Updated: Sep 4
When considering the Celtic Way of Mission there are many leaders from the time who inspire and model a Way of Life that we can imitate. People like Patrick, Columba, Aidan, Hilda and Cuthbert. They were men and women who exemplified and modelled a dependence on God. They paid a high price for their commitment and determination to see Jesus known among people who had not heard the good news.
In the case of Patrick he writes in his Confessions that he experienced times of "night...and the power of darkness...when the Lord allowed him to be tried by the Evil One" just like Jesus in the wilderness. Patrick describes this experience as having been sifted like wheat. He says "Satan vigorously put me to the test in a way I shall remember as long as I shall be in this body."1
If we are going to consider following the example of the Celtic Church it is necessary to weigh up the cost. It is too easy to look at the results of Patrick's missional endeavours without looking deeply at the cost he paid to achieve what he did. This principle is clearly articulated by Jesus in Luke 13:27-30. He said:
"whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. 28 “Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? 29 For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you, 30 saying, ‘This person began to build and wasn’t able to finish.’"
Patrick learned through difficult life experiences to build a powerful trust in Christ thus penning the famous hymnal Patrick's Breastplate, a song of protection and dependence. We are often familiar with the words:
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.
However the verse before this one says:
Against all Satan's spells and wiles,
Against false words of heresy,
Against the knowledge that defiles,
Against the heart's idolatry,
Against the wizard's evil craft,
Against the death wound and the burning,
The choking wave and the poisoned shaft,
Protect me, Christ, till Thy returning.
The Celtic Way of Mission is a prayerful path. Prayer is front and centre and it acknowledges the wrestling match in the spiritual realms, trusting fully in the power and authority of the risen Christ. Patrick knew from personal experience as a slave in Ireland, then as a free man, that his life was dependent on the grace and mercy of God. He described his life without God as "a stone lying deep in the mud."
As a slave Patrick was a shepherd on the hillsides of Ireland. He would rouse himself to pray before daylight "whether in snow, frost or rain, it made no difference because the Spirit in me was fervant." 2
Patrick escaped slavery by following the leading of the Spirit received as a word of knowledge. He trained as a priest and in a vision God spoke to him about returning with the good news to his former captors in Ireland. The rest is history. In his Confessions he says "I owe an immense debt to God, who granted me so much grace that many people in Ireland were reborn in God through me."
Patrick adopted the biblical practice of visiting homes to engage in dialogue, he shared the good news in the language of the Irish people and adapted their cultural symbols to communicate the message of Christ. He powerfully prayed and engaged with the spiritual forces holding people in captivity but dealt with the locals in a gentle spirit. He used symbols of consecration such as baptism and the eucharist as powerful metaphors of transformation and allegiance to Christ. This appealed to the mystical and superstitious pagans. Patrick reframed their understanding of the gospel and the person of Jesus without dishonouring their culture. He also set up education centres where he trained disciples, raised up leaders and birthed monastic centres of mission. He was committed to the whole of Ireland hearing the gospel.
When you read Patrick's Confessions you find out that he faced many obstacles from within and without but his resilience to persevere is inspiring. It takes tenacity to keep going, and perhaps his own experience of slavery motivated him to set the captives free.
In terms of evangelism, it seems to me that Patrick believed in a powerful gospel, relied on the Spirit, treated people with kindness, respected their culture and raised up disciples who multiplied the mission throughout the land. Patrick went to Ireland in the fifth century and it is said that by 600, Ireland was the most open country to the gospel in the whole of Christendom. That is quite a turnaround.
Could those of us in the 21st century learn some lessons that apply today? What would this look like in our context and culture? Are we willing to step up and be catalysts for change? I know it is not an easy thing to do but perhaps when we look at our own nations, the price is worth it.
Patrick, the pilgrim apostle of Ireland, Maire B de Poor, Regan Books, 1998, p107
Great Celtic christians, Ray Simpson, Kevin Mayhew books, 2004, p371