Now, one day, when [Maccuil-maccu-Greccae] was sitting at this place, he saw St. Patrick radiating with the clear light of faith, and resplendent with a certain wonderful diadem of heavenly glory; he saw him, I say, walking, with unshaken confidence of doctrine, on a road agreeable thereto.
In effort to continue my Lenten journey with St. Patrick, I came across this little passage. Besides having the most unpronouncable name of any human being in all of history, Maccuil-maccu-Greccae, Muirchu tells us, was “a very ungodly, savage tyrant,” who was “depraved in his thoughts, violent in his words, malicious in his deeds, bitter in spirit, wrathful in disposition, villainous in body, cruel in mind, heathenish in life, monstrous in conscience, [and] inclining to … a depth of ungodliness.” Yet Maccuil sees St. Patrick for who he truly is: “radiating with the clear light of faith, and resplendent with a certain wonderful diadem of heavenly glory.” This does not stop him from plotting to deceive and murder St. Patrick, but if I may cut to the chase, all ends well for both of them. My concern is not so much with Maccuil here, however, but with St. Patrick, who walked “with unshaken confidence of doctrine, on a road agreeable thereto.”
My first observation would be that the word “doctrine” here has a much broader meaning than what people think of today. The word includes any teaching of the faith, not just what one is to believe but also how one is to live, both morally and through spiritual disciplines. Both what to believe and how to live were certainly important to St. Patrick and other early Christians, and both ought to matter to us today. To put it succinctly: doctrine walks.
One may wonder, however, what the payoff is. What good is it to have “unshaken confidence of doctrine”? Socrates, in Plato’s Republic, basically answers the question, “Why be just?” with another question: “Why be healthy?” In this story of St. Patrick, Muirchu gives a vivid description of what it looks like, spiritually speaking, for one to have such “unshaken confidence of doctrine”: St. Patrick was “radiating with the clear light of faith, and resplendent with a certain wonderful diadem of heavenly glory.”
All too often, I think, we simply equate the words “holy” and “righteous.” However, I would agree with Rudolf Otto that the two are not wholly synonymous, though properly speaking the former requires the latter. The idea of holiness signifies a “wholly-otherness” in addition to moral goodness. That is, through the “clear light of faith” St. Patrick attained to a level of knowledge, goodness, and holiness that shone forth in uncanny beauty: “a certain wonderful diadem of heavenly glory.” That is the payoff—not so much that we should look this way to others, but that we should participate in and, indeed, be such beauty ourselves.
Through study and meditation, we grow in knowledge. Through putting our passions to death and repentance, we grow in moral goodness. Through true prayer, through basking in the light of the heavenly glory, by grace we become radiant with that same holy light.
These three things are inseparable to ancient Christians. One cannot claim true knowledge of God without being faithful to his commandments and conversing with him through prayer. One cannot claim true moral perfection without also being free from error in one’s beliefs and regularly presenting oneself before the face of God. One cannot claim to have truly seen heavenly mysteries unless one knows what they are and lives a heavenly way of life.
There are, of course, exceptions to the rule. Maccuil-maccu-Greccae is a case-in-point. He is described in the most unflattering terms, yet his eyes are opened to the sanctity of St. Patrick. Nevertheless, it becomes clear that this vision was given to him as a precursor to his conversion to that same way of life, the “road agreeable” to an “unshaken confidence in doctrine.” We may have foretastes of perfection, but this is to spur us toward it, not to inflate our egos.
I know of some traditions where spiritual gifts are looked at in very black and white terms. Either a person has one fully or not at all. Yet for ancient Christians like St. Patrick, it was assumed, rather, that “by glory and virtue,” and not apart from them, we “may be partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:3-4). All the gifts of God were seen as open to them, that is, for those who would strive, in righteousness, holiness, and truth, through prayer and silence, toward a greater imitation of the beauty of God.