It is Easter night around 433 AD and a huge bonfire burns on the hill of Slane; its flickering flames and smoke rising into the night sky. Patrick, dressed in a simple tunic and holding a wooden staff, boldly scans the horizon for the confrontation he knows is coming. Around him, a few faithful and brave companions silently pray.
A few miles away in the palace at Tara, king Loegaire high king of all Ireland is about to celebrate the feast of Beltane by lighting the first fire in the land. In anger, he stares at the flames of Patrick’s fire he can clearly see on the horizon, “What is this?” he cries, “Who is it who has dared commit sacrilege in my kingdom? Let him be put to death.”
The king is not only angry, he is afraid. He recalls a druids prophetic ramblings warning of a new threat to his kingdom – the coming of a new religion. The druid Lochru warns the king: “ O king live for ever. This fire which we see and was lit this night before one was lit in your house, that is, in the palace of Tara, will never be put out, unless it is put out this night which it has been lit”.
Immediately the king takes soldiers, many chariots, and his two chief druid, and storms towards where Patrick stands beside his fire. He takes care however not to get too close, but commands Patrick to come forward to face his wrath. Boldly Patrick walks forward; his only weapon a prayer: “Some may go in chariots and some horses, but we will walk in the name of our God”
Lochru the chief druid insults Patrick loudly, calling down curses upon his head. Unperturbed, Patrick responds by lifting his staff and praying: “O Lord who can do all things, who sends me here, may this wicked man who blasphemes your name be carried out of here and dies straight away”. Immediately, the druid levitates into the air by some unseen power, and crashes down to the ground killed instantly as his skull shatters on a rock.
Angrily, the king orders his soldiers to seize Patrick and put him to death. Patrick though, calmly trusting in his God utters: “May God arise and his enemies be scattered”. At these words, a thick darkness descends and a tremendous earthquake shakes the ground. The horses flee in panic overturning and smashing the chariots. The queen, realizing the futility and danger of resisting Patrick, cries out pleading for the king’s life. Patrick agrees and the king sullenly pretends to acquiesce, inviting Patrick to preach at the palace celebration the following day.
Easter day and Patrick powerfully preaches on the resurrection of Christ. After he has finished the king invites Patrick to dine, and secretly a druid adds a drop of poison to Patrick’s drink. Patrick however, blesses the cup before drinking and the poisoned liquid miraculously turns to ice. Lifting the cup he turns it upside down and only the drop of poison falls out! In the hushed silence he then blesses the cup again, and the liquid returns too normal. The defeated king exclaims: “It is better for me to believe than die!”
Thus, Patrick exemplifies a Christianity that demonstrates the boldness and miracle power of the Holy Spirit as in the early church. Humbly though, he attributes this power and boldness to God rather than his own charisma. In the “Confession” – one of two documents written by Patrick himself – his humbleness is revealed as we discover a man aware of his sinfulness and lack of education. However, we also learn that he is a man of earnest prayer, frequent prophetic dreams and a deep relationship with God.
The Confession begins: “I am Patrick, a sinner, most unlearned, the least of all the faithful, and utterly despised by many”. He tells how he was born in a small village called Bannavern Tabernaiae, possibly on the Cumbrian coast in what was then Roman Britain, the son of a nobleman called Calpurnius. As a youth although his grandfather, Potitus, was a priest and his Father a church deacon, he had no desires after God.
Just before his sixteenth birthday however, the idyll of this rustic life was rudely interrupted: Irish sea-raiders attacked the coastline and enslaved over a thousand people – among them young Patrick. Arriving in Ireland – or Hibernia as it was known then – Patrick was sold as a slave in Co Mayo to a chieftain and druid called Milluic. Thus began a lonely existence as a Shepherd boy.
In this enforced solitude however, Patrick awakened to God: “ I prayed, the love of God and his fear came to me more and more, and my faith was strengthened. As my spirit was moved so that in a single day I would say as many as a hundred prayers, an almost as many in the night, and this even when I was stating in the woods and mountains; and I used to get up for prayer before daylight, through the snow, through frost, through rain, and I felt no harm, and there was no sloth in me, as now I see, because the spirit was fervent”
One famous prayer attributed to Patrick is his “Lorica” or breastplate prayer, part of which follows:
Christ be with me, Christ within in me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort me 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
Six years and then his fervent prayers were dramatically answered: One night he heard a voice in a dream saying: “See your ship is ready.” Patrick, taking this as God speaking to him, escaped from his master and travelled nearly two hundred miles overland to the coast. There, he found a merchant ship but the ship’s captain refused him passage. Undismayed, Patrick retired to a hut on the beach where he had been staying and prayed. The captain relented and invited him onboard.
Three days later the ship arrived at an unspecified land for twenty-eight days the sailors, the sailors travelled across country. Finding neither man nor beast and desperate for food, the captain challenged Patrick: “Tell me, Christian: you who say that your God is great and all-powerful; why, then, do you not pray for us As you can see we are suffering from hunger; it is unlikely that we shall ever see a human being again”. Patrick prayed and at that very moment a herd of pigs un-expectantly appeared on the road and the sailors were able to kill and eat.
Eventually, it seems he did arrive back in Britain and his people were pleased to see him and begged him to remain. However, the missionary call of God was soon upon him and one night in a dream, he saw a man called Victorious coming from Ireland with many letters. He handed a letter to Patrick, which read: “The voice of the Irish, they who were beside the Wood of Voclut, which is near the Western sea and this did they cry out as with one mouth: “ We ask thee, boy, come and walk amongst us once more”.
Many years later, after possibly studying under Bishop Germanius in Gaul, Patrick was ready and the church ordained him to replace Bishop Palladius – sent by Pope Celestine on an unsuccessful mission to convert the Irish. So began St Patrick’s apostolic mission to the Irish.
Today, fifteen hundred years later, he is the patron saint of Ireland and celebrated by the Irish the world over on the 17th march. Over time, many fanciful legends and myths have multiplied around him. These however, do not really discredit of diminish the man: the fact that Patrick converted the whole of Ireland to Christianity without any bloodshed, speaks for itself!
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