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A review of
Vulnerable Faith: Missional Living in the Radical Way of Saint Patrick
Foreword by Jean Vanier.
Paperback: Paraclete Press, 2015
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Reviewed by D.L. Mayfield
We admitted we were powerless—that our lives had become unmanageable.
–Alcohol Anonymous, step one
St. Patrick at first does not seem the poster child for addiction—what we commonly think of as wild and wicked behavior—at least, not how Jamie Arpin-Ricci introduces him. In his new book Vulnerable Faith: following in the way of St. Patrick, Arpin-Ricci introduces a Patrick who looks a lot more like me and everyone I grew up with: young, privileged, self-assured and secure in the knowledge that life will work out well for him in the end. But the genius of this small book on intentional Christian living and discipleship is that it focuses so much on how it is precisely those of us who so often distance ourselves from the Other—the poor, the addict, the unspeakably lost—who are caught in the throes of powerlessness. We are the ones scrounging up reputations and possessions, desperate to outrun both our fear of death and the chaos that we know lurks within. And, just like those who follow the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous know, the first step in recovering is admitting that our lives have become unmanageable—especially spiritually.
And the 12 steps turn out to be very important in this book. Arpin-Ricci weaves the backbone of AA curriculum throughout the narratives of St. Patrick and the wisdom he has gleaned from his own years of living in intentional Christian community with broken people. Contrasting the language of addicts with the story of a known saint is an intriguing way to help the reader frame a narrative where we are all invited to see ourselves as utterly dependent on God—and no different than the people we tend to distance ourselves from the most.
Our culture tends to prefer to dwell on the later life of Patrick—the priestly saint who went back to Ireland, who preached the gospel to his former captors. But Arpin-Ricci spends a careful amount of time on Patrick before he was the man we venerate now—when he was a young man unwilling or unable to grapple with the depths of sin in his own heart. For myself, I see a great connection: how my own fear of death leads to self-preservation and, how a fear of scarcity leads me to not willingly enter into relationships with the needy. I see how I, like Patrick and so many others, have created very safe and secure lives in a supposedly Christian culture, but inside we have become spiritually powerless. We are all addicts, indeed—but so many of us have become much too adept at hiding our powerlessness.
The central theme of the book is discipleship, and how true vulnerability must inform our life at every twist and turn. Arpin-Ricci points out that following the cross of Christ involves an embrace of chaos—something most of us spend our entire lives trying to outrun. The great sin of Patrick as Vulnerable Faith tells it was the sin of pretense—of taking comfort in human abilities to work hard and do well and scrape together a life lived for oneself. To truly follow Christ, however, involves the intricate destruction of pretense, and of accepting the truth that we are no different from another. This is no easy task. As Arpin-Ricci writes: “the chaos will feel much worse than the pretense we have emerged from. (70)”
For Patrick, his turning point came when he was captured by the Irish, forced on a slave ship, and made to live and work under miserable, spirit-breaking conditions. In the context of Vulnerable Faith, this is posited to be a complete and utter gift from God—the chance for Patrick to come to the end of himself, to surrender to God, and to start to build his life forward from there. But who would ever want this to be the crux of their story? We are much more comfortable thinking of Patrick as a saint, a superhuman man who found it within himself to forgive and forget, who picked himself up by his bootstraps, who willed himself to do the very hardest things for God.