the supreme example of a complete human life. By being united to him, we can learn how to be fully human by finding a body-mind-intuition balance, and by growing in wisdom and, above all, love.

3, Worship and community

Early Celtic Christians shared their food, money, work, play and worship in little communities which were always open to the people who lived around them. Wherever they lived they saw Christ in their neighbour and made community with them.

Celtic writers talked about worshipping God with the “five-stringed harp” ... the North Cross in Castledermot, Co Kildare, depicts King David with his harp – one of the few images on a Celtic high cross from this time of an Irish harp (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Celtic writers talked about worshipping God with the “five-stringed harp” – meaning all five senses. The Celtic churches punctuated each day and night with periods of prayer.

4, The Trinity

Celtic Christians placed a strong emphasis on the Holy Trinity. They followed the one God who embraces the world with his two arms of love: the right arm is Christ; the left arm is the Spirit:

I lie down this night with God
And God will lie down with me
I lie down this night with Christ
And Christ will lie down with me
I lie down this night with the Spirit
And the Spirit will lie down with me
. – (Carmina Gadelica)

5, Everyday prayers

The Celts prayed about anything and everything in a natural way. Prayers for frequent activities were learned by heart and handed down by word of mouth or later in writing.

Some of the Celtic prayers are blessings:

Bless to me, O God
Each thing my eye sees,
Each sound my ear hears,
Each person I meet.

Some Celtic prayers were “circling prayers”:

Circle me, Lord.
Keep peace within, keep harm without.
Circle me, Lord.
Keep love within, keep hate without.

6, Prayer and imagination

Celtic prayer is also marked by the use of imagination, for example, by imagining that Christ, his mother or friends were in the kitchen, in the house, in the workplace, or even in the bedroom. Here are some examples:

I will do my household chores as would Mary, mother of Jesus.
I will travel to my next place in the presence of the angels of protection.
Who is that near me when I am sad and alone?
It is Jesus, the King of the sun.

7, Armour (“Breastplate”) prayers

The most famous of the armour or breastplate prayers for protection is known as Saint Patrick’s Breastplate. This invites God’s force-field to strengthen us for life’s struggles.

The armour consists of:

1. God – the three in one
2. Human valour as lived by Christ
3. Angels and great souls
4. Powers of creation
5. Spiritual gifts

The praying person then confronts negative forces one by one, invites Christ into each situation, and repeats the opening invocation.

In the prayer we call Saint Patrick’s Breastplate (see Hymns 322 and 611, the Church Hymnal), the writer imagines that he is Saint Patrick, putting on the different items of God’s armour: God, good spirits, saints, powers of creation, spiritual gifts – just like a suit of armour. The eighth verse of this prayer (Hymn 322) says:

Christ be with me,
Christ within me,
Christ behind me,
Christ before me,
Christ beside me,
Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me,
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ in quiet,
Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

8, Blessing prayers

The Celtic way blessed everything in life (except evil), however earthy or every-day, all around the clock, including animals, food, gifts, jobs, lovemaking, meals, travel. Here are examples of an anniversary and a sleep blessing:

On this your anniversary
God give you the best of memories,
Christ give you pardon for failings,
Spirit give you the fruits of friendship.

Sleep in peace,
Sleep soundly,
Sleep in love.
Weaver of dreams
Weave well in you as you sleep
. – Ray Simpson, Celtic Blessings.

9, Miracles and Celtic saints

In Celtic Christianity, saints were regarded as holy spiritual overlords who were close to God, provided assistance in times of need, had special influence in the court of heaven, and were able to plead with God for favours.

Many miracles were associated with them, including visions, healings, favours granted, mystical appearances and more. Places where miracles had been performed became pilgrimage sites.

10, The Anamchara

Celtic Christians recognised the importance of shared spiritual journeys, and their Anamchara or Soul Friend, was their spiritual director. Anamchara were sought out as men and women of wisdom, great spirituality and insight, who were willing to share their understanding of the faith with others.

Saint Brigid said that “the person without an Anamchara is like a body without a head.”

Some Celtic saints:

Apart from Saint Patrick, we ought to be familiar with some other Celtic and Irish saints from this period and tradition.

1, Saint Brigid of Kildare:

Saint Brigid ... one of the three patrons of Ireland

Saint Brigid (1 February) is second only to Saint Patrick (17 March) as the patron of Ireland. She is also known as Mary of the Gael. A passage in the Book of Lismore testifies to her importance: “It is she who helpeth everyone who is in danger; it is she that abateth the pestilences; it is she that quelleth the rage and the storm of the sea. She is the prophetess of Christ; she is the Queen of the South; she is the Mary of the Gael.”

Saint Brigid is said to offer protection to poets, blacksmiths, healers, cattle, dairymaids, midwives, new-born babies and fugitives. The numerous stories of miracles performed by her even in childhood convey the impression that she was really a person of compassion, charity and strength. Her practicality and resourcefulness were shown by fetching well water that tasted more like ale for a sick servant, or picking up rushes from the floor to twist into a cross to explain the message of salvation to a dying man. Her generosity frequently relied on prayer to make good the deficit.

Her father Dubtach was a pagan nobleman in Leinster, and her mother his Christian bondwoman, Brotseach, whom he sold to a Druid who lived at Faughart near Dundalk. There the child was born in the mid-5th century (ca 451 or 453) and baptised Bríd or Brigid. It is said that as a child she was taken to hear Saint Patrick preaching, and as she listened to him she fell into an ecstasy.

At about the age of 14, instead of accepting marriage, she opted for the religious life. She left home with seven other young girls and travelled to Co Meath where Saint Macaille was bishop.

