Sisters at Croagh Patrick, “Ireland’s Holy Mountain,” 6/19/14
Amid a green-shirt forest the church sang St. Patrick’s Breastplate yesterday. Today kids donned shamrock hats and finished their littleman traps. Tomorrow we’ll chew our corned-beef and cabbage and watch green-beer revelries on the nightly news.
Aye, we’re all Irish this week.
A few of us, though, will stay “Smitten” the whole year round. Since my glorious, God-blessed, Irish-gift-trip last June, I am, and-in so much as Hibernia points me heavenward- hope to remain, forever smitten.
I’m proud to be Irish, and not just on March 17th. Patrick is a huge reason why. I asked the boys if they knew who Patrick was- Oh, sure, a saint, they quipped. Patrick, a sinner, a simple country person, unlearned and the least of all believers-that’s how he began his Confession. And you, how do you answer: Who was Patrick?
Will the real Patrick please rise?
Patrick was not a leprechaun, nor mere legend, although legends about him abound.
He did not expel snakes from Ireland: the snakelessness of Ireland had been noted by the Roman geographer Solinus in the third century. He did not compose that wonderful hymn known as ‘Saint Patrick’s Breastplate’: its language postdates him by about three centuries . . . He did not use the leaves of the shamrock to illustrate the Persons of the Trinity for his converts: true, he might have done; but it is not until the seventeenth century that we are told that he did. (Richard Fletcher, The Barbarian Conversion: From Paganism to Christianity, 82)
What we do know of St. Patrick comes through two ancient texts: his Confession andhis Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus. Both are in complete form and can by easily accessed here. They were both written by Patrick, handicapped, as it were, by his late-learned Latin skills in the middle 400’s. These two texts are, in fact, the oldest documents in Irish history.
From them we know that Ireland’s patron saint was not Irish but British by birth. Magonus Sucatus Patricius was born to a good Christian family around 390 Roman Briton. He admits, however, that he was not a good Christian growing up.
At age 16 he was carried by Irish raiders into slavery in Ireland. Alone in this “strange, wild land,” Patrick turned to God and grew in faith while herding on the Irish hills.
Six years a slave, he heard a voice call, “Come see, your ship is ready.” Heeding, he fled and reached a port perhaps 200 miles away. At first denied passage, he went away and prayed. Even before he had finished his prayer, a sailor shouted to him, “Come quickly, for they are calling you.”
Patrick reached mainland Europe a few days later with his pagan shipmates and made his way through France to a monastery in Italy. Some years later, he returned to Britain and found home “among my parents,” who joyfully welcomed him, begging him never to leave again. Then another life-changing vision. A man came to him with countless letters from the Irish people, and I read the beginning of the letter, the voice of the Irish people. While I was reading out the beginning of the letter, I thought I heard at that moment the voice of those who were beside the wood of Voclut, near the western sea. They called out as it were with one voice: “We beg you, holy boy, to come and walk again among us.” This touched my heart deeply, and I could not read any further; I woke up then. Thanks be to God, after many years the Lord granted them what they were calling for. (Confession, ch. 23)
St. Patrick is my homeboy.
Here are five reasons why-1600 years hence-this Irish leader so endears himself to this 39 year-old American evangelical.
1. Patrick overflowed with a thankfulness that made him resilient when hard times came. In an age when the smallest trifle sets us off, when wireless fails or a traffic delays evoke instant grumbles, we’d do well to follow Patrick’s example.
