What can St. Patrick teach us about Christian Perfection?
Whether using a shamrock to illustrate the Trinity or running the snakes out of Ireland, St. Patrick is known for many legendary and even fanciful acts. But as Philip Freeman observes in his biography St. Patrick of Ireland, “The true story of Patrick is far more compelling than the medieval legends” (xvii). Patrick left us two documents – one letter and a short autobiography – that shed a great deal of light on his life and his passion for the gospel, missions, and the people of Ireland. Patrick’s missionary zeal is particularly remarkable when the trauma of his childhood is taken into account.
Some may be surprised to find that Patrick was not originally from Ireland. He was born in Britain near the end of the fourth century. Kidnapped at the age of fifteen, he was ripped from his bed in the middle of the night, bound, and taken by ship to Ireland, where he was sold into slavery. Though his father and grandfather were members of the clergy, Patrick himself was not a believer. He found, however, that captivity transformed him into a praying man. He further found that the more he prayed, the more he believed in the God revealed in Jesus Christ. After six years of grueling slave labor, Patrick managed to escape and survived the perilous journey home to Britain where he was reunited with his parents. There is a strong sense of divine providence that governed Patrick’s life. According to Freeman, “No one taken by Irish raiders had been known to return alive. No one had ever escaped from Ireland” (44).
A Surprising Call
Perhaps the single most striking thing about Patrick’s life is his eagerness to return to the land of his captivity in order to preach the gospel and plant churches there. This is where I think Patrick’s life is of particularly helpful as we reflect on the Wesleyan understanding of entire sanctification. Once home, Patrick began to discern through a series of dreams that God was leading him to seek religious orders and return to Ireland as a missionary and pastor to the very people who had consigned him to a life of slavery. When you read Patrick’s account of his calling and his commitment to return in ministry to Ireland, the strength of his single-minded commitment is clear, especially in light of the opposition he received from his family, friends, and other clergy. He would offer his life in obedience motivated by love for God in love for the Irish. Patrick’s singular focus resonates strongly with Wesley’s formulation of holiness.
Christian Perfection as Enemy Love
When Jesus commanded his followers to “be perfect”, he did so in the context of his teaching on love for enemies (Matthew 5:43-48). In fact, Jesus’ exhortation to be perfect is not referring to some sort of absolute perfectionism. Instead, the perfect command is specifically an imperative to love enemies and pray for persecutors. In short, when Jesus says be perfect, he means love your enemies. Jesus illustrates the point by saying that God allows the sun to shine and the rain to fall on both the just and the unjust. In the agrarian society of first century Palestine, the point was clear that God gives what is necessary for life to all without regard to their relative goodness or wickedness. When the people of God express love to those who would do them harm, they are obeying Jesus’ command to be perfect.
A Perfect Model
Patrick’s desire to love his former captors out of obedient love to God was a shock to his contemporaries. He wrote in his Confession that his fellow clergy did not understand why he wanted “to put himself in such danger among his enemies who do not know God” (§ 46). Nevertheless, Patrick was unreservedly set apart to his calling. He writes:
“Now I was able to hand over the freedom of my birth for the benefit of others. And should I prove worthy, I am ready and willing to give up my own life, without hesitation for his name…There would I be glad to pour out my soul even to the point of death, if the Lord would so grant it me, because I am so much in God’s debt. For he gave me such great grace, that many people through me were reborn to God” (§§ 37-38).
If you want a model of obedience to Jesus’ command to be perfect by loving enemies, you need look no further than St. Patrick of Ireland.
Contemporary discussions of Christian perfection digress all too often into debates over whether one can stop sinning and be truly perfect, though we forget that John Wesley rejected any language of “sinless perfection”. If you could ask Wesley what he meant by Christian perfection, he would tell you that it is a heart of pure intention overflowing in love for God and others. Patrick’s singular devotion to the call of God to love his enemies provides a concrete example of Wesley’s doctrine. Nothing would stand in Patrick’s way as he put all his energy into fulfilling the law of love, not only for his friends, especially for his enemies.