The chancel of Saint Brigid’s Cathedral, Kildare (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Brigid founded the first convent in Ireland. She went to Ardagh to make her final vows before Saint Mel, a nephew of Saint Patrick, and he is said to have mistakenly ordained here.

Later, a unique community of monks and nuns developed at Kildare, with Brigid as Abbess of the nuns and Conleth, the first Bishop of Kildare, as Abbot of the monks. Kildare became a centre for spirituality and learning, healing, faith-sharing and evangelism.

Brigid died on 1 February ca 521-528. She is depicted in art as an abbess holding a lamp or candle, often with a cow in the background, and sometimes wearing a mitre. This poem is ascribed to her:

I long for a great lake of ale
I long for the meats of belief and pure piety
I long for the flails of penance at my house
I long for them to have barrels full of peace
I long to give away jars full of love
I long for them to have cellars full of mercy
I long for cheerfulness to be in their drinking
I long for Jesus too to be there among them.

2, Saint Columba

The Round Tower in Kells, Co Meath ... a monastic site dating from the ninth, or even the sixth century, is associated with Saint Columba and his followers (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Saint Columba (9 June) is intimately associated with Iona, off the west coast of Scotland – and is credited with bringing Christianity to Scotland. But he is also linked to a number of Irish monastic foundations, including Kells, Co Meath, and Derry.

He was born in Co Donegal in 520 into a wealthy royal family and was given the name Colum (“the dove”). He became a priest at a monastery founded by Saint Finian and spent many years in his home region establishing hundreds of churches and monasteries.

It is said that during a visit to Saint Finian, Columba secretly copied a beautiful Psalter that Finian brought back from Rome. In doing this, he devalued the original book. Columba refused to return his the copy and Saint Finian challenged him in court. The king ruled in favour of Saint Finian, saying famously: “To every cow belongs her calf; to every book belongs its copy.”

When Columba still refused to give back his copy, a clan war broke out between the king’s followers and Columba’s supporters. Many people were killed in the fighting, and a shamed Columba accepted “white martyrdom” – exiling himself from his homeland as a penance. In 563, at the age of 42, Columba and 12 companion monks sailed in a currach to Iona, where they settled and founded a monastery.

Iona became the largest Christian centre in northern Britain, attracting thousands of monks, and later became a centre for missionary outreach to the highlands of Scotland.

In 597, at the age of 76, a week before he died, Columba climbed the hill overlooking the monastery in Iona, blessed the monks, and said: “In Iona of my heart, Iona of my love, Instead of monks’ voices shall be lowing of cattle, But ere the world come to an end Iona shall be as it was.” During his last days he dictated a prayer to his monks:

See that you are at peace among yourselves,
my children, and love one another.
Take the example of the good men of ancient
times and God will comfort and aid you,
both in this world and in the world to come.

Iona Abbey, and the Iona Community founded in the 1930s by George MacLeod, continue to inspire Christians today throughout the world.

Saint Cuthbert (636-687):

Pages from the Lindisfarne Gospels are projected onto Durham Cathederal in Durham. Artist Ross Ashton collaborated with Robert Ziegler and John del Nero to create a 12-minute Son et Lumiere, projecting pages of the Lindisfarne Gospels across the Durham Cathedral, as part of Durham Lumiere in 2011

Saint Cuthbert was born in the Scottish border country near Melrose. One night, he had a vision of a great light, stretching from earth to heaven. He learned later that on that same night, 31 August 651, Saint Aidan, Bishop of Lindisfarne, had died. To the young shepherd, the vision seemed to be a challenge and a call to serve God. He entered the Monastery of Old Melrose and there he spent 13 years as a monk.

Eata, Abbot of Melrose, took Cuthbert with him to Ripon where they entered the monastery together. Cuthbert later returned to Melrose as Prior in 661. As prior, he took part in the Synod of Whitby in 664, when he accepted the synod decisions on the date of Easter and the tonsure.

Cuthbert returned to Lindisfarne as Prior but then travelled throughout Northumbria. In search of a solitary life, he built a round cell and chapel south of Lindisfarne, and he lived there for eight years, devoting his time to prayer. Following in Saint Aidan’s footsteps, he was consecrated Bishop of Lindisfarne in York on Easter Day, 26 March 685. He died in 687.

During the Viking raids in Northumbria in 875, Saint Cuthbert’s followers moved his body and carried it from place to place for safety. In 883, he was buried in Chester-le-Street and in 996 he was reburied in Durham Cathedral, where his shrine remains to this day.

Some key centres for Celtic spirituality:


Glencolubkille and Garton, Co Donegal: Garton is the birthplace of Saint Columba, and he described Glencolumbkille as “Glen of the psalms and the prayers, glen of Heaven.”

Glendalough, Co Wicklow: Glendalough in the Wicklow Mountains, 25 miles from Dublin, is the best preserved “monastic city” in Ireland, with its round tower, seven churches and visitor centre, which tells the story of Saint Kevin.

The monastery of Holmpatrick stood on the mound in the graveyard behind the present parish church in Skerries (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Skerries: a monastery associated with Saint Patrick was first located on the islands off the shore, before moving to the site of the present Church of Ireland Parish Church, Holmpatrick, where the ruined tower behind the church stands on the height of the monastic site.


Iona: Saint Columba established his monastery on Iona in the 6th century. The modern Iona Community was founded in 1938 as an ecumenical community committed to seeking new ways of living the Christian faith in today’s world.

Whithorn: Saint Ninian founded the first large Christian community here in the 5th century.


Saint David’s and Saint Non’s: Saint David’s Cathedral is near the site of the great monastic community founded by the patron saint of Wales. At nearby Saint Non’s, a well and retreat house mark the traditional site where Saint David’s mother, Saint Non, gave birth, and is the start of a coastal pilgrim trail.


