Saint Patrick, Appreciating the Man Behind the Myth and Legend

Posted: March 17, 2010 by Rick Hogaboam in Biography, Missional Thought
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Well, Happy St. Patrick’s Day one and all. It is very difficult to sift through the lore of St. Patrick to understand the real man behind the myth and legend. I found some of the following tidbits useful in appreciating this courageous missionary to Ireland:

–          His slavery:

  • A 16-year-old Romanized Briton, Patrick was sold to a cruel warrior chief whose opponents’ heads sat atop sharp poles around his palisade in Northern Ireland. While Patrick minded his master’s pigs in the nearby hills, he lived like an animal himself, enduring long bouts of hunger, thirst, and isolation. A nominal Christian to this point, he now turned to the Christian God of his fathers for comfort.
    “I would pray constantly during the daylight hours,” he later recalled. “The love of God and the fear of him surrounded me more and more. And faith grew. And the spirit roused so that in one day I would say as many as a hundred prayers, and at night only slightly less.”
    After six years of slavery, a mysterious, supernatural voice spoke to him: “Soon you will return to your homeland.”
    So Patrick fled and ran 200 miles to a southeastern harbor. There he boarded a ship of traders bound for Europe.
    Galli, M., & Olsen, T. (2000). 131 Christians everyone should know (229–230). Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

–          First Missionary to Ireland? and Combating Pagan Forces?

  • Whether Patrick was the first missionary to Ireland or not, paganism was still dominant when he arrived. “I dwell among gentiles,” he wrote, “in the midst of pagan barbarians, worshipers of idols, and of unclean things.”
    Patrick’s mission faced the most opposition from the druids, who practiced magic, were skilled in secular learning (especially law and history), and advised Irish kings. Biographies of the saint are replete with stories of druids who “wished to kill holy Patrick.”
    “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.”
    Patrick was as fully convinced as the Celts that the power of the druids was real, but he brought news of a stronger power. The famous Lorica (or “Patrick’s Breastplate”), a prayer of protection, may not have been written by Patrick (at least in its current form), but it expresses perfectly Patrick’s confidence in God to protect him from “every fierce merciless force that may come upon my body and soul.”
    There was probably a confrontation between Patrick and the druids, but scholars doubt it was as dramatic and magical as later stories recounted. One biographer from the late 600s, Muirchú, described Patrick challenging druids to contests at Tara, in which each party tried to outdo the other in working wonders before the audience. Patrick, the legend says, won, as God killed several of the druids and soldiers:
    “The king summoned his council and said, ‘It is better for me to believe than to die.’ And he believed as did many others that day.”
    Galli, M., & Olsen, T. (2000). 131 Christians everyone should know (230). Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

–          Instrumental in the abolishing of slavery in his lifetime?

  • Yet to Patrick, the greatest enemy was one he had been intimately familiar with—slavery. He was, in fact, one of the earliest Christians to speak out strongly against the practice. Scholars agree he is the true author of a letter excommunicating a British tyrant, Coroticus, who had carried off some of Patrick’s converts into slavery.
    “Ravenous wolves have gulped down the Lord’s own flock which was flourishing in Ireland,” he wrote, “and the whole church cries out and laments for its sons and daughters.” He called Coroticus’s deed “wicked, so horrible, so unutterable,” and told him to repent and to free the converts.
    It remains unknown if he was successful in freeing Coroticus’s slaves, but within his lifetime (or shortly thereafter), the entire Irish slave trade had ended.
    Galli, M., & Olsen, T. (2000). 131 Christians everyone should know (230–231). Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

–          God uses the unlearned Patrick to confound the wise:

  • Despite his success as a missionary, Patrick was self-conscious, especially about his educational background. “I still blush and fear more than anything to have my lack of learning brought out into the open,” he wrote in his Confession. “For I am unable to explain my mind to learned people.”
    Nevertheless, he gave thanks to God, “who stirred up me, a fool, from the midst of those who are considered wise and learned in the practice of the law as well as persuasive in their speech and in every other way and ahead of these others, inspired me who is so despised by the world.”
    Galli, M., & Olsen, T. (2000). 131 Christians everyone should know (231). Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

While St. Patrick may or may not have given expositions on the triune God by holding up a 3 leaf clover, or many other attributed stories, what is clear is that there is some truth behind the myth if you can even sift one from the other. God used a teenage boy to powerfully transform the face on an entire country. While he might not have driven away serpents from the land, he did however help drive away the “Ancient Serpent” and a wicked host of principalities in the proclamation of the Gospel. He battled the druids and their bondage to principalities, and while some may or may not have perished in these “Power Encounters” (which I wouldn’t doubt did happen), it is certainly true that many idols were thrown away in Ireland as they heard the good news about the true Triune God!!!

When someone pinches you for not wearing green or your kids should ask who this green character is, tell them about St. Patrick and share the Gospel with them as Patrick would wish for all to do on a holiday that bears his name (which he would oppose BTW, but certainly not mind if the Gospel was shared in the midst of the green garb, beer, and clovers).

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