17 Tue Mar 2009
When I was six I had a book of saints, which included a brief life of St Patrick. The first picture of Patrick in it was of him as a young boy, a slave in Ireland, looking out at the cold grey sea where it merges with the cold grey sky which kept Ireland so green. I used to look at that picture and wonder what he was thinking about.
Many people have wondered the same thing long before me, and have created stories that would have astonished the real St Patrick. One Irish historian describes many of the legends surrounding Patrick as so much ‘maudlin flapdoodle’. The real St Patrick was not the founder of an eco-feminist Celtic church, independent of Rome. He was not anti-Roman because he was very much Roman and very much Catholic . He called himself ‘Patricius’ which the Irish in his day pronounced as ‘Cothraige’. He did not drive snakes out of Ireland, and if he had, he also drove out their fossils. In any case, two centuries before, the Roman geographer Solinus, in his Gallery of Wonderful Things, noted that ‘there are no snakes’ in Ireland. If Patrick used shamrock to illustrate the Trinity the first record of this comes twelve centuries later. Patrick was not Irish, he was an Albanach, a Briton, a Welshman. He was not the first Christian or the first missionary or even the first bishop in Ireland. Before Patrick, in ad 431 Pope Celestine had sent Palladius to be ‘bishop of the Irish’.
Our most reliable information about Patrick is from his own hand, from his Confession and his Letter to Coroticus. Both begin with the words Ego Patricius peccator, ‘I, Patrick, a sinner.’ These are remarkable writings, filled with emotion, written by a man who has suffered much, who has been betrayed by his closest friend, who was undermined by his own people, and ridiculed and ignored by his enemies.
Patrick himself was born into a well-to-do family of town councillors, and his father and grandfather were a deacon and a priest respectively. It was common for public officials to seek ordination as a way of obtaining tax-relief. So despite being at least a third-generation Christian from a family of clerics, Patrick claims to have grown up as a virtual pagan. When he was 16, marauders captured him and his father’s servants at their country villa, and they were sold into slavery in Ireland. He spent six years as a slave looking after sheep near Killala by the Atlantic coast. Prompted by a dream, he escaped, journeyed 200 miles and boarded a ship, and returned home to his family.
But Patrick could not rest at home. He dreamt that the Irish said, ‘We ask you, boy, come and walk further among us’. And hearing this he was heart-broken. Patrick had no desire to return to the land of his enslavement. He wrote, ‘I came to the Irish heathens to preach the Good News and to put up with insults from unbelievers; I heard my mission abused, I endured many persecutions even to the extent of chains; I gave up my free-born status for the good of others’. And so Patrick was ordained a bishop and returned to Ireland.
Patrick’s time as a slave had interrupted his education, and he felt this lack keenly. He was aware that his use of Latin was not particularly impressive. He calls himself ‘unlearned’, ‘most rustic’ and ‘a blockhead’. In his time a good education was a token of authority. We find the pugnacious St Jerome flaunting his erudition in the face of his opponents. Jerome claims that being loquax, that is, able to speak with clarity and precision, entitles him to silence and crush a heretic who is infantissimus, most inarticulate. Because his Latin was clumsy, Patrick’s opponents questioned the legitimacy of his mission in Ireland. Their thinking seemed to be, ‘With his bad Latin, he can’t be a real bishop. And if he is not a real bishop, then we can do what we like with his flock.’ And so Christian raiders from Britain butchered the menfolk among Patrick’s new converts, and enslaved the women. When Patrick pleaded for their release, the raiders laughed in his face.
In the face of intimidation and the undermining of his mission, Patrick remained firm in his conviction. He admitted his ignorance, but knew that nonetheless he had a duty to proclaim the Gospel. He preached sound Catholicism, and knew that God had called him to do so. Patrick’s mission coincided with the outbreak of the graceless, self-sufficient and elitist Pelagian heresy in these islands. Patrick was himself no Pelagian. His sufferings had long since taught him to live by grace.
And this brings me back to my childhood book on St Patrick, and the picture of him looking out at the cold grey sea, and what he was thinking. I would guess that his thoughts were not too different from those of James Mawdsley, a young Catholic human rights activist. During his imprisonment and torture in Burma Mawdsley realised his utter reliance on grace. In his book, The Heart Must Break (In America, The Iron Road), Mawdsley writes, ‘Lord God, I have asked to serve You and I have only got silence. I know You are there, but You do not come to me. I know you exist, but You do not show Yourself. I am finished. I am nothing. How crazy to have ever thought that I had anything of worth to offer Him. I laid me down and died…’ Patrick also learnt something similar as he watched the sheep in the west of Ireland. Patrick wrote, ‘I ask God for perseverance, to grant that I remain a faithful witness to him until my passing from this life… let this be your conclusion and let it be thought – as is the perfect truth – that it was the gift of God. This is my confession before I die.’