Lindisfarne, Northumberland: Lindisfarne has sometimes been described as the “cradle of English Christianity.” Alcuin, adviser to the Emperor Charlemagne, described Lindisfarne as “the holiest place in England.” From Lindisfarne, Saint Aidan and Saint Cuthbert spread the Christian faith north and south.

Whitby, Yorkshire: The ruins of Saint Hilda’s Abbey and the Caedmon Cross in the churchyard opposite stand out on the cliff top site. This was once the largest English monastic community for men and women. Today, the Order of The Holy Paraclete offers retreat accommodation at Saint Hilda’s Priory.

Durham: The shrine of Saint Cuthbert is at Durham Cathedral.

The Book of Chad or Lichfield Gospels show clearly the combination of Celtic and Saxon culture in the eighth century ... Saint Chad was trained in an Irish monastery (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Lichfield: Saint Chad, who was educated at an Irish monastery ca 651-664, established the church in Mercia, the pre-Norman Kingdom of the English Midlands, and died in 672.The Book of Chad, now one of the great treasures of Lichfield Cathedral, predates the Book of Kells by about 80 years.

The detail and beauty of Anglo-Saxon metalwork in the exhibitions in Lichfield Cathedral are evidence of the intimate cultural links between the ‘Celtic’ Ireland and ‘Anglo-Saxon’ England (Photographs: Patrick Comerford)

Earlier this month, I was in Lichfield Cathedral for the patronal festival of Saint Chad [2 March 2016], who is described on the cathedral website as an Irish-born saint. Certainly, he seems to have been trained in an Irish monastery.

Over the last few years, I visited on a number of occasions exhibitions in Lichfield Cathedral of recent finds in a large Anglo-Saxon horde near Lichfield. This discovery points to an interesting interaction between the Saxons of Mercia and the Celtic church in Northumbria and perhaps even Ireland before the arrival of Saint Chad.

Bradwell, Essex: The 9th century chapel in Bradwell was founded by Saint Cedd of Lindisfarne.

Concluding Prayer:

As we prepare for Saint Patrick’s Day next month, my concluding prayer is the Collect of the Day for 17 March, which corrects our priorities, if they have been parades, pints and fun fairs:

Almighty God,
in your providence you chose your servant Patrick
to be the apostle of the Irish people,
to bring those who were wandering in darkness and error
to the true light and knowledge of your Word:
Grant that walking in that light
we may come at last to the light of everlasting life;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Additional Reading:

David Adam, Border Lands (Sheed & Ward) … the best of David Adam’s Celtic vision. This is a compilation of four of his most popular books and includes prayers, meditations and Celtic art.

David Adam, The Eye of the Eagle (Triangle) … the reader is taken through the hymn, Be Thou My Vision, in a search for the spiritual riches that are hidden in all our lives.

Ian Bradley, The Celtic Way (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1993) ... the Revd Ian Bradley, a Presbyterian minister in the Church of Scotland, has lectured in the Department of Theology in the University of Aberdeen. This is a good, sound introduction to Celtic spirituality.

Celtic Daily Prayer from the Northumbria Community (London: Harper Collins, 2000) … an introduction to daily prayer drawing on resources from the “Celtic Church” throughout these islands, with good notes and introductions to further resources.

Elizabeth Culling, What is Celtic Christianity? (Nottingham: Grove Books, Grove Series No 45).

The Iona Community Worship Book (Glasgow: Wild Goose, 1994 ed).

Lemuel J. Hopkins-James, The Celtic Gospels, their story and their text (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1934/2001) … Hopkins-James transcribed the Book of Chad in 1934.

Marian Keaney, Celtic Heritage Saints (Dublin: Veritas, 1998) … introduces us to scholars, adventurous sailors, saints who get their heads chopped off, friends and enemies of kings. Good for using in schools, Sunday schools, and with confirmation classes.

Diana Leatham, They Built on Rock (London: Hodder & Stoughton). This book tells the stories of the Celtic saints who maintained their faith during the Dark Ages. The people profiled include Saint Cuthbert, Saint Ninian, Saint David and Saint Columba.

James P. Mackey, An introduction to Celtic Christianity (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995 ed) … a collection of essays by 14 of the best experts on Celtic Christianity, including mission, liturgy, prayers, hymns and the arts.

Caitlín Matthews, Celtic Devotional: daily prayers and blessings (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 1996/2004).

Patrick Murray, The Deer’s Cry (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1986) … a useful anthology of poetry and verse.

Peter O’Dwyer, Céilí Dé: Spiritual reform in Ireland 750-900 (Dublin: Editions Tailliura, 1981) … the story of the movement within Celtic monasticism that gave us Saint Maelruain’s Monastery in Tallaght and the Derrynaflann Chalice.

Pat Robson, The Celtic Heart (London: Fount, 1998) … a collection of Celtic writings celebrating the seasons of life by an Anglican priest living in Cornwall. It includes short biographies of saints and influential figures.

Michael Rodgers and Marcus Losack, Glendalough: A Celtic Pilgrimage (Dublin: Columba Press, 1996) … a useful guidebook to our nearest Celtic monastic foundation.

George Otto Simms, Commemorating Saints & Others of the Irish Church (Dublin: Columba Press, 1999) … biographical notes and suggestions for intercessions.

Ray Simpson, Celtic Blessings (Loyola Press) … how many of us have whispered an impromptu prayer to our computer, begging it not to crash? Celtic Blessings reveals such actions are part of an ancient and sacred ritual.

