Wednesday, 19 March 2014

The Soul of Saint Patrick

Below is the text of a late nineteenth-century article on Saint Patrick, one of many to appear in the popular Catholic press of the Victorian era. This one is interesting, however, because it concentrates on the actual writings of Saint Patrick. As was pointed out in an earlier post here, it was only in the nineteenth century that Saint Patrick's letters appeared in English translation and became accessible to the general reader. The anonymous author used the poetic translation of the Belfast-born antiquary Sir Samuel Ferguson (1810-1886). Towards the end of the article he alludes to the notion of the Irish as an especially chaste people, something we owe to the teaching of our national apostle. It's all a far cry from the row over gay and lesbian participation in the big Saint Patrick's Day parades in the US this year!


The soul from Patrick's body toil-worn at last departed,
God's angels all the night sang round it unceasing.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Together they ascended to Jesus, the Son of Mary.

Hymn of Fiacc.

NOTHING so builds up the interior man as coming in contact with the soul of a Saint. Men change through the different ages. The manners of the time of St. Patrick would seem to us as grotesque as his language would be difficult. But souls are always much the same, with capacity for love and sorrow, for desires lofty as the heavens and low as the nethermost earth.

Fortunately something has remained to us of St. Patrick which lays bare the working and aspiration of his soul. Concerning the dates and events of his life there has been much dispute among the learned. But all have agreed that the two curious documents called the Confession and the Epistle to Coroticus are his genuine productions. [1] They resemble each other too much not to be from the same hand. Full of sympathy and as poetic as they are mystical, the one in its earnest humility and the other in its still more earnest remonstrance against wrong done to Christian souls, they lay open to us the inmost heart of the Saint. We say "heart," because it is not merely the workings of his mind that are set down before us, but the sincere affections of the soul. All this is done with constant reference to the religious ideas which impelled him along his difficult way of life.

The thought which seems to have impressed most deeply the soul of the Saint is that he has been guided to his present life by the Spirit of God. He comes back again and again on this thought as did St. Paul. "It is not I, but the Spirit of God that worketh in me."

Thus he says of himself to Coroticus, who was doing a great wrong to Christian converts:

Not for mine own delight: 'twas God that stirred
That strong solicitude within my heart,
That, of the hunters and the fishermen
Whom He aforetime for these latter days
Had pre-appointed, I too should be one.

And he gives as the reason of writing his Confession that it is only a fit return for the favors bestowed on him by God.

. . . And therefore now
I will not hide, nor could I, were it fit
To hide, such boons, such graces, as my Lord
Has deigned me here in my captivity.
And this my poor return: that having attained
The touch and apprehension of my God,
I should with high exalted heart, in face
Of all that lives below all skies, confess
That other God nor was, nor is nor shall be :
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
One God in Trinity of Holy name.

This thought overrules him. Telling of God's Providence which has led him step by step to his high calling, he lets drop precious details of his own history. In this leading of Providence he sees the clear reason and justification of his desertion of his own race. This he boldly brings up to Coroticus, who seems to have been an only half-Christianized kinglet inclined for his own selfish purposes to leave his Christian brethren a prey to the pagan Picts and Scots.

What! Was it then without God's promises
Or in the body only that I came
To Ireland? Who compelled me? Who me bound
In spirit that I should no more behold
Kindred or early friend ? Whence came the sense
Inspiring me with pity for the race
That once were mine own captors? I was born
Noble; my father a Decurio;
That privilege of birth I have exchanged
(I blush not for it, and I grudge it not)
For benefit of others, bartered so
In Christ and given over to a race
Extern to mine, all for the glorious hope
Ineffable of that perennial life
Which is in Jesus Christ, our Lord.

He speaks of the sorrows of his early captivity, after he was carried away to Ireland as a slave, with patience and thanksgiving; for by this way of sorrows he has been led to his present calling wherein he has been able to do something for his Lord.

. . . Before my happy humbling came,
I was as is a stone that, in deep mire,
Lies on the highway: and He came, Who can,
And in His pity thence did lift me up
And set me on the wall-top. ...
. . . Not, indeed, that I
Was worthy that my Lord His servant poor
Should so far favor, after all the toils,
The hardships heavy, and the captive years
Borne 'mongst this people; should bestow such grace
As till I came to Ireland I nor knew
Nor ever hoped.

