Nearly four hundred years after Our Lord had gone up to heaven, and left His disciples and their followers to carry on, a boy was born who was destined to be one of God's greatest Saints, and to bring thousands and thousands of pagans into the Christian Faith. This boy was St. Patrick, called the Apostle of Ireland, because he turned the whole of Ireland Christian. For many hundreds of years after St. Patrick had died, Ireland was like a fruitful garden in which sprang up hundreds of Saints and holy and learned men, who helped to spread the knowledge and love of Christ all over the world. So St. Patrick was truly an Apostle, and, like St. John and St. Andrew and the others, one of the foundation-stones of Christ's great Church.
But though he ended in being so very important, and doing things that made a great difference to the whole world, he began as an ordinary boy—and rather a naughty one, as he tells us himself. We know a great deal about St. Patrick, and we know it is quite true, because when he was over one hundred years old he wrote it all down himself. He called the book his "Confession," and though he told us such a lot about himself, beginning with the adventures of his boyhood, there is one thing he did not put down in the book. Can you guess what? Well, he did not put down how good he was. For, you see, the Saints never thought themselves good, because, instead of comparing themselves with people less good than themselves, as we are all so fond of doing, they kept on comparing themselves with Our Blessed Lord, and of course, that made them seem very, very far from perfect.
When St. Patrick was a boy he did not love God or believe all his Christian teachers told him, nor was he obedient or ready to do his best. One day some fierce pirates raided the land where he lived with his father and mother, and carried him off captive with lots of other boys. Sailing across the sea to Ireland, the pirates sold the boys as slaves.
St. Patrick was bought by a great chief called Milcho, and sent out on to the hill-sides to watch the sheep. Do you think he was lonely and afraid? No. For, when torn away from his home, from the friends who loved him, he had discovered that there is one Friend that you can't be dragged away from, and Who can be with you even in the midst of the tossing green sea, on a pirate ship. For, though Patrick had forgotten God, God had not forgotten Patrick. "The Lord," he says, "showed me my unbelief, and had pity on my youth and ignorance."
So when he trudged out on to the mountain-side, he was not sad and alone, but glad in the knowledge that his unseen Friend was with him. "Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ in me, Christ above me, Christ beneath me, Christ in the chariot, Christ in the fort, Christ in the ship."
That is a prayer St. Patrick made up himself. There, on the rough mountain-side, the boy St. Patrick spent all his lonely days talking to God, so that, he says, "more and more the love of God and His faith and fear grew in me, and my spirit was stirred." He tells us that he would recite one hundred prayers in one day, and nearly as many in the night.
He had to sleep out with the sheep in some rough cave or hut. "Before the dawn," he says, "I was called to pray by the snow, the ice, and the rain." But he did not mind this outward cold, because of the burning heart within him.
St. Patrick had learnt his lesson—the lesson of where to find the only comfort and friendship and help worth having. God wanted him, now, for the great work he was to do. One night a mysterious voice told him that if he went to a certain place he would find a ship ready to take him home. The place was about two hundred miles away, and St. Patrick had never been there. However, trusting in God's help, he started off. At last, after a long tramp, he reached the town, and, sure enough, there was a ship at the quay about to set sail. St. Patrick asked to be taken on board, but when the sailors heard he had no money they refused him a passage. St. Patrick went sadly away, but as he went he prayed. Before long he heard someone coming after him. Turning round, he found it was one of the sailors, who said after all they would take him.
I can't tell you now of the adventures St. Patrick had on his way home, but after being shipwrecked and nearly starved, and each time wonderfully saved by God, he reached his father's house. But though he was home again with those he loved, he did not forget the Friend Who had been his all in those cold, hard days in Ireland. He thought of Him all day, and of how best to please Him. He had already begun studying for a life in God's service, when he had a wonderful vision of the people of Ireland calling him to come to their help, and he knew it was a sign from God that this was the work he was to do. You can imagine how impatient he must have been to get a ship and go sailing back to Ireland to tell the people about the true God, and how Christ had died on the Cross for them, and all the rest; but for such a difficult and dangerous job he needed a lot of training—not only in learning, but in the strength and holiness and obedience to God which should make him able to face the task before him. How long do you think God kept him at his training? Thirty-eight years!
At the end of this time a holy man who was his friend and guide was sent to preach in Britain. St. Patrick went with him. This was the first step, and it ended in his being made a Bishop and sent—at last—to the lifework he had so long waited for, the conversion of Ireland.
When St. Patrick's ship came to shore, the wild men of Leinster would not let him land. So, trusting as usual to God, he sailed out again to sea, and landed a little farther to the south. There seemed to be nobody about, to stop him; and, tired out, I suppose, with a day of exploring in the strange land, St. Patrick lay down and fell asleep. A little Irish boy chanced to come along, and, seeing a stranger asleep, crept up on tip-toe to look at him. What a lovely, kind face he had! The boy thought to himself that he had never before seen anybody who looked so nice, and he longed to do him some good turn. He couldn't think of anything to do for someone who was asleep, but at last he got an idea. Picking all the best flowers he could find, he put them round St. Patrick for a surprise for him.
When St. Patrick woke up you can imagine how pleased he was with the flowers, and still more pleased to see a little Irish boy smiling at him shyly from among the bushes. Before long St. Patrick and the boy had become great friends, and the boy simply wouldn't go away, but stuck to St. Patrick. Then God made known a secret of the future to St. Patrick, and he said: "Some day he will be the heir to my kingdom." And, sure enough, the boy, whose name was Benignus, succeeded St. Patrick as Bishop of Armagh. Don't you wish you were that boy, always to stay with St. Patrick?
After this the most wonderful adventures began to befall St. Patrick; but even more wonderful than the adventures were the miracles by which he managed to escape out of them, not only alive, but victorious.
Getting into his ship again, St. Patrick landed farther north. Once more the fierce Irish set on him and his little band, and their chief, Dichu, raised his sword to bring it crashing down on St. Patrick's head. But, somehow, his arm stayed stiff in mid-air, and he could not strike the blow. Dichu was an honest man, and soon understood that such a miracle must be a sign from the true God. If once you believe in God—well, the only possible thing is to serve Him. So Dichu became a Christian, and humbly learned from St. Patrick how he should serve God.
Then St. Patrick went to the house of the very chief who had kept him as a slave, and converted his children to the true Faith. But it was at Easter that something very thrilling happened, and was the beginning of St. Patrick's real triumphs.
The Chief-King of Erin (as Ireland was called) was just going to hold his solemn festival at Tara. All the Irish princes and all the priests of the pagan religion had collected together. One of their ceremonies was the lighting of fire at dawn, with magic rites and ceremonies. It happened to be Holy Saturday, and on that day the Christians used to light a beacon. St. Patrick lit his holy fire, as usual. The King saw it blazing on a hill-top, and was very angry. One of his priests (or Druids, as they were called) said: "If that fire is not put out before morning, it never will be put out," and he meant the Christian Faith. So the King sent for St. Patrick.
Surrounded by his Druids and bards, and all the Irish princes, the King sat, fierce and proud, and awaited the strