St. Patrick's Story and Confession: Evangelism of Ireland
Summary of Patrick's Early Life
This article is a continuation of my earlier article, on St. Patrick's early life as told by his confession, which gives more detail about St. Patrick's youth, conversion, and captivity. The following is merely a brief summary of what my earlier article described in greater detail.
St. Patrick was one of the first and most influential missionaries to Ireland, bravely entering this superstitious and violent country to bring the healing balm of the gospel. In his early life he had been captured by these same barbaric Irish and taken as a slave to tend sheep. During that time he was converted to the Lord, like the young future king David. After six years, God told Patrick in a dream that he was to leave Ireland immediately and that his "ship awaits." Patrick travelled two hundred miles to where God told him the ship would be, boarded, and sailed back to his homeland in Britain, much to the relief of his family. Patrick was not to stay much longer in the peace and safety of his home, for God called him distinctly, in a dream, to go back to Ireland and walk amongst the heathen people once more, only this time as a light and a testimony of God, not as a slave. Patrick prepared for his mission work by becoming a priest, and after two years made his way back to the country of his childhood captivity. St. Patrick was thrilled when he was finally able to obey the Lord's call and return to that land that was drowned in so much darkness. St. Patrick wrote, "Thanks be to God, after many years the Lord gave to [the Irish people] according to their cry." (From St. Patrick's Confessio.)
The Real Saint Patrick
St. Patrick's Confession and Declaration
Though St. Patrick was a great man, mightily used of God to accomplish His purpose, we must remember that he was human and had faults and timidness and distractions just as every human does. It seems that there was an accusation against Patrick at one point for a sin in his past. The following is from St. Patrick's Confession and Declaration.
"As cause for proceeding against me they found-- after thirty years!-- a confession I had made before I was a deacon. In the anxiety of my troubled mind I confided to my dearest friend what I had done in my boyhood one day, nay, in one hour, because I was not yet strong. I know not, God knoweth-- whether I was then fifteen years old: and I did not believe in the living God, nor did I so from my childhood, but lived in death and unbelief until I was severely chastised and really humiliated, by hunger and nakedness, and that daily. (Note: St. Patrick's chastisement and humiliation is a reference to his days as a captive when he was often without food or clothing, tending sheep in the wild mountainous snowy hills of Ireland).
We do not know what Patrick's sin was, but only that it deeply troubled him until he told his friend about it. This friend obviously could not keep a secret ("to him I had confided my very soul!" Patrick remonstrates), and the gossip about Patrick's younger days got out. This brought many accusations on Patrick, and the church leaders in Britain thought him unsuitable to teach others, much less to go to another country as a missionary. This disapproval from men worried Patrick. The letter, Confessio, which he wrote at the near end of his life was written to prove his innocence by the forgiving grace of God, to the elders.
They did not hinder Patrick's journey for long, however, for soon he said, "I give Him thanks who hath strengthened me in everything, as He did not frustrate the journey upon which I had decided, and the work which I had learned from Christ my Lord... my trust was proved right before God and men." Again and again St. Patrick's Confession showed that it was not by his might or strength that he was able to endure the trials he faced, but by "Christ my Lord, who saved me out of all my troubles. Thus I can say: 'Who am I, O Lord, and to what hast Thou called me, Thou who didst assist me with such divine power that today I constantly magnify Thy name among the heathens wherever I may be, and not only in good days but also in tribulations.'"
Dangers and Trials in Ireland
Many tried to prevent St. Patrick's mission. "Why does this fellow throw himself into danger among enemies who have no knowledge of God?" was a phrase he often heard. Detail of his own adventures does not seem to be a priority in St. Patrick's Confession. He is too humble a man to try to enthrall us with his bravery, declaring that "it would be tedious to give a detailed account of all my labours or even a part of them." We know he went back to Ireland, and that he suffered from "twelve dangers in which my life was at stake-- not to mention numerous plots, which I cannot express in words; for I do not want to bore my readers." He mentions being captured by kings: "they laid hands on me and my companions, and on that day they eagerly wished to kill me; but my time had not yet come. And everything they found with us they took away, and me they put in irons; and on the fourteenth day the Lord delivered me from their power, and our belongings were returned to us because of God."
The heathen Irish worshipped "idols and things impure." Research has revealed the Celtic pagans were pantheists, worshipping "the creature, rather than the Creator" (Romans 1) They believed the sun, water, fire, stones, and animals and plants were all the embodiment of "gods." One contemporary biography of Patrick written by one of his disciples, Tirechan's Collections Concerning St. Patrick, says that Ireland was filled with magicians and exorcists, who practiced their demonic witchery in every village and field, and on a certain occasion even caused "the darkness of night" to cover a certain plain of "Ai" for three days and nights until Patrick's fervent prayers and fastings to God caused the darkness to lift. But it was evident in every way that Patrick's breastplate prayer was beginning to come true. "Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ in all who think of me." The evil of godlessness was falling away before the majestic power of the one true and living God.
