As saints go, St. Patrick is underrated. I think that’s especially true at this time of year when we see him everywhere, advertising green beer and corned beef sandwiches, waving the tri-color while holding his shamrock-covered crozier. The real St. Patrick, who was responsible for the fifth century spread of Christianity in Ireland, was one of the greatest missionaries and mystics in the history of the Church.
In his spiritual autobiography The Confession, St. Patrick reveals that he was kidnapped as a teenager from his home in the British Isles, which at that time were a remote part of the Roman Empire. His captors were pirates from Ireland, a place beyond the borders of the Empire, and in their cruelty they sold their prisoner into slavery. As a slave Patrick was charged with tending the sheep of his master in western Ireland. Although he came from a Christian family, Patrick himself was not observant as a youth. It was during his six years in slavery that his faith was awakened, and he discovered God. He writes: “After I had come to Ireland, it was then that I was made to shepherd the flocks day after day, so, as I did so, I would pray all the time, right through the day. More and more the love of God and fear of Him grew strong within me.” Although he does not use technical language to describe it, Patrick writes of his experience contemplative prayer: “As my faith grew, so the Spirit became more and more active, so that in a single day I would say as many as a hundred prayers, and at night only slightly less. Although I might be staying in a forest or out on a mountainside, it would be the same. Even before dawn broke, I would be aroused to pray. In snow, in frost, in rain, I would hardly notice any discomfort, and I was never slack but always full of energy. It is clear to me now, that this was due to the fervor of the Spirit within me.” Patrick, despite the physical limitations imposed on him by his slave masters and his exposure to the harsh weather conditions of western Ireland, was filled with the life of God which broadened his imagination and liberated him from oppression. His liberation is first an interior liberation through his inner life with God. But this inner life leads to a mystical vision that shows him how he would escape slavery and return home.
When he gets back to Britain, he reunites with his family and begins studying for the priesthood. After he is consecrated a bishop, he has another vision, which resembles the dream that St. Paul experienced in Chapter 16 of the Acts of the Apostles. There, St. Paul has a vision while in Asia Minor (Turkey) of a Macedonian who pleads with him to come and preach the gospel there. This moves St. Paul to begin his missionary work in Europe. In St. Patrick’s mystical vision, he hears the voice of Ireland calling him to return to the place where he was a slave to liberate his former captors from their spiritual enslavement. Like St. Paul, Patrick’s missionary work was filled with persecution, betrayal, misunderstandings, and scandal, as well as a keen sense of his own sinfulness. Like St. Paul, Patrick was able to persevere through all adversity because of his love for Christ which made him unstoppable in his proclamation of the gospel. The love of Christ made him supremely free.
Importantly, St. Patrick did not love Christ from a distance. Rather, through his life of intense prayer and faithful discipleship, He discovered the mysterious presence of God dwelling within Him. He writes: “Once again, I saw Him praying within my soul, it was as if I was still inside my body, and then I heard Him above me, that is, over my inner man. And as all this was happening, I was stunned and kept marveling and wondering… who he might be, who was praying in this way within me. But as this prayer was ending, He declared that it was the Spirit.” This experience also echoes that of St. Paul, who writes in his letter to the Romans: “Likewise, the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.” St. Patrick thus experienced what is true for all those who have been grafted onto the Mystical Body, that we do not pray from our place on earth to a remote deity, but that God – Father, Son, Holy Spirit – live their eternal relationship within the soul that is alive in grace, even when we are not conscious of it. In his own spiritual biography, St. Augustine of Hippo marvels at how God is “more intimate to me than I am to myself.”
Tomorrow, on his feast day, it would be worthwhile to contemplate this great mystery that St. Patrick articulated so powerfully in The Confession. And to pray for the people of Ireland, the Catholic faith of whose ancestors were so vital to the spread of the gospel throughout the world, and who need to hear the liberating message of Christ’s love once again.