God’s fisherman: lessons from the life and mission of St Patrick
[This talk was given by David Huss at St Ninian’s Church, Convoy, Co. Donegal on 18th March 2016.]
It is a real pleasure to be here in Convoy tonight and I want to thank the Rector for his invitation and all of you for your welcome. Bill asked me to say something about St. Patrick. It was his day yesterday and perhaps you saw a parade in one of the local towns or on television. 17th March is the day we mark as the anniversary of his death, probably around the year 461AD, perhaps in Downpatrick.
Now I think before I start I should make it clear that I am not a scholar of early Irish history, nor am I any kind of expert on Patrick. I am simply a fan. My intention today is not to display my learning but to wave my scarf, as it were. Just to point you to a few of the highlights of this remarkable figure, and a few of the ways he might be relevant today.
My title is: ‘God’s fisherman: lessons from the life and mission of St Patrick.’ The title is based on Patrick’s own description of his life’s work.
He remembered how our Lord had said to his first disciples: “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” And said, “Therefore it is very right that we should cast our nets, so that a great multitude and crowd will be taken for God.”
In this Year of Opportunity 2016, when in Derry and Raphoe we are seeking to put Mission high on our agenda, there’s no better person to turn to than the holy fisherman who brought many to the Saviour all those years ago.
What do we actually know about St. Patrick? Many of the things that are best known about him of course may not be true. We all have a picture of Patrick, dressed in cope and mitre. Staff in hand. Banishing snakes, explaining the Trinity with a shamrock, spending 40 days and nights up a mountain, and all the rest of it.
But it’s noticeable that in the two authentic documents which survive from Patrick’s writing, none of those things appear.
Now at first that might be disappointing, to discover that these most memorable features of the man are probably later legendary additions to his story.
But when we delve into those original documents, the Confession which is a sort of autobiography with an edge of self-defence, and the Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus, which is an attempt to get some Christians who have been kidnapped set free, what we find is that there emerges a character of great warmth and great reality.
Rather than someone who has no bother sleeping on top of a mountain without food, we find someone who faces the huge ups and downs of any life, and especially the lives of those who try to do great things for God.
The disappointment of family members. The failure of friends. False accusation and malicious slander. All of these were faced by Patrick, not to mention the common difficulties of life in a time when conditions were highly primitive.
My agenda tonight is first to tell Patrick story, as he himself tells it, and then to draw out some lessons for us in our lives and in our churches.
The Confession is not a long book, you could read it in about half an hour and there are some good English translations available. You can find it in full on the internet or in a good book shop. In it Patrick gives an account of his life.
He was born probably around 385AD somewhere in Britain, most likely on the West coast although we don’t know for sure whether it was Wales or England or Scotland. The name he gives for his home place, Bannavem Taburniae, is completely unknown from other sources.
We do know something of his family background. His father, Calpornius, was a deacon and his grandfather Potitus was a priest. So he was probably relatively privileged and there was a clear Christian background, or at least a church background, in Patrick’s life.
However, he doesn’t rate his Christian commitment highly at that time. “At that time, I did not know the true God… we had gone away from God, and did not keep his commandments. We would not listen to our priests, who advised us about how we could be saved.”
He was what we might call a nominal Christian. In name, and on paper he belonged to the church. But he had no knowledge of God.
The great life-changing event for Patrick was when, at the age of sixteen, disaster struck and he was kidnapped by pirates / slave traders / people traffickers, and he became a slave in Ireland. Traditionally he is thought to have kept sheep around Slemish in County Antrim.
So just to be clear, Ireland is the land of his captivity not of his birth. He was a foreigner here. And during his captivity a strange thing happened in God’s providence. While in his outward circumstances he went from being free to being captive, in his mind and in his soul the reverse took place.
After I arrived in Ireland, I tended sheep every day, and I prayed frequently during the day. More and more the love of God increased, and my sense of awe before God.
Faith grew, and my spirit was moved, so that in one day I would pray up to one hundred times, and at night perhaps the same. I even remained in the woods and on the mountain, and I would rise to pray before dawn in snow and ice and rain…
It was there that the Lord opened up my awareness of my lack of faith. Even though it came about late, I recognised my failings. So I turned with all my heart to the Lord my God, and he looked down on my lowliness and had mercy on my youthful ignorance…
So in captivity of body, his spirit was set free. But this I know for certain, that before I was brought low, I was like a stone lying deep in the mud. Then he who is powerful came and in his mercy pulled me out, and lifted me up and placed me on the very top of the wall
The picture is a striking one, and anyone who’s familiar with the stone walls of rural Ireland will able to relate to the image of a stone being lifted from deep in the mud and placed on top of the wall.
