Friday, March 17, 2023

The Real St. Patrick

The arrival of St. Patrick’s Day will elicit various celebrations. For instance, there will be much made of the uniqueness of the Irish race but, at least for the duration of the holiday, the non-Irish are invited to participate in the fun: sporting green clothing, wearing leprechaun decorations, pinching, eating corned beef sandwiches, politically-correct parades, and painting big green shamrocks in the public streets...usually outside the taverns.

It's all strange behavior and quite irrelevant to the memory of St. Patrick. Indeed, when one bothers to look beneath the pagan coverings of St. Patrick's Day to the man himself, one finds a truly noble Christian hero. So, let’s take a look at the historical figure of Saint Patrick. Let’s ignore the silliness and learn the lessons God would teach us about a faithful, zealous servant of Christ.

You might know the legends - how Patrick expelled the snakes from Ireland; how he explained the Trinity by reference to the shamrock; and so on. But the historical Patrick is more intriguing and inspirational than even the Patrick of legend.

The first revealing fact is that Patrick was not Irish! He was a Scot by birth, the son of a decurio (town councilor) who served as a deacon in the church. His grandfather was also a man of the cloth. While still a youth, Patrick was captured by Irish pirates and reduced to slavery there. It was a life devoted to tending his master’s goat and sheep herds but Patrick finally began to find a measure of comfort and strength through prayer. This was in dramatic contrast to his earlier years in Britain when, as Patrick himself described it, he “knew not the true God” and did not heed the “clerical admonitions for salvation.”

Patrick escaped from his slavery -- after six years -- and made his way to a port some 200 miles away on the southeast coast of Ireland. He persuaded some sailors to take him with them, but it would still be a long time before Patrick reached home. In fact, there were various adventures in foreign lands ahead, including days where he nearly starved to death. But God was gracious to him and Patrick finally returned to his family, though very much changed. He had embraced the Christian faith of his family by his own convictions now. And he embraced too the call of service in Christ’s kingdom.

Patrick first received a basic clerical training. This would have included instruction using the Latin Bible (which he came to know well) but it was not a highly academic education, the lack of which he always regretted and for which he was sometimes criticized in later years by his enemies. His own Latin writings are certainly inelegant, even at times rustic, but they reflect a purity and power arising from a heart dedicated to the Lord.

Then, in a remarkable display of compassion and courage, Patrick decided to return to Ireland. By his own choice, he returned to the land where he had been worked as a slave, this time to bring the liberating message of the gospel. This was in 435.

Patrick worked principally in the North with his base at Armagh. It was from here that he made his many missionary journeys among the heathen Celtic tribes. Those efforts were blessed by God and were very successful. Patrick was a tireless worker, an expert organizer, and a man of consecrated prayer. By the end of his life, he had planted over 200 congregations and introduced thousands to the true religion of Jesus Christ.

Patrick’s most crucial goals were confrontational and were pursued with tremendous zeal -- abolishing paganism, idolatry, and sun-worship. He was ready for imprisonment or even death in following Christ. Nevertheless, he was generally popular. He made no distinction of classes; he was simple and unpretentious; he was compassionate and humble.  And he never forgot his origins. Indeed, Patrick retained, even in his old age, vivid memories of being an unlearned exile, a slave, a desperate fugitive, and a lost soul who, by the incredible mercies of God, had learned to trust wholly in the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross for his salvation.

Patrick lives in example, but he also lives through his writings, the earliest to still survive from the British church. They are his Confession (his autobiography), the Letter to Coroticus (which was a protest against British slave-traders), and the Lorica (translated “Breastplate”) which stands as one of the most beautiful pieces of ancient Christian literature. Here's a passage from the latter:

May the strength of God pilot us.
May the power of God preserve us.
May the wisdom of God instruct us.
May the hand of God protect us.
May the way of God direct us.
May the shield of God defend us.
May the hosts of God guard us against the snares of the Evil One and the temptations of the world.
May Christ be with us. Christ before us.
Christ in us. Christ over us.
May thy salvation, O Lord, be always ours this day and for evermore.

(The above text is a recently edited version of a “Vital Signs” radio transcript I wrote back in the 90s...maybe even the 80s. Yipes!)