St. Patrick and #MarriageEquality: A Modern Day Homily from the Fifth Century
As a rule of thumb, I have always tried to steer clear of contemporary politics on this blog. I generally have little to add and no real desire to do so. Recent commentary however, along with ludicrous posters, attempted obfuscation, deliberate misinformation and outright attempts at scaremongering on the forthcoming Irish Marriage Equality Referendum by minority fringe groups, pseudo-academic research bodies and pretend charities doubling as lobby groups, have compelled me, along with others it seems, to make an exception. In doing so, I take a certain measure of consolation in the fact that I am not really engaging in petty political rhetoric. Marriage Equality for same sex couples is a human and civil rights issue, transcending mere politics.
While I am quietly confident that the proposed referendum question will be passed, there nevertheless remains the rather unpleasant business of having to put up with thinly veiled prejudice masquerading as opposing opinion from certain people who claim to be compassionate Christians. Amid the stifling stench of sanctimonious self-entitlement and the ever increasing magnus opus gei rhetoric emanating from oratorial orifices in recent days, it has become abundantly clear — that my country needs me. I hereby give notice that I am returning the favour and thus commend unto you the following historical perspective towards the issues of the day.
The earliest historical evidence for Christianity in this island (the writings of St. Patrick) contain some very interesting parallels to current events. Before he was ever elevated to patron saint and symbol of All-Ireland religious orthodoxy & authority, the Historical Patrick was someone with real Christian empathy and concern. He was someone who championed and defended Irish people who were being denied recognition and equality — by other Christians. He was someone who repeatedly suffered from religious stigma and prejudice attached to homosexuality. There were deliberate efforts — from fellow Christians — to harness contemporary cultural homophobia and force him into social and political exclusion. Last, but not least, he also happens to be the earliest historically attested person within Ireland to have engaged in ‘same sex’ child adoption.
First, some general background. Contrary to popular myth and traditional ecclesiastical narratives — the Historical Patrick was not sent by Rome. Or anybody else for that matter. Patrick was a self-appointed bishop who returned to Ireland of his own accord, having previously been enslaved here as a youth. In doing so, he disobeyed his ecclesiastical superiors in Roman Britain who had found him morally unsuitable for the rank of bishop. Although he seems to have been on the verge of being appointed — a close friend of his revealed a ‘youthful sin’ that Patrick had previously confessed. He was publicly and professionally disgraced as a result. Initially disheartened and chastised, he seems to have taken comfort in what he interpreted as divine guidance, eventually embarking on an Irish mission on his own recognizance.
Years later, Patrick was forced to write his Confessio in defense of his missionary methods and motivations after elements of the Romano-British church attempted to tarnish his reputation among his Irish converts. They seem to have made known his original confession in an attempt to embarrass Patrick, insinuating that it was a motivating factor in why he would want to live and work with barbarian peoples at the edge of the known world. The question of this ‘youthful sin’ has been the subject of much scholarly speculation over the last century or so, yet few were willing to discuss it openly until relatively recent times, and even then, within cushioned language. Its hard to believe now, but the standard modern academic translation of Patrick’s writings, first published in 1979, carries a nihil obstat imprimatur from the archbishop of the day.
Modern religious sensibilities aside, the episode in his youth nevertheless represented an important milestone for Patrick. It played a role in what he would later interpret as his divine destiny. It defined his very mission, acting as the catalyst for his initial public disgrace and eventually culminating in his finding the courage to follow what he believed was right. Indeed, it continued to redefine his later life, being used against him by fellow Christians who did not view his Irish mission as worthwhile or important and who certainly didn’t consider his Irish converts as deserving members of a shared identity as ‘fellow citizens of the saints of Rome’.
Before we come to the excerpts of Patrick’s writings which concern us, we need to bear few things in mind. Patrick letters are a kind of open bulletin to multiple audiences and recipients. He was primarily writing for an elite Christian audience in Britain, but sometimes he changes focus and addresses some of his Irish converts and supporters. Patrick wrote in a certain way which has several meanings. There are the actual words that he used. There are the words/phrases within those words that are designed to reference certain biblical passages. And then there are overall themes within the entire text that he loops back and forth with, referencing, prefacing and building on previous biblical allusions and inferences. If it sounds complicated, that’s probably because it is. Let me give you an example:
At one point, (Conf. 27) Patrick refers back to his religious ignorance prior to being captured and enslaved in Ireland as a youth –
In fact, I remained in death and unbelief until I was reproved strongly, and actually brought low by hunger and nakedness daily.
