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10 CHRISTIANS EVERYONE SHOULD KNOWLives of the Faithful and What They Mean to You
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2012 Thomas Nelson, Inc.
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Chapter OneSAINT PATRICK
(ca. 380–ca. 490)
by Jonathan Rogers
He [the Lord] watched over me before I knew him ... and protected me, and consoled me as a father would his son. —Saint Patrick
For more than three centuries, the Romans ruled Britain. The occupation began in AD 43, when the emperor Claudius, with a herd of war elephants, crossed the Channel from Gaul.
But by Patrick's time, Roman sway in Britain had begun to buckle beneath the constant pressure of surrounding tribes that refused to bow to the imperial yoke.
AD 367 marked the beginning of troubles that would continue more or less uninterrupted until the Roman army left Britain altogether. The "Barbarian Conspiracy"—a well-coordinated offensive by Picts, Scots, Saxons, and a tribe known as the Attacotti (who hailed from Ireland)—threw the Roman army into disarray. The barbarians pillaged, raped, and murdered civilians throughout the island.
The army managed to regain control a year or two later, sending the invaders back home. But the Barbarian Conspiracy was a sign of things to come.
Patrick was a good Roman—a Latin-speaking son of Roman wealth and privilege—in a land from which the Roman Empire was receding, never to return. His given name was the Latin Patricius, which means "highborn," and indeed he was. His father, Calpurnius, was a Roman aristocrat—a landowner, town councilor, and deacon in the Roman Catholic Church.
We cannot know Patrick's exact dates. He didn't mention his birth year in any of his writings, but he may have been born as early as the 380s, and died as late as the 490s. The fact that he identified his father as a decurion (a Roman official) suggests that he was born toward the earlier end of this range. On the other hand, monks who claimed to have known him personally were still alive well into the sixth century, which would suggest that he lived toward the end of the fifth century. In any case, by the time he was born in Britain, the order and discipline associated with the Roman rule had clearly broken down.
In the opening lines of his Confession, Patrick reported that he was from a settlement called Bannaventa Burniae, but no one knows for sure where that was. There was a Bannaventa in what is now Northamptonshire, right in the heart of England, but the distance between there and the western coast would have been awfully far for Irish raiders to travel for booty. Surely, if it was susceptible to Irish pirates, Patrick's Bannaventa Burniae was in the western reaches of Britain. A map of the villas that archaeologists have identified in Britain shows a much higher concentration of villas along the Bristol Channel than anywhere else along Britain's west coast. That area, where the southern coast of Wales meets England, seems as good a guess as any for the location of Patrick's boyhood home.
Legends of Childhood
The legends describe Patrick as an extremely pious child. In one, the infant Patrick miraculously provides the holy water for his own baptism! A blind and oddly underprepared priest, realizing that he doesn't have any water on hand, takes baby Patrick's hand and makes the sign of the cross over the ground. A spring of water bubbles forth, the baptism goes forward, and the blind priest receives sight when he washes his face with the water.
Another story has the boy Patrick using drops of water to start a fire and burning chunks of ice for firewood in order to show his nurse "how possible are all things to them who believe."
In many cases, the legends of Patrick illustrate and give color to the few facts we know of the saint. These stories of juvenile piety, however, flatly contradict what Patrick himself wrote. "I did not, indeed, know the true God," he said of his sixteen-year-old self. Elsewhere he wrote, "I did not then believe in the living God, nor had I believed, since my infancy." This from a man whose father was a deacon and his grandfather a priest.
In his Confession, Patrick wrote of some sin that, he said, "I had perpetrated ... in one hour—in my boyhood because I was not yet ... [self-controlled]. God knows—I do not—whether I was then fifteen years old at the time."
What sin, committed in a single hour by a fifteen-year-old boy, would be so serious that he would still consider it significant so many years later? Sexual indiscretion comes to mind; a teenager doesn't even need an hour to head down that path. But likely the only sin Patrick could be talking about is homicide. Perhaps in a moment of rage, the young Patrick impulsively killed one of the slaves who worked the family's lands. He could get away with it: after all, he was the son of the lord of the manor. But as time went on—and he found himself in the position of slave, his heart changed by the love of God—the gravity of his crime dawned on him.
Britain may have seemed uncivilized compared, say, to the parts of the Roman Empire that ringed the Mediterranean, but it was downright urbane compared to Ireland. In AD 19, the Greek geographer Strabo wrote of Ireland, "The people living there are more savage than the Britons, being cannibals as well as gluttons. Further, they consider it honorable to eat their dead fathers and to openly have intercourse, not only with unrelated women, but with their mothers and sisters." Though he admitted that he had no reliable witnesses to confirm these calumnies against the Irish, he reasoned that since other barbarians were "known" to practice cannibalism, he could be confident in his characterization of the Irish.
