There are so many fables revolving around the story of Saint Patrick, but I will not refer to them here except to say that they do serve a purpose. Are they true? No, I think we can confidently say that they are not. Are they useful? Yes, I think we can equally say that they are. By examining the folklore surrounding Saint Patrick’s life we can uncover a great deal about the kind of man he was. For example, by the fable of how a young Patrick used a few drops of water to create fire in order to show his nurse that with God all things are possible, we discover from this fable that Patrick was a man of faith who believed that with God all things are possible.
But throughout this post we will be less concerned with Saint Patrick, the legend, and more interested in Patricius – the rebellious (perhaps murderous) Briton whose dramatic kidnapping at age 16 introduced him to God the Messiah, which in turn ignited a fire where no other Christian dared venture with a match, which in turn (no doubt with God’s sovereign help) resulted in the salvage of civilization.
The Context of Patricius
If you have seen this movie…
… then you already have a good idea of the context in which Patrick was born. Sometime between the years 390 and 410 A.D. the Roman Empire began to withdraw its troops from Britain in order to defend against the more immediate threat to the north, namely the Visigoths who, in the year 410, sacked Rome itself (more on this in the concluding post). As a result Britain became exposed to constant raids by the savages from across Hadrian’s Wall and along its western coast.
The raiders by sea which I speak of were the Irish who were in constant search of young Britons to bring back to Ireland in order to make them into slaves.
To Irish-Land and Back
Patrick was raised in the aristocratic nobility. His father was a deacon in the Roman Church, a powerful, influential and very rich Briton. His family where “Christian” in the sense that they were “Roman”. No Roman could be aristocratic rich and not be a “Christian”; it did not just come with the bundle, it was the bundle. But Patrick, by his own admission, never believed in the God which his family subscribed to. He was spoiled, carefree and probably a murderer (most scholars I’ve read believe that Patrick’s unnamed sin which he committed at 15 was that he probably killed a household slave for something or other).
Patrick’s carefree life would come to a screeching halt when, at age 16, an Irish band of raiders swooped upon Patrick’s plantation and stole him away to sell off to cruel Irish landowners/kings. For the next six years Patrick would shepherd an Irish flock for a chief/king, his only protector who cared nothing for his life.
We do know that Patrick had two companions though, while in the field: hunger and nakedness. Alone, hungry and cold to the bone in the most savage land in all the world with the constant fear that one day, any day, some strange brute Irishman will come over the hill while young Patrick is tending flock, and strip his life from him. It is out of this constant fear and suffering that Patrick did two things; he learned to crudely speak the language of the Irish, and more importantly, he began to do what everyone – even the atheist – would do in such a situation, he began to pray.
During his six years in bondage and isolation Patrick had gone from being a careless boy to something he would surely never otherwise have become – a holy man. Indeed, beyond a holy man, Patrick became a visionary. Israel wandered the wilderness before they entered the promised land, Paul spent over a decade in Arabia before he fulfilled his call to the Gentiles, and Patrick would spend six years in isolation before he would hear a mysterious voice in a dream say “Your hungers are rewarded: you are going home. Look, your ship is ready”.
Patrick got up that night and journeyed 100 miles to the coast, a dangerous task for any homegrown Irishman, an impossible task for a foreigner fugitive. Yet somehow he made it all the way to the shipyard without being spotted. When he tried to board a ship the captain turned him away, and as he left a crewman yelled to him, “Come, we’ll take you on trust”.
It would still be several years before he would see his family again. Shipwrecked, a hungry crew, a Jonah experience (which I don’t have space to share) and finally he would see his kin.
His family welcomed him – they had fully expected to never see him again – and they pleaded with him (perhaps the plead of a desperate and grieved mother), “They asked me in faith” Patrick recorded, “that after the great tribulation I had endured, I should not go anywhere else away from them”. His family would plead that Patrick would never leave their close side again.
But on that very night Patrick would have another vision that would shatter his family’s hopes.
The Voice of the Irish
Patrick describes the vision:
“And, of course, there, in a vision of the night, I saw a man whose name was Victoricus coming as if from Ireland with innumerable letters, and he gave me one of them, and I read the beginning of the letter: “The Voice of the Irish”; and as I was reading the beginning of the letter I seemed at that moment to hear the voice of those who were beside the forest of Foclut which is near the western sea, and they were crying as if with one voice: “We beg you, holy youth, that you shall come and shall walk again among us.” And I was stung intensely in my heart so that I could read no more.”
Patrick had a second dream though not well-known. It was a vision of “learned men”, Patrick could barely discern what they were saying, keeping in mind that his education was incomplete and that he was infinitely beneath the education level of his peers. He spoke bad Latin mixed with poor Irish. But from this dream he discerned that before he would return to Ireland, he must first venture into the fearful waters of the “priesthood”. As one writer put it:
“If Patrick felt any hesitation about returning to Ireland, however, he didn’t mention it… [but] the way back to Ireland would lead Patrick first through training for the priesthood. Judging from the way these two visions play out – and from Patrick’s almost obsessive concern with his own lack of education – it was priestly training, not Ireland, that held real terror for Patrick.”
***To Be Continued… How Did the Irish Become Christian?***