St. Patrick: Trinity? YES! Shamrocks? NO!

From the Martyrology:

Apud civitatem Dunum, in Hibernia, natalis sancti Patricii, Episcopi et Confessoris, qui primus in ea insula Christum evangelizavit, et maximis miraculis et virtutibus claruit.

(In the city of Down in Ireland, the heavenly birth of Saint Patrick, bishop and confessor, who first announced Christ in that island, and who shone with the greatest miracles and virtues.)

The stories shoved down most people’s throats about Saint Patrick of Ireland, even in Catholic circles, has no basis in history and fails to do justice to the real man and his intense love for the faith of the Church. Patrick did not, as many may tell you, expel the snakes from Ireland, and nor did he use the shamrock to help the brute, uncultured Irish understand the Holy Trinity.

Most of what we know about St. Patrick is written by his own hand in the Latin language. Ethnically, he was a Briton, but culturally, he was Roman to the core. Among the most valuable and extant sources we have are his Confessio and his Epistola ad Christianos Corotici Tyrrani subditos. Rich with Scriptural references and rhetorical flourish, Patrick’s works are the fruits of a well-trained cleric, despite his humble self-appellation peccator indoctus. The latter work (the Epistola) is a very strong and bitter condemnation (really, an excommunication) of a certain Coroticus, a noble Briton, who had taken Irish Christians into slavery. This harsh letter got the future saint into some trouble, and this is likely one of many reasons he was often brought to prison (persecutionis multas usque ad vincula), as mentioned in the Confessio.

Bishop and Confessor

The Martyrology calls Patrick episcopus et confessor: not only was he a successor of the Apostles, but he also suffered for the faith. We find references to his episcopacy in both the Confessio and the Epistola:

Et ibi scilicet in sinu noctis virum venientem quasi de Hiberione, cui nomen Victoricus, cum aepistolis innumerabilibus vidi; et dedit mihi unam ex his, et legi principium epistolae continentem, Vox Hyberionacum… Deo gratias, quia post plurimos annos praestitit illis Dominus secundum clamorem illorum. (Confessio)

It was while I was there [in Britain] that I saw, in a dream a man coming from Ireland, whose name was Victoricus with innumerable letters. He gave me one of these, and I read the heading of the letter, which read “the voice of the Irish”… Thanks be to God, after many years the Lord granted this to them, according to their cries.

This “Victoricus” is very likely Saint Victricius, Bishop of Rouen, who had also gone to Ireland before Patrick.

Patricius peccator indoctus, scilicet Hiberione constitutus episcopum me esse fateor. Certissime reor, a Deo accepi id quod sum. (Epistola)

Patrick, an unlearned sinner, yet in Ireland I am established as bishop. I am most certain all that I am, I have received from God.

A confessor is not merely a man who suffers, but one who suffers for professing the faith of the Apostles, and Patrick’s profession is wonderfully sophisticated, nuanced, and profound. This is most clearly seen towards the beginning of the Confessio, where Patrick writes his synthesis of Christian beliefs (a creed), which I produce translated into English.

…there is no other God, neither prior nor after, except God the Father ungenerated, the one without beginning, from whom is every beginning, who holds all things, as we say: and in his Son Jesus Christ, who with the Father we testify has always been, before the beginning of time, in a spiritual way unto the Father. He was begotten ineffably (inenarrabiliter genitum) before every beginning, and through him were made the visible and invisible. Becoming man and conquering death (hominem factum, morte devicta), he was received to the Father in heaven. The Father gave him all power over every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven, on earth, and in the netherworld, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord and God, and we believe and await his coming in the near future as judge of the living and the dead, who will judge each one according to his deeds (qui reddet unicuique secundum facta sua), and who has poured on us the Holy Spirit, the gift and promise of immortality, who makes the believers and the obedient to be sons of God and co-heirs of Christ. This we confess and worship, one God in a trinity of the sacred name (confitemur et adoramus unum Deum in Trinitate sacri nominis).

It doesn’t take a form critic to notice the parallels to the Apostles’ Creed and the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed. In addition, we see the references to Paul’s letters to the Philippians, to the Romans, to Titus, the Acts of the Apostles, and the Gospel of John. We know, therefore, that Patrick was well versed not only in Scripture, but also in the dogmatic controversies which plagued the first five centuries, for the language of his creed is firmly founded in the earliest Patristic texts. Like many saints of those early ages, he too had to wrestle with the temptations of polytheistic paganism, to fight accusations that the Trinitarian doctrine was itself a polytheism, and in a general sense protect the faith in “one God in a Trinity of the sacred name”.

