Each year a peculiar celebration takes place among many people. Green clothes are worn, green beer is imbibed and strange stories about snakes being chased out of Ireland are told. Shamrocks abound and leprechauns seem to jump out from behind every bush. People are pinched for not participating in the fashion of the day and parades are thrown in the name of a man who lived long ago. To someone who is Irish it is a special day of pride and cultural identification; ironically many use it as an excuse to get really drunk.1 Yes, I am speaking of March 17th, St. Patrick’s Day.
Strangely, few people know much about the man whose name adorns the day. Growing up we always celebrated St. Patrick’s day and my Mom made sure we knew we were Irish. My people actually come from Monaghan county in Ireland. As I have grown older I have become keenly interested in the history of the Irish and the figure of Patrick who made a significant impact on history. A few fun facts as we begin. First, he did not drive snakes out of Ireland, they were gone long before Patrick, if they ever existed in that climate. Second, though he is called a “saint” by those who recognized him as a faithful man of God, he was never officially canonized by a pope. Third, or triunely, he may or may not have used the shamrock to teach Irish pagans about the three-in-oneness of God. We just don’t know for sure.
After becoming a Christian years ago my interest in Patrick has grown immensely so this essay emerges from my own interest and study of this historical figure. This will be but a short trip into the life and mission of a man who lived some 1500 years ago whose influence on a people and culture is still felt today. For those who wish to read more just remember; Jesus loves footnotes and so should you.
Patrick, The Briton Who Became an Irishman
One of the ironies in the story of Patrick is that he was not born an Irishman. He was born a Roman citizen in Britain during the last years of the 4th century AD. He was the son of a Christian nobleman and deacon in the church named Calpornius.2 The faith ran deep in Patrick’s family as his grandfather was a priest. As an aside priests married in these days without any hindrance from the church. As such, his early education would have included instruction in classical learning as well in the teachings of the church. At the time Patrick was clear about his own faith; he was in no way a follower of Christ. In his own words, he was an atheist in his youth.3
Patrick lived in tumultuous times in a world where barbarian tribes and the Empire of Rome clashed on many frontiers. In his home world of Britain, Celtic (pronounced Keltic) raiders would come from Ireland to carry off women and children as slaves. Even the power of Rome was unable to stave off this common occurrence on the British Isles as Patrick and his family soon found out. At roughly the age of 16 Patrick was snatched from his bed by an Irish hoard and taken off in captivity. Patrick the Roman was now Patrick the slave.
The Celts at this time were indeed a harsh people and accounts from ancient literature testify to their passion and barbarism. They were a farming people and a patchwork of warring clans on the island. The Celts had long traveled and settled in various parts of Europe making up the people of Gaul (location of modern day France) and populating regions as far as Galatia in Asia Minor.4 To describe the Celtic barbarians as a frightening people would have been an understatement for a Roman Briton like Patrick. One example will suffice to illustrate. The Irish Celts practice in battle was to strip naked and charge their enemies carrying a sword wearing nothing but sandals and a gold neck band called a torc.5 To add to this unusual practice was the fact the Celtic warrior would have come to battle after building himself up into a frenzy which they called a “warp-spasm.” Thomas Cahill describes this practice well so I will quote him at length.
The Romans, in their first encounters with these exposed, insane warriors, were shocked and frightened. Not only were the men naked, they were howling and, it seemed, possessed by demons, so outrageous were their strength and verve. Urged on by the infernal skirl of pipers, they presented the unaccustomed and throbbing Roman sensorium a multimedia event featuring all the terrors of hell itself. 6
Other historical fragments from the late 4th century record victorious Irish warriors smearing the blood of the vanquished upon their faces and even cannibalizing their victims. This was the world into which a teenage boy was taken to be a slave.
