Sunday, March 16, 2008

Overcoming the Obscurity of Saint Patrick

People obsess over the color green on Saint Patrick’s day, while Saint Patrick spent a great deal of time obsessing over God. I wonder how I can keep from making another obscure holiday out of another obscure saint. This year, I decided to start by making the saint less obscure. While this may not be possible for someone like Saint Valentine, this certainly is possible for Saint Patrick. Beyond the legend and folk lore that surrounds Saint Patrick, I have access to his writings, and his words speak volumes about his relationship to God and his view of divine grace.

There exists only a small collection of Saint Patrick’s writing. The smallness of his works may be appropriate to the simplicity and humility of the man. Yet great strength shines through his reliance on God. Patrick confessed himself as a simple countryman, unlearned, and least among the faithful. Both his Confessio and his Letter to Coroticus begin with “I, Patrick, a sinner” emphasizing his unworthiness and God’s constant grace and faithfulness.

Patrick acknowledges his faults of the past, but does not think his imperfections are enough to prevent him from doing God’s work. Rather he finds them as reason to rely on grace and exalt God’s name. In his writings, Patrick ardently celebrates his salvation, the Gospel message, and his mission. For these reasons, he journeyed as a missionary to Ireland; to serve God and the Irish people in the land he was once enslaved.

Speculation surrounds Patrick’s exact place of origin but many people speculate Britain. His Confessio reveals that during a raid, the sixteen-year-old Patrick was captured and sent as a slave to Ireland. Patrick viewed his capture as a symbolic exile representing his spiritual isolation from God at that time. Before his capture, Patrick admits to not living a very religious or good life.

In exile, Patrick accredits God with protecting him and consoling him as a father does his son. God made Patrick knowledgeable of his unbelief during his captivity, and gave Patrick the grace to respond in prayer. His conversion occurred during this time.

But after I reached Ireland I used to pasture the flock each day and I used to pray many times a day. More and more did the love of God, and my fear of him and faith increase, and my spirit was moved so that in a day [I said] from one up to a hundred prayers, and in the night a like number; besides I used to stay out in the forests and on the mountain and I would wake up before daylight to pray in the snow, in icy coldness, in rain, and I used to feel neither ill nor any slothfulness, because, as I now see, the Spirit was burning in me at that time. (Confessio: 16)

Working as a shepherd, Patrick gained a steadfast faith that would provide him with the courage and patience to know that God will provide. After six years in enslavement and prompted by the Lord, Patrick endured a dangerous escape completely trusting in God’s providence. He traveled two-hundred miles to discover a boat leaving port the day of his arrival.

During his six years in Ireland, Patrick learned the language, culture, and people. Patrick desired the conversion of the Irish people. Once free, Patrick sought out training to become a missionary. He was convinced that God wanted him return to Ireland after a vision in which Patrick heard the voices of the Irish calling for him. However, it would be a great number of years before he could return as a missionary with the support of the Church. During this time, Patrick never gave up hope.

And many gifts were offered to me with weeping and tears, and I offended them [the donors], and also went against the wishes of a good number of my elders; but guided by God, I neither agreed with them nor deferred to them, not by my own grace but by God who is victorious in me and withstands them all, so that I might come to the Irish people to preach the Gospel and endure insults from unbelievers; that I might hear scandal of my travels, and endure many persecutions to the extent of prison; and so that I might give up my free birthright for the advantage of others, and if I should be worthy, I am ready [to give] even my life without hesitation; and most willingly for His name. And I choose to devote it to him even unto death, if God grant it to me. (Confessio: 37)

After thirty-nine years of pilgrimage and formation, Patrick eventually returned to Ireland as a bishop. He challenged the religion of the druids and engaged them in spiritual discussion trying to proclaim the Gospel. On such an occasion of challenge, Patrick is reported to have been describing the mysteries of the divine Trinity and using a shamrock as a natural example of three in one when the queen converted. Whether or not this happened, Christian Ireland was born in his lifetime. Other issues Patrick had to combat were human sacrifice and enslavement, both of which became obsolete by the time of his death. Patrick, who preached that nothing is impossible for the Lord, demonstrates this reality in his mission. Ireland became a Christian nation without physical force.

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 [Scotti] and the daughters of the chieftains are to be seen as monks and virgins of Christ. (Confessio, 41).

With the absolute dedication of Patrick to God, much of Ireland became converted. He never rushed or forced the will if God but patiently waited as he actively sought ways to fulfill his destiny. Providence is present in the life, works, and writings of Patrick. He always heeded that divine grace is always present and guiding him at every moment. He lived in the constant presence of God. He showed the mercy God granted to him to the people he served. He appealed to the Irish’s desire for truth through humility and love. Furthermore, the fruits of his labor continued long after his death. The disciples of Patrick helped re-evangelize a ravished Europe torn apart spiritually through Arianism and physically through countless invasions that lead to the fall of the Roman Empire.

In honor of Saint Patrick, we should remember the missionary zeal we must have in proclaiming the Gospel. Though humble, Saint Patrick never sacrificed truth or love. Rather, he courageously sacrificed himself in service to God and to the Irish, his adopted family. He came to love the land of his captivity, and its inhabitants.

The following is a prayer from the Lorica of Saint Patrick:

I bind to myself today
The strong virtue of the Invocation of the Trinity:
I believe in the Trinity in Unity
The Creator of the Universe.

I bind to myself today
The virtue of the Incarnation of Christ with His Baptism,
The virtue of His crucifixion with His burial,
The virtue of His Resurrection with His Ascension,
The virtue of His coming on the Judgment Day.

I bind to myself today
The virtue of the love of seraphim,
In the obedience of angels,
In the hope of resurrection unto reward,
In prayers of Patriarchs,
In predictions of Prophets,
In preaching of Apostles,
In faith of Confessors,
In purity of holy Virgins,
In deeds of righteous men.

I bind to myself today
The power of Heaven,
The light of the sun,
The brightness of the moon,
The splendor of fire,
The flashing of lightning,
The swiftness of wind,
The depth of sea,
The stability of earth,
The compactness of rocks.

I bind to myself today
God's Power to guide me,
God's Might to uphold me,
God's Wisdom to teach me,
God's Eye to watch over me,
God's Ear to hear me,
God's Word to give me speech,
God's Hand to guide me,
God's Way to lie before me,
God's Shield to shelter me,
God's Host to secure me,
Against the snares of demons,
Against the seductions of vices,
Against the lusts of nature,
Against everyone who meditates injury to me,
Whether far or near,
Whether few or with many.

I invoke today all these virtues
Against every hostile merciless power
Which may assail my body and my soul,
Against the incantations of false prophets,
Against the black laws of heathenism,
Against the false laws of heresy,
Against the deceits of idolatry,
Against the spells of women, and smiths, and druids,
Against every knowledge that binds the soul of man.

Christ, protect me today
Against poison, against burning,
Against drowning, against death-wound,
That I may receive abundant reward.

Christ with me, Christ before me,
Christ behind me, Christ within me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ at my right, Christ at my left,
Christ in the fort,
Christ in the chariot seat,
Christ when I sit down,
Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks to me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.

I bind to myself today
The strong virtue of the Invocation of the Trinity,
I believe in the Trinity in Unity
The Creator of the Universe.

1 comment:

Daniel McLain Hixon said...

I started reading the Confession a couple weeks before Holy Week (and St. Patrick's day) - though I confess, I havent finished it (I should say, my edition has a contemporary commentary/reflection on each section that is about thrice as long as the actual Patrician stuff).

Once again you guys have used a picture that was on my blog (this time from March 06). Weird.