The wooden boats tossed to and fro in the heavy seas just off the coast of Britannia. Big, powerfully built men, their long hair bundled up on top of their heads, iron swords in sheaths fastened at the hip to their belts, surveyed the tempestuous sea as they set sail for Ireland.
Patrick lay bound in the cramped hull, one of many captives crammed into the small boat. The sixteen-year-old was motionless, frozen in a state of shock. His father's estate lay behind him in smoking ruins. Fortunately, his parents had been away from home and were still alive, but Patrick's life as a pampered aristocrat's son was over. Now he was a slave to a race his family considered barbarians.
Several hours later, the boat landed on the shore of the strange land. Ireland! It was very different from Britannia. There were no Roman roads, no Roman architecture, no amphitheaters, public buildings or baths. The Irish even preferred to live out in the wilds with their extended family rather than in towns. Even more ominous, Ireland knew nothing of Christianity and its virtues. Instead, it clung to its pagan rituals, which were led by Druid priests.
The contrast between Ireland and his beloved Britannia only served to intensify Patrick's fears. As he gazed around the slave camp, Patrick realized that thousands of Britons had been captured and brought to Ireland. Eventually, the slaves were organized and marched off to the primitive homes of their new owners. Putting one weary foot in front of the other, Patrick numbly walked the path his captors had forced upon him. What lay ahead for him, he did not know.
Born to Wealth and Privilege
Magonus Sucatus Patricius (Patrick) caught his first glimpse of the world around the year 385 A.D. Born into a British upper-class family that was nominally Christian, Patrick lived out his childhood and youth in the sort of privilege that only aristocratic birth can bring. Part of that privilege included a Roman education and a house full of servants to meet all of his needs.
Surprisingly, out of this life of ease and lax spiritual commitment was born a successful missionary. At the end of Patrick's life, Ireland had essentially left its pagan roots and become a largely Christian nation, with many men and women eager to give their whole lives to God for the sake of the Gospel. Indeed, a stream of missionaries flowed out of Ireland over the next few centuries, bringing most of the barbarian tribes of northern Europe into the Christian fold.
Yet, how did Patrick come to know God so intimately, growing up in a nominal Christian family? How did he overcome the pampered nature of his childhood to withstand the rigors of a missionary life in Ireland? Part of the answer, it must be remembered, is that nothing is too great an obstacle for God to overcome. So God plucked Patrick from his life of ease and comfort and made him into a man of God. This is the story of how God made a rugged missionary out of Magonus Sucatus Patricius.
A Slave Cries Out to God
Now a slave, Patrick spent his days tending his master's sheep and trying to learn a new language. He was caught in an alien world of gods and goddesses, magical practices and spells. Once a free man living under the protection of Roman law and a son of a wealthy governmental official, Patrick's fall into slavery left him feeling hopeless. Caught in the slough of despond, Patrick slowly began to turn to the God he had willingly neglected as a youth. Patrick started praying day and night to the God he did not yet know. In prayer, he poured out his fears and anxieties to God. Shepherding on the slopes of Mt. Slemish, Patrick's heart began to formulate the words to what would later become his famous prayer:
I arise today
through the strength of Christ
with His Baptism
through the strength of His Crucifixion
with His Burial
through the strength of His Resurrection
with His Ascension,
through the strength of His descent
for the Judgment of Doom
Christ to protect me today
against poison, against burning,
against drowning, against wounding,
so that there may come abundance of reward
Christ with me, Christ before me,
Christ behind me, Christ in me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left
Christ where I lie, Christ where I sit,
Christ where I arise, Christ in the heart
of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth
of every man who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.
I arise today,
through a mighty strength,
the invocation of the Trinity,
through belief in the Threeness,
through confession of the Oneness,
towards the Creator
Salvation is of the Lord. Salvation is of Christ.
May Thy salvation, O Lord, be ever with us.
And so Patrick grew to know God intimately and fervently in a way he never did as an aristocrat's son in Britannia.
The Voice in the Night
One night Patrick heard a voice in his dreams that told him, "Soon you will go to your own country."
And a little later the voice declared, "See, your ship is ready."
The next morning Patrick secretly left his master, confident that the Spirit of God would guide him to the promised ship and take him to freedom. Patrick traveled two hundred miles on foot from Mt. Slemish to the ocean's shoreline and found a ship ready to depart from Ireland. Patrick approached the captain of the ship, which carried Irish wolfhounds meant for Roman entertainment in stadiums across the Empire, and offered to tend to the dogs for free passage.
The captain replied harshly, "It is of no use for you to ask to go along with us."
Disappointed, Patrick turned to walk back up from the shore. He began to pray and seek God for direction, and soon, one of the ship's crewmen shouted after him, "Come, hurry, we shall take you on in good faith; make friends with us in whatever way you like."
The ship sailed for three days, arriving in the Roman province of Gaul (modern France) on the continent of Europe. For several days, the men walked through Gaul without meeting a soul. Food was scarce, and hunger soon started to overtake them.
The captain turned to Patrick in desperation, "Tell me, Christian: you say that your God is great and all-powerful; why, then, do you not pray for us? As you can see, we are suffering from hunger; it is unlikely indeed that we shall ever see a human being again."
Full of confidence that the Lord had arranged all things, Patrick responded, "Be truly converted with all your heart to the Lord my God, because nothing is impossible for Him, that this day He may send you food on your way until you be satisfied; for He has abundance everywhere." As he finished this exhortation, a herd of pigs suddenly appeared in front of them. They spent the next two days feasting on the wild pigs.
The Voice of the Irish
After some time in Gaul, Patrick had the opportunity to return to Britannia and his family. When he arrived, his family was overjoyed to see him, since they had given up all hope of ever seeing him alive again. Patrick again found himself living in his former luxury and enjoyed the privilege that came from being the son of an aristocratic father. But in the midst of the celebration and jubilation at his homecoming, he could not forget his heavenly Father who had rescued him and forged him into a man of God. Patrick could never return to his old way of life, for he was a new man.
Once again, the Lord visited him at night in a vision. A man named Victoricus came to Patrick from Ireland with several letters. Patrick began to read one letter which started, "The voice of the Irish...." Suddenly, a group of people from Western Ireland interrupted his reading and said to him in one voice, "We ask you, holy boy, come and walk among us once more." The desperate plea from the people broke Patrick's heart, rendering him unable to finish the letter. At that moment he woke up.
Patrick told his family of the vision he received during the night. They pleaded with him not to leave them again. Hadn't he suffered enough hardship for one lifetime? How could he return to the people who had enslaved him? How could he bear to leave them again? In turmoil and divided in purpose, he continued to pray and seek God.
The Spirit of God confirmed his call to Ireland. This time, Patrick would go to Ireland as the Lord's bond-slave to preach the Good News of Jesus Christ. To receive training for his missionary work, Patrick traveled back to Gaul to receive instruction from some of the country's most excellent teachers of the Bible.
Still confident in God's call for him to go to Ireland, Patrick waited patiently to hear from the leaders of the church. Their decision came in 432 A.D., and after raising him to the level of bishop, the church sent Magonus Sucatus Patricius off to the former land of his enslavement. Fully prepared for the hardships ahead, fluent in the their language and used to discerning the leading of the Spirit of God, Patrick, God's chosen instrument, set sail for Ireland. The country and, some argue, the world, would never be the same again.