St. Patrick: Apostle of Ireland
A Ten Chapter Excerpt (Chapters 9-18) from "History of the Scottish Nation"
PATRICK, the apostle of Ireland, is not the first, nor is he by any means the
last, whose career illustrates that great law, according to which the highest eminence
in the church by which we mean not the eminence of official rank, but the higher
eminence of spiritual gifts and holy service is attainable only through great and
often prolonged struggles of soul. It is amid these throes and agonies that great
souls are born. And then to inward distress and conflict there are added at times,
as in the case before us, bitter outward humiliations and sufferings. The most cursory
survey of the past justifies our remark. Whether we turn to the names that shine
as stars in the firmament of Holy Writ, or to those that illumine the page of ecclesiastical
history, we trace in all of them the operation of a law which was established in
ancient times, and is as changeless and imperative as that other of which it was
said that it "altereth not."
And it must needs be so. The brilliant prizes which wait on ambition; the sweets of power, the grandeur which surrounds rank and wealth, the luster which superior knowledge sheds on its possessor all these are potent enough to nerve the man whose aim is a high one, we admit it is to maintain his country's rights, or enlarge the boundaries of science. But it is far otherwise with those whose aim is the eternal good of their fellowmen. The very passions and ambitions which need to be fostered in the former class of workers, must be purged out in the latter. It is in the furnace heated sevenfold that this purgation is effected. It is in its fires that the dross of selfishness is consumed; the nobler but still earthly passion of ambition conquered; the love of human applause, which so enfeebles and vitiates, extinguished, and the soul becomes able to yield an entire devotion to truth, and to exercise an absolute dependence on God. The man now stands clothed in a moral strength which is proof alike against the seductions of error and the terrors of power.
Moses by one rash act threw back the deliverance of his people, and drove himself into exile. Many a bitter hour did the thought cause him in the solitude of Midian. But we behold the hot impulsive spirit which he brought with him from Egypt, and which had been fostered doubtless by the flatteries of the court, toning down day by day amid these silent wastes, till of all the sons of men, Moses is now the meekest, and he who had fallen before the provocation of a moment was able to bear the burden of a whole nation for forty years. It was in a prison among felons, whose fetters he wore, that Joseph acquired that knowledge of human nature and matured those great faculties which he afterwards displayed in the government of Egypt. Luther entered the convent at Erfurt as proud a Pharisee as ever walked the earth, full of the project of being his own saviour, but he buried the Pharisee in his cell, and returned to the world "a sinner saved by grace." What the Augustinian convent was to Luther, the mountains of Antrim were to Patrick. There, in his struggles for his own eternal life, he learned the secret of Ireland's darkness and bondage, and matured the faculties by which he effected its emancipation, making it morning in that land when the shadows were falling thick and fast on so many of the countries of Europe.
Two months elapsed before the exile reached his home on the banks of the Clyde. This was a long time for so short a distance. But the two countries lay much farther apart in that age than in ours, if we measure the distance by the difficulties of the road rather than by the number of its miles. Three days, or at most a week, would be spent on the sea voyage, leaving seven weeks for the journey from the point of disembarkation, of which we are ignorant, to his father's dwelling at Bonaven. But the country to be passed through was unsettled, and liable to sudden raids; and the exile's journey, we know, was full of hazards and escapes, of which, however, we have only transient and scarcely intelligible glimpses. He would seem on his way to have fallen into the power of a hostile tribe, and to have suffered some detention at their hands, for he speaks of a second captivity undergone by him after his escape from his first in Ireland. But it does not concern the object of our history to arrange or reconcile these obscurely recorded incidents. Let it suffice that Patrick was again with his parents. "After a few years," says he, referring probably to his six years of absence in Ireland, "I was again with my parents in the Brittani," the customary term for the Roman provinces in Britain. Once more Succat stands at his father's door.
Emaciated, way-worn, attired in the garb of a swineherd, shall his father know him under this disguise? The shock of the first surprise over, Calpurnius recognizes in the figure before him the flush of excitement contending on his cheek with the pallor of suffering and endurance his long-lost son, of whom no tidings, probably, had ever reached him since the day the pirate fleet bore away and was lost to view beyond the Argyleshire hills. He throws himself upon the neck of his son, as unexpectedly restored as he had been suddenly snatched away. While he gives him the kiss of welcome, he little dreams how much more precious is the son whom he now receives back than was the son who went forth from him! He could not see, he could not even guess the rich experiences and the lofty aspirations that lay hid beneath the tattered raiment that covered the form he was now pressing to his bosom. The son he now so gladly welcomes had just returned from a school, though Calpurnius had yet to be told this, where, if the regimen is sharp, it is beyond measure salutary, and if the lessons are hard they repay an hundredfold the pain it costs to learn them.
