I arise today through a mighty strength …
— St. Patrick, The Lorica
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Patrick, celebrated today chiefly as the patron saint of beer busts and Guinness guzzlers, would be more than a little surprised at his modern reputation. It’s true that an old Irish song makes him out to have been a great tippler himself –
No wonder that them Irish boys should be so gay and frisky,
Sure St. Pat he taught them that as well as making whiskey.
No wonder that the saint himself should understand distillin’,
For his mother kept a shebeen shop near the town of Enniskillen.
(“Patrick Was A Gentleman”)
— but, for all that, there is not a shred of evidence to suggest that the real St. Patrick ever indulged in such frivolities. We do know that he lived a life of hardship and rigorous spiritual discipline, and that he often devoted long night vigils to serious study and intense communion with God. If ever there were a true Pilgrim in the earth, it was Patrick of Ireland.
Though the same song claims that “his father was a Gallagher and his mother was a Grady,” the fact of the matter is that Patrick was not Irish at all. He was actually an alien, a stranger and sojourner in the Emerald Isle, a foreigner on a desperate mission, a suffering servant and slave to both man and God. Son of the Decurion Calpurnius and his wife Concessa, Patricius or Patrick (known as Sucat in the ancient Brythonic tongue) was born into luxury as a Roman citizen somewhere near the west coast of Britain around the year 387.
When about sixteen years of age, Patrick was captured by Irish sea raiders and sold into slavery in Dalaradia, a kingdom of Ulidia (modern Ulster) in Northern Ireland, near the mountains of Antrim. There he served a cruel master named Miliucc who shaved his head, dressed him in rags, beat him, cursed him, fed him with the animals, and put him to work herding sheep and swine on the slopes of Slieve Miss (modern Slemish).
Patrick had been raised in the Christian faith, but, like many of us who grow up in “religious” homes, it was not until he found himself plunged into the depths of pain, sorrow, and despair that he experienced the power and reality of God in a deep and meaningful way. In his Confession he tells us that it was there on the hillside among the sheep, pelted by rain, snow, and hail, hounded by hunger, and tormented by thoughts of his long lost home, that he first became acquainted with his true Master. There he learned to pray and discovered that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Stripped of everything else in which a human being might place his trust, he put his confidence in God alone. In his loneliness, he pledged his life to the service of his Creator.
Since there were no “shebeen shops” in the neighborhood, the young shepherd had to sustain himself on what some might call meager fare: a diet of watchings, fastings, and prayer. One night when he was about twenty-two, a voice came to him as he dozed among the rocks: “You have fasted well and will soon go to your own country. Behold, your ship is ready.”
Trusting in the vision, Patrick immediately set out for the sea-coast. After a journey of more than two hundred miles, he came to a port where lay a ship bound for Britain and the Continent. When the penniless slave asked for passage, the sailors turned him away with harsh words. But as he was shuffling off in confusion and despondency, one of them had a change of heart and called him back. “We’ll take you on good faith,” he said. “You can pay us when you’re able.”
The next twenty years are something of a blur. We know that, in large part, Patrick spent them studying the Scriptures and taking orders in the church, probably in Wales and other parts of Britain, possibly for a time in northern France. What is absolutely certain is that, after nearly two decades of preparing himself for ministry, another vision came to him in the night watches. This time an angelic courier brought him a packet of letters. In one of them he read the words, “The Voice of the Irish.” That was all, but it was enough. Patrick knew exactly what it meant.
So great was his confidence in the God of the vision that he did not hesitate for a moment to obey what he understood to be its message. In an instant he saw plainly that his apostolate and ministry were to be spent among the Irish, a people he had every reason to regard with hatred and fear. Those who had enslaved and humiliated him were calling out to him to “come over and help them.” From that point forward his course was clear.
The rest, as they say, is history – a history that, unfortunately, is known to precious few. Patrick’s was the first of many peregrinations to be made by successive generations of Irish and Celtic Pilgrims – men like Columba, Columbanus, Brendan, Aidan, and Cuthbert. Historians agree that these pilgrimages changed the face of Europe. But none of them would have come about were it not for Patrick’s unquestioning confidence in the One who called him to so difficult a task – the confidence that, in later life, inspired him to pen the following words:
I arise today
Through the strength of heaven …
Christ to shield me today
Against poison, against burning,
Against drowning, against wounding …
Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me …
Christ in the heart of every one who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of every one who speaks of me.
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