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The Life And Writings Of Saint Patrick -Saint Patrick

HOW Patrick spent his childhood and youth in his father’s home on the banks of the Clyde we have no means of knowing. We are not told how he was educated, who were his teachers, his companions, or his counsellors. We might infer from the fact that his father was a deacon that the boy was carefully trained in Christian virtue as well as in Christian knowledge, even from his earliest years. We are told also in several of the Lives that he was not only a docile and obedient youth, growing daily in grace and favour before God and men, but that he was consciously or unconsciously the author or instrument of performing many wonderful miracles almost from his very birth. Stories of this kind are very common in the lives of all our Irish saints, and there is a family likeness about them, accompanied sometimes by a certain puerility, which renders them extremely suspicious. Still, in the case of St. Patrick we cannot altogether pass them over.

If we may credit several of the Lives, there was no part of his career more supernatural than his childhood. No doubt he was predestined by God, like the prophet Jeremias, from his mother’s womb, to do marvellous things for the promotion of his Master’s glory. Still the account which he himself gives of his early youth is so inconsistent with the wondrous miracles which he is said to have worked during this period, that we think it best to place the two accounts in sharp contrast to each other, leaving our readers to form their own conclusions as to the credibility of the marvellous statements recorded in the Lives.

In the opening paragraphs of the Confession, St. Patrick thus speaks of himself during the period preceding his captivity:—

“I was then,” he says, “nearly sixteen years of age. I was ignorant of the true God; and with several thousand persons I was carried into captivity in Ireland, as we deserved, for we had departed from God, and had not kept His commandments, and we were not obedient to our priests, when they admonished us concerning our salvation. Then the Lord brought upon us the chastisement of His wrath; and He scattered us through many nations, even to the ends of the earth (that is Ireland), where now it has been allotted to my littleness to dwell amongst strangers. And there the Lord opened my unbelieving mind (sensum incredulitatis meae), so that I remembered my sins, and I was converted with my whole heart to the Lord, who had regard to my humility, and took pity on my youth and on my ignorance, and guarded me before I came to know Him, and knew how to distinguish between good and evil; moreover, He defended me and pitied me, as the father pities a son.”

This is an exact rendering of the Latin of St. Patrick, which it is not always easy to translate and explain. Now, making all due allowance for the humility of a saint, and for that exaggeration of their own faults in which saints are wont to indulge, we think it is clear that in his own estimation Patrick and his companions were guilty of some rather serious faults; that they were not well instructed in the knowledge of God and of the law of God; that they were indifferent to the admonitions of the clergy, and set small store on the importance of securing their eternal salvation. The Saint declares, moreover, that they were justly punished for these sins, and he is, at the same time, grateful to God for a captivity which opened their eyes to their sinful state, and caused them to have recourse to God, their merciful Father and protector.

Here the Saint paints in vivid colours the spiritual destitution of himself and his fellow-captives in language which, we think, it is impossible to reconcile with a boyhood spent in holiness and abounding in manifestations of supernatural power, such as the biographers of the Saint would attribute to him. If we are to believe his own account, young Patrick was a rather ignorant and wayward boy, caring little for his soul’s welfare, until his captivity opened his eyes and softened his heart. It is true, indeed, the biographers, even when describing his miracles, were not ignorant of these words of the Saint; but they regarded him as describing not his own case so much as the state of others who shared his captivity, and with whom, in his humility, he identifies himself, They call special attention also to that sentence in which the Saint tells how God pitied his youth and his ignorance, shielding, defending, and consoling him as a father consoles his son. In our opinion, however, these sentences refer to the spiritual awakening which was brought about by his captivity, rather than to the state of his soul before that most important and most merciful event.

With these words before their minds, our readers will now be able to judge whether the miracles narrated by his biographers as occurring during these early years can be accepted as genuine or not. It is certainly very hard to reconcile them with a belief on Patrick’s part that he was ever the instrument of working miracles in his boyhood.

