Lessons from St. Patrick in His Own Words
Celebrating St. Patrick’s day is fun, but for all the parades, wearing green, and great pub music, there is no better way to honor him than by praising God. Legendary figures within history like St. Patrick can get separated from what gave rise to their renown. St. Patrick’s writings show him to be the kind of relatable saint that modern Catholics love.
For background, it helps to picture the 4th/5th century Ireland in which Patrick lived. Patrick was born in 387 A.D. in Roman Briton—as an historical note, Briton was a Roman province and different from Great Britain that we know today. Recent archaeological efforts connect the dots that Patrick was very likely born in Kilpatrick, near present-day Dumbarton, Scotland. Patrick was from a noble Roman family. Across the water, the Irish were still organized by tribes and kingdoms. Religion was along the naturalistic lines. Worship and sacrifices conducted by pagan druids included human sacrifices. Slavery, pirates, and war were parts of ordinary life. Patrick himself was kidnapped by Irish pirates, sold as a slave, and worked as one for six years. The Lord provided a miraculous escape, and Patrick returned to his parents. He became a priest and the Lord called him to go back to the Emerald Isle. Christian missionaries had already been present to some degree, but by the grace of God, Patrick surpassed them all in efficacy.
We have three main writings St. Patrick left behind: his spiritual biography, the Confession; the long prayer Lorica (available in printable PDF here); and the Letter to the soldiers of Coroticus. Trinity College in Dublin has the oldest copy of the Confession: the Book of Armagh, dating to around 807 A.D.
The Lorica: Mystery, and Strength in Patrick’s Spiritual Life
Patrick’s Lorica reads like a morning offering on steroids. The Lorica prayer in the Irish monastic tradition was a protection prayer. We need to remember his task first—as a missionary, St. Patrick preached the Holy Trinity in opposition to pluralistic worship. In doing so, Patrick boldly challenged the predominant culture and ethic of his day. So the Lorica starts at the very beginning, with the mystery of the Trinity:
I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through a belief in the Threeness,
Through confession of the Oneness
Of the Creator of creation.
Opening with oneness and threeness? The skeptic could see some cheesiness in those lines. Yet these verses are not flowery theological language but a profession of faith: the very faith that could wind up getting Patrick killed. Is it very far-fetched that Patrick, an escaped slave, could have become the subject of a druid sacrifice? Later in the Lorica he prays for protection:
I summon today all these powers between me and evil, ...
Against incantations of false prophets,
Against black laws of pagandom, ...
Against spells of women and smiths and wizards, ...
Christ shield me today
Against poison, against burning,
Against drowning, against wounding
So how did he get all of those ideas of ways to be harmed? Not a comforting thought!
For strength, Patrick roots himself in the mysteries of the Christian faith. He lists the major events in the life of Christ, the loving concern of God, and the most famous portion of the Lorica that we know as the Breastplate prayer:
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 when I lie down, Christ when I sit down,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of every man who speaks of me,
Christ in the eye that sees me,
Christ in the ear that hears me.
In this prayer, he has a great lesson for us. Jesus needs to be the Lord of our lives in every way. The saints talk about tremendous intimacy with Our Lord, and Patrick’s Lorica is a perfect expression. Become so close, so immersed into Jesus that, as the Psalmist says, “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?” (Psalm 139:7). St. Paul wrote to the Philippians that “I can do all things in Him who strengthens me” (4:13), and at the Areopagus in Athens, he cited the Scripture “in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Patrick builds poetically on what the Scriptures had already taught for millennia: trust fully in God.
Do you have difficulty in prayer? Perhaps relating to Jesus, or dealing with the maelstrom in the world around us? Take up the Lorica and adopt Patrick as your spiritual director. Get a sense of how important the mysteries of the faith are. Learn from his intimacy with Christ. Seek the same divine strength in both of those things! And then ask for his intercession in having an open heart to receive the same burning love of the Trinity.
The Confession: Power is Made Perfect in Weakness
Patrick’s Confession is a spiritual autobiography where he speaks very frankly: “Although I am imperfect in many ways, I want my brothers and relations to know what I’m really like, so that they can see what it is that inspires my life” (#6). He makes no effort to hide his lack of learning, being simple and from the country. He shares the same sentiment that St. Paul expressed about his own weaknesses. When Paul asked the Lord to remove those weaknesses, Jesus responded, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” St. Paul flips his weakness around and asserts, “So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:8-10).
I think Paul and Patrick are kindred spirits. Listen to Patrick as he recalls his own mission:
“So be amazed, all you people great and small who fear God! You well-educated people in authority, listen and examine this carefully. Who was it who called one as foolish as I am from the middle of those who are seen to be wise and experienced in law and powerful in speech and in everything? If I am most looked down upon, yet he inspired me, before others, so that I would faithfully serve the nations with awe and reverence and without blame: the nations to whom the love of Christ brought me.” (#13)
Patrick is a great evangelical example to modern Catholics. By his own account, he did not bring great gifts to the table. Yet the Holy Trinity took his “5 loaves and 2 fish” and turned them into spiritual fruit that covered the entire island. For any Catholic that struggles with evangelization, I encourage a read of Patrick’s Confession. He brought a heart of love and zeal, a fighting spirit, and faith. Does the Holy Spirit deny those things to any of us if we but ask?
The Confession: Giving Back to God
In closing, I think it appropriate to call up Patrick’s message to us to give back to God. Even though we cannot add to the glory of the Father, our heavenly Father delights in our love and praise.
“So I’ll never stop giving thanks to my God, who kept me faithful in the time of my temptation. I can today with confidence offer my soul to Christ my Lord as a living victim. He is the one who defended me in all my difficulties. I can say: Who am I, Lord, or what is my calling, that you have worked with me with such divine presence? This is how I come to praise and magnify your name among the nations all the time, wherever I am, not only in good times but in the difficult times too. Whatever comes about for me, good or bad, I ought to accept them equally and give thanks to God. He has shown me that I can put my faith in him without wavering and without end. However ignorant I am, he has heard me, so that in these late days I can dare to undertake such a holy and wonderful work. In this way I can imitate somewhat those whom the Lord foretold would announce his gospel in witness to all nations before the end of the world. This is what we see has been fulfilled. Look at us: we are witnesses that the gospel has been preached right out to where there is nobody else there!” (#34)