Spiritual steps of St. Patrick
Among the dozens of guides to spirituality that swamp today’s bookstore shelves, one by Jamie Arpin-Ricci stands above the rank-and-file. Arpin-Ricci, an Anabaptist who helped found the mission-oriented Little Flowers Community in Winnipeg, Man., encourages us to examine our souls in the light of God’s love. But he urges us not to make such examination a permanent address.
This examination, Arpin-Ricci suggests in Vulnerable Faith: Missional Living in the Radical Way of St. Patrick, is only the portal through which we walk into a poverty of spirit before God and vulnerable mutuality with others in community.
These heart postures are what create shalom, which is more than the outgrowth of peace and justice. It is a radical reordering of Christians who deeply engage with their church families and communities — not only in light of the world to come but also in the realities of here and now. In concrete and everyday ways, faithful believers flesh out the salvation found in Christ through a transformation not only of hearts but also of lifestyles.
That reordering, Arpin-Ricci asserts, is based on shedding our pretenses of perfection and the false power of material security. We create these masks to hide our shame over our imperfections. Arpin-Ricci invites us to disarm these defenses by becoming transparent, loving and engaged in a broken world — which includes our own broken lives.
He writes, “As we learn to embrace a vulnerable faith that freely brings our brokenness before God and others, we will become more like Jesus in how we live and love, both God and one another. And that love is what will help inaugurate the kingdom of God ‘on earth as it is in heaven’ (Matt. 6:10).”
Arpin-Ricci develops this theme by describing how St. Patrick — the son of a wealthy Romano-British family in the fourth century — used his suffering as a stepping stone to missional living. Patrick was kidnapped by Irish raiders and taken as a slave to Gaelic Ireland. During six years there working as a shepherd, he found God and later went on to become a priest. After he returned to his homeland, he sensed a call from God to return to his Irish captors to share the gospel.
Arpin-Ricci sees parallels between Patrick’s journey and the principles of Alcoholics Anonymous to provide tools for those seeking to be conformed to the cross of Christ. He writes: “Few things are more difficult to truly understand and embrace than the paradox of the Cross. After all, who can make sense of the notion that following Jesus is a death sentence that promises life? What does it mean to die to self? How can death be, in any way, a victory? Nothing in our experience prepares us to make this counterintuitive choice.”
Making this otherworldly choice on behalf of this world requires holy work, Arpin-Ricci writes. For that, we need the same spiritual tools used by such saints as Patrick in conjunction with the wisdom of AA’s 12 steps, including Steps 2 and 3: believe that a power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity, and decide to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understand him.
When Patrick was taken captive, he needed spiritual strength — not material riches and family power — to help him survive the suffering. Similarly, a couple experienced a crisis when the husband, Alan, confessed to his wife, Beth, that he had been flirting with women outside their marriage. They needed the grace of God to sustain them as he sought change and they sought marital restoration.
Arpin-Ricci writes, “As long as we insist on trying to achieve our own freedom on our own terms, we are still buying into the lie of self-sufficiency that got us into the problem in the first place. We need help outside ourselves. We resist doing that out of the fear of giving up control, but it is not about control. It is about letting go in order to be helped.”
The God who transformed St. Patrick’s life is the same God that helps pilgrims in the 21st century become authentic and mission-focused Christians. Arpin-Ricci compares Patrick’s conversion, which motivated his return to Ireland to convert pagans to Christianity, with AA’s Step 11.
“Patrick understood his freedom from bondage was not an end, but that his liberty allowed him to more clearly discern the call of God in his life,” Arpin-Ricci says. “Like the wisdom of AA’s 11th step, he seemed to understand that ‘through prayer and meditation’ he could ‘improve [his] conscious contact with God, praying only for the knowledge of his will for [him] and the power to carry it out.’
“In other words, the self-emptying of kenosis [like that of Jesus in the Incarnation] produced in him a space that was filled with the Spirit of God. This not only raised him to new life but gave him the clarity to discern and obey the will of God for his life from that point forward, no matter what the cost. For him, following Jesus meant returning to the home and hearth of his enemies, enemies he was called by Jesus to love. If he was going to love his enemies, he would have to seek them out, entering again into their world, regardless of the risk.”
Vulnerable Faith is a reliable trail book for believers who want to risk moving out of the safe rooms of Christian respectability in order to explore the wild, messy terrain of grace. Arpin-Ricci pushes us out the door: Those who are healing from their brokenness are called to share that wholeness with a broken world.
Laurie Oswald Robinson is a freelance writer in Newton, Kan.
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