I'm currently in Ireland, in the lovely seaside town of Bangor, a suburb of Belfast. I started the week here, then drove down the coastline to Dublin to view the book of Kells and other historical wonders, then spent a night in Armagh, with its rolling green hills and red brick mills. I'm back here now in Bangor, to do a week of teaching.
This past week I have been on a guided tour of the St. Patrick Trail, led by Arrow Leadership's CEO Carson Pue. It's been a fascinating and faith-building journey. We've gone from the bay in Northern Ireland – Strangford Lough – where Patrick first made landfall in the country, to the place, not far from there, where he lies buried beneath a flat rock, shaped as God made it except for Patrick's name chiseled atop. And we visited several of the monasteries and churches he established, including the cathedral in Armagh where he is listed as the first pastor.
Of all I've learned about his life and times (Carson is an expert, and just finishing a book on Patrick), two things stand out. First, unlike other monks, Patrick never intended his monasteries to be cloisters where monks lived sheltered lives of quiet scholarship: he intended them as boot camps where monks were trained up and sent out as evangelists. This is a brilliant model for the church. Too often we regard church as our refuge, a place to escape the world, rather than as our training ground, a place to prepare to subvert and win the world. More than ever, we need to measure the church's success, not by its attendance records, but by its obedience factor; not by its seating capacity, but by its sending capacity.
Second, Patrick taught his monks to choose, long before they ever arrived in the place they were sent, the values by which they would live. In that way, the world would not define them. Patrick chose a life of purity, integrity, humility, simplicity and courage in a culture where most of that was lacking. In his day, he had "rock-star status" – Carson's phrase – women threw themselves at him, chieftains and pretty kings offered him land and wealth. He never indulged any of it. He had resolved long before to be satisfied with Christ alone. It was this resolve, more than anything else, that empowered Patrick and his monks to effectively Christianize within a single generation a deeply pagan culture. This, too, is a good model for the church. Some of Patrick's counter-cultural approach to living the faith would strengthen us, within and without, and be a more effective way to reach the world.