There is much folklore around the man who would eventually be canonized and called St. Patrick. What do we really know about him?
Disregard the saint who threw the snakes out of Ireland and the teacher who used the shamrock to explain the Trinity. The real Patrick led a much greater and courageous life than those fanciful myths portray.
A month ago, I shared with you about “St. Valentine: True culture warrior and hero,” who lived in the late third century A.D. Well, about a century later arose a Brit-born Irish hero.
Patricius, or Patrick, was born about A.D. 390. Though becoming one of the most well-known Irish saints, he was actually born in England, Scotland or Wales. His father was a civil magistrate and tax collector.
The Christian History Institute (CHI) detailed how Patrick’s family’s coastal village was overcome by Irish raiders, and he was captured and hauled off to Ireland at the age of 16:
“With no Roman army to protect them (Roman legions had long since deserted Britain to protect Rome from barbarian invasions), Patricius and his town were unprepared for attack. The Irish warriors, wearing helmets and armed with spears, descended on the pebbled beach. The braying war horns struck terror into Patricius’s heart, and he started to run toward town.
“The warriors quickly demolished the village, and as Patricius darted among burning houses and screaming women, he was caught. The barbarians dragged him aboard a boat bound for the east coast of Ireland.”
Patrick heard stories of Irish raiders who captured slaves and took them “to the ends of the world.” But this was now real life. These Irish traffickers kidnapped and took him to Ireland to be sold into slavery for the next six years.
CHI explained, “Patrick was sold to a cruel warrior chief, whose opponents’ heads sat atop sharp poles around his palisade in Northern Ireland. While Patrick minded his master’s pigs in the nearby hills, he lived like an animal himself, enduring long bouts of hunger and thirst. Worst of all, he was isolated from other human beings for months at a time.”
In his own personal testimony and Confessions, Patrick later wrote: “I would pray constantly during the daylight hours. The love of God and the fear of him surrounded me more and more. And faith grew. And the spirit roused so that in one day I would say as many as a hundred prayers, and at night only slightly less.”
After six years of captivity, Patrick recorded that he heard from God: “And there one night I heard in my sleep a voice saying to me: ‘It is well that you fast, soon you will go to your own country.’ And again, after a short while, I heard a voice saying to me: ‘See, your ship is ready.’
CHI further explained: “Patrick fled and ran 200 miles to a southeastern harbor. There he boarded a ship of traders, probably carrying Irish wolfhounds to the European continent.”
Scholars believe that Patrick then spent years receiving religious education, either back in England or on a small island off the south coast of France named Lerins. It was there that he also received a vision and calling for Ireland as a missionary.
He wrote: “And there I saw in the night the vision of a man, whose name was Victoricus, coming as it were from Ireland, with countless letters. And he gave me one of them, and I read the opening words of the letter, which were, ‘The voice of the Irish’; and as I read the beginning of the letter, I thought that at the same moment I heard their voice – they were those beside the Wood of Voclut, which is near the Western Sea – and thus did they cry out as with one mouth: ‘We ask thee, boy, come and walk among us once more.'”
The years he ministered in Ireland were as dangerous as contemporaries doing so in extremist Muslim countries today. Patrick wrote; “I dwell among gentiles, in the midst of pagan barbarians, worshipers of idols, and of unclean things.”
CHI again explained: “Patrick faced the most opposition from the druids, who practiced magic, were skilled in secular learning (especially law and history) and advised Irish kings. Biographies of the saint are replete with stories of druids who ‘wished to kill holy Patrick.'”
“Daily I expect murder, fraud or captivity,” Patrick wrote, “but I fear none of these things because of the promises of heaven. I have cast myself into the hands of God almighty who rules everywhere.”
His words make me think not only of the persecuted churches around the world today, but also our own often-intolerant nation to dogma of any type, especially from Christian labels.
Patrick had a passionate, sacred worldview. Instead of blaming his Irish raiders for his captivity or even God himself, Patrick laid the blame at the feet of generations who abandoned God.
Again, in his own personal Confessions, Patrick explained: “I did not know the true God. I was taken into captivity to Ireland with many thousands of people – and deservedly so, because we turned away from God, and did not keep His commandments, and did not obey our priests, who used to remind us of our salvation. And the Lord brought over us the wrath of his anger and scattered us among many nations, even unto the utmost part of the earth, where now my littleness is placed among strangers.”
His words make me again recollect and ponder the words of an 81-year-old Benjamin Franklin, who gave the following words as he appealed to the Constitutional Convention after the delegates met for five weeks with no unanimity in purpose or statement for our struggling new nation:
“In the beginning of the contest with Britain, when we were sensible of danger, we had daily prayers in this room for the divine protection. Our prayers, Sir, were heard; and they were graciously answered. All of us, who were engaged in the struggle, must have observed frequent instances of a superintending Providence in our favor. To that kind Providence we owe this happy opportunity of consulting in peace on the means of establishing our future national felicity. And have we now forgotten that powerful friend? Or do we imagine we no longer need its assistance? I have lived, Sir, a long time; and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth, That God governs in the affairs of men! And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid?”
Franklin’s question still stands. And St. Patrick’s Day still stands as a day to celebrate a great man and saint.
(I encourage you read more and teach your posterity about the real St. Patrick as detailed in the Christian History Institute’s online treatise.)
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