Many nations claim great men in their heritage. For example, America has Abraham Lincoln, Britain has Churchill, and South Africa has Nelson Mandela. Though I admire these men for what they overcame and accomplished with their political power, I still find them worlds apart from St. Patrick because of what he accomplished without power. Unfortunately for most of us, St. Patrick lies somewhere between legend, Leprechauns, green outfits, and a good excuse for an evening of excess drinking. But your life has been impacted by Patrick in substantial ways so it is worthwhile to get a mental sketch of the man and his contribution even into today.
We associate Patrick with the Irish, but few realize that he was not an Irishman by birth. No, he went through an extraordinary baptism of kidnapping and slavery, followed by escape and then a voluntary return to civilize his former captors. How many other nations can claim that in their heritage? The Luck of the Irish has been running its streak for a long time indeed. Or was it something else?
Life of Patrick – from his Confessions
Patrick was born in Britain when the Roman Legions had left the British Isles in the early 400’s CE. Britain was a lawless place then full of anarchy, looting and kidnapping. In His Confession (one of two of his extant writings) he states that when he was ‘sixteen’ (Confessions 1) or “almost a beardless boy” (Confessions 10) he was captured by Irish slave-traders, taken to Ireland, sold as a slave where he tended his master’s herds (probably pigs) for seven years. Back home his grandfather had been a priest and his father a deacon so he had been raised in a relatively well-off household. However he had never accepted true faith. He describes himself in his youth as a “sinner”, who along with his hometown friends “did not keep His (God’s) precepts, nor were we obedient” (Confessions 1). However, during his lonely years in a barbaric place, amidst a foreign language, strange customs and deprived opportunities, the teachings sown into his heart in childhood sprang to life. He describes his herder life as one
“…out in the forests and on the mountain … in the snow, in icy coldness, in rain…” (Confessions 16)
“…there the Lord opened my mind to an awareness of my unbelief” (Confessions 2)
Then his story decidedly becomes ‘different’ because he states that he heard a voice in his sleep which said
“ ‘…soon you will depart for your home country.’ And again, a very short time later, there was a voice prophesying: ‘Behold, your ship is ready.’ “ (Confessions 17)
So he escaped, travelling 200 miles to a ship which took him aboard. After briefly being recaptured and escaping again he made his way home. His family ‘welcomed’ (Confessions 23) him back. By all accounts the story should have had its Happy Ending right there with Patrick living out his life comfortably back home.
But that was not to be. The “Voice of the Irish” (Confessions 23) spoke again begged him
‘…that you shall come and shall walk again among us.’ (Confessions 23)
Who was this Voice? Patrick writes that on other occasions It said
‘He who gave his life for you, he it is who speaks within you.’ (Confessions 24)
But then accusations from his hometown elders, reminding him of his unworthiness for such a venture due to his youthful ‘sins’ (Confessions 26–27) stood in the way of his plan to go back to live amongst those who had enslaved him. This rebuke from his own countrymen who did not support him, allowed him to see that
still, I was only concerned for myself (Confessions 28)
But with further encouragement from the Voice (Confessions 29) Patrick faced his hometown naysayers such that
… guided by God, I neither agreed with them nor deferred to them, not by my own grace but by God who is victorious in me and withstands them all, so that I might come to the Irish people to preach the Gospel and endure insults from unbelievers; that I might hear scandal of my travels, and endure many persecutions to the extent of prison; and so that I might give up my free birthright for the advantage of others (Confessions 37)
So Patrick went back and spent the rest of his life in Ireland without the sanction of the Roman Catholic Church (the ultimate authority in Europe back then) or the support of his own people. In fact they opposed it. Intriguingly, Historian Philip Schaff states that in the conflux of political and religious power-brokers of that day
Pope Caelestine, in 431, ordained and sent Palladius, a Roman deacon, and probably a native Briton … as their (Irish’s) first bishop… But Palladius was so discouraged that he soon abandoned the field, with his assistants, for North Britain, where he died among the Picts (i.e., Scots). For nearly two centuries after this date, we have no authentic record of papal intercourse with Ireland … It was converted by two humble individuals, who probably never saw Rome, St. Patrick, once a slave, and St. Bridget, the daughter of a slave-mother … The Roman mission of Palladius failed; the independent mission of Patrick succeeded.” Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church Vol IV, p. 45
As Patrick himself asked
So, how is it that in Ireland, where they never had any knowledge of God but, always, until now, cherished idols and unclean things, they are lately become a people of the Lord, and are called children of God. (Confessions 41)