Strabo was writing three or four hundred years before Patrick, at a time when even Britain seemed to be beyond the end of the world. But Roman attitudes toward the Irish hadn't necessarily changed much by Patrick's time. Consider what Saint Jerome had to say in the early fifth century:
I myself as a young man in Gaul saw the Atticoti, a British people, feeding on human flesh[.] Moreover, when they come across herds of pigs and cattle in the forests, they frequently cut off the buttocks of the shepherds and their wives, and their nipples, regarding these alone as delicacies.
Jerome was in Gaul in 367, the year of the Barbarian Conspiracy in Britain. It is possible that he saw Irish raiders who had crossed the Channel to extend their pillage into Gaul. But did he actually encounter Irishmen feeding on human flesh? It seems more likely, says author Philip Freeman, that Jerome encountered "rough-and-ready foreign soldiers having fun with a gullible Roman youth over a meal of mutton stew."
The Irish were a Celtic people who migrated to the island from the Continent (or perhaps from Britain) no later than the fourth century BC. The Celts dominated large swaths of Europe during the Iron Age, from Asia Minor to the Iberian Peninsula to Gaul (modern-day France) and Britain. The Romans who first encountered the Celts were struck by their warlike spirit.
Caesar's campaigns in Gaul in 58–51 BC marked the end of the Celtic ascendancy in northern Europe. As the centuries progressed, the Celts succumbed to the civilizing influence of their Roman conquerors. Throughout the Continent, the wild Celts became good Romans. And they made their own contributions to the empire as soldiers, as artisans, and as orators.
The Irish, however, on their remote, green island, were a sort of time capsule of Iron Age Celtic culture. In the absence of significant external forces, their tribal, agricultural, warlike society stayed very much the same for a very long time.
* * *
It was by conquering that the Roman army brought a new social order to the Celts of the Continent and Britain. It was by retreating that they brought a new social order to the Celts of Ireland. The army's departure from Britain—and the power vacuum it created—was the outside impetus that finally brought significant change to Ireland's centuries-old, Iron Age society. Liam de Paor wrote:
This is what constitutes an "heroic age": that a people subsisting stably on pasture and tillage, with a simple system of customary law and an already established social hierarchy, is provided with an opportunity to prey on a rich, highly organized and prestigious civilization. And in the heroic age of the fourth and fifth centuries in Ireland, chieftains who could organize well-equipped raiding bands [and] arrange shipping ... were able to enrich themselves with loot and slaves.
Raids and battles had always been a fact of Irish life, but until now they had only shifted wealth and relative power from one part of the island to another. They had never tilted the social equilibrium the way the sudden influx of wealth from Roman Britain did. A new class of warrior kings was emerging.
Across the Irish Sea, these seismic shifts would have the most direct and personal effect imaginable on a teen named Patrick.
"I was taken into captivity in Ireland with many thousands of people ...," wrote Patrick in his Confession, "for quite drawn away from God, we did not keep his precepts, nor were we obedient to our priests."
Continuing, he wrote, "And the Lord brought down on us the fury of his being, and scattered us among many nations, even to the ends of the earth." He was speaking quite literally. So far as he knew, Ireland was indeed the end of the earth. There was nothing beyond but ocean. Writing fifty years or more after that dreadful day, Patrick could see that his capture by Irish pirates was the first step in his lifework of bringing salvation to the ends of the earth.
In his writings, Patrick had more to say about the internal or spiritual facts of his slavery than he did about the external, physical facts. He never named his master or gave any other details about him (later tradition identifies him as a petty king named Miliucc). Neither did he say where he spent his years of servitude. It was probably somewhere near Ireland's west coast; when he escaped, he had to travel two hundred Roman miles to catch a ship headed toward Britain—which, presumably, would be leaving from Ireland's east coast. Later in life, when he received the call to return to Ireland, he said he heard "the voice of those ... who [lived] near the wood of Foclut, which is near the Western Sea." Scholars associate the wood of Foclut (or Voclut) with the Wood of Fochoill, in County Mayo, in the northwest portion of Ireland.
Patrick could hardly have experienced a more complete reversal of fortune. The aristocratic Roman—likely from a family that had slaves of its own—was out of the comfort of the villa and slaving in a sheep pasture in a barbarian country.
Patrick's outward reversal resulted in an inward reversal that was no less dramatic. There in the meadow, away from home and stripped of everything—including the organized religion of his forefathers—Patrick turned at last to the God he had heard about all his life.
