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The Life And Writings Of Saint Patrick -Saint Patrick

“And so once more,” says the Saint, “after several years I found myself at home with my parents (or perhaps relations) who received me as a son and earnestly besought me, after all the trials I had undergone, never to leave them again.” It was an affectionate and not unreasonable request. But a higher messenger came to him and made known the divine will, which Patrick was resolved to carry out.

We cannot understand the career of St. Patrick, or interpret his language in the Confession, if we do not assume as confidently as he himself did the supernatural character of the revelations that were made to him by his guardian angel, Victor, or Victoricus, as he calls him. Again and again, both in the Old Testament and the New, we read of God sending his Angels to guide, to instruct, to protect, and to deliver from danger his chosen servants. We have in the angel that guided and instructed the young Tobias an exact counterpart of the dealings which Victoricus had with St. Patrick. He himself assures us again and again that this angel manifested the divine will to him in various ways. The mission of Patrick was almost as important, and its fruit has been as abiding, as in the case of any of the Apostles themselves, for truly he was a great Apostle. No christian, therefore, who recognises the presence of the Holy Spirit of God in His Church at all times can consistently question the supernatural character of these manifestations, when it is asserted so emphatically by that great Apostle himself. It would be almost as absurd in such a case to say that St. Patrick was deceived as that he was a deliberate deceiver. Such a man with such a mission could have been neither one nor the other.

The account which he gives us of the first momentous message that stirred his soul in Britain is full of pathetic interest, and can never be forgotten in Ireland.

Whilst there (with my relations in Britain) at midnight I saw a man whose name was Victoricus, coming as if from Ireland with letters innumerable, and he handed one of them to me, and I read the heading of the letter, which contained these words—THE VOICE OF IRISH. And, as I read the beginning of the letter, methought I heard in my mind the voice of those who were near the Wood of Focluth, which is by the western sea, and it was thus they cried out: “We beseech thee, holy youth, come and once more walk amongst us.” And I was greatly touched in my heart, so that I could read no more; and thereupon I awoke.

‘Thanks be to God,’ he adds—‘that after so many years the Lord granted them the fulfilment of that strong cry’—that is, by bringing him back to Ireland to preach the Gospel to the people of Focluth Wood by the far off western sea. This was the first vision that, as he tells us, stirred his heart so deeply that he could not read the letter from Ireland, but only its heading. Strikingly it reminds us of that mentioned in Acts 16:9, when “a vision was shown to Paul in the night, which was a man of Macedonia standing and beseeching him and saying, ‘Pass over into Macedonia and help us.’ ”

It would appear from the narrative that at first Patrick had some doubts as to whether the vision should be regarded as supernatural or not, but his doubts were soon set at rest, “for on another night,” he says, “but whether within me or without me I know not, God knows, in the clearest words, which I heard but could not understand until the end, a voice addressed me (effatus est)—‘He who gave His life for thee He it is who speaks in thee.’ And thereupon I awoke full of joy.” The Saint appears to imply that when he heard the words first he did not realise their full significance, but when he awoke and realised their meaning then his heart was full of joy. Thenceforward he had no doubt that it was the Spirit of God that spoke within him.

Once more—that is, a third time—he had another vision which confirmed the reality and supernatural character of the two previous visions.

“I saw,” he says, “within me Him who prayed, and I heard Him that is within the interior man, and there He strongly prayed with groaning. And thereupon I was amazed and wondered, and thought in myself who it was who thus prayed within me. But at the end of the prayer He announced that He is the Spirit. And thereupon I awoke and remembered the Apostle saying, ‘The Spirit aids the infirmity of our prayer. For what we should pray for as we ought we know not; but the Spirit Himself asketh for us with unspeakable groanings’—which cannot be expressed by words. And, again, ‘the Lord, our Advocate, asketh for us.’ ”

These visions, therefore, coming, as he was assured, from the Holy Spirit, convinced him that he had a divine call to preach the Gospel in Ireland, which he dare not disobey.

