We beg you, holy boy, to come and walk again among us.
Saint Patrick’s day is upon us and, with it, the usual barrage: green clothes and beers and rivers, shamrocks and Guinness and leprechauns, corned-beef and cabbage, kiss mes and pinches. That is to say, the consumerist gaud festooning most holidays, making them ever less holy days.
Yet, as with all holy things, there is treasure for those who dig deeper; a pot of gold, as it were, at the end of the rainbow.
Pinches and kisses have been known to awaken, and I would suggest we awaken to the person of Saint Patrick, for he is a most needed saint for our day.
Did you know Patrick was not Irish? It’s true. He was Welsh-Briton. The circumstances surrounding his arrival in fifth-century Ireland are harrowing, to say the least. The circumstances surrounding his saintly office upon that island, awe inspiring.
In his Confession, Patrick recalls his kidnapping at the hands of Irish raiders. Abducted at the age of sixteen from the his mild Christian home, he was trafficked across what is now called the Irish Sea to a rugged and brutal land where his “littleness” was to be “placed among strangers.” Though reared in a devout family, yet his own faith had not yet taken root; he admitted,”I did not know the true God.” 1
However, soon after his Irish enslavement began, Patrick spoke of being “converted with all my heart to the Lord my God, who had regard for my abjection.” His faith became real.
The Ireland of that era was savage; an ever-shifting violent and pagan collection of warring tuatha — kinship clans, which, according to historian Richard Fletcher, “were constantly on the move, splitting, fusing, splitting again”2 with little sense of enduring order.
Patrick would spend the next six years in slave labor on the island, praying in desperation “many times times a day” — hundreds of prayers each day and hundreds more each night. Often sleeping outdoors in woods and on mountain slopes, working in harsh, frigid conditions, yet, as he prayed, “the love of God and His fear” came to Patrick more and more. This was his existence, until the day of his dramatic escape. (Confession, 16)
One night Patrick had a vision; a voice saying, “Soon you will go to your own country. See your ship is ready.” Patrick stole to the nearest port town, some two-hundred miles away, found a ship in harbor and asked to be taken aboard. After initially being rebuffed he was afforded a spot in their crew for what would become a treacherous and death-defying odyssey over sea and land.
After a brief sojourn in Gaul, he made his return to his family in Britain — safe at last!
Meanwhile, in North Africa, Augustine of Hippo was laboring on his masterwork The City of God, for this same era witnessed the crumbling of the Roman Empire. Alaric had crossed the frozen Rhine and sacked the Eternal City — Augustine and many others were attempting to make sense of this unwelcome new order.
The Christian historian Paulus Orosius was recording his own account of the cataclysms taking place, and in his History Against the Pagans, he would openly grieve the loss of “ubiquitous Christianity.” Four centuries later, a scribe in Britain would attempt to translate this phrase and the reality Orosius had eulogized into the English language.
He would coin the term, “Christendom.” 3
Patrick, having powerfully encountered the love, protection, consolation, and eventual deliverance of God during his horrific ordeal in Ireland, now sought to consecrate himself to priestly service. Yet his divine visions and dreams persisted. An unthinkable development was in the works.
One night Patrick had a vision of a man coming to him from Ireland bearing “countless letters.” The visitor, named Victoricus, handed him the first letter titled, “The Voice of the Irish.” As Patrick began to read the letter, a chorus of voices from the region where he had once been held captive cried out, “We beg you, holy boy, to come and walk again among us!”
“I was broken-hearted,” Patrick would recount, “and could not read on.” He woke up. (23)
A few nights later a mysterious voice came to him in a dream saying, “He that has laid down His life for you, it is He that speaketh in you!” Patrick awoke filled with joy. Yes, joy! He knew God was calling him back to Ireland. (24) When he announced his intent to the elders, he was met with derision and scorn — even having the sins of his personal history dredged up and slung at him. But he would not be deterred. (26)
Patrick’s Confession was in fact a defense of his actions; a recounting of what would follow over the next thirty years and a vindication of the call of God.
