He was first a Briton then a Christian then an Irishman, and finally the middle-aged saint of second chances, love and freedom.
Celtic Cross in Northumbria
The patron saint of the Irish, Patrick was born in Britain and raised there until he was kidnapped.
Toward the end of the 4th century, a teenager in Britain, Patrick was kidnapped by pirates and taken west across the sea, to be sold into slavery in Ireland.
He was forced to tend sheep, somewhere in the green glens of Antrim. He was often cold and hungry and always at the mercy of those who owned him. Out of desperation he slowly returned to his childhood faith in Christ. For six years he survived, and prayed. One night he heard the voice of God telling him it was time to leave.
Patrick walked south. Incredibly no one stopped the runaway slave. He reached Wexford, but couldn't find a ship that would take him. Then, just as a ship carrying wolfhounds to Gaul shipped anchor, he was invited on board. He was thrilled, but a bit nonplussed when the sailors offered him their nipples to be kissed - a sign of welcome.
They landed in Europe, only to discover desolation. Tribes had recently crossed the frozen Rhine and devastated Gaul. Desperate for food, and despite the skepticism of the captain, Patrick prayed. A herd of pigs snuffled into view. . .
A sunny sanctuary
Still uncertain of his future, but following his inner voice, Patrick made his way across Gaul to a monastery on the sunny little island now called St. Honorat, which lay in the Mediterranean, not far from Cannes.
There he studied, prayed, and breathed in southern warmth and the scents of lavender and basil, lemon and roses. His six years of slavery in Ireland disappeared from his mind like a ship over the horizon.
At the monastery the monks maintained a civilized belief in books and the siesta. Patrick learned Latin, though not very well, and the parables of Christ. He began to think he could live a comfortable life forever.
It was only in his dreams that the ship returned, and he saw the outstretched arms of the Irish imploring him to come back, and heard their voices calling to him from across the water. But for a long time, fear kept him motionless.
He became a priest, and was approaching middle age when he had another visionary dream. He heard a voice say, “He who has given his own soul for you, He it is who speaks in you. Come back to Eire and free us.”
Patrick made the free but frightening decision to return to the people who had kidnapped and enslaved him, and preach the love of God. He would have to face his own fears, church snobbery, betrayal and violence.
Return to Ireland
All too aware of the dangers and his own modest abilities, Patrick left the warm scents of the Mediterranean, the sun, and the sea, the easy comradeship and the library of books, and crossed the mountains to the north. He sailed over the turbulent northern waters, heading toward the green island where there was not one book and where, years earlier, he had spent six years as a hungry, naked slave boy.
This was early in the fifth century. Ireland rose on the horizon like the ship of captivity. This was the place, Patrick would later write, where poverty and calamity were better for me than riches.
Faced with assault and assassination, Patrick made the daring decision to give himself to God, though as he observed, he had to give his whole self sincerely, since God wasn't an admirer of impersonations.
Patrick was said to have sung Faeth Fiadha, the Deer’s Cry as he travelled through Ireland –
I arise today through the strength of heaven
light of sun,
radiance of moon,
splendour of fire,
speed of lightning
swiftness of wind,
depth of sea,
stability of earth,
firmness of rock.
I arise today through God's strength to pilot me. . .
With God’s strength behind him, Patrick founded communities of fellowship. He taught the Gospel by living it.
Despite local hostility, his first community grew as he healed the sick, gave pastoral care, and preached. When Patrick was sure the community could survive, he travelled on with his crook-shaped staff.
A few members from the first fellowship came with him to help him plant the second. As the second community grew, Patrick branched out and started several more. He was attacked and, at least once, held captive. That he was not killed was due, he wrote simply, to “the Lord.”
His communities were a stunning turnaround in a land where men and women had often waged bloody tribal wars over the ownership of cattle and slaves. The reason for their change of heart appears to be -
People became part of vibrant and loving Christian community; and the existence of such communities was the living evidence for the truth proclaimed (Celtic Gifts, Robert Van de Weyer).
Defending freedom, attacking slavery
Patrick embodied love, fearlessness and generosity. He never hesitated to attack the accepted, profitable way of doing things if he thought it was wrong.
The Greek playwright Euripides is the first man in recorded history to denounce slavery--that thing of evil, by its nature evil, forcing a man to submit to what no man should submit to. Patrick was the second –
Patricide, fratricide! ravening wolves eating up the people of the Lord as if it were bread!. . .I beseech you earnestly, it is not right to pay court to such men nor to take food and drink in their company, nor is it right to accept their alms, until they by doing strict penance with shedding of tears make amends before God and free the servants of God. . .From Patrick's Confessions
Germans and Celts called their kinfolk ‘free,’ a word that meant they were ‘dear’ to them and so had personal rights and liberty of action not given to slaves. Patrick declared that everyone was dear to God, and therefore everyone should be free. He created communities that defended and nurtured freedom out of his belief that that is what God wanted.
The Venerable Bede, writing in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, reported that the communities which Patrick founded in Ireland became havens of education for young English men. After Patrick's death, Colum Cille brought Christ's teachings of love and peace, promise-keeping and forgiveness to Iona; Aidan, who trained at Iona, brought them to strife-torn Northumbria.
Patrick laid down his crook-shaped staff at a time of year when the gray trees stand bare, throwing the shadows of their branches across the green grass, the white daisies and the dog-tooth violets. After he was gone, he seemed to those who knew him to be the best part of themselves, the slave who had returned to the place of his servitude to free slaves, the middle aged man who had dared to let his life be transformed.
I arise today!