So I’ll never stop giving thanks to my God, who kept me faithful in the time of my temptation. I can today with confidence offer my soul to Christ my Lord as a living victim. He is the one who defended me in all my difficulties…This is how I come to praise and magnify your name among the nations all the time, wherever I am, not only in good times but in the difficult times too. Whatever comes about for me, good or bad, I ought to accept them equally and give thanks to God. He has shown me that I can put my faith in him without wavering and without end. (Confession, ch. 34)
2. Patrick loved Ireland’s green hills, but so much more, the lost souls who dwelt among them. He knew-better than many of us-how to engage a pagan culture. We are so often aloof and distant with the unsaved. But Patrick would pitch his tent beside chieftains, befriend and convert. Then he’d do it over again,
…Fishing well and with diligent care, as the Lord commands, “Go and make disciples of the nations….” spreading wide the net so that a great throng might be captured for God. How has this happened in Ireland? Never before did they know of God except to serve idols and unclean things. But now, they have become the people of the Lord, and are called children of God. The sons and daughters of the leaders of the Irish are seen to be monks and virgins of Christ. (Confession, ch. 40-41)
3. Patrick viewed his life and work through the lens of Scripture. His burden to serve was directly linked to Scripture’s commands. We are untethered to Scripture, adrift in life’s river despite all the props and apps offered us. Biblical allusions pepper Patrick’s Confession and Letter. Patrick, says author Richard Fletcher, “was soaked in the Bible.” Are we so soaked that we make and explain our big decisions through this lens? Do we see light in His light?
I am greatly in debt to God. He gave me such great grace, that through me, many people should be born again in God and brought to full life. Also that clerics should be ordained everywhere for this people who have lately come to believe, and who the Lord has taken from the ends of the earth. This is just what he promised in the past through his prophet: “The nations will come to you from the ends of the earth, and they will say: How false are the idols our fathers got for themselves, and they are of no use whatever.” And again: “I have put you as a light to the nations, that you may be their salvation to the end of the earth.” (Confession, ch. 38)
4. Patrick struggled with his sin but leaned heavy on God’s grace to fight it and keep the faith. Do we?
Do we give in, give up, give way to sin- all the while denying its lifelong drag toward death. Or with Patrick, daily fight the good fight, daring not trust ourselves, looking to the Lord and to his strength?
I know I cannot trust myself as long as I am in this body subject to death. There is one who is strong, who tries every day to undermine my faith, and the chastity of genuine religion I have chosen to the end of my life for Christ my Lord. The flesh can be an enemy dragging towards death, that is, towards doing those enticing things which are against the law. I know to some extent how I have not led a perfect life like other believers. But I acknowledge this to my Lord, and I do not blush in his sight. I am not telling lies: from the time in my youth that I came to know him, the love and reverence for God grew in me, and so far, with the Lord’s help, I have kept faith. (Confession, ch. 44)
5. Patrick saw many a splendid Irish sunrise and sunset, but worship them he did not. But we worship created things- Florida sun, bright kids, Facebook fame- even over their Creator. Patrick’s warning still rings clear,
The sun which we see rising for us each day at his command, that sun will never reign nor will its splendour continue forever; and all those who worship that sun will come to a bad, miserable penalty. We, however, believe in and adore the true sun, that is, Christ, who will never perish. Nor will they perish who do his will but they will abide forever just as Christ will abide forever. (Confession, ch. 60)
Patrick’s Christianity, writes Greg Tobin in The Wisdom of St. Patrick, was simple, direct, practical, as earthy as it is mystical, not so much Roman Catholic as baseline Christian, and not so much Irish as truly universal (catholic with a small ‘c’). Patrick was at once brave, bold pioneer-missionary and humble, servant-shepherd of God’s Irish flock. He was zealous and honest, ever aware of his own short-comings, and forever God’s grateful debtor. In his final Confession he prays,
… for those who believe in and fear God. Some of them may happen to discover this document and read its words, composed in Ireland by an unlearned sinner named Patrick. May none of them ever say that whatever little I accomplished was a work of this ignorant man alone. No, rather, know this: that it was a gift from God and that it occurred only for God’s good reasons. And that is my confession before I die. (ch. 62)
Irish history is a dramatic tale of turning from idols to serve the living God. It’s a remarkable true story of a pagan world turned totally upside-down, and converted. An unlearned sinner named Patrick had an awful lot to do with it. Maybe he ought have his own holiday.
Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.