The patron saint of Ireland is rarely credited with what was perhaps his greatest achievement.
by Gary David Stratton, PhD • Senior Editor
“I am driven by the zeal of God, Christ’s truth has roused me. I speak out too for love of my neighbors who are my only sons; for them I gave up my home country, my parents and even pushing my own life to the brink of death. If I have any worth, it is to live my life for God so as to teach these peoples; even though some of them still look down on me.”
Saint Patrick is credited with numerous extraordinary feats, both legendary and mythical. In fact, the myth and the man are so intertwined, it is often difficult to tell fact from fiction. Can you name which of the following common beliefs about the patron saint of Ireland are true and which are myths?
1) Patrick converted pagan Ireland to Christianity. Mostly true: When Patrick arrived in Ireland in c. 433 there were few if any known churches. When he died c. 461 his followers (and other missionaries) had established as many as 700 churches in more than 30 of Ireland’s 150 tribes.
2) Patrick drove away every snake in Ireland. Myth: There were never many snakes in Ireland. However, God did use Patrick to perform many other miracles in order to demonstrate the power of the Gospel over and against the dark powers of the druids.
3) Patrick and his followers saved the great texts of Greco-Roman civilization from distruction. True: As popularized by Thomas Cahill’s best-selling How the Irish Saved Civilization, most of the texts of classical antiquity were preserved in Celtic missionary communities during continental Europe’s darkest ages.
4) Patrick made the Shamrock a grand symbol of Ireland. True: He used the three-leafed plant to teach the doctrine of the Trinity.
5) Patrick invented green beer. Myth: But Patrick probably would have liked it. Beer and mead were the favorite drinks of the Celts and many monasteries became known for their excellent breweries. (I’m not sure what he would have made of green milkshakes.)
Patrick’s Greatest Achievement: Missionally Focused Liberal Arts
Ironically, while these achievements, both real and imagined, have made Patrick one of the most popular saints of the modern world, he is rarely credited with what was arguably his greatest achievement: the reshaping of monasticism into a missionally-focused liberal arts education movement.
Let me explain.
The liberal arts and the Christian faith were not immediately on the best speaking terms. While the classically trained apostle Paul treated philosophers in Athens as fellow truth-seekers (Acts 17), Greco-Roman philosophy and philosophers were as likely to be viewed as enemies of the gospel as anything else (1 Cor. 1:20; Col. 2:8). Many early Christian apologists used their liberal arts education to refute much of the Greek philosophy of their persecutors, the end result was often an entrenched anti-intellectualism in the church. Jean LeClercq notes that the general pattern for much of the era was that of “studies undertaken, and then, not precisely scorned, but renounced and transcended for the kingdom of God.”
Following Constantine’s reforms (313 CE) churches began to formalize the catechumenal schools (children and teens) they had founded under persecution and established catechetical schools (college age) often attached to Roman rhetorical schools. Perhaps the most notable of which was the catechetical school and religious community was established by Augustine of Hippo (354-430) in the early years of the fifth-century. Trained in the finest higher education of his day—he held one of the most prestigious academic positions in the Latin world as a professor of rhetoric for the imperial court at Milan—Augustine’s philosophy of education formed the foundation not only for post-Rome Christendom, but in Christian Education and Instruction of the Uninstructed for the rise of catechetical schools and monasteries throughout the region. Most importantly, Augustine found at least a “measure of compatibility” between Christian and classical thought in training priests and teachers. He devoted several sections of Christian Education to the liberal arts and even began (but never finished) a complete treatise devoted to the liberal arts.
Saint Patrick’s Missional Educational Revolution
As the church grew in influence among the educated classes the commonalities of Greco-Roman liberal arts education, and Jesus’ more Rabbinic higher education model eventually led to the church subsuming the liberal arts academy into its larger project. Their common goals of truth-seeking and leadership training coupled with their nearly identical discipleship-based pedagogy helped calm the once stormy relationship. However, it was only after the fall of the Rome that Greco-Roman culture and its techniques of instruction were “woven into the texture of Christian Education in the middle ages.” And the leader who helped initiate this revolution is none other than Saint Patrick.
Patrick’s mission to Ireland helped reshape monasticism into missionally-focused liberal arts education movement. Patrick arrived in Ireland not as a solo missionary, but as the head of a liberal arts embracing religious community comprised of masters and disciples. Their methodology was the highly relational educational approach they had inherited from the monastic movement, now turned to a missional purpose.
Patrick’s relational approach to the life of the mind was crucial to his missional success. After making contact with the heads of various Celtic tribes, he sought permission to establish a community on the outskirts of the village. A grammar school where Celts were taught to read was one of the first projects in each village, instilling a love of learning where Christianity and the liberal arts were each held in high honor. The native Celts were then invited to take part in discussions, classes, artistic, and agricultural projects. Invariably this relational intellectualism slowly won the village to faith and a local Celtic church was established.
