Sometime around AD 405, a sixteen year-old boy strolling the English seaside was attacked by pirates. They kidnapped him and sold him on the slave market to a chieftain in Northern Ireland who forced him to herd pigs. The young man endured filth, the elements, separation from family, and years of servitude.
Yet the open air and solitude gave him precious time for spiritual reflection, and he saw in his miserable condition a mirror of his own sinful soul. His nominal boyhood faith grew into a vibrant hope and a longing for freedom. After six years of bondage, he escaped. He boarded a nearby ship, but did not end up in his home country. Instead, it landed in what is today France. He came in contact with a monastery. He stayed for a while, deepening and enriching his faith. He profited so much he stayed for a few years; but he still missed his home. Eventually, he returned. There was a great celebration and he was treated as if he had risen from the dead. In a way, he had.
Around the same time, he experienced powerful dreams in which he received hundreds of letters each bearing the message, “We beseech thee, holy youth, to come and walk with us once more.” The young man interpreted the dreams as a call to missions, and he returned to the very same land where he had formerly been enslaved. This time, however, he would become a much different kind of shepherd. He preached the gospel that inspired his freedom. He made converts. He baptized thousands, ordained clergy, founded churches and monasteries. Eventually he converted rulers, confronted pagan Druids and witches, changed the laws of the kingdoms he influenced, and according to legend performed healings and miracles. He was often in peril: he was imprisoned several times by rival clans, and threatened with death by the pagan leaders he opposed; yet he was always rescued. The monasteries he founded trained the missionaries who would carry the gospel back to England and to much of the greater Western world.
The man died in peace, advanced in age. Tradition says it was on this day, March 17, somewhere in the latter part of the AD 400s.
His name is Maewyn, but he’s better-known as Saint Patrick.
The life of St. Patrick displays the type of faith that Christians sorely need today: it is a faith that is not merely private. It is a faith lived out, that has great vision, big goals, that confronts tyrants, gives people hope, and transforms the world around it.
We, too, live in slavery, though ours is largely self-imposed. We, too, are surrounded by druids (often called “liberals,” but sometimes “evangelicals,” today too) and impinged by various herds of social swine. There are plenty of pirates, pigs, and tyrants; wiccans and warlords abound. But these are not so much the problem. The greater problem is that Christians too often fear the type of confrontations necessary to drive out these demons and change society.
Patrick didn’t. He had the vision and he took the first steps for which that vision called. The rest came in history. It would be good this St. Patrick’s Day to make a commitment to yourself and to God, if you have not done so already, just to begin to change your mind-set. Just begin asking the questions: What would a Christian society look like? What would it take to get there? What am I willing to sacrifice to make it happen? That would be a good beginning. I have done this exercise in detail myself. You can start reading my outline here.
And then, Go thou and do like St. Patrick.