He was a typical teen. He had a good life. And he knew it. Average looking, with a quick mind and even quicker wit, he lived on his family’s upper middle class farm. He had siblings, his own bedroom and the run of the place. His dad was a deacon and town councilman. His mom, a literary type, taught him the animal fables of Aesop, and heroic tales of Hercules. At his parents’ insistence, he attended church on Sundays where, he recalled in his old age, he’d roll his eyes at the priest’s windbag sermons. Other than that weekly Christian ritual, though, he had few cares and no deep thoughts.
But this was fourth century Britain, the western-most reach of the Roman Empire. And young Patricius (his given Latin name, to mark him as a Roman citizen) knew that the soldiers occupying his seaside town protected his family from barbarous people living on every side of the British island.
One night, when Patricius was about 15, pirates slipped across the Irish Sea and crept into town. In cold blood, they murdered infants and elderly, ignored the middle-aged and searched for strong boys. Yanking Patricius from his bed, they fastened chains around his neck and, along with dozens of others, bundled him into a boat for the return trip. They were slave traders, and Patricius was kidnapped and sold to a warlord in Ireland. He later wrote that he felt he was being taken to “an ultimate place of the earth.” That is, to some dreadful area at the end of the planet.
For six torturous years, Patrick served a master on the west coast of Ireland, most likely in what is today’s County Mayo. His job was to herd sheep, which kept him in the mountains, alone, usually without clothing, and helpless before the cold, dampness and fury of the season. When permitted to return to his master’s home, Patrick witnessed physical abuse of those who had attempted escape. He learned to keep his mouth shut, listened closely to the Irish language and learned the customs and gods of a foreign land. And for the first time in his life, he turned inward.
To ward off loneliness, Patrick recalled biblical stories and prayers his mother told him as a boy. He began to recite them over and over, as a test to see how many times he could (just as, centuries later, a teenaged Nelson Baker would kneel for hours on end, just to see how long he could last.) To lend structure to his day, Patrick devised a schedule by which he’d recite one story 100 times at sunrise, another 100 times in daylight and a final 100 times during the long twilight hours.
These marathon mental exercises placed Patrick in something of a trance. In this state, homesick and hopeless, he began to hear an inner voice. (Full disclosure: I believe in God, having experienced instances in which she or he has spared, set back and propelled me. Fuller disclosure: My spiritual life rests less on Catholic Church rituals and more on my belief that pursuit of grace is worthwhile, even while knowing I’ll never reach it.)
Psychologists tell us that a desperate person will grasp at any idea, real or imagined, to see him through crisis. And in a letter he wrote late in life, which historians consider the sole reliable record – Patrick admits that, at first, his skeptical self thought the voice a result of his racing mind. But in the mountains, he wrote, “God shaped me into something better. He made me into something different from what I once was, someone who cared about others. Before I was a slave, I didn’t even care about myself.”
One night, the inner voice told Patrick, “your ship is ready, and you are free.” But Patrick was on a mountain. Between him and any possible ship to Britain lay some 200 miles, filled at every step with certain death at the hands of wolves, warlords or his owner, who would surely give chase. Nevertheless, Patrick began walking. Inexplicably, he made it across Ireland, onto a commercial vessel and, six years after being abducted and believed dead, walked into the kitchen of his grateful, weeping parents.
Return to Ireland
Five years later, over breakfast in that same kitchen, Patrick told his parents he was entering the priesthood and returning to Ireland. They were, to say the least, mortified.
While Patrick didn’t bring Christianity to Ireland, as myth would have it, during his mission there he transformed already existing pockets of faith into an organized church. His bold return to their land captured the Irish imagination, and Patrick went on to impress them with physical courage and charm them with humor.
He had a habit of showing up at the homes of violent tribal kings. Entering the front door, his greeting was, “I am Patrick, I believe in God and I have no fear.” Disarmed by his bravery, otherwise brutal warriors found themselves listening to his words of love. In many instances, they permitted him to baptize their tribe.
