“My name is Patrick. I am a sinner, a simple country person, and the least of all believers.”
So begins the Confession, one of only two extant writings we have of the patron saint of Ireland. Unlike the well-known Lorica, or “Deer’s Cry” (also known as the “Breastplate of Saint Patrick”), which was probably written by a follower of the saint after his death, the Confession comes from the hand of the saint himself.
Unlike his contemporary Saint Augustine, Patrick was unlearned; his writing is simple and filled with many quotes from the Bible almost verbatim. What we see in his writing is someone who has so internalized scripture that it shapes the character of his narrative. He writes: “I turned with all my heart to the Lord my God, and he looked down on my lowliness,” quoting both Joel 2:12 and the beautiful Magnificat of Mary in Luke 1:48. He comments that “If I seem to some to be too forward, with my lack of knowledge and my even slower tongue, still it is written: ‘Stammering tongues will quickly learn to speak peace’,” quoting Isaiah 32:4 and echoing the self-description of Moses.
What we can discern about his prayer life comes from the tender yet powerful ways he speaks of God: “He protected me and consoled me as a father does for his son.” He speaks intimately and lovingly of the Father who called him out of slavery to speak to his people, not unlike Jeremiah: “I cannot be silent — nor would it be good to do so — about such great blessings and such a gift that the Lord so kindly bestowed in the land of my captivity.”
He had to learn a foreign language; he confesses to having been a poor learner, and was self-conscious about his ignorance: “I blush and am afraid to expose my lack of experience, because I can’t express myself with the brief words I would like in my heart and soul.” Yet he is grateful and joyous at what the Father has done, and so his life as a preacher of the gospel is his way to give back.
As a youth, his passion for God was boundless: “More and more the love of God increased, and my sense of awe before God. Faith grew, and my spirit was moved, so that in one day I would pray up to one hundred times, and at night perhaps the same.”
It is no surprise, then, that in the Lorica we find calls to pray everywhere: “Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ on my right, Christ on my left, Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down, Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me, Christ in the mouth of every man who speaks of me, Christ in the eye that sees me, Christ in the ear that hears me.” His life was filled with prayer.
Even after his return home from slavery, that passion for God brought him back to Ireland to become a deacon, priest and bishop. Late in life he expresses a desire to return home to Britain, but reflects on “Christ the Lord, who told me to come here to be with these people for the rest of my life.”
And so he did: “I testify in truth and in great joy of heart before God and his holy angels that I never had any other reason for returning to that nation from which I had earlier escaped, except the gospel and God’s promises.”
Ireland was born, as it were, out of the prayer of this saint.
• Tim Muldoon is a theologian and author of a number of books on Catholic theology and spirituality. He teaches at Boston College.
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