We behold Patrick once more in the home of his youth. Around that home all was unchanged. There, as aforetime, were the vales flecked with flocks; there were the hazel and the birch crowning the rocky crests and knolls; there was the noble river washing as of yore the feet of the grand rock that towers up on its shore; there were the far-off mountains opening wide their stony portals to give exit to the expanding flow of the Clyde into the Irish Sea; lovely as ever were the gray tints of the morning and the vermilion dyes of the sunset. But Patrick gazed on all these with other eyes than those which had drank in their beauties in his boyhood and youth. His old companions came round him in the hope of hearing the tale of his adventures, and helping him to forget in their jovial society the hardships of his exile. They found him strangely changed though they knew not why. He could not join their laugh nor re-echo their scoffs.
Their delights were no longer his delights. Black melancholy, they said, has set her mark upon him. The light of his once exuberant spirit has gone out. Let us leave him to his moody humours. Yes! Patrick had come to himself. Awakened, he felt how solemn it is to live; how awful to laugh or mock all through the short years, and go down into the grave loaded with the guilt of vast undischarged responsibilities. In truth, those who said that he had escaped from Ireland only in body, were in the right; his heart was in that country still.
"The traveller," it has been said, "changes his sky, but not himself." The remark does not hold good in the case of the exile whose history we are tracing. Patrick, when he crossed the Channel, the cords round his limbs, changed his sky, but he changed also himself. Ireland was the land of his birth, of his second and better birth; and he now thought of it, therefore, and felt towards it as towards his native land. The ties that bound him to it were holier and stronger than those that linked him to the home of his fathers. While he wandered by the banks of his native Clyde, he ever and anon turned his gaze wistfully in the direction of the western hills. The image of the poor country beyond them rose before him night and day.
The cold, the hunger, the night-watchings he had there undergone, were now sweet and blessed memories. The bitterness had gone out of them. Amid the comforts of his home in his father's house he looked back with regret to the nights he had spent watching his flock on the mountains of Antrim, his spirit within him singing songs of gladness while the storm was raging without. But though Patrick had as good as forgotten the miseries he had endured in that land, he had not forgotten the misery he had seen there. The thought of its sons groping on through life in darkness and going down into an eternal night, was ever present with him and ever uppermost. Could he wash his, hands and hold himself wholly guiltless of their blood? He owed himself to Ireland, surely the least he could do towards payment of the debt was to give himself to it. Why had he left it? Had he not acted the part of the ancient prophet, who, when commanded to go and preach repentance to Nineveh rose up and fled, leaving the million-peopled capital of Assyria to its fate? These were the thoughts that stirred within him and gave him no rest.
What by day were abstract considerations of duty appealing to his conscience, took to themselves by night embodiment and shape, and appeared before him as suppliants who had come to plead the cause of that wretched country from which he had fled. It seemed to Patrick; as if a man of Ireland stood on the other side of the Channel, and gazing beseechingly across, like the man of Macedonia who beckoned to Paul, cried to Patrick and said, "Come over and help us." "In the dead of the night," says he, "I saw a man coming to me as if from Hiberio, whose name was Victoricus, bearing innumerable letters. He gave me one of them to read. It was entitled, 'The Voice of the Irish.'  As I read I thought I heard at that same moment the voice of those that dwell at the wood of Foclaid, near the western ocean; and thus they cried, as with one mouth, 'We beseech thee, holy youth, come and walk still among us.' I felt my heart greatly stirred in me, and could read no more, and so I awoke." 
"Again on another night, I know not, God knoweth whether it was within me, or near me, I heard distinctly words which I could not understand, except that at the end of what was said, there was uttered: 'He who gave his life for thee, is He who speaketh in thee.' And so I awoke rejoicing" On another occasion he tells us, that it seemed to him as if one were praying within him. But he makes clear in what sense he interpreted his dream by telling us that when he awoke he recollected the apostle's words, "The Spirit helpeth the infirmity of our prayer. For we know not what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself maketh intercession for us, with groanings that cannot be uttered, which cannot be expressed in words." And again, "The Lord our advocate intercedeth for us." 
