Most everyone has some knowledge of St. Patrick — the fact that he was Irish(you’ll read ahead that he was actually British), lived a long time ago (!), and is somehow associated with the shamrock. A lot of myth has grown up around St. Patrick, as even the Catholic Church has admitted. The truth can be hard to sort from the legends that have accrued around his name: Patrick as spiritual warrior fighting the ancient high kings of Ireland, Patrick banishing the snakes from Ireland, Patrick’s walking stick sprouts into an ash tree, etc.
That’s why I was excited to find a new translation of what is sometimes called Patrick’s Confession or Declaration, in a gift store at Bru Na Boine. On the cover, in a modern graphic, the booklet declared: “‘My name is Patrick. I am a sinner, a simple country person and the least of all believers.’ Read St. Patrick in his own words.” This translation, made in 2011 by Padraig McCarthy, under the auspices of the Royal Irish Academy, contains what many scholars agree is Patrick’s own account of his slavery in Ireland, his escape and the vision that drew him back to bring the Gospel to the land of his captivity.
It’s a simple but moving witness to God’s action in the life of a man who lived sometime in the 5th century. He was taken into captivity in Britain by Irish pirates. They took him to Ireland where he was a slave. He had been raised in a Christian family but had not made the faith his own. Here are his own words: “After I arrived in Ireland, I tended sheep every day, and I prayed frequently during the day. More and more the love of God increased and my sense of awe before God. Faith grew, and my spirit was moved, so that in one day I would pray up to one hundred times, and at night perhaps the same.” One night in his sleep he heard God tell him there was a ship a mere 200 miles away that would take him away from Ireland. He only needed to trust the vision and run away. So he escaped on a ship and had many adventures including being taken prisoner again.
Finally returning home to Britain, he had another vision of Irish people begging him to return to them: “‘We beg you, holy boy, to come and walk again among us.’ This touched my heart deeply…I woke up .” So he returned to Ireland and the rest is history (and legend!).
There are as many places associated with St. Patrick in Ireland as there are legends: churches, mountains, wells, and valleys. Here in Sligo, where I write this blog, is a church that St. Patrick is said to have visited because a dear friend of his founded it. But one of the best known places associated with St. Patrick is the Hill of Slane, which is very near to the Bru Na Boine which was the subject of my last post.
So our coach driver took us to see the Hill. The weather was blustery, rainy and foggy. One of the spectacular aspects of this hill is the almost 360 degree panoramic view of the surrounding hills. But since there was no chance of seeing any such sight, we stayed in the comfort of the coach.
The legend tells that on the evening of Easter, in defiance of the High King Laoire, Patrick lit a fire to celebrate. The fire could be seen from the hill of Tara, the High King’s home. He was so impressed by Patrick’s defiance that he agreed to let Patrick continue to preach.
You may know the name “Slane” from the hymn tune for “Be Thou My Vision.” We sat in the coach, as the mist swirled around, and sang the first stanza of the hymn: “Be thou my vision, oh Lord of my heart. Nought be all else to me save that thou art. Thou my best thought by day or by night, waking or sleeping thy presence my light.”
As we sang, some of the students were rather noisy at the back of the bus. I have learned to ignore such distractions. But their excited cries got us looking out the window — the mist was swirling away from the hill, revealing a glimpse of the ruins there and the hills beyond. Be Thou our vision….
Let me end this post, and probably our stay in Ireland, with St. Patrick’s own words: “I must take care not to hide the gift of God which he has generously given us in the land of my captivity. It was then that I looked for him with all my strength, and there I found him, and he protected me from all evils — this is what I believe — on account of his Spirit living and working in me to this very day.”
Where have you seen the Spirit living and working today? Even when you feel “in captivity”, the Lord is there!