But did you notice exactly what he said? Before I was brought low. In other words before my captivity and my kidnap, when I was living with my family in my own home in Britain, then I was like a stone lying in deep mud. But when I was brought low by outward circumstance, then was I lifted up by God.
We could almost stop the lecture right there and just go away and reflect on that one, and whether God might often being looking to do great good in the times that are hardest.
But there’s more to the story. Patrick says:
It was there one night in my sleep that I heard a voice saying to me: “You have fasted well. Very soon you will return to your native country.” Again after a short while, I heard a someone saying to me: “Look – your ship is ready.”
It was not nearby, but a good two hundred miles away. I had never been to the place, nor did I know anyone there. So I ran away then, and left the man with whom I had been for six years. It was in the strength of God that I went – God who turned the direction of my life to good; I feared nothing while I was on the journey to that ship.
He made it to the ship through many difficulties and returned to his home. There in due course he would himself become a minister in the church: a priest and then a bishop. Probably studying in Gaul (modern-day France) and ministering for a time, maybe many years, in his native country.
But the Lord hadn’t finished with Patrick yet. Whereas Britain was relatively well exposed to the gospel, through being a part of the now-crumbling Roman empire, Ireland was a different story. Yes, there were a few churches and Christians in parts of Ireland even before Patrick. But their number was tiny and their influence small.
Who better in God’s providence to take the light of Christ to this island than the fish caught in God’s net who would now become a fisherman for Jesus?
A few years later I was again with my parents in Britain. They welcomed me as a son, and they pleaded with me that, after all the many tribulations I had undergone, I should never leave them again.
It was while I was there that I saw, in a vision in the night, a man whose name was Victoricus coming as it were from Ireland with so many letters they could not be counted. He gave me one of these, and I read the beginning of the letter, the voice of the Irish people.
While I was reading out the beginning of the letter, I thought I heard at that moment the voice of those who were beside the wood of Voclut, near the western sea. They called out as it were with one voice: “We beg you, holy boy, to come and walk again among us.” This touched my heart deeply, and I could not read any further; I woke up then. Thanks be to God, after many years the Lord granted them what they were calling for.
He did return, this time not as a captive but as a missionary, landing at the Slaney River near Downpatrick and beginning his mission to fish for the Lord.
As he says: “I am greatly in debt to God. He gave me such great grace, that through me, many people should be born again in God and brought to full life. Also that clerics should be ordained everywhere for this people who have lately come to believe, and who the Lord has taken from the ends of the earth.”
Patrick’s missionary methods were new and controversial. Rather than try to turn the people into Roman citizens, bringing the gospel with a whole cultural package, he rather communicated the gospel in ways the Irish people could understand and relate to.
That wasn’t entirely popular or approved of by the church authorities, and it seems on more than one occasion disgruntled church leaders back home tried to discredit Patrick.
But every time it seems the Lord strengthened him to keep going, and his mission grew and spread.
Most likely he died around AD461, well into his seventies (a big age in the fifth century).
Lessons to learn
I want to turn to some lessons we can learn from this Apostle of Ireland, or at least some features of Patrick’s life and mission that are worth copying today. What did he have or experience that made him such an exemplary Christian and effective servant of God? I’ll suggest seven.
- A profound conversion experience
This really is foundational to understanding Patrick. He was radically converted. Remember what he said about the stone in the mud that was lifted up. Not by itself but by God the builder.
And remember he wasn’t called to Christ from paganism but from nominal Christianity.
If you had met him before you would probably have thought he was a decent enough chap, and from a very respectable background.
But it was only with a deep recognition of his sin and a profound turning to God that he began to be useful to the Lord.
I think this has to be ‘square one’ for us, and I wonder if in our churches we need to recover a clear idea of conversion. That no matter what spiritual privileges we were born into, we all must be born again through faith in Christ.
- An acceptance of God’s will
This runs like a thread through the Confession. Patrick understands the reason for his captivity as being the will of God. It was at the one time both a punishment for his own spiritual negligence and a means God would use to bring him to faith and of course to prepare him for his later work of mission (that he would know the language and customs of that land)
Later Patrick often talks of being led by God. For example “It happened again after many years that I was taken a prisoner. On the first night I was with them, I heard a divine answer saying to me: “You will be with them for two months.” This is how it was: on the sixtieth night, the Lord freed me from their hands.”
Patrick believed in sovereignty not superstition. I think this is again where he can teach us. Superstition is where we imagine that our lives are in some way controlled by small actions we or other people do.
