The Life of Saint Patrick

So I am first of all a simple country person, a refugee, and unlearned. I do not know how to provide for the future. But this I know for certain, that before I was brought low, I was like a stone lying deep in the mud. Then he who is powerful came and in his mercy pulled me out, and lifted me up and placed me on the very top of the wall. That is why I must shout aloud in return to the Lord for such great good deeds of his, here and now and forever, which the human mind cannot measure.

–St. Patrick, Confessio 12 (Confession)

One of the reasons I enjoy history so much is to watch how  a series of seemingly disconnected threads weave their way together into the present–in such a way that we never could have guessed. 

Patrick’s Early Life

Take for example the curious case of St. Patrick, a person now synonymous with Ireland and Irishness who actually came from aristocratic British Roman stock. The path from Roman Brittania to Irish fame first required a period of captivity, escape from bondage, and a returning with a holy mission.

Born in Roman Brittania (perhaps Scotland or Wales) toward the end of the Roman era (probably in the 5th century), Patrick’s father was a man named Calpornius, a Roman officer and deacon in the Christian church. Patrick, whose real name was Maewyn Succat, was raised as a Christian, but as he mentions in his Confession, he was “quite drawn away from God,” and as a rebellious teenager, he shunned the church. 

Kidnapped and Enslaved

It was during this rebellious period (at age 16) that Patrick was captured during a series of raids by Irish pirates, who eventually sent Patrick to the northeast corner of Ireland (County Antrim) as a slave to shepherd the flocks of sheep and tend pigs in that region. For six years, Patrick shepherded flocks and reflected on the predicament that had removed him from the safety of his privileged life in England and into slavery in Ireland. 

Eventually, he would come to believe his enslavement was God’s punishment for deserting the faith he had received from his family. These six years were not wasted. As Patrick attests in his Confessio:

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 realize now, the spirit was burning in me at that time. (16)

And so God was doing a good work in Patrick, despite his enslavement. Isn’t that often the case with God? It is often in our darkest moments that He is shaping and reshaping us into his image.

A statue of St. Patrick above the door of a church in Belfast's City Centre, County Antrim.

Escape from Bondage

But, like Joseph in Egypt, God would not leave Patrick in this precarious position forever. After six years, Patrick had a dream that the ship he was to escape Ireland on was ready for him. The catch—the ship he dreamt was 200 miles away. But he escaped and boarded his ship to freedom.

Eventually he was reunited with his family, and if this were simply a worldly story, that probably would be the end of the story. His family rejoiced that their son, once lost, had been found. They begged him to remain home with them, never to travel again, due to the great risks associated with travel at that time.

The Call to Return

But God wasn’t quite done with Patrick, in fact, all the preparation of his enslavement had prepared him for this moment. And so one night, at home in safety, he recounts in his Confessio another dream:

It was while I was there that I saw, in a vision in the night, a man whose name was Victoricus coming as it were from Ireland with so many letters they could not be counted. He gave me one of these, and I read the beginning of the letter, the voice of the Irish people. While I was reading out the beginning of the letter, I thought I heard at that moment the voice of those who were beside the wood of Voclut, near the western sea. They called out as it were with one voice: “We beg you, holy boy, to come and walk again among us.” This touched my heart deeply, and I could not read any further; I woke up then. Thanks be to God, after many years the Lord granted them what they were calling for.

Even after receiving the dream, it was difficult for Patrick to heed the call. How could he leave the safety of his home, his family, for the very place of his enslavement? How could he effectively evangelize the uncivilized, disparate people that inhabited the island? 

Eventually, Patrick relented and despite his doubts, boarded a ship to Ireland, this time to bring the holy gospel to Ireland. Even if he didn’t drive out the snakes (there probably were never any snakes there in the first place), Patrick was at the center of a miraculous gospel movement in which the majority of the diverse inhabitants of the island accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior. 

That’s not to say it was easy. But Patrick, having spent significant time in Ireland, had a wealth of knowledge of how Ireland was organized, with various chieftains and clans ruling over different parts of Ireland. Patrick’s strategy was to begin with the chieftains, offering them gifts in exchange for the opportunity to share the gospel. 

It’s believed that one of Patrick’s first converts was his former enslaver, a man named Milchu. By the end of his life, Patrick had successfully converted clans across the island nation. Ireland would quickly earn a reputation for being a center of Christian culture, church vitality, and missions.

A Legacy and a Prayer

So even if St. Patrick has become synonymous with Irish beer, leprechauns and shamrocks (in other words, a personification of Ireland), it’s a great opportunity to remember the real life Patrick, who is a real-life hero. Someone who was willing to give up a cushy life so that others might experience the life-saving grace and goodness of the gospel of Jesus Christ. 

To close, I thought I would include a prayer of protection St. Patrick’s, known as St. Patrick’s Breastplate. As you now know, protection is something that Patrick needed quite a lot of in his life:

I rise today
with the power of God to pilot me,
God’s strength to sustain me,
God’s wisdom to guide me,
God’s eye to look ahead for me,
God’s ear to hear me,
God’s word to speak for me,
God’s hand to protect me,
God’s way before me,
God’s shield to defend me,
God’s host to deliver me,
from snares of devils,
from evil temptations,
from nature’s failings,
from all who wish to harm me,
far or near,
alone and in a crowd.

—Saint Patrick’s Breastplate

This Sunday, consider praying St. Patrick’s prayer with your congregation to remind them that there is more to the saint’s day than mere revelry. (Or consider singing it—“I bind unto myself today” trans. by  Cecil F. Alexander, found in many hymnals!)

A Celtic cross against a cloudy sky.

Stuart Strachan Jr. is an ordained Presbyterian Pastor as well as the founder and lead curator of the Pastor’s Workshop. His primary passion is equipping the saints for the ministry of the church (Ephesians 4). He loves preaching, teaching, and helping churches cast vision for what it means to follow Jesus in the 21st Century. He has served churches in a variety of capacities in California, Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Washington.

Stu is married to Colleen, who currently serves as a spiritual formation lead at Compassion International in Colorado Springs. Stu and Colleen have two children (Jack and Emma) whom they love deeply.

In his free time, Stu enjoys gardening, golf, reading a good book, and watching baseball.

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