Culture-making–contextualization, education, social justice, and the arts–were all key elements of Patrick’s mission. Patrick was very familiar with Celtic customs, and language due to his time spent as a slave in Ireland in his youth. He sought to redeem Celtic art and worship rather than eradicate them. He created what we now know as the “Celtic Cross” by superimposing the sun—once an object of worship—onto the traditional Roman cross, and recalibrated the use of bonfires in pagan worship by using them to celebrate Easter. Not surprisingly, Patrick was one of the first vocal opponents of slavery in church history. The Irish slave trade was virtually abolished in Ireland wherever Patrick established a church. Devastating social practices such as revenge murder and inter-tribal warfare were also greatly reduced.
Like all monasticism, the life of the mind was eclipsed only by devotion to the life of the Spirit. Prayer played a particularly critical role in Celtic learning communities. The strength of Patrick’s prayer life was legendary and his followers became known for their commitment to praying all 150 Psalms everyday. The strong Trinitarian elements of Saint Patrick’s Shield/Breastplate Prayer attest to the rich theological life of the mind that undergirded the prayer life of the movement. Students learned to pray because prayer was “theology on fire” where they could experience the love of God, and learn to see God’s love set loose in the world. (See, With Prayer in the School of Christ.) Like Patrick, the graduates of his liberal arts learning community were fearless in asking the Spirit of God to intervene in the world in supernatural ways. And God answered those prayers with miracles, signs, and wonders far beyond anything the Druids could muster.
This Celtic synthesis Spirit, Mind, and Art in a communal approach to missions was nearly irresistible in its power.He was a true “two-handed warrior,” who established a vast and vital community of Christ followers in a genuinely pagan nation in less than a single lifetime. His schools were so effective at training leaders that he was able to ordain over 1,000 Celtic priests. The Celtic spiritual awakening continued after Patrick’s death as Spirit-empowered missional learning communities under Colomba (521-597) and Augustine of Canterbury (597-604) converted most of Scotland and the English peoples. (Augustine was even warned by the Pope not to get too big a head due to all the miracles God had performed through him.)
In the process of winning the British Isles to faith, Patrick and his spiritual descendants succeeded in saving the liberal arts tradition as well. LeClercq chronicles how “during the long period when invasions were devastating Europe, Latin culture was preserved primarily in England.” While invaders plundered and destroyed many classical texts, Celtic Christians gathered and preserved as many extant manuscripts from antiquity as they could. And it was from England that missionaries carried Latin culture, books and learning back to a large part of the Continent.” God used Patrick to save the Irish and the Irish saved Western civilization.
Is it possible that Patrick’s missional approach to Christian liberal arts education might help save the future of American civilization as well?
How Patrick’s Missional Liberal Arts Education Might Save Civilization …Again!
Anyone following the work of the National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR) knows that we need saving.While over three quarters of America’s youth identify their religious faith as “Christian,” virtually none of them actually follow Christ in any meaningful way. Last night I fell asleep reading Kenda Creasy Dean’s analysis of the NSYR data entitled Almost Christian: What the faith of our Teenagers is Telling the American Church. I woke this morning with a single thought going through my head, “We’re in trouble.”
Indeed, if Dean is only half right, then the Christian faith in American is in serious trouble. Building upon the previous NSYR publications of Christian Smith, Melissa Lundquist Denton, Patricia Snell and others, Dean warns that:
“American young people are unwittingly being formed into an imposter faith that poses as Christianity, but that in fact lacks the holy desire and missional clarity necessary for Christian discipleship…”
What was so interesting to me in light of Patrick’s life is Dean’s assessment that it is precisely this lack of “missional clarity” that is so devastating the next generation of American believers. The Moralistic Therapeutic Deism that defines the faith of America’s youth is “the unholy residue of a church that has lost its missional imagination.” One of her proposed solutions for rescuing genuine Christianity from its imposter faith is to recapture that imagination.
Patrick and the Christian liberal arts community he founded were defined by their missional imagination.To Patrick, both the church and school existed to “live my life for God so as to teach these peoples.” He was driven by the zeal of Christ and the love of neighbor to direct his life—his relationships, his study, his teaching, and his prayers—in such a way as to make a difference in the world. Are we?
I would argue that for the Christian liberal arts College of the 21st Century to be of any use to God and to the world we must recapture our missional imagination as well. I do not mean by this “mission trips” (although such trips have their place), I mean “thinking missionally” about our mission as Christian colleges. Building upon the missiological thinking of Leslie Newbigin, Andrew F. Walls, Lamin Sanneh and contemporary “missional church” advocates such as Alan Hirsch, Dean asserts: “The point of God’s incarnation was mission, the sending of God-as-love into creation… created the template for church’s missional way of life.” Genuinely Christian communities exist not for themselves, but for the world. Embracing God’s mission to the world is the “litmus test” for determining whether a Christian is really a Christian and a community is really Christian. 
If colleges are genuine Christian learning communities then aren’t we subject to this missional litmus test as well? Patrick certainly thought so.
Thinking MissionallyAbout Higher Education
How might we do this? At the danger of losing the principle in the midst of flawed practices, let me suggest four ways that missional thinking might help transform our colleges into better world-changing institutions and more deeply transform our students in the process.
