IMAGE OF THE MONTH, MARCH 2024

THE ISLANDS OF LERIN AND SAINT PATRICK

Aiden Feerick B.A., M.A.G.I.

Cistercian Church, Ile Saint Honorat

Last summer, I visited the Ile Saint Honorat or Monks Island, one of the Lerins Islands in the south of France. In the cloister of the Cistercian Church there is a memorial to Saint Patrick with an inscription in French and Irish which reads: I gCuimhne Naomh Pádraig Aspal Mór na hÉireann [In Memory of Saint Patrick Great Apostle of Ireland]. People say that Ireland’s patron saint spent time there preparing for his mission to his adopted country.

The island itself is an oasis of peace and serenity. It exudes a profound tranquillity and those who come there enter a world far removed from the hustle and bustle of the nearest city, Cannes. Today, the island is exclusively inhabited by Cistercian monks who divide their time between prayer, meditation and the production of wine, honey, lavender, and a variety of liquors. The monastery itself welcomes visitors and runs the only boat trips to the island. There are no rubbish bins on the island and the visitor is requested to bring rubbish home.

Our patron saint, Patrick, wrote two texts personally: the Confession and the Letter to Coroticus. Both are characterised by what they do not say; they provide us with little or no context. In the Confession, there is hardly any reference to chronology, when things happened and in what order. We know that he was 16 when he was taken into slavery in Ireland and that he spent 6 years here before escaping to Gaul (France) or Britain (England). We also know that he had a dream where he heard voices calling him back to Ireland. He followed his dream.

What is not at all clear is his training for his mission to bring Christianity to Ireland. The only reference he makes to any kind of preparation for his imminent mission comes in paragraph 43 of the Confessions. There he says: “I would like to go to Gaul to visit the brothers and to see the faces of the saints of my Lord”.

In later Lives of Saint Patrick, many of these gaps are filled with possible locations of where he went. The great city of Auxerre, in modern Burgundy, was a flourishing Gallo-Roman town in the 1st century AD. In the 3rd century, it had a bishop and was a provincial capital in the Roman Empire. In the 5th century, an Abbey may have been built by Germanus of Auxerre (about 375-445). In Christian terms, Auxerre was dedicated to missionary activity in Britain (England). It is indeed quite possible that Patrick spent time there preparing for his mission; and he could have been a contemporary of Germanus.

It is also possible that Patrick went to Lérins where Honoratus had founded a monastic community around the year 400 AD. The monastery of Lérins enjoyed celebrity status in the 5th and 6th centuries because of the large number of bishops it produced as well as some remarkable writers. Honoratus is venerated in both the Catholic church and the Eastern Orthodox Churches.

Because of the importance of Auxerre and Lérins in the establishment of European Catholicism following the decline of the Roman Empire, it would seem fitting for Patrick’s subsequent biographers to place him in such distinguished company as Germanus of Auxerre and Honoratus of Lérins.