Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD his God, the Maker of heaven and earth, the sea, and everything in them- the LORD, who remains faithful forever. He upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry. The LORD sets prisoners free. Reference: Psalm 146:5-7
It’s St. Patrick’s Day, and I’d like to reprise some words I wrote about Patrick, whom God upheld, and whom God used to uphold the cause of the oppressed and hungry.
Patrick of Ireland
March 22, 2009
Once upon a time — and listen, for although this sounds like a fable, I will try to make every word true — once upon a time there was a young boy named Patrick, a young Christian boy whose father was a deacon, and whose grandfather was a priest. This happened a long, long time ago — you can tell because he has a Latin name, and it was son long ago that priests could marry — but people haven’t really changed that much. Patrick, though he was raised in a Christian household did not himself know God. I imagine he was like most people, just living his life out without much concern for spiritual things. Perhaps this was because he had a relatively comfortable life in a small villa with a father who made a good living. They didn’t really have a “middle class” back then, but he was something like a typical middle-class teenager.
But then something really terrible happened. Raiders attacked his parents’ villa, and Patrick was taken off to be a slave in Ireland. I suspect that his parents had plans for him to go off to the city to become an educated gentleman. Instead, he was taken off at age sixteen to become a slave. Instead of going to school, he was forced to become a shepherd. Day in and day out, night after night, during snowstorms and rain, he had to watch another man’s sheep. What a terrible and boring fate this was for him! His family gone, his friends gone, the knowledge that perhaps everyone he know had been taken for slaves, living a life of great isolation and physical hardship.
In that loneliness and emptiness, he began to remember what he knew about God. And he started to pray the prayers he had been taught; I don’t know what prayers, but I imagine he prayed the “Our Father.” He started praying more and more — in the fields at night and during the day, even waking up before daylight to pray, praying up to, he says, 100 prayers in a day. God started to burn in him, he says.
He was a slave until he was about twenty, and then something very spooky but real happened. He was sleeping, but he heard a voice saying he was going home soon. Soon after he heard the voice again saying that his boat was ready. He immediately fled from his slave-owner, for he recognized that this was a message directly from God. He had to travel two hundred miles to get to the harbor where the ship was, in a land he did not know, among people whom he did not know. But “by the power of God,” he says, he was directed to the ship.
Of course, he went to the ship the day he arrived at the harbor. He asked for a place on the ship — he apparently had some money because he said he could pay for a place — but for some reason the steersman got angry and told him to to away. After the visions and after walking 200 miles, I imagine he was disappointed. He headed back to the hut where he was staying praying along the way. As he was walking and praying, one of the men shouted at him to come back; he could get a ride with them.
They traveled for three days before they landed, and then the whole group started walking — after twenty-eight days, their food ran out, and it was uninhabited. His companions were kind to have taken him in, but now they were hungry and cranky, and began to taunt him about God, asking that perennial question: If God is so great and powerful, why isn’t God helping us?
Patrick had good reason to trust that God had something other than starving in mind for them, though, and he told them boldly that they should become Christians. He also said that God was going to provide so much food that very day that they couldn’t eat any more. And so it happened: a herd of pigs came by, and I imagine they had a pretty good pork barbecue. Their attitude towards God and Patrick changed that day; in fact, they had fire and food enough for the rest of their journey.
Patrick eventually was able to return to his kinsfolk, and he was glad to return, and they were glad to have him. But Patrick had another dream: a man named Victorius bringing letters from Ireland, and in his dream he read one of the letters. The letter said it was “The Voice of the Irish,” and he could hear the voices of people he knew in Ireland begging him to return to return to the land of his slavery. He started, and work up, “stinging intensely” from the call. He had another dream of God saying that it really was God speaking to him. And a third vision: the Holy Spirit praying over Patrick with the loud sighs “too deep for utterance.”
So he started to make plans to return to Ireland. Unfortunately, he return to Ireland was blocked by some of his elders who remembered a bad thing Patrick had done before he went into slavery, we don’t know what that bad thing was, but it was bad enough that the elders thought it should disqualify Patrick from going to Ireland as an evangelist. Patrick was really angry about this — so angry that he almost lost his faith. But God sent Patrick another vision, in which God reminded Patrick that Jesus himself had faced dishonor and that God would protect Patrick. And so God did.
And Patrick returned to Ireland to preach. He didn’t cast out the snakes; we don’t know if he used a shamrock to teach the Trinity; the hymns attributed to him are not likely to be by him. But we know he continued to face hardship. In fact, he was kidnapped at least one more time for two months. In all these trials, it seems as if God was good to continually remind him of God’s care for Patrick; even telling Patrick that he would be a captive for two months.
And God granted Patrick success. He baptized thousands of people. He wrote:
So, how is it that in Ireland, where they never had any knowledge of God but, always, until now, cherished idols and unclean things,they are lately become a people of the Lord, and are called children of God; the sons of the Irish and the daughters of the chieftains are to be seen as monks and virgins of Christ.
Patrick’s life was full of ups and downs, He was ashamed of his poor education (poor man, he only knew three or so languages and wrote his confession in Latin that was perhaps not up to par). He called himself a stutterer, though he preached to thousands. He felt that “poverty and failure suit[ed him] better than wealth and delight.” He certainly never got wealthy ministering to the Irish. He remained homesick, I think, to the end of his days—it certainly would have been an easier life if he hadn’t followed God’s call to Ireland. But he recognized the work of God through him, but he felt bound by the Spirit to remain in Ireland.
What lessons should we learn from Patrick and his life?
I pray that, like Patrick, we would see the signs of God’s work in the world, and follow those signs and do God’s work. I don’t think God always speaks in miraculous signs as God did with Patrick, but I believe God does, sometimes. In any case, our Bibles are full of messages from God about hwo we should go about doing the work God has for us.
I pray too, that we would see the trials and tribulations of this life as opportunities for God’s grace in our lives, as Patrick did. Patrick turned a life of exile and loneliness into a life of prayer and attention and learning obedience.
I pray that we learn, as Patrick seemed to know, when to throw our reliance on God in such specific ways as he did when he was confident God would provide food.
Finally, I want to quote Patrick, who saw his life as partially fulling the promise of God to bring “many from east and west” to sit together at God’s table.
So for that reason one should, in fact, fish well and diligently,just as the Lord foretells and teaches, saying, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men,’ and again through the prophets: ‘Behold, I am sending forth many fishers and hunters, says the Lord,’ et cetera. So it behooves us to spread our nets, that a vast multitude and throng might be caught for God, and so there might be clergy everywhere who baptized and exhorted a needy and desirous people.