He looks back over the commonplace unending toil of those youthful days, no longer with a sense of their wretchedness, but with thankful heart because of what God then wrought in him.

. . Herding daily here,
And often in the day saying my prayers,
Daily there more and more did grow in me
The fear of God. And holy fear and faith
Increased in me, that in a single day
I've said as many as a hundred prayers,
And in the night scarce fewer ; so that oft
In woods and on the mountain I've remained,
And risen to prayer before daylight, through snow,
Through frost, through rain, and yet I took no ill,
Nor was there in me then aught slow as now,
For then the Spirit of God within me burned.

It is touching to note the humility of the Saint who, at the very end of his glorious career, counts himself as slow in comparison with the devotion of the days when he was a boy, a wretched slave -

For then the Spirit of God within me burned.

The special call which came to him from the Divine Voice, after he had escaped from slavery and returned once more to his family and the comforts of a Roman military post, resembles not a little the voice which came by day and night to Saint Paul - Come over to Macedonia and help us. The calling of St. Patrick has been told a thousand times, but never more impressively than in his own simple words :

. . . I found myself at home
Amongst the Britons with my family,
Who all received me as they might a son,
And earnestly besought me that at length,
After these many perils I had borne,
I never more would leave them. It was there
In a night vision I beheld a man
Coming as 'twere from Ireland. Victor he.
Innumerable letters bore he : one
He gave to me to read. I read one line,
"The voices of the Irish," so it ran.
And while I read, methought I heard the cry
Of them that by the wood of Focluth dwell,
Beside the Western Ocean, saying thus,
"Come, holy youth, and walk amongst us, come!"
All with one voice. It touched me to the heart,
And I could read no more; and so awoke
Thank God at last Who, after many years,
Has given to them according to their cry !

Whenever he speaks with authority, it is always as one who has this authority from the vocation God has given to him. Thus he begins to Coroticus :

I, Patrick - I, a sinner and unlearned,
Here in Hibernia constituted Bishop,
Believe most surely that it is from God
I hold commission to be that I am,
A proselyte and pilgrim, for His love,
Here amongst savage peoples. He Who knows
All things, knows also if this be not so.

This special call seems to have been borne in upon his soul by something of that high divine action which was used in the case of St. Paul. " I will show unto him what great things he must suffer for My name's sake." The story of the voices of the Irish calling to him in his sleep is paralleled, in later times, in the life of the great Apostle of the Indies, St. Francis Xavier. In his life we read that, whilst at the University of Paris, dreaming of the literary distinction to which his family and his undoubted talent entitled him, in sleep he bore with toil and suffering an Indian upon his shoulders over rock and torrent. As is probably the case with all the supernatural vocations which somehow transcend the ordinary call to help in the saving of souls, a special grace of God seems to have wrought a peculiar union between the destined Apostle and his Master Christ. St. Patrick is everywhere conscious of this grace; and he gives us details from his own life as wonderful as those we read in the writings of the most mystical Saints. It will be noticed, too, that his uncertainty concerning the definite manner of such wonderful action of the Divinity on his soul is quite like that of St. Paul who, when carried to the third heaven, knew not "whether he were in the body or out of the body."

And, on another night, I know not, I,
God knows, if 'twas within me or without,
One prayed with words exceeding exquisite
I could not understand, till, at the close,
He spoke in this wise "He Who gave His soul
For thee is He "Who speaks." I woke with joy.
And once I saw Him praying, as it were
Within me, and I saw myself as though
Within myself, and over me, that is
Over the inner man, I heard Him pray
Strongly with urgent groans, myself the while
Amazed, and wondering who should pray in me,
Till, at the very ending of His prayer,
He showed, a Bishop. I awoke and called
To memory what His Apostle says :
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
"The Lord our Advocate doth plead for us."

This conscious indwelling of his Master Christ in the depths of his soul sustained him through many trials. Doubtless the personal love of Jesus Christ is necessary to the most ordinary practice of the Christian faith. The martyrs, as has often been said, did not die for any ideal truth, but for a Person in Whom they believed and hoped and Whom they loved more than life itself.

