Friday, March 19, 2004

Christian History Corner: Patrick's Italian Brother
Lost amid the celebration of Patrick is the important story of Benedict, the father of western monasticism.

What is the deal with Saint Patrick? For a guy who began his life story saying "I am the sinner Patrick, the most unsophisticated of people, the least of Christians, and for many people I am the most contemptible," he sure gets a lot of attention. In Dublin, half a million people marched in his honor Wednesday, with millions more in parades elsewhere around the world. And Patrick wasn't even Irish! In his defense against his ecclesiastic critics, he called the green island an "alien land … out beyond where anyone lives." Nevertheless, his work as a missionary bishop changed that land forever, and the Irish reward his memory with pilgrimages and revelry.

But on the Christian calendar, this isn't just the week where Patrick is remembered. It's also the traditional celebration week of Saint Benedict Day—this Sunday, or last, if you're Eastern Orthodox. (Actually, the Western church now honors Benedict on July 11, though Benedictines still observe March 21 as the traditional date of his death around A.D. 550.)

Still, while Patrick is celebrated with green beer, the father of western monasticism isn't even the namesake of the poached eggs and hollandaise dish (which was reportedly named after a Wall Street fat cat).

The two men were nearly contemporaries: Benedict was born around 480; records on Patrick are less credible, placing his arrival as a missionary to Ireland at 432 and his death at either 461 or 493. But they shared something else, as did several other Christian leaders of their day: A belief that lifelong service to Christ was best done full-time in a monastery.

While the popular image of Patrick has him out blasting druids, casting out snakes, and using the shamrock to teach eager Irish about the Trinity, Patrick's own writings don't include these dubious tales. Instead, he boasts that in Ireland, "they never had knowledge of God—and until now they celebrated only idols and unclean things. Yet recently what a change: they have become 'a prepared people' of the Lord, and they are now called 'the sons of God.' And the Irish leaders' sons and daughters are seen to become the monks and virgins (nuns) of Christ."

Patrick provides little detail about the life of these monks and nuns, but later Christians from Ireland, Scotland, and elsewhere in the British Isles would begin to create monastic rules, many of which still exist today.


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