“I know for certain, that before I was humbled I was like a stone lying in deep mire, and he that is mighty came and in his mercy raised me up and, indeed, lifted me high up and placed me on top of the wall. And from there I ought to shout out in gratitude to the Lord for his great favours in this world and for ever, that the mind of man cannot measure.”
Those words were written by a man whose name is familiar and even celebrated annually, but whose life most of us know very little about. Taken from his Confessio, written in the 5th century, these are the words of none other that St. Patrick himself, the “Apostle of Ireland.”
Born in 365 A.D., he grew up in Scotland and lived a fairly normal life until the age of 16, when he was violently kidnapped by pirates and sold into slavery in Ireland—hundreds of miles from home. During his slavery, he was put in charge of watching sheep in the fields of his slaveowner.
Ireland was still deeply pagan at this time, and though his grandfather was a priest, and his dad was a town leader, Patrick himself “knew not the true God.”
But, soon, in the sorrow and desperation of his captivity, Patrick began to ponder his life and began to cling to the religion he had ignored as a teenager. There, he discovered a God who was personal, and a Jesus who shared in is sufferings. Probably to the confusion of his owner, Patrick became a Christian.
Out in the emerald fields of his master, Patrick’s time in bondage gave opportunity for many tears and much prayer, and he discovered, even as a slave, the incredible freedom of salvation and the radical grace and love of God. As he prayed and grew in faith, he also began to grow increasingly eager to see the Irish pagans come to know his beloved Jesus.
Then, one night, he received a dream which suggested to him a means of escape. A voice told him that he would soon return home and that his ship was ready. After managing to escape his master, Patrick fled for 200 miles, until he reached a sea port where he convinced a reluctant captain to take him back to his homeland.
After they came ashore in Scotland, they had to travel on land for 28 days, and without numerous provisions from his newfound God, Patrick and the men he traveled with would likely have died of exposure. Then, finally, after 6 long years in slavery, Patrick returned home to his family in Scotland in his early twenties. He had even gained several disciples on the way.
At home in Scotland, Patrick took up formal study of the Christian faith and was trained in speaking and teaching, and became a priest under the guidance of a missionary named Germain. After a time, he was ordained as a deacon, and then later, a bishop in Great Britain—but he never lost sight of his vision to see Ireland come to know the true God, and would not be satisfied until that vision was realized.
A few years after returning home, Patrick had an actual vision. In it he saw an Irish man delivering a letter, headed “the Voice of the Irish.” As he read the letter, he heard the voice of the Irish pagans cry out in unison, “We appeal to you, holy servant boy, to come and walk among us!” And shortly after he became a bishop, his dream was given feet, and he was sent by Pope Celestine I on mission to Ireland to spread the gospel and join hands with a small community of Irish Christians.
When he arrived back in the land of his former captors, his gospel was met with initial resistance. But, despite the hardship, Patrick managed to spread the message of Christ far and wide with the help of his fellow missionaries. He preached, wrote and performed numerous baptisms. But what made Patrick’s missionary work unique was the way he learned to contextualize the good news of Jesus with the thought and language of the pagan Irish clans without distorting the truth of Scripture or theology.
Patrick would build relationships with the leaders of these clans and meet their physical needs with all he could give, and simultaneously teach them about the Christian God. When converted, the leaders began to influence their own clans to Christ as well, and the kingdom of God spread exponentially across the land.
To this day day, Patrick is seen as the man responsible for the conversion of Ireland from paganism to Christianity, and entirely changing the face of the country. And his legacy lives on in rich church traditions and even legends.
Interestingly, the three-leaved clover, globally known as the symbol of the Irish, was originally used by Patrick as a visual analogy of the Trinity. As he evangelized the nation, it became a well known image. After his death, the image stuck, and was used so often used in churches and conversation that the the clover became an important symbol of not only Irish Christianity, but ultimately Ireland itself.
Patrick authored numerous works of Christian Literature, many of which are still read and cherished today in liturgy and devotion. One of these is Confessio, his life story, a beautiful and humble account of an ordinary broken man whose life was transformed by a God of extraordinary love.
Today, Saint Patrick’s story, though rarely remembered by us western Protestant millennials, has important and beautiful lessons to teach us.
All Sons and Daughters, in their song “You Hold It All Together,” which was inspired by Patrick, rephrase the line I quoted at the beginning like this: “Like a stone in the wasteland, I was useless until you / lifted high, in your mercy, out of sorrow and made new. / Oh this mind, it cannot measure all your favors in this world, / so we shout in adoration “Holy holy are you Lord!” (I would encourage you to listen to the song as we reflect)
Think about it.
Patrick looks at his life before his slavery as a life of uselessness and muck, which is the exact opposite of what you would expect. But, he has learned to view it with thanksgiving and joy because it was in his humiliation and the pain God allowed him to bear that he truly encountered God’s mercy.
