St. Patrick: the “Holy Servant-Boy”
The stories of St. Patrick are wild, fanciful and mostly unsubstantiated. As with the lives of many early saints, the lore compared to the actual lives lived may well be very distant cousins. But that doesn’t mean the tales can’t be received as inspired with truth. There is often poetic veracity embedded in dubious tales. The very fruition of these legends over time gives witness to humanity’s relentless struggle through darkness toward light, from ignorance to understanding, from cursedness to blessedness. The stories tell of heroic, counter-intuitive deeds and selfless love, and show us how profoundly the way of Christ has penetrated into culture like an invisible, raising yeast.
What we know of Patrick’s life comes from two surviving documents written by the Saint himself. We learn that he was born in Britain, likely in the early 5th century, to Christian heritage. His father was a deacon and his grandfather was a priest. But by his own admission Patrick was not an active believer in his youth.
At the age of sixteen, Patrick was captured by raiders who took him back to Ireland where he was enslaved for six years and made to work as a shepherd boy. This disorienting experience of abrupt dislocation and enslavement suppled his heart toward prayer and eventually led to his conversion to Christianity.
After six years, “a voice” told Patrick he would soon go home. Shortly after, he found a means to escape his captors, and after many setbacks and adventures, found his way home to his family where he began to diligently attend to his Christian faith through study and prayer.
Some years later, Patrick had a vision of an Irishman, named Victorius, who delivered a letter from “The Voice of the Irish.” While reading the letter, the would-be saint indeed heard their voices crying out to him, “We appeal to you, holy servant-boy, to come and walk among us.” And so he did.
It is wonderfully poetic that Patrick first went to Ireland involuntarily as a slave-shepherd, then later returned voluntarily as a servant-shepherd. Whatever else can be known about his life—which involved many hardships, including further imprisonment and sometimes violent opposition—his ministry was significant enough to earn him the title of beloved Patron Saint of Ireland.
Here are a few of the legends surrounding St. Patrick’s life:
Staff: Legend holds that whenever St. Patrick stopped to teach the gospel, he’d plant his staff in the ground until he left. On one occasion, he stayed so long that the staff rooted and sprouted fresh leaves.
Snakes: It is also told that St. Patrick banished snakes from Ireland during an epic battle with darkness during a forty-day fast. This gives us an intriguing connection to the forty-day fast of Lent during which the Feast of St. Patrick is celebrated.
Truth be told, there is no evidence there have ever been snakes on the Emerald Isle. Fiction writer Betty Rhodes has suggested that given the presence of serpent imagery displayed on ancient Druid coins and arms, the legend likely points symbolically to Patrick’s battle against paganism.
Ghouls and Gourds: There is another legend suggesting that our current Halloween festivities may have their genesis in the ministry of St. Patrick. During the pagan festival of Samhain, it was believed that the souls of the dead could rise to roam the earth for one long and terrifying night. People would dress in costumes so as to be unrecognizable to the dead, some of whom may have been enemies during their lifetime. They would also carve ghoulish faces in gourds and place them in windows to scare away the dead.
According to the legend, St. Patrick would boldly walk about during Samhain, knocking on doors and handing treats to the terrified inhabitants, proclaiming that we need not be afraid of the dead, but we may cheerfully celebrate their lives now hidden in Christ. Thus the connection between Halloween (Hallow’s Eve) and All Saints Day.
Shamrocks: Perhaps the most charming legend of St. Patrick is his use of the three-leafed shamrock to teach about the mystery of God’s triune life. The shamrock was another pagan symbol: the three leaves referring to a number of triple-goddesses, with the green representing eternity and new-life. Patrick appropriated the symbolism to teach of God’s very nature: a nature we’ve come to understand as the co-inherent, mutually constituting persons of the Holy Trinity after whose image we are created to be persons-in-community, a communion of love whose nature defines and sustains us.
St. Patrick’s Day falls in the middle of Lent. Given that the word Lent refers to the lengthening of days that brings about the greening of spring, and that the liturgical trajectory of the broader season of Eastertide ends with Trinity Sunday, the celebration of God’s loving com-unity, the life and legends of St. Patrick seem a fitting place to stop and stay along our pilgrimage from Lent to Love.
Malcolm Guite wrote a wonderful sonnet to commemorate the man:
Six years a slave, and then you slipped the yoke,
Till Christ recalled you, through your captors cries!
Patrick, you had the courage to turn back,
With open love to your old enemies,
Serving them now in Christ, not in their chains,
Bringing the freedom He gave you to share.
You heard the voice of Ireland, in your veins
Her passion and compassion burned like fire.
Now you rejoice amidst the three-in-one,
Refreshed in love and blessing all you knew,
Look back on us and bless us, Ireland’s son,
And plant the staff of prayer in all we do:
A gospel seed that flowers in belief,
A greening glory, coming into leaf.
Below is a song whose lyrics are attributed to a prayer of St. Patrick often called St. Patrick’s Breastplate, or The Lorica.
THE LORICA (St. Patrick’s Breastplate)
music and lyric by Gayle Salmond
I bind unto myself today
The gift to call on the Trinity
The saving faith where I can say
Come three in one, o one in three
Be above me, as high as the noonday sun
Be below me, the rock I set my feet upon
Be beside me, the wind on my left and right
Be behind me, oh circle me with Your truth and light
I bind unto myself today
The love of Angels and Seraphim
The prayers and prophesies of Saints
The words and deeds of righteous men
God’s ear to hear me
God’s hand to guide me
God’s might to uphold me
God’s shield to hide me
Against all powers deceiving
Against my own unbelieving
Whether near or far
I bind unto myself today
The hope to rise from the dust of earth
The songs of nature giving praise
To Father, Spirit, Living Word
And finally, here’s a brief word from Malcolm Guite on why we should bother with the saints in the first place: