Who Was St. Patrick?

"Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me / Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me / Christ on my right, Christ on my left..."[1].

These poetic words were penned in the Christian hymn that would become known as "Saint Patrick's Breastplate." Even though it's doubtful that the hymn's origin goes back to Saint Patrick himself, historian Thomas Cahill still deems it to be "Patrician to its core" [2].

Patrick was born a citizen of Roman Britain in the turbulent last days of the empire. At only sixteen years of age, he was captured by barbarians and sold into slavery. He spent the next six years as a shepherd-slave in the green fields of Ireland. In those days, two notable things happened to him:

First, Patrick became disgusted by the Druid priests who led people to worship the elements of the universe (earth, air, fire, and water [3]) and participate in rituals of human sacrifice [4].

Second, he began to encounter the God of the Bible to a degree he had not experienced before. In his own words, he said, "More and more did the love of God, and my fear of him and faith increase, and my spirit was moved so that in a day [I said] from one up to a hundred prayers..." [5].

After those six years of slavery, he boarded a ship that was bound for his native land. He reunited with his family and tried his best to resume his life, as he had previously known it. But two dreams changed all that. The first was a vision of the people of Ireland calling him to come back. In the second, he heard a prayer with words he could not decipher. He concluded that he should return to Ireland, the land of his captivity, to carry the gospel message of forgiveness and love that was made available through Jesus Christ.

Patrick had missed out on the benefits on continuing education while he was tending sheep in the fields. So, according to some traditions, he went to the region of Gaul where he spent the next decade studying theology and preparing for ordination into Christian ministry. Finally, at around forty years of age, Patrick set sail to Ireland with a small band of monks. He had been taken there against his will twenty-five years earlier, but this time he was a man on a mission.

Patrick's calling was clear, but so was the message from the Druid priests: "Go away." Some of the local people, too, shared those same sentiments. In the midst of this desperate situation, Patrick responded with grace. Historian R.J. Unstead explains, "Some of the wild Irish threw stones at the monks and tried to drive them away, but Patrick made peace with them..." [6].

Patrick pressed on and was undeterred from his calling. He would later counsel in Confessions, "[O]ne should proceed without holding back from danger to make known the gift of God and everlasting consolation, without fear..." [7]. Taking his own advice, he served faithfully among the Irish people - for better and for worse - for the rest of his life.

The impact of Patrick's work cannot be overstated. In a world of barbarians, he was able to bring civility and honor. He established groups that provided a better way than those insisting on a world of tit-for-tat violence. His converts demonstrated, in the words of Cahill, "that the virtues of lifelong faithfulness, courage, and generosity were actually attainable by ordinary human beings and that the sword was not the only instrument for structuring a society" [8].

Patrick passed away on March 17, 461, but his legacy endures to this day with the celebration of Saint Patrick's Day every seventeenth day of March.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Patrick's_Breastplate (accessed 3/16/11).
[2] Thomas Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization (New York: Anchor Books, 1996), 114.
[3] See Wisdom of Solomon 13:1-2.
[4] William J. Federer, Saint Patrick (St. Louis: Amerisearch, 2002), 13.
[5] The Confessions of Saint Patrick (public domain), http://www.ccel.org/ccel/patrick/confession.txt.
[6] R.J. Unstead, People in History: From Caractacus to Alfred (London: Transworld Publishers, 1975), 33.
[7] Confessions
[8] Cahill, Irish, 108

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1 comment:

  1. I love the story of St. Patrick. Certainly my favourite of the saints. The Cahill's book, How the Irish Saved Civilization, is among my favourite also. It's one of those books I enjoy bringing on vacation with me. :)

    I expound on your summary here: http://covenantoflove.net/st-patrick/celebrating-the-irish-2/


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