Few stories of saints are more compelling than that of St. Patrick of Ireland. Despite the myth that has crept into his hagiography, we know enough about his life to be amazed at his journey of transformation, from a faithless son of Roman privilege to an icon of missional life, service and love for ones enemies. Most astonishing, perhaps, was that his return to Ireland as a missionary came after his brutal abduction and enslavement by the very peoples he was called to embody the gospel to. Indeed, what could be more inspiring than a man returning willingly to his enemies out of love and compassion for them?
Yet, as is often the case, when we know the story’s end (in this case, that Patrick would indeed escape enslavement and return someday as a rather “successful” witness for Christianity), we fail to see many of the important details in the middle. For example, it is all too easy to jump from Patrick’s capture to his escape, his enslavement becoming nothing more than a set up for the “important” parts of the story. And yet, those years of captivity themselves offer us a critical and essential insight to our own spiritual and missional formation.
For years, Patrick- once the spoiled son of a Roman decurion- was forced to care for the livestock of captors in a land considered outside the borders of genuine humanity. Reduced to a such a state, he was completely emptied. Gone was his pride and privilege, the benefits of his position and possessions. Here he was treated just marginally better than the pigs he tended by a people he was considered less than human himself. Patrick was ruthlessly and absolutely brought low, living in that reality for years.
It was in this desolate state that Patrick’s most profound transformation occurred. In fact, it was that very emptiness that made room in his soul for the filling of God’s Spirit. In the emptiness, he began to see the useless pride and pretense of his previous life. He was moved to repentance, to fill his emptiness with the only thing that remained: God. When every circumstance was against him, in a place where hopelessness was the rule, a heart of ceaseless and selfless prayer for born in him. Patrick would later look upon this time as the most critical stage in his spiritual development.
All too often, as Christians, we want to leap from the repentance of the cross to the new life of resurrection. Yet Patrick reminds us that between these milestones stands the tomb, the empty, lifeless place between suffering and new life. It is in this emptiness that we are confronted with our own brokenness, falseness and pretense. It is hear that we discover the mystery that the greatest sin in all the world is that which is in our own heart. This is the critical stage where kenosis- that self-emptying of our will- begins to be realized.
Even when we accept the reality of such a stage, all too often we want to rush through it with little more than a token acknowledgment. So formed are we by our culture of immediate gratification and suffering-
avoidance that we are unwilling to consider the necessity of being in this space as long and as frequently as necessary. This is not to say that there is a given amount of time we can pin down, but rather that truly embracing the work of the Spirit in this emptiness requires the discipline of resisting our impulse to flee into easy-believism and/or the shallow pretense of nominal Christianity.
This discipline is necessary because the discomfort of confronting our own brokenness is no less difficult than facing the uncertainty and doubt that so often crops up in this stage. Rather than seeing these response as a sign of faithlessness to be avoided and resisted, we must see their surfacing as an opportunity to lay them to rest in the tomb like old grave-clothes. This uncertainty is what gave rise to some of the most haunting and honest Psalms. “Why, Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?”
Like St. Patrick, if we can trust God enough to follow Jesus to the cross and into the emptiness of the tomb, we will be begin to be reborn into a fullness of life where loving God and others flows as a natural impulse. This is not to say we follow a few easy steps once and are forever finished. This process is one we walk through time and again, through our lives, not in an endless cycle of hopeless repetition, but like ascending a spiral staircase, each time around growing closer to our destination. And it is as we emerge from the emptiness of the tomb that we begin to embrace resurrection life as Christ’s Body, member in the community of the faithful, ready to be drawn into the loving mission of God to redeem all creation.