Ray Simpson, The Celtic Prayer Book (Kevin Mayhew) … The Celtic Prayer Book is published in four volumes: 1, Prayer Rhythms: fourfold patterns for each day; 2, Saints of the Isles: a year of feasts; 3, Healing the Land: natural seasons, sacraments and special service; 4, Greater Celtic Christians: alternative worship.

Ray Simpson, Exploring Celtic Spirituality (Hodder & Stoughton) … the chapters of this book feature different aspects of Celtic spirituality, including cherishing the earth, contemplative prayer and the healing of society. There are prayers and responses at the end of each chapter.

Martin Wallace, The Celtic Resource Book (London: Church House Publishing) … the whole breadth of Celtic Christianity is spanned here – from liturgies and prayers and the stories of Celtic saints, through to Celtic art. The book includes liturgies for different times of the day, for use at home or in larger groups.

Previous reflection.

(The Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This is the third address at a Diocesan Readers’ Lenten retreat on 11-12 March 2016.

The Life of Saint Patrick and his message for us
today: 2, Saint Patrick’s writings and his message

Saint Patrick depicted in a window in the south porch in Saint Bartholomew’s Church, Ballsbridge, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Readers Retreat,

The Church of Ireland Theological Institute,

12 March 2016.

9.15 a.m.: Saint Patrick’s writings and message

The myths and legends about Saint Patrick that encrust Saint Patrick’s Day have not been there for that long. But those legends and myths have been there long enough to mean that anyone who questions them or tries to get to the truth about Saint Patrick, to talk about the real man behind the story, is dangerously close to a folk concept of heresy.

We help to massage those myths and legends in churches and cathedrals throughout the Church of Ireland with our stained glass windows depicting Saint Patrick with mitre and crozier, standing on the head of a snake.

The dates of Patrick’s life are the subject of conflicting traditions. His own writings provide nothing that can be dated more precisely than the 5th century. Even though Patrick quotes in his writings from the Acts of the Apostles as they are rendered by the early fifth-century Bible-version known as the Vulgate, these quotations may have been added later to replace other quotation from an earlier Bible-version and can therefore not be used securely to fix dates for Saint Patrick or his writings.

For example, the Letter to Coroticus implies that the Franks were still pagans at the time of writing. Their conversion to Christianity is dated to the period 496-508.

Two Latin works survive which are generally accepted to have been written by Saint Patrick. These are the Declaration or Confession (Confessio), and the Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus (Epistola), from which we have the only generally accepted details of his life.

The Confession is the more biographical of the two works. In it, Saint Patrick gives a short account of his life and his mission. However, most available details of his life are from subsequent hagiographies and annals, and these are now not accepted without detailed criticism.

In his writings, Saint Patrick shows his learning as he uses the Scriptures and scriptural allusions to make his arguments. The language he uses has been described as a popular or vulgar form of Latin from the 5th century, similar to that in Gaul at the time. But there is a level of sophistication in Saint Patrick’s thoughts and in the literary structure of his writings.

He tells us this much about his family in his Confessio:

My father was Calpornius. He was a deacon; his father was Potitus, a priest, who lived at Bannavem Taburniae. His home was near there, and that is where I was taken prisoner (Confessio 1).

Where was Bannavem Taburniae? Although we can suppose that it was near the west coast of Britain, but we do not know its exact location.

The Latin term that Patrick uses for the family home, uillula suggests the family had reasonable economic means and was of a particular social class.

Patrick’s reference to his father Calpornius as a deacon and to his grandfather Potitus as a priest (patrem habui Calpornium diaconum filium quendam Potiti presbyteri) (Confessio 1) implies a family background of married clergy. Calpornius’ dual role in church life (deacon) and civic life (decurion) was not unusual in the late 4th or early 5h century Roman empire, when the clergy were fast becoming the administrative in the provinces.

Patrick insists in his Epistola that he ‛was born free, in that I was born of a decurion father’ (Epistola 10). Indeed, for a man to be ordained, it meant he was a freeman.

He says that after his six years of slavery in Ireland he returned to Britain, where his family “welcomed me as a son, and they pleaded with me that, after all the many tribulations I had undergone, I should never leave them again” (Confessio 23).

Later, during his time as a missionary in Ireland, he was conscious of being cut off from his family and friends and he wondered about leaving the Irish and returning home:

I could wish to leave them to go to Britain. I would willingly do this, and am prepared for this, as if to visit my home country and my parents. Not only that, but I would like to go to Gaul to visit the brothers and to see the faces of the saints of my Lord. God knows what I would dearly like to do. But I am bound in the Spirit, who assures me that if I were to do this, I would be held guilty. (Confessio 43)

Patrick’s acknowledgement of these feelings of homesickness makes for a very human portrait in his Confessio. At the same time, he is a man committed to his mission, which he believes he received from God:

And I fear, also, to lose the work which I began – not so much I as Christ the Lord, who told me to come here to be with these people for the rest of my life. (Confessio 43)

Was Saint Patrick celibate or was he married with a family of his own?

In the 5th century, many bishops were married. But from the late 4th century, a shift was taking place in Christian attitudes towards sexuality so that marriage and saintliness began to be seen as incompatible.

Church Fathers at the time, such as Jerome, argued that those dealing with heavenly things should be celibate, while those who were married could deal with earthly things. Saint Augustine had already adopted a monastic and celibate form of life along with his monks. Patrick does not tell us whether he was ever married or not but, given that in his writings he mentions with approval “monks and virgins of Christ” (monachi et virgines Christi) (Confessio 41; Epistola 12), praises women who have remained virgins (Confessio 42), and speaks of ‘the chastity of genuine religion’ that he has ‛chosen to the end of my life for Christ my Lord’ (Confessio 44), we may presume that Patrick was celibate.