It is important to bear this in mind, for St. Patrick’s main purpose in the Confession seems to be the assertion of his extraordinary supernatural mission to preach the Gospel in Ireland.

The next passage in the Confession, regarding certain charges brought against him at a later period, though omitted from some MSS., we hold to be clearly genuine. For it is in the same peculiar style of Latinity, and, moreover, we can well understand why it would be omitted from some MSS., lest it might seem to militate against the honour of the Apostle; but we can conceive no reason why a falsifier should have inserted it. The wording is obscure and uncertain, but its general drift is unmistakable. It is a further argument that the Apostle had what he emphatically claimed, an immediate supernatural call to preach the Gospel in Ireland:—

“And when,” he says, “I was tempted by some few of my elders, who, on account of my sins, went in opposition to my undertaking this laborious episcopate (in Ireland), assuredly on that day I was strongly driven towards falling away (by opposing the will of God) both in this world and for evermore. But the Lord, for His namesake, had mercy on me, a stranger and proselyte, and greatly aided me in that humiliation, so as not to allow me to become a stain and an opprobrium. I pray God that it may, not be imputed to them as an occasion of sin; for, after thirty years they found me, and brought against me a word which I had confessed before I became a deacon. At that time, on account of anxiety of mind, in great sorrow I confided to a very dear friend some things I had done one day in my boyhood—nay, it was in one hour, for I was not yet strong in spirit. I know not, God knows, if I was then quite fifteen years, and I had not from my childhood a practical belief in one God, but in death and infidelity I remained until I was greatly chastised, and humbled by cold and hunger. And daily with reluctance I tarried in Ireland until I was almost fainting away. But this was all rather for my good, for from that time I was corrected by the Lord, and He prepared me to be today what was once far from me, a person who would care for and labour for the salvation of others, whereas at that time I did not even think of my own.

“Well then, on that day on which I was objected to by the aforesaid elders, at night I saw in a vision of the night a writing was written against me without honour—[that is, to dishonour him]—and thereupon I heard a voice saying to me, we look with disapproval on the face of thy accuser—the person above referred to—disclosing his name”—which Patrick did not wish to mention. “He did not say, you have disapproved, but we have disapproved—as if He joined Himself to me and said, who touches you touches the apple of My eye.

“Wherefore I give thanks to Him who, in all things, hath strengthened me so that no one could prevent me from undertaking the mission on which I had resolved, and from taking that share in the work which I had learned from Christ my Lord. Nay more, from that day I perceived no small power in myself; and my fidelity hath been approved both by God and men.”

The whole of this passage is, as we have said, somewhat obscure, and has been often and gravely misunderstood. The meaning, however, appears to us clear enough. The Saint had referred to three supernatural manifestations of God’s will in his regard urging him to prepare himself for the mission in Ireland. Here he refers to a fourth, which took place, however, later on in his life, and probably when he was about to be consecrated Bishop in France for the Irish Mission. Some persons, whose names he carefully conceals, opposed his consecration, and the opposition went far to induce him to renounce his project to the peril of his own soul. Amongst other charges brought against him was some fault or sin which, thirty years before, when about to become a deacon, he had made known in confidence to a very great friend. It was a sin committed not then, but at the age of fifteen, before he became a captive, and whilst he was still ignorant of God. It was indeed a hard thing to reveal it thirty years after its confidential manifestation, and some forty-five years after its commission. But God comforted him in that great extremity by showing him in vision the charge written against him, and at the same time saying, we disapprove of the action of the accuser—naming him at the same time. This vision gave new courage to Patrick, and was a new proof of a divine mission to preach the Gospel in Ireland.

Todd has gravely misunderstood this passage of the Confession, and based an argument on his own error. He says that a fault “which he had committed at the age of 15 was brought forward and objected to him by his friends 30 years afterwards, with a view to prevent his being consecrated a bishop, and to obstruct his design of devoting himself to the Irish Mission;” whence he infers that Patrick was 45 years old at the time of his consecration as bishop.

