Magonus Succatus was a 5th Century, Romanized Briton,
living on the West Coast of England.
One night in his 22nd year, he had a dream calling him
to be a missionary to Ireland.
In the words of Bob Dylan, “It was a bad dream”
– bad because Magonus Succatus hated Ireland,
– hated its wild, uncultivated land almost as much
as its wild, uncultivated people.
And, as a Christian, he hated
their pagan religion and customs.
So he didn’t follow his bad dream.
He went to France instead.
But 18 years later, at the age of 40,
he relented and went to Ireland
– grudgingly, like Jonah going to Nineveh.
He wasn’t a good missionary.
He was like the missionary in The Poisonwood Bible.
having a passion for his faith,
but no respect for the people
or their barbarous superstitions.
One day, as he was riding through the forest,
a strange horseman blocked his path.
It was Oisian, the Druid bard.
“Are you Padraig?” Oisian asked.
“I am not,” the missionary shot back indignantly.
“I am Magonus Succatus Patricius, a Briton.
Who calls me by this Irish name?”
“Sure he is Padraig,” Oisian mumbled.
“You shall not pass until you’ve heard my stories.”
Our hero didn’t want to hear any stories,
especially not Irish stories.
He was too busy with the Lord’s work.
But he stopped for just one story, and then another, and then another . . . .
Before long he was hooked – as on a soap opera.
Oisian told him all the old stories
– strange pagan tales of prehistoric Ireland,
of giants and fairies and lost races
– the Legend of Tuan mac Carell,
– the battle of the Fomorians and the Partholans
– how Ireland was occupied by the Nemedians
who came from the realm of the dead.
Our proud missionary didn’t change right away.
For years to come,
he grumbled about Ireland
the way a New Yorker might grumble about Georgia.
But each year, he grumbled a bit more good naturedly.
And as he grumbled, he built 300 churches
and baptized 120,000 people.
Near the end of his life, Magonus Succatus,
whom everyone now called Padraig,
wrote this prayer,
“May God never separate me from his people
on this island at the edge of the earth.”
It took our stubborn, irritable saint 18 years
to answer God’s call to live among the Irish,
and another 50 years to answer God’s call to love them.
We say Patrick converted the Irish to Christianity.
That’s partly true.
But what’s entirely true is that the Irish
converted Patrick to Ireland.
That second conversion
– the conversion of Patrick to Ireland –
shows us something fundamental
to the Christian faith.
In Christian theology, we speak of God as the Other,
with a capital “O” for this reason:
As human beings, we are afflicted
with a fatal tendency toward self-absorption.
We see the world in terms of how it affects us.
We experience our lives as dramas staring ourselves.
The “world is a stage” on which we play our part.
Other people are supporting actors in our play.
But self-absorption doesn’t make us happy.
Instead, it constricts our experience,
keeps us from appreciating reality as it is.
And it traps us in recurring cycles of destructive conflict
because other people seem to think
we’re supporting actors in their play.
This self-absorption is what St. Augustine
called “original sin.”
Here we sit, then, wrapped up in self,
when God appears – and who is God?
Whenever we encounter God, we discover this much
– God is what ultimately matters
– God is the purpose and goal and meaning of our lives
– and, here’s the kicker, God isn’t us.
God is Other than us.
And that discovery draws us out of ourselves.
Like Jesus breaking open the gates of hell,
God breaks through the walls of self
to set us free.
Our salvation, our redemption, depends
on this encounter with the Other – capital “O” –
Who is what it’s all about.
So what does this have to do with Patrick and the Druid bard?
Just this: God, the Other – capital “O” –
comes battering on the prison walls of self
in the form of others – lower case “o.”
God draws us out of ourselves through encounters with reality
– particularly reality that doesn’t fit our mold
– particularly through people who aren’t like us.
Too often we use the word “spirituality” to mean
private romps in the playground
of our own subjective reality.
But Christian spirituality isn’t
about private inner experiences.
It’s about relationship with the Other – capital “O” –
lived out in our relationships with others – lower case.
The Irish were Patrick’s others.
By the power of the Holy Spirit, he was converted to them.
By the power of the Holy Spirit,
we may be converted to the people of the world today.
So what makes particular people other than us?
Maybe its their temperament, their race, their religion,
their sexual orientation, or their politics.
Maybe they speak a different language,
or live on the streets.
Whatever it is, their otherness, their strangeness
is precisely what makes them sources of revelation.
The measure of our spirituality isn’t
the intensity of our religious feelings,
how often we read the Bible,
or how orthodox our beliefs may be.
The test is how we relate to others.
St. John taught, “Anyone who says he loves God
but hates his brother is a liar.”
St. Patrick thought he loved God
but he was a liar until he listened to Oisian’s pagan myths
and learned to love the Irish.