In his writings, Patrick describes himself as rusticissimus (Confessio 1) and indoctus (Epistola 1), a simple country person and one unlearned. Yet, as the son of a Romano-Briton family of moderate wealth, he would have had a Roman-style education in the basic skills such as reading, writing and public speaking.

Saint Patrick’s Confessio

Seamus Murphy’s sculpture of Saint Patrick in the corridors of Saint Patrick’s College, Maynooth, Co Kildare (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

What do we find in Patrick’s Confessio, more than 1,500 years after it was first written?

We can understand the Latin term confessio in the Christian tradition in three basic ways:

1, confessio peccatorum, confession of sins;

2, confessio fidei, confession or testimony of faith;

3, confessio laudis, confession of praise.

All three understandings of confessio are found in Patrick’s writing.

The opening line of the Confessio announces who the writer is and how he sees himself: Ego Patricius peccator rusticissimus (Confessio 1), “My name is Patrick. I am a sinner, a simple country person.”

Referring to his slavery in Ireland and his lack of faith at the time, he says:

It was there that the Lord opened up my awareness of my lack of faith. Even though it came about late, I recognised my failings. So I turned with all my heart to the Lord my God (Confessio 2).

His confession or testimony of faith appears in his inclusion of a formal creed concerning the Trinity: ‘This is the one we acknowledge and adore – one God in a Trinity of the sacred name’ (Confessio 4).

Saint Patrick writes in his Confessio that the time he spent in captivity was critical to his spiritual development. He explains that the Lord had mercy on his youth and ignorance, and afforded him the opportunity to be forgiven of his sins and converted to Christianity.

Saint Patrick recounts that he had a vision a few years after returning home:

I saw a man coming, as it were from Ireland. His name was Victoricus, and he carried many letters, and he gave me one of them. I read the heading: ‘The Voice of the Irish’. As I began the letter, I imagined in that moment that I heard the voice of those very people who were near the wood of Foclut, which is beside the western sea – and they cried out, as with one voice: ‘We appeal to you, holy servant boy, to come and walk among us.’

It seems Saint Patrick wants at the outset to proclaim the orthodoxy of his Christian beliefs.


Had these beliefs been called into question?

Throughout his writings, Saint Patrick goes out of his way to attribute any success that his mission has had to God and to the workings of God’s grace:

For that reason, I give thanks to the one who strengthened me in all things, so that he would not impede me in the course I had undertaken and from the works also which I had learned from Christ my Lord. Rather, I sensed in myself no little strength from him, and my faith passed the test before God and people. (Confessio 30)

I am greatly in debt to God. He gave me such great grace, that through me, many people should be born again in God and brought to full life. Also that clerics should be ordained everywhere for this people who have lately come to believe, and who the Lord has taken from the ends of the Earth. (Confessio 38)

Why did Saint Patrick need to write this confession, declare his faith, and give an account of God’s dealings with him?

Saint Patrick writes that he was subjected to criticism from others, including those whom he acknowledges as his seniors:

One time I was put to the test by some superiors of mine. They came and put my sins against my hard work as a bishop. (Confessio 26)

The charge brought against Saint Patrick referred to something that had happened in his past and that had been disclosed through a betrayal of confidence on the part of a close friend:

They brought up against me after 30 years something I had already confessed before I was a deacon. What happened was that, one day when I was feeling anxious and low, with a very dear friend of mine I referred to some things I had done one day – rather, in one hour – when I was young, before I overcame my weakness. I do not know – God knows – whether I was then 15 years old at the time, and I did not then believe in the living God, not even when I was a child. In fact, I remained in death and unbelief until I was reproved strongly, and actually brought low by hunger and nakedness daily. (Confessio 27)

Saint Patrick felt the pain of his friend’s betrayal long afterwards, and the memory of it was still fresh with him as he wrote his Confessio:

But I grieve more for my very dear friend, that we had to hear such an account – the one to whom I entrusted my very soul. I did learn from some brothers before the case was heard that he came to my defence in my absence. I was not there at the time, not even in Britain, and it was not I who brought up the matter. In fact it was he himself who told me from his own mouth: ‛Look, you are being given the rank of bishop’. That is something I did not deserve. How could he then afterwards come to disgrace me in public before all, both good and bad, about a matter for which he had already freely and joyfully forgiven me, as indeed had God, who is greater than all? (Confessio 32)

These circumstances seem to have prompted Saint Patrick to write his Confessio. Yet it is more than a mere apologia. It is a testimony to Saint Patrick’s personal faith and trust in God, to whom he attributes the entire success of his mission in Ireland.

Saint Patrick shows he is conscious of his own shortcomings, but his dogged perseverance and trust in God’s help kept him:

So I am first of all a simple country person, a refugee, and unlearned. I do not know how to provide for the future. But this I know for certain, that before I was brought low, I was like a stone lying deep in the mud. Then he who is powerful came and in his mercy pulled me out, and lifted me up and placed me on the very top of the wall. That is why I must shout aloud in return to the Lord for such great good deeds of his, here and now and forever, which the human mind cannot measure. (Confessio 12)

Saint Patrick may be referring to his conversion and his new-found faith during the hardships of his slavery, or to the criticisms of his seniors back in Britain. Either way, he is convinced that his humiliations have been the fertile seed-ground for the effective working of God’s grace in his life.

