Snakes and Green Beer: The Real Saint Patrick

Patrick is one of those ancient saints who became larger than life. His charismatic personality and scant material about his life motivated many later biographers to colorfully fill in the gaps. And thus rose legends about Patrick where he performed fantastic miracles, including driving out all the snakes from Ireland and single handedly defeating the Druids, resulting in large numbers of fans crowding bars every 17th of March to drink green beer in his honor. As fascinating and nefarious as these tales are, we should be careful not to discount the real Patrick who may not have had all the glamour of the mythical Patrick, but who nevertheless was a thoughtful poet and a courageous adventurer.

Interestingly, Patrick was NOT Irish. He wasn’t even British, though he was born in modern day Britain. He was Roman, as was his father and grandfather, both of whom were leaders in the Christian church in Britain. He lived at the farthest edge of the Roman Empire among fellow Romans who were there to bring civility to the region, and to prevent the “barbarians” from encroaching into Roman territory. As you can imagine, there was a great prejudice against the Irish.

For the early part of Patrick’s life, he probably enjoyed a luxurious lifestyle that included a classical education that will come in handy, later. By his own admittance, during this phase of his life, he wasn’t very interested in matters of the church. And if circumstances had been otherwise, Patrick may have been just another aspiring Roman official.

But about the time Patrick turned 15, a large horde of Irish numbering in the thousands raided the area. They kidnapped Patrick, took him back to Ireland, and forced him into slavery. It was a miserable time. But like so many of the saints, his dark night of the soul stripped him of his pretense allowing him to discover himself and God.

After six years, Patrick received the first of many visions where a voice spoke to him.

Look, your ship is ready
And it was not nearby,
But was at a distance of perhaps two hundred miles;
And I had never been there,
Nor did I know anybody there;
And then later I took to flight,
And I abandoned the person with whom I had stayed for six years,
And I came in the power of God
Who was directing my way unto my good,
And I was fearing nothing until I reached that ship.
(Confessions, 81)

Taking his cue from the vision, Patrick escaped, travelled 200 miles across treacherous landscape to a nearby seaport, and forced a captain through prayer to grant him passage. (Yes, I said that correctly. You’ll have to read his Confessions to see how he did that.)

When he finally arrived home, he discovered his parents were dead. But he was welcomed by his extended family, and soon entered the clergy, where he ascended in the hierarchy and became a bishop. But Patrick was restless. Though his experience in Ireland was traumatic, he still felt drawn to these people.

And then, he had another vision of a pagan Irishman named Victoricius.

And there indeed ‘I saw in a vision of the night’ a man coming as if from Ireland,
Whose name was Victoricius,
With countless letters,
And he gave me one of them
-‘that you come and walk once more among us’
And I read the beginning of the letter containing the ‘Voice of the Irish’
-and I could read no further….
(Confessions, 93)

One can only image the emotional turmoil this vision caused. The voice compelled him to return to the very people who traumatized him as a child. Honestly, if I had had this vision, I would have attributed it to bad fish from a chippy.

But not Patrick. He sold his nobility rights and got permission from the church to return to the Irish. His actions were not without controversy. And the vote from the episcopacy was far from unanimous, with many of his closest friends urging him to give up this suicide mission. Nevertheless, Patrick travelled back to the land of his enemy.

Though the work was not easy, the genius of Patrick’s approach was a deep respect for Irish culture. Though he was outspoken against the ways of the druids, he also knew that he had to embrace the ways of the Irish if he wanted them to listen. So long before Wycliffe translated the Bible into English, or Luther translated the Bible into German, or Carey translated the Bible into an Indian dialect, Patrick translated the Bible into Celtic and began a community of faith based on the traditions of the Syrian Monastics. Soon, a thriving church blossomed.

But again, not without opposition. This time from his own people back in Britain. A British Chieftain named Coroticus led a raid to Ireland where he looted villages and even killed several in Patrick’s flock. Soon after, Patrick was called back to Britain where false charges were leveled against him in an ecclesiastical court, including avarice, which was laughable considering Patrick’s sacrifices and lifestyle. In his defense, Patrick went on the attack, and confronted the wealthy bishops in Britain who sat at the very table of the murderer Coroticus and said nothing.

Eventually, Patrick returned to Ireland, where he spent the remaining years of his life nurturing the birth one of the most ancient forms of Christianity.

The prayer attributed to him, called the breastplate of Saint Patrick, is a Lorica, or a prayer of protection. Unfortunately, Patrick was not the author as it was written well after he died; however, the prayer very much embodies the spirit of Patrick. Its sentiment compels us to take great risks–to love our enemies as Patrick did, that they might become our friends. Even our brothers and our sisters.

Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

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