Patrick has removed by only a few centuries from an age in which God had spoken to men in dreams, and visions of the night. Was the Most High again having recourse to this ancient method of communicating His will? There was divine interposition, but no miracle, in the occurrences we have related; nor does Patrick himself see miracle in them. They were the echo in his now awakened conscience of the great command given on the Mount of Olives, "Go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature." This Patrick regarded as his special warrant to essay the great work of evangelizing Ireland. His commission had come to him, not from the Seven Hills, but direct from the Mount of Olives. Christ Himself it was who sent him forth; and that commission received in due course its seal and signature in a converted Ireland.
Days and months passed on, and Patrick was still with his parents in the Britanni. Had the cry of Ireland waxed faint, and died away? or had Patrick become deaf to an appeal which had stirred him so powerfully at the first? The cry from across the Channel grew louder day by day, and Patrick was more eager than ever to respond to it; but there were many and great hindrances in the way, which he feared to break through. Who was Patrick, the exile, the swineherd, that he should essay to bring a nation out of darkness, from which he himself was but newly escaped? He must lay his account, in the prosecution of such an enterprise, with encountering the sophistry of learned Druid and the hostility of powerful chieftain. The one would fight for his altar, and the other for his slave, and he would draw down the wrath of both upon his poor head. Last, and perhaps greatest, he would inevitably rouse the suspicion and perhaps the violence of the masses, who would not take kindly that he should disturb and unsettle their long-cherished superstitions and beliefs. These were the formidable obstacles that arrayed themselves against his enterprise ever as he thought of it. What pretensions had he to the learning or eloquence without which it were folly to think of achieving so great a work?
As he hesitated and delayed, the cry of Ireland sounded again in the ear of his conscience. That cry, agreeably to the ideas of the age and the warm temperament of the youth, embodied itself in the dramatic form of voices and dreams by night. There seemed again to stand before him suppliants from across the Irish Sea, who pleaded with him in behalf of those who lay plunged in a misery from which he himself had been delivered. With the return of day these suppliants who had stood all night long by his couch took their departure, only to let conscience speak.
He had no rest. If he wandered by the Clyde he saw its waters flowing away to join the Irish sea. If he watched the setting sun it was going down over Ireland, and its last gleam was gilding the wood of Focloid. If the storm-cloud came up from the southwest, it was laden with the sighs of that land over which it blew in its passage from the great Western ocean. At last his resolution was unalterably taken. He would arise and go in the character of a missionary to that land to which he had been carried as a slave. Unlettered, as regards the learning of the schools, unanointed, save by "an unction from the holy One," uncommissioned, save by the last words spoken on Olivet, and floated across the five centuries to his own day, he would cross the Channel, and borrowing the strength of Him who had dispelled the night around his own soul, he would attack the darkness, and throw down the idols of Ireland.
He broke his purpose to his parents. Surprised and grieved, they strongly opposed it. Had he not suffered enough already in that barbarous country? Was he ambitious of being a second time the slave of its chieftains, and the keeper of its swine? Even some of the clergy of the Church of Ninian discountenanced his design. Their own dying zeal was far below the pitch that could prompt them to such an enterprise; and they derided the idea that it should be undertaken by a youth who had never passed a single day within the walls of Candida Casa, or of any missionary institute of the age, and who had no qualifications for the task, that they could see. Nay, the old fault was brought up against him; but all was in vain. Neither the tears of parents, nor the sneers of prudent-minded ecclesiastics, could shake his resolution. A greater than father or presbyter commanded him to go, and His voice he would obey. "Oh, whence to me this wisdom!" we find him writing in after days, "who once knew not so much as to count the number of the days, and had no relish for God? Whence to me this, so great and saving a grace, that I should thus know God, or love God? that I should cast off country and parents, refusing their many offers and weeping and tears, and, withal, offend my seniors (elders) contrary to my wish?... Yet not I, but the grace of God which was in me, which resisted all impediments to the end that I should come to the Irish tribes to preach the gospel." If he had been able to offer himself in the service of this heathen country, he takes no merit to himself. It was not strength of will that had achieved this victory. The old Patrick would have remained at home with parents and friends. The new Patrick must go forth and begin what he calls his "laborious episcopate." "Not I," says he, with a greater apostle, "but the grace of God that was in me." 
His biographers make Patrick prepare himself for entering on his field of labour by making the tour of the then famous monasteries or mission-schools of the continent of Europe. They send him first of all to Tours in Gaul, which then reflected the luster of the genius and labours of Martin, a near relation, as some have affirmed, though on no certain evidence, of his mother, Conchessa. From the school of Tours they make him proceed to that of Lerins, where Vincent was then rising into repute. Last of all, they place him at the feet of the celebrated Germanus, Bishop of Auxerre. In this training thirty years pass away, and when Patrick has become learned in all the wisdom which these seats of knowledge had to impart, his biographers send him to Ireland. 
This progress through the schools on the part of our missionary, we believe to be wholly imaginary; in short, a fable. Patrick himself says not one word from which we could infer that he passed through so lengthened a course of study. When reproached with being unlearned, as he sometimes was, what more natural than that he should have pointed to the famous schools he had frequented, and the great teachers at whose feet he had sat. Instead of doing so, he always frankly confesses that the accusation was true, and that he was unlearned. Moreover, it is very improbable that one who knew, as Patrick did, Ireland's misery, and whose heart yearned, as his yearned, for that country's deliverance, have spent thirty years in going from school to school, where he could learn little that would be of use in his future work, and might forget much of essential service which he had been already taught by more infallible guides.
Patrick set out for Ireland clad in no armour of the schools. The scholastic age, with its great doctors, was yet a long way off. Aristotle had not yet come into vogue in the Christian Church. The clergy of those days bowed to Plato rather than to the Stagerite. The doctrines of Paul, in their estimation, lacked the "salt" of philosophy. By combining the wisdom of the Greek with the gospel of the Jew, they would produce a system more likely, in their belief, to find general acceptance with the nations.
Augustine, who saw in this the subversion of Christianity, strove to stem the torrent of corruption, and lead back Western Christendom to the original sources of divine knowledge; and could we persuade ourselves that his writings had traveled as far to the north as the banks of the Clyde, we would say that the future apostle of Ireland was a disciple of the bishop of Hippo, and had learned from him the two cardinal doctrines which are the kernel of all theology, the beginning and the end of religion as a system, even the utter helplessness of man, and the absolute freeness of the grace of God. But Patrick was not taught by man. He had learned his theology on the mountains of Antrim. The two great doctrines of his teaching had been revealed to him, as the law was revealed to the Israelites, amid the darkness and thunders of an awakened conscience. There was a revelation of them within himself. When the terrors of God, like great waters, were rolling round his soul, and he was preparing to make his bed in hell, a Hand from above drew him out of the depths and set him upon a rock, and this sudden and gracious deliverance made him see how helpless he himself was, and how free and sovereign the grace that had rescued him.
It is in the furnace that the true priest receives his anointing: it is in the furnace that the soldier of the cross is harnessed for the battle. It was in a furnace heated sevenfold that the apostle of Ireland had the sign of his apostleship stamped upon him. His sufferings were a more glorious badge of office than crosier and miter. "I was amended of the Lord," he says, "who thus fitted me to be today what I was once far from being, namely, that I should busy myself with, and labour for the salvation of others at a time when I thought not of my own."
 Vox Hiberionacum.
 Pat. Confess., sec. xi.
 Pat. Confess., sec. xii.
 Pat. Confess., sec. 15.
 See Todd's Life of St. Patrick.
CHAPTER 9. PATRICK. ---New Window
CHAPTER 10. PATRICK IN IRELAND. ---New Window
CHAPTER 11. PATRICK FINDS PEACE. ---New Window
CHAPTER 12. PATRICK AGAIN AT HOME. (this page)
CHAPTER 13. PATRICK GOES TO IRELAND. ---New Window
CHAPTER 14. PATRICK'S MINISTRY IN IRELAND. ---New Window
CHAPTER 15. PATRICK'S EVANGELISTIC TOURS. ---New Window
CHAPTER 16. DAY OF TARA. ---New Window
CHAPTER 17. THREE HUNDRED AND SIXTY-FIVE CHURCHES. ---New Window
CHAPTER 18. SCHOOLS OF EARLY IRELAND. ---New Window
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