The Fiery Apostle — Exploring the Myths around Saint Patrick

Myth 1

Myth 2. Was his name Patrick?

This is not to say that he never existed – just that Patrick was not in fact his birth name. He received it much later in life, and under tragic circumstances.

He was born into a well-to-do family, son of Calpurnius and his wife Conchessa. His parents named him Maewyn.

This was a family of Christians that belonged to the romanised Celtic elite. The Romans had brought to Britain Christianity and the Gospels, and many Roman soldiers and officers were Christian. Some of Patrick’s family were already members of the clergy. Patrick’s grandfather was a priest, and his father Calpurnius a deacon. Calpurnius was also a member of the town council and an aristocrat by birth.

One would imagine, then, that being born into a family such as this, Patrick would have spent his childhood in piety, contemplation and prayer. Yet, as he writes in his Confession, his life as a son of a deacon and a grandson of a priest was far removed from this ideal. As we read in Saint Patrick’s autobiography, “We had gone away from God and did not keep his commandments. We would not listen to our priests, who advised us about how we could be saved… My sins then prevented me from really taking in what I read.”

Outwardly, however, Saint Patrick had a good childhood and adolescence, at least from a secular perspective. He received domestic schooling together with his sisters at his father’s villa. Materially, he had a life that could compare to that of a child from an upper-middle-class family today. He lived in abundance and wealth with few spiritual ambitions. He seemed destined for the typical life of an aristocrat of his time, a well-to-do member of the ‘third estate’, just one tier below the Senators and Horsemen of the Roman Empire. He would have inherited the estate of his father and become a town official and local nobleman. He could have presided over the collection of taxes to the treasury of the Roman province of Britain and of the Roman empire itself. He would have made a fortune, had children and died a wealthy and well-fed man. He would not have performed great feats of asceticism, and instead would have lived his whole life in the comfort of his home and surrounded by a loving family. All of this was a possibility until Christ entered Saint Patrick’s measured life, dividing it into ‘before’ and ‘after’.

So Maewyn reached the age of sixteen leading a well-paced and trouble-free life. Yet, in 405, pirates raided the villa of his father Calpurnius. They had come from neighbouring Ireland. They ransacked the house and the surrounding lands and took the young man prisoner. At sixteen, Patrick got to know the horrors of captivity. Soon, he was sold into slavery and gave him a demeaning nickname to humiliate him. As we can imagine, whoever was selling Maewyn would have spared no words describing the richness of his father’s ransacked villa and the nobility of the young man’s descent. His owner decided to give him a new name. Ridiculing his noble descent, he named his young slave Patricius, meaning “Nobleman” in Latin.

In the years of his Irish captivity, not only did his name change, but he also underwent a fundamental transformation in the spirit. He became a believer, discovered God and God revealed Himself to him. Paradoxically, even after obtaining his freedom and reuniting with his parents, Patrick did not go back to his original name. Never again would he be called by a name that he received before his captivity. To the end of his days, he would bear the name of a slave, which reminded him of his days of humiliation, but also of the start of his conversion to Christ. Thus a nobleman by birth became Patrick in Christ.

For six long years, Patrick lived in Ireland as a slave. But for him, they were also the years of his spiritual growth and prayer. Eventually, Patrick made up his mind to escape.

He got on a boat that carried a load of the famous Irish wolfhounds. He arrived in Gallia where he stayed for some time until God appeared to him in 432 and commanded him to return to the land from which he had miraculously escaped. Patrick made the difficult decision to return, subjecting his will to the will of God. “God had long had his victory over me,” wrote Saint Patrick. The saint returned to bring the joy of the Gospel to a land where he had suffered great paint. From that day on, Saint Patrick became ‘Christ’s fiery apostle,’ as Hieromonk Seraphim (Rose) aptly describes him.

Myth 3. Was he Irish?

Our God-fearing readers from the Emerald Isle of Ireland may not like this; some may even take it as sacrilege -for in the mind of every Irish, Patrick and Ireland are as indivisible as a shepherd and his sheep. Even the fact that the Irish also call themselves informally “Paddy” should testify to the Irishness of Saint Patrick. He must be Irish, as Irish as one can be. But there is no running away from the facts. Patrick, the most Irish of all Irish, did not come from Ireland, but Britain. When he began his ministry in Ireland in 432, he had only God to hope for. That year, he and his several companions left the continent and disembarked on the wild shores of Ireland. Patrick was about forty at the time, and he would spend the next six decades preaching the Gospel among the Irish and bringing them to Christ.