But what St. Patrick says in the Confession is not that the fault was objected to him 30 years after its commission, but 30 years after his confiding it to his friend in anxiety of mind, when he was about to become a deacon. At that time the regular age for receiving deaconship was at least 25 years, and in his case it was probably 30, so that it is in reality a new proof that Patrick was 60 years of age when he was consecrated Bishop, in immediate preparation for the Irish Mission. The point is a very important one.

The next passage, too, is a rather intricate, and closely connected with the other. St. Patrick, comforted by the Divine visions he had received, says:—

Wherefore, I confidently say that (in undertaking the Irish Mission) my conscience does not upbraid me now, nor will it hereafter. I call God to witness that I have not spoken falsely in all I have stated. Nay, I rather grieve for my most intimate friend that I deserved to hear such a Divine answer (responsum). For I intrusted my soul to him. Yet I discovered it—(that is his manifestation of my fault)—from some of the brothers before putting forward my own defence, because I was not present at the time (the charge was made), nor was I even in Britain, nor was I in any way the cause that he should thus strike at me in my absence. Nay, he himself had said with his own lips, “you are to be promoted to the rank of Bishop,” of which indeed I was unworthy. But how was it that he should publicly, before good and bad men, dishonour me in regard to that of which he had of his own accord and quite willingly declared me not to be unworthy. But, God is above us all. I have said enough. Yet it is not fitting that I should conceal the gift of God which He has given me in the land of my captivity, where I sought Him and found Him; and He it is who has preserved me from all iniquity through His Holy Spirit, who, as I confidently believe, has worked in me up to the present day. Daringly again I speak, but God knows if that man had spoken this to me myself, in all probability I would have held my peace, and borne it in silence in the charity of Christ.

The whole passage is obscure, and the Latin is intricate and unusual, we may say intentionally so in this case. But in substance it is this. The law of the Church required then, as it does now, that all candidates for Orders—especially for the higher grades of the Ministry—should have good testimony from those around them. Hence it was usual not only to make careful inquiries regarding the merits of the candidate in the place where he was to be ordained, but also to get official letters after careful inquiry from the places of his sojourn, especially if it were a prolonged one.

When St. Patrick was about to be consecrated Bishop such inquiries were duly made in Britain, where he had dwelt for many years, and it was then and there, it seems, that some person objected to his promotion on the ground of a fault told to that person in confidence, and with a view to quiet his own scruples thirty years before, when he was about to become a deacon, but committed when Patrick himself was only about fifteen years of age, that is just before his captivity in Ireland. Yet neither then nor afterwards did that man raise any objection to Patrick’s promotion. He went further and said, “You will one day be promoted to the episcopate.” But, nevertheless, when Patrick was absent, he made that charge publicly against him, which greatly grieved Patrick, and was certainly one of the reasons why this Confession was written. This was the best proof of God’s call, and his own fitness through the Holy Ghost, that he converted the whole Irish people to the Christian faith—which Patrick distinctly asserts, but not without many apologies for speaking so strongly, giving at the same time all the glory and all the thanks to God. It reminds us of the defence of his own conduct and of his apostolate which St. Paul found it necessary to write more than once, but especially in the Second Epistle to the Corinthians, when he was unjustly assailed by false brethren in the ministry, just as Patrick was in somewhat similar circumstances and from the same motives—jealousy and disappointed ambition.

Here we get incidentally, as it were, a picture of the state of mind in which St. Patrick was before he went to Gaul. The voice of God was calling him, and the Angel of God was beckoning him onward to prepare for the great work of converting the Irish people. The call of the children from Focluth Wood by the western sea was ringing in his ears; but his mind was anxious, and his pure conscience was very scrupulous as to his fitness to become even a deacon, on account of the fault which he had committed in his boyish ignorance before he was fifteen years of age, He sought counsel and got it from his most intimate friend, who told him, so far as we can judge, that he might with a safe conscience become a deacon. And perhaps he did then become a deacon about the age of thirty and before his departure for France, although the time and place are by no means certain. His friends were still anxious to keep him at home, but the voice of God called him away, and so, yielding to the divine guidance, he resolved to prepare himself for the great task before him.

