Patrick … of Ireland?

[Note: this post is a little longer than the usual. Settle in for a few minutes. :)]

What do we do that is special on St. Patrick’s Day? Well, we wear green and pinch anyone who isn’t. Some indulge in green beer. Why do we do these things? Answer: who knows!?

What do we really know about Patrick? When did he live? Where was he born? What country is he usually connected with? Why should we care about any of these questions? I’m glad you asked, because now I’m going to tell you.

PATRICK OF … IRELAND

Imagine this: You are a 16-year-old young man who is taking a walk along the beach with your family one day. As you all walk along, suddenly, you see about 50 longboats sailing toward the shore. This causes you some concern when you see what look like fierce soldiers getting out of the boats and forming into bands on the shore. They are wearing helmets and carrying long spears. So you run toward your home. By the time you get there, these pirates have fallen upon the town. They set house after house on fire. Everyone is running for their lives. As you are darting in and out between burning houses, you run right into some of the warriors. They grab you and drag you back toward the shore and their waiting boats.

Before you know fully what has happened, they are loading you aboard one of their boats and are sailing away. The boat trip takes a long time across the sea toward the west until you reach land again. By this time, you realize where you are going: Ireland. You had heard about these barbarous Irish marauders who capture slaves from England and Scotland. Now you have experienced this firsthand. You have been taken as a slave to Ireland! You are across the Irish Sea from home—many days journey both by land and sea. There is nothing you can do about it.

Before long, you have been sold to a king in a region of Northern Ireland. He doesn’t treat you well. You are sent out to tend pigs. In fact, for weeks, sometimes months, you are all alone. You follow the pigs around as they search for water and food. You learn to live off of whatever you can find to eat, often going days without food and barely enough water.

But something else begins to happen. You have nowhere else to turn, so you begin to pray—a lot. Before all of this happened, you knew about God and about Jesus Christ from your parents. But you had not really taken it very seriously or personally—until now, that is. Later, you will come to write this: “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.” You begin to really trust God to provide for you and to guide you.

And then one day, after six years of such slavery, you have a very unusual experience. You receive a supernatural message. “You do well to fast,” a mysterious voice said to him. “Soon you will return to your homeland.” Before long, the voice spoke again: “Come and see, your ship is waiting for you.” So you decide to escape and even run 200 miles to a southeastern harbor on the coast of Ireland. There you get on board a ship of traders (probably carrying Irish wolfhounds to the European continent).

When your ship arrives on the coast of Europe after a three-day journey—in France to be exact—your ship’s captain expects to find a vast and fertile land. Instead, the whole area seems to be devastated from war. There appears to be nothing to eat at all. Your captain mocks you. You have told him your story about how God has delivered you from slavery. Now, he says to you, “’What have you to say for yourself, Christian?’ You boast that your God is all powerful. We’re starving to death, and we may not survive to see another soul.’

You answer confidently. ‘Nothing is impossible to God. Turn to him and he will send us food for our journey.” At that moment, a herd of pigs appears, “seeming to block our path.” Though you instantly become “well regarded in their eyes,” your companions offer their new-found food in sacrifice to their pagan gods. You decide not to partake in that ritual.

In a short time, you are able to make your way back home to Britain and you are reunited with your family. This is glorious, especially since you had begun to think that you would never see them again, and that you very likely would die out in the wilderness with no other human being around.

This is just what did happen to a young man named Patricius, whom we call Patrick. He was carried away into slavery in Ireland around AD 430 (as you know, it is now AD 2012—1582 years later! And here’s what happened next.

One day, perhaps even 30-40 years later—Patrick had a vision. Here’s how he described it. “I had a vision in my dreams of a man who seemed to come from Ireland,” Patrick wrote. “His name was Victoricius, and he carried countless letters, one of which he handed over to me. I read aloud where it began: ‘The Voice of the Irish.’ And as I began to read these words, I seemed to hear the voice of the same men who lived beside the forest of Foclut  … and they cried out as with one voice, ‘We appeal to you, holy servant boy, to come and walk among us.’ I was deeply moved in heart and I could read no further, so I awoke.”