He has had to struggle with the opposition from the local chieftains and the jealousy of the Druids, and also with human misconceptions. The following episode from Saint Patrick’s life gives us an idea of the scale of his difficulties. A warrior named Dichu drew out his sword as he saw a foreigner approach him, but could not swing it – he had lost the ability to move his arm. Eventually, Dichu became friendlier and even let Patrick use a large barn to celebrate Ireland’s first worship services.

As tradition holds it, also present in Saint Patrick’s life was the Irish king Loegaire, a prominent figure in Irish history. His first encounter with the king was less than cordial. It happened when all the kings and chieftains of Ireland had gathered at Loegaire’s house in Tare. They were going to celebrate the feast of Beltane, in honour of the coming of Spring and the enthronement of the King. On the night of the celebration, no-one could light a fire before the King lighted his. Yet that same night Patrick was celebrating Ireland’s first Easter and lit a Paschal fire on the mountain top just opposite the Tare. The angry king sent his people to punish the offenders and put out the fire, but his guardsmen prophesied that the flame of this fire would soon go around the whole of Ireland and burn higher than the fire of Loegaire himself. They brought Patrick to the surprise-stricken Loegaire, and Patrick began to preach the Gospel to him. This was accompanied by multiple miracles and a spiritual battle with the Druids. Humbled, the druids stepped away, and Loegaire ordered a chariot made for Saint Patrick driven by nine horses, probably taking him for a God. But Patrick thanked the King and left the palace.

It was not until fifty years from the beginning of Saint Patrick’s ministry that Christianity firmly took root in Ireland, and for the former land of pirates and a menace the neighbouring lands transformed beyond recognition. In the early middle ages, Ireland would be called nothing less than a land of saints. By the eighth century, the list of Irish saints of Saint Patrick’s time had 350 names. They were founders of churches, bishops and known ascetics.

For a long time, the distinct Celtic model of sainthood was poorly known in the East. The great schism, great distances and history made it almost impossible to share information beyond the boundaries of Western Christianity. However, the memory of Saint Patrick and the synaxis of Celtic saints revived among the Eastern Orthodox in the 20th century. One of the first Eastern Orthodox hierarchs to begin to speak about Saint Patrick was Archbishop John (Maximovich) of Shanghai and San-Francisco, a saint of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad. His interest in the Celtic ascetics was also shared by others in our time, like Hieromonk Seraphim (Rose), who wrote: “We should not think to ourselves, ‘It happened long ago, and used to inspire people then, but what is the use of it now?’ Far from that, we must recognise in the works of Saint Patrick the feats of a Christian of our time, the exploits of the spirit alight with the zeal and love for God’.

It was not accidental for Seraphim Rose to consider the example of the Irish saints to be relevant for us today, for they are the people who had travelled countless kilometres on their mission, and never stopped looking upwards and feeling joy. Their joy of the Lord is the true legacy of Saint Patrick and the Irish Church.

Christianity is not averse to the diversity of the world and its beauty. This is true of culture, art and also of the tradition to venerate the Celtic saints. For example, it has become a regular practice in some episcopates and parishes of the Russian Orthodox Church to celebrate the feast day of Saint Patrick according to the new calendar on 17 March, in addition to his veneration on 30 September according to the old calendar. Incidentally, the celebration is not limited to folk concerts. For many years in a row, the faithful in some Russian churches have been making payers to this Irish saint, and conferences and talks have been organised about the spiritual heritage of Celtic Christianity. Such interest is natural and welcome, as the distinct wealth of the Celtic tradition is not its fine beer but the ability to feel the joy of God with a pure heart. This joy of God that Saint Patrick bought with him to Ireland is expressed very well in this prayer ascribed to Columba, a sixth-century saint:

Be a bright flame before me, O God
a guiding star above me.
Be a smooth path below me,
A kindly shepherd behind me
today, tonight, and forever.

The commemoration of Saint Patrick in Russia is a good occasion for all of us to remember the bright flame Who illuminated with joy the long and difficult path of Saint Patrick and his followers. For those who still follow him today, may the colour of this day not be of beer, but of eternity. May we revere Saint Patrick as a kindly shepherd, the Irish of the old times had revered him.

Drawings by Maria Zaikina

Translated by The Catalogue of Good Deeds

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