He goes on to challenge his critics:

So be amazed, all you people great and small who fear God! You well-educated people in authority, listen and examine this carefully. Who was it who called one as foolish as I am from the middle of those who are seen to be wise and experienced in law and powerful in speech and in everything? If I am most looked down upon, yet he inspired me, before others, so that I would faithfully serve the nations with awe and reverence and without blame: the nations to whom the love of Christ brought me. His gift was that I would spend my life, if I were worthy of it, to serving them in truth and with humility to the end (Confessio 13)

Saint Patrick sums up his reasons for writing as follows:

In the knowledge of this faith in the Trinity, and without letting the dangers prevent it, it is right to make known the gift of God and his eternal consolation. It is right to spread abroad the name of God faithfully and without fear, so that even after my death I may leave something of value to the many thousands of my brothers and sisters – the children whom I baptised in the Lord. I didn’t deserve at all that the Lord would grant such great grace, after hardships and troubles, after captivity, and after so many years among that people. It was something which, when I was young, I never hoped for or even thought of. (Confessio 14-15)

His Confessio highlights Saint Patrick’s growth in faith and trust in a personal and loving God as the inner source of his strength, especially through his many difficulties, and as the author of whatever success his mission has accomplished.

He records his fervour in prayer as a young man while in slavery in Ireland; his later spiritual experiences, with an example of severe temptation as he was sleeping one night (Confessio 20).

He records his escape from slavery (Confessio 21-22), how he later heard God’s call to walk again among the Irish (Confessio 23), and his experience of the Spirit praying within him (Confessio 25).

Saint Patrick’s spiritual journey provided the inner strength for his mission, which had its difficulties:

It was not by my own grace, but God who overcame it in me, and resisted them all so that I could come to the peoples of Ireland to preach the gospel. I bore insults from unbelievers, so that I would hear the hatred directed at me for travelling here. I bore many persecutions, even chains, so that I could give up my freeborn state for the sake of others. If I be worthy, I am ready even to give up my life most willingly here and now for his name. It is there that I wish to spend my life until I die, if the Lord should grant it to me. (Confessio 37)

Although Saint Patrick uses the verb “to confess” (confiteri) a number of times in the opening sections of his Confessio, it is only close to the end that he uses a form of that actual noun when he writes:

Again and again I briefly put before you the words of my confession (confessionis). I testify in truth and in great joy of heart before God and his holy angels that I never had any reason for returning to that nation from which I had earlier escaped, except the gospel and God’s promises. (Confessio 61)

His closing request at the end of his Confessio appeals to those who believe in and revere God:

I pray for those who believe in and have reverence for God. Some of them may happen to inspect or come upon this writing which Patrick, a sinner without learning, wrote in Ireland. May none of them ever say that whatever little I did or made known to please God was done through ignorance. Instead, you can judge and believe in all truth that it was a gift of God. This is my confession before I die. (Confessio 62)

Saint Patrick’s Letter to the soldiers of Coroticus

Saint Patrick preaching in the court of King Laoire … a carving on the ‘Comerford Pulpit’ in Carlow

Much of Saint Patrick’s Confessio offers us a retrospective view of things: he probably wrote it in his later years, as an old man. From this it may be assumed that his Epistola was written at some earlier period in his mission in Ireland, although we do not know precisely.

The Epistola, or Letter, is shorter than his Confessio. It has been given a number of titles, including Letter to Coroticus and Letter Excommunicating Coroticus, for it is a letter of excommunication addressed to Coroticus and his soldiers.

Coroticus and his soldiers had attacked a number of Saint Patrick’s newly baptised converts and had carried them off into slavery. Roman imperial rule was decaying, especially in Britain as the Roman legions were withdrawn, and it was a period marked by disorder.

It seems from the Letter that the marauders led by Coroticus included some who were nominally Christian, Otherwise, why would Patrick want to or need to excommunicate them?

Saint Patrick condemns the crime of Coroticus and his soldiers as a rejection of God’s gift of life and as a rebellion against God. They are to be treated as apostates. The crime is compounded because their victims are fellow Christians.

Saint Patrick’s declaration of excommunication implies that the culprits have, in effect, excommunicated themselves by their actions. (Epistola 16)

Although Saint Patrick pleads that he is merely a sinner and untaught, he stresses his credentials as a bishop from the outset of the letter. It is with the prestige of this office that he condemns the actions of Coroticus:

I declare that I, Patrick – an unlearned sinner indeed – have been established a bishop of Ireland. (Epistola 1)

When Saint Patrick speaks of Coroticus (see Epistola 2), he uses a Latin form of the name. The identity and origin of this Coroticus have been debated. Some say he was the c ruler of the Strathclyde region in what is now Scotland, Others identify him with Ceretic, a Welsh ruler.

Locating him in Strathclyde agrees with a chapter-heading in Muirchú’s 7th century Life of Patrick in the Book of Armagh. This reads: De conflictu sancti Patricii aduersum Coirthech regem Aloo (“Of Saint Patrick’s stand against Coirthech, king of Ail”)

The placename is said to refer to Dumbarton on the Clyde, in a region close to the Picts.

Saint Patrick then groups Coroticus and his soldiers with specific other evildoers:

I cannot say that they are my fellow-citizens, nor fellow-citizens of the saints of Rome, but fellow-citizens of demons, because of their evil works. By their hostile ways they live in death, allies of the apostate Scots and Picts. They are blood-stained: blood-stained with the blood of innocent Christians, whose numbers I have given birth to in God and confirmed in Christ. (Epistola 2)

Saint Patrick sees the “apostates” as renegade Christians (Epistola 15). Along with Coroticus and his forces, they bear the brunt of Patrick’s fury because:

freeborn people have been sold off, Christians reduced to slavery: slaves particularly of the lowest and worst of the apostate Picts. (Epistola15)

Saint Patrick describes how some of the victims of Coroticus and his soldiers suffered an even worse fate:

