St. Patrick’s life has a story to tell. His story is different from the lesson the world has deployed countless shills to teach us. The world drives home its lesson in both subtle and in-your-face messages in movies and television shows. Society desperately wants us to believe that a real man fights for everything he gets, overcomes obstacles, including other people that get in his way and he doesn’t stop, certainly not for any moral reasons, until he has attained a certain status – become lord of his own kingdom – by achieving success. However, there is a flaw in the lesson: it’s not true. St. Patrick’s life story proves it.
As an Irishman, I love reading about anything Irish, although St. Patrick himself wasn’t actually Irish. He was named Maewyn Succat, born to a Roman official who lived in what’s now England. So as a 16-yr-old son of a well-known family he’s out working one day when a raiding party from Ireland crosses the channel and takes him and a group of others captive. The raiders took them to Ireland and sold them as slaves with Patrick selected by a druid – the clergy of pagan Ireland in 405 AD.
One captive thrives
Slavery doesn’t exactly fit the image of someone who is in charge of their own march to success. But, Patrick doesn’t become despondent or feel ashamed of his circumstances; he thrives, through prayer. Fr. Joseph Esper, author of Lessons from the Lives of the Saints: A Daily Guide for Growth in Holiness, says the time in captivity for St. Patrick was an amazing period. St. Patrick himself wrote in the story of his life, Confessio:
“But after I came to Ireland — every day I had to tend sheep, and many times a day I prayed — the love of God and His fear came to me more and more, and my faith was strengthened. And my spirit was moved so that, in a single day, I would say as many as a hundred prayers, and almost as many in the night, and this even when I was staying in the woods and on the mountains; and I used to get up for prayer before daylight, through snow, through frost, through rain, and I felt no harm, and there was no sloth in me — as I now see, because the spirit within me was then fervent.’
The prayer life of St. Patrick, which imbued his entire day with thoughts of God, didn’t stop him from doing his work of tending sheep. Maybe there is more time in my day I can spend praying as I take care of things at work. The amazing thing is how prayer strengthened him for dealing with captivity and prepared him for sharing the Gospel later on. Despite his situation, or maybe because of it, the young Patrick turned to God for strength. He prayed and kept the faith. The Holy Spirit became fervent in him. At some point, God’s providence kicked in and started helping, moving and shaping events. God is probably the only one who knows just when and where His hand altered the course of St. Patrick’s life but alter it, He did.
Escape from Ireland
One day, at age 22, Patrick escaped captivity, boarded a ship and sailed home, likely terrified of being discovered before he could see the shore of his homeland. But once he was back he didn’t resume his old life. God gave him a vision in which He told Patrick to go back to his land of slavery and evangelize the people there. There’s a plot twist Maewyn Succat dealt with in his life. God directed him to return to Ireland and convert his captors. You see, his trial of captivity taught him perfectly the early Irish language which he would need to spread his message of the Gospel to the Irish people. Living with a high-priest of the druids put all their rituals and methods on display for him.
He decided to be ordained a priest and after many years of study and preparation returned to Ireland in 431 where he converted the druids, baptized adults and children alike and established churches. By the way, the Irish legend about St. Patrick driving the snakes out of Ireland is a metaphor. There were no snakes to drive out, only pagan practices. Armed with his understanding of the druids and able to speak the language like a native, he was perfectly prepared for his mission from God. The question I have: was he selected for this mission early and guided to it by God? Or, did God see the unfortunate events that unfolded for a teenager, have mercy on him, and then give him a mission for which his trial left him well equipped? I believe God makes good come out of terrible situations. I’ve seen His mercy so many times that I know it’s true. Yet, He has also had an eternity to come up with a plan for our lives. I’m not talking about fate here, which excludes the free will we have. I’m wondering how specific God’s plan is and how we move within it by making the various decisions we make.
No man is an island
Back to what St. Patrick’s life proves: a man doesn’t have to rely on himself, his own power and plans, in order to live a life that is successful. If he listens to the voice of God speaking to him, whether in a grand vision like Patrick experienced or the quiet voice of daily prayer, he will be on the right path. And while the path God lays out is not always free of challenges, the strength He gives and the providence he supplies will always make us stronger than our difficulties. St. Patrick overcame his captivity and found freedom. He overcame any bitterness toward the Irish and studied for 15 years and traveled back to share the Gospel with them. He didn’t rely on himself, the way society today says men should. St. Patrick relied on God instead. Jesus was the Lord of his kingdom.
Even though he relied on God throughout his life, St. Patrick has probably asked God all the questions a person wants to ask when they get to heaven. Why did this happen? What about that trial? Can you help me understand this certain point in my life and what you had in mind? Or maybe we will be so immersed in God’s peace and love that we won’t even give our trials another thought. God knows when he has stepped in and provided for you, moved a mountain or cleared a path. If you look back on your journey so far, what do you see?