With St. Patrick's Day today, there will be a surge of people wearing green, delivering pinches, and enjoying the enthusiasm of claiming even the tiniest fraction of Irish heritage. The legends of St. Patrick himself will likely experience an uptick in google searches as well. Between stories of an island devoid of snakes and shamrock explanations, people will leave their queries feeling they have a good enough understanding of the man behind the holiday. A pity really, because the historical St. Patrick is a thousand times more fascinating.
I myself had never done a lot of research on St. Patrick. As a kid, I had done some reading in school and had known that he was a missionary to the Irish after living in captivity there. I knew the legends that surrounded him and I was vaguely aware of some story involving a bonfire but I couldn't quite remember the details. This week though, in a foray into debunking the shamrock myth, I dusted off the old history degree and put my research skills to use. I may have also found a new historical hero.
St. Patrick as we know him was born in Roman settled Britain into an affluent well established family. It it's a delightful historical fact that Patrick essentially wrote an autobiography in the form a confession which gives an in depth look into his life that was extremely rare for that time. In this text, Patrick introduces his early life and path to Christianity. Though Christianity was an established concept that was a fixture in his society. Patrick himself never pursued a Christian walk. It was until he was fifteen or sixteen that his worldview was deeply challenged. His home attacked by Irish raiders, Patrick was taken back to Ireland and sold into slavery.
For years, Patrick endured harsh slavery at the hands of the Irish, but rather than feel abandoned, he began to turn to the God he had been so ambivalent about before. As he says in his confession: "After I arrived in Ireland, I tended sheep every day, and I prayed frequently during the day. More and more the love of God increased, and my sense of awe before God. Faith grew, and my spirit was moved, so that in one day I would pray up to one hundred times, and at night perhaps the same. I even remained in the woods and on the mountain, and I would rise to pray before dawn in snow and ice and rain. I never felt the worse for it, and I never felt lazy – as I realise now, the spirit was burning in me at that time."
After six years in Ireland, Patrick dreamt of a voice telling him that the time had come to escape and that a ship awaited him. Following this prompting, he traveled two hundred miles to the coast where a ship was waiting and the crew agreed to take him aboard. A boy transformed into a man by the years of slavery, Patrick was at last going home. While this might seem like a likely conclusion to Patrick's story (and I'm sure Patrick thought so too as he sailed away from Ireland), it seems God had further plans for the boy who had grown closer to him in faith.
Patrick endured even more hardships and more miracles just in returning home to his people, and when he did, he couldn't quite return to the unconcerned life that he had lead before. Deeply troubled by his lack of formal schooling, he began studying in the church and rose in respect and prominence as a bishop. And yet still, Patrick was destined for more.
All this became clear one night when Patrick had a dream in which a man delivered a letter to him that was the voice of the Irish people and they called to him in a way that would forever determine Patrick's mission for God: “We beg you, holy boy, to come and walk again among us.”. From then on there was no other choice in Patrick's mind. He was going back to Ireland.
From a modern standpoint, this may seem like an act for polite applause before we move on to the next thing, but take a moment to put yourself in Patrick's position. Imagine a group of people who ripped you from your homeland, only spared your life for your usefulness as a slave, and likely beat you and threatened to kill you daily. Imagine how when you escaped, it was the single greatest moment of your life and you thought that you had survived and you would never have to face those people again. And now, here's God, laying the task on your heart, no matter how great your fear, to take his Word to those people because he loves them.
The boldness and intelligence with which St. Patrick took the gospel to Ireland is staggering. Landing in Ireland with his missionary band, Patrick came to the conclusion that his mission had the best chance of success if he had the blessing and support of the regional king, and so begins the story of Tara and the bonfire.
The Irish of this time period had a complex religious system that depended on the worship of many gods and honoring the changes of the season. One such seasonal transition was marked by the lighting of a bonfire on a scared hilltop known as Tara. For the Irish, the king had the right to the biggest and best bonfire, and to light one's own bonfire before the king had lit his was to essentially challenge the sovereignty and authority of the king.
So what does Patrick do to get the king's attention ahead of this event? Lights the biggest bonfire he can from a neighboring hilltop and waits. It was only a matter of time before the entire court took notice of the flames in the dark. Incensed, the king sent out warriors to arrest Patrick and his companions and bring them to his court to explain themselves. Patrick boldly declared that the offense he had supposedly committed was not a threat because there was only one true God that he followed. In the presence of the king, Patrick proceeded to debate the druids of the court and led many to Christianity in this single event. It is unclear whether the King himself converted, but he was moved enough to allow Patrick to carry on his mission in his lands. Patrick went on to establish a lasting Christian movement in Ireland that took hold of the hearts of the Irish people. As Patrick triumphantly worded it in his confession: "Never before did they know of God except to serve idols and unclean things. But now, they have become the people of the Lord, and are called children of God. The sons and daughters of the leaders of the Irish are seen to be monks and virgins of Christ!"
The myths and legends of St. Patrick are all very well, but they are nothing compared to the boldness of the man who set aside all fear and bitterness to share God's love with the very people who had brutally stolen some of the best years of his life. This is a case where the real story far outweighs the legends in terms of the miraculous. This article of mine hardly does justice to St. Patrick's works for Christ. I strongly recommend reading through St. Patrick's confession in its entirety to experience firsthand the faith of a man that was so strong the words resonate with a reader hundreds of years after he wrote them.
The astonishing nature of St. Patrick's life had very little to do with snakes and shamrocks, but in the fearless faith of a man who listened to God's call in his life in dedicated obedience. That's the real legend of St. Patrick.
Let's find some joy,
St. Patrick of Ireland: A biography, Philip Freeman
Confessio, St. Patrick