who was Saint Patrick?



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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 wasn’t 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 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 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 Cahill.

Saint Patrick's life holds an important lesson for all of us. Read it here.

Author: Adam Khan
author of the books, Self-Help Stuff That Works and Antivirus For Your Mind
and creator of the blog:
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