1) Think now! Nearly all Christian colleges express their “mission statement” in future-oriented language concerning what our graduates will eventually do someday. How odd this language would have sounded to Patrick.
Patrick’s relational intellectualism and liberal arts based apprenticeship-oriented pedagogy moved the “mission” of his educational community from the future to the present. Making a difference in the world was something faculty and students did together as part and parcel of their shared educational experience. Without detracting from the preparatory nature of higher education nor giving way to knee-jerk activism that too often serves largely out of a sense of guilt or self-congratulation, one way to reenergize our schools and our over-entertained and profoundly bored students would be for faculty to invite students into missional communities seeking to use their expertise to make a difference in the world now.
I like the way Gabe Lyons describes the hunger for the next generation of Christians to live out their calling beyond the walls of the church:
Brokenness exists within each channel of culture… We are called to find things that are broken and affect them in some positive way… Put simply, the next Christians recognize their responsibility not only to build up the church but also to build up society to the glory of God. From genetic scientists to artists, businesspeople to educators, these Christians are letting their gifts flood the world from the place they feel called to work. They have a keen eye to sense what is missing, broken, or corrupted and are courageous enough to respond.
In other words, they need psychologists to help psychology students, philosophers to help philosophy students, economists to help economy students use their calling to missionally better the world now.
2) Think relationally! One of Kendra Dean’s primary findings is the profound lack of adults willing to dig in and do the messy work of helping students “translate” their faith from professed story to experienced story. Adults who will engage students in “catechetical conversations” that evoke what Walter Brueggeman calls a language of ‘transformative imagination.’ Students rarely get to transformation alone. “(T)heir faith is the legacy of communities that have invested time, energy, and love in them.” If not us, who? If not now, when?
3) Think strategically! Business as usual will not cut it. If faculty, staff and executives are to lead students in the process of missional education then something has to change. For instance, schools might consider augmenting their stand-alone missions trips and/or service projects by creating positions that serve faculty in the development of service-learning components in their courses and/or designing missional opportunities based upon faculty passions and talents. Faculty senates could redefine faculty tenure and promotion policies in such a way that peer-reviewed scholarly writing is coupled with student-shared scholarly engagement in culture. College executives could release strategic resources (i.e. funding) for visionary programming, conversations, and staffing.
4) Think big! Dean concludes her book with a note of hope. Students want to be part of something bigger than they are, something that really makes a difference in the world. The real problem “may simply be that Christianity—or what passes for Christianity…—does not merit a primary commitment.” A vision for preserving comfortable Christian subculture simply isn’t big enough to capture the imagination of a sensation-craving, but meaning-starved generation. They want to change the world. A culture of video-games and CGI action movies has trained them to think in only two categories: “Go big or go home.” Will 21st Century Christian higher education rise to the challenge?
Patrick was over 45 years old, well past the life expectancy of his day, when he launched his mission to Ireland. His vision was enormous, maybe even foolhardy. It was also transformative. Patrick redirected the liberal arts learning communities of his day from their purely interior focused purpose to one that was truly missional. In doing so he actually strengthened their spiritual vitality, and their intellectual firepower rather than diminishing it.
He also changed the world. If we followed Patrick’s example of missional liberal arts, perhaps we could change our world as well.
So, today whether you’re drinking a green beer, throwing back a Shamrock shake, or just wearing something green, thank God for Saint Patrick—one of the coolest Saints in history, and just maybe the future of missional Christian higher education.
 A Letter to the Soldiers at Coroticus, in The Confession of Saint Patrick, John Skinner, Translator (New York: Doubleday, 1998), p. 2-3.
 Perhaps only St. Nicholas and St. Valentine rank higher on the hipness chart.
 The love of learning and the desire for God: A study of monastic culture, 3rd Edition (New York: Fordham University Press, 2007), p. 12.
 J. Van Engen, Christianity and the University: The Medieval and Reformation Legacies. In J. Carpenter (Ed.), Making Higher Education Christian (Grand Rapids, MI: Christian University Press, 1987), p. 20.
 Cited in Alan Cobban, The medieval universities: their development and organization (London: Methuen & Co, 1975), p. 10.
 Ibid., p. 3.
 Or at least the prayer tradition he established. It difficult to know for certain if Patrick actually wrote the prayer personally or if it grew out of the Celtic prayer community.
 The love of learning, p. 38.
 Oxford Press, 2010.
 Italics mine, p. 6.
 Italics mine, p. 104.
 Ibid., p. 91
 Ibid, p. 90. Dean notes that the missional “litmus test” argument was first proposed by Karl Barth in Church Dogmatics IV.3b (Edinborough: T&T Clark, 1962), 875.
 The next Christians: The good news about the end of Christian America (New York: Doubleday Religion, 2010), p. 120.
 Cited in Dean, p. 126.
 Almost Christian, p. 194.
 Often largely divorced from students’ academic experience and virtually identical to programs offered by high school youth groups.
 Almost Christian, p. 193.