St. Patrick: The Man Behind The Day


March 17 stands as St. Patrick’s Day, a holiday that has been celebrated in Ireland (as a religious holiday) for over 1,000 years and one that has been observed with various festivities such as parades in America for hundreds of years. (Fun fact: the first St. Patrick’s Day Parade was held in America, not Ireland!) I suspect many of us know more about how St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated today compared to what happened in the days of the man known as Saint Patrick, so I wanted to offer a little insight into who he was, what he may (or may not) have done, and how he can serve as inspiration for Christians of all nationalities.

Who He Was
Like many figures in history, our knowledge about Patrick is limited in scope because of the minimal sources available about him and the tendency for legendary stories to emerge over the course of hundreds of years. Thus, there seems to be a core of what we can say with confidence, along with various things that are possible (but potentially later) inventions. We are fortunate that some of our sources about his life are actually from Patrick himself, as we have two of his writings available today: his Declaration (also known as the Confession of St. Patrick) which is an autobiography, and A Letter to the Soldiers of Coroctuius, which he wrote in response to the way that a British official named Coroctuius had been mistreating Irish Christians.

We do not know the exact dates of his life, but can determine he lived in the 5th century (400’s); March 17 is the date he is believed to have died, which is the reason that day stands to remember him. Although associated with Ireland, Patrick was not Irish, as he grew up in Britain when it was partially ruled over by the Romans. His family was Christian, but he was not particularly pious as a youth. During his early life, Rome faced various challenges on the continent that caused them to send soldiers who had been in England to help. This situation led to the Romans in Britain being vulnerable to attacks, with young Patrick being taken away to Ireland as a slave when he was 16. He would be a slave for six years, eventually escaping on a boat after having a vision that he would be released. His faith seems to have been awakened during his captivity, and he engaged in further study of the faith upon his return and was ordained as a priest. A number of years after his escape, he had another vision – this one that he should return to Ireland as a missionary as Ireland, as it was filled with idolatry and earth worship under the leadership of Druidic priests. Though feeling inadequate for this assignment, he obeyed the call and would return to the land where he had previously been imprisoned to share the gospel with them around AD 432 (the exact date is disputed). 

Patrick does not appear to have been the first person to minister in Ireland, as a man named Palladus likely went there before him, but Patrick was the one who helped the Christian faith spread rapidly and built a vibrant Christian community in a land previously permeated with paganism. He baptized thousands of people, but also faced much hostility, both from local leaders who sought to preserve their religious practices and from other Christians who seem to have accused him of greed and financial motivations. Patrick was not simply an evangelist, as he also developed other leaders and institutions, ordaining priests and developing monasteries in Ireland. His role in the growth of monasticism in Ireland also points to his international legacy since those monasteries preserved writings and literature that otherwise may have been lost and sent out missionaries to Scotland and places on the European continent.

What He May (or May Not) Have Done
Patrick’s autobiography does not include many details of his ministry, so it is unclear if a number of the legendary stories associated with him actually happened. For example, most contemporary scholars do not think that Patrick was responsible for ridding Ireland of snakes. There are two other prominent stories about Patrick that I want to highlight – not because we know they are necessarily true, but rather because they very likely reflect key elements of his life and ministry.

Tradition has included a story of Patrick using the shamrock as a way to illustrate to the Irish the idea that God is triune because it has three clovers but is one leaf. This story stands as the reason many pictures of Patrick  find him holding a shamrock in one hand (he usually has a cross in the other). However, this is not an illustration we see in Patrick’s own writings or other early accounts of his life; the earliest reference to his teaching tool is in the 1600’s. Therefore, he may or may not have used this illustration, but it does likely reflect the fact that Patrick sought to use aspects of their culture and everyday life to help them understand the Christian faith – something that likely also contributed to him being able to reach and disciple so many people. I should also note that this illustration is not a great one of the Trinity, as it fails to reflect the idea that God does not exist in three parts (partialism) or that it is effectively three persons who stand apart from each other and can be separated (which would seem to reflect Tritheism rather than the Trinity). But at the same time, we  need to remember that every illustration of the Trinity falls short and breaks down. Rather than calling Patrick (if he indeed used this illustration) a heretic, I think it would be wiser to call him an imprecise teacher (which we all are!). 

There is also a prayer often associated with Patrick, known as “Patrick’s breastplate” or “The Lorcia.” At times it is identified as “I bind unto myself today” because of its opening line (which is repeated), and it effectively looks to God’s strength and support for protection in the face of challenges. Its most famous or familiar section may be: Christ be with me, Christ within me, Christ behind me, Christ before me, Christ beside me, Christ to win me, ⁠Christ to comfort and restore me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me, ⁠Christ in quiet, Christ in danger, Christ in hearts of all that love me, ⁠Christ in mouth of friend and stranger” (as translated by C.F. Alexander, a 19th century Irish hymn writer); the full text of this prayer is listed at the end of this post. This is a prayer of protection and is said to have been written by Patrick when he was being ambushed, but references to its connection to Patrick appear in sources dated long after he lived. Therefore, he may not have actually said it, but it is likely that Patrick was a man of prayer who asked for God’s protection upon him on many occasions.

How to Remember Him
While Patrick holds special significance for Irish Christians due to his labors in the land, he also can serve as an inspiration for Christians of all nationalities. Every missionary’s work is commendable, but there is something particularly admirable about this man’s commitment to serve in the place of his own pain and suffering. He did not just pray and love his enemies, he served them and sought for them to not be punished for their sins but find salvation in Jesus Christ. He relied upon God and sought to help lead people to know Christ, searching for ways to connect with people and not being afraid of suffering. While most people celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with parties and parades filled with  a lot of green and shamrock decorations, a more fitting way to remember him would be to pray for those who have hurt you or to share the good news of the gospel with someone. 

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“St. Patrick’s Breastplate”

I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through the belief in the threeness,
Through confession of the oneness,
Of the Creator of Creation.

I arise today
Through the strength of Christ’s birth 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.

I arise today
Through the strength of the love of Cherubim,
In obedience of angels,
In the service of archangels,
In hope of resurrection to meet with reward,
In prayers of patriarchs,
In predictions of prophets,
In preaching of apostles,
In faith of confessors,
In innocence of holy virgins,
In deeds of righteous men.

I arise today
Through the strength of heaven:
Light of sun,
Radiance of moon,
Splendor of fire,
Speed of lightning,
Swiftness of wind,
Depth of sea,
Stability of earth,
Firmness of rock.

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,
God’s host to save me
From snares of devils,
From temptations of vices,
From everyone who shall wish me ill,
Afar and anear,
Alone and in multitude.

I summon today all these powers between me and those evils,
Against every cruel merciless power that may oppose 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 witches and smiths and wizards,
Against every knowledge that corrupts man’s body and soul.
Christ to shield me today
Against poison, against burning,
Against drowning, against wounding,

So that there may come to me 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 when I lie down, Christ when I sit down, Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone 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,
Of the Creator of Creation.

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