St. Patrick

Apostle to Ireland

by Kim Harrington

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      It was so nightmarishly unreal, so brutally swift, that the full impact of the situation was just beginning to dawn upon the boy. Now, as he lay in the bottom of the boat, beaten and bruised til he felt every bone in his body must be broken, his hands and feet uncomfortably bound, he began to piece together the events of the last half an hour.

     No alarm had been raised. They had stormed out of the woods and across the field, and were within the house before he had any suspicion that anything serious was afoot. There was a muffled scream, and a few startled shouts closer by, a brief scuffle outside the door, and then he saw them.

     They wore nothing but beards and sandals and it had the desired effect. The servants fairly fell over each other as they fled desperately from room to room in the sprawling villa. One of the younger girls stood wide-eyed and screaming, unmoving, seemingly unable to respond even as she was savagely violated. An older slave grabbed a kitchen knife but was dispatched quickly and efficiently. The rest of the women were raped, the men killed or subdued, the beautiful Roman home stripped of everything of value, and it was over as quickly as it had started

     He had put up a fight that, upon some reflection, had surprised even himself. He had never thought of himself as a physically brave person, but something had come over him, some sense of outrage, or chivalry... whatever -- and he had thrown himself upon them with fearless abandon. He might have saved himself the bruises, for all the good it did. He rescued no one, unless it were in an indirect way--three or four of them were required to beat him down, and so were distracted for a few moments from their murderous pillage

     The survivors were rounded up outside, roughly bound in a matter of a few minutes, and marched off towards the river. There were a few more bodies, slumped on the ground where they'd been working, servants who'd been laughing over breakfast just a few hours earlier, husbands of some of the women who now passed by, still too dumb with shock to comprehend.

     The boy was just sixteen years old. He looked about him in mute disbelief and fell in with the servants. In a few moments' time his quiet, comfortable life was ruthlessly wrenched from him, and he was stumbling along with his naked captors, the familiar terrain of his father's estate now seeming surrealistic and grim.

     A mile down river they came upon a dozen boats or more. Curraughs, thought the lad, though he had never been in one. They were roundish and made of skins stretched over wooden frames, entirely clumsy and unwieldy in appearance, yet habitually plying the waters around the British Isles and the western coasts of Gaul in search of either trade or plunder, depending on the nature of the occupants.

     There were more of the barbarian warriors here, some with clothes on, others clad in nothing but torcs, twisted brass collars ornamenting their necks. And there were other captives, a score already on the beach, and every now and again another raiding party hurrying out of the woods with more still. The young man, and those who had been his servants--God only knew what roles they would have from now on--were pushed to the ground near the others, while their captors walked a little way off, laughing amongst themselves, as though enjoying a good joke.

     There was no laughing among those who sat bound on the beach. A few of the women wept quietly, others stared blankly at the boats before them, or off into the woods. The boy tugged at his bonds, knowing it was hopeless, but unwilling to sit and do nothing at all.

     One of the brutes saw him and laughed, and walked over to him with a couple of companions, felt of his clothes and laughed again, all the while speaking in their own language. They cuffed him about the head like unruly pup, then hustled him over to a waiting boat, where he was roughly thrown to the bottom, along with several other captives. A few of the marauders pushed the leathern vessel deeper into the river, clambered quickly aboard, and they were off.

     He didn't speak. There was nothing to say. He'd heard about this, everybody had -- his father had more than once gathered together with the other leading men of the village to draft a letter to the authorities requesting more protection, more soldiers, but their pleas had gone unheeded. And now it had happened to him. He had been taken by the Irish.

     The good citizens of Britain received no response because the Empire had problems of its own. The northwest frontier was among the least of its worries. Troops were being pulled out of Britain and sent to more strategic battle fronts. The very heartland of the great Roman enterprise was in danger--Greece, Constantinople, and Rome herself faced the fluctuating, but ever-present threat of the Goths.

     The barbarians -- for everyone outside the borders of "Christian Rome" was considered a barbarian -- had become major players in the Roman Empire by the turn of the Fifth Century AD. Up until now they'd been confined for the most part to the areas north of the Danube and east of the Rhine rivers, but now the Goths, Vandals, Alans, and other Germanic tribes were in a tight place. Behind them were the Huns, fierce horsemen of the East, and before them the Romans, still formidable adversaries, but the lesser of evils in the barbarians' eyes. The Romans were more cultured, and not a little soft... the Empire was not what it was even a few years ago under Theodosius the Great.

     Around the time of Patrick's capture, Alaric and the Visigoths finally went on the warpath, and though they had a few setbacks, within ten years they had taken Rome itself, for the first time in eight hundred years. It was the end of an era.

     Bishop Augustine of Hippo penned his famous "City of God," in an effort to explain to the citizens of Rome why the Lord had allowed the pillage of their beloved city. Opinion was mixed; some said the ancient gods were angry because they had turned to Christianity, the Christians said it was the prophetic fulfillment of the book of Revelation. "Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great," (Rev 14:8). "My voice sticks in my throat," said Jerome, who had just finished his Latin translation of the Bible that would be the standard for centuries. "The city that took the whole world captive is itself captive."

     The Western Empire was gasping out its final breaths in the Fifth Century. The Vandals, Alans, Sueves and Burgundians also swept across the frontiers, forever changing the face of Europe. The Franks, forefathers of the modern French, took Gaul, and the Angles and Saxons, invited to Britain to help defeat the Picts, decided to stay after the job was finished, eventually making it Angle-land (England). In the middle of the century, Attila, with half a million or more of his fellow Huns, crossed the Rhine and entered Gaul. He was the "Scourge of God," the most terrifying of all. It was said that the grass never grew again where once the hoof of his horse had trod.