Despite coming from a Christian family, he didn’t practice what he had been taught and was an unbeliever until he was ‘brought low by hunger and nakedness daily‘ as a slave in Ireland. That phrase is important because its an intertextual biblical reference. Compare his original: ‘et in veritate humiliatus sum a fame et nuditate et codie‘ with that of Deuteronomium 28:48 ‘in fame et siti et nuditate‘.
So what, you say. Coincidence. He was probably just using similar words. You might very well think so — but he wasn’t. He was actually being very specific. Take a look at the expanded Deuteronomy reference in which it occurs:
47 Because you did not serve the Lord your God joyfully and gladly in the time of prosperity, 48 therefore in hunger and thirst, in nakedness and dire poverty, you will serve the enemies the Lord sends against you. He will put an iron yoke on your neck until he has destroyed you. 49 The Lord will bring a nation against you from far away, from the ends of the earth, like an eagle swooping down, a nation whose language you will not understand
In that one fragment of a sentence, (Conf. 27), Patrick is referencing a much wider biblical prophecy/framework that matches the events of his own life. As a youthful unbeliever, he was enslaved, in hunger and nakedness, by those of a nation from the ends of the earth (Ireland), who swooped down to capture him, speaking a language he did not understand. His intended readers, fluent in biblical allusions and metaphor, would have understood the subtext clearly. Throughout his writings, Patrick uses sub-textual references just like the above to reinforce his arguments, his sense of righteousness and sometimes, as an sub-qualifier or comment. It is these biblical allusions, or expansions, which are key to understanding the underlying implications regarding his youthful sin/moral transgression.
In His Own Words
So what does the Historical Patrick say about it himself?
Occasionem post annos triginta inuenerunt me aduersus uerbum quod confessus fueram antequam essem diaconus. Propter anxietatem maesto animo insinuaui amicissimo meo quae in pueritia mea una die gesseram, immo in una hora, quia necdum praeualebam. Nescio, Deus scit, si habebam tunc annos quindecim, et Deum uiuum non credebam, neque ex infantia mea sed in morte et in incredulitate mansi donec ualde castigatus sum et in ueritate humiliatus sum a fame et nuditate, et cotidie.
They brought up against me after thirty years something I had already confessed before I was a deacon. What happened was that, one day when I was feeling anxious and low, with a very dear friend of mine I referred to some things I had done one day — rather, in one hour — when I was young, before I overcame my weakness. I don’t know — God knows — whether I was then fifteen years old at the time, and I did not then believe in the living God, not even when I was a child. In fact, I remained in death and unbelief until I was reproved strongly, and actually brought low by hunger and nakedness daily
Patrick never refutes the accusations. He never denies his original confession. He also never explicitly mentions what the sin was. He didn’t have to. The people he was writing to were well aware of it. Patrick’s own explanation was that it was committed as a boy, something which took less then an hour, by someone who had no Christian belief. Now, most sins that you can probably think of can be committed in less then an hour — but that qualifying phrase is nevertheless important. He was at pains to emphasize less then one hour because it was something that was never repeated. His need to stress this, to his own converts and supporters at the end of his life, several decades into his Irish mission — itself several decades after the events in question — illustrates the extent to which the exposure of the episode had resonated among his followers and converts.
One Hour Service
The phrase in una hora carries underlying biblical allusions. It occurs three times in Revelation 18, specifically concerning the Fall of Babylon The Great, which in one hour was brought to ruin, doom, damnation etc. Key metaphors in the biblical passage in question are “impure spirits, sinful crimes, adultery”; things like “abominations and the impurities of fornication“, with Babylon itself being a metaphor for what was called ”the mother of prostitutes and of the abominations of the earth“.
How much ‘abominable babylonian excesses’ could the average Romano-British teenager realistically get up to in the late fourth/early fifth century? Whatever it was, it seems to have weighed on his mind for years afterwards, despite being committed in unbelief. Early Christianity is of course full of holy people who previously led unholy lives. It was essentially a pre-requisite for the job description (‘Saint Wanted: Previous Experience in Sinning an Advantage’). As such, there is nothing inherently unusual about Patrick in this sense.
What is unusual is that this particular sin (and Patrick clearly considered it a sin after he became a practicing Christian) seems to have followed him throughout his subsequent life. Despite his later confession and regret, it continued to re-emerge at very specific times. Originally brought up by himself in a private confession, when he was about to enter holy orders. Brought up again, by others, when he was being considered for the rank of Bishop. Later again, by ecclesiastical detractors, against his mission and work as a self-appointed bishop.
