“I, Patrick, a sinner…”
Thus begins The Confession of St. Patrick; an account that illustrates the cosmic power of forgiveness.
Patrick wasn’t Irish. He was a Welsh-Briton, who, as a “young man, almost a beardless boy … was taken captive” by Irish raiders and sold into slavery on the harsh, barbaric Irish isle. He was only 16. This took place somewhere in the middle of the 5th century, as the Roman empire suffered its rapid decline and the so-called Dark Ages began.
For 6 years he was harshly worked against his will in the land of his captivity, before making a dramatic escape. He returned home by boat to Wales and was reunited with his family and community. He then did the unthinkable. He returned to Ireland!
He had a vision of of the Irish “crying as if with one voice: We beg you, holy youth, that you shall come and shall walk again among us.”
And so he returned, going first to his former owner! In his own words:
I testify in truthfulness and gladness of heart before God and his holy angels that I never had any reason , except the Gospel and his promises, ever to have returned to that nation from which I had previously escaped with difficulty.
He had embraced the Christian message, and its cosmic message of forgiveness had rung him like a bell. Eventually he would express his endearment to the Irish like this,
Therefore may it never befall me to be separated by my God from his people whom he has won in this most remote land. I pray God that he gives me perseverance, and that he will deign that I should be a faithful witness for his sake right up to the time of my passing.
He did exactly that. The rest of the story is that Ireland became fervent center not only of Christian piety but also of classical learning. As Christendom and Roman civilization deteriorated throughout Europe, both thrived in the rugged remotes of Ireland.
As time went on, the Irish began exporting these things back into Europe. Historian Thomas Cahill argues in his fine book How the Irish Saved Civilization that this was essentially the salvation of Western Civilization.
…as the Roman Empire fell, as all through Europe matted, unwashed barbarians descended on the Roman cities, looting artifacts and burning books, the Irish, who were just learning to read and write, took up the great labor of copying all of western literature—everything they could lay their hands on.
These scribes then served as conduits through which the Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian cultures were transmitted to the tribes of Europe, newly settled amid rubble and ruined vineyards of the civilization they had overwhelmed … Without the Mission of the Irish Monks, who single-handedly re-founded European civilization throughout the continent … the world that came after them would have been an entirely different one.
Quite a repercussion from the decision by “the obviously unlearned sinner Patrick.”
While one could (and should) draw many valuable lessons from this man’s life, I wonder if the most significant one isn’t about forgiveness!
One could have expected Patrick, upon his return to Wales, to merely lick his wounds and live out his days regaling all who would listen with the harrowing details of his exploits in Ireland. One might expect him to live his life defined as a victim—expecting to be catered to in pity for the remainder of his life. This was not the case.
I am greatly God’s debtor, because he granted me so much grace, that through me many people would be reborn in God…
The Lord has the power to grant me that I may soon spend my own self for your souls.
We often look at the issue of forgiveness as the (optional?) duty laid upon the victimized to “get over” their anger and hurt, but isn’t it so much more?
Forgiveness is an explosively redemptive and restorative act—setting the whole course of the world in a new direction.
Patrick’s British countrymen marveled, “Why is this fellow throwing himself into danger among enemies who know not God?” Though Patrick’s redemptive vision for this island was indeed profound, it is doubtful that even he could have understood it’s full redemptive scope.
Nevertheless, it all began with the simple (but never easy) act of forgiveness.
What do we withhold from the world when we withhold forgiveness? What do we withhold from ourselves? Do lives hang in the balance? The fates of entire countries? Entire civilizations? Maybe. Maybe not. But it is probably more than we’re willing to admit in the stubbornness of our hurt and anger. Would that the eyes of our heart could be lifted in order to see what is truly at stake.
Patrick admitted as he wrote,
I am imperfect in many things, nevertheless I want my brethren and kinsfolk to know my nature so that they may be able to perceive my soul’s desire… I am trying to grasp in my old age what I did not gain in my youth.
Though he may have harbored certain regrets, certainly Patrick could look back with gladness on his magnanimity—a word that means both “forgiviness” and “exceeding generosity,” for the two are really synonymous, are they not?