In the earliest manuscript in which we find recorded something of what was known and remembered about Saint Patrick, that is, in the venerable Book of Armagh, we are told that for a long time many had been exercised in the task of collecting this material ; we are told too that what was then written down was written ‘in honorem et laudem Domini atque in amabilem Patricii memoriam,’’—to the honour and praise of the Lord and in beloved memory of Patrick.
But in fact one has to admit that in the course of time the memory of the true Patrick became obscured. Zeal for the glory of the great man led his medieval biographers into the error of attributing to the saint more and bigger wonders which we may be certain the holy man never really performed. In these writings the true saint, the man of God, the man of deepest prayer, was lost sight of and forgotten.
In later times, in a reaction against such fictions, many writers have so concentrated their attention on what they call the facts of history that the true greatness and the real character of the saint have not been less obscured.
It is a question of values, of a scale of judgements. It is no doubt important to know who a man was, where he was born, when did he live and who were his contemporaries. But the importance of these facts may be exaggerated; and ignorance concerning these external facts is no justification at all for relegating a man to the world of myth or uncertainty, more especially if that man is a saint.
A saint is a man of God, and what is important to know about him is his holiness, the source of his saintliness, the direction of his dedication.
Sources of our knowledge
Most fortunately we possess two vitally important documents whose authenticity is not questioned. They were written by Patrick, and most assuredly they tell us just those things about himself which we should wish to know. And when we think of these writings we may most confidently say that Patrick is no legendary figure except for those who cannot read. We might say, too, that men have talked too freely and too glibly about two or more Patricks; for men of the character and quality of the saint who wrote the Confession and Letter to the subjects of Coroticus cannot be multiplied at will.
They are not made out of chronological doubts or historical hesitations. In no less certain way than do the Confessions of St. Augustine, the Confession of Saint Patrick reveals something not only rare, but unique: one soul moulded wonderfully in God’s design to a great purpose.
Let us see then what we do in fact know about this great man, It is obvious that Patrick did not commission any one of his fellow missionaries to write his biography; nor did he have time to compose a commentary on his journeys and his labours. History was being made, even though it was not being written. It is very significant that the Irish annals of the time record virtually nothing except the death of Patrick and the deaths of his fellow bishops.
It is most significant that we do not know where Patrick died. He had come to a land which was rough and in which, as he so unmistakably states, the life of the missioner was arduous in the extreme and fraught with daily and deadly danger.
It is as likely as not that Patrick died on the road, doing still the kind of work which he describes in the Confession which he wrote before he died, visiting the churches he had founded and, to the end, still spreading the Faith which he came to preach.
Patrick’s life-work and its results
The conversion of the Irish to Christianity was a work of quite extraordinary distinction, That it was substantially accomplished in the fifth century can scarcely be denied. In spite of what has been said from time to time, there is no evidence for the belief that the pagan Irish were peculiarly disposed to receive the Faith, that they were animae naturaliter Christianae.
The Island of Ireland had never been brought within the Roman Empire ; consequently the Latin language, the common tongue of the Christian Church, the customary vehicle of learning and liturgy was not known in Ireland. There was, then, from the start that very considerable barrier to rapid progress, the absence of a common tongue. There was the further difficulty that the Irish of the fifth century were not literate, at least in the conventional sense of the word.
Besides, the structure of Irish society, the peculiar form of the Celtic social order found in Ireland, was unique in the western world and wholly unfamiliar to the missionaries who came to convert the Irish to Christianity. There were no towns, and consequently no possibility of applying in Ireland the conventional ecclesiastical organisation of the rest of Christendom. In this most important respect the first missionaries to Ireland had to face a difficult and novel problem.
The late Edmund Curtis († 25 March 1943), who was Professor of Irish History in Trinity College, Dublin, summarises well what Patrick did for the Irish. “He gave to this pagan island the priceless gift of the Christian faith and the moral order of the Christian Church. He opened it up to Latin civilisation and the culture of Rome, which though the Empire died, survived in the Church. He turned a land that had no written literature into a land where scholars and poets cultivated both the Latin, or learned speech, and the Gaelic, the dearly loved native speech.