It was something which had the power to produce stigma and scandal, decades after it had occurred. It had the power to cast doubt over his being appointed to ecclesiastical office. It stained his character for life, causing people to re-evaluate his very intentions, personal standing and, as we shall see, religious ‘purity’. In the eyes of some, there was something apparently suspect about his ever having committed it at all. Youthful ignorance and unbelief was not enough of a defense. No smoke without fire etc etc. Many will have probably already read between the lines and done the ‘ecclesiastical’ math. But in the interest of clarity, let us continue to read between Patrick’s own words, to get a further sense of his own inferences on the subject.
Patrick returns to the matter later on in Conf. 44–45. Despite appearing to be an indirect throwaway reference, it contains some very specific use of biblical undertones:
spero autem hoc debueram, sed memet ipsum non credo quamdiu fuero in hoc corpore mortis, quia fortis est qui cotidie nititur subuertere me a fide et praeposita castitate religionis non fictae usque in finem uitae meae Christo Domino meo, sed caro inimica semper trahit ad mortem, id est ad inlecebras inlicitate perficiendas; et scio ex parte quare uitam perfectam ego non egi sicut et ceteri credentes, sed confiteor Domino meo, et non erubesco in conspectu ipsius, quia non mentior, ex quo cognoui eum a iuuentute mea creuit in me amor Dei et timor ipsius, et usque nunc fauente Domino fidem seruaui. Rideat autem et insultet qui uoluerit…
I hope to do what I should. I know I cannot trust myself as long as I am in this body subject to death. There is one who is strong, who tries every day to undermine my faith, and the chastity of genuine religion [not feigned] I have chosen to the end of my life for Christ my Lord. The flesh can be an enemy dragging towards death, that is, towards doing those enticing things which are against the law. I know to some extent (in part) how I have not led a perfect life like other believers. But I acknowledge this to my Lord, and I do not blush in his sight. I am not telling lies: from the time in my youth that I came to know him, the love and reverence for God grew in me, and so far, with the Lord’s help, I have kept faith. Those who wish may laugh and insult…
Fleshing Things Out
Some may immediately leap upon his use of ‘fleshy’ language and metaphor, but this is not what it seems. It is merely allusions to Pauline teachings on spiritual versus profane ways of Christian living (Romans 7:24 / Romans 8:7). His stressing that the religious chastity that he has chosen to live by is ‘not feigned’ does however give us some indication of what his detractors were accusing him of. What is especially interesting is his reference id est ad inlecebras inlicitate perficiendas: ‘enticing things which are against the law’ or perhaps, more accurately: ‘allurements/seductions to be performed illicitly‘.
Patrick immediately follows this thought by jumping back to his earlier youth, associating such things with having not lived a perfect life, like other believers. Despite this, he does not blush in God’s sight. As far as he is concerned, he has kept the faith from the time in his youth that he came to have genuine faith as a young slave in Ireland. In other words, ‘allurements/enticing things to be performed illicitly‘ stem from the time before that, as a youthful unbeliever. Again, his need to stress this to his own followers suggests that the accusations later leveled at him had cast dispersion on his previous life, both as a slave and as a returned missionary in Ireland.
The section itself is dense with biblical sub references: Romans, 2 Peter, Proverbs, 1 Corinthians, Psalm 70, 2 Timothy. I have highlighted the most pertinent one in bold. The base form of the term inlicit which he associates with his youthful ‘imperfect life’ occurs in several biblical passages which carry the following inferences:
The last example occurs as part of the final taboo within a longer list of forbidden sexual acts which includes the infamous Levitius 20:13 — sadly responsible for much prejudice and persecution to this day. His use of the term is not coincidental. Its meaning, usage and biblical undertones would have been readily apparent to Christian audiences.
Blushing The Surface
Patrick’s ‘non blushing’ in God’s sight, ‘non erubesco’, carries equally interesting biblical inferences. On the surface it calls to mind Romans 1:16: ‘I am not ashamed of the gospel…’ in the sense of salvation for all, Jew and Greek (i.e. Romano Britons and Irish), the unrighteous made righteous by faith etc. In effect, it is a statement of his own sense of atonement and also a wider Pauline defense of his mission to the pagan Irish deemed unworthy by his fellow Christians in Britain.
However, the passage directly anticipates and leads into the next section dealing with divine wrath on sinful humanity (Romans 1: 18–32) — particularly those who had previously known God but who had foolishly ignored their teachings. (ie. another direct allusion to Patrick’s own youthful ignorance in religion). Key aspects of God’s wrath for such transgression? His giving them over to ‘sinful desires, sexual impurity, the degrading of their bodies with one another’…
26 Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. 27 In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.
