The life and accomplishments of the saint we call Patrick have certainly been embellished and enhanced by early hagiography and centuries of veneration. Historians assume that some acts attributed to Patrick were either done by others or are simply good stories that have become part of his legend. In death, Patrick is undoubtedly a much larger presence that he was in actual life. This is true with so many religious and historical figures. They may have been decisive, even heroic, figures but we can no longer separate the person from the legend.
Not only is Patrick an iconic figure, he has also become linked with what we know call Celtic Christianity. Thomas Cahill’s book How the Irish Saved Civilization introduced the rich tradition of the Celtic and specifically Irish contributions to a mass audience. George Hunter drew on similar ideas for The Celtic Way of Evangelism. Just as we add much on to the lives of honored individuals of the past, we have probably created a picture of the beliefs and practices of ancient Christianity among the Celtic peoples that is richer and more robust than the reality.
There are certainly some characteristics of the Celtic Christianity concept that are close to the original practice of the faith among Celtic peoples. First, those believers had a very strong regard for Creation so they readily responded to teachings about the Creator God. They lived close to the land, the seasons, and animals, so they felt a strong tie to both Creation and Creator. Their experience of Creation was real and vital as was they connection to the Creator God.
Second, these early believers had a great respect for each other—men and women created in the image and likeness of God. They saw the goodness of humankind before the fall and grounded their belief in that original state of innocence rather than in the consequences of the Fall and the idea of original sin. Church history reports that both women and men held places of considerable authority in the church among the Celtic peoples. This ecclesiastical equality reflects the egalitarian treatment of men and women in early Irish law.
Third, they valued community. They saw community as a vital part of being human. Within community—both ecclesiastical and secular—people worked together, held each other accountable, and supported one another in time of need. They also saw community as the place of redemption. This is certainly what Christian community should provide as well.
Just as the lives of the saints call us to be better people, the accounts of Celtic Christianity challenge us to reenvision the true essence of the Christian faith. Both Patrick and Celtic Christianity call us to fresh perspectives on our faith.
(This post originally appeared on this site on March 14, 2012)