In my mind I could still hear the old priest reading from the Scriptures. “Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?”
I thought little of these words at the time. Like many of the others of my age, I was too caught up in the world as it is to give much thought to the world to come. I cared little for the things of God; indeed, I had forsaken Him. To me, His commandments were burdensome and unnecessary. His priests were no more than the spoilers of my sport, and just as I did not see the kindness and patience of God toward me, I did not see that the old man who spoke to his flock of God’s kingdom did so because he loved us.
And then, like so many others, I was taken.
I remember only a few details of when the Irish slavers first captured me. All of us had been laughing and enjoying a rare cloudless day when they came. There was no fighting them. The Roman Legions had left our island years before, and the only defenses that remained were the small militias we could muster; but the raiders struck so quickly that these were of little help. I was captured, then tied to others, then led to their ship, and then across the Irish Sea to what would be my home for six years.
How quickly my life became a walking parable! I, Patrick, who had been a slave to sin, was now a slave to men, forced to do work for which my only recompense was scant sustenance. I served my new master well; what else could I do? From my first day as a slave I tended my master’s sheep; six years I continued in forest and mountain, in all kinds of weather, caring for another man’s flock.
All the while I prayed. Sometimes I would pray a hundred prayers a day; sometimes I would pray all night, until, in the morning, both the ground about me and the cloak drawn across my shoulders were covered in frost. I couldn’t have imagined, wasting my life on lesser things back in Britannia, that here in the Irish wilderness, my freedom taken from me, I would find in Christ what it was to be truly free. It was good for me that I was so afflicted, for my affliction led me heavenward. The God I had forsaken had not forsaken me.
My Companion, my Lord, was always with me. I knew He was present, and often He brought to mind the things I had long forgotten, things my father or our priest had said about following Christ. Often, I would hear His Word in my mind, and it was more precious to me then than all the riches of Rome. I lamented only that I could not remember more! But then, God spoke a Word I had not heart before.
One night, as I lay sleeping, I heard a voice speaking. I saw no figure, no vision in the night. But, like Elijah, I heard a whisper. “Soon you will return to your own country.”
I woke. But the whisper did not cease playing and replaying in my mind. Could it be true? Was this You, O Lord? The Apostle told us to pray without ceasing. How ceaseless were my prayers the following week! I hardly breathed without uttering my sincere hope that what I had heard in my dream was indeed the voice of my God.
I was not to wait long for confirmation. A few days after this dream I had another. The same whisper spoke to me, “Your ship is waiting. Go.” When I rose from my sleep, I knew that I must obey. The journey would be difficult. The ship He had shown me was some two hundred miles from where I was. But, I trusted Him. I knew that He had loved me even before I knew Him, before I loved Him. He Who had not forsaken me, would not forsake me.
I left my master without his knowledge. The Lord was my Master now, and I knew I must obey God rather than man. But as I left in the twilight, the sheep stirred. Even as I made my way over the first hill and they could no longer be seen, I heard them bleating. A tear warmed my cold cheek. How affecting is the cry of the sheep who have no shepherd!
But where my Lord called, there I would go. I found my ship waiting where He had said, and though the captain refused me at first, my Captain softened his heart and they brought me aboard.
I returned home, no longer the man I was. But it would not be long before I dreamed yet another dream from the Lord. In my dream I heard the cry of sheep without a shepherd, a people dwelling in darkness and crying for the light. I knew them. I had seen them before, heard their voices. In Ireland.
Where my Lord called, there I would go.
There have been many myths that have built up around the historical Patrick, Bishop of Ireland. However, the true story is one of a loving pastor who, being freed from slavery in Ireland, one day returned to the place of his slavery in order to share the gospel of Jesus Christ with those enslaved to sin. We have only two works by Patrick – his Confession and his Epistle to Coroticus. The tale I related above is a dramatized account of his own testimony in his Confession. Of course, the Feast of St. Patrick occurs this month in the liturgical calendar, but St. Patrick’s Day, like many of our holidays, has become something completely different than what it was originally. This 17 March, perhaps we can instead set apart some time and meditate on God’s gracious working in and through the life of Patrick of Ireland.