For example the footballer who always puts his left boot on before the right because that will bring success. Or the actor who won’t mention the name ‘Macbeth’ because that will bring disaster.
The trouble with those things is they’re based on the idea that these small actions control our fate, whereas for the believer it is God who controls our fate.
And Patrick was heavily into the sovereignty and majesty of God. Listen to his ‘Creed:’
There is no other God, nor will there ever be, nor was there ever, except God the Father. He is the one who was not begotten, the one without a beginning, the one from whom all beginnings come, the one who holds all things in being – this is our teaching.
What would it look like today to have such a confidence in the divine ordering of things? That God works for good in all things.
- A devotion to prayer
This was of course born in those days of captivity but it carried on through his life. And it wasn’t just a case of saying his prayers. For Patrick, praying was a profound experience of intimacy with God. Listen to his description of one prayer time:
Another time, I saw in me one who was praying. It was as if I were inside my body, and I heard above me, that is, above my inner self. He prayed strongly, with sighs.
I was amazed and astonished, and pondered who it was who prayed in me; but at the end of the prayer, it was clear that it was the Spirit. At this I awoke, and I remembered the apostle saying: “The Spirit helps the weaknesses of our prayer; for we do know what it is we should pray, but the very Spirit pleads for us with unspeakable sighs, which cannot be expressed in words.”
- A biblically saturated mind
In the few pages of the Confession, there are scores of biblical references and many more allusions (places where he is using Bible language to put across his own thoughts).
Anywhere you cut him, the bible oozes out. And of course he wasn’t able as we are to have the Scriptures in a handy pocket book form, let alone to have an app on his phone with the whole text at his fingertips. These verses would have been learned by heart during his studies on the continent and perhaps even in his childhood.
That Bible background gave him the apparatus to deal with all the challenges he faced. In particular he knew how to interpret his various experiences, as in that quote earlier about the prayer of the Spirit.
It also helped him to know what to be flexible on and what to keep firm on. How did he know about what doctrine to insist on utterly inflexibly, and what practices to adapt and change for the sake of mission?
It was the Bible, in particular St Paul, who helped him in this. Just as a fisherman may use many kinds of net but at the end of the day is always about catching fish, so a Christian leader may present the gospel in many ways, but it is always the same gospel.
- A zeal for evangelism
Because of his own conversion experience, Patrick was zealous to others come to know Christ and receive the life that is truly life. One example, on the ship that took him back from Ireland:
[The sailors] were pagans, and I hoped they might come to faith in Jesus Christ… we set sail right away. After three days we made it to land, and then for twenty eight days we travelled through a wilderness. Food ran out, and great hunger came over them.
The captain turned to me and said: “What about this, Christian? You tell us that your God is great and all-powerful – why can’t you pray for us, since we’re in a bad state with hunger? There’s no sign of us finding a human being anywhere!”
Then I said to them with some confidence: “Turn in faith with all your hearts to the Lord my God, because nothing is impossible for him, so that he may put food in your way – even enough to make you fully satisfied! He has an abundance everywhere.”
With the help of God, this is actually what happened! A herd of pigs appeared in the way before our eyes! They killed many of them and there they remained for two nights, and were fully restored, and the dogs too were filled. Many of them had grown weak and left half-alive by the way.
After this, they gave the greatest of thanks to God, and I was honoured in their eyes.
Would you have the courage to speak up like that before such pagan people? Perhaps there is a lesson here for us, in having the courage to speak up for Christ when the opportunity presents itself.
- A commitment to the long haul
Patrick was called to Ireland probably in his late forties, and he stayed for the rest of his life. Many times he was tempted to return to his family and the security of Britain. He says:
I could wish to leave them to go to Britain. I would willingly do this, and am prepared for this, as if to visit my home country and my parents.
Not only that, but I would like to go to Gaul to visit the brothers and to see the faces of the saints of my Lord. God knows what I would dearly like to do.
But I am bound in the Spirit, who assures me that if I were to do this, I would be held guilty. And I fear, also, to lose the work which I began – not so much I as Christ the Lord, who told me to come here to be with these people for the rest of my life.
We live in days of quick fixes and low commitment levels. Everything is disposable, nothing seems built to last. This is even true in Christian ministry, where so many are now either moving often from place to place or even throwing in the towel when things get hard or other options become available.
Now I may be leaving a hostage to fortune here, as no-one knows how they may be called in the future. But I would suggest that staying for the long haul is a more effective ministry strategy than it is often given credit for. That is, at least as long as we are doing effective ministry and not just being stuck in the mud.
