Why aren’t we spiritual ancestors of St. Patrick more like St. Patrick? Unlike him, we are often stuck on a treadmill of trying harder at things that aren’t working. We keep looking for answers to questions that no longer need to be answered. We get stuck in endless either/or arguments when the dichotomies were false to begin with. We undermine the leaders we so desperately need to help us off our treadmill and out of our arguing. We need the kind of nerve Patrick had.
Some of what I am thinking comes right out of Edwin Friedman’s book Failure of Nerve. But St. Patrick (387-461). demonstrated how to be a healthy and effective leader long before system theory gurus discovered what he already knew. Whether is it a family, a cell, a church or a business, a person who lives out of their true self makes a good leader. Friedman thinks knowledgeable people can become this “differentiated” person, and some can. But, for most of us, we need Jesus at the heart of the process to have a prayer of becoming so mature and useful.
Right now most systems we encounter are stuck in a morass of anxiety and ineffectiveness: the schools, License and Inspections, the Water Department, to name a few, but also some families, some communal households, quite a few cells, some compassion teams. Why don’t we have more leaders like Patrick in these places? Why aren’t Christians in the United States, in general, more like Patrick – building defiant fires on hills and daring the powers-that-be to oppose Jesus? How did St. Patrick’s Day become famous for being a day when people get drunk? Could it be a failure of nerve?
It could be. Someone has to get free. Someone has to go first. Someone has to risk realizing their imagination.
Patrick got free. He was a barely-Christian teenager when has was captured by Irish slavers. While he was stuck on his hillside tending sheep for the man in the wilderness of Foclut, he did not conform, he turned to prayer. Eventually he had a vision that told him to escape. He writes that he heard a voice tell him, “Come and see, your ship is waiting for you.” After running for his life across the whole island he made his way on to a ship departing for France where he perfected his faith.
Patrick went first. Restored to his family in Britain, perhaps he could have taken his place in their patrician life and helped rebuild and protect his homeland. But he was not content to stay on the treadmill. He writes, “I had a vision in my dreams of a man who seemed to come from Ireland. His name was Victoricius, and he carried countless letters, one of which he handed over to me. I read aloud where it began: ‘The Voice of the Irish.’ And as I began to read these words, I seemed to hear the voice of the same men who lived beside the forest of Foclut . . . and they cried out as with one voice, ‘We appeal to you, holy servant boy, to come and walk among us.’ I was deeply moved in heart and I could read no further, so I awoke.” He went to Ireland and immediately began having success in leading people to a knowledge and faith in Jesus.
Patrick risked realizing his imagination. He wrote, “Daily I expect murder, fraud or captivity, but I fear none of these things because of the promises of heaven. I have cast myself into the hands of God almighty who rules everywhere.” It seems like he almost delighted in taking risks for the gospel. He wrote, “I must take this decision disregarding risks involved and make known the gifts of God and his everlasting consolation. Neither must we fear any such risk in faithfully preaching God’s name boldly in every place, so that even after my death, a spiritual legacy may be left for my brethren and my children.” The famous prayer attributed to him called “the breastplate” is all about gaining nerve in the face of threats.
In a famous letter, amazingly still preserved from the 5th century, Patrick takes a stand against a great enemy with which he was very familiar: slavery. A British tyrant, Coroticus, had carried off some of Patrick’s converts into slavery. Patrick, now a bishop, excommunicated him and told him to repent and free them, writing: “Ravenous wolves have gulped down the Lord’s own flock which was flourishing in Ireland and the whole church cries out and laments for its sons and daughters.” That’s nerve.
Being one’s true self and trusting God in the midst of a world that is always difficult often makes one a leader, it at least allows us to influence people by being the presence of Jesus and offering an alternative to the destruction happening. Patrick did not think he was particulalry qualified to be such a person. Despite his success, as an older man he writes, “I still blush and fear more than anything to have my lack of learning brought out into the open. For I am unable to explain my mind to learned people.” Nevertheless, he gives thanks to God, “who stirred up me, a fool, from the midst of those who are considered wise and learned in the practice of the law as well as persuasive in their speech and in every other way and ahead of these others, inspired me who is so despised by the world.”
So many in the world get drunk on St. Patrick’s Day! Is it a way to avoid looking at their lack of nerve? So many more don’t get drunk and don’t even know it is a special day honoring a special man. They are so consumed by the slavery of whatever dominates them that it is hard for them to even visualize an alternative: drunkenness or holiness. They need a leader, they at least need a person with some nerve. Someone has to get free. Someone has to go first. Someone has to risk realizing their imagination.