Ireland has long been known as the land of Saints and Scholars. Generally speaking, we think of Christian Saints like Saint Brendan and fairly recent writers such as James Joyce and Samuel Beckett. But the tradition goes back much further, to pre-Christian societies and to the dawning of Celtic Christianity with Saint Patrick. For anyone interested in the intricacies of this fertile history, Lawrence Taylor’s book ‘Occasions of Faith’ is quite gripping. But it was during Saint Patrick’s weekend that a television programme caught my eye and proved well worth the watch.
It was a documentary on the life and work of the illustrious Saint Himself. Not only was Patrick, as a Roman citizen born in Britain, an unlikely candidate for Irish sainthood, he was also pretty maverick in his teachings and practises, once he actually managed to get the established Christian authorities to accept and train him as a monk.
His scholarship is legendary due to the prolific writings and reflections he left in his wake, indeed we are told by some of the many experts interviewed for the programme that Irish monastic scholarship was the main promoter of the written word in early medieval Europe.
Yet at the core of Patrick’s work lay the welfare of the people, both economic and spiritual, and his lack of gender discrimination in recruiting followers was also truly ahead of his time!
Through his earlier cultural immersion, Patrick was able to relate to the native Irish on their own terms and with due respect to their existing cosmologies and deities. By dint of that familiarity, especially with the practice of gift-giving and respectful gestures towards the chieftains, he was accepted, listened to and ultimately followed by the people who were his onetime enslavers.
Most striking however is the evident epiphany, almost ‘enlightenment’ experience he had as an isolated and lonely young slave who developed a mystical connection with God through daily connections with nature and meditative prayer, that resulted in prescient and directive dreams and visions. These experiences gave him a deep and intense meaning and mission in life, to bring his mystical form of Christianity to the Irish.
While not adhering personally to a specific religious tradition, I recognise the mystic as the embodiment of true spirituality common to all truth-seekers’ attempts to connect with the divine. I am minded of Jung’s concept of the hero’s journey which he saw as a potential in every human who is prepared to allow the unconscious to erupt. The programme can be viewed in several parts on youtube, the first instalment at