Just a little after 400AD, a group of Irish pirates successfully attacked some British towns, leaving with a group of slaves. Among them was a 16 year old named Patrick. Though the son of a deacon and grandson of a pastor, he was not particularly devout himself. This changed after he was enslaved, and under the Irish whip his faith grew. By his own accounting, young Patrick would say up to 100 prayers a day, and as many again in the night.
After six years of captivity, God answered. In his sleep, a voice came to him and said, “You do well to fast: soon you will depart for your home country.” Shortly afterward, it returned and told him, “Behold, your ship is ready.” Patrick obeyed and fled his master. He traveled through 200 miles of unfamiliar territory with God as his guide, arriving at the same day that the ship he was destined for was setting out. At first, the sailors angrily told him to leave them alone, but after a brief prayer their attitude changed and they welcomed him on board their ship.
During this time, he faced hunger and deprivation, but each time he was delivered semi-miraculously. He was even captured once more, but God assured him the captivity would last for only two months, which is exactly how it played out. After a time, Patrick found his way back to his family. Nice story, huh?
Then God threw him a curve ball. One night, Patrick was given a vision:
I saw a man whose name was Victoricus coming as if from Ireland with innumerable letters, and he gave me one of them, and I read the beginning of the letter: ‘The Voice of the Irish’; and as I was reading the beginning of the letter I seemed at that moment to hear the voice of those who were beside the forest of Foclut which is near the western sea, and they were crying as if with one voice: ‘We beg you, holy youth, that you shall come and shall walk again among us.’
Go back, God commanded him. Return to the barbarians to who would have enslaved you for the rest of your life. Like Jonah, he resisted at first, and so another trial was sent his way to clarify the situation. A scandal erupted around some sin he had confessed to from his teenage years (Patrick is so ashamed, he does not tell us what it was). Being brought low, Patrick gave in, and went to preach the gospel to the pagans of Ireland. It was a task his slavery had made him uniquely suited for. As a slave of the Irish, he had become fluent in the Irish language. As the slave of a druidic high priest, he had also become knowledgeable in the Irish religion. As a slave of Christ, he embodied the spirit of love and forgiveness that is so central to Christianity when he put all that aside and set out to help the Irish.
In the end, St. Patrick was responsible for the eventual conversion of the whole island. In a complete reversal of his childhood, he defended his former slavers against those who would enslave them, going so far as to excommunicate a Welsh chieftain. He was beaten, robbed, and even put into chains, but still he persisted, and today he is a central figure in Irish culture and myth. Even the shamrock owes its status as Ireland’s official symbol to a legend that Patrick used it to illustrate the Trinity.
He died 1,550 years ago today. Like St. Valentine, his holiday still carries on his name, but lacks his spirit. So take a moment to honor St. Patrick. He was a far better man than any of us.