The story of Maewyn Succat. That's Patrick to you.

My father used to say that there were two kinds of people in this world: those who were Irish, and those who wished they were.

Today is the day when everybody pretends to be Irish. Well, not everybody; here and there, one spies a miscreant with nary a scrap o' the Green about his or her person. But St. Patrick's Day is the ethnic holiday most widely celebrated by the culture generally, even outside of the ethnic group for whom it is a special observance- and even those who forbear to wear the Green this day out of an honest though sad awareness that they, themselves, are not fortunate enough to have Irish blood still feel a touch of the magic.

St. Patrick (Padraig, auf Gaelic, meaning "noble") was born Maewyn Succat (Maewyn meaning "warlike"), son of a couple named Calphurnius and Conchessa, in Dunbarton, Scotland, in the year 387. His father, Calphurnius, seems to have been a Roman official from an important family (how he came to be exiled to the Empire's frontier with the only people- the Picts- ever to successfully and permanently repel the Romans, we do not know; Hadrian's, the mighty tribute to Roman engineering which marks the boundary between Roman Britain and the main body of the realm of the Scots and the Ulster Scots, was built by the Romans to keep the Picts out of their territory!).

Calphurnius seems to have been a pagan. His wife, Conchessa, however, was a relative of St. Martin of Tours, and it is apparently from her that Patrick learned the Christian faith that sustained him when, at the age of sixteen, he was kidnapped by Irish pirates and sold into slavery in what is today County Antrim, in Ulster.

His captivity seems to have been a relatively mild one. His duties consisted mainly of tending sheep- an occupation which left him plenty of time for contemplation, meditation, and prayer. Nor surprisingly, Patrick turned into something of a schwaermer by the long, solitary days and nights tending his master's flocks; nevertheless, this time of spiritual reflection stood him in good stead in the years to come.

So did the external circumstances of his captivity. Patrick quickly became fluent in Celtic. And as it happened, his master, Milchu,  was a Druid high priest. A better background in the pagan religion it would be his life's work to combat would have been hard to obtain.

Six years into his captivity, Patrick had a mystical experience- described variously as a dream and as an actual visit from an angel- in which he was commanded (contra the general advice of St. Paul to those in his condition) to run away from his master and return to Britain. That he did, and from there he went to France, where he was ordained to the priesthood by St. Germain. When Germain was sent by Pope Celestine I on a mission back to Britain to combat Pelagianism there, he took Patrick as one of his companions.

It was there that Patrick once again had one of his visions: this time a group of Irish children, exhorting him, "O holy youth, come back to Erin, and walk once more among us." Entrusted by Pope Celestine with that very task- and given the name new name Patricius by the pope to replace his unseemly birth name- Patrick was consecrated a bishop by St. Maximus, and returned to the land of his former captivity to begin a missionary career which would, in the space of 33 years, convert that nation from a stronghold of Druidical darkness into "the island of saints and poets."

His first act upon arriving back on Irish soil was to return to his former master and buy his own freedom. Sadly, as Patrick's fame spread and more and more Irishmen were won from his former master's Druid religion to Christianity, Milchu was said to be humiliated, and- to Patrick's horror- burned his own fort and all his possessions, his pride unable to bear "the thought of being vanquished by his former slave."

No, Patrick did not drive the snakes out of Ireland; there were never any snakes there to begin with. It's commonly believed that the snakes in the legend were in fact paganism and pagan values and attitudes. And the incident probably most associated with him- and which gave birth to this day's most familiar symbol- may also never actually have happened. Nevertheless, it's worth recounting.

The story is that Patrick was confronted by a sword-wielding Druid chieftain named Dichu-  whom, unarmed except by his faith, Patrick simply faced down. Awed by his courage, Dichu asked for instruction and was baptized. Dichu told Patrick of a feast being given for all the Irish chieftains by the Ard Righ ("High King"), Leoghaire, at Tara, the traditional seat of the High Kings (Ireland in ancient days was divided into five kingdoms- Ulster, Connacht, Leinster, Meath, and Munster; each had its own king, who effectively ruled his own realm while owing titular fealty to the High King at Tara).