In the career of St. Patrick a peculiarly bitter trial seems to have come upon him, concerning which he says:

. . . Some certain of my seniors came
Against my toilsome, hard Episcopate,
And made impeachment of me for my sins.
In that day truly I was tempted sore
To fall both now and everlastingly
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
They found me, after thirty years,
To charge me with one word I had confessed
Before I was a deacon. In my grief
And pain of mind I to my dearest friend
Told what I in my boyhood, in one day,
Yea, in one hour had done: because as yet
I had not strength : I know not, Heaven knows,
If, at that time, I yet had fifteen years.

With the strange contrition which great Saints by reason of their completer light conceive concerning the slight or few sins of their youth, St. Patrick goes on humbly to attribute the sufferings of his slavery to this sin, whatever it may have been. Then, with a surprising burst of faith, he beholds the road from sin through chastisement to his present glorious calling:

I had not yet believed the living God
Even from my childhood; but remained in death
And unbelief till sore chastised I was
By hunger, nakedness, and enforced toil
Daily in Ireland - for I came not here
Self-sent until, indeed, I almost sank.
Yet these were rather boons to me, because,
So chastened by the Lord, I now am made
What once was far from me, that I should care
Or labor for the weal of others, I
Who then took no thought even for myself.

It is probable that those he calls his " seniors " did not take quite the same view of the case. Even estimable men may be lacking in the discretion of spirits, which is after all a free gift of the Holy Ghost ; and they may unconsciously be swayed by natural feelings of jealousy which prompt them to exaggerate the least fault in men who are most nearly faultless. St. Teresa quaintly remarks that if the members of your community once get the idea you are a Saint, they will expect such great things from you that in the end they will make you a martyr. But in the midst of his trouble St. Patrick felt again, and in a new manner, the abiding presence of his Master with him.

On that same day when these my elder ones
Rebuked me, in a vision of the night,
I saw a script against me, and no name
Of honor written; and the while I heard
That voice within make answer, "We are here
Ill-styled by men, stripped bare of dignity."
It was not "Thou art here ill-styled", it said,
But "We," as if the Speaker joined Himself
Incorporately with me, and the voice
Were His Who once said, Whoso toucheth thee,
Toucheth as ''twere the apple of Mine eye.

This sense of his union with Christ in working for the Irish people crops out constantly.

. . . With fear and reverence
Faithful in heart and uncomplainingly
I serve this people, to whom the charity
Of Christ assigns me, for my rest of life,
If I be worthy; that, with humble heart,
And truthful lips, I teach it, in the faith
And measure of the Holy Trinity.

With the faith of the Holy Trinity St. Patrick's mission began and ended; and the same may be said of the faithful people he left behind him.

A last thought, to show how his spirit has remained among the Christians he formed, may be taken from the Confession. In the midst of their wretchedness and poverty and forced ignorance, the Irish people have become known throughout the world for the love and practice of purity. How beautiful is the chaste generation in glory. This, too, is the great ideal of St. Patrick for his people.

Now the Irish, who in former days
Had but their idols and their rites unclean,
Nor aught knew of the Lord, have late become
The Lord's own people. And the sons of Scots
And daughters of their kings, now sons of God
Are counted, and vowed handmaidens of Christ.
And one bless'd Scotic lady nobly born,
A most fair person whom myself baptized,
Came soon thereafter making her report
Of intimation by a messenger,
Sent her from God, with His admonishment,
That virgin she should live and nearer Him.

The violation of this high ideal by Coroticus, who had exposed the Christian flock to the lawless violence of the pagans, is the burden of St. Patrick's complaint.

Lord, ravening wolves have eaten up Thy flock,
Which here in Ireland had such fair increase,
Sons of the Scots and daughters of the kings,
Now holy monks and handmaidens of Christ,
So many, past my counting.
And he reproaches the faithless chieftain:

Thou slayest and sellest into extern lands
Which know not God, my Christians, and dost cast
Christ's baptized virgin members into shame.
What hope canst thou, so acting, have in God?

This was the last message of holy love for God and man of him who described himself, humbly

A proselyte and pilgrim for His love
Here amongst savage peoples.

[1] The recent translation of Sir Samuel Ferguson, in his posthumous work The Remains of St. Patrick, Apostle of Ireland, is here followed with slight modifications.

THE MESSENGER VOL.VI (xxvi), 1891 184-191.

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