With not much but that Voice to guide him through the many years of hard work in Ireland, Patrick reported that
What is more, when I baptized so many thousands of people, did I hope for even half a jot from any of them? [If so] Tell me, and I will give it back to you. And when the Lord ordained clergy everywhere by my humble means, and I freely conferred office on them, if I asked any of them anywhere even for the price of one shoe, say so to my face and I will give it back. (Confessions 50)
Patrick concluded with his conviction that
But I entreat those who believe in and fear God, whoever deigns to examine or receive this document composed by the obviously unlearned sinner Patrick in Ireland, that nobody shall ever ascribe to my ignorance any trivial thing that I achieved or may have expounded that was pleasing to God, but accept and truly believe that it would have been the gift of God. And this is my confession before I die. (Confessions 62)
Schaff goes on to describe the impact of Patrick’s life on succeeding generations of Europe in these words
“In less than a century after St. Patrick’s death Ireland was covered with churches and convents for men and women. The monastic institutions were training schools … and workshops for transcribing sacred books“ Philip Schaff, p. 52
So when the rest of Europe was sinking into the dark ages of ignorance in the dissolution of the Roman Empire Ireland was investing in “training schools” and ‘books’. Concurrently
“Ireland dreamed the dream of converting heathen Europe. Its apostles went forth to Scotland, North Britain, France, Germany, Switzerland and North Italy. They covered the land and seas of the West. Unwearied navigators, they landed on the most desert islands; they overflowed the continent with their successive imaginations.” Philip Schaff, p. 53
And when they got to their destinations across Europe these bands of people founded ‘primitive’ Keltic Monasteries. Schaff explains:
“By a primitive Keltic monastery we must not understand an elaborate stone structure, but a rude village of wooden huts … on a river, with a church, a common eating hall, a mill, a hospice, the whole surrounded by a wall of earth or stone. The senior monks gave themselves entirely to devotion and transcribing of the Scriptures … they were training schools … offering them (pagan converts) a refuge from danger and violence. They were resorted to by English noblemen who were … furnished with books and instructed. Some Irish clergymen could read the Greek Testament at a time when Pope Gregory I was ignorant of Greek.” Philip Schaff, p. 56-57
No wonder Thomas Cahill, in his historical survey of the Irish in this period entitled his book How the Irish Saved Civilization. When the Greco-Roman world was dissolving such that neither the educated brilliant like Augustine of Hippo, nor the ecclesiastical authority of the Roman Church, nor the might of kings and nobles could preserve civilization, it was the humble Irish monks that kept learning and civilization alive. You and I are beneficiaries of this today.
As we live in our society, with an education and knowledge advanced far beyond that of classical Rome, but with a decadence that in many ways surpasses the self-indulgence of that era, we will have different explanations as to what that ‘Voice’ really was that spoke to Patrick so long ago. Was he simply hearing things? Or did Someone actually speak to him? But if that is the case why is He not speaking today?
Here are a few ruminations I am contemplating this St. Patrick’s Day
1) Humility breathes all across the short Confessions of St. Patrick. Has our learning and knowledge puffed our pride more than it has increased our wisdom? In the Book He states that He is
…opposed to the proud but shows favor to the humble (1 Peter 5:5)
Perhaps our pride coupled with all the noisy props and entertainments we have built around us render us unable to hear. Maybe we need first, like Patrick needed, to strip our lives a bit more bare so our minds can be opened to an awareness of our real state.
2) Many of the manuscripts that those Irish monks transcribed are still around and form part of the vast collection of 24 000 extant manuscripts giving evidence of a reliably preserved New Testament text. Perhaps we can start there to hear this Voice
3) It is easy to simply look and listen at the established churches of our day, and in seeing/hearing something we do not like, cease to listen for a deeper tune. We prefer to chalk up the whole gospel to some Roman conspiracy of Constantine. Patrick’s life shows clearly that the gospel is not derived from there. Though Constantine introduced certain controversial customs and dates, Patrick’s customs and holidays, which differed from that of Rome, show that the Voice was not a church conspiracy.
4) Perhaps there is a tie-in between this Voice and the man for whom a case for resurrection can be made. If that were true he would be alive and ready to Speak.
Your take-aways may differ from mine, but hopefully it will be more than just drinking green beer this St. Patrick’s Day. Patrick’s legacy and gift to us deserves more than that.