Who was St Patrick and why celebrate his life?

St Patrick

Patrick was born in Britain during the reign of the emperor Theodosius (347-395AD). His father was Calpornius and grandfather Potius.  Both of them were involved in the local church, but Patrick confessed that he paid very little attention to the Word of God as he was growing up.

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When Patrick was 16 something happened that would change his life forever.  His father was an important man in the town and had left Patrick in charge for the day. There were had plenty of servants to take care of things and so Patrick himself went for a walk up on the hill.  He was enjoying the view out to sea, he could just about make out a couple of boats being blown along by the wind. He assumed they were fishing boats. But something in him made him concerned.  His father had often told stories around the fire of Irish raiders, but surely those days were long gone. He thought about running to warn those in the town, but then said to himself that he shouldn’t be so jumpy.  As they got closer, to his horror he realised they were not fishing boats, he saw rough looking men, and weapons! He ran to warn the villagers, catching his breath as he entered his home, he said to a servant girl – “Raiders…quick, raise the alarm.”

The servant girl dropped the pot she was carrying and screamed, Patrick wasn’t sure why she reacted so strongly until he felt a knife pressing at his throat and a gruff voice in broken Latin saying “come with me, don’t get hurt.”

Patrick wanted to fight back, but it was pointless. He went with the brute down to the boat. All around him, people were being grabbed, and his beloved home was being set alight. He fought back the tears and demanded to be released “I’m a Roman citizen, my father is an important man, you mist release me!” But the sailors simply laughed at him.

At first Patrick wasn’t sure what they were planning to do but as they approached Ireland it dawned on him that he would be sold as a slave.  They next thing he knew they were at something like the mart, with men holding up fingers to bid, but to Patrick’s horror they weren’t bidding on cattle and sheep but on people! Patrick was sold as a slave.

He worked for the next 6 years tending sheep. He described the place as the Woods of Voclut, near the Western Sea, which could be around the modern town of Killala in Mayo.  Wherever he was, Patrick didn’t know, but one thing he did know, he was far from home, lost and alone.  He began thinking over his life, far from being angry with God, he regretted not having paid more attention at church, he had ignored God’s Word and hadn’t lived God’s way.  Patrick even said that he deserved to be taken into captivity because of the way he had treated God. Patrick couldn’t remember much, but He knew God was merciful and so in the mess, far from home, he cried out to God

Patrick says “it was here in Ireland that God my heart so that I became aware of my failings and began to turn with my whole heart to he Lord.” Patrick used the words of Psalm 40 to describe what happened next. 

“I waited patiently for the LORD;

he inclined to me and heard my cry. 

He drew me up from the pit of destruction,

 out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock,

making my steps secure.

He put a new song in my mouth,

A song of praise to our God.

Many will see and fear

And put their trust in the Lord.”

 

What happened? Was he set free? He was still a slave in a foreign land, but something more incredible happened. Patrick described a burden being lifted, a burden he didn’t realise he’d been carrying.  He was still a slave in Ireland, but his heart had been set free. He’d been lifted from the pit of destruction, He no longer feared God’s judgment because the Lord Jesus had taken his sin.   Psalm 40 speaks of one who delights to do God’s will (v8), and Patrick knew that wasn’t him, but he trusted in the one who had always delighted to do God’s will (Hebrews 10:5-8), and had done so even to the point of death.  The Lord Jesus Christ had obeyed God perfectly, Patrick had not, but when Patrick cried out for mercy, the Lord Jesus took all of Patrick’s sin, and gave Patrick his perfect record of obedience – what a swap!

From that moment on, Patrick wanted to serve the Lord, he knew he could never repay the Lord for all that he had done, but he desired to live his life declaring God’s praises to others.

For the next 6 years, he became a man of prayer.  In his confession he speaks of how he prayed whilst tending the sheep, up to 100 times a day, and his love for God and faith in Him was strengthened.  He said he would get up early before daylight, whatever the weather, to commit the day to the Lord.

Return to Britain

 

One night, the Lord spoke to Patrick in a dream and told him there was a ship waiting for him to take him back to Britain! Patrick was delighted, and wasn’t afraid to escape and head off in the way he thought God was leading him.  When he got to sea, he found a ship about the set sail and was so thankful, he approached one of the sailors to ask if he could board, the sailor said he didn’t see why not, but he’d check with the captain.  The captain had no time for Patrick, and told him in no uncertain terms that he could not sail with them and to sop bothering his crew! Patrick walked away feeling dejected and prayed to God, thanking Him for leading him this far, apologising for his impatience and asking for him to keep trusting while he waited.  The next thing he heard a voice shouting - the sailors had persuaded the captain to take Patrick on board!

Patrick was so relieved and couldn’t believe he was finally on his way back to Britain.  However, there were still a few obstacles in his way, the first of which was that the sailors invited Patrick to join in a pagan ritual of sucking their breasts to show his allegiance to them.  Patrick didn’t want to offend the sailors, and didn’t want to risk losing his ride back home, but he loved and feared God more than these sailors, God had rescued him out of the miry bog and he was not going to descend back into it.  He politely declined their offer saying that he followed the Lord Jesus Christ and could only give his allegiance to Him.  The sailors were shocked, but let Patrick on anyway. 

