St. Patrick first came to Ireland as a slave.
He was captured in England at age 16, brought to Ireland, and tended livestock for his master. Like many of us, he questioned the meaning of his life situation. He wanted to understand the meaning of his captivity, and he decided that his enslavement was God’s chastisement. He writes in his confession:
“I did not, indeed, know the true God; and I was taken in captivity in Ireland with many thousands of people, according to our deserts, for quite drawn away from God, we did not keep his precepts nor where we obedient to our priests who used to remind us of our salvation.”
Patrick, at least in this text, does not challenge the morality of slavery itself nor denounce the evil of man stealing. He does tell us that he prayed for hours night and day. He fasted. God only knows the content of those prayers. Not unlike enslaved Africans in America, I imagine he prayed for his own liberation. The first thoughts of freedom no doubt came to him as he entered into relationship with transcendence.
For Patrick, God is the unbegotten is-ness without a beginning, who is the source of all. Jesus exists with Father God in spirit, was made human, conquered death, received into heaven, and will return to judge the living and the dead. Holy Spirit pours out the gift of immortality that causes believers to believe and to become obedient children of God.
Patrick was also a runaway slave.
I imagine he felt the same urge toward freedom as did enslaved African-Americans when they sang: “Steal away to Jesus. I ain’t got long to stay here.” I imagine he looked at the green landscape around him and felt the same impulse that inspired enslaved African-Americans to sing: “Green trees are bending, poor sinners stand a trembling; the trumpet sounds within my soul. I ain’t got long to stay here.”
Patrick ran away to a ship that took him from the land of his captivity. Still praying and witnessing to the goodness of God, when the ship ran out of food, his shipmates asked that he pray for God to provide food. The ship landed. The men looked for food and found a group of swine. They ate for days. They also found wild honey. Patrick made his way to Gaul and finally back to his family in England. He was happy to be home and to be free.
However, God inspired him to return to Ireland to spread the gospel. When he returned, the way was not easy. In his confession, he writes of “insults from unbelievers”, and he had to “hear scandal of [his]travels, and endure many persecutions to the extent of prison.” Still, he trusted God, gave thanks in whatever circumstance in which he found himself, good or bad. He took that portion of the great commission seriously when Jesus promises always to be with those who preach the gospel.
Through all of this, the saint was still a human being wrestling with his own temptations. He writes: “the hostile flesh is always dragging me down to death, that is, to unlawful attraction.” He does not say in the confession what this “unlawful attraction” is. He shows us that saintliness is not easy, not even for saints. Further, when we read his confession, we also see a man who is far from home, yet still misses home and family. While he works to fulfill his calling in Ireland, he longs for England. In a very real sense, he is still a slave, only this time his master is God.
His calling is to bring a new religion to Ireland. At this moment in the 5th century of the Common Era the Druids ruled Ireland’s religious landscape. Patrick writes: “daily I expect to be murdered or betrayed or reduced to slavery if occasion arises. But I fear nothing, because of the promises of Heaven.” Patrick recognized his shortcoming. He knew he was not an educated man. He considered himself as “a stone lying in deep mire.” God lifted him up through God’s mercy and placed him “on top of the wall.” It was his willing to say yes to the calling that makes him a saint that we honor today.
The legend of St. Patrick says he drove serpents out of Ireland, and that he used the three leaves of the shamrock to explain the trinity of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. On this his feast day, we celebrate Ireland and the Irish heritage. We consider the tales of fairies and leprechauns and banshees; we wear green, eat corned beef and cabbage, listen to music that makes us want to dance, and we dream of a beloved who has gone and the hope of his or her return when we hear the melody of Londonderry Air and the words to Danny Boy. The human love that most of us know is the open door to the mystery of Divine Love.
Biblical wisdom teaches that God is love. I say when we think of the attributes of God, we ought to say that this entity, this Being is Love. Thus, Love is the unbegotten is-ness without beginning or end, the source of all, the spirit of holiness that breathes in us and through us that makes us immortal, that Jesus was and is the human incarnation of this Divine Love, the first born of many who also strive to incarnate Love.
So, Love freed Patrick the slave, provided food for Patrick the runaway slave and his shipmates. Love brought him back to his family in England, and then inspired him to go back to the land of his captivity to preach the good news that a relationship with transcendent Divine Love is possible for human beings and that this love requires a radical love and commitment from us toward humanity and all of creation.
St. Patrick’s Day is another opportunity to consider what he did for Love. It is an opportunity for us to ask: what have we done for Divine Love lately?