ONE MORNING A SIXTEEN-YEAR-OLD boy was
kidnapped from his house by a band of knife-wielding thugs and
taken to another country, there to be sold as a slave. The year
was 401 a.d.
He was made a shepherd. Slaves were not
allowed to wear clothes, so he was often dangerously cold and
frequently on the verge of starvation. He spent months at a time
without seeing another human being a severe psychological
But this greatest of difficulties was transformed
into the greatest of blessings because it gave him an opportunity
not many get in a lifetime. Long lengths of solitude have been
used by people all through history to meditate, to learn to control
the mind and to explore the depths of feeling and thought to
a degree impossible in the hubbub of normal life.
He wasnt looking for such an opportunity,
but he got it anyway. He had never been a religious person, but
to hold himself together and take his mind off the pain, he began
to pray, so much that ...in one day, he wrote later,
I would say as many as a hundred prayers and after dark
nearly as many again...I would wake and pray before daybreak
through snow, frost, and rain....
This young man, at the onset of his manhood,
got a raw deal. But therein lies the lesson. Nobody
gets a perfect life. The question is not What could
I have done if Id gotten a better life? but rather
What can I do with the life Ive got?
How can you take your personality,
your circumstances, your upbringing, the time and
place you live in, and make something extraordinary out
of it? What can you do with what youve got?
The young slave prayed. He didnt
have much else available to do, so he did what he could with
all his might. And after six years of praying, he heard a voice
in his sleep say that his prayers would be answered: He was going
home. He sat bolt upright and the voice said, Look, your
ship is ready.
He was a long way from the ocean, but he
started walking. After two hundred miles, he came to the ocean
and there was a ship, preparing to leave for Britain, his homeland.
Somehow he got aboard the ship and went home to reunite with
But he had changed. The sixteen-year-old
boy had become a holy man. He had visions. He heard the voices
of the people from the island he had left Ireland
calling him back. The voices were persistent, and he eventually
left his family to become ordained as a priest and a bishop with
the intention of returning to Ireland and converting the Irish
At the time, the Irish were fierce, illiterate,
Iron-Age people. For over eleven hundred years, the Roman Empire
had been spreading its civilizing influence from Africa to Britain,
but Rome never conquered Ireland.
The people of Ireland warred constantly.
They made human sacrifices of prisoners of war and sacrificed
newborns to the gods of the harvest. They hung the skulls of
their enemies on their belts as ornaments.
Our slave-boy-turned-bishop decided to
make these people literate and peaceful. Braving dangers and
obstacles of tremendous magnitude, he actually succeeded!
By the end of his life, Ireland was Christian. Slavery had ceased
entirely. Wars were much less frequent, and literacy was spreading.
How did he do it? He began by teaching
people to read starting with the Bible. Students eventually
became teachers and went to other parts of the island to create
new places of learning, and wherever they went, they brought
the know-how to turn sheepskin into paper and paper into books.
Copying books became the major religious
activity of that country. The Irish had a long-standing love
of words, and it expressed itself to the full when they became
literate. Monks spent their lives copying books: the Bible, the
lives of saints, and the works accumulated by the Roman culture
Latin, Greek, and Hebrew books, grammars, the works of
Plato, Aristotle, Virgil, Homer, Greek philosophy, math, geometry,
In fact, because so many books were being
copied, they were saved, because as Ireland was being civilized,
the Roman Empire was falling apart. Libraries disappeared in
Europe. Books were no longer copied (except in the city of Rome
itself), and children were no longer taught to read. The civilization
that had been built up over eleven centuries disintegrated. This
was the beginning of the Dark Ages.
Because our slave-boy-turned-bishop transformed
his suffering into a mission, civilization itself, in the form
of literature and the accumulated knowledge contained in that
literature, was saved and not lost during that time of darkness.
He was named a saint, the famous Saint Patrick. You can read
the full and fascinating story if you like in the excellent book
How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas
Very interesting, you might
say, but what does that have to do with me?
Well...you are also in some circumstances
or other, and its not all peaches and cream, is it? Theres
some stuff you dont like maybe something about your
circumstances, perhaps, or maybe some events that occurred in
But here you are, with that past,
with these circumstances, with the things you consider
less than ideal. What are you going to do with them? If those
circumstances have made you uniquely qualified for some contribution,
what would it be?
You may not know the answer to that question
right now, but keep in mind that the circumstances you think
only spell misery may contain the seeds of something profoundly
Good. Assume thats true, and the assumption will begin
to gather evidence until your misery is transformed, as Saint
Patricks suffering was, from a raw deal to the perfect
preparation for something better.
Ask yourself and keep asking,
Given my upbringing and circumstances, what Good am I especially
qualified to do?