There the Lord opened my mind to an awareness of my unbelief, in order that, [perhaps], I might remember my transgressions and turn with all my heart to the Lord my God, who had regard for my insignificance and pitied my youth and ignorance. And he watched over me before I knew him, ... and he protected me.
Growing up in church, Patrick had paid little or no attention to the things of God. The Creator hadn't seemed very real or relevant or necessary in his earlier life of ease. But isolated in a field full of sheep in the lush, green hills of western Ireland, Patrick felt a holy zeal beginning to burn in him, and it would eventually transform all of Irish culture.
For all its disadvantages, the shepherd's life leaves plenty of time to think and pray, and Patrick used his time to great advantage: "More and more did the love of God, and my fear of him and faith increase," Patrick wrote, "and my spirit was moved so that in a day [I would say as many as] a hundred prayers, and in the night a like number."
It was this fervent inner life that got Patrick through the physical hardships of his everyday life. More than tolerating his difficult duties, he rejoiced through them, springing to life in the morning. "I would wake up before daylight to pray, in the snow, in icy coldness, in rain, and I used to feel neither ill nor any slothfulness, because ... the Spirit was burning in me."
Patrick viewed both his kidnapping and slavery as God's direct work. God wished to draw Patrick to Himself. So rather than growing bitter, Patrick allowed God's chastisement to do its work in him. His enslavement, he believed, was a hard mercy, but a mercy nonetheless.
Those years, from age sixteen to twenty-two, laid an unassailably strong foundation for Patrick's future ministry.
* * *
After six years of slavery, Patrick had the first of the many dream-visions that he describes in the Confession. In his sleep, he heard a voice saying, "Soon you will depart for your home country." Not long afterward, he heard another voice: "Behold, your ship is ready." So he left: "I turned about and fled from the man with whom I had been for six years."
The ship that awaited Patrick was two hundred miles away. It is hard to imagine how an escaped slave could have made it that far across a landscape like that of fifth-century Ireland. According to Liam de Paor, "Numerous undrained lakes and river valleys and lowlands created many watery wildernesses in which the traveling stranger would be almost literally at sea." The impossible topography (and the fact that there were no roads) would have been only the beginning of Patrick's problems. The dangers from the people he met would have been terrifying, with new dangers each time he entered a different settlement. Every word Patrick spoke would have revealed his foreignness—and vulnerability. Like escaped slaves throughout history, he likely traveled at night. But how did he navigate strange bogs, forests, and rivers in the dark? And with no money, how could he feed himself on such a long journey?
Not surprisingly, Patrick attributed his success and safety to the guiding hand of God. "[He] directed my route," he wrote.
When Patrick finally arrived at the sea, the ship he sought was getting ready to sail. After a three-day journey, the ship made landfall, though whether in Britain or in Gaul remains under scholarly debate.
A Life-Changing Dream
"After a few years," Patrick wrote matter-of-factly, "I was again in Britain with my parents [kinsfolk], and they welcomed me as a son." (That "after a few years" evidently referred to the time since he left Britain in the raiders' boats. At that point in Patrick's story, it couldn't possibly have been "a few years" since he left Ireland.) The fact that these people received Patrick "as a son" may suggest that the relatives were not his parents; it would be redundant to say that parents welcomed their own son "as a son." Whoever they were, Patrick's family probably never expected to see him again. In their joy they said the sort of things one would expect them to say. As Patrick phrased it, "[They] asked me, in faith, that ... I should not go anywhere else away from them."
It is a touching scene of domestic happiness—and it is shattered in the very next line:
In a vision of the night, I saw a man whose name was Victoricus coming as if from Ireland with innumerable letters, and he gave me one of them, and I read the beginning of the letter: "The Voice of the Irish"; and as I was reading ... I seemed at that moment to hear the voice of those who were beside the forest of Foclut ..., and they were crying as if with one voice: "We beg you ... that you shall come and shall walk again among us." And I was stung intensely in my heart so that I could read no more.
Consider for a moment the hardships Patrick had just escaped in Ireland. Now he was being called upon to turn around and go back. The vision may not have come as immediately after Patrick's return as it comes in the Confession, but for most former slaves, anytime would be too soon to return to the place of their enslavement.
Patrick's "Voice of the Irish" dream is one of the best-known episodes in his biography. But there are actually two dreams associated with his call back to Ireland. In the second, he heard the voices of the highly educated, and he couldn't make sense of a word they were saying: "[In] most [learned] words ... I heard [those whom I] could not understand."
Excerpted from 10 CHRISTIANS EVERYONE SHOULD KNOW Copyright © 2012 by Thomas Nelson, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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