Will The Real St. Patrick Please Stand Up?
I can stand it no longer. I have something within me, that whenever I see an injustice being committed on such a regular basis, I must address it and do all I can to set the record straight!
I feel like this around Christmas and Easter each year when I see what has become of the “high and holy days” of the Christian faith. The holiday I tackle with you now, is not on the same scale as the aforementioned holidays, but its observance has bothered me enough to set me a-scribblin’.
Today, they turn the river in Chicago green. Around here in the South Carolina lowcountry, locals whose ancestry and heritage are not remotely connected with Ireland, rush to proclaim their Gaelic allegiance by dying their hair green, “wearing the green”, and carry around three-leafed clovers. Savannah, Georgia, just a few miles from where I am presently writing, is expecting over 50,000 visitors to celebrate (and thereby freaking out local officials regarding Covid concerns).
I am speaking, of course, about St. Patrick’s Day. (In the interest of full disclosure, I do carry around some Irish blood, although the family surname is Scottish. My gggg-grandmother, Sarah Mullin, came to our American shores from Ireland in 1802.)
Amidst our celebrations, we have all but forgotten the man named Patrick, after whom this holiday bears its moniker! He is often pictured as a leprechaun of sorts, sporting a green hat, with a short, red, pointed beard, holding aloft a pint of Guinness (not too far removed from the Notre Dame Fighting Irish mascot).
And then there’s the legend that Patrick drove all the snakes out of Ireland. Before his august and holy presence they slithered into the sea and drowned. Being a revered pagan symbol, they fled before this harbinger of Christianity.
Allow me to set some of the record straight and share with you a bit of the real story of Patrick of Ireland.
You may be surprised to learn that Patrick wasn’t even Irish! He was an Englishman, who grew up in during the inglorious days (or glorious days, depending upon your world view), of the Roman Empire.
He was born into a wealthy family either near Dunbarton, Scotland, or near the Severn Estuary in (no one really knows for sure) around 373 A.D. His father, Calpurnius, sat on the town council and in the local assembly of Christians, his father was a deacon.
Patrick’s given name is believed to have been Maewyn Succat (he took on Patrick, or Patricus, after he became a priest). When he was sixteen years old, he was captured from his hometown by a raiding band of Irish brigands. He was taken to Ulster, where he was sold into slavery to a chieftain for six years. He worked as a swineherder, and experienced terrible hardship and loneliness.
Patrick witnessed firsthand, at a banquet of all places, the desperate and cruel way of pagan, Irish life. While serving at the banquet he was a witness to a captured prince being roasted alive over an open fire. Three years of this life brought Maewyn to his knees.
He had grown up as a nominal Christian, but his slavery years brought his faith in God into personal reality. In his Confession, he wrote, “And there the Lord opened up my awareness of my unbelief so that I might, however late, remember my faults and turn with all my heart to the Lord my God.
While praying one night, at age 22, Succat said that the Holy Spirit revealed an escape plan to him. He was led to escape by ship to Gaul, (now France), and it was there he made his way to a monastery where he took the vows of a monk. He surrendered his English name and took the Latin name, Patricus.
Eventually, he was reunited with his family in England. While living once again in his beloved England, by now age 45, he had a dream. God had burdened his heart for the people of Ireland. He did not, for obvious reasons, desire to go back, but he knew that his God-ordained destiny meant Ireland was in his future. He believed Christ was asking him to return to Ulster, not as a slave again, but as a missionary.
He shared this vision with his family who pleaded with him to stay home and play it safe. But his vision also included the cries of his former tormentors, saying, “We beg you to come and walk amongst us.” Patrick writes, “I was stung with remorse in my heart…"
He returned to and served among her people for 31 years. He moved among them preaching the gospel of Christ. He spent the remainder of his life there and it is estimated that he baptized over 120,000 converts during his ministry, forming over 200 churches in the meantime. Out of these converts came Columbanus, who took the gospel to the Swiss and Columba, who preached the gospel among the Scottish.
It is believed that Patrick died on March 17, 461, A.D. If you ever find yourself in Ireland, you can view Patrick’s four-sided iron bell in a public museum, a stone chair at the Rock of Cashel that is said to have been his (doesn’t sound too comfortable!), and there is a specific mountain you can visit believed to be the one where Patrick once fasted and prayed for forty days and nights.
The testimony of his conversion, Confessions, can also be read here. They begin, “My name is Patrick. I am a sinner, a simple country person, and the least of all believers.”
He is perhaps best remembered regarding the three-leaf clover. In conversation with the king one day, after listening to Patrick expounding on the Trinity one day, His Excellency was having a hard time grasping the concept. “All this business of one God being three, how can this be?” he asked. The evangelist patiently explained it again and again to the king, without a breakthrough. Finally, in exasperation, Patrick plucked a three-leafed clover and said, “How many plants do I have here?” “One,” came the king’s reply. “Yes, but one shamrock has three leaves: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit!” The king understood, believed, and was baptized.
In order that we might catch a glimpse his heart and faith, read the lines from Breastplate, a poem penned by Patrick himself:
I bind to myself this day
The power of His Incarnation,
The Power of His Crucifixion,
The Power of His Resurrection,
With His Ascension.
Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me.
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me;
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.
Today, Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland and a Christian hero. Not a bad example to follow - for Patrick forgave his enemies, went back to proclaim Christ to them, and stayed to ensure they had a strong church to nurture and teach them.
As we reflect on St. Patrick's Day, we would all do well to remember this saint who ran the race of faith so well that a whole nation once believed.
I owe much of this inspiration, and flow of thought and fact, to my favorite author F.W. Boreham. The above is some of me and some of him, paraphrased for you, my reader. He wrote about Patrick in three of his books: A Witches Brewing, Dreams at Sunset, and A Temple of Topaz. All three of these are out-of-print but can be found from time-to-time at the Boreham page of eBay. Happy hunting! For the latest Boreham books in print, click here. Read him; you'll be so glad you did!