What Do You Really Know About the Beloved St. Patrick?
St. Patrick did not discover a pairing of corned beef, cabbage, and Guinness; nor did he invent green beer. St. Patrick was, however, was a great evangelist, and was the Holy Spirit’s vessel in converting Ireland to the Christian faith. Although a self-described “sinner without learning,” St. Patrick left a mark on the Emerald Isle that endures 1,500 years after his death.
Patrick was born in Roman Britain in about the 5th century, and exact details about his life are difficult to come by. Some biographical details are found in his Confession. Although his parents were Christian, he took just a casual interest in their faith. At the age of 16, he was kidnapped by Irish marauders and brought to Ireland as a slave. He escaped after six years and returned home to his family. He dove into his faith and felt called to be a missionary in Ireland. That propelled him to travel to the European continent to pursue ordination to the priesthood. Pope St. Celestine I entrusted the mission to the Irish to Patrick; once he set foot in Erin, he preached the gospel until his last breath. One little known fact is that St. Patrick was never officially “canonized” as a saint. No need to be alarmed, though! This is because at the time, the official canonization process was not in place. His sainthood, and his patronage of Ireland, is absolutely recognized by the Church (and the world!).
We have so much to learn and admire about St. Patrick—this feast day, remember the saint. Remember the holy bishop who spent his life in the service of Our Savior. Then, look to Him Whom St. Patrick spoke!
The Lorica, or Breastplate, is attributed to St. Patrick. One stanza is particularly well-known (“Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me…”), but the entire prayer is eight stanzas. Here are ten lessons we can learn from St. Patrick’s life and from the Lorica.
1. There’s good reason to trust the will of God in the face of suffering
While he was in enforced servitude, Patrick unknowingly prepared for his future mission to the Irish people. First, he acquired priceless knowledge of the culture he was to evangelize. Most importantly, he learned the Gaelic language. On top of the language, he became familiar with Druidism as a result of working under his master, Milchu, a druidical high priest. When he preached the gospel and urged the Irish to leave paganism behind, he spoke from a well-informed position. Second, and most importantly, Patrick’s trials, enslavement, and escape led to his conversion and sanctification.
God allowed a time of great suffering in Patrick’s life in order to draw Patrick closer to Him. It takes a solid faith to accept that God can bring about good from suffering; it takes an even stronger faith to believe that during a time of great suffering. Patrick worked with the grace of God, and with that faithful soul, God turned the hearts of a nation!
2. In Christ there is strength
To begin the Lorica, St. Patrick does some spiritual pushups. He begins with his faith in the Holy Trinity—the source and goal of all life. In the second stanza, St. Patrick invokes Christ taking on human nature and His salvific work:
I arise today
Through the strength of Christ's birth and His baptism,
Through the strength of His crucifixion and His burial,
Through the strength of His resurrection and His ascension,
Through the strength of His descent for the judgment of doom.
This echoes St. Paul, “I can do all things in Him Who strengthens me.” (Phil 4:13) And, to the Galatians, St. Paul united himself to Christ just as St. Patrick did: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, bit Christ who lives in me.” (2:20) This was the source of all Patrick’s success as a missionary: depending entirely on Jesus for strength.
3. The Church Is Behind Us
Christ promised His strength and grace to us. Our strength comes directly from Him, but also from the entire Church—which Christ endowed with His authority (see Matt 16:17-19) and the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:8). Because the Church is the Mystical Body of Christ, we have an unseen unity with all those that have gone before us in the faith. Their mission is our mission. St. Patrick can confidently arise:
In the prayers of patriarchs,
In preachings of the apostles,
In faiths of confessors,
In innocence of virgins,
In deeds of righteous men.
The Church—that is, Christ’s Mystical Body—is given the special ability to nourish us. We are supported by the prayers of the Church Suffering and Church Triumphant, and are fed by the sacraments. Let us not forget all the grace that is available to us from these sources!
4. Hold God in Awe
At the very end of the first stanza, St. Patrick praises the “Creator of creation.” A few stanzas later, he marvels at the world:
I arise today
Through the strength of heaven;
Light of the sun,
Splendor of fire,
Speed of lightning,
Swiftness of the wind,
Depth of the sea,
Stability of the earth,
Firmness of the rock.