“He turned the Irish from a race of cruel conquerors, whose galleys were dreaded on all the coasts of Britain and Gaul, into a race whose enthusiasm was for missionary labour, Latin learning and the contemplative life. To the fifth century no name sounded more barbarous and brutal than that of the plundering Scots, but to later centuries no names were sweeter or nobler than that of Columba, Aidan and Adamnan or more famous in learning or religion than John Scotus or Columbanus.”
We may well ask: What manner of man was this Patrick who achieved such wondrous things? What gifts of nature and grace were found in him? What was the inner force, the secret of this man’s greatness? The answer to the last question we certainly find in the two writings which have most happily been preserved from his own hand. But these writings too, in conjunction with the evidence of history, give us some help in answering the other questions.
A practical man
Patrick, it would seem, was a man gifted with practical ability quite above the ordinary. In his writings we hear the voice of a man of great common-sense, plain, blunt and forthright. He has no time for subtleties and professes more than once that he is neither learned nor sophisticated. He makes his appeal in defence of himself against those who criticised him by inviting men to see and know just what kind of man he is, without inhibition or exhibition. He invites them and us to judge him by what he has tried to do, and what he has accomplished.
History suggests that Patrick gave to the church he founded not only enormous enthusiasm but also wise and prudent direction. It is surely due to the wisdom and tact of the great apostle that the conflict between Christianity and paganism, between Celt and Roman, a clash that must have been vehement and total, was resolved without violence or blood-shedding amongst a people quick to draw the sword. Was it not due to the discretion of the great pioneer that in the infant church, in spite of inherent difficulties, Latin learning could flourish so exuberantly and yet become the foster-mother of the native Gaelic lore?
Finally we have the evidence that this very practical missioner, although obviously relying on the help of assistants from abroad such as the Bishops Secundinus and Auxilius, realised that the future of the Irish Church must depend on the Irish themselves. So it is that with enormous courage and foresight, Patrick, as he tells us himself, introduced in his own lifetime from amongst his converts chosen souls to the total dedication of themselves to God in the monastic life.
Patrick’s secret revealed in his writings
It is when we come to read what Patrick wrote, his Confession and his Letter to the subjects of Coroticus, it is then that we begin to have some understanding of the greatness of the man whom God chose to be the apostle of the Irish.
The Confession and Letter have been much neglected, much to the detriment of the memory of the Saint. These writings, too, have been misunderstood. Patrick was assuredly no scholar; he was himself very conscious of his lack of learning; he makes no pretence to grace or elegance of literary style.
In fact he wrote with difficulty in the Latin language; and it is true that as a consequence there is a lack of clarity in many places; but this defect is compensated for in the qualities which are responsible for the very obscurity itself. This darkness is light indeed.
Patrick’s language is obscure most of all because of the intensity of the emotions which are clamouring for expression in and through an inadequate medium, his love for God, his zeal for souls, his indignation and fear lest good work be marred by human spite or uncharity. His imperfect Latin is a dam holding back (and yet revealing) the mighty and turbulent waters of conviction, of dedication, of intensity that press down and strive to break through.
It is a paradox, and yet it is true—it is in failing to say things that this most moving document is most revealing. This writing has all the faults of repetition, inversion, interruption, incompleteness; and yet through all these imperfections there does appear the image of a wonderful man, great and strong, intensely holy and intensely human, a man wholly dedicated.
There may be uncertainty about this detail or that; there can be no uncertainty about the main issue ; in these pages a man of God speaks eloquently of the things of God, and the pages are graced by qualities greater than those of human devising or of any literary art.
“This, then, is my confession before I die”, wrote Patrick —and as we open those pages again and those of the Letter, we may recall that he wrote, he tells us himself— “because I wish my brethren and kinsfolk to know what manner of man I am, and that they may be able to understand the desire of my soul” and that “even after I have died I may leave a testament to my brethren and sons”.
