Celtic Cross in Yorkshire
The Saint of
The patron saint of the Irish, Patrick was born and raised in Britain until he was kidnapped by Irish pirates, and taken as a slave to Ireland.
Growing up in Britain at the end of the 4th century, Patrick did not give anyone the impression he would become a saint. Then his life changed. He was kidnapped by pirates and taken west across the sea, to be sold into slavery in Ireland.
A teenager, he found himself living outside, herding sheep somewhere in the green glens of Antrim. He was cold and hungry and 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 - it could not have been a moment too soon - 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 allowed to board. 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 the Roman Empire.
A sunny sanctuary
Still uncertain of his future, but following his visionary 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. Inhaling 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 boat over the horizon.
At the monastery the monks maintained a civilized belief in books and in the siesta. Patrick learned Latin, though not very well, and the parables of Christ by heart. He began to think he could live a companionable life, shielded from the hectic life outside, forever.
It was only in his dreams that the ship returned, and he saw the outstretched arms of the Irish imploring him to return, and heard their voices calling to him from across the water. Among those voices was one voice he could not forget, from his boyhood. But for a long time, fear kept him motionless.
He was a priest and a preacher 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.”
There are people who ignore their visions and die filled with regrets. Patrick ignored his visions until he was middle aged. Then he made the free but frightening decision to return to the people who had kidnapped and enslaved him, and preach the love of God. He faced violence, betrayal, church snobbery, and his own fears.
Return to Eire
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, travelling through the wilderness that was Gaul. He sailed over the turbulent northern waters, heading toward the cold, green island where there was not one book and where, years earlier, he had spent six years as a hungry, naked slave boy.
It was early in the fifth century. The island rose darkly on the horizon like the ship of captivity. This was the dreaded country of his servitude, but it was also the place, he would later write, where poverty and calamity have been 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 was not enthusiastic about theatrical impersonation.
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
Living as if God’s strength piloted him, he travelled around Ireland. He loved the people he met and founded a community of fellowship. There 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 community. 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 is simple -
People experienced the gospel for themselves by becoming part of the 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, and the Irish had the sense to be impressed. 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. . .
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 this 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 starry blue flowers of the periwinkle open, and the dog-tooth violets lift nodding blooms on crook-shaped stems. 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, giving hope to us that it isn't too late to transform ours.
I arise today!
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Patrick described his adventures in his Confession.
An Anglican priest with two rural parishes and an inner-city congregation, Van de Weyer describes the gifts of Celtic saints in Britain and Ireland.
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