Sermon for St Mark’s, 12th March, 2017
Phadraig of Eirinn
“In truth I tell you, unless a man has been born over again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus needed time to grasp what Jesus meant: Nicodemus wanted to understand, Jesus wanted Nicodemus to think more deeply than just the rules of religion.
My son, at age sixteen, told me, with conviction, he wanted to be a Marine. I asked, “Why the Marines?” Allen said, “They will make a man out of me.” I remember saying, “Yes, but there are easier ways.” He would have none of it, and enlisted at 18. When I saw Allen after twelve weeks of boot camp at San Diego, he had become a man. I do not have boot camp experience, and I know only from his stories what it was like for Allen, but I saw the man who emerged. The best was developed and sharpened, the childish and naïve was worn away. Here was rebirth, and though his service is complete, he is still a man I respect deeply.
I have a story of another sixteen-year-old who became a man through ordeal, but you may have to unlearn an earlier image you have of him. He is known as Phadraig of Eirinn, or in English, Patrick of Ireland, and his feast day is Friday. The image I hope to dispel is of leprechauns, shamrocks and green beer. Phadraig was none of this, and I believe, deserves a proper story.
Phadraig was a Roman citizen living near the west coast of Britain. Born in 385, his was a middle-class family. Phadraig was Christian, but “lukewarm”. He lived a comfortable life and was passionate about little, until he was sixteen. Then in a raid, Irish slave traders kidnapped Phadraig and his sisters and sold them to bondage in Ireland. It was not pretty. His parents never saw him again.
Phadraig was a slave for six years, tending sheep in the mountains of the west of Ireland. It was a brutish life, in snow and rain, cold and unforgiving wind, with stone huts his only housing when he could find them, and sheep and wolves and thieves his only company. Life was hard, and he lived by his wits, on meager rations, with death always near. For six years! In those conditions he grew into a man.
During Phadraig’s ordeal he learned to pray. Stalked by fear and danger, his cavalier attitude about prayer changed. He prayed sometimes a hundred times a day. You can be sure – prayers in those conditions, to keep his sanity, to outlive his slavery, prayers to find food to eat and get through the night – this was honest, if desperate, prayer. Desperate prayer is always honest.
The second transformation from that ordeal was that Phadraig confronted fear, and he learned to face into it and get through it. As Richard Rohr says, “If you have to go through hell, be sure you go THROUGH hell”. Phadraig did just that. He was faced with hell, and found his way through it. He faced his fears, assessed their dangers and passed through. His trust in the God of his prayers grew, and he reclaimed his Christianity. Phadraig became a mystic the hard way. He was truly born over again.
Six years after his capture, he had a vision that a ship waited in the east to take him home. Vision or no, he successfully fled Ireland, trekking 200 miles to the coast. The ship was there, but bound first for France, and he had to work for his passage. Eventually making his way home he was welcomed, but his parents were dead, and his sisters were lost.
A second vision came to Phadraig, the man now fully alive, a call to return to Ireland and bring his faith with him. A man he met in Ireland, Victoricus, appeared in the vision holding letters for Phadraig, and the voice of the Irish: “We pray you, holy youth, to come and walk among us again as you did before.” Phadraig went first to France for seminary, and to Ireland fourteen years later, as bishop and missionary.
Ireland was then a wild land with wild people, a land of druids and sorcery. Conditions were primitive, health was poor and life expectancy short. There was no “country”, but hundreds of tribes, with a hierarchy of kings. Yet at his death at age 76, Phadraig had converted pagan chieftains, walked most of the island preaching and confronting evil, and left disciples and 700 churches to carry on his work. He lived a determined life. He was humble, generous, and perhaps because his Latin was poor and his learning moderate, the common people loved him.
One more story – a showdown. The High King of Tara observed a festival at Springtime in which all the fires in Ireland were extinguished and his druids lit the first fire as part of the celebration. For Phadraig and his disciples, the festival day was the same as Easter, so on the Eve Phadraig lit the Easter Vigil fire to celebrate resurrection, within a mile of the Hill of Tara. The outraged High King sent soldiers to arrest Phadraig, and there were anger and threats from the lords and nobles as he and his disciples were force-marched to Tara. Phadraig went before the High King and explained himself. His disciples said he was relentless proclaiming the resurrected Jesus. The High King was impressed, and later allowed Phadraig freedom to preach in his lands. But it was not eloquence or miracles that made the impression. Phadraig was not afraid. Before these wild and dangerous folk, Phadraig was not afraid, and the High King respected that. The lessons from captivity, when slave became a man, transformed his future. Jesus said to Nicodemus, “Unless a person be born again…”
Phadraig was a self-professed exile, a former slave and fugitive, who learned the hard way to put his whole trust in God. He was not an easy man, certainly not a half-hearted man. He was a solid, passionate man, a real person. He is to Ireland what Francis is to Assisi, Joan of Arc is to France, and Mother Teresa is to Calcutta.
So wear green on Friday, enjoy your Irish whiskey or try to catch a leprechaun. But remember, that is not the real Phadraig. And for your own story, hear Jesus, “Flesh can only give birth to flesh; it is spirit that gives birth to spirit.” (John 3.5)
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.