These words must have for us the special sacredness which we instinctively attach to the dying wish of a friend, the words of the will of our greatest benefactor, for we are the brethren and the sons of Patrick.
The secret of the great apostle of the Irish is in truth revealed in those pages. Let us begin with a prayer that God may cleanse our hearts so that in and through Patrick we may see God, and glorify Him in his saints. The secret revealed in the Confession is the secret of profound Christian holiness, that deep well which issues into eternal life.
Profound spirituality and charity
The man who wrote the Confession is revealed as a man of profound spirituality, an intensely Christlike person. The one mighty motivating force of all his work and his energy is the love for God in Christ Jesus, a strong, devoted, unwavering personal love. For the love of Christ he has become an exile, leaving behind him his home and his own people.
For the love of Christ he has endured suffering and tribulation. He rejoices in his need and his poverty because “Christ the Lord, too, was poor for our sakes”. It was Jesus the comforter “who took pity on the youth of my ignorance, and protected me . . . and fortified and consoled me as a father his son”.
In his prayer he heard Christ assure him that “Christ had laid down His life for him”. In the deeper secrets of prayerful union with God, Patrick says: “I saw God praying within me… praying mightily with groans”. In the hour of his deepest trial he was comforted by the sense of the nearness of God to him and the wonder that God “made common cause with me in this matter”. We may well believe that the prayer later attributed to Patrick may in truth be his, the prayer which would have “Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ in and below and above me, Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me”.
Patrick’s love for Christ knew no bounds. Like Saint Paul he, too “desired to be dissolved and to be with Christ”. Listen to the inspiring words of Patrick: “And if I should be worthy, I am ready to give even my life for His name’s sake unhesitatingly, and very gladly”, and again, “I pray Him to grant to me that I may shed my blood with those strangers and captives for His name’s sake, even though I should lack burial itself, or that in most wretched fashion my corpse should be divided limb by limb to dogs and wild beasts, so that the fowls of the air should eat it”.
That is the language of love, of the chosen ones, the great saints who really love God and who dwell in the high places. As we might expect Patrick’s love for men is no less ardent. After his escape from captivity his heart was never at rest; for he had seen the misery of a pagan people, and the voice of the Irish rang in his ears calling him to come again. And come he did, this time to voluntary captivity because of “that Godly compassion which I exercise towards that nation who once took me captive”.
In the words of his letter we can still today hear the accent of poignant sorrow and afflicted love as he mourns for his children who have been killed or captured. “Therefore in sadness and grief shall I cry aloud: O most lovely and beloved brethren and sons whom I begot in Christ what shall I do for you?” Patrick tells us himself that when he heard the voice of the Irish calling him to come and walk once more amongst them, he “was greatly affected at heart and could read no more”.
His charity was truly Christlike. In his Confession he seeks excuses for those who offended him: “They did not say this out of malice”. He pleads his own faults and ignorance as an excuse for the failings of others. But of course his whole life proclaims the virtue of Christian charity: for the love of Christ he came back to a people who had harshly treated him and his friends and family.
Life of prayer
His love for God and for his neighbours was sustained by a life of prayer. Wonderfully in God’s providence the young British captive, in loneliness and affliction, on the windswept slopes of an Irish mountainside, found God and penetrated through prayer and penance into the deep mystery of God’s being and God’s love. In the exciting hour of his escape he is thinking of God, praying and concerned for the souls of the pagan travellers amongst whom he found himself. The liberated captive has become the slave of God. The tradition which associates Patrick with the lofty mountain-top of penance and prayer is very close to the spirit of the Confession.
Prayer is union with God and the measure of Patrick’s greatness is surely the measure of his constant union with God. In him that union assumed the special character of an unshakable confidence, an utter trust. Patrick was above all else a humble man. He was strong, determined and independent; but his strength, his determination and his independence were rooted in a deep conviction of his own nothingness. But he knew with the certainty of faith that he had been chosen by God in Whom he placed all his trust:
“Daily I expect either slaughter, or to be defrauded or reduced to slavery, or an unfair attack of some kind. But none of these things moves me, on account of the promises of Heaven, and because I have cast myself into the hands of God Almighty”. All that he did he attributed immediately to God: “I came by the power of God Who was directing my path unto good”.
