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The Life And Writings Of Saint Patrick -Saint Patrick

This, perhaps, may be regarded as, in some respects, the most ancient Life of St. Patrick. There can be no reasonable doubt of its authenticity, for the evidence, both intrinsic and extrinsic, is very strong. It is given in the Liber Hymnorum, under the title of the ‘Hymn of St. Patrick, Bishop of the Scots’—that is, of course, the Irish—meaning, however, not a hymn written by the Saint, but one written in his praise. The copy in the Trinity College Liber Hymnorum has a glossary, but no preface; however, the folio containing the preface may have been torn from the MS. In the Franciscan codex of the Book of Hymns there is a preface or introduction which sets forth, in the usual style, the time, place, author, and object of the composition.

This preface is in Irish, and has been given in Latin by Colgan, who first published St. Sechnall’s Hymn. The Lebar Brecc also contains a copy of the Hymn, with a fuller, but probably a less authentic, preface. It was also published by Sir James Ware from a copy that he found in the Library of Usher. It is said to be the Donegal copy; but that is rather doubtful, for it differs from Colgan’s version, and it is not easy to see how it could go to Rome from Usher’s collection. It was also published by Muratori and Villaneuva, and lastly, after careful collation, the Franciscan copy has been printed by Stokes in his Tripartite Life.

Reference is also made in the Book of Armagh to the ‘recitation’ of this Hymn as one of Four Honours due to St. Patrick, so there can be no doubt that its authenticity was recognised by the earliest, as well as by the latest, of our Irish historians and scholars.

The internal evidence is no less striking and conclusive. The writer of the Hymn describes at length the virtues and labours of St. Patrick, but throughout he speaks of the Saint as one living at the time, not yet called to his reward, but who hereafter will possess the joys of the heavenly kingdom. A mere forger of a later date would hardly be so much on his guard in his tenses when speaking of the Saint. The Latin style, too, is characteristic of the period, for the language is, as we might expect, rather like that of St. Patrick himself—by no means elegant, and not always even grammatically correct.

The Shorter Preface given by Stokes in Irish, and by Colgan in Latin, tells us the history of the Hymn. It was Sechnall, son of Restitutus, of the Lombards of Letha, and of Darerca, Patrick’s sister, who composed it. Secundinus was his Roman name, but the Irish called him Sechnall. Domnach Sechnaill (now Dunshaughlin) was the place; and the time of its composition was the reign of Laeghaire, son of Niall. Its purpose was to praise Patrick, and also, it would seem, to appease him. For Patrick had heard how Secundinus had remarked that “he (Patrick) is a good man, were it not for one thing, that he preached charity so little;” and hearing it, Patrick was angered. “It is for charity’s sake I do not preach it, for the saints after me will need men’s gifts and service, and therefore I do not ask them,” said Patrick. The Hymn attained its object, for Patrick ‘made peace with his nephew’ when he heard it. ‘This was the first Hymn made in Ireland.’ ‘It was composed in the order of the alphabet’—that is, the first letter of each stanza in succession followed the order of the alphabet. There are twenty-three stanzas, with four lines in each stanza, and fifteen syllables in each line. There are, the writer adds, three words in it ‘without meaning,’ that is, introduced merely for the sake of the rhyme.

When Sechnall had composed his Hymn he went to read it for Patrick, merely saying that he had made a eulogy for a certain Son of Life, which he wished him to hear. “The praise of God’s household is welcome to me,” said Patrick. Then Sechnall began with the second stanza—omitting the first, in which Patrick’s name is mentioned—and proceeded to read through the Hymn. Stopping him, however, at the lines:

Maximus namque in regno cœlorum vocabitur

Qui quod verbis docet sacris factis adimplet bonis,

and walking further on, Patrick said to Sechnall, “How can you call him ‘Maximus in regno cœlorum?’ How can a mere creature be the ‘greatest?’ ”—for he well knew the Gospel only calls him “great.”

“Oh, the superlative,” replied Sechnall, “is there put for the positive, and only means ‘very great.’ ” It was, however, the rhythm and not the meaning that needed a word of three syllables. Then when the Hymn was finished, Sechnall claimed from Patrick the Bard’s usual reward, thereby giving him to understand—what the Hymn itself showed—that Patrick himself was the ‘Son of Life’ who was eulogised.

“Thou shalt have it,” said Patrick; “as many sinners shall go to heaven because of (reading) this Hymn as there are hairs on thy cowl.”

“I will not be content with that,” said Sechnall.

“Then whoever will recite it lying down and rising up will go to heaven.”

“I will not be content with that,” said Sechnall, “for the Hymn is long, and it will be hard to remember it.”

“Then its efficacy or grace shall be on the three last stanzas.”

“Deo gratias,” said Sechnall. “I am now content.”

