The Legend of Patrick
Patrick is described as the man “who found Ireland all heathen and left it all Christian.” This description hints at the legend that was Saint Patrick. Like Ireland itself, Patrick is a character of mystery and legend whose story will not die. Yet, what can we truly know about Patrick? So many stories of Patrick were passed down through the traditions of the Irish, that many documents come much later and prove to be historically unreliable. I am sure you have heard stories of Patrick driving away all the snakes of Ireland into the ocean. Or maybe you have heard the stories of Patrick raising the dead. Or maybe you have heard a number of the miracles purportedly done at his hand. Or maybe you have heard how he walked through fire unburned in a showdown with the druids of Ireland. Or, in American society today many people simply think of Patrick as an Irish leprechaun with a holiday that gives them the excuse to spend a night in drunkenness and sin. Many people find endless fascination with the many stories such as these, yet none of these stories mentioned contain any historical validity. As with the case of many early saints in history, legend and superstitions about them grew with the increased idolizing of saints. There are stories of many people having had Patrick appear to them to give them wisdom or counsel hundreds of years after his death. These of course are unhealthy and sinful fascinations with man that are built up around his legend. Nevertheless, his legend shows us the impact and importance Patrick had upon Ireland. While it may be disappointing or deflating to some to hear that many of these legends are not true, the truth is that the real historical Patrick is a much more interesting figure. He certainly would not be pleased with the drunkenness surrounding the holiday named after him. And as we will see, the real Patrick will point us away from himself and instead to glory in God and in Patrick’s Redeemer, Jesus Christ.
The Historical Patrick
While there is much we do not know about Patrick, there is enough we do know to give us a historical portrait of his life, his character, and his devotion to the Lord Jesus. So what do we know? Patrick was born sometime near the end of the 4th century, around 390 AD. While many today assume that Patrick himself was Irish, he was not. He was born in Roman controlled Britain, possibly even Wales. His father was a civil magistrate as well as a deacon in the church. However, Patrick was raised in a time when the Roman Empire was severely decaying. Like the empire, so was the religious commitment of Patrick and his young peers, an empty shell with no substance. Because of the decay of the Empire, the Roman army had long since left Britain to defend against attacks on the empire elsewhere. This left Britain unguarded and vulnerable. Because of this, sometime around 405-411, at the age of 16, Patrick was captured during an attack upon Britain, and was taken into the slave trade to be a slave, where he ended up in Ireland as a slave. At this time the Irish were utterly pagan and barbaric, considered even to be the scum of the earth.
As a young slave, Patrick would not have called himself a Christian yet at this point. In fact, Patrick would later write in his confession that he deserved to be taken captive, along with the others taken, because, “we turned away from God and did not keep His commandments.” It was several years into his captivity until Patrick gained a sense of His sin, and remembered the lessons he was taught in the church as a young boy, and in doing so turned unto Jesus Christ. His conversion took place during the long hours and days that he spent tending to the sheep of his master in Ireland.
Patrick writes of this time, “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.”
During this time, Patrick recounted all that he had learned in the church, and it was then that the gospel was made effectual to him. He writes, “And there the Lord opened the sense of my unbelief that I might at last remember my sins and be converted with all my heart to the Lord my God, who had regard for my abjection, and mercy on my youth and ignorance, and watched over me before I knew Him, and before I was able to distinguish between good and evil, and guarded me, and comforted me as would a father his son.”
After some time Patrick writes of the first of several dreams in which a voice, he believed from God, spoke to him to direct him. In the night, as he slept, a voice told him to get up and go, for a ship waited for him on which to return home. Patrick did so, and set out on a journey that lasted many days through many dangers, and was probably about 200 miles until he reached the shore. Upon arriving he found a ship getting ready to set sail for Britain, but at first the captain would not allow him to board and Patrick nearly left defeated. But as he began to leave he began to pray and before his prayer was finished, they called out to him to hurry and they would take him. Quickly he found they meant to take him for their own slave. And on this point, if you have ever seen the Lutheran Satire video of Patrick the musical, what comes next, really happened. It was an Irish pagan practice for slaves and subordinates to suck the breasts of their masters and superiors, but Patrick writes, “And so on that day I refused to suck their breasts for fear of God, but rather hoped they would come to the faith of Jesus Christ, because they were pagans.”
As they set sail for Britain they were thrown off course and landed at Gaul (France), which at that time was so war torn and desolated that they traveled for nearly a month without food and were unable to find any. Patrick’s testimony of refusing to participate in pagan ritual for fear of God did not escape the attention of his pagan captors. After 28 days of no food, the captain said to him, “Tell me, Christian: you say that your God is great and all-powerful; why, then, do you not pray for us? As you can see, we are suffering from hunger…” Patrick writes, “I said to them full of confidence: ‘Be truly converted with all your heart to the Lord my God, because nothing is impossible for Him, that this day He may send you food on your way until you be satisfied; for He has abundance everywhere.’ And, with the help of God, so it came to pass: suddenly a herd of pigs appeared on the road before our eyes, and they killed many of them; and there they stopped for two nights and fully recovered their strength…”
Patrick finally returns home after some time, and while in Britain, Patrick has another dream, which some consider to be akin to Paul’s Macedonian Call. Indeed, like Paul’s Macedonian Call, this dream resulted in the great success of the gospel which changed the course of history. In this dream a man brought a letter to Patrick which read “The Cry of the Irish.” Patrick says he could almost hear the Irish calling out to him, “Please, holy boy, come and walk among us again.” Patrick writes, “Their cry pierced to my very heart, and I could read no more; and so I awoke.” At this point Patrick began to prepare for the ministry and there are speculations as to where he studied, but after some time finally gained approval from the church to return to Ireland as a missionary.
Here we must note the beauty and compelling power of the gospel that a former slave would be moved with love for his former captors and masters, and have a zeal for the glory of God, that he willingly returned to the very ones who previously enslaved him, that he might preach the gospel of Jesus Christ to them, desiring their salvation. This is only explained by the compelling grace of our resurrected Lord who gives His people a love for their enemies, and puts prayers into their hearts for those who persecute them. This doesn’t make sense to the flesh, yet it is a story repeated through history as a testimony to the living Christ in the hearts of His people.
Patrick was over 40 years old when he returned to Ireland to begin his missionary journey, it was around the year 432 AD. Patrick is also known as the Apostle to Ireland, as he took a band of 12 monks with him after the example of Christ and his disciples. Certainly Patrick was only a man, and he was the first to admit he was a great sinner, yet the Spirit within him was greater.
Patrick spent around 30 years traveling through Ireland, preaching the gospel, which the Holy Spirit gave great success. Ireland was a pagan land filled with idolatry, human sacrifice, and pagan ritual. It was a land held captive by local pagan druids and real demonic oppression. Patrick fearlessly went straight to the druids of each place confronting them with the gospel, and would leave most everywhere he went having begun a church or monastery and having seen a great number of conversions and baptisms. Indeed, he was used greatly by God, as an instrument to free Ireland from idolatry and darkness.
His first stop in Ireland was to the same place where he was first taken as a slave. One biographer, William Federer writes, “After they landed and prayed, they were immediately met with opposition from the Druids. Patrick decided to head inland to Dalriada, to the home of his old master, Milchu, but, as the story goes, he was met by a chieftain named Dichu, who attempted to prevent his advance. As Dichu drew his sword to smite Patrick, ‘his arm became rigid as a statue and continued so until he declared himself obedient to Patrick… Dichu asked for instructions and made a gift of a large sabhall (barn)…This was the first sanctuary dedicated by Patrick…”
This was the first of many such encounters. Throughout Patrick’s missionary journey, he would end up founding over 300 churches. Though Christianity has undergone serious decay in Ireland in our present day, Ireland remains a land littered with church buildings, small and great alike, that are hundreds and hundreds of years old, a testimony to the Christian faith and influence that Ireland today remains haunted by.
Patrick died probably sometime in the 460’s AD, legend has it he had returned to Saul, the original town he had gone and seen his first conversions, which today is called Downpatrick. It is said when he died there, people came from all over Ireland to pay their respects, and for several nights, the sky was lit with torches and the sound of Psalms being sung in the air.
Lessons and Applications
So what are some lessons and applications we can learn from the life of Patrick?
The Missionary Zeal of Patrick
The grip of Patrick’s missionary zeal and fearlessness is unavoidable.
“Daily, I expect murder, fraud or captivity,” Patrick wrote, “But I fear none of these things because of the promises of heaven. I have cast myself into the hands of God almighty who rules everywhere.” …Indeed, Patrick almost delighted in taking risks for the gospel. “I must take this decision disregarding risks involved and make known the gifts of God and his everlasting consolation. Neither must we fear any such risk in faithfully preaching God’s name boldly in every place, so that even after my death, a spiritual legacy may be left for my brethren and my children.”
“I came to the people of Ireland to preach the Gospel, and to suffer insult from the unbelievers…I am prepared to give even my life without hesitation and most gladly for His name, and it is there that I wish to spend it until I die…”
“I beg Him to grant me that I may shed my blood with those exiles and captives for His name, even though I should be denied a grave, or my body be woefully torn to pieces limb by limb by hounds or wild beasts, or the fowls of the air devour it. I am firmly convinced that if this should happen to me, I would have gained my soul together with my body, because on that day without doubt we shall rise in the brightness of the sun, that is, in the glory of Christ Jesus our Redeemer.”
Patrick believed in a sovereign God whose rule was everywhere, the authority of Christ to preach the gospel everywhere, and that every land belonged to Christ. Not only this, but Patrick’s missionary zeal and fearlessness was also due to his eschatological vision, rooted in Scripture. It was a postmillennial vision, before there was such a term, which also contained bias’ of his present day. It was a common belief at that time that Ireland was truly the ends of the earth. As far as most people knew there was nothing beyond Ireland but only sea. Thus, Patrick believed that the gospel spreading among the Irish was the fulfillment of Scriptural prophecies of the Isles waiting for God’s law, and the knowledge of the glory of God covering the earth as the waters cover the sea. Patrick thought history was soon to end with the conversion of the Irish. While this was not true, and there was life beyond Ireland, indeed, in part, Ireland was one of the Isles waiting for God’s law.
As Patrick wrote in his confession he saw himself and his associates as, “So Scripture says, a letter of Christ for salvation unto the utmost part of the earth…” Patrick says that he was a debtor to God’s grace to be used to fulfill His promises, “as He once promised through His prophets: To Thee the gentiles shall come from the ends of the earth and shall say: ‘How false are the idols that our fathers got for themselves, and there is no profit in them’; and again: ‘I have set Thee as a light among the gentiles, that Thou mayest be for salvation unto the utmost part of the earth.’ And there I wish to wait for His promise who surely never deceives, as He promises in the Gospel: They shall come from the east and the west, and shall sit down with Abarahm and Isaac and Jacob – as we believe the faithful will come from all the world.” He cites the Great Commission and other similar texts as his motivation for preaching the gospel.
The Spiritual Warfare of Patrick
We also learn the very real spiritual warfare that sometimes we may face, especially when taking the gospel to pagan tribes steeped in idolatry. Patrick had a gospel that made for conquering the powers of darkness and the most fearful and powerful of men, and it is the same gospel we have today. The re-paganizing of our society that is presently underway may present our children the necessity of having a gospel understanding of the power of Christ over darkness, which frees men from serious spiritual bondage. Patrick did not turn back from such dangers, but the fact that such dangers remained is why he continued to press forward.
The Prayer-Life of Patrick
We also ought to be instructed by the fervent prayer life of Patrick. We read how often he would pray, especially in those days as a slave. He shows us an example of praying without ceasing and communion with the Triune God in prayer.
The Political Activity of Patrick
We can also learn from the political activity of Patrick. We have today a letter from Patrick to a man named Coroticus, who was some sort of general or magistrate, who persecuted Christians. Patrick wrote a bold letter calling upon such persecutions to cease and for Coroticus to turn to Christ.
Patrick also spoke and worked against the slave trade, of which he was once a victim. Indeed, shortly after his death, the slave trade of Ireland ended. Without doubt due to the conversion of so many Irish. Much like the apostles who put the idol makers out of business in the book of Acts, so Patrick put the slave trade out of business.
To the same effect, Patrick’s efforts led to the end of the pagan practice of child sacrifice in Ireland. In one story there is a pagan woman, relieved to put off sacrificing her children, who said, after learning of Christ, “finally a God whose son will die for me.”
Patrick did not confine Christianity to a private personal relationship, but he preached a gospel with the full authority of Jesus Christ to all of life, and all of society. Indeed, when true Christianity takes root in a people it will have an effect such that it reforms the societal practices, traditions, and politics of a people. Patrick preached the gospel in such a way that it was directly applied to the societal practices of the day and demanded change in obedience to Christ, because of what Christ has done for sinners.
The Humility and Wisdom of Patrick
We also learn humility from Patrick. He was a humble man, self-described as a sinner, a man worthy of God’s judgment, an uneducated stammerer, and a debtor to God’s grace.
Patrick had great humility and awareness of his littleness and lack of education, yet it is clear, through the knowledge of the Scriptures and communion with the Triune God, he was studied to show himself approved – a man of a higher class and substance than so many today. Indeed, God takes the weak things of the world to shame the strong.