These words don’t come from the pen of a casual observer. They are the musings of one immersed in awe and wonder of God, who sees Him in every good thing. “Ever since the creation of the world His invisible nature, namely, His eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made.” (Rom 1:20)
5. Our Heavenly Father loves us!
I arise today
Through God's strength to pilot me;
God's might to uphold me,
God's wisdom to guide me,
God's eye to look before me,
God's ear to hear me,
God's word to speak for me,
God's hand to guard me,
God's way to lie before me,
God's shield to protect me
In this fifth stanza, I see St. Patrick describing God as a loving Father. God cares for His children, by guiding them in wisdom, looking out for them, listening to them, and guarding and protecting them. By giving us His “word to speak for me,” St. Patrick echoes the promise of Our Lord. “When they deliver you up, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.” (Matt 10:19-20)
And we shouldn’t forget the most blatant example of God’s love for us. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)
6. Christians need to fight evil
At the end of the fifth stanza, St. Patrick asks for the protection of the heavenly hosts from any temptation that might assail him. The sixth stanza is a call to battle:
I summon today all these powers between me and evil,
Against every cruel merciless power that opposes my body and soul,
Against incantations of false prophets,
Against black laws of pagandom,
Against false laws of heretics,
Against craft of idolatry,
Against spells of women and smiths and wizards,
Against every knowledge that corrupts man's body and soul.
Even though the 21st century seems like a completely different world than Ireland in the 5th century, evil is no less active nor less real. Witchcraft and Satanism still exist in the world today, but the spiritual dangers don’t end with those adversaries. Heresy and false knowledge work against our mind. We can lose ground to the enemy—even to the point of losing our salvation—by letting heresy and false knowledge prevail over grace.
7. In the battle with evil, Christ is the warrior
Immediately following in the sixth stanza, St. Patrick asked that “Christ shield me today” against poison, burning, drowning, and wounding. We get a glimpse of what Patrick dealt with in his missionary efforts. On that alone, let’s never assume that St. Patrick was not brave.
Yet even for the bravest souls, St. Paul reminds us that we are out of our league in spiritual fights. “We are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” (Eph 6:12) How do we fight a battle we can’t win on our own?
In these battles, our help is in the cross: humility, self-gift, and sacrifice. St. Patrick exhibits this in the Confession: “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.” Patrick wasn’t relying on his own strength or pounding his chest. He gives all credit to God for accomplishing that work in him.
For humans, this is counter-intuitive; our pride tells us to arm ourselves and fight. St. Paul tells us that the secret to winning the spiritual battle is embracing our weakness: “[Jesus] said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness.’ I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me… for when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Cor 11:9-10) Further, we should arm ourselves for the fight; this, too, involves God’s way of thinking more than ours.
“Therefore take the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the equipment of the gospel of peace; besides all these, taking the shield of faith, with which you can quench all the flaming darts of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Pray at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication.” (Eph 6:13-18)
8. Mankind has a fallen nature, and the Church isn’t immune to it
St. Patrick fought a spiritual battle against those within the Church in addition to her enemies without. In his Confession, he described being attacked for a decades-old sin:
“They brought up against me after thirty years something I had already confessed before I was a deacon. What happened was that, one day when I was feeling anxious and low, with a very dear friend of mine I referred to some things I had done one day – rather, in one hour – when I was young, before I overcame my weakness.”
Against the evil from forces outside the Church, St. Patrick invoked the strength of Christ and the protection of the Holy Trinity and the entire Church. Against attacks from within the Church, St. Patrick responded with grace. He relied on God and prayed for his accusers: “the Lord in his kindness spared the converts and the strangers for the sake of his name, and strongly supported me when I was so badly treated. I did not slip into sin and disgrace. I pray that God not hold this sin against them.” Even in the face of personal attacks, Patrick desired the salvation of his accusers! He is a model example for us when (not if) we encounter sin within the Church.
Sin within the Church is a natural consequence of it being comprised of humans. We can’t fall into the trap of leaving Peter for Judas, as the saying goes. Sin in the Church should drive us first and foremost to repentance and holiness in our own lives—always united to the Catholic Church.
9. The Christian life is all-encompassing
The seventh stanza is the famous one:
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.
The simplicity! This evokes St. Paul’s teaching to the Colossians, “whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (3:17) This part of the Lorica captures the stillness of God, if such a thing can be captured. Our world today is anything but still, and we Christians face a challenge to continually put Christ first in our lives. Let the words of this prayer echo in every busy mind and heart!
10. The End and the Beginning
The final stanza mirrors the first, with a confession of faith in the Holy Trinity. God is at once the origin and end of all creation. All of St. Patrick’s efforts were aimed at heaven, and bringing as many people with him as possible. Here we can admire the beauty of grace! God’s work in St. Patrick wasn’t just for a single time and place. His life and mission inspire people to this day.
You and I are no less capable of serving God! St. Patrick, pray for us.
Do you pray the Lorica?