Patrick and Providence: Lessons From the ‘Apostle of Ireland’ on Trusting God
How the life of the saint exemplifies reliance on the Almighty.
With all of this, it is easy to forget that the day actually commemorates an incredible saint, a man of flesh and blood, of weakness and sin, who nonetheless, through Christ’s grace, overcame all of that to live a life of holiness. And it was such a holy life that we and Catholics the world over honor his memory each and every year.
St. Patrick was great not because of the miracles he performed. He was great not because, by the time of his death, Ireland had gone from being pagan to Christian. These factors arose from what many find most impressive about him — and what made him truly great: his trust in God.
Captured by God
St. Patrick was born toward the middle of the fifth century into a family of Romanized Britons, probably in southwest England. His father was a deacon and town councilor, and the family was Christian, although the saint was not then fervent in his faith.
When Patrick was 16, pirates captured him and carried him over the short Irish Sea to Ireland, where they sold him into slavery. For the next six years, he tended his master’s sheep. And it was in this sad period of his life that he discovered God anew.
He penned a prayer in his captivity: “The love of God and his fear grew in me more and more, as did the faith, and my soul was roused, so that, in a single day, I have said as many as a hundred prayers and in the night nearly the same. ... I prayed in the woods and on the mountain, even before dawn. I felt no hurt from the snow or ice or rain.”
In a dream, God sent a messenger to tell Patrick a ship awaited him on the shore to take him home to his family. He did not know the location of the ship but was ready to trust that God would lead him to it. Indeed, the craft was anchored offshore 200 miles away. As he undertook his blind journey to this ship, his trust in God’s providence was so strong that he later wrote in his famous Confessio, “I feared nothing while I was on the journey to that ship.” The ship went off course and drifted three days, finally depositing Patrick and its crew not in British homeland, but in France.
After a month residing across the channel, Patrick finally returned to his home and family, who understandably desired that he stay with them. However, ardor for God now consumed his heart. So he returned to France, where he studied for the priesthood and ministered to the faithful for 21 years.
Then came another dream.
In this one, the Irish beseeched Patrick to return and evangelize them. He loathed this idea. And yet, through prayer, fasting, spiritual discernment and trust in God, he realized that return he must.
Upon arriving in Ireland, Patrick was “wise as a serpent and gentle as a dove.” He gave diplomatically strategic gifts to the non-believers he met, but accepted none in return. He took care not to offend the sensibilities of the ardent pagans, but he often offended them, nonetheless. (After all, to the profane, the Gospel is not an inoffensive thing.) The Irish religion was infused with nature, so he used God’s creation to teach, such as, legend has it, using the shamrock to visually demonstrate the three-in-one Holy Trinity.
And he worked miracles. Through the power of God, he raised people from the dead, even some who had been dead for many years, as recounted in Saints Who Raised the Dead: True Stories of 400 Resurrection Miracles by Marist Father Albert Hebert.
His greatest miracle, however, according to numerous historical sources, came before Ireland’s Ardh-Righ (“awww’rd ree”), the High King Laoghaire (“Layer”). Patrick wanted to impress Laoghaire because he was the door through which Patrick’s evangelization efforts would be most greatly eased or constricted. On the vigil of Easter, which coincided with a high pagan feast, the king prepared to light a sacred pagan fire atop Royal Hill at Tara, his principal residence. To kindle any other blaze before the lighting of that flame was illegal.
Standing atop Slane Hill leagues away, Patrick lit the paschal fire anyway, fearless of the consequences. Seeing this fire, Laoghaire and his soldiers rushed to extinguish the competing conflagration. Not only did they fail to quench this fire, but they witnessed many other miracles over the next day. Thus the king gave Patrick free reign to evangelize.
In God He Trusts
To accomplish these prodigious miracles, Patrick had to completely trust God. Indeed, he had a childlike confidence in God’s fatherhood. For Patrick was a man who had, in the words of Carmelite Father Christopher O’Donnell, “fallen in love with God,” and “he wanted nothing but what God wanted. God’s will was expressed for him in the very concrete terms of a mission in exile — so nothing else mattered.” He trusted God was a father who would always care for his children.
In his Confessio, Patrick writes, “And there the Lord opened my mind to an awareness of my unbelief, in order that, even so late, I might remember my transgressions and turn with all my heart to the Lord my God, who had regard for my insignificance and pitied my youth and ignorance. And he watched over me before I knew him, and before I learned sense or even distinguished between good and evil, and he protected me and consoled me as a father would his son.”
Thus, if a missionary effort led to success, the saint joyfully praised God. If it led to his imprisonment or another form of persecution, he joyfully praised God — all the while trusting God.
According to writer Whitney Hopler, “Patrick really expected God to answer his prayers, so he prayed with real trust and excited anticipation.”
St. Patrick has so much to teach us. Most especially, however, he demonstrates that to live our faith to the fullest, we must completely trust in God.
As he also wrote in his Confessio, “Whether I receive good or ill, I return thanks equally to God, who taught me always to trust him unreservedly.”