The term ‘erubesco‘ also occurs in Esdrae 9:6 in the sense of being too ashamed to lift face to God because of the guilt of sins. Its wider passage context? Intermarriage with neighboring peoples with ‘impure and detestable practices’ in ‘a land polluted by corruption’. Captivity and humiliation as punishment:
13 “What has happened to us is a result of our evil deeds and our great guilt, and yet, our God, you have punished us less than our sins deserved and have given us a remnant like this. 14 Shall we then break your commands again and intermarry with the peoples who commit such detestable practices? Would you not be angry enough with us to destroy us, leaving us no remnant or survivor?
Forgive the extensive biblical unpleasantness. It is unfortunately necessary in order to illustrate just how and why Patrick came to be smeared by fellow Christians. The theme of ‘impure and improper sexual relations’ courses throughout his answers to accusations concerning his motivations for returning to the land of his captivity. His being among barbarian peoples in a pagan land was linked, salaciously, with both his youthful past and missionary present — by his detractors — in a deliberate effort to shame and isolate him from his own Christian followers and supporters.
This was done years after he had burned his bridges, years after he had embarked on a solo mission. He was already persona non grata. Despite being separated from his fellow British Christians, on a different island, in a different culture, engaged in Christianizing a people who had little to no impact on their daily Christian lives — they nevertheless felt strongly enough to go out of their way to do such a thing.
The evidence of his own words and biblical inferences leave little confusion as to the nature of his youthful sin. It makes historical and theological sense. This was a time when clerical celibacy was merely a twinkling in the eye of its beholder. Patrick’s own father had been a deacon; his grandfather, a priest. Having sexual relations with any number of women, in his youth, or at any time after, would hardly have been seen as something so scandalous it could taint a reputation for life. In fact, in what is perhaps the most compelling and poignant inference on the subject within his text, we catch a glimpse of how having a reputation for ‘the ladeez’ could have potentially offered him some redress.
Man, I Feel Like A Woman
Shortly before his inferences in Conf 44 above, Patrick makes a rare reference to an Irish individual. Whilst describing some of his successes in converting and promoting celibacy among the younger generation of Irish nobles, he mentions a woman who had came to him, asking to become a ‘virgin of Christ’.
An example is this. There was a blessed Irish woman of noble birth, a most beautiful adult whom I baptised. She came to us a few days later for this reason. She told us that she had received word from a messenger of God, who advised her that she should become a virgin of Christ, and that she should come close to God. Thanks be to God, six days later, enthusiastically and well, she took on the life that all virgins of God do.
This is the only occasion where Patrick makes reference to the physical appearance of another person. It is the only time he uses the adjective ‘beautiful’… benedicta Scotta genetiua nobilis pulcherrima adulta erat. As a standalone example, it appears oddly out of place for someone who structured his words with such precision and care, with double and triple subtexts and literary constructs. Almost as if a stray thought had slipped from his mind and wandered into his text. Its the type of incidental detail — in a text famous for its lack of incidental detail — which stands out, precisely, because it contributes nothing to what he was actually saying at that moment.
I don’t know about you, but if I was defending myself against accusations of sexual impropriety with women — the one thing I probably wouldn’t do — is pass comment on the physical attractiveness of a woman, in a letter to my critics, whilst talking of female virginity and celibacy. (Doesn’t Mary have a lovely bottom all the same’).
Unless… that’s exactly the impression he was trying to put across. Because the accusations of sexual impropriety in his past, involved those in the opposite direction. A fifth century water cooler moment. Trying to fit in with the boys. Ye shoulda seen who I had in the other day. Phwoar.
Before anyone loses the run of themselves: No. I am not ‘outing’ St. Patrick. There is nothing to out. He was a man who, not unsurprisingly, looked back on that event in his youth as something morally incompatible with his subsequent Christian life. He was someone who admired and promoted religious celibacy as a way of living and was almost certainly celibate himself since an early age. And yet, to all intents and purposes, in the eyes of his detractors and critics, he may as well have been gay.
His previous experience, efforts, achievements, moral fitness and public standing were reduced to lurid ruminations on his sexuality, or lack thereof. At the end of a long life, he was forced to justify his existence to people who judged him on that one aspect alone. His reputation defined by the stigma of homophobia. A man who, in a lonely quest for social acceptance, found himself, like so many others since, resorting to false pretense and an exaggerated portrayal of his sexuality, in an attempt to win acceptance from his peers.