The dominant note of the Confession is one of almost childish loving wonder. Over and over again he utters the same sentiment: “Me out of all the world”. The greatest thing in Patrick’s life was his vocation, The old missioner at the end of his life weeps with simple joy and like a child keeps on repeating the wonder of what has happened.
A Deeply sensitive man
Patrick was indeed a man of God; but he was as well a sensitive being intensely human, a man of deep feeling. His words leave us in no doubt of that. He was deeply hurt at the treachery of a friend, and long years have not healed the searing wound. He felt intensely the solitude of exile and of separation from his home and friends.
With very human words he shows how hurt he is that his work should be criticised, and he resents indignantly malicious and untrue suggestions about himself and his work. But all of Patrick was given to God and so he could say: “Wherefore, then, even if I should wish to part with the Irish, and thus proceeding to Britain —and glad and ready I was to do so— as to my fatherland and kindred, and not that only but to go as far as Gaul in order to visit the brethren and to behold the face of the saints of my Lord —God knows that I used to desire it exceedingly— yet, I am bound in the spirit who witnesses to me that if I should do this he would note me as guilty”.
Such is the man whose soul is revealed to us in the Confession and the Letter. The Confession ends with words which no Irish Christian can read without a sense of pride and gratitude:
“Behold again and again I shall briefly declare the words of my Confession. I testify in truth and in joy of heart before God and His holy angels, that I never had any motive, except the gospel and the promises of God, for ever returning to that nation from whom on a former occasion I with difficulty escaped. But I beseech those who believe and fear God, whomsoever shall have deigned to look at or receive this document, which Patrick the sinner, unlearned as is manifest, wrote in Ireland, let no one ever say that it was I in my ignorance who did whatever little I had done or taught that is pleasing to God; but think and let it be most truly believed that it was the gift of God”, and he concludes with a sentence in which we hear the ring of Christian triumph: “and this is my confession before I die”.
Apart from the calumnies and criticisms of his life-time, one wonders if Patrick when he wrote these words may have had a presentiment of what men would think of him in later times. His medieval biographers did not treat him kindly; they forgot and they neglected the burning words in which the saint told us what he would have us know of him. Some modern scholars have doubted if Patrick ever existed; some have said that he is but a shadow in a haze of myth; some seem to think that this unique man can be multiplied at will.
The Apostle of the Irish
For a long time people have been talking of the Patrician problem, and there is a danger that the phrase itself may generate some reality. History, imperfect though it may be, witnesses to the triumphant and spectacular conversion of the people of Ireland in the fifth century. History unanimously attributes to one apostle, Patrick, the design and the accomplishment of that great task.
The tradition of a whole people has been unwavering and unequivocal in its faithful memory of the one great apostle of the Irish.
The story of Patrick is one of the most moving and dramatic in the Christian annals. Surely we know as much as we need to know about him; indeed we are thrice blessed to know so much. For we know that on an Irish hillside, exposed by day and night to cold and rain, and chilled by the harshness of solitude and exile, the heart of a young boy was wondrously drawn to think the thoughts of God.
The fire that was lighted on the verdant hill of Slane, in the heart of Ireland and near to the dwellings of men, was never to be extinguished, because it was lighted by a man himself aflame with the love of God, a man who had come down like St. Francis of Assisi from the high mountain of mysterious communing with God. Patrick was himself the living torch, consumed by the fire of great love, of willing sacrifice and unswerving dedication.
He has been remembered ever by a grateful people. One great honour they have never ceased to pay to him. Throughout the world the sons and daughters of Patrick have carried his name and his memory; for the land which he hallowed has never ceased to send forth men and women whose hearts are aglow with the same fire which burned in Patrick’s breast, men and women who remember the slave of Christ who heard the voice of children who were without a shepherd and who dwelt by the western sea.
Happy Saint Patrick’s Day to all our readers