From the Lesson this morning:
Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” (Gen. 12:1)
And from the Gospel, the words of Jesus:
The wind blows where it will and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit. (John 3:8)
Now that the rather stupid brouhaha about the parade is resolved, there will be a great deal of hooray and hoopla in this city next Friday, and heaven only knows how many megatons of corned beef and cabbage and gallons of Guinness will be consumed. All in honor of Patrick, St. Patrick, the Apostle to Ireland. Hearing about all this hubbub on the radio caused me to wonder: how much do those, who will be so resolutely and sometimes recklessly, celebrating actually know about the man whose name they invoke? Indeed, how much did I know about Patrick? Not a great deal. And this was a pity and a lack on my part, for the man lived an extraordinary life and much of what we know comes from the saint himself.
Near the end of his life he wrote a kind of spiritual autobiography as a defense against his detractors. And he had many of them. Patrick was not Irish and, because of that, he was never quite accepted by the people and the land he managed to convert. He was accused of all manner of wrongdoing and in his book, My Confession Before I Die, he defends himself and gives us a vivid self-portrait of a deeply humble, totally committed man, who took his mission, but not himself, very seriously.
The details in this document are not always what one might hope for. He tells us, for instance, that he was born and grew up in a village known as Bannaventa Berniae. He neglects, however, to tell us just where that village was. Most scholars place it in what we now know as Scotland, though some say Wales. But this is so uncertain that some French ecclesiastics have ventured to claim Patrick for themselves. And it is true that he spent a great deal of time – nearly twenty years – in what is now France, but . . . can it be? Can it really be? The Apostle to the Irish – a Frenchman? In this claim, what we see perhaps is the Gallic mind being guided by the unspoken, but undoubted maxim: “Whatever is French is good; therefore, whatever is good must be French.”
At any rate, what we know for certain is that Patrick was born in the last decade of the fourth century, and that his father was an administrator in the bureaucracy of Roman Britain – educated, upper class, both parents from highly respected Roman families. Their son, therefore, doubtless grew up in a comfortable and wealthy situation. But. . . he also grew up as a Christian. Patrick’s grandfather had been a priest; his father was a deacon in the local church, and so Patrick was at least raised to be a Christian believer. And yet – by his own admission – his faith meant very little to him as a young man. That is, until his life was changed abruptly. In fact, it was turned completely upside down.
The wind blows where it will, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.
A band of Irish pirates attacked the town in which his family lived, destroyed his father’s house and killed his servants, and Patrick – then sixteen – was captured and taken to Ireland to be sold into slavery. He was dressed in skins and sandals. His head was shaved and he was branded. This done, so that his station in life would be obvious if he tried to escape. And he spent the next six years in slavery to a Druid priest, which gave him the unexpected and, of course, unsought-for opportunity to learn the Irish language and to learn about the religion which would later defeat with his conversions. His job as a slave was to be a shepherd, and he spent his days alone with his master’s flocks.
Though we may not like it, we all know – don’t we? – that adversity is not the worst thing that can happen to a person. Often, in fact, God uses adversity to open our eyes, to clarify our vision, and to deepen our understanding. And so it was with Patrick. As a slave, Patrick became a Christian. The Faith he was taught as a child took hold of his life. Alone with the sheep, he learned to pray, and he prayed constantly. And six years after his capture – now twenty-two – at prayer, a voice spoke to him, the same voice that spoke to Abraham. And like Abraham, the voice ordered him to leave.
But to escape slavery was not something easily accomplished. And yet he did it. No roads. On foot. Mostly by night and with little to eat. Patrick travelled over two hundred miles until he reached the southern coast. There he persuaded the crew of a ship to take him on board, and he crossed the Channel and landed in Gaul.
The next twenty years were spent there. First at a monastery in Lérins – an island off the Côte d’Azur – where he studied for the priesthood. Later in the ancient city of Auxerre in Burgundy where he was ordained. All this time, however, he was visited again and again by the idea of returning to those who had enslaved him, to Ireland. The Lord had said, “Do good to those who do evil to you.” Patrick felt an inner determination to follow that counsel.
Even so, he returned to his family in Britain, but then he had a second vision: he saw an angel who handed him a letter. When it was opened the page was blank, but he heard voices. Irish voices. Voices he recognized, begging him to return.
And sometime around the year 431 he did just that. Palladius – the first bishop of the then tiny church in Ireland – was elderly and failing. Patrick was sent by the pope to assist him and to begin the active conversion of Ireland. Again what the Lord had said to Abram, God also said to Patrick:
Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.
Patrick went to Ireland first unwillingly as a slave. He returned willingly as a Christian and a missionary and a priest. Within a year he succeeded Palladius and was made a bishop. He asks some who opposed him:
Surely it was not without God, or simply out of human motives that I came to Ireland! Who was it who drove me to it? I am so bound by the Spirit that I no longer see my own kindred. Is it just from myself that comes the holy mercy in how I act toward that people who at one time took me captive and slaughtered the men and women servants in my father’s home? In my human nature I was born free, in that I was born of a Decurion father. But I sold out my noble state for the sake of others – and I am not ashamed of that, nor do I repent of it. Now, in Christ I am a slave of a foreign people, for the sake of the indescribably glory of eternal life which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
And thirty or so years after that, by his preaching, by his work, by his devotion, by his prayer, by his love, by his legendary conflict with the Druids, Ireland was converted. Christianity had supplanted paganism. Schools and monasteries were built and began to train a native Irish clergy. Patrick battled against the random brutality of the tribal lords. And having been a slave he was particularly fierce in abolishing the institution of slavery. In a letter to a Roman soldier who was a Christian, but who had also sold his captives into slavery, Patrick writes:
And so now you, Coroticus and your gangsters, rebels all against Christ, now where do you see yourselves? You gave away girls like prizes; not yet women, but baptized. All for some petty temporal gain that will pass in the very next instant. “Like a cloud passes, or smoke blown in the wind” so will sinners, “who cheat, slip away from the face to the Lord.”
That’s pretty scary. No wonder the snakes, if there were any, when Patrick expelled them, got quickly out of town.
But again, after thirty years of seemingly thankless work, Patrick established Christianity and Christian morality as the norm of behavior. And so, faith in Jesus Christ became the indigenous religion of the land. And Patrick himself brought this all about. Is it, then, any wonder that the Irish regard him as their apostle?
In his Confession, written – again – near the end of his life, Patrick tells us: “I was like a stone lying in the deep mire; and He that is mighty came, and in his mercy lifted me up, and verily raised me aloft and placed me on top of the wall.” That is how the saint described the saving act of God in his life. It began when he was enslaved and in a mire of despair, and it continued – in good times and in bad times – until his death. This was God’s gift to him, and it was the gift he wished to pass on. It was the good he wished to do and was sent to do to those who had done him evil.
Jesus said, “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your father who is in heaven.” The saint we will remember on Friday was a light brought to the darkness. The light of God’s love and his act of salvation in Jesus shone on Patrick’s life and changed it and made him to be the bearer of that light to others. And they saw that light in his life and in his words and in his work. It shone out from Patrick, as it does in their own way in all the saints, and it granted sight to those who were blind.
And now – just because I like it – let’s listen to Patrick once again:
I was like a stone lying in the deep mire; and He that is mighty came, and in his mercy lifted me up, and verily raised me aloft and placed me on top of the wall.