From what we know Patrick’s life as a slave would have been one of harsh servitude. Rather than a room of his own as he likely had in Britain, he would have shared a slaves shed with others in bondage. His particular role as a slave was the mundane and repetitive task of shepherding sheep7. This was lonely and exhausting work of leading sheep to pasture, guarding them from wolves and bringing them back to safety each night. It was during six long years of slavery in the harsh, wet and cold of Northwestern Ireland8 that Patrick began to meet with the God of his youth. As a slave in the green fields of barbaric Ireland, Patrick became a Christian. His own words about this time in his Confessions is quite compelling:
But after I reached Ireland I used to pasture the flock each day and I used to pray many times a day. More and more did the love of God, and my fear of him and faith increase, and my spirit was moved so that in a day [I said] from one up to a hundred prayers, and in the night a like number; besides I used to stay out in the forests and on the mountain and I would wake up before daylight to pray in the snow, in icy coldness, in rain, and I used to feel neither ill nor any slothfulness, because, as I now see, the Spirit was burning in me at that time.9
After his conversion his love for God grew and became quite evident to his fellow slaves and the Irish he served. What would happen next in his story was the first of several dreams/visions which would shape the rest of his life. For as God would have it, Patrick was about to go home.
Based upon his own writings, Patrick had a dream in which he heard a voice speaking which said to him “You do well to fast: soon you will depart for your home country” and then later “Behold, your ship is ready.” At these promptings, Patrick fled from his captor and began what must have been an arduous trek across the island to the eastern shores. Patrick only recounts the trip was of some 200 roman miles (about 185 miles in our accounting) and that God guided him and he was without fear.10 Patrick indeed found a ship and took the risk to ask aboard its crew. The captain at first declined him, perhaps for fear of taking on an obvious fugitive, but then relented and asked him to join the crew. Patrick was to arrive back in Britain and reunite with his family. It was as if they received him back from the dead and in many senses they did. For the Patrick that returned was a different man; a man forged by the love of God into one desiring the service of his new King.
While at his home Patrick would have two more dreams/visions which would direct his destiny. The first of which was a vision of the people of Ireland calling him back to their lands to serve among them. The second Patrick describes as the hearing of a beautiful prayer the words of which he could not understand. The first vision burdened him with sorrow for the Irish people, the second one he understood as God the Holy Spirit speaking within him both words of comfort and commission. He was sure of his calling. Though friends and family would not want him to go, he had to return to Ireland and preach the gospel on the isle of his captivity.11
Though there is little information about the next season of his life, Patrick likely proceeded through the usual paths to become a minister of the church. Some traditions hold that he spent time in Gaul studying theology for his ordination at the monastery of Lérins before becoming a deacon.12 One could not become a priest until the age of thirty, so Patrick served as a deacon learning to be a minister during this time. It is uncertain when and how he eventually became a priest and bishop but we do know that he did rise to this rank in the church. His mission to Ireland required this office for he would need to appoint and ordain others to gospel ministry on the green shores that lay ahead.
The Mission and Ministry of Patrick
We do not know the exact details of Patrick’s entrance back to the island of his captivity but we do very much know the results of his work there. His labor centered in the northern parts of the island and we know that he had two main objectives in his ministry there. First, we was a bishop who would care for and guide the small community of Christian believers in Ireland. We know that in 431 the bishop of Rome (Pope Celestine) ordained and sent a man by the name of Palladius as the first bishop/overseer for the Irish. Later records show that his work was rather unsuccessful but his bishopric was followed by the very successful ministry of Patrick. It has been speculated that perhaps Patrick was a young priest who came along with Palladius, but this cannot be certain.13
Patrick’s second purpose was to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ to any pagan who would listen to him.14 Patrick forgave and then loved the people of Ireland. His concern for them can be heard in his writings. On one occasion he spoke of the condition of women slaves, many of whom had become followers of Jesus.