Despite having led an exemplary Christian life full of compassion, sacrifice, dedication and empathy for others, he was viewed with deep suspicion by fellow Romano-British Christians for the choices he had made. People who could not fathom why anyone would ever bother attempting to humanize, let alone Christianize, a people deemed irredeemable. Naturally different. Barbarian others. Undeserving outsiders, unworthy of being made the same as they were, of being considered equal, in theory and practice. Unworthy of being brought into the same social fabric and shared identity.
The very thought of extending Christian identity outside the fringes of the Roman Empire was beyond the comprehension of most fifth-century Christians, something which made Patrick’s actions suspect, even before he was scandalized. It was considered an ‘unnatural’ act, flying in the face of ‘tradition’. It was ‘re-defining’ what it was — what it meant — to be a Christian. Ireland was one of the earliest regions outside of the classical world of late antiquity to have undergone such a process. As such, Early Irish Christianity was an aberration in itself. The first time that the urban literate religion had been superimposed over a rural, illiterate society which had never known Roman administration and civilization. It shouldn’t have been successful at all. It should have ended in disaster. It should have been a big fat I Told You So.
A few generations later, Irish Christians were being received in awe at European royal courts, speaking in floral Latin and Greek, and writing to the pope of the day in order to tell him that he was wrong in certain matters of doctrine.
The Loneliness of the Long Distance Sower
Some of the earliest seeds of Irish Christianity were thus sown by a man deemed by his fellow Christians as being morally and religiously corrupt because of homosexual stigma, a man now held up by many of those who argue against #MarriageEquality, as the very founder of the Irish Church — supplying its hierarchy, authority and legitimacy. A man who, in attempting to extend social inclusion and Christian equality to the Irish, suffered from similar religious exclusion and prejudice as modern LGBT people do. A man who, had he listened to his superiors, critics and detractors and had accepted a fate foisted upon him, would have resulted in a very different early history and subsequent primatial identity for the Irish Church today.
The earliest surviving articulation of a collective Irish identity is to be found in Patrick’s words: ‘It is unworthy to them that we are Irish’, uttered in indignation and frustration at the lack of solidarity by fellow Christians. ‘The injustice of unjust men has prevailed over us, as if we have been made remote outsiders’. Fledgling Irish identity and Irish Christianity were thus intrinsically linked at the very dawn of Irish history. Curious bedfellows, yoked together with violence, united by shared sense of discrimination and a desire for social justice and equality.
Won’t Somebody Think of the Children?
Which brings me, finally, to the earliest historically attested ‘same sex’ child adoption in Ireland. Patrick, in his Epistola refers to a man whom he had quem ego ex infantia docui ‘taught since infancy’. Infancy would have meant anywhere up to the age of seven, meaning the the boy had been with Patrick for some years, before adulthood, and apparently stayed with him for some years afterwards.
Being raised by someone like Patrick, ‘stained’ with homosexual stigma and living an ‘unnatural’ celibate life, doesn’t seem to have done him any harm. Nor does the fact that he would have been nurtured, raised and taught by multiple men, some Christian, some Pagan, within a ‘same sex’ family environment — living a life constantly on the move, at times even, in danger. Female converts played an important and integral role in Patrick’s mission, but in a society where women were seen, at best, as movable property and currency, they would not have been afforded much opportunity to travel around with a band of missionaries. As such, the child would have been raised without a ‘stable mother figure’ in his life.
He did all right. He turned out to be the earliest historically attested native Irish priest.
Eagle eyed readers may have noticed the portions of Patrick’s Text (Conf 27 and 44, above) which have been highlighted in red. They are both inferences to 1 Corinthians 13, a biblical passage which now, irony of ironies, enjoys much popularity in modern day marriage ceremonies (despite being a bit of a mistranslation of koine greek, but lets not split hairs at this stage). It seems that one has a choice in how to read them. One can choose to ‘look through a glass darkly’, at Irish society, at the future, at #marriageequality, or one can choose to go with the inferences above and below the quoted portion.
Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;6 it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things… So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
*For comprehensive (but not exhaustive) biblical references within Patrick’s documents, see Bieler’s Apparatus Biblicus available at confessio.ie which also happens to be the best online academic and general interest resource for all things to do with the Historical Patrick.
*For more biblical references and allusions within same, see O’Loughlin, T (1999) St. Patrick: The Man and His Works and Conneely, D. (1993) The Letters of St. Patrick.
*While I have used McCarthy’s (2011) clear and concise translation on confessio.ie for illustrative and hyperlink purposes throughout this post, I have also relied on the more (linguistically accurate) academic translation of Howlett, D. (1994) The Book of Letters of St. Patrick the Bishop.
*Alanis Morissette called. She’s lawyering up.
Originally published at voxhiberionacum.wordpress.com on May 4, 2015.