The Story of St. Patrick

I am posting this story of St. Patrick on March 16, the day before St. Patrick’s Day. I’ll leave it up through the 17th as a tribute to the real St. Patrick, a man whose name is familiar but whose amazing story is not well known.

In my youth, St. Patrick’s Day was most of all a day to wear green. Be caught without green and you got pinched by your friends, maybe even your teacher. (That was a long time ago, when teachers got away such things without being sued.) To my youthful self, St. Patrick seemed to be the patron saint of greenness and pinching. And if he was ever pictured, he looked suspiciously like a leprechaun.

On March 17, 1982, I found myself in New Haven, Connecticut. (Yes, a Harvard man in Yale territory, I confess.) Little did I know that I had wandered into one of the oldest and most enthusiastic celebrations of St. Patrick’s Day in America. All the downtown pubs sold green beer (!) for a dime. Crowds gathered for the annual parade. I was caught up in a tidal wave of humanity who were “painting the town green,” if you will.

At that time, I had some vague idea that there was a real St. Patrick, a Christian missionary of days gone by. Yet it was hard to find the connection between St. Patrick’s Christian mission in Ireland and the mass consumption of green beer. Later, I did a bit of research to find out something about the historical St. Patrick.

His story reads like an Indiana Jones-type adventure. Born and raised somewhere in Britain (yes, not Ireland; the precise location is debated), Patrick was captured by pirates in A.D. 405 when he was only sixteen years old. The kidnappers whisked him away to Ireland and sold Patrick into slavery. He spent eight years as a captive in this pagan land.

During his captivity, Patrick embraced the Christian faith of his upbringing, something that had mattered little to him beforehand. In his own words, Patrick explained: “And there the Lord opened the sense of my unbelief that I might at last remember my sins and be converted with all my heart to the Lord my God, who had regard for my abjection, and mercy on my youth and ignorance, and watched over me before I knew Him, and before I was able to distinguish between good and evil, and guarded me, and comforted me as would a father his son” (from The Confession of St. Patrick).

A stained-glass image of St. Patrick, from St. Peter’s Church in Washington D.C. Photo from iStockphoto.com.

Inspired by a dream, Patrick finally escaped from Ireland and made his way back to his home in Britain. But, in time, he sensed God’s call to return to Ireland, of all places, in order to share the good news of Christ with the pagans there. Even though he feared he wasn’t sufficiently learned to be a missionary, Patrick returned to Ireland, where he found unprecedented success in his evangelistic endeavors. His experience of Irish language and culture during his years as a slave enabled Patrick to communicate the Christian gospel with unusual effectiveness.

Though we can’t be sure when Patrick died, tradition holds that he lived into his seventies and died on March 17 in the latter half of the fifth-century A.D. In twenty-five or thirty years of evangelistic work, he led thousands of Irish pagans to Christ and was responsible for Ireland’s becoming one of the most Christian nations in Europe. For this reason he is called “the apostle of the Irish.”

The story of Patrick reminds me, in a way, of Joseph’s experience in Egypt. In both cases, what kidnappers and slave masters intended for evil, God intended for good (Gen 50:20). Today, I want to celebrate, not only Patrick’s example of faithfulness, but also the mystery and majesty of God’s redemptive sovereignty. It’s not unusual for people who have experienced some particular trauma in life to end up ministering to others who suffer that same trauma. A friend of mine, for example, who was sexually abused by her pastor when she was a teenager, now has a tenderhearted ministry to women who have experienced similar abuse. Thus, St. Patrick serves as an example of how God can work all things together for good, even things which are quite evil.

It is appropriate to close this piece with an excerpt from a prayer that is attributed to Patrick. Whether he actually wrote it or not, this prayer captures the boldness of his Christian faith:

I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through the belief in the threeness,
Through confession of the oneness,
Of the Creator of Creation.

I arise today
Through the strength of Christ’s birth with his baptism,
Through the strength of his crucifixion with his burial,
Through the strength of his resurrection with his ascension,
Through the strength of his descent for the judgment of Doom.

I arise today
Through the strength of the love of Cherubim,
In obedience of angels,
In the service of archangels,
In hope of resurrection to meet with reward,
In prayers of patriarchs,
In predictions of prophets,
In preaching of apostles,
In faith of confessors,
In innocence of holy virgins,
In deeds of righteous men.

I arise today
Through the strength of heaven:
Light of sun,
Radiance of moon,
Splendor 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:
God’s might to uphold me,
God’s wisdom to guide me,
God’s eye to look before me,
God’s ear to hear me,
God’s word to speak for me,
God’s hand to guard me,
God’s way to lie before me,
God’s shield to protect me,
God’s host to save me
From snares of devils,
From temptations of vices,
From everyone who shall wish me ill,
Afar and anear,
Alone and in multitude.

I summon today all these powers between me and those evils,
Against every cruel merciless power that may oppose my body and soul,
Against incantations of false prophets,
Against black laws of pagandom
Against false laws of heretics,
Against craft of idolatry,
Against spells of witches and smiths and wizards,
Against every knowledge that corrupts man’s body and soul.

Christ to shield me today
Against poison, against burning,
Against drowning, against wounding,
So that there may come to me abundance of reward.

Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down, Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.

I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through belief in the threeness,
Through confession of the oneness,
Of the Creator of Creation.

Amen.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ben.vandagriff Ben Vandagriff

    Very informative. Even inspiring. Well done, indeed ! May the luck of the Irish always smile upon you !!! : D ~

  • Anonymous

    Thanks, Ben!

  • http://godspotting.net Sheila Seiler Lagrand

    Very nice. I’m sharing. thanks, Mark! 

  • Anonymous

    Thanks back at you, Sheila.


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