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 home.
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 another dream.
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.