The Man Behind the Myth: 5 Things You Can Learn from St. Patrick

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During the 5th century, St. Patrick of Ireland bravely engaged a barbaric culture for the sake of Christ, and his legacy changed the course of history, not only for that society but arguably for the entire Western world.

St. PatrickCaptured by Irish raiders at his father’s country villa at age 15, Patrick spent 6 years watching his master’s livestock for long isolated days on end, spending much of his time in prayer and communion with God. Finally escaping, he made his way back to his home in England only to have a dream of the Irish calling him back to the land of his captors to share the good news of a God who loved them. By the end of his life of ministry, numerous churches and monasteries had been set up all over Ireland and “countless number” had been baptized into the Church.

How could one man have had such an impact — and what can we gain from his example? Here are five lessons you can learn from St. Patrick of Ireland.[1]

1. Be motivated by gratitude.

Patrick’s entire ministry was based on gratitude to God for saving him. In his own words:

God came along and with his power and compassion reached down and pulled me out, raised me up, and placed me on top of a wall. Because of this I must proclaim my good news, I must pay God back in some way for all that he has done for me here on earth and what he will do in eternity.[2]

I recently had the opportunity to share my testimony. And reminiscing about God’s faithfulness rekindled my gratefulness for all that He has done for me. When was the last time you recounted His blessings to you? Try it sometime, and let gratitude spring from your heart (and maybe stream from your eyes). Then out of the overflow of your thankful heart, let your mouth speak.

2. You don’t have to be a scholar, but it’s ok if you are.

Patrick’s British/Roman education was abruptly interrupted at age 15 when Irish raiders carried him away to be a slave. So, unlike his contemporary St. Augustine of Hippo, Patrick barely had a proper education at all.

But Patrick didn’t need a top-notch education. The Irish would have scoffed at him if he had come to them with eloquent words and air-tight arguments. They needed someone unafraid to work and sweat in the trenches with them, teaching them a better way through life-on-life example. Patrick’s six years as a slave to the Irish had given him insight into their culture and taught him their language. I don’t imagine these were fun times, but God used them for his good.

So though Patrick and Augustine had different education and experiences, God prepared both to do what He created them to do—one to work among the barbaric Irish, and one to protect the faith against heresy through his writings. Patrick was suited to his calling, and Augustine was to his. And you are to yours too, whatever that calling may be.

What scent is wafting from our lives? Peace and hope — or something else?

3. Be a living alternative to the ways of this world.

Patrick’s life convinced the people of the truth of his words. He lived in front of them, in full spectacular view, what it meant to walk by the Spirit: bearing the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. These traits sparkled in stark contrast to a grim Irish society. These people lived by the sword, often stealing from one another and killing their neighbors over a few head of cattle or stolen land.

Patrick gave them a better option, as Thomas Cahill points out: “Patrick held out to these warrior children, in his own person, a living alternative. . . . Patrick’s peace was no sham: it issued from his person like a fragrance.”[3]  No doubt, this fragrance had the aroma of Christ.

What scent is wafting from our lives in the midst of this turbulent society? Peace and hope — or something else?

4. Seek justice for the oppressed, even those who have been our enemies.

As Patrick’s ministry grew, he identified himself more and more as an Irishman. The same people who had snatched him from his home and forced him into slavery—his enemies—had now become his family. Thus when British pirates took his spiritual children as captives to be sold into slavery, he wrote a scathing letter encouraging the Church leaders in Britain to shun these bandits. His grief over his lost loved ones is still palpable 1500 years later.

My newly baptized converts, still in their white robes, the sweet smell of the anointing oil still on their foreheads—you murdered them, cut them down with your swords! . . . With tears and sorrow I will mourn for you, my beautiful, beloved family and children—from the countless number born into Christ through me . . . Don’t they know that the same God is father of us all? No, they hate you—they hate us—because we are Irish.[4]

Do we identify with those who need our love, our help? Do we identify with the refugee, the unborn, the mistreated among us? Do we see their troubles as our own—or do they have nothing to do with us?

We must speak truth in deep, wholehearted love for others, speaking out against what is wrong and speaking up for what is right.

Patrick was just an ordinary guy (like you and me) who served an extraordinary God.

5. Lean into the Lord when the hardships come.

Later in life, Patrick wrote in his Confession:

The Lord has rescued me from so many dangers that sometimes I just have to ask: ‘God, who am I? What is it you want me to do? You have worked beside me, helping me with your divine power, so that now I can praise and glorify your name constantly among nonbelievers—wherever I might be—in bad times and in good.’ Whatever happens to me, good or evil, I must accept it and give thanks to God. He has taught me to trust in him without any limits.[5]

Stop and let that soak in. Who is this superman who trusted God “without any limits”? He’s just an ordinary guy (like you and me) who served an extraordinary God.

We serve the same God who used an ordinary man to do extraordinary things. Let’s ask Him to grow that kind of trust in us.

A version of this post published in March 2016.

Image Credit: Albert Bridge, Wikimedia Commons / National Library of Ireland, Wikimedia Commons

[1] For a brief biography, see Michael A. G. Haykin’s Patrick of Ireland: His Life and Impact, Christian Focus, 2014. And for a short historical fiction, see John Edward Beahn’s A Man Cleansed by God: A Novel based on the Life of Saint Patrick, TAN Books, 2013. If you’d like to read Patrick’s two letters, various translations of The Confession of Saint Patrick and Letter to Coroticus can be found online; I recommend this site:

[2] Phillip Freeman, St. Patrick of Ireland: A Biography, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004, p. 179

[3] Thomas Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe, New York: Doubleday, 1995, p. 128

[4] Freeman, p. 170, 173-174

[5] Freeman, p. 185

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Carrie Kelly

Carrie provides secretarial support for her faculty at Southeastern Seminary where her husband, Owen, is a student in the MDiv. In her free time, she is currently working on a historical fiction novel set in Ireland during the time of St. Patrick.

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