Saint Patrick, bishop

Readings: 1 Peter 4:7b-11; Psalm 96; Luke 5:1-11

I used to be upset that Saint Patrick’s Day always happened during Lent.  I’d have to postpone the celebration of my favorite saint until Sunday because we just didn’t have corned beef on Friday, you know.  But as I’ve grown older, I appreciate that Saint Patrick’s Day is in Lent, because I think Saint Patrick is a compelling Lenten figure.

Lent, of course, is a time of conversion and renewal of faith.  Saint Patrick’s life was one of conversion.  Listen to these words from the beginning of his famous Confession:  “And there the Lord opened my mind to an awareness of my unbelief, in order that, even so late, I might remember my transgressions and turn with all my heart to the Lord my God, who had regard for my insignificance and pitied my youth and ignorance. And he watched over me before I knew him, and before I learned sense or even distinguished between good and evil, and he protected me, and consoled me as a father would his son.”

Now many saints have undertaken to write a confession of their own lives. But perhaps none of them has done so in the same style as St. Patrick, he using rather rudimentary Latin to write the work, and being much more brutally honest than you’ll see from other saints. What you get from St. Patrick’s Confession is the life story of a man who was completely taken by love of God and dedication to his mission.

And, honestly, that he took up the mission at all is a little bit of a miracle. Having been brought to Ireland originally against his will, and finally having been delivered from it, one would think that he would be content to spend his days nearer to his family – who missed him terribly and feared for his life – but that’s not what he did, of course. He didn’t even harbor any bitterness against his first, indentured stay in Ireland. He writes: “Believe me, I didn’t go to Ireland willingly that first time – I almost died here. But it turned out to be good for me in the end, because God used the time to shape and mold me into something better. He made me into what I am now – someone very different from what I once was, someone who can care about others and work to help them. Before I was a slave, I didn’t even care about myself.”

And so we have here a rather compelling story of conversion.  We who are sinners ourselves might well relate to his reminiscences of a disaffected youth. He writes of an unmentioned sin, dating from before he was ordained, even before he was living a Christian life. The sin was apparently known to a friend of his – a friend who lobbied for him to become a bishop, and then later betrayed him to his superiors. Patrick has long since moved on from where he was at the time this sin was committed, he is an older man now, looking back on youthful indiscretions, and not bearing any ill-will toward those who would rub his nose in it, he thanks God for the strength he has since gained: “So I give thanks to the one who cared for me in all my difficulties, because he allowed me to continue in my chosen mission and the work that Christ my master taught me. More and more I have felt inside myself a great strength because my faith was proven right before God and the whole world.”

So many of us can look back on the sins and indiscretions of our youth too. That Patrick could do it with gratitude in his heart for the strength God had given him, and for a second chance to live his life the right way, is an example for all of us, a grace that we could all long for especially in these Lenten days.

Another thing that comes through so clearly in the Confession is, of course, Patrick’s love for the Irish people and dedication to his mission.  He writes, “How wonderful it is that here in Ireland a people who never had any knowledge of God – who until now have worshiped idols and impure things – have recently become a people of the Lord and are now called children of God. You can see that the sons and daughters of Irish kings have become brothers and virgins for Christ.” He is in awe of the work God has done among the people since he has given himself to ministry there.  There was conversion going on in the Irish people in those days, and Saint Patrick is grateful for it.

And the thing is, he could have walked away from Ireland all those years ago and never looked back. Who could have blamed him for distancing himself from the land where he was enslaved, and nearly died? But in the faces of the people of Ireland, he saw the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the ill and imprisoned, and would not walk away. Instead, as the Gospel today directs us all, he left everything he had behind, turned back to Ireland, back to God, and followed Christ.

St. Patrick had to weather so many storms in his life. He was kidnapped and enslaved, he worked in mission territory among people who at times were hostile to the Christian way of life, he was betrayed by a friend and besieged by fellow clergymen who were jealous of the success of his ministry and critical of the way he did it. But through it all, he was grateful for the power of God at work in him. The faith that led him to be that way was nourished on a strong friendship with God. He’d hear nothing of us showing up here once a year for an Irish Mass. Instead, he’d have us celebrating our Irish heritage through daily communion with our God who longs to bless all our days.

Some say St. Patrick never wrote his famous “Breastplate” or “Lorica” prayer. Maybe he did and maybe he didn’t, but I tend to think it’s the kind of thing he would have prayed, every morning, to remind himself of the source of his blessing, to call on God’s protection, and to center himself to look for Christ in every person in every moment.  Maybe that prayer can do the same thing for all of us, too.

I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through the belief in the threeness,
Through the confession of the oneness
Of the Creator of Creation.

I arise today
Through the strength of Christ’s birth with his baptism,
Through the strength of his crucifixion with his burial,
Through the strength of his resurrection with his ascension,
Through the strength of his descent for the Judgment Day.

I arise today
Through the strength of the love of Cherubim,
In obedience of angels,
In the service of archangels,
In hope of resurrection to meet with reward,
In prayers of patriarchs,
In predictions of prophets,
In preaching of apostles,
In faith of confessors,
In innocence of holy virgins,
In deeds of righteous men.

I arise today
Through the strength of heaven:
Light of sun,
Radiance of moon,
Splendor of fire,
Speed of lightning,
Swiftness of wind,
Depth of sea,
Stability of earth,
Firmness of rock.

I arise today
Through God’s strength to pilot me:
God’s might to uphold me,
God’s wisdom to guide me,
God’s eye to look before me,
God’s ear to hear me,
God’s word to speak for me,
God’s hand to guard me,
God’s way to lie before me,
God’s shield to protect me,
God’s host to save me
From snares of demons,
From temptations of vices,
From everyone who shall wish me ill,
Afar and anear,
Alone and in multitude.

I summon today all these powers between me and those evils,
Against every cruel merciless power that may oppose my body and soul,
Against incantations of false prophets,
Against black laws of pagandom
Against false laws of heretics,
Against craft of idolatry,
Against spells of witches and smiths and wizards,
Against every knowledge that corrupts man’s body and soul.

Christ to shield me today
Against poison, against burning,
Against drowning, against wounding,
So that there may come to me abundance of reward.
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 when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.

I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through belief in the threeness,
Through confession of the oneness,
Of the Creator of Creation.