Now think about this: How in the world could he possibly go back as a missionary to the very people who had stolen him away from his family and made him into a slave, neglecting him and making him tend to their sheep (and possibly pigs)!? Well, by the grace of God!

With courage and with grace from God fueling his heart, Patrick returned to Ireland. When he arrived as a bishop, there were already Christians and churches there. He began to work with them, nurture them and lead them to reach out to others. Over the next several decades, God used his word and work to bring the Good News of Jesus to the entire Island. Estimates of thousands came to faith in Christ during this time. The control of druid paganism was mostly defeated. Despite death-threats and setbacks, he persevered and was used by God to bring many into God’s kingdom there. And not only this, but many of those became skilled in the copying of manuscripts of the Bible and other great ancient literature. Remember, this was 1,000 years before the printing press was invented. Every “book” had to be copied by hand, taking months to complete a full manuscript. Over the following centuries, as barbarian tribes swept over the landscape of Europe, it was the Irish missionaries and scribes who preserved the Bible and other classical Greek, Latin and other literature. As they moved out from Ireland into those conquered lands, they carried this language and learning with them, and as Thomas Cahill stated it, they “saved civilization.” Others consider this a little tongue-in-cheek exaggeration.

It is also interesting that Patrick faced some serious criticism from the Christian leaders back in Britain. In his later years, they were trying to call him back from Ireland, and he didn’t want to leave. The longest written piece that we have from Patrick, and from which the story of his enslavement and escape comes, is his Confession (singular). He recounts how a good friend was used by God to commend him to other bishops and pave the way for him to become one, too. And then, many years later, that same trusted friend turned on him and tried to undermine his ministry in Ireland. Was it because of jealousy? Was it a spirit of competition? Was it a ploy of power? Patrick did admit that he used bribes to keep local officials from interfering with his ministry. He also refused to allow women who were new converts from giving their jewelry as offerings. Maybe these had something to do with the “recall.”

What happened was this. Patrick had once confided in his friend about something he had done while a teen, prior to his capture and enslavement in Ireland. Many years later, that friend was using this as leverage to get Patrick called back from his service as a bishop. What had he confessed to have done as a 15-year-old? Murder? Sex? What? At any rate, he faced what so many others in ministry have faced: the loss of a trusted friend and a false accusation. He appealed to the Christian leaders to whom he wrote to allow him to live out his years in Ireland to serve the people he had come to love. And that is where the story ends, as far as we know it. We have no record of what happened next.

PAUL OF … THE WORLD

The Apostle Paul had the missionary spirit that Patrick caught as well. His life’s ambition was to go where no one else had gone with the Good News of Jesus. Read about his sense of calling in Romans 15:14-22. Notice these parallels with Patrick:

  1. Paul found the grace of God in Christ in a most unusual manner, much like Patrick did later on.
  2. As a gratefully forgiven sinner, Paul wanted others to find this grace, also, and so he went to tell others about it. So with Patrick.
  3. Paul even went to those that he would not have cared about in his pre-Christian times. Paul went to the Gentiles, Patrick to the Irish.
  4. Both endured many hardships and threats to complete their life-mission.
  5. Both faced misunderstanding, false accusations and betrayal to complete that mission. Paul often wrote to defend his actions, even to those who shared his faith. The little we have of Patrick’s own writing was much the same, a defense of his ministry.

So think about it. Have we found God’s grace in Christ and developed this relationship through prayer? Are we open to what God may have for our lives as we serve Him? Are we ready to share with others about Jesus’ love and grace? Are we willing to endure whatever it might take to fulfill God’s calling on our lives?

Smiley Mudd

Read original source materials here: https://www.christianhistoryinstitute.org/study/module/patrick/.