But it is the women kept in slavery who suffer most—and who keeps their spirits up despite the menacing and terrorizing they must endure. The Lord gives grace to his many handmaidens; and though they are forbidden to do so, they follow him with backbone.”15
His passion and love for his people and innumerable converts to the gospel come forth with resounding clarity in his Letter to Coroticus. Coroticus was a British king who had taken up power after the fall of the Roman empire in 410. Britain had become a more chaotic place where warring kings asserted power by force of arms. Apparently Coroticus had taken up the practice once used by the Irish; raiding the other land for slaves. On one such raid in northern Ireland, many of Patrick’s converts had been taken away. His Letter to Coroticus is his plea to have the people released and a chastisement of the so called Christian king for enslaving and devouring Irish Christian brothers and sisters. Many have noted that in this letter we have the first human being to speak out without equivocation against the evil of slavery.16 The former slave now castigates those who were enslaving a people whom they thought racially/tribally inferior.17
Finally, we can learn much from Patrick and the Irish believers that followed. Much could be said about how Irish monks kept alive literature and learning during the dark ages of continental Europe after the fall of Rome18, but for our purposes I wish to close with a focus on the vibrant gospel witness of Celtic Christians. First, their methodology of evangelizing the pagans of Ireland has much to be commended for our day. They lived in Christian community while living in close proximity to those who worshipped many gods. By voice of their preaching and example of gospel living together in good works, Celtic Christianity spread rapidly over Ireland.19 Furthermore, they remained orthodox to the teachings of the Bible and the early creeds while living out this faith in a way very close to the lives of the Celts. Their faith was alive to creation with God the Trinity as the great creator. Their theology was very practical and suited to a simple farming people; they did not deal in some of the abstract theologizing that lead to debate throughout the empire. They were faithful to the truth but contextualized it for the agrarian Celts whose historical ties were deep with creation. This is seen powerfully in the Irish prayer known as “Saint Patrick’s Breastplate” dating to perhaps a century or so after Patrick.20 Though the form that survives most likely is not from the pen of Patrick, yet it certainly encapsulates the Christian faith he established amongst this once barbarous people.21 It is a prayer dancing with both God and the natural world and ends with a phrase familiar to many who have heard of Patrick. I first read it on the walls of a small Irish pub in Franklin, TN.
Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ in me, Christ below me, Christ above me, Christ to the right of me, Christ to the left of me, Christ where I lie, Christ where I sit, Christ where I stand, Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me, Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me, Christ in every eye which sees me, Christ in every ear which hears me.22
May this be said of each of us who follow him—to the glory of God.
- For some humor about the irony of St. Patrick’s Day see Christian Lander, Stuff White People Like #89—St. Patrick’s Day—online at http://stuffwhitepeoplelike.com/2008/03/16/89-saint-patricks-day, accessed 3/12/2010.
- Philip Freeman, St. Patrick of Ireland—A Biography (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), 2.
- Ibid, 12, 13.
- Thomas Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization (New York: Anchor Books, 1995) 79.
- Ibid, 82.
- Ibid, 82, 83.
- Most likely his job would have included taking sheep to pasture and caring for pigs
- Freeman, 24, 25.
- Patrick, Confession of St. Patrick, Christian Classics Ethereal Library — http://www.ccel.org/ccel/patrick/confession.iv.html, accessed 3/12/2010.
- Ibid, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/patrick/confession.v.html, accessed 3/12/2010.
- Freeman, 50, 51.
- Cahill, 106, 107.
- Freeman, 68-71.
- Ibid, 74.
- Cahill, 109.
- Ibid 114.
- For the text of the Letter to Coroticus, see The Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition http://www.yale.edu/glc/archive/1166.htm
- This is the focus and thesis of Thomas Cahill’s excellent book, How the Irish Saved Civilization. For that story please see this work.
- For a book length practical look at the way the Celts evangelized their pagan neighbors, see George Hunter, The Celtic Way of Evangelism: How Christianity Can Reach the West…Again (Abington Press, 2000).
- Freeman, 161.
- Cahill, 116.
- Freeman, 164.