The life of Saint Patrick, the humble man from Britain who escaped Roman slavery and brought Christianity to Ireland in the fifth century, is celebrated annually on March 17. Despite Saint Patrick’s successful Christian missionary work and his designation as the primary patron saint of Ireland, the day we commemorate his life has become associated with wearing outrageous clothing, drinking pints of Guinness, and being excessively inebriated. Without taking away the joy and camaraderie that many people feel when they celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day, we should also remember Patrick’s admirable character by following his example and adhering to his moral teachings.
Saint Patrick was born in Roman-ruled Britain around the year 387 A.D. When he was 16 years old, he was captured by Irish slave traders and brought as a slave to neighboring Ireland, where he spent roughly six years in bondage before escaping and returning back to his home in Britain. Years afterwards, Saint Patrick decided to return to Ireland to preach the Gospel and convert the Irish to Christianity. His autobiography, “Confession,” can help us explore the details of his miraculous life, character and conduct.
Saint Patrick writes in “Confession” that he was, “first of all, countrified, an exile, evidently unlearned, one who is not able to see into the future.” By recalling his own experience as a bewildered foreigner in Ireland with little hope of surviving, Patrick showed his empathy for society’s less fortunate members, such as the poor, immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers, many of whom would lack the education as well as physical and financial ability to face problems like persecution and violence. On this Saint Patrick’s Day, we can pay tribute to Ireland’s patriot saint by being more friendly toward and tolerant of the more vulnerable members of society by extending our hands to them and offering help when we see people in need.
Prior to and during his enslavement, Saint Patrick was a “poor ignorant waif” who lacked the intellectual capability to perfect his “idiom and language” as some of his peers had done. His lack of formal education, however, did not stop him from seeking knowledge. He stressed that “wisdom shall be recognized in speech, and in understanding, and in knowledge and in the learning of truth.” Patrick’s life demonstrates that a lack of schooling does not make one intellectually inferior and that a lack of educational opportunities should not prevent one from seeking knowledge. Saint Patrick’s story confirms that a person can become learned by simply opening their mind and pondering the “truth” when it appears. We would be wise to follow his example by putting more effort into learning about current events and understanding differences among the people around us.
Despite his years as a slave, Saint Patrick never lost hope and never stopped growing spiritually. After persevering through “hunger and nakedness” in Ireland, Patrick believed that God rewarded him later in life “with so much favor with these people [the Irish], a thing which in the time of my [enslaved] youth I neither hoped for nor imagined.” Saint Patrick’s steadfastness throughout the tribulations of his life is an important reminder that our response to adversity and how we allow challenges to influence our character are more important than the challenges themselves.
In a similar way, Saint Patrick’s life teaches us to have faith in ourselves when we face the unknown. In “Confession,” Patrick wrote about his struggle to survive in escaping slavery through a mysterious and unpopulated country, all while having nothing to eat. Years later, after he was freed and reunited with his parents, Saint Patrick received a letter from an Irish man calling for him to return to Ireland. As a freedman, Patrick was not sure if he had the strength or courage to return to a dangerous land in which he had once toiled the land as a slave.
In defiance of his parents’ plea to stay in Britain and enjoy his freedom, Saint Patrick disobeyed them and voluntarily journeyed back to Ireland, well aware that this trip might be his last. He writes about how he weathered dangers in “the outermost regions beyond which no one lived, and where no one had ever penetrated before.” Patrick’s willingness to return to Ireland, a place where he had many enemies among the non-Christian population, teaches us the benefits of being courageous and going forward even when we are told not to do so, or when the odds are apparently stacked against us. Saint Patrick’s ability to embrace the unknown also teaches us the importance of having faith in our own abilities and strength when entering difficult circumstances.
Saint Patrick’s life also teaches us to take a stand against materialism. Upon his return to Ireland to spread Christianity, “many gifts were offered to [him] with weeping and tears,” but guided by God, Patrick rejected their gifts because he wanted to simply “come to the Irish people to preach the Gospel.” He writes that he safeguarded himself carefully against all earthly things, “so that they might not cheat [him] of his office of services on any pretext of dishonesty.” Similarly, Saint Patrick stressed the importance of being humble in all things, for “[s]ufficient is the honor which is not yet seen, but in which the heart has confidence.” Ultimately, he asked us to be unpretentious in all aspects of our lives and to stand against the lure of material wealth and the wanting of prestigious titles.
Amid the fanfare and elation on this Saint Patrick’s Day, we would be wise to honor the patron saint of Ireland by also adhering to his moral teachings and by personifying his exemplary character. We should remind ourselves that Saint Patrick’s curiosity, courage and humbleness can not only reinvigorate our own spirituality, but it can also help create a more modest and conscientious environment for all.