Grace Got Him on the Boat
The liturgical calendar is literally full of saints’ feast days, days appointed by the church to remember, reflect on and celebrate the lives of many who’ve gone before us, whose lives joined the testimony of the great cloud of witnesses encouraging us to pour everything out for the Lord’s glory. One day, one saint in particular, got his feast day hijacked by sons of immigrants having an identity crisis. Are we American? Are we Irish? We’re Irish. We're Irish in America. Let’s have a parade!
Fortunately, Patrick’s story is getting dusted off lately (this is due largely to the social justice bent in the nature of his testimony). At his core, he was a simple man who loved the Lord and cherished His Word. He was a bold apostle willing to go where, literally, no one else wanted to go. The Emerald Isle did not gleam in the eyes of the Roman Empire; in fact, the conquests of Caesars stopped at the Irish Sea. No one was interested in the barbarians who couldn’t read. They didn’t deserve the dignity of Roman civilization.
When we confuse nationalism with discipleship, we inevitably hoard the Gospel from those who need to hear it. The Irish needed to hear it, and they lived just across the Irish Sea—better considered a straight, even, as it isn’t very wide—in ignorance of Christ for longer than anyone can reasonably justify.
Then they kidnapped a kid. Irish pirates crossed the sea and kidnapped a bunch of Roman Brits, as they often did, and carted them back to Ireland to sell off on the auctioning block. The hero of this story, Patricius, was about fourteen years old and, by his own confession, a pagan son of a bishop.
While toiling on someone else’s farm, forced to produce someone else’s harvest, Patricius began to wonder if there was anything to the God of his father. The God of his grandfather. On some indiscriminate day, this young British boy called upon the name of the Lord. In some gloriously indiscriminate way, he came to saving faith and forged a life of prayer on the rolling hills of Ireland.
Eventually, some six years later, Patricius had a dream. The Lord essentially said to the young man, “Get out of bed and start walking towards the water. A ship will take you home.” It’s a longer story, but he rolled out of bed and eventually crossed the threshold of his parents’ door in Britain (likely southwestern Scotland). Understandably, his family begged him to never leave again. Patricius returned to his studies, all but crippled by illiteracy as his education had been aborted so early on. He trained for the priesthood, and became himself a bishop. It was then he had his second dream.
Victoricus stood before him, bearing a letter from the people of Ireland. The tongue he’d not heard for decades called to him: “Holy boy! Come and walk amongst us once more.” Walk amongst us. “Us” here referring to those who kidnapped him, abused him and stole his youth. Devastated his family. Exploited his adolescence. Robbed him of his strength. Those people. Those people who couldn’t read. The scum of the earth at the edge of the earth where no self-respecting individual would bother to even look at. He had a thriving ministry at home and was pushing the life expectancy for men of his day. Go back?
We can look back now and see the ministry he gave himself to, and the incredible fruit it bore (for one thing, he started something in the land of illiterates that effectively preserved literacy through the collapse of the Roman Empire and carried cultural artifacts through the Dark Ages). He baptized princesses and paupers alike. He challenged kings and told wicked men wearing tiny crowns to bow the knee to the Lord of Hosts. He dispatched teams of two throughout the island, mobilizing missionaries to reach every corner of the Emerald Isle. All of Ireland heard the Gospel. Much of Ireland responded.
Before the baptisms, before the fires, before the disciples, and before he boarded a west-bound ship, he sat at home and took stock of his life and ambitions and squared them up against the Scriptures. He said he had a long, long list of reasons not to go back to Ireland. A long list. In his own words, he “had no reason to go, save for the Gospel and God’s promises.”
Grace got a hold of this young man as he sank his sweat into someone else’s soil. Something about the Incarnate King arrested his heart, and he understood what it meant to love his enemies. He understood what it meant to give a living witness of the God who took on flesh and dwelt among the bloodthirsty lot who would later kill Him. He understood what it meant to stake his life on the goodness of the Father who resurrects the dead. And if God and His goodness be true, every reason to stay in Britain paled against the Lord of glory. The grace that saved him is the grace that sent him.
Patrick, Padraig, gave his life to Ireland to such an extent that we think he was Irish. The children of Irish immigrants to America claimed the feast day of their patron saint, got drunk, and threw a parade. We nearly forgot Patrick was a real man, and a real stranger to Ireland. We forgot his mother didn’t call him “Patrick.” We almost missed altogether the beautiful bottom line which compelled him to cross the sea and live amongst his dangerous enemies: grace. Wondrous, saving, extravagant grace.
Stephanie Quick is a writer and producer serving with Frontier Alliance International in the Middle East. She is the author of To Trace a Rising Sun and can be found on on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Sign up for her ministry updates here and receive a free copy of her book Confronting Unbelief. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.