Biography of St. Patrick
Pantheism and Nature-Worship in Ireland
One example of the darkly-steeped form of nature-worship that Patrick encountered in Ireland comes from the story Tirechan tells about a time when Patrick and a fellow bishop stopped by a fountain to rest. According to his account, two daughters of the king Loigaire (named Ethne--the fair one, and Fedelmnufa) came to the fountain to bathe, but halted when they saw the men there whom they did not recognize. Their instant impression was that the men were gods of the earth, or phantoms, and they asked who the men were. Patrick wasted no opportunity but responded, "Were it not better you should confess the true God, than to ask our race?"
The eldest daughter coyly taunts and questions, drawing from her knowledge of nature and her desire for romantic pleasure to inquire after a God worth her while:
"Who is God? And where is God? And where is his dwelling? Has your God sons and daughters, gold and silver? Does he live forever? Is he handsome? Has he many sons? Are his daughters beautiful and beloved by the men of this world? Is he in heaven or on earth? In the sea, in the rivers, in the mountains, in the valleys: tell us his description. How he can be seen, how he is to be respected, how he is to be found, whether in youth or age?"
Saint Patrick's response exactly answers her questions, overpowering her with the truth of God's expansive lordship over all the "nature gods" the maiden inquired about, and brings her questioning mind to more of the truth than she could have imagined possible. In one fell swoop he gets rid of all her presuppositional misconceptions about God and nature, and astounds her with a sermon, beautiful in its poetical symmetry.
"Our God is the God of all men, the God of heaven and earth, and of the sea, and of rivers; the God of the sun, and of the moon, and of all the stars; the God of the lofty mountains, and of the lower valleys; God is above the heavens, and in heaven, and under heaven; his habitation is above the heavens, and the earth, and the sea, and all things which are therein: He inspires all things, He enlivens all things, He overcomes all things, He supports all things, He enlightens the sun. He strengthens the light of night and our knowledge-- he made fountains in dry places, and dry islands in the sea, and he placed the stars for the office of greater lights. He has a son, who is coeternal with himself, nor is the son younger than the father, nor the father older than the son, and the holy spirit breathes in them; the father, son and holy spirit, are inseparable. But I wish that ye were united to the heavenly king."
After this, the sisters wanted to see God face-to-face, but Patrick instructed them in the gospel and questioned them about the sincerity of their repentance, life after death, resurrection, and unity of the church. They answered satisfactorily to all that he questioned them about, then he baptized them. They had come to the fountain to receive an outward washing, but received a washing of the heart instead. They had entered the cool, misty grove, with dark and erotic confusion in their minds, but left the grove being shown the true and clear God, and being espoused to a heavenly king.
St. Patrick's Grave
The Light of Truth Dawns in Ireland
He went everywhere for the sake of the Irish people, traveling "even to the farthest districts, beyond which there lived nobody and where nobody had ever come to baptize, or to ordain clergy, or to confirm the people." He built his first church in a valley called Sesenan, and Patrick also baptized "a certain good man" and his son, Benignus there. The boy Benignus was so desirous of staying with Patrick in his ministry, that he ran and clung to Patrick's foot as Patrick was ascending his chariot to leave the next day, saying, "Suffer me to go with Patrick, my real father!" According to the account, Patrick decreed that this boy would be "Benignus the bishop, successor of Patrick in the Church of Mach."
The king Loigaire and his three magicians, Cruth, Lock, and Lethlanii, hated Patrick and Benignus, and made great opposition against them. Somehow one of the magicians got his hands on Benignus and wrapped his flaming cloak around the boy to burn him to death in the sight of all the people, the other magicians, and the king. The cloak itself burned to ashes, but the "pious youth was preserved safe by the faith of God" as a testimony to those who were watching. The magician who had tried to burn the boy got burnt himself by the cloak he himself was wearing, as it burst into flames and consumed him.
Another story involves the missionary Patrick traveling to Taltena, where a king named Agon ruled, and where an evil man named Coirpriticus flogged Patrick's servants in the midst of a river, and wished to kill Patrick himself. However, Coirpriticus did not succeed in his desire to kill Patrick, and the next day found Patrick being received with joy by the evil man's own brother, Conallus, who Patrick baptized and on whose kingdom Patrick prayed for God's blessing. Before Patrick left Conallus, he provided him with godly bishops to tutor him in the faith.
Further stories describe Christian churches built in every city, heathen kings and nobles eager to be baptized and ordained as pastors (sometimes Patrick and his disciples baptized a thousand converts in one day), many converted women bringing gifts and tokens of appreciation --which Patrick refused to receive, and the darkness of idolatry and lawlessness dispelled. Tirechan records the totals of heathen men converted and even ordained by the end of Patrick's life: 450 bishops, priests beyond any countable number ("because he baptized priests every day"), and many deacons as well. Most of these men had been exorcists but gave up their devil worship for the excellency that was in Christ.
Tirechan's biography of Patrick lists a final evaluation of what God gave Patrick during his ministry to Ireland:
"1. The whole island; with its inhabitants, by the angel of the Lord.
2. And he taught them the law of the Lord.
3. And baptized them with the baptism of God.
4. And pointed out the cross of Christ.
5. And related his resurrection."
© 2010 Jane Grey
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