It is remarkable that all the early Lives given by Colgan, except that of Fiacc, narrate the same miracles, and in substantially the same words, as performed by St. Patrick, during the years of his youth. In all they number twelve, more or less, and cannot be passed over without some reference in any full Life of the Saint.

Three prodigies are stated to have occurred at the baptism of the child. There was, it seems, no priest near at hand to baptise the infant, so he was carried to a blind, flat-faced hermit called Gornias, who dwelt in the neighbourhood, that he might baptise the child. This man had a great reputation for sanctity, but he had neither sight to read nor water to baptise. Thereupon, taking the hand of the infant in his own, he formed the sign of the cross with it on the ground, when lo! a stream of water at once burst forth, with which he first washed his face, and found his sight thereupon restored; then taking the book he read out the Order of Baptism, although he had been blind from his birth, and thus baptised the child in that miraculous stream. A church, in the form of a cross, was afterwards built over that fountain, and the well itself might be seen near the altar, ‘as the learned say.’ The place where the church was built was not far from the place where the child was born, and where the wonderful flag was to be seen on which he was first laid. “It is still held in great honour,” says the author of the Third Life, “on account of perjurers. For the perjurers, when they swore upon it, saw it grow moist, as if it bewailed their crimes with tears, but if the accused swear the truth it remains in its natural state.”

Here, indeed, we have four miracles—that of the sweating flag, which was a standing marvel; and then the miraculous fountain; the recovery of his sight by the blind man, Gornias; and his reading letters that he never knew, as he was blind from his birth. In some of the Lives he is even said to have been a priest, no doubt because he undertook to baptise; but in the other Lives he is described, not as a priest, but as a holy hermit.

It is also said that the old church of Kilpatrick, close to the Clyde, about three miles east of Dunbarton, was the scene of these wonderful events. We went carefully over the ground. The existing church is not a very ancient building, but it is surrounded by a large churchyard in which there are some tombs dating from the sixteenth century. There is no doubt that it is built on the site of an earlier church dedicated to our Saint, which gave its name to the place. We could find no traces of St. Patrick’s flag, and we believe that it was not there, but somewhere near Dunbarton, although now it is not to be found in that incredulous land. We inquired carefully for the well. At first we could find no trace of it; but presently we met an old woman, who pointed out the spot where ‘St. Patrick’s well used to be.’ She had often carried water from it herself, ‘and very good water it was’; but some nine or ten years ago the local authority of Kilpatrick closed up the well, which was already half filled with rubbish, so that now nothing remains to mark the spot except a few stones of the wall that once surrounded it, rising still above the surface, and the few venerable trees that kept its holy waters cool beneath their shade even in the hottest summer. It is the other side of the road just opposite the churchyard; and it is not improbable that the old church was built on the very spot, or perhaps the ancient fountain moved away from the church, as sometimes happens. But one thing is clear, that the good people of Kilpatrick have small reverence for blessed wells, or even for the saint who gave his name to their town, for otherwise they surely would never allow St. Patrick’s Well to be filled with rubbish on the very margin of the highway, at the very gate of their ancient church. We almost regretted that the truth of history compelled us to seek for traces of the birthplace of our national Apostle in a place where his name and memory are so little reverenced.

We are told in all the Lives that the child was called Succat at his baptism. It is not a saint’s name, but was doubtless a favourite name with the Britons of Dunbarton, for we are told by the Scholiast on Fiacc that the name in the British tongue signifies “brave in war”—Su signifying ‘brave,’ and cat ‘war.’ In Gaelic cath certainly signifies a battle, whatever be the meaning of the first part of the compound. He also adds that Cothrige was Patrick’s name in bondage in Ireland, because he served four masters; that Magonius was his name whilst studying under Germanus, because he was doing more—magis agens—than the other monks; and that he received the name of Patricius from Pope Celestine in Rome. All his biographers refer to those four names of Patrick, although their origin seems rather fanciful.






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