Fletcher presents Patrick’s decision quite starkly,
Patrick’s originality was that no one within western Christendom had thought such thoughts as these before, had ever previously been possessed by such convictions. As far as our evidence goes, he was the first person in Christian history to take up the scriptural injunctions literally; to grasp that teaching all nations meant teaching even barbarians who lived beyond the frontiers of the Roman empire.5
Even Augustine had no such vision but merely wished the barbarians repelled by sword. This was not the way of Patrick.
And to think, this was a man recovering from great distress and great trauma — a survivor of human trafficking — returning in joy to the place, and the people, and, as it would turn out, the person of his cruel captivity. Moreover, in the midst of a declining empire, Patrick had little interest in the waning ecclesial trappings and perks available to him. In the face of much resistance by recalcitrant church folk, Patrick did the unthinkable: he returned to Ireland.
“Now, it would be tedious to give a detailed account of all my labors or even part of them,” Patrick would write. “Let me tell you briefly.” (35) Yet even a brief telling is breathtaking.
Hence, how did it come to pass in Ireland that those who never had a knowledge of God, but until now always worshipped idols and things impure, have now been made a people of the Lord? (41)
Legend has it that Patrick went immediately back to his former master, Milchu, not only to share the message of Christ but also to pay the price due for his own ransom from slavery. A son of Milchu would eventually become an Irish bishop.
What is known with greater certainty is that Patrick began seeing converts among Irish women; noble princesses and widows alike joining him in the mission. He even worked among sex-slaves — “those enduring terror and threats” — and, despite persecution, they began to “follow Christ bravely.” (43)
Patrick was an unpopular and vexing figure. People would say of him, “Why does. this fellow throw himself into danger among enemies who have no knowledge of God?” (46) Reflecting upon the grace he experienced in such peculiar efforts, he would admonish, “Would that you, too, would strive for greater things and do better! This will be my glory, for a wise son is the glory of his father.” (47) His folly was proven glorious wisdom from God.
Through tireless and ranging efforts, Patrick would come to baptize thousands across Ireland — searching out secluded, dangerous districts “where nobody had ever come to baptize.” He was constantly threatened, often put in chains, and experienced more than a few miraculous escapes.
“With the grace of the Lord,” Patrick testified, “I did everything lovingly and gladly for your salvation.” (51)
Patrick would go on to establish church stations in every corner of the island. Although there were no civitates (city centers) in those times, and thus no civic life or structures into which he could integrate his churches, nevertheless Patrick did situate his outposts near centers of clan authority. But he did so for the purpose of mission and humane influence; both of which were realized. Historian Thomas Cahill writes,”He succeeded beyond measure. Within his lifetime or soon after his death, the Irish slave trade came to a halt, and other forms of violence such as murder and intertribal warfare, decreased.”6
Cahill says later of Patrick, he was “the first human being in the history of the world to speak out unequivocally against slavery.” It would be thirteen centuries more before abolitionism would emerge in earnest.
In his later years, Britain’s own civilization began to collapse, and Patrick found himself vying vigorously against the self-same practice of slave raiding now being inflicted upon Ireland by British marauders! Christians in Britain were loath to support him because they not only deemed the Irish substandard Christians but, in a form of proto-racialism, also not fully human; having never been citizens of Rome. The superior undertones which had caused Patrick such turmoil in his initial designs to reach the Irish were now expressing themselves in a more full-blown cruelty.
Britain, along with the rest of Europe, was succumbing to the Dark Ages: a five-hundred year period of social and cultural deterioration and chaos.
Patrick’s Ireland, on the other hand, was being utterly transfigured, inhabited by what he would come to call his “warrior children” — “seizing everlasting kingdoms” rather than the brutal seizures of yesteryear. Patrick’s redemptive imagination knew no bounds! The terrifying, ravenous pagan gods were driven out like the snakes of lore; new, benign acts associated with pleasing God were henceforth “absorbed completely into the New Imagination.” No longer “a shifting world of darkness,” Ireland was quick becoming a “solid world of light.” 8
But the story didn’t stop there. Not remotely. As Cahill carefully argues, the Irish, in fact, “saved civilization.” 9
He summarizes in dramatic fashion,10
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… the world that came after them would have been an entirely different one.
“I am,” confessed Patrick, “countryfied, an exile, evidently unlearned, one who is not able to see into the future.” Indeed, he could never have anticipated the future importance of his labor of love. Patrick’s legacy was not only the saving of an island but the saving of a civilization.