If Patrick had not been enslaved, virtually everything that gave his life significance would have never happened; He would not have met God in the foreign fields of his slave-owner, and he certainly would not have been moved to become a missionary in the obscure, heathen land of Ireland. But through the pain, loneliness, sorrow and loss, God lifted this stone of a man out of the wasteland of muck and mire, broke his chains, and set him high upon a wall and made him brand new; all out of his incredible, compassionate mercy.
His life stands as an illustration to the truth of 1 Cor. 1:26-29: “Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are [nothing]—to nullify the things that are [something], so that no one may boast before him.”
There’s a saying that there is no saint without a past, and no sinner without a future. And this is certainly true of this Saint, and I am incredibly thankful that God’s creative mercy is just as real in Cambridge, Ontario as it was in Saul, Ireland.
Perhaps the most incredible takeaway from Patrick’s life, however, is the way he loved his enemies.
From that “wall” God lifted him onto (freedom from slavery and freedom in Christ), Patrick chose to return to the very people who had torn him from his home and family, sold him as property and enslaved him for over half a decade, to proclaim God’s mercy.
I doubt I would be able to do the same, apart from some kind of grace strong enough to subdue my anger and resentment.
But that is exactly what Patrick received. How could he harbor resentment when the love of God had so overflowed his levees? He wanted to go back. He needed to go back. He had to go back. In this way, he had the heart of David in Psalm 40:10; “I have not hidden your deliverance within my heart; I have spoken of your faithfulness and your salvation; I have not concealed your steadfast love and your faithfulness from the great congregation.”
He also demonstrated the heart behind Paul’s words in 1 Cor. 7:20, and sought to serve God in the place he first met him.
But most incredibly, he demonstrated the heart of Jesus on the cross:
“Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us,” (Romans 5:7-8).
He had every right to hold onto his resentment and anger at the injustice done to him, but instead, in a practical sense, he gave up his life for the sake of the salvation of the very ones who had robbed him of his freedom. And that act of love, that echoes so well the Ultimate Act of Love, he literally changed the history of Ireland, and the fruit of his work still lasts well into today.
I think there are two questions we must ask ourselves in response to learning avout Patrick’s life:
1) Do I feel useless because of my circumstances?
As someone who has gone through a great deal of trouble in my Bible College career, much of which is the product of my own foolishness, I know what it’s like to feel useless. Maybe you feel like the only one on campus who wrestles with feeling unqualified for ministry. Maybe you feel like you’re the only one on campus who doesn’t have some crazy special talent, and you just wish you were good at something. Maybe you feel like you’re the only Bible College student who actually has a real past, and the shame still haunts you today. Maybe, like many of us, you spend your nights in dorm wrestling till you bleed against that secret, lurking sin you can’t seem to quit. Maybe you’re mourning the loss of a loved one or simply the loss of love.
Regardless of your style of suffering, we can all learn a thing or too from Patrick… We are FAR from useless. There’s no mud, grime, grave or chain strong enough to hold us down when He Who Is Mighty reaches down to lift us up.
So lift your head, weary sinner, and stare into the horizon; fix your feet on top of the wall of impossibility. Whether that wall seems only a few feet tall or 10,000 miles from the mud; God can and will lift you up. Call to him, and rejoice in the help he has given you thus far; don’t minimize it. Christ believes in you, and I believe in you too, friend.
2) Am I harboring resentment?
Where is “Ireland” for you? Back home? An old group of friends? Your family? An ex? Several exes? A prof? A church? Your high school? A bully? Your dad? An abuser? Here? Okay, I’ll stop guessing. You’re probably starting to resent me. But, maybe this article is God’s way of nudging you to remember that when Jesus tells us to love our neighbors, he means enemies too. Maybe you don’t feel like you can. That’s okay. Maybe you haven’t had the kind of vision that Patrick had. Maybe you honestly feel like you need one. That’s okay. Don’t be ashamed to ask for supernatural experiences; God still does that kind of thing. *insert bapti-costal charismatic winky-face here.* Whatever you need, ask God for help; he knows you cannot do this without his grace, whatever form that takes. But know one thing for certain; God does crazy things through enemy love; including (but not limited to) converting whole countries to Jesus Christ.
Other than a little excessive veneration by some Catholic churches, there is nothing special about Patrick that separates him or makes him superior to other Christians. And that is great news.
He was simply a human like you and I, whose ugly life was beautifully interrupted by a beautiful God.
So, I say, friends, do what you can to love your “Ireland” with what you can give. But, shoot for the fences, trust God to heal your wounds in a real way, and set sail with God-sized expectation.
Pray. Praise. Cry. Laugh. Vent. Sing. Do what you need to do to grow, but remember this:
Christ is with you; in every sense, in every place, and in every way.
Or as Patrick wrote:
“Christ with me,
Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ in me,
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ on my right,
Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down,
Christ when I sit down,
Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.”
May he be so with you, my friends.
YOU ARE LOVED.