As we saw in Part III of our “Formed by Divine Teaching” series, we know that, in ancient thought, one’s name is most intimately associated with one’s essence. Patrick refers to one God and one sacred name, which refers to God’s one divine essence, while the Trinity refers to the three personae: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Patrick never lost sight of this unity of essence, a fact that making his use of the shamrock as a pedagogical tool unthinkable.

The Shamrock– a terrible Trinitarian analogy

The earliest written evidence we have of the “shamrock story” comes from a 17th century haigiographical work called Acta Trias Thautamurgae (“Acts of the Wonderworking Triad”) which described the lives of St. Patrick, St. Brigid, and St. Columba. Published by John Colgan, OFM, in 1647, it is hardly an accurate vitae sanctorum.

Thomas Dineley, an Englishman who traveled to Ireland in the 17th century gives us another connection between Paddy’s Day and the shamrock. The association of St. Patrick’s Day with the shamrock was virtually unknown until very late in history.

The 17th day of March yeerly is St Patricks, an immoveable feast, when ye Irish of all stations and condicions wear crosses in their hatts, some of pinns, some of green ribbon, and the vulgar superstitiously wear shamroges, 3 leav’d grass, which they likewise eat (they say) to cause a sweet breath.  (Dineley, 1681; emphasis mine)

From his firsthand account, Dineley finds the shamrock associated with the “vulgar” and “supersititious”, not with the true celebration of the Apostle to Ireland!

How can what Dineley called “3 leav’d grass” and what we today call “three-leaf clover” function as an analogy of the Trinity? As Patrick and all the ancient Church Fathers understood it, between the personae (hypostases) of the Trinity there is distinction but no separation. Yet, in the “three-leaf clover”, the leaves are in fact separate from each other! This is why the shamrock is, in fact, a terribly inadequate analogy for the Holy Trinity. From such a comparison can arise two heretical tendencies: tritheism and partialism. Tritheism conceives of the three Trinitarian persons as three distinct gods, while partialism would consider the each person as 33.3̅% of the one Godhead. Both, obviously, are absurd are contrary to the innate and ineffable understanding of the Trinity which comes by grace to the heart of the believer.

Patrick himself does not expend much effort into delivering detailed dogmatic treatises de Trinitate to the Irish– his primary goal was to bring them the Sacraments. Furthermore, no ancient source corroborates the shamrock story, and it seems that all Christendom was largely silent on the issue until the Acta Trias Thaumaturgae hit the printing press in 1647. Surely, initiation into the Church meant acceptance of the God who is Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, but there is nothing in Patrick’s authentic writings to suggest any more difficulty in teaching this doctrine to the Irish than to any other unevangelized people of the time, to the point that the Saint needed to avail himself of a totally inapt comparison.

Perhaps Patrick’s silence about preaching the details of the Trinity point to the fact that Trinitarian theology is largely apophatic– the great dogmatic definitions arose as negations, as condemnations of heterodox proposals raised by those who tried to apply logical constraints on God. The Trinity, by its mysterious and uncreated nature, cannot be brought down and encapsulated in the neat categories of the created order. (For example, God is not like a shamrock– God is simply the Triune!)

Instead, on the positive side, we should, as did Patrick and all the holy Church Fathers before him, remain content with the basic formula which underlies Patrick’s Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Apostles Creed, and all other acts of faith: “I believe in One God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit– one God in a Trinity of the sacred name. Amen.”

2 Comments on St. Patrick: Trinity? YES! Shamrocks? NO!

  1. "From his firsthand account, Dineley finds the shamrock associated with the 'vulgar" and "supersititious', not with the true celebration of the Apostle to Ireland! " Typical Protestant rationalism – not considering the metaphor's purpose nor the concept of incarnational spirituality. I like the humble theology expressed by St. Bernadette and St. Joan of Arc – the Christ like idea of becoming like little children. Children understand the simple connection of the shamrock and the Trinity just fine! All metaphors are inadequate but some resonate on the surface and over time – like the shamrock.

  2. The main point is: St. Patrick never used the shamrock as a pedagogical tool. If this particular metaphor resonates, it resonates for the wrong reason, namely, an unfounded connection to the saint, and to insist on such a partialist or tritheist metaphor is almost always to the disadvantage of the Patristic conception of the Trinity as Patrick knew it. The true attitude of humble, childlike faith has no problem professing an omnipotent God who is three in one with no separation or confusion— without recourse to metaphors without connection to the saints. The first attestation of a Trinity-shamrock metaphor comes very late in Ireland's history; Irish kids— and St Patrick—did just fine without it for over 1000 years

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