A man at that time might be a deacon with little knowledge of Theology or Sacred Scripture, for it was purely a ministerial office, and did not necessarily imply either great knowledge or further progress towards the priesthood. St. Patrick’s father appears to have remained a deacon all his life, doing good work in the Church, but leaving to others the ministry of the Word, and the conferring of the Sacraments. But a deacon’s training would not suffice for the Irish mission. He must get divine knowledge, and official authority to preach the Gospel in Ireland—and so he resolved to set out to visit and honour the Apostolic See, the head of all the Churches of the whole world, in order that in wisdom he might learn and understand and fulfil the divine and holy functions to which God had called him—namely, to preach and bestow divine grace on the stranger tribes (of Ireland), by converting them to the faith of Christ.

Whether St. Patrick actually visited the Apostolic See or not, and received therefrom his commission, there can be no question that such was his avowed object in crossing the sea to Gaul and Italy. It is expressly stated in the oldest book we have—the Book of Armagh—and the statement is confirmed by all the Ancient Lives of the Saint without exception.

But, as to the route he followed there is considerable difference of opinion. Muirchu’s narrative in the Book of Armagh takes him right across the southern British or Iccian Sea, with the purpose of crossing—ut in corde proposuerat—the Gallic Alps at their extremity, and so making his way to that city which he regarded as ‘the head of all the Churches of the whole world,’ at once the supreme seat of learning and of authority. But meeting St. Germanus of Auxerre, a great and holy prelate, he remained with him for a long time in all subjection, patience, and obedience, a virgin in mind and body, drinking in from the instruction and example of his great teachers not only divine wisdom, but chastity, and God’s holy fear in all simplicity and fervour of heart.

It is clear, however, from the fuller accounts given in the other Lives of our Saint, that Muirchu here merely sums up the outcome of St. Patrick’s tuition under Germanus, whom he justly designates as his chief master, and God’s best gift to him. If we are to look for a more detailed account of the thirty years that Patrick spent in Gaul we must go to other authorities, who do not, however, contradict the summary statement of Muirchu. So far as we can judge, Germanus was not a bishop, or even a monk, when Patrick went to Gaul about the year A.D. 400. He was then civil governor, and did not become a Bishop for some eighteen years afterwards. So that Patrick could not have gone to him at once.

The Tripartite makes substantially the same statement as Muirchu, that Patrick having crossed the Iccian Sea, or English Channel, went as far as the Alps and the southern part of Letha, and there met German, the most celebrated Bishop in Europe, under whom he read the ecclesiastical Canons, like Paul the Apostle at the feet of Gamaliel.

Afterwards, the Tripartite says, he went to Saint Martin at Tours that he might get the monastic tonsure, and there he entirely renounced all wordly cares and pleasures, giving himself entirely to the service of God in the monastic state. The Third Life makes a similar statement, but the Second and Fourth Lives make no reference to this visit to St. Martin.

Probus, however, in the Fifth Life breaks new ground, and distinctly states that Patrick, escaping from captivity in Ireland, was sold as a slave in Meath to certain men of Gaul, who carried him to Bordeaux, and afterwards to Trajectum, where he escaped from his captors, and succeeded in making his way to his relative, the great Saint Martin of Tours.

The question, therefore, is—whom did St. Patrick first visit in Gaul: St. German or St. Martin? In our opinion the dates compel us to assume that Patrick first went to visit St. Martin of Tours, whether the monastery or the man, or both, is a secondary consideration. For it is said in the Lives that he left Britain when approaching the thirtieth year of his age, that is to say about the year A.D. 402. But that is the year in which, at the latest, St. Martin died. Consequently, if Patrick intended to see his holy relative alive, his first visit must have been to Tours, for, next year, all France knew that the great Saint was dead.

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