You can only imagine Patrick’s relief to be finally on the way home - to see his family again after 6 years, he could hardly wait!  But he’d have to wait a bit longer, there was a furious storm and they were blown off course, after 3 days they landed, expecting to find some people to direct them and to buy provisions, but they found no one and nothing to eat for 28 days! They were famished and near death.  The Captain said to Patrick,

“Well, Christian, what are you going to do? You say this God of yours is so great and powerful – why don’t you pray to him for us? We’re dying of starvation.”

Patrick answered with confidence urging them to turn to the Lord themselves and confirming that nothing is impossible for God and that God would indeed provide for them. Six years of praying to God daily had taught Patrick to trust God, and God answered his prayer with a herd of pigs! The sailors enjoyed BBQ pork for the next two nights.

Eventually Patrick made it back to Britain, his parents were overjoyed to see him again and understandably they never wanted to lose him again, so you can imagine their shock when not long after returning home Patrick told them that God was calling him back to Ireland! What?! Back to the land of his captivity? Surely not.  But God had spoken to Patrick in a dream, he had a vision of a man named Victoricus pleading for Patrick to come back to Ireland to speak to them about Jesus.  Patrick knew that God was calling him back to Ireland.

At first, those in the church were not persuaded, but eventually they decided that after further study and preparation Patrick should be sent as a Bishop to Ireland so that he could preach the good news and eventually ordain local people to be clergy and he was sent to Ireland in around 430AD.

Return to Ireland

It was very strange for Patrick to get back on a boat heading for Ireland, but this time he wanted to go, he was still sad to leave family and friends behind but he was convinced that God was calling him. As far as Patrick knew, Ireland was the ends of the earth, he knew that there were hardly any Christians in Ireland at the time, almost everyone worshipped pagan gods and he was convinced by Jesus’ words to go and make disciples of all nations.  He longed for people to know Jesus as he knew Jesus, and longed for the Irish people to be rescued from their rebellion against God.

Patrick was accompanied by some other Christians who were persuaded of the need to bring the good news of Jesus to Ireland and to establish churches.  The first people they met didn’t give them the warmest welcome – they accused them of stealing pigs! They were taken to the landowner Dicho who asked them why they had taken his pigs.  

“We haven’t stolen any pigs” Patrick replied, “we have travelled all the way from Britain to teach people about the God we worship, not to steal or cause harm. In fact the God we follow commands us not to steal but to do good to all people and even to love our enemies.  Dicho was amazed at what he heard, and Patrick and his companions seemed like honest men, but he said “I don’t understand what I’m hearing! You’re telling me that you’ve travelled all the way over to Ireland just to tell people about your God – why? What’s so special about him.”

Patrick was delighted to have the opportunity to speak about the Lord Jesus so soon after arriving: “the God we serve is the only God, He made everything, none of us have worshipped him as we should, but instead of demanding we fix the problem, He loved the world so much that He sent his only Son to live among humans and to die in our place so that we can be forgiven and enjoy being with God forever.  I’d be glad to tell you more about Him if you like?”

Dicho responded “And I’d be happy to hear!” The Lord opened Dicho’s heart to see his need of Jesus and transformed him.  Dicho now understood the importance of what Patrick and his companions were doing and since he owned a lot of land he gave Patrick a site for the first church! What an incredible start and great confirmation of the Lord’s call to Ireland! Patrick now had a base.  He helped the new believers to grow by teaching them from God’s Word, but he remained convinced of the need to keep going with the mission God had called him to. 

From his time as a slave Patrick knew that Irish life was rural and tribal, in the 5th Century there were around 150 tribes, each one having its own king. Patrick understood that the way to reach Ireland with the good news of Jesus Christ was to reach the kings, also, practically speaking, the only way he could speak safely to the members of the tribe is if he was there with the king’s permission and so Patrick sought to pay to give him this freedom.  This approach undoubtedly helped him gain a wide audience and over the course of about 30 years Patrick writes in his confession that he baptised thousands of people!  Not only that but he also ordained local Irishmen to continue multiply and continue the work. 

So why do we celebrate St Patricks Day?  The 17th March is thought to be the day that he died, probably around 460AD.  The date was passed on from generation to generation and the stories about Patrick multiplied and exaggerated! Scholars, however are convinced that Patrick wrote two works, His confession and a letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus.  These two works give us the record of a man whose life is worth celebrating, a sacrificial life given to spreading the good news of a Saviour who had changed Patrick’s life forever.  We pray for more men and women like Patrick who are committed to spreading this wonderful news.

This St Patrick’s Day, why not celebrate his life by reading his confession? You can read it free online here: https://confessio.ie/etexts/confessio_english#01

 

Further Reading and sources for this blog post:

Patrick’s Confession

Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus

St Patrick of Ireland, Philip Freeman

Patrick of Ireland, Michael A.G. Haykin

The Boy who forgave, K. C. Murdarsi

Saint Patrick, The Man & His Mission, John Holmes

 

 

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