Sometimes we get so engrossed in the fun a holiday brings, we forget the real meaning behind it. I think St. Patrick’s Day has to be one of the most unknown, misrepresented holidays out there! Yes – there is a story behind it, a true story, and a very important one that changed the course of history. It’s worth bringing to light and sharing with others because its message, even though delivered long ago in Ireland, is timeless.
Thomas Cahill is the author of the book How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe. He tells how Patrick and the Irish came at a crucial moment in history, helping to save civilization. Through the missionary work of Patrick (387-461), the gospel was brought to Ireland and numerous men became monks who meticulously copied manuscripts of the Bible and of many of the writings of antiquity.
In the 5th century, as the Roman Empire fell, and barbarians descended on the Roman cities, looting artifacts and burning books, the Irish, who were just learning to read and write, took up an enormous task – that of copying all of Western literature they had saved from destruction.
Says Cahill, “These scribes then served as conduits through which the Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian cultures were transmitted to the tribes of Europe, newly settled amid the rubble and ruined vineyards of the civilization they had overwhelmed.”
“Without this Service of the Scribes,” Cahill adds, “everything that happened subsequently would have been unthinkable. Without the Mission of the Irish Monks, who single-handedly refounded European civilization throughout the continent in the bays and valleys of their exile, the world that came after them would have been an entirely different one, a world without books. And our own world would never have come to be.”
The man at the center of all this was St. Patrick.
Patrick wrote a document late in his life called Confession. This was not a book of confessions of his sins, but rather a statement of his beliefs. Patrick was not Irish by birth, but rather grew up in England as a nominal Christian. He said in Confession, “I did not know the true God.”
At the age of 16, marauding Irish pirates laid waste his city and captured slaves, including Patrick. Later he would write of this:
“As a youth, nay, almost as a boy not able to speak, I was taken captive, before I knew what to pursue and what to avoid.” Patrick said, “I was taken into captivity to Ireland with many thousands of people—and deservedly so, because we turned away from God, and did not keep His commandments.”
For six years, he worked as a slave for a landowning chief. Cahill notes that during this time, Patrick had two companions—hunger and nakedness. While he served as a shepherd, he remembered the prayers of his youth and came to know God through Christ. After six years of captivity, he was able to providentially escape from Ireland.
The late Dr. D. James Kennedy notes, “[Patrick] vowed revenge—the noble revenge of sharing the gospel with the people who held him captive. He believed that he had been called by God to return to the land of his slavery.”
So Patrick, after some theological training, eventually returned to Ireland where he spent the rest of his life, 30 years, as a missionary. Patrick may well have baptized about 120,000 souls. Some scholars note that he was the most successful missionary since the Apostle Paul.
Patrick wrote this, “Daily, I expect murder, fraud or captivity…but I fear none of these things because of the promises of heaven. I have cast myself into the hands of God almighty who rules everywhere.”
Patrick wrote a prayer, which has likely been adapted from the original. This beautiful statement of faith is called “St. Patrick’s Breastplate.”
Here is a portion of the prayer:
“The Day of the Festival of Patrick” is a cultural and religious holiday celebrated annually on the 17th of March, the death date of the most commonly recognized patron saint of Ireland, Saint Patrick, AD 385–461.
Take a few minutes to think about how your own world would be very different apart from this man of God. Perhaps a genuine prayer of thanks should be on tap!