WHY DO WE celebrate Saint Patrick's Day?
Who was he? How did he become a Saint? Here is his story:
One morning when he was sixteen years old,
Saint Patrick (his name at the time was Sucat) was kidnapped
from his parent's house on the coast of Britain by a band of
knife-wielding Irish raiders and taken to Ireland, where he was
sold as a slave. The year was 401 AD.
He was 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 deprivation now considered
a form of psychological and emotional torture. His sole companion
was a sheepdog.
But he turned his great difficulties into
a unique opportunity. 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 his sufferings,
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....
Between prayers, he practiced speaking
the Irish (Celtic) language to the dog. Because of all his practice,
he became fluent in the language, which served him well later.
But one morning, after six years of praying,
he heard a voice in his sleep that told him his prayers had been
answered: He was going home. He sat up suddenly and the voice
said, Look, your ship is ready.
He was a long way from the ocean, but he
started walking toward the coast. After two hundred miles, he
came to the ocean and there was a ship, preparing to leave for
Britain. Of course, he had no money.
But because he had such great rapport with
dogs, he was given passage aboard the ship so he could keep the
large, unruly dogs they were transporting quiet on the journey.
He made it home and reunited with his family.
But he had changed. The sixteen-year-old
boy had become a holy man. He had visions. He heard the voices
of the people of Ireland calling him back. The voices were persistent,
and he eventually left his family to become ordained as a priest
and eventually a bishop with the intention of returning to Ireland
and converting the Irish to Christianity. This had been tried
before by others, unsuccessfully.
At the time, the Irish were fierce, illiterate,
Iron-Age people who were devoted to their religion of the Druids.
For over eleven hundred years, the Roman Empire had been spreading
its civilizing influence from Africa to Britain, but Rome never
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 fully 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, astronomy.
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.
That's why we was ordained as a saint. You can read the full
and fascinating story if you like in the excellent book How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas
Saint Patrick's life holds an important
lesson for all of us. Read it here.