Who Was St. Patrick?

17 Mar 2020

Who was Saint Patrick, the patron saint of the Irish whose name represents all things green?

Because of the holiday—St. Patrick’s Day celebrated every March 17th—you might think this historical figure was an Irishman who drank green beer. In fact, neither is true.

Saint Patrick was actually born in Scotland or Wales to parents who were Romans living as colonial bureaucrats in Britain!

Born around 385, Patrick is surely to have drunk beer or ale as it was called then. People drank a lot of beer back then because it was cleaner than water (that could give you nasty parasites and diseases). But as everybody knows, ale is more of a meal in a glass, and generally much darker than the standard pilsners and lagers from my Germanic ancestors and other Europeans. I don’t think they had green food coloring then; making beer (and rivers) green is an Irish-American invention meant to celebrate ethnicity.

Patrick would have grown up with some privilege, as his parents worked for Roman occupiers. However, in his teens, a raiding party (that’s what they did back then) invaded and kidnapped Patrick off to Ireland, where he was made to herd sheep.

It was as a slave in Ireland that he encountered God. There is nothing like captivity or other unpleasant circumstances to get you on your knees. He later wrote, “The love of God and his fear grew in me more and more, as did the faith, and my soul was roused, so that, in a single day, I have said as many as a hundred prayers and in the night, nearly the same…I prayed in the woods and on the mountain, even before dawn. I felt no hurt from the snow or ice or rain.”

After about six years of captivity, Patrick managed to escape and caught a ship back to Britain. Patrick had another dream telling him to go back to Ireland as a missionary.

Though he was fairly uneducated, Patrick began to study for the priesthood and was eventually ordained a bishop. He was then commissioned to take the gospel to Ireland, which he obediently did.

Patrick preached the Christian message throughout his adopted land. Centuries later, Celtic Christianity remains a refreshing model in modern times. (I recommend the book, Christ of the Celts, and other works by John Philip Newell.)

One icon that has come to symbolize Ireland is the cloverleaf. Legend has it that Saint Patrick used the 3-leaf clover to explain the Trinity, the concept that God is actually three persons, revealed in the bible as the Father, Jesus (the Son), and the Holy Spirit. What a simple but brilliant artifact that would have helped his illiterate audiences understand the most profound truth. A cloverleaf has no hierarchy, all the leaves are equal yet distinct.

Lessons we can learn from Saint Patrick:

  • Saint Patrick faced his shadow self. He admitted his mistakes, calling himself, “a sinner and most humble countryman,” and called himself, “imperfect in many things.”
  • He was unapologetic about his faith, even before he was educated. “I cannot keep silent, nor would it be proper, so many favors and graces have the Lord deigned to bestow on me in the land of my captivity.”
  • He took risks to fulfill his calling. Seriously, would you or I return to a land where we had been captive? “If I have any worth, it is to live my life for God so as to teach these peoples; even though some of them still look down on me.”
  • He listened and read the times. Whether it was a dream or the convictions of his heart, he followed one greater than himself. “I heard a voice saying to me: “You do well to fast: soon you will depart for your home country.” And again, a very short time later, there was a voice prophesying: “Behold, your ship is ready.” He also wrote, “I would not cause offense to readers, but I have God as a witness who knew all things even before they happened, that, though I was a poor ignorant waif, still he gave me abundant warnings through divine prophecy.”
  • He overcame obstacles. After he escaped captivity, he still had to travel some 200 miles to reach the ship that would carry him back to Britain.
  • He was a man of contemplation. “I used to stay out in the forests and on the mountain and I would wake up before daylight to pray in the snow, in icy coldness, in rain, and I used to feel neither ill nor any slothfulness, because, as I now see, the Spirit was burning in me at that time.”
  • He was not overly concerned with what others thought of him. “Let anyone laugh and taunt if he so wishes. I am not keeping silent, nor am I hiding the signs and wonders that were shown to me by the Lord many years before they happened, who knew everything, even before the beginning of time.”

As you or think about St. Patrick, consider the person for whom the holiday was named. It may give you some perspective and help you contemplate a life from which we can learn much.

Patrick was so beloved by the Irish that he became a national treasure and was sainted. This one-man accomplished so much; he left an amazing legacy. What will we leave behind?

Sources:

St. Patrick. Catholic online: http://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=89

All quotes are taken from Saint Patrick via Wikiquote: http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Saint_Patrick

The stained glass image is from Cathedral of Christ the Light, Oakland, CA, courtesy of Wikmedia Commons in compliance with Creative Commons licenses.

 

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