- A love for his people
I haven’t time tonight to go into Patrick’s other writing, the letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus. It was written to help secure the release of some young Christian converts who had been taken captive (others had been murdered in the same attack). Patrick feels deeply for them, and pleads for their return.
I will cry aloud with sadness and grief: O my fairest and most loving brothers and sisters whom I begot without number in Christ, what am I to do for you?
Patrick was not a professional. His ministry wasn’t a job. It was his life. Just as the voice of the Irish had led him back across the sea years before, so the love for the people of this land kept him serving them to the end.
Surely it was not without God, or simply out of human motives, that I came to Ireland! Who was it who drove me to it? I am so bound by the Spirit that I no longer see my own kindred.
Is it just from myself that comes the holy mercy in how I act towards that people who at one time took me captive and slaughtered the men and women servants in my father’s home?
In my human nature I was born free, in that I was born of a decurion father. But I sold out my noble state for the sake of others – and I am not ashamed of that, nor do I repent of it.
Now, in Christ, I am a slave of a foreign people, for the sake of the indescribable glory of eternal life which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
So as we go on in 2016 in our own small way carrying on the mission of Patrick to fish for men and women and children in Ireland, let’s learn from him to rely utterly on God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, and to trust that through him we will see many fish brought to safety and kept by Christ for ever.
Hope – a reflection by Nuala Dudley, Diocesan Lay Reader
Spring is in the air! And Easter comes when there’s growth and new birth all around us. One of the blessings of our current situation brought about by Covid-19 is that many of us have more time on our hands to enjoy nature. On early morning walks, you can’t help but notice the bright green buds bursting forth on the trees and hedgerows, the tufts of yellow primroses on the banks, the bunches of yellow daffodils standing like golden beacons in the fields and gardens, the raucous bleating of newborn lambs and the sound of birdsong. To quote from Gerard Manley Hopkins ‘Nothing is as beautiful as Spring’.
As nature unfurls its wondrous glory to us, it can be easy to forget that we are living through these challenging times, this time of Covid-19 when because of restrictions, we are denied so much. We’re denied our freedom to go wherever and whenever we want, denied our livelihoods, denied visiting family and friends, denied attending our church buildings to worship. The effects of living as we are, may have a deep and negative impact, especially on the most vulnerable in our society. The world economy is in a crisis, unlike anything experienced before and will require a massive response to ensure recovery.
We are living in the midst of a global pandemic, a time of crisis, the darkest of times. The events of the first Holy Week, particularly Good Friday brought fear, distress and suffering to Jesus’ followers as they witnessed His crucifixion. But out of their desolation sprang hope with the dawn of Easter Sunday morning and His Resurrection. Their despair turned to joy. The empty tomb gives us hope- the hope of forgiveness, the hope of peace, the hope of assurance, the hope of heaven. ‘Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.’ (1 Peter 1:3)
‘If we had no winter, the spring would not be so pleasant.’ (Anne Bradstreet) If we didn’t have to endure the dark winter, would we appreciate the spring? When the world emerges from this pandemic, and it will, it will be a changed place. Has society learned lessons from this crisis? Perhaps remote working will mean families can spend more quality time together. A cleaner environment would result from less traffic on our roads. If the community spirit that has evolved, remained, what a blessing that would be to many. As Christians, we can be as ‘salt and light’ to the world and we can make a difference.
Our human response to our current crisis may give us cause for hope. But our Christian hope is rooted in the way God has planned for humankind, His significant intervention being the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is a hope that we can come through the most challenging of times. Like winter evolves into spring, despair turns to joy, there is the possibility of transformation. Let us pray that the Easter message of hope sustains us. ‘May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.’ (Romans 15:13)
Online Holy Communion?
3 Options briefly considered
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Online Holy Communion?
3 options briefly considered
Easter 2020 will surely be remembered as one of the strangest ever. Normally Easter Sunday would see a celebration of Holy Communion in every parish church, often with larger than usual congregations present. In the preceding weeks, Home Communions would have been held for the housebound in their homes. This year, none of this can happen – our church buildings are closed and all gatherings and home visits have ceased.
Understandably the question now arises of what should be done about Communion on Easter day (and Maundy Thursday). Leaving aside absurd suggestions like sending out consecrated bread and wine in the post, is there any way in which technology can, or should, help? Should those churches which have been holding online acts of worship via Facebook Live, Zoom etc. attempt to hold an online Lord’s Supper? I want to take a brief look at the plusses and minuses of three options:
Option 1. Purely Online Communion
What it involves:
The minister celebrates the Eucharist in his/her own home, perhaps with other members of his/her household receiving communion, and joined by an online congregation who watch and listen as this takes place.