He was self-conscious about his lack of learning — the ripe years of his formal education lost to bondage and servitude. Historians and translators can confirm that his Latin is rough and limited. For this reason, he will likely never hold the prominence of an Augustine or Aquinas in the eyes of Western Christians. Yet it could be argued that his significance rivals any figure in Christian history.
I suggest, as much as any other saint, Patrick is most needed for our times.
Patrick said of himself, “I live as an alien among non-Roman peoples, an exile on account of the love of God.” 11 Fletcher notes, “The exile was quite literally dis-integrated from the protective and emotional fabric in which he had been cocooned and turned into a defenceless individual.” 12 To be an exile is to be without insulation.
Self-deprived, “on account of the love of God,” of familial, tribal, and even imperial possessions, Patrick could fearlessly cross cultural and geographical boundaries for the sake of a global and everlasting kingdom.
Behold, again and again would I set forth the words of my confession. I testify in truth and in joy of heart before God and His holy angels that I never had any reason except the Gospel and its promises why I should ever return to the people from whom once before I barely escaped. (61)
Fletcher wrote of Patrick, “A church which looked to Patrick as its founder would come to set a high value upon foreign missionary enterprise.” 13 And I would end by having us, too, “look to Patrick” as a model for our times.
Four features of his life stand out.
1. Patrick was neither constrained by his traumatic past nor his imperial privilege
The trauma of being kidnapped and enslaved as a young boy cannot be overstated. There is no doubt that Patrick’s life in Ireland was a succession of brutalities from which he ached to escape. Yet he somehow allowed God to write a surpassingly beautiful second act. Patrick was not dominated or held captive by his trauma, but he most certainly drew from its wells. His glimpse of Irish horrors and human plight awakened in him a fathomless compassion and determination to unseat the reign of darkness. He did not become embittered but rather empowered, and that to an unrivaled degree.
Even more, Patrick forsook the trappings of what would come to be called Christendom; voluntarily and in great joy. When he did so, he was derided and slandered. Can we not see the the beauty of Patrick’s life in contrast to the deformities of what Fletcher described as “the moral tradition which had corralled Christianity safely inside the city wall of the empire”? 14
How we must look to this saint who could walk in such liberation from those crippling forces of terror and control which dominate and darken our own world!
2. Patrick had a conciliatory spirit
As we recall, when Patrick heard the voice of the Irish, his heart was broken. When he perceived Christ’s call to return, his heart was overjoyed. I have written elsewhere about this, but the scope of what forgiveness and conciliation introduce into to our world is incalculable. When they are broadly withheld, we can sense their gangrene. When extended, they regenerate in exponential ripples. They hold cosmic power.
It is impossible to imagine Patrick having never worked out his forgiveness for the Irish in general and particular ways. His experience did not devolve, as one might expect, into racial hostility nor even calloused indifference. He saw, as we all must see, beyond the barbarism and violence to the “harassed and helpless” condition of the Irish people. Where we might have expected malice, instead emerged a munificence of love — the love of Christ in him.
“If I am most looked down upon, yet he inspired me, before others, so that I would faithfully serve the nations with awe and reverence and without blame: the nations to whom the love of Christ brought me.” (13)
3. Patrick loved barbarians
The word barbarian was a pejorative term for “the other.” Imagine a group of people sitting around ridiculing another group and making crude caricatures of their idiotic ways of speaking, and thinking, and acting. This is the idea behind barbarianism. No one thinks of themselves as a barbarian, yet this “bar-bar-bar!” form of caustic portrayal is how we barbarianize others. Most Roman Christians had come to have their moral lens warped by this inhumane othering.
But Patrick loved them. God Almighty, he loved them! While Roman Christians recoiled against the hordes of Visigoths stampeding across the frozen waters of the Rhine to trample their precious civilization, Patrick was boarding a vessel to cross over to them. In fact, Cahill suspects it was his fearless love that overcame the fearsome Irish.
