Thursday, March 15, 2012

Little things …

This Saturday, the 17th, will be/was a holiday for some of our sisters and brothers of faith. Strangely enough, it’s also celebrated by many young adults with no particular faith commitment, looking for a good excuse to party, preparing for a rough Sunday morning. I refer, of course, to St. Patrick’s Day; the feast day of Ireland’s patron saint and a true giant of Christian history.

Recently, I read a book that discussed St. Patrick among other topics, alluringly titled, “How the Irish Saved Civilization.” And no, the answer to that “how” was not by exporting clovers or Guinness.  Rather, the book explored Ireland, Britain and the still-emerging European Continent during the anxious days following the Western Roman Empire’s fall. And according to some theories, these were “Dark Ages”, particularly for the poor peasant population (i.e. most everyone). These theories go that with the dying of the West’s long-time guardians of health, wealth and civilization- Rome- suddenly lights of learning, wisdom and many cultural institutions flickered and flamed out. Great centers of scholarship and administration disintegrated. Standards of living plummeted. Cultural progress arrested, then declined. Literacy, once common for so-called ‘noble families’, became scarcer and more expensive. Until, not many generations later, the Western World was a changed place.

Yet in the Irish Isles, the book contended, something different occurred. Being more isolated from the continent’s turmoil, its shores weren’t as permeated by Roman “Civilization” as other places. Therefore, once Rome fell, Irish peoples weren’t as shocked. Plus, around that time, a few Christian missionaries arrived, most famously this unique British cleric named Patrick. And because Patrick knew a little something about contemporary Irish culture (he’d lived there for six years in his youth, having been captured and enslaved by Irish raiders from his homeland in Roman Britain) he spoke the people’s language, enjoyed their customs and intuitively understood the stirrings of their souls. Thus, as he began translating the Christian story into native words and patterns of belief, many people listened. Stories tell of his deep love for the geography and landscape of the Emerald Isle; of his synergy with the people’s sense of connectedness with nature; of his spiritual brilliance to describe those instincts with the inter-workings and interdependence of the Trinity. Not long after, therefore, Christian communities arose. Monasteries and places of learning were established. The lights of learning, prayer, biblical transcription (ever hear of the Book of Kells?) kept burning in those places, awaiting a time for when the continent was ready to receive re-illumination.

Obviously, the whole story is much more complicated and nuanced than I just wrote. Still, I find the book’s basic argument- that a small band of faithful people in an out-of-the-way location achieved a more outsized influence on the course of events than they could ever have imagined- an interesting notion, indeed. And it occurs to me that in our modern world, when so often we celebrate whatever’s BIG- box stores, multinational brands, mega-churches, etc.- it’s wise to remember the power of small events and everyday people. From local gardeners who grow their own organic food to creative youth and young adults posting evocative videos on YouTube to corner churches with one worship service channeling their collective efforts to shine a beacon of openness and service in a world so often judgmental, closed-off and selfish, ordinary people can do some extraordinary things.

And what’s most inspiring about that story is that it’s not just Patrick’s story. Sure, his leadership and intelligence made a significant difference. But without faithful folk taking his ideas and making them work in their everyday lives- changing how their tribes fought wars, shared food, used money, built buildings, created art- St. Patrick was just a preacher who liked clovers and hated snakes. The book’s title wasn’t “How St. Patrick Saved Civilization” for a very good reason.

So this and subsequent St. Patrick’s Day(s), how about you share this toast with me? “May the God who goes before us, behind us, abides above us, beside us, remind us that everything little thing we do matters, for it impacts the overall beauty of all Creation”.

Grace and Peace,

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