The Preface in the Lebar Brecc, besides giving a sketch of St. Patrick’s history, adds very much to the plain tale given before, and seems to contain unauthentic and later additions. Patrick is represented as going to Sechnall in great wrath when he heard of the latter’s observation about his not preaching charity as he might. Sechnall, hearing of his coming, or seeing him approach, left the oblation at the altar just before Communion, ‘to kneel to Patrick’ by way of apology; but Patrick, still in wrath, went to drive his chariot over Sechnall, when God raised the ground around him on either side, so that Sechnall was not hurt! Then followed the explanation of his not preaching charity given above, and a mutual reconciliation.

It is evident the Scholiast here indulges his fancy in a very curious fashion, whilst borrowing the substance of the tale from other incidents recorded in the Life of St. Patrick, to which we have referred elsewhere. We have discussed in another place the question of the parentage of Sechnall, especially the strange statement of the Scholiast, that his father Restitutus was of the Lombards of Letha.

Letha is commonly taken to mean Italy, or, in a more restricted sense, Latium; and this statement would seem to imply that the Lombards, or some of them, had settled there before the end of the fourth century, whereas it is certain that they did not obtain a settlement in Italy before the middle of the sixth century—the exact year commonly given being A.D. 568.

But does Letha mean Latium or Italy? Todd has discussed the question at some length without coming to any definite conclusion. Our own view is that Letha means not Italia, but Gallia or Gaul, especially Celtic Gaul, which, as we know from Caesar, extended from the Garonne to the Seine, and from the ocean on the west to the Cevennes range, which separated Celtic Gaul from what was then known as the ‘Provincia’—a name still retained in the modern Provence. The Lombards certainly crossed the Rhine and settled in parts of Gaul long before they were established in Italy, and a family or colony of them might have established themselves in Tours or Armorica, and have there met with relatives of St. Patrick’s family. This would explain how it came to pass that a sister of Patrick, staying with her own family or relations in Celtic Gaul, might have met and married there a Lombard of Letha—that is, a Lombard settled in Gaul.

It is unfortunate that Sechnall, in this poetic eulogy of St. Patrick, gives us no definite facts regarding the life of his holy uncle, confining himself to a general description of his labours and his virtues. From this point of view the Hymn is valuable, but otherwise it contains nothing noteworthy.

After describing in a general way the holiness of Patrick’s life, and his divine mission to preach the Gospel to the barbarous clans of Ireland, Sechnall describes his most striking and characteristic virtues—his humility, which glories only in the Cross; his zeal in preaching the Gospel, and feeding the flock intrusted to his care; his chastity, which keeps his flesh a holy temple of the Spirit of God; his preaching, which holds up the lamp of the Gospel to the whole world; his saintly life, which fulfils in act what he teaches by word; his utter contempt of worldly fame and perishable goods, which he esteems mere chaff; his love of Sacred Scripture, of constant prayer, of the daily Sacrifice, of the Divine Office, with all the other characteristic virtues of a saintly bishop and evangelist.

It has been noticed by Stokes that there is no reference to the Roman Mission in this Hymn. Why, indeed, should there be? It was a poetic eulogy of a living man, praising his virtues, but not recording a single fact of his life, as they were all known to his audience. No reference to his birthplace, to his captivity, to his parents, to his teaching, to Germanus, or to Gaul, or to any other extrinsic facts. Why, then, should the writer go out of his way to say that Patrick was sent by the Pope to preach in Ireland? Everyone knew it; no one denied it. Who, even now, in preaching the eulogy of a Catholic bishop, living or dead, says that he was appointed by the Pope? It would be altogether superfluous; everyone knows it. He says that Patrick had a divine mission; that God sent him to preach in Ireland, just as we now say of any other prelate that it was God who placed him over his flock; but in the case of Patrick it was well to emphasise the fact, because his mission was extraordinary; that is, it was the outcome of a special divine command, questioned by some, but emphatically asserted by Patrick himself.

Neither does this Hymn record any miracles of St. Patrick. It is unusual, certainly, to recount any saint’s miracles during his life, and least of all to his face; but the Scholiast in the Lebar Brecc has some of his own to tell in connection with the Hymn. Not content with the promise that its recital, morning and evening, would secure the salvation of Patrick’s pious clients, he adds that Patrick also said that “wherein this Hymn shall be sung before dinner, scarcity of food shall not be there,” and also that “the new house in which it shall be sung first of all, a watching or vigil of Ireland’s saints will be round it,” as was revealed to Colman Elo and Coemghen (Kevin) and other holy men during the recital of this Hymn, for Patrick and his disciples appeared to them as they recited it. Having promises of such efficacy annexed to its recital it is no wonder the Hymn became a popular devotion, and one of the ‘Four Honours of St. Patrick’—Hymnum ejus per totum tempus in solemnitate dormitionis ejus cantare—that is, it was constantly sung on the 16th, 17th, and 18th of March, for the solemnity was celebrated for three days—the vigil, the feast, and the day after.






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