The newly baptised anointed were dressed in white robes; the anointing was still to be seen clearly on their foreheads when they were cruelly slain and sacrificed by the sword of the ones I referred to above. (Epistola 3)

Saint Patrick says he acted immediately on hearing the news of the tragedy, but to no avail:

On the day after that, I sent a letter by a holy priest (whom I had taught from infancy), with clerics, to ask that they return to us some of the booty or of the baptised prisoners they had captured. They scoffed at them. (Epistola 3)

Perhaps then the Epistola is Saint Patrick’s second communication to and about those guilty of the crimes. This second letter is no longer a plea to spare prisoners, but communicates his judgment on Coroticus’ crimes against newly-baptised Christians. He is forthright expressing his judgment:

So I do not know which is the cause of the greatest grief for me: whether those who were slain, or those who were captured, or those whom the devil so deeply ensnared. They will face the eternal pains of Gehenna equally with the devil; because whoever commits sin is rightly called a slave and a son of the devil. For this reason, let every God-fearing person know that those people are alien to me and to Christ my God, for whom I am an ambassador: father-slayers, brother-slayers, they are savage wolves devouring the people of God as they would bread for food. It is just as it is said: The wicked have routed your law, O Lord – the very law which in recent times he so graciously planted in Ireland and, with God’s help, has taken root. (Epistola 4-5)

In addressing his judgments to the guilty, Saint Patrick is also using the occasion to warn the innocent, allowing them to “overhear” what he says to Coroticus and his soldiers:

Therefore I ask most of all that all the holy and humble of heart should not fawn on such people, nor even share food or drink with them, nor accept their alms, until such time as they make satisfaction to God in severe penance and shedding of tears, and until they set free the men-servants of God and the baptised women servants of Christ, for whom he died and was crucified. (Epistola 7)

Saint Patrick laments and grieves over the loss of the newly baptised members of his Church, and declares:

Greedy wolves have devoured the flock of the Lord, which was flourishing in Ireland under the very best of care – I just cannot count the number of sons of Scots [Irish Gaels] and daughters of kings who are now monks and virgins of Christ. (Epistola 12)

This reference to “monks and virgins of Christ” (monachi et virgines Christi) also occurs in the Confessio, where Saint Patrick praises the great number of people, both men and women, who have embraced the monastic life despite opposition from relatives (Confessio 41-42).

Saint Patrick leaves the ultimate fate of Coroticus and his soldiers to God:

So where will Coroticus and his villainous rebels against Christ find themselves – those who divide out defenceless baptised women as prizes, all for the sake of a miserable temporal kingdom, which will pass away in a moment of time. Just as a cloud of smoke is blown away by the wind, that is how deceitful sinners will perish from the face of the Lord. The just, however, will banquet in great constancy with Christ. They will judge nations, and will rule over evil kings for all ages. Amen. (Epistola 19)

Saint Patrick urges repentance by those guilty of the crimes and warns them of dire punishments in the absence of any repentance. He speaks as a bishop, defending his people. But he also reflects on his sense of isolation and the criticisms being directed against him, which may seem to detract from any authority he wishes to speak from (Epistola 10-11). Perhaps it is this gnawing anxiety that prompts him to add greater weight to what he has said by appealing, ultimately, to the authority of God himself:

I bear witness before God and his angels that it will be as he made it known to one of my inexperience. These are not my own words which I have put before you in Latin; they are the words of God, and of the apostles and prophets, who have never lied. Anyone who believes will be saved; anyone who does not believe will be condemned – God has spoken. (Epistola 20)

What these two writings tell us about Saint Patrick

A statue of Saint Patrick on the Hill of Tara (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

These two works give us only a limited overview of Saint Patrick and his personality. But they reveal his relationship with God and his humble acknowledgement of God’s grace at work in his life, from his conversion as a slave to his mission as a bishop.

He is a man who knows adversity and suffering but who is resilient and who perseveres in his trust in God. He is hurt by the accusations against him, feels betrayed and believes he has been undermined in the eyes of his superiors.

The Letter to Coroticus portrays a Saint Patrick who is robust in his pastoral concerns.

It is worth pointing out that there are no references to the shamrock, no indication of snakes being driven out of Ireland, and no naming of the mountain where he tended animals as a slave. The Hill of Slemish and Croagh Patrick are not named, and Lough Derg is not mentioned either.

Nor is there any allusion to the Paschal Fire on the Hill of Tara near Slane, Co Meath. There is no reference to King Laoire either.

All of these elements in the popular stories about Saint Patrick come from later writings, stories and traditions. Over time, the cult and status of Saint Patrick took on such proportions that we depend less on historical narrative and more on hagiography for these folk talks and legends.

Let me consider some of the things Saint Patrick did not do and some of the things Saint Patrick was not, and ask some questions that these raise:

1, Saint Patrick was not an Irishman. It might be an anachronism – or more correctly a prochronism – to describe him as such. But you can get my point when I say Saint Patrick was an Englishman. We like to think of Christianity being brought from Ireland by wandering Irish monks on their peregrinations through Europe in the Dark Ages. But Saint Patrick came from a Christian society that had arrived in our neighbouring island generations beforehand with the Romans.

Considering we are marking the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising this year, perhaps Saint Patrick’s family background challenges Irish people to be more generous in Anglo-Irish relations. Certainly Saint Patrick’s family background should put to shame people in Ireland who still use denigrating and derogatory phrases such as “Brits” that smack of racism. Saint Patrick reminds us that being English and being Irish is about as close as you can get in nationalities.

When it comes the readings at our closing Eucharist in the Chapel this afternoon, our first reading [Tobit 13: 1b-7] may remind us that the good news of God’s kingdom is not for one, confined or limited group of people, but for all nations, throughout all ages.