As for Patrick’s humor, it was, well, Irish: at times self-deprecating, often gallows-oriented and always fused with lyrical language. Although perhaps apocryphal, he’s credited with originating the assertion: “There are only three things in life that are real: death, human frailty and laughter. The first two are beyond our comprehension, so we must do what we can with the third.” It was a favorite expression of John Kennedy.
But Patrick’s heroic nature derives from his long, consistent effort to stop violence against Irish women. Fourth and fifth century life was harsh for all of Earth’s inhabitants, but particularly abusive for women, who were tortured and raped at will by Irish raiders. Patrick was appalled that the church in Rome accepted money from such savage men, and wrote impassioned pleas to church leaders “not to have anything to do with these men; don’t eat and drink with them, don’t accept charity from them.”
The church’s patronizing response was that it had to protect all people of faith, i.e., “all lives matter.” While that may be true, Patrick felt, he wasn’t aware of any other class of women so horribly violated. For this, Irish women, their fathers and husbands, loved him.
Over a recent dinner, a friend and trustee of her Wesleyan church began a lively discussion, saying, “you Catholics are too much. You clutter the Jesus story with all these crazy saints and their tall tales.” She had a point. Certain saint myths stretch credulity (though I swear Saint Anthony helped me find my car keys last week).
But my interest has always laid in the historical saints, indeed, in the historical Jesus, rather than in church versions. Knowledge of Patrick’s life, beyond the fictions of shamrocks and snakes invented after he died, come from two remarkable letters he wrote. The first was a condemnation of a horrific king who brutalized women, and the second, Patrick titled simply, “Confession.”
Survival of these documents make Patrick the ancient British person best known to modern times. They offer candid insights into his nature and thoughts, as well as reveal that his grasp of Latin was a bit shaky. If gifted “Hamilton” playwright, Lin Manuel Miranda had read “Confession” before he happened across an Alexander Hamilton biography, he would’ve composed a hip-hop musical based on the Irish saint. For Patrick’s life included immigration, enslavement and an abundance of violence. And, as with Hamilton, through the strength of his actions and writings, he elevated himself to a place in history.
Patrick’s narrative mirrors the universal story of high-achieving people: the cauldron’s effect of transformation and growth; adolescent ambivalence to maturity’s purpose; self-absorption to self-awareness. Modern versions of his story include how slavery’s horror transformed Abraham Lincoln from political hack to unparalleled statesmen; and how awaking one morning unable to walk changed Franklin Roosevelt from selfish adulterer to empathetic crusader for those who suffer.
If Patrick were among us today, he would certainly be impressed by how the centuries have given rise to a more civilized, less hazardous world. But he’d be bitterly disappointed with the survival of violence. He’d speak, tweet, protest and flash-mob all day. As university students across America grapple with an alarming incidence of sexual assault, and in light of the remarkable influence of the “Black Lives Matter” movement, Patrick would spend his time on college campuses, recognizing their role in effecting change.
Saint Patrick’s Day is a holiday recognized around the world. The Dublin, Ireland, marking is perhaps more subdued than our American version, but it, too, is characterized by revelry and celebration. While Patrick would be bemused by all the fuss, if not perplexed by the imbibing – he was an admirer of the Greek adage of nothing in excess – the Irish in him would render him an enthusiastic participant.
But beyond the noise, music, welcoming of spring and even religious aspects of Patrick’s life lays the animating idea in every Saint Patrick’s Day parade. The story of human existence is the narrative of how each of us set out and, in the end, found a way to rest assured, reach shore and return home. Patrick’s life is dramatic illustration of that striving.
In Buffalo this afternoon, as parish members, dancing girls, firefighters, police officers and vote-hungry politicians march up Delaware Avenue, they symbolically retrace the steps of lonely, courageous Patrick as he slipped slavery’s bonds and walked across Ireland. And with each step, they become closer to grace, closer to meaning and closer to home.
Kevin Gaughan, a Buffalo attorney and civic leader, turned 62 this Saint Patrick’s Day. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.