     This was the world of Patrick, a world in upheaval, a world of death and pillage, war and rape. A world where leadership was in great demand and short supply. But God was raising up a leader of his own at this critical time in western history. The pleasure-loving, carefree son of a British deacon, grandson of a pastor, was captured by the savage Irish (then known as Scotti), and kept in slavery for six years tending the sheep and pigs of a petty chieftain.

     Acting upon an audible voice from the Lord, Patrick ran away from his master and made his way to the east coast of the island, where he was taken on board a ship bound for Gaul (modern-day France) as a keeper of a cargo of giant wolfhounds. From there, he made his way to a monastery, where he was assisted by some pious monks, and finally found his way back home to Britain.

     But he didn't live there happily ever after. During his exile he had come to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and the Lord had laid His hand upon him. He had a vision one night in which an angel named Victoricus handed him a letter, basically a summons to the ministry--a draft notice if you will--and he heard the voices of his former captors crying out, "Holy boy, come and walk with us again."

     Patrick immediately enrolled in Bible School, and was eventually sent to that island, which we call Ireland today. It was, so he thought at the turn of the Fifth Century, the uttermost part of the earth: the last bit of land, the last island to the west before there was nothing but the cold Atlantic Ocean. It was as far as you could get from Jerusalem, where Jesus had--some three hundred and eighty years earlier--sent out his disciples to evangelize "from Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, to the uttermost part of the world." Patrick believed that if he were to bring the Gospel to that land, that final outpost of mankind, that the second coming of Christ would be ushered in.

     He arrived there around 410 AD. He labored the rest of his life in a foreign country, so much so that he soon spoke the language of that land better than his mother tongue. He won over one hundred thousand people to the Lord, planted over two hundred churches, and established several monasteries--communes designed to raise up more ministers and missionaries to carry on his work. He came into a land where the Gospel was essentially unknown--to an savage unreached people group--and quite literally won the nation to Christ.

     It wasn't easy. He was persecuted, and he had powerful showdowns with local chieftains and Druid priests who manipulated tremendous satanic power -- but he came out victorious, for he was a man full of the Holy Spirit who could hold his own when it came to the miraculous. He healed the sick, cast out devils, and even called fire from heaven, if some of the old stories may be believed.

     Patrick was completely overlooked by the historians of his own day, in spite of those remarkable accomplishments, and it's easy to see why. He was a contemporary of Alaric the Goth and Attila the Hun, of Augustine and Jerome. The greatest kingdom the world had ever seen would come crashing down in his lifetime. A rustic self-deprecatory missionary quietly laboring beyond the borders of the civilized world would hardly have been noticed among the luminaries of the day, in a critical age of such upheaval and transformation. Yet he was one of the major players of the era, though his role would not be recognized for centuries. His life and ministry may actually have had a greater impact on Western civilization than, say, that of Attila or Alaric. Rome would have fallen with or without the humiliating defeat dealt by the latter, and as for the bloodthirsty Hun, he was only a nightmare that almost became reality.

     Nevertheless, Patrick was one of the pivotal persons of history, one of the true pioneers -- much like his model, the Apostle Paul. He was, in fact, the first true western missionary since Paul, and he braved cultural and linguistic frontiers that even the hardy little man of Tarsus never faced. The apostle, though fearless in his propagation of the gospel to those who hadn't heard, never ventured beyond the Hellenistic culture he was at home in. Patrick was the first cross-cultural missionary, the first to master another language and turn nearly an entire pagan nation to the worship of the true God.

     His labors would effect both the spirituality and the culture of succeeding generations of Europeans. As Rome fell, Ireland began to shake off her primitive ways and take her place in the world. As the barbarians destroyed much of the old order on the continent, Patrick's monks faithfully hand-copied the Greek and Latin classics, preserving the language and culture of the West. They crossed over to Britain and the continent and re-evangelized Britain and northern Europe, working tirelessly among the pagan tribes that now populated the lands once governed by the Emperor. When Roman missionaries, led by Bonafacius, finally went into these lands to turn them to Christianity, they found that the Irish had been there long ahead of them. Churches and monasteries dotted the landscape, and roving bands of Celtic monks were a common sight on the roads.

     Secular history books do not give the man a mention, and church history allots him but a small paragraph compared to the more politically astute Augustine or the scholarly Jerome... nevertheless, the centuries have a way of evening things out. Millions of people do not gather in parades all over the world to honor St. Augustine's day, and few remember the mighty emperors of the Fourth and Fifth Centuries, but Patrick is still known to households all over the world 1600 years later.

     The real Patrick, however, remains as much a mystery as when he penned his Confession centuries ago. He never wore a bishop's miter (they were adopted some 200 years after his death). He never drove the snakes out of Ireland (there weren't any), and he never used a shamrock to illustrate the triune God. He'd have been the last one to attend a drunken parade in his or anybody else's honor... the real St. Patrick wasn't even Irish!

     But he won that land to the faith of the Lord Jesus, and laid the foundation for the development of the Europe for the next thousand years. One person can indeed make a difference. Whether he lives in the Fifth Century or the Twenty-First, whether the unreached people are the fierce Celts of Northern Europe or the Turkic peoples of central Asia. May many more such stories be written of modern day men and women who dared to make a difference in these final years before the second coming of the Lord Jesus.


Copyright 2000,  Kim Harrington, Masterbuilder Ministries. All rights reserved.

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