His body shook uncontrollably, as much from fright as from the biting cold. He huddled against a gnarly scrub tree, drawing his legs up close to his chest and pulling his dirty tunic over him to shield out the driving rain. If Miliucc’s men found him away from the sheep for whatever the reason, he would be severely beaten and his meager rations cut even further. Patricius could hardly believe this was happening to him – the son of an English nobleman, a Roman citizen with legal rights, being treated like a slave. Not just being treated like a slave – he was one! How desperately alone he felt in a land beyond civilization whose language was as foreign to him as that of the grunting, fowl-smelling Scottish beasts who had swooped across his father’s land and dragged him away to a waiting ship. Patricius prayed. Mightily. He may not have had much interest in religious things back home but here it was the only thing he had left to hold onto. The boyhood days of yawning at his father’s dreary prayers and joking about the eccentricities of the priests were gone – vanished without a moment’s notice. He prayed, nearly non-stop. God was the only one in this terrible place who could understand his language, the only thread by which he clung to his sanity.
Miliucc, his owner, was a druid king, or so his subjects called him. He was more like a petty chieftain who absconded with as much land and cattle as the weakness of surrounding tribes would permit. How much Miliucc paid for his slaves, Patricius did not know. But what was quite certain, this druid lord showed little concern for their well-being. For months Patricius had been consigned to tending sheep in the wooded hill country with hunger and nakedness as his constant companions. Had he been a less-sturdy sixteen-year-old, the gnawing in his belly and the chill on his exposed skin would have surely taken his life.
It was pure survival instinct that forced Patricius to memorize the strange word-sounds of his overlords. If he could recognize their commands and respond appropriately, he would spare himself their bruising kicks and punches. Eventually he learned to behave with the obedience of a sheep dog and was even invited on occasion to his master’s campfire. But it was from the free children who played and chased across the hills that he learned to speak the language they called Gaidhaelic, and from them he learned that his new home was Ireland.
For six woeful years Patricius tended Miliucc’s sheep and swine, living most of his days in the rugged woodland of Foclut near the western sea. From the children he learned the customs and beliefs of the Celtic people and from the natural world around him he learned the ways of his Creator. He filled long, lonely nights with prayer – prayers he could recite from childhood and those that poured unrehearsed from his spirit. It was on one of those chilly nights that he was awakened out of a fitful sleep by a dream so vivid that he was quite sure some person had spoken to him. “Your hungers are rewarded: you are going home.” Patricius sat up with a start. The voice continued: “Look, your ship is ready.”
Though he was well more than 100 miles from the nearest port, he set out immediately for the eastern coast, leaving the sheep to fend for themselves. Day and night he ran, avoiding anyone who might benefit from his capture. Three days later he arrived breathless and exhausted at the mouth of the Boyne. A ship loaded with a cargo of deerhounds sat ready to sail and Patricius offered himself as a servant to the captain and crew. The reward for turning in a run-away slave was certainly more than the cost of his passage but for some unknown reason (perhaps because Irish hounds were a highly prized black market item) the captain hurried him aboard and weighed anchor. Patricius was finally on his way home. Later, he would reflect on the incident, “I came in God’s strength…and had nothing to fear.”
The ship set its sails for the continent, not for England as Patricius had hoped. No matter, he was free once again and in a free land a Roman citizen could get assistance in finding his way back home. But the danger was far from over. They landed on the coast of Gaul (France) amidst the ravages of Germanic marauders who swarmed from the north against retreating Roman garrisons. It would take more than three years of dodging dangers and weary trudging for Patricius to finally find his way back home to be united with his family.
No reunion was ever more sweet. The perpetual prayers of anguished parents had finally, miraculously, been answered. Their long lost son was found, home at last, never again to be taken from them. Unbounded joy overwhelmed the family and faithful friends who had prayed so earnestly for his safety. At last Patricius could sleep long and deep on his own soft mattress, his stomach bulging with nourishing food.
His parents would soon discover that he was not the same carefree teen-age boy who disappeared nearly ten years earlier. Hardened both mentally and physically by unsharable experiences, and educationally far behind his peers, he could not settle down. Ghosts of the past tormented his dreams. He wandered off into the hills for hours on end, sometimes for days at a time, doing his parents knew not what. One night in his parents home, a man bearing a handful of letters appeared to him in a dream – a man whose face he recognized from Ireland. The man handed him a letter with the heading: The Voice of Ireland. As Patricius unfolded the letter he began to hear the voices of many children, familiar voices he remembered from the woods of Foclut near the western sea. They called out to him: “We beg you, holy boy, to come and walk among us once more.” Stabbed in the heart, Particius was unable to read any further into the letter. And with that, he sat up in his bed wide-awake.
Try as he might in the days and weeks ahead, he could not rid his mind of the Irish people. Dreams and visions of them haunted both his waking and sleeping hours. This was more than some kind of strange obsession, some sick fixation that the abused have been known to have with their abusers. As surely as he had ever heard the Divine voice, this was the voice of Christ saying: “He who gave his life for you, he it is who speaks within you.” Patricius, the escaped slave, was captured once again, this time as Saint Patrick – apostle to the Irish.
With a single-mindedness that only a divine calling can impose, Patrick pursued the path to priesthood, laboring for another decade to master Theology, Law and Scripture – the subjects that the church determined would equip him as a fit spiritual leader. Finally, in the year of our Lord 432, thirty years after his first voyage, he set sail for Ireland – its first missionary bishop.
In Ireland, a slave was never free unless his price had been paid to his owner. Legally, Patrick was still Miliucc’s property. And so, soon after setting foot on Irish soil, Patrick headed for the Slemish Mountains where his chieftain-owner ruled, to present him the ransom money due him. At the word of Patrick’s approach Miliucc was seized with panic. Whether from shame or some unfounded fear of retribution, we do not know why the petty king barricaded himself with all his treasures within his fortress-home. Nor why he put the torch to it all, including himself. The flames, which could be seen for miles around, brought no satisfaction but only grief to the watching Patrick. Again and again he shook his head and moaned: “I know not; God knoweth.”
For thirty years, Patrick moved among the Irish people, speaking their Gaidhaelic language, singing their Celtic music, dancing their folk dances, weaving into their myths and mores benevolent and noble Christian truths, all the while taking care to keep it Irish. Gradually tribal plundering and barbaric torture gave way to more humane treatment as the value of human beings created in the image of God was absorbed into the culture. Through Patrick’s initiative, churches and monastic communities sprung up across the country that extended care to the destitute and modeled hospitality to travelers. The dreadful spells and incantations of druid priests slowly yielded to the winsome truths of a loving God who attends personally to all of His creation. By the time the travel-weary Patrick – well into his seventies – retired to Mag Inis near the first church he planted, enormous societal changes had taken root. Even while the Holy Roman Empire back on the continent was crumbling apart, Ireland was birthing a new and wholesome society. As the curtain closed on the civilized world and 500 years of Dark Ages settled like a pall over Europe, the little island nation beyond the reach of civilization busied itself collecting and copying and preserving and propagating the great works of history and literature, and most especially the Holy Scriptures. Many respected historians now claim that the Irish saved civilization. And it was the Celtic saints who led the way. Saint Patrick, we celebrate you!