2, Saint Patrick did not teach about the Trinity using the shamrock. That is legend. And if he did use the shamrock, he was perilously close to the heresies of either tritheism, at one extreme, or modalism at the other. When we see one leaf, we do not see the whole shamrock, when we see two leaves we do not see the whole shamrock. The Father is fully God, the Son is fully God, the Holy Spirit is fully God, but they do not work independently of each other, and cannot be torn apart and shredded, or held up as one God, each on their own like little idols or totems.

But the Trinitarian challenge from Saint Patrick must force us to ask many questions. If we do not have a Trinitarian faith, how can we enter into the dance with the Trinity, the perichoresis (περιχώρησις) of the Trinity?

We can end up making our own gods, in our own image and likeness, rather than entering into a relationship with the God who makes us in God’s image and likeness.

What are our idols today?

For example, did we destroy our economy in Ireland in the past decade because we made little gods of our money, our banking system and our quest for growth that benefitted a few at the expense of the many?

3, Saint Patrick did not expel the snakes from Ireland. The incident is not mentioned by Saint Patrick in his own writings and does not appear in the stories about him until the 11th century. But, in the building of the nation myths, Saint Patrick was seen to need a legend parallel to Saint George slaying the dragon and Saint Marcel delivering Paris from the monster.

Saint Paul in the epistle reading at our closing Eucharist, calls on us to renounce the shameful things and to turn our backs on cunning practices, to be conscientious and truthful [II Corinthians 4: 2].

But what snakes and dragons do you want to see expelled from Ireland?

The greed that fed the Celtic Tiger?

That racism that so discriminates against foreigners and refugees that it would be happy to have a present-day Patrick work in oppressive conditions that would be today’s equivalent of the slopes of Slemish, or reject the newcomer that comes with enthusiasm to share the Christian message … from Nigeria, Latvia, Lithuania or Romania, or perhaps just from England?

You might respond, “But we already have Christianity in Ireland!”

But do we?

And if so, do we take it to heart?

And do we want to share it, with enthusiasm?

The first reading this afternoon is going to remind us that we are all children of exile and calls on us to turn to God “with all your heart, and with all your soul” [Tobit 13: 6].

4, Saint Patrick was not the first person to bring Christianity to Ireland. His role was as a co-ordinator and as a figure of unity – as bishops should be – to reap what others had sown, but that sower and reaper could rejoice together in a shared Irish Christianity, in one Church together [see John 4: 35-38].

Are we still committed to bringing Christianity together, to the visible unity of the Church?

Or, are the lines we are going to say in the Creed this afternoon, “we believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church,” just another tradition, something we are committed to but not willing to do very much about?

How did you react to the election of Pope Francis I three years ago, on 13 March 2013?

Do you remember how he asked the people gathered in Saint Peter's Square to pray for him before he blessed them?

Were you positive enough in your reaction to pray for him too, to ask God to bless him in his new ministry, his new tasks, his new mission?

And I could go on … Saint Patrick did not wear a mitre and green liturgical robes – certainly not in Lent – he probably never carried a crozier, he did not turn the people of Skerries into goats, he did not fetch water from a well in Nassau Street, and he certainly did not build Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin … nor, for that matter, Saint Patrick’s Cathedral.

But please do not take me as one over-enthusiastic revisionist historian, nor as someone who wants to tear apart some of the cherished concepts that help to hold together our shared identity with all its diversity.

Legends apart, let me summarise some of the positive things about Saint Patrick that have been underlying his story.

Saint Patrick was enthusiastic about sharing the Christian message. If I said that the Christian message is not at the heart of the Festivities in Dublin next week, you might tick me off for being a killjoy. But we are less than joyful and increasingly reticent about sharing our faith in the marketplace today, something for which the disciples themselves are admonished in the Gospel reading this afternoon [see John 4: 34-38].

Saint Patrick was a unifying force for the varying strands of Christianity in Ireland. That was why he was sent on his mission to Ireland. But so often every one of the Churches in Ireland is so insecure in its identity, that we cling too often to the little things that make us different instead of rejoicing in the truly important things that we have in common.

Saint Patrick knew what economic and social oppression were from an early stage in his life. Saint Patrick challenged the established order of the day. Yet he too was afflicted but not crushed, perplexed but not driven to despair, persecuted but not forsaken, struck down but not destroyed [see I Corinthians 4: 8-9].

Like Christ with the Samaritan woman at the well, who provides the context and the setting for this afternoon’s Gospel reading [John 4: 31-38, see John 4: 1-42 for the full context], Saint Patrick was affirmative of the women who came to him with their questions about religion, but who had been marginalised and who had been kept out of religious society and debate. Indeed, so affirmative was Saint Patrick that his detractors accused him of being beguiled by them.

As the son of a deacon and the grandson of a priest, Saint Patrick could hardly uphold the rigours of clerical celibacy, or for that matter some of our moralising and negatively judgmental attitudes towards sexuality and gender today.

Saint Patrick is a pastorally sensitive and healing figure. I was reminded of this aspect of his character when I saw how Pope Francis is a pastoral Pope, sensitive to the needs of the people, preferring God’s preferential option for the poor rather than power and authority, not turning away single mothers who bring their children to baptism, embracing HIV + patients on their deathbeds in hospitals. It has been said he is following in the humble footsteps of Saint Francis of Assisi. I pray and I hope. And I pray and I hope too that he follows in the footsteps of Saint Patrick, the real Saint Patrick.

Previous reflection, 1, Who is Saint Patrick?

Next reflection, 3, Celtic Spirituality. Is there something there?

(The Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This is the second address at a Diocesan Readers’ Lenten retreat on 11-12 March 2016.