“We can also be sure that the Irish found Patrick admirable according to their own highest standards: his courage — his refusal to be afraid of them.” And we remember the words of John, “Perfect love drives out fear.” (1 Jn 4:18)
It is easy to see the attractiveness of this love in the mission of Patrick, but we must also see the grotesqueness in the attitudes of those who hated barbarians. When Patrick decided to return to Ireland, the resistance was stiff. We might chalk this up to run-of-the-mill concern or the lull of “the comfort zone.” But, within Patrick’s lifetime, when savage British chieftains began filling the vacuum left by the departed Roman legions and took to raiding, pillaging, and terrorizing the Irish coastline, the cruelty of these Romanized Christians was thrown into troubling relief. Their resistance to Patrick’s Irish endeavors were only an expression of their pervasive and Christ-dishonoring disregard for the Irish.
Our inability to love barbarians is merely an expression of our own barbarism.
4. Patrick creatively transformed chaos into order
We shouldn’t be surprised to find that Patrick’s tireless efforts brought about great order. This is part of loving barbarians: you see and call forth the imago Dei concealed within barbaric behaviors. This is a plain Biblical anthropology.
Space cannot permit, but Patrick was also a master of cultural synthesis.
Patrick made an “amazing connection… between the Gospel story and Irish life.” Among all the Irish, both low and high, he “raised their status and dignity as human beings.” This cultural synthesis is seen in Patrick’s famous Breastplate poem: 5
All pathways by his feet are worn,
His strong heart stirs the ever-beating sea,
His crown of thorns is twined with every thorn,
His cross is every tree
Cahill puts it thus,
[T]here were aspects of Irish culture that Patrick had taken to heart and on which he chose to build his new Christianity. These aspects would have included Irish courage, which he admired greatly, but even more would he have been impressed by the natural mysticism of the Irish, which already told them the world was holy — all the world, not just parts of it. It was on this sturdy insight that Patrick choreographed the sacred dance of Irish sacramental life, a sacramentality not limited to the symbolic actions of the church’s liturgy but open to the whole created universe.
This is Cahill’s description of “how the Irish became Christian,” yet I would suggest Patrick offers us a pattern for how we might all become Christian — and civilization savers in kind.
We must be liberated from both the afflictions and infatuations of empire, we must be driven by a conciliatory spirit, we must love barbarians, and, through creative and holy forms of embrace, visit renewal upon the culture.
Hear Saint Patrick’s attestation,
So be amazed, all you people great and small who fear God! You well-educated people in authority, listen and examine this carefully. Who was it who called one as foolish as I am from the middle of those who are seen to be wise and experienced in law and powerful in speech and in everything? If I am most looked down upon, yet He inspired me, before others, so that I would faithfully serve the nations with awe and reverence and without blame: the nations to whom the love of Christ brought me. His gift was that I would spend my life, if I were worthy of it, to serving them in truth and with humility to the end. (13)
- “Patrick Confession” from John W. Coakley and Andrea Sterk, Readings in World Christian History I, 16th ed., vol. 1, 2 vols. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2004) 221. Parenthesis indicate chapter henceforth.
- Richard Fletcher, The Barbarian Conversion: From Paganism to Christianity (New York, N.Y.: Henry Hold and Company, Inc., 1997), 89.
- Diarmaid MacCulloch, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years (New York: Viking, 2010), 305.
- The Barbarian Conversion, 86.
- Ibid. In Thomas Cahill’s book How the Irish Saved Civilization, this point is affirmed: “What is remarkable is not that Patrick should have felt an overwhelming sense of mission but that in the four centuries between Paul and Patrick there are no missionaries.” (107)
- Thomas Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization (New York: Doubleday, 1995), 110.
- Ibid, 112.
- Ibid, 143-144.
- It is worth mentioning that Cahill certainly means “Western Civilization,” specifically the European traditions informed by Classical Greek thought, Roman civil order, and a Christian moral imagination. As Lesslie Newbigin observed in his book Proper Confidence, “It was this [Christian] story that shaped those barbarian tribes into the cultural and spiritual entity that made Europe something other than simply a peninsula of Asia.”
- How the Irish Saved Civilization, 3-4.
- From “Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus.“
- The Barbarian Conversion, 93.
- Ibid, 86.
- Ibid, 33.
- From “St. Patrick’s Breastplate” quoted in How the Irish Saved Civilization, 132-133.