- The Eucharist takes place and people are able to watch and listen to the familiar actions and words, reminding them of Communion services they attended in the past.
- Videoconferencing technology allows a degree of ‘presence’ of congregation members.
- The rubric on p440 of the Book of Common Prayer (2004) gives some comfort that a person not able physically to receive the bread and wine nonetheless partakes of the body and blood of Christ.
- Holy Communion is, in its very essence, a physical thing. Christ’s command was to eat and drink, not merely to watch and listen (Matthew 26:26, Mark 14:22).
- It feels absurd to invite people, in the words of the liturgy, to eat and drink when they are clearly unable actually to do so.
- There are shades of the pre-Reformation practice of the Mass being conducted in private or with the people present only as spectators and auditors. The separation between priest and people is heightened by this option.
- The rubric on “Spiritual Communion” in the BCP was not intended to address public worship but situations of extreme sickness. It points out that receiving Holy Communion is not strictly necessary for receiving Christ, but rather repentance and faith are the requirements.
Option 2. Hybrid home/online Communion
What it involves:
The same as in option 1, but in addition the online congregation in their own homes take their own bread and wine and eat and drink these at the relevant moment in the service.
- Eating and drinking some actual bread and wine could be more satisfying and more edifying than merely looking at some bread and wine on a screen. There would be less sense of absurdity at the moment of reception.
- Something of the physicality of communion would be retained in this option.
- The sense of ‘elitism,’ with the priest’s household being the only ones able to partake, is lessened, and there could be a greater sense of ‘togetherness’ as everyone receives something.
- The online congregation are probably not truly receiving Holy Communion as they are not partaking of one loaf together (1 Corinthians 10:17) and their bread and wine have not been duly consecrated , at least in the way traditionally understood and practiced in the Church of Ireland.
- This option may be seen as ‘lay presidency by stealth,’ dissolving the distinction between the ordained minister of word & sacrament and the lay people of God.
- This approach increases the danger of the Eucharist being treated casually or irreverently, and the possibility of participation by those who ought not to receive yet e.g. the unbaptised.
Option 3. Delayed Communion
What it involves:
We simply wait until we are able to celebrate the Lord’s Supper and receive Holy Communion in the normal way – physically gathered as the church, with Home Communions for those unable to be present.
- This avoids the disadvantages of the other two approaches and acknowledges that, while well-intentioned, neither of them constitutes a regular celebration of the Lord’s Supper.
- It avoids unintentionally giving support to irregular theological ideas, for example (a) the idea that it makes no difference whether one is physically present and physically partakes of communion or not, (b) the idea that the Lord’s Supper need not be presided over in person by an ordained minister with spiritual oversight in the congregation, or (c) the idea that the Eucharist has value as an act in itself regardless of participation by the people.
- This option could sharpen our sense of hunger/longing for the restoration of Holy Communion, and this could be in keeping with one of the purposes of the Lord’s Supper – an anticipation of the heavenly banquet (cf. Luke 22:16,18; 1 Corinthians 11:26) when Christ comes in his kingdom.
- Easter without a celebration of Holy Communion is very irregular, going against the long-standing practice of almost all Christian churches across the world and throughout time.
- To miss communion at Easter is particularly painful, since the risen Jesus himself held a form of Eucharist at Emmaus on the day of this resurrection, and every Lord’s Supper is a reminder of the first Good Friday and Easter Sunday.
- There could be a strong feeling that an imperfect Lord’s Supper would be better than no Lord’s Supper at all. In other words, it is better to attempt something than to do nothing.
None of the three options is ideal and we are faced with trying to pick the best of a bad bunch, or the ‘least worst’ option. Which do we go for? A lot will depend on one’s existing theological convictions. Those of a more evangelical/low church disposition will have misgivings about option 1 with its echoes of medieval private Masses. Those of a more catholic/high church disposition will have concerns about the resemblance to lay presidency of option 2. Most of us will feel the pain and loss involved in choosing option 3.
Personally I am least in favour of option 1 – the prospect of the faithful watching the Lord’s Supper without being able to participate concerns me. Option 2 comes in second place for me – it is an improvement on a purely online experience, but raises its own questions about whether it is a proper and Anglican approach.
My own decision is to choose option 3 and to wait for the restoration of Holy Communion as we have known it. This third option, while far from ideal, seems to me to have the fewest pitfalls and is probably the best way to safeguard our understanding and practice of the Lord’s Supper. It is painfully ironic that at this time we can probably best honour the Eucharist by not celebrating it. But while we fast from the Sacrament we will feast on the Word, taking comfort from Jesus’ promise: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” (John 6:35)
David Huss 3rd April 2020