Two days ago, people all over the world celebrated the holiday St. Patrick’s Day, probably by wearing green and looking out for the little people. Much like Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day is a beloved holiday, but many people know little of its origins. I hope I can shed some light on this man, who was the first missionary to a pagan Ireland.
Patricius was born in the 4th century in Kilpatrick, Scotland to a relatively well-to-do family. During his youth, he wrote that he did not much care for God and thought that priests were fools. His entire life changed, however, when he was taken captive by Irish raiders when he was fourteen and taken as a slave to a pagan land. At this time, Ireland was entirely unevangelized, and the people worshipped the forces of nature, had priests called Druids, and were generally superstitious. Patricius became a shepherd of sheep and had little clothing and food. It’s a miracle that he survived for the six years he did.
As many people are wont to do in dire circumstances, Patricius began to pray, remembering the God he learned of in his youth. He wrote, “Tending flocks was my daily work, and 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 was roused, so that in one day I would say as many as a hundred prayers and after dark nearly as many again, even while I remained in the woods or on the mountain. I would wake and pray before daybreak – through snow, frost, rain – nor was there any sluggishness in me (such as I experience nowadays) because then the Spirit within me was ardent.”
One day, Patricius heard a voice telling him that it was time to go home. Travelling at least 200 miles to the coast, Patricius found a ship that would give him passage to his homeland. Trusting in God he went; but not without great trial. When they landed, they began to traverse inland. They found only desolation (perhaps due to the Gaul’s invasions). They found themselves for some time without food, and the captain challenged Patricius: “How about it, Christian? You say your god is great and all-powerful, so why can’t you pray for us? We’re starving to death, and there’s little chance of our ever seeing a living soul!”
Patricius replied, “From the bottom of your heart, turn trustingly to the Lord my God, for nothing is impossible to him. And today he will send you food for your journey until you are filled, for he has an abundance everywhere.” Not moments later, a heard of pigs come running down the hill towards them, and we can be certain they feasted well that night.
Reaching home, Patricius was quite a different person than when he was captured. As he stayed in his parent’s house one night, Patricius had a dream. He saw a man he knew in Ireland standing before him imploring, “We beg you to come and walk among us once more.” He was stabbed to the heart with conviction, and began his studies as a bishop. Patricius would become perhaps the first great missionary since Paul the Apostle.
Patricius began to evangelize the Irish people. Many legends abound about this time of his life – some say he could change into a deer to hide from his enemies – but we can be certain that, as always, there were those who hated him and those who loved him. It is evident that Patricius had a deep love and care for the people God has called him to evangelize. He was concerned with the slaves, saying, “But it is the women kept in slavery who suffer the most – and who keep their spirits up despite the menacing and terrorizing they must endure. The Lord gives grace to his many handmaids; and though they are forbidden to do so, they follow him with backbone.”
Thomas Cahill says of Patricius in How the Irish Saved Civilization, “Patrick devoted the last thirty years of his life – from, roughly, his late forties to his late seventies – to his warrior children, that they might ‘seize the everlasting kingdoms’ with all the energy and intensity they had lately devoted to killing and enslaving one another and seizing one another’s kingdoms. When he used that phrase in his open letter to the British Christians, he was echoing the mysterious saying of Jesus, which seems almost to have been uttered with the Irish in mind: ‘From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away.’ In the Gospel story, the passionate, the outsized, the out-of-control have a better shot at seizing heaven than the contained, the calculating, and those of whom this world approves. Patrick, indeed, seems to have been attracted to the same kinds of oddball, off-center personalities that attracted Jesus, and this attraction alone makes him unusual in the history of churchmen.”
St. Patrick did more for our world than perhaps we can ever know. He wrote of his constant dangers, and this is how I shall end:
“Every day I am ready to be murdered, betrayed, enslaved – whatever may come my way. But I am not afraid of any of these things, because of the promises of heaven; for I have put myself in the hands of God almighty.”
This is a link to what is known as “St. Patrick’s Breastplate”, a famous prayer. Though it probably was not written by the man himself, it is a powerful prayer and represents everything he stood for: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Patrick’s_Breastplate
Much of what I discovered about St. Patrick’s story was found in the book I mentioned, “How the Irish Saved Civilization” by Thomas Cahill. It’s an interesting read, particularly if you love history, and puts the importance of St. Patrick in context.
For a fun video about the other little things about St. Patrick’s Day, check out this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-5tth-ntGO0