Some of Patrick’s final words tell us how he would like to be remembered, “But I pray those who believe and fear God, whosoever has deigned to scan or accept this document, composed in Ireland by Patrick the sinner, an unlearned man to be sure, that none should ever say that it was my ignorance that accomplished any small thing which I did or showed in accordance with God’s will; but judge ye, and let it be most truly believed, that it was the gift of God. And this is my confession before I die.”
The Rich Trinitarianism and Christo-Centrism of Patrick
We also see in Patrick’s confession that he had a rich Trinitarian “Nicene” orthodoxy which was not cold and lifeless, but warm with the fires of communion with God through God’s Son. Like so many of the Church Fathers, there is a clear Christ-centric devotion and understanding of the Scriptures that comes out in his confession.
The Legacy of Patrick
The real Patrick leaves us a great legacy of Trinitarian and Christ-centered devotion which dug deep roots in Ireland. The false legends of Patrick and caricatures of Patrick are a disappointment, for his real legacy is truly something to be remembered. What else does his true legacy leave us?
His legacy teaches us that by God’s Grace, mass-conversion from paganism in one generation is absolutely possible. No matter the rebellion and chaos our present society is descending into, all it takes is a work of God’s grace through a small band of faithful and fearless Christians, and peace under Christ can be had. So pray, preach, and repeat.
His legacy teaches us that by God’s grace, great evil can absolutely be overcome by gospel confrontation WITHOUT violent force. Though weapons were formed against Patrick, his was the Sword of the Spirit, the gospel of peace, and it is that which overcame violent opposition. Let us not think that the only way out is war. For our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against rulers, principalities, and powers of this present darkness, and we are to be suited with the armor of God.
Finally, as was mentioned, Patrick’s legacy teaches us that the Christian faith does and must affect societal and outward reform. It is a shame and a great sadness that hundreds of years later Ireland became a war-torn land filled with blood. Patrick showed us that it didn’t have to be that way, and he reminds us today, that it does not have to be that way now.
The Works of Patrick
Patrick’s legacy also leaves us his confession, which I have referenced and quoted much today. We also have his letter to Coroticus. Both of which are worthy to be read today. Finally, there is a poem, which you probably have heard of that is attributed to Patrick. It is questionable whether Patrick actually wrote this or not. Nevertheless, it reflects the faith of Patrick through and through. And so I will end with it:
I bind to myself today
The strong name of the Trinity,
Through belief in the Three,
Through confession of the One,
The Creator of all.
I bind to myself today
The power of Christ in His baptism,
The power of His cross and burial,
The power of His resurrection and ascension,
The power of His coming again at the day of judgment.
I bind to myself today
The strength of the cherubim’s love,
The obedience of the angels,
The worship of the archangels,
The hope of resurrection unto life,
The prayers of the patriarchs,
The predictions of the prophets,
The preaching of the apostles,
The faith of the confessors,
The innocence of the holy virgins,
The deeds of the righteous.
I bind myself today the strength of heaven,
The light of the sun,
The radiance of the moon,
The splendour of fire,
The swiftness of lightning,
The rushing of the wind,
The depth of the sea,
The stability of the earth,
The firmness of rock.
I bind to myself today
The sovereignty of God to guide me,
The power of God to uphold me,
The wisdom of God to teach me,
The eye of God to watch over me,
The ear of God to listen to me,
The Word of God to speak for me,
The hand of God to guard me,
The path of God to lie before me,
The shield of God to shelter me,
And the host of God to save me from the snares of demons,
From the temptations of vices,
From the lusts of human nature,
And from everyone who wishes me harm whether far or near,
Whether in solitude or multitude.
I summon all these powers around me today
Against every cruel and merciless power which may attack my body and my soul,
Against the curses of false prophets,
Against the dark laws of Paganism,
Against the false laws of heresy,
Against the deceits of idolatry,
Against the spells of witches,
Wizards and druids,
Against all knowledge that corrupts the human body and soul.
O Christ, protect me today against poison,
Against burning, against drowning
Against wounding, so that I may receive a rich reward.
Christ be with me, Christ before me,
Christ behind me, Christ within me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ when I rest, Christ when I ride,
Christ when I cross the waters,
Christ in the heart of all who think of me,
Christ in the mouth of all who speak to me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.
I bind myself today
The strong name of the Trinity,
Through belief in the Three,
Through confession of the One,
The Creator of all.
Salvation is of the Lord, salvation is of the Lord,
Salvation is of Christ:
May your salvation, Lord, be always with me.