Patrick crashed the party, which supposedly began- auspiciously- on Easter Sunday, 433. The fun began, however, the night before- symbolically interesting because that year it was not only the Vigil of Easter but also the Feast of the Annunciation.

The Vigil of Easter is one of the oldest and most beautiful and significant of Christian liturgies. I remember celebrating it as part of my liturgy class in seminary; it's a shame that in our age of "fast food" worship, few Christians would bother to attend, were it celebrated as widely as it should be. It was then, traditionally, that catechumens were baptized, the night being spent in prayer, chant, and watchfulness until the risen Christ was greeted at daybreak.

The liturgy traditionally begins around the Paschal fire, usually kindled outside a church. In Patrick's case, of course, the vigil was held out in the open, on the hill of Slane, on the opposite side of the valley from Tara. When Patrick kindled the Paschal fire, it was in direct violation of a royal edict, that no fires were to be lit until the High King's own signal fire was kindled at Tara.

Patrick's reputation for miracles and for gaining converts had proceeded him. Leoghaire's Druid advisors told him, insightfully, "O King, live for ever; this fire, which has been lighted in defiance of the royal edict, will blaze for ever in this land unless it be this very night extinguished."

So they tried to put it out.

They couldn't. Nothing they could do would extinguish the flame. Neither- despite their best efforts- could they harm Patrick or his companions!

One thing about St. Patrick: he had style. The next morning- Easter Day- he traveled the length of the valley in full liturgical procession, wearing a miter, bearing a crozier, fully vested as a bishop, and proceeded by an acolyte bearing aloft a copy of the Gospels. Arriving at Tara, he soon found himself in full confrontation with the Druids. The story is that by their incantations they cast a deep cloud over Tara, enveloping the entire hill in darkness. Patrick defied them to remove the cloud. They tried, and failed. Thereupon Patrick uttered a simple prayer. The cloud instantly vanished, and the hill was bathed in sunshine.

The Arch-Druid Lochru  tried to impress everybody by flying. Patrick simply knelt and prayed that God would vindicate His truth- and Lochru fell to his death.

That pretty much settled matters. Though forbidden by the High King to show Patrick or any of his company the slightest sign of respect, the whole assembly arose to pay homage to Patrick and his God.

It was then that the incident supposedly occurred which gave this day- and the entire island- its most familiar symbol. Someone supposedly asked how it could be that the Christian God would be Three but at the same time only One. Patrick replied by leaning over and plucking from the grass at his feet a simple clover of a variety which -contrary to legend- grows not only in Ireland but in almost every country and half-way temperate climate on Earth. Holding the shamrock aloft, he asked, "Is this one leaf, or three?"

They couldn't answer. "If human wisdom cannot comprehend the mystery of a piece of clover," Patrick is said to have responded, "how can it hope to understand the mystery of God's very nature?"

I never cease to be amazed at the number of "shamrocks" one sees at this time of year which are, in fact, four- leaf clovers- which, of course, completely destroys the entire symbolism of the shamrock!

Patrick is said to have spent the balance of Easter week catechizing and baptizing the High King and his entire court. At its end, he was given the High King's own official patronage for the missionary endeavor which was to occupy the remainder of his life.

Patrick is also well known for his beautiful prayer known as "St. Patrick's Breastplate:" A literal translation is as follows:
I bind to myself today
The strong virtue of the Invocation of the Trinity:
I believe the Trinity in the Unity
The Creator of the Universe.

I bind to myself today
The virtue of the Incarnation of Christ with His Baptism,
The virtue of His crucifixion with His burial,
The virtue of His Resurrection with His Ascension,
The virtue of His coming on the Judgement Day.

I bind to myself today
The virtue of the love of seraphim,
In the obedience of angels,
In the hope of resurrection unto reward,
In prayers of Patriarchs,
In predictions of Prophets,
In preaching of Apostles,
In faith of Confessors,
In purity of holy Virgins,
In deeds of righteous men.

I bind to myself today
The power of Heaven,
The light of the sun,
The brightness of the moon,
The splendor of fire,
The flashing of lightning,
The swiftness of wind,
The depth of sea,
The stability of earth,
The compactness of rocks.

I bind to myself today
God's Power to guide me,
God's Might to uphold me,
God's Wisdom to teach me,
God's Eye to watch over me,
God's Ear to hear me,
God's Word to give me speech,
God's Hand to guide me,
God's Way to lie before me,
God's Shield to shelter me,
God's Host to secure me,
Against the snares of demons,
Against the seductions of vices,
Against the lusts of nature,
Against everyone who meditates injury to me,
Whether far or near,
Whether few or with many.

I invoke today all these virtues
Against every hostile merciless power
Which may assail my body and my soul,
Against the incantations of false prophets,
Against the black laws of heathenism,
Against the false laws of heresy,
Against the deceits of idolatry,
Against the spells of women and smiths, and druids,
Against every knowledge that binds the soul of man.

Christ, protect me today
Against every poison, against burning,
Against drowning, against death-wound,
That I may receive abundant reward.

Christ with me, Christ before me,
Christ behind me, Christ within me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ at my right, Christ at my left,
Christ in the fort,
Christ in the chariot seat,
Christ in the poop [deck],
Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks to me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.

I bind to myself today
The strong virtue of an invocation of the Trinity,
I believe the Trinity in the Unity
The Creator of the Universe.

It is more familiar to us today in this translation, by Cecil Francis Humphreys Alexander:
I bind unto myself today
The strong Name of the Trinity,
By invocation of the same
The Three in One and One in Three.

I bind this today to me forever
By power of faith, Christ’s incarnation;
His baptism in Jordan river,
His death on Cross for my salvation;
His bursting from the spiced tomb,
His riding up the heavenly way,
His coming at the day of doom
I bind unto myself today.

I bind unto myself the power
Of the great love of cherubim;
The sweet ‘Well done’ in judgment hour,
The service of the seraphim,
Confessors’ faith, Apostles’ word,
The Patriarchs’ prayers, the prophets’ scrolls,
All good deeds done unto the Lord
And purity of virgin souls.

I bind unto myself today
The virtues of the starlit heaven,
The glorious sun’s life-giving ray,
The whiteness of the moon at even,
The flashing of the lightning free,
The whirling wind’s tempestuous shocks,
The stable earth, the deep salt sea
Around the old eternal rocks.

I bind unto myself today
The power of God to hold and lead,
His eye to watch, His might to stay,
His ear to hearken to my need.
The wisdom of my God to teach,
His hand to guide, His shield to ward;
The word of God to give me speech,
His heavenly host to be my guard.

Against the demon snares of sin,
The vice that gives temptation force,
The natural lusts that war within,
The hostile men that mar my course;
Or few or many, far or nigh,
In every place and in all hours,
Against their fierce hostility
I bind to me these holy powers.

Against all Satan’s spells and wiles,
Against false words of heresy,
Against the knowledge that defiles,
Against the heart’s idolatry,
Against the wizard’s evil craft,
Against the death wound and the burning,
The choking wave, the poisoned shaft,
Protect me, Christ, till Thy returning.

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.

I bind unto myself the Name,
The strong Name of the Trinity,
By invocation of the same,
The Three in One and One in Three.
By Whom all nature hath creation,
Eternal Father, Spirit, Word:
Praise to the Lord of my salvation,
Salvation is of Christ the Lord.

Patrick died on March 17, 493 (some sources say 460, or 461) at Saul in what is now Downpatrick, County Down, where he is buried. Downpatrick, by the way, is the birthplace and childhood home of Grandmother Waters, and the burial place not only of Patrick but also of Sts. Columba- interestingly, the native-born Irishman who brought the Gospel to Britain, and in particular to Scotland and the Picts!- and Brigid, who is often commemorated by a representation of the hand-woven cross, made from the reeds along the banks of the River Shannon, she once fashioned for a dying pagan to hold while she told him the story of Christ.

On any account, Patrick was one of the greatest missionaries the Christian Faith has ever produced- and the honor he is due is too great to be confined to any single people (even the Irish!). All the faithful have cause to wear green this day in his honor, without fear of being accused of being full of blarney regardless of their ethnic origin.

HT: The Catholic Encyclopedia, The Catholic Community Forum


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