Friday, June 10, 2011

Patrick's "Voice of the Irish" vision and prayer

On page 82 of The Barbarian Conversion, from Paganism to Christianity, Fletcher writes, “Patrick is famously difficult for the historian. It might be easiest to start by indicating some of the things which he did not do. He did not expel snakes from Ireland: the snakelessness of Ireland had been noted by the Roman geographer Solinus in the third century. He did not compose the wonderful hymn known as ‘Saint Patrick’s Breastplate’: its language postdates him by about three centuries. He did not drive a chariot three times over his sister Lupait to punish her for unchastity: the allegation that he did first occurs in a life of Patrick which is a farrago of legend put together about 400 years after his death. He did not use the leaves of the shamrock to illustrate the Persons of the Trinity for his converts: true, he might have done; but it is not until the seventeenth century that we are told that he did.”

I have read other accounts of the establishment of Christianity in Ireland, but Fletcher’s account takes into account the latest scholarship (at least as of the time of his book, copyrighted in 1997) and his approach is refreshingly modern. Here is his description of Patrick’s knowledge of Latin: “Patrick wrote in Latin, but of a very peculiar kind; indeed, his Latin is unique in the whole vast corpus of ancient or early Christian Latin literature. He had received little formal education – it was to cause him shame all his life – and he did not handle the Latin language with any facility. He longs, passionately longs, to make himself clear to his readers but has the utmost difficulty in so doing. His Latin is simple, awkward, laborious, sometimes ambiguous, occasionally unintelligible. It follows that there is a large latitude for debate about what his words actually mean, a latitude of which Patrician scholars have shown no bashfulness in liberally availing themselves.”

Patrick (c. 340 to 440 A.D.) was born in England and captured by Irish raiders when he was fifteen. He lived in Ireland for six years, after which he escaped and returned to England. He tells us what happened next in his Confessio: “Again a few years later I was in Britain with my kinsfolk, and they welcomed me as a son an asked me earnestly not to go off anywhere and leave them this time, after the great tribulations which I had been through. And it was there that I saw one night in a vision a man coming from Ireland (his name was Victoricus), with countless letters; and he gave me one of them, and I read the heading of the letter, ‘The Voice of the Irish’, and as I read these opening words aloud I imagined at that very instant that I heard the voice of those who were beside the forest of Foclut which is near the western sea; and thus they cried as though with one voice: ‘We beg you, holy boy, to come and walk again among us.’ And I was stung with remorse in my heart and could not read on, and so I awoke. Thanks be to God, that after so many years the Lord bestowed on them according to their cry. And another night (I do not know, God knows, whether it was within me or beside me) I was addressed in words which I heard and yet could not understand, except that at the end of the prayer He spoke thus: ‘He who gave his life for you, He it is who speaks within you,’ and so I awoke overjoyed. And again I saw Him praying within me and I was, as it were, inside my own body, and I heard Him above me, that is to say above my inner self, and He was praying there powerfully and groaning; and meanwhile I was dumbfounded and astonished and wondered who it could be that was praying within me, but at the end of the prayer He spoke and said that He was the Spirit, and so I awoke and remembered the apostle’s words: ‘The Spirit helps the weaknesses of our prayer; for we do not know what to pray for as we ought; but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with unspeakable groans which cannot be expressed in words.’”

Fletcher adds, “No one can doubt the authenticity of the experience or fail to be moved by the writer’s efforts to describe it.” Or, Fletcher might say if pushed, Patrick really did have a dream but it was probably caused by friends and unfinished commitments he had made in Ireland. A modern-day Charismatic and possibly most orthodox Christians will believe, as Patrick did, that the Holy Spirit really did inhabit Patrick’s dream and inspire him to return to the Irish with what success we are aware.

I recall the arguments of modern Christian orthodoxy that Charismatic gifts ended during the Apostolic age. There was a need for them early on, but once the New Testament Scriptures were readily available there was no longer any need for these gifts. But most of the writings that Fletcher quotes clearly imply that these gifts were present, or at least believed to be present by those who witnessed and wrote about them. Also, it is interesting to note that it is only the Orthodox Protestant Church (by and large) that has declared these gifts to have ended. The Roman Catholic Church still looks for miracles in the lives of men and women they are investigating for possible sainthood. And the Eastern Orthodox Church looks for similar miracles. I once listened to a long narration by a member of the Russian Orthodox Church of Los Angeles describing the “miracles” associated with the death of his priest.

I am an orthodox Christian and not an atheist; so I have no need to explain such accounts as Patrick’s in modern scientific terms. An atheist would find everything he needed to account for this event in Patrick’s psychology and credulity. However, an atheist presupposes that only which meets the standard of the Scientific Method can be accepted as true. (from Wikipedia: "Modern science owes its origins and present flourishing state to a new scientific method which was fashioned almost entirely by Galileo Galilei (1564-1642)" —Morris Kline”) Therefore, the atheist would argue, since Patrick’s visitation cannot be verified in the laboratory, it is ipso facto a mere dream – his belief that it was more notwithstanding. While the Scientific Method has produced many wonderful things, it is presumptuous it seems to me for its adherents to argue that it is the only path to knowledge and truth. Early adherents did not so claim. The scientific method was merely a way to understand the natural world which had been created by God. Wittgenstein would have said much the same thing. His Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus described a world that Galileo or Bacon would have understood, but at the end of it he writes, “My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them – as steps – to climb up beyond them (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.)

“He must transcend these propositions, and then he will see the world aright.

“What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.”

Those of us who are orthodox Christians, whether Protestant, Catholic or Eastern Orthodox, accept the idea that the Holy Spirit works in our lives. This is a Christian presupposition that doesn’t conflict with the Scientific Method. It does conflict with the Atheistic assumption that the Scientific Method is the only way of knowing.

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