This was the view from my seat in a cafe I like to go to sometimes on a bright, sunny day. It’s by the sea and I love nothing more than to sit and listen to the waves hit the beach, the chat of people as they walk by, the shouts of small children. This morning I was met with a view of giant inflatable slides and other fun fair fabulousness which were being set up in preparation for the annual celebration of St. Patrick’s Day. In all honesty, I can’t stand fun fairs and I avoid the seafront at all costs when this particular circus comes to town. This year we are escaping to the north for a few days where the celebrations are more low-key.
Is it just me or is it weird that in a country with such a toxic relationship with religion we’re still celebrating the man who brought Christianity here in the first place? Of course, there’s a meagre few who literally treat this as a religious holiday; the rest of a the country seem to take it as a lucky day off and an annual excuse to get completely blathered. Perhaps our toxic relationship with religion is the reason we drink ourselves into oblivion. The Christianity of Ireland is riddled with abuse, oppression, violence, secrecy and fraud, it’s enough to turn even the most abstemious of us to drink.
While I wasn’t raised Roman Catholic, my mother came from a very strict Catholic family in England and it’s not hard to see the litany of pain and heartache that came from the fear my grandparents had of the church. When my mother rediscovered the Christian faith through the Anglican tradition, many in her family didn’t really understand her evangelical passion. I often wonder if I would have gone on the meandering spiritual path I’ve taken in the last ten years if she had not died.
The Christianity I see in Ireland has left me angry, hurt and disappointed and it is not what I recognise in my own examination of the person of Jesus Christ, or even the early church’s expression of his teachings. On more than one occasion, I’ve considered walking away completely as it’s almost shameful to admit that I am a Christian when all that some people see of that label is negative. Recently, at the end of my tether with frustration at the institution of the church as a whole, Protestant and Roman Catholic, and it’s collusion with patriarchy to oppress and undermine the female voice, I backed out of preaching engagements and stopped attending my local congregation. I needed space to see if there was a way forward for me within this faith.
Two voices have sustained me during this time; Fr Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest based in New Mexico and Rev. Cynthia Bourgeault, an Episcopalian minister and retreat leader from Maine. They collaborate regularly at Rohr’s Centre for Action and Contemplation. Their work on the doctrine of the Trinity, that mysterious idea that God is made of three persons in the shape of the Father, Jesus and the Holy Spirit, has been so illuminating and liberating to me. (Richard Rohr’s book The Divine Dance is key reading.) I wouldn’t be able to do the depth of it justice so I won’t try; suffice to say, their vision of the Divine as a dynamic, self-giving force of compassion and creativity is a much needed thread to hold on to in these troubled times.
It’s something I believe that Patrick connected with in his dealing with the spirituality that he saw around him both in the time after he was trafficked to and enslaved in Ireland and on his return as a priest many years later. The ‘celtic’ spirituality would have seen the interconnected nature of life, the flow of the seasons, the cause and effect of how the land was treated. There was a rhythm of life around the cycles of the moon, the turning of the earth and an understanding that the veil between realms was very thin in certain places, that the divine presence was expressed through and in nature.
It was while he was a slave that he dug deep down in to his own Christian faith and by all accounts became quite the mystic with his testimony of visions and dreams. When he saw the shamrock with its three leaves and one stem and used it to point to the dynamic three-ness of God, he was sharing in a language his listeners would understand.
I’ve often wondered how he could have returned to the country that in many ways destroyed the otherwise peaceful trajectory of a 16 year old Welsh boy, snatching him from his homeland and keeping him in slavery for years. He escaped in the end, his desperation to get away from the place extreme. Why would you go back somewhere that was the source of pain? The only thing stronger than hate is love.
I honestly believe that the Christianity Patrick knew in the 5th century, though already getting mired in Empire and power, was still a story of divine love and joy, peace and reconciliation and that his faith led him on a path of forgiveness. I wonder if what he saw in the people he was indentured to was that they already understood this God that he knew. What if the reason his faith ‘took’ here and grew so prolifically over the centuries was because it wasn’t something new or different, but because the Irish recognised the Divinity Patrick was talking about in Jesus, the energy he pointed to and they resonated with the love he shared.
Over the centuries, this energy has been suppressed and dampened by the noose of legalism and fear. We’ve lost touch with the core ingredients of what was a revolutionary movement that gave the weak, the ill, the disadvantaged and the disempowered a voice. Perhaps this St. Patrick’s day, instead of numbing our pain, we could follow his path and see if there is something to be salvaged from the wreckage of our religion. Perhaps we can reclaim our faith from the hands of the powerful and light the bonfires once again.