This season, with St. Patrick’s Day right around the corner, a little journey I started four years ago will come to a close as I graduate with my doctor of ministry degree. This timing is appropriate because some of my doctoral research concentrated on St. Patrick and how God’s call carried him as a missionary into the heart of Ireland.
The mere mention of St. Patrick usually brings to mind certain symbols affiliated with his holiday: green shirts, four-leaf clovers, leprechauns and beer. We forget, however, that St. Patrick is a saint. He made a difference in history that we often overlook.
St. Patrick was one of the first missionaries to Ireland, a land inhabited by pagan Celts and Druids. Not much is known about these people groups because they did not keep written records; theirs was an oral culture that thrived on storytelling, song and memorization. It was a place enshrouded in mystery, a land from whence fairies and unicorns came.
How St. Patrick got to Ireland in the first place is the most compelling part of this story: While Patrick was still young, Celtic raiders captured him and sold him into slavery in Ireland.
He was enslaved as a sheep herder, and the laborious work inspired him to lean on his Catholic faith for daily encouragement. Legend has it that he uttered hundreds of prayers a day in order to cope, fulfilling Paul’s command to “pray without ceasing.”
He escaped and sought to put the whole episode behind him. He reunited with his family and made his way back to his hometown of Wales, but God had other plans for him.
Despite the hardships he faced, St. Patrick heard God calling him back to Ireland in order to share the Gospel. Patrick, along with numerous missionaries who followed in his footsteps, went about converting all of Ireland. It did not take long before the Druidic priests exchanged their Stonehenge altars for stained-glass cathedrals.
If there is any lesson to learn this season, it is that forgiveness trumps personal vengeance. Here we have Patrick, whom raiders captured and sold into slavery. He barely escaped with his life; then, God called him right back to the place where he suffered on a regular basis.
In order to pursue such a task, Patrick had to forgive his captors before he saw them as potential converts.
Sure enough, by God’s grace, Patrick saw beyond his own earthly, limited vision and understood the larger redemptive history that was at work around him. He joined God by participating in that history and achieved sainthood along the way.
God had affected Patrick’s life profoundly, and it appears that Patrick believed that forgiveness was not merely a choice, but an obligation. He believed that no person, no matter how deeply engaged in sin, was out of God’s reach. God resided in everyone; it was just a matter of letting people recognize God’s presence in their life and respond accordingly.
A prayer attributed to St. Patrick, also known as the “Breastplate Hymn,” expresses this belief and is quite fitting for a society in need of the power of God’s forgiveness:
“Inapprehensible we know you, Christ beside us; with earthly eyes we see men and women, exuberant or dull, tall or small. But with the eye of faith, we know you dwell in each. You are imprisoned in the fiend and the drunk; dark in the dungeon, but you are there. You are released, resplendent in the loving mother … the passionate bride, and in every sacrificial soul.”
For Patrick, the Celts worshiped God already; it was just that they did not know it was the God of Israel, incarnate in Jesus the Christ, who offered them forgiveness for their sins — just as Patrick had forgiven them.