By Father James Thornton
It is natural for us, members of the Eastern Orthodox Church, to remember most vividly the Saints and Holy Fathers of the lands of the Eastern Mediterranean and Eastern Europe and to forget that the West was also once Orthodox, that its peoples were, in those days, every bit as much Orthodox peoples, with Orthodox cultures and the Orthodox Way of Life, as those of the East. For the first millennium, East and West shared one Faith, the Orthodox Faith.
Sad historical events intervened in the second Christian millennium to change the perfect unity that had existed for so long, but it nonetheless existed, and for many centuries. What that means, among other things, is that the Western Saints and Holy Fathers of the first thousand years belong to us. They are as much ours as our own Eastern Church Fathers, and they are much more ours than they are the Saints and Holy Fathers of the Western confessions, since these bodies have broken with the True Faith and so follow a different path than any of the Holy Fathers of the first millennium.
St. Patrick, the Apostle to Ireland, is an excellent example of the Orthodox Saints of the early Christian West. Today he stands as a symbol of the national aspirations of modern Ireland and the Irish people, and this is not necessarily a bad thing since a Christian symbol is preferable to a secular or pagan one, reminding the Irish people whence they came. Yet, when we probe beneath the well-known celebrations that accompany the remembrance of St. Patrick each year, and if we approach the life and works of this man in the spirit of Christian sobriety, we discover a genuine Orthodox Church Father, who would have been completely comfortable and happy in fellowship with St. Basil, St. John Chrysostomos, or St. Seraphim — and, moreover, completely at one with them in mind.
St. Patrick was born Patricius Magonus Sucatus, in Scotland, in the year 387. His father, Calpurnius, was a descendant of a prominent Roman family, was a man of considerable importance in the Roman civil administration, and served the Church as a Deacon. His paternal grandfather was a Christian Priest by the name of Potitus. St. Patrick’s mother, Conchessa, was near kin to the great Patron Saint of Gaul, St. Martin of Tours.
In the year 404, when the Saint was sixteen, marauders carried the young boy away to Ireland and sold him into slavery. There, he tended the flocks of a tribal chieftain and pagan priest. From the son of a well-to-do family to the slave of a pagan master in a foreign land was, in worldly terms, a fall from a life of advantage to apparent degradation.
Yet, St. Patrick was a pious lad, and made the best of a difficult situation. He refused to allow himself to be broken, instead looking upon his unhappy state as an opportunity thrust upon him by God. While tending the flocks, he devoted his inward life to intense prayer and to deep contemplation of Christian truth. At the same time, he became entirely fluent in the Keltic dialects of Ireland and familiar with the beliefs of the Irish pagan religion, knowledge that would serve him extremely well decades later.
After six years of slavery, an Angel of God appeared to the Saint in a dream, commanding him to flee captivity and return to his home in Scotland. In his autobiographical work, the _Confessio_, St. Patrick tells us that he walked two-hundred miles across Ireland to a seaport. Upon his arrival at the coast he asked some mariners for free passage home. He was flatly refused at first, and the Saint then began to pray. A short time later, the mariners beckoned him to their ship, saying that they had changed their mind and that he could sail with them. After sailing first to Gaul, the ship finally took him home to Britain.
St. Patrick told his family of his adventures, and then told them of his determination to become a Priest. He was sent first to the great monastery founded by St. Honoratus, on the island of Lerins off the coast of Provence, where he studied for three years. It is likely that here he was tonsured a monk. Afterwards, he went to Auxerre, where he studied specifically for the Priesthood and where he became the student and disciple of St. Germanus, the Bishop of Auxerre. St. Patrick was ordained a Priest in 417, remaining in Auxerre for a total of fifteen years.
It was during that period that the Saint had a series of visions or dreams that seemed to bid his return to his place of captivity, Ireland. The visions were in the form of voices of large numbers of people, begging for help. After his happy years in civilized Auxerre, he was most disinclined to go to such a wild and dangerous outland, but the voices persisted. Telling his Spiritual Father of his visions, St. Patrick was consecrated to the Episcopacy in 432, and sent as a missionary to Ireland.
What we know of St. Patrick’s efforts in Ireland are mostly legend. There is the famous story that he miraculously drove all the snakes from the country; however this legend should be understood spiritually, not literally. The “snakes” he drove from Ireland were the demons of paganism and superstition, which he replaced with the goodness and gentleness of Holy Orthodoxy. There is also the story that he used the tripartite shamrock in teaching the simple people about the Unity in Trinity of God, quite likely a true story. In any event, he travelled the land, preaching Christ’s Gospel in the language of the people (which he had learned while a slave), establishing Churches, monasteries, and schools, winning over the tribal chiefs to the new Faith, and astounding all of those to whom he preached with his miracles.
Once, on Holy Saturday, he miraculously lit the Paschal fire before the astonished eyes of a pagan king and his priests. The priests were thenceforth reduced to silence in the face of St. Patrick the Wonderworker, and the king won over to Christianity. Another time, a pagan raised his sword to strike the Saint down, but his arm was instantly frozen in place until he agreed to listen to the words of Christ’s Gospel.
Where goes genuine Christianity, there also goes civilization. The Saint, therefore, was particularly concerned with the education of native clergy who, in turn, could elevate the Irish people to higher spiritual and cultural standards. This he set about doing as the most urgent necessity.
It should not be thought that the rolling back of paganism was easy. St. Patrick’s life was frequently threatened and he was held captive several times. In short, the life of the Apostle to Ireland was arduous.
St. Patrick always remained a simple monk, conquering his adversaries by his meekness, sleeping on a hard rock, eating sparingly, and praying ceaselessly. At times, he would retreat to a cave for days or weeks of spiritual solitude. Of himself he wrote that he was “Patrick, a sinner, most unlearned, the least of all the faithful, and most contemptible to many….” St. Patrick lived to extreme old age, reposing March 17, 493.
St. Patrick left behind a body of written works, about which some controversy exists among Church scholars. Certain of these works, the _Confessio_ and a work called the _Letter to Coroticum_ are acknowledged by virtually all scholars to be genuine. The Holy Canons of St. Patrick which come down to us from early synods of the Irish Church are regarded by most as genuine. Scholars are uncertain about other works, including some prayers, poetry, and essays on the Christian Faith. However, in many cases, these were written by the Holy Father Patrick’s disciples, and so reflect the authentic teaching of the Saint.
For a man to suffer the adversity suffered by St. Patrick, to escape, and then to return from safe haven to the place of his suffering, requires above all a Faith as strong as steel. In his _Confessio_, the Saint writes:
“For the sun we see rises each day for us at [God's] command, but it will never reign, neither will its splendor last, but all who worship it will come wretchedly to punishment. We, on the other hand, shall not die, who believe in and worship the True Sun, Christ, who will never die, no more shall he die who has done Christ’s will, but will abide forever just as Christ abides forever, who reigns with God the Father Almighty and with the Holy Spirit before the beginning of time now and forever….”If one believes as firmly as that, then all of the suffering and adversity of this life is as nothing, or near nothing, in comparison to that which comes to us by striving to live Orthodoxy. Inextinguishable faith makes suffering and adversity bearable, since the basis of that faith is that all we experience in this life is but temporary, while all that is in the life to come is everlasting.
As Saint and Holy Father Patrick says, “We … shall not die … but will abide forever just as Christ abides forever….”
To view more incredible icons of St. Patrick, visit All-Merciful Savior Orthodox Mission