Imagine being a privileged young Briton of the early fifth
century, whose father was a Roman civil servant and whose
grandfather was a priest - and then, in your early or middle
teenaged years, being kidnapped by plundering invaders and
taken to an alien land, where the people were pagan and you
were suddenly a slave, put to work on a hillside herding and
tending someone else's sheep.
These are the events of the early life of St. Patrick, the
patron saint of Ireland.
It was Ireland to which he was taken after his village in
Scotland was overrun by the raiding party. It was Ireland in
which he lived for the next six years - during which he
became so fluent in the language that later, when he
returned as a missionary, he was able to communicate
faultlessly with both high- and low-born, and to be
incredibly successful as an evangelist, teacher, and
establisher of churches.
Somehow, with God's hand on him, Patrick's formative years
produced neither a resentful, embittered antagonist nor
a despondent, despairing pessimist, but rather a humble,
pious, gentle, mature individual who loved and trusted God
absolutely and devoted the rest of his life - until his death
on March 17 in or about the year 461 - to serving God in
the place where he had been a slave of men.
During those half-dozen years in the land of pagans and
Druids, he learned to communicate with the Almighty in a
way he had not at home, even in a Christian household
headed by a priest. He wrote, "The love of God. . .grew in
me more and more. . .my soul was roused. . .I prayed in the
woods and on the mountain, even before dawn. . .felt no hurt
from the snow or ice or rain." He prayed almost without
ceasing - probably remembering prayers he'd been taught
and adding to them the rejoicings and petitions of a captive
who was free in spirit.
When he was about twenty, he had a dream, or a nighttime
vision, in which he was instructed to be ready for a brave
effort: to travel alone some 200 miles, to a place on the
seacoast where he would find a ship which would take him
Accordingly, he ran away from his master; and he did find the
ship. At first, the sailors scoffed at his request for free
passage. But then, the stories say, he prayed silently; and the
sailors called out to him to come aboard. After a three-day
voyage, they reached landfall and trekked for another month
through uninhabited land before young Patrick was reunited
with his delighted family.
Of course they begged him to be careful never to leave
again; but they could not know that Patrick was to have
This one was of the people of Ireland, and they were calling
out to him: "We beg you, holy youth, to come and walk
amongst us once more."
He prepared to do just that: was educated, ordained, made
priest and then bishop, commissioned to preach the gospel
to the Celtic people. He was probably in his early thirties
when he arrived again in Ireland; the traditional date is 432
AD, the traditional place is Slane (which, by the way, is the
name of the hauntingly beautiful tune to which is set the
hymn, "Be Thou My Vision"). What he was returning to
was a well-established pagan Celtic society, but one which
readily accepted Christianity.
This, of course, is where so many legends that are told and
retold every St. Patrick's Day were born. Or fabricated. At
any rate, they were believed. And all the stories, both real
and fanciful, illustrate something of the sort of consecrated
servant Patrick was.
Even the narrative of how he drove all the snakes out of
Ireland by beating his drum - and utilized trickery to get the
biggest into a box, which he then hurled into the sea -
symbolizes his putting an end to the venomous pagan practices
for which serpents were the symbol.
Another story has him encountering a pagan chieftain
named Dichu just after he reached his mission territory.
Dichu attempted to murder Patrick - but then found his arm
was paralyzed. He was converted and became a friend, and
movement was restored.
Sure it is that Patrick preached the Gospel throughout
Ireland, and that many thousands of souls were converted
upon hearing the message he brought.
And surely, his plucking of a shamrock and pointing out
how it's possible for something to be three, and yet ever
one, stands as a classic object lesson to help people
understand the Holy Trinity.
A lovely legend is how Patrick lit the Easter bonfire: On a
night when it was forbidden to kindle any fire anywhere in
Ireland before the high king's own royal blaze was visible at
Tara, Patrick caused a flame to be lit in honor of the
Resurrection. The punishment for such an action was death -
but when the king's men came to douse the Paschal fire and
kill those who had kindled it, the flames would not go out;
and Patrick, with his companions, baffled and evaded the
druids by assuming the shapes of deer, in which they
reached Tara, where many were converted.
Another has it that one day, while preaching a sermon on
the patience and suffering of Christ to King Aengus,
Patrick accidentally drove his staff right through the
King's foot. The good King, thinking this was the moral of
the sermon, made no sound of complaint. When Patrick
realized what had happened, he prayed - and the king's
foot was miraculously cured.
The final legend surrounding this saint is that when he
died (at Saul, where he had built the first church), his
shrouded was placed on a cart drawn by two white oxen.
Unreined, they wandered to a place called Downpatrick,
where he was buried under a simple cross on a granite
boulder. For twelve days and nights, the sun shone in the
sky, refusing to set and make a new day without him.
The "Lorica," or "Breastplate," of St. Patrick has been
called "part prayer, part anthem, and part incantation." It
includes these timeless words:
Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of every man who speaks of me,
Christ in the eye that sees me,
Christ in the ear that hears me.