A St Patrick's day reflection
Patrick's Hope at World's End: A steady faith in shape shifting times
By Colin Holmes - ECM worker in Ireland
It’s the end of the world as we know it (and it feels far from the fine that REM promised in their song). The world in which we live today seems to be a compound of complex crises, which are closing in around us. The cost of living crisis. The housing crisis. The climate crisis. If we add to this the devastation of the war in Ukraine and the earthquake in Turkey and Syria it brings an apocalyptic feel. The threatening world in which we live seems to be approaching the end.
Culturally in recent years there have been a number of rapid changes which may make us feel like the ground is shifting under our feet. Where once the Christian worldview offered the fabric and foundations by which we might understand ourselves, now there is a newfound freedom and fluidity which means we understand ourselves most fully by looking deep within our own hopes and desires. Meaning is to be found inside rather than from any outside source. For at least some this freedom brings pressure and anxiety which increase as you strive to make something of yourself. As the times we live in shift in shape where might we find a steady hope?
I find it reassuring to find that we’re far from the first humans to think they were at world’s end or to face shape shifting times! Such were the times that Patrick lived through. At the young age of 16 he was taken from his home in Britain as a slave to Ireland. This disturbing shift in Patrick’s life could well be a sign of his times, as the peaceful Roman Empire was crumbling. For those at the time this felt like world’s end. Remarkably after gaining freedom and living in Britain, Patrick chose to return into what was regarded as the wilds of Ireland and the dangers of living amongst an uncivilised people. He chose to go to world’s end, as he himself said,
“Look at us: we are witnesses that the gospel has been preached right out to where there is nobody else there!”
He was living on the edge. This involved living in the midst of daily danger, as Patrick describes,
“since every day there is the chance that I will be killed, or surrounded, or be taken into slavery, or some other such happening.”
The courage to live at world’s end, we may assume, was found in the mighty man of myth and legend that Patrick was. Many a story is told of his strength. What is more remarkable is how he sees himself as weak,
“My name is Patrick. I am a sinner, a simple country person, and the least of all believers. I am looked down upon by many.”
So where did his strength come from to go out and come in at world’s end? Patrick tells us, as he could face such daily dangers and yet
“…fear none of these things, because of the promises of heaven….
There is no doubt whatever that we will rise on the appointed day in the brightness of the sun, that is, in the glory of Christ Jesus our redeemer.”
The druids of Patrick’s time worshipped the sun, but he understood it as a signpost to worship his Lord who was over all creation and held his life in His hands. The one who would dawn afresh in His coming again. In this he found sure and steady hope in a world where gods were thought to be able to shift shape and reality could play tricks on you and was constantly changing. Patrick’s faith offered something different, as Thomas Cahill says,
“The difference between Patrick’s magic and the magic of the druids is that in Patrick’s world all beings and events come from the hand of a good God, who loves human beings and wishes them success. And though that success is of an ultimate kind—and, therefore, does not preclude sufferings—all nature, indeed the whole of the created universe, conspires to mankind’s good, teaching, succouring, and saving.”
At times we might shift in our sureness of God’s love for us, but far from being unpredictable and uncertain He is settled in His love toward us, shown supremely in sending His one and only Son to give us life. In His great love, He has conspired to save us.
When our own feelings change, our lives are shifting in shape and our world seems to be approaching the end, we too can stand strong on the promises of heaven. For Patrick these were as rugged and reliable as the rocks of the coastline or the stones on the mountains in Ireland he would climb.
Maybe today you could use these words from this ancient Patrick-inspired prayer to pray for yourself or to take some time to pray for the people of Ireland?
I arise today
Through the strength of heaven
Light of sun
Radiance of moon
Splendour of fire
Speed of lightning
Swiftness of wind
Depth of sea
Stability of earth
Firmness of rock
I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity
Through belief in the threeness
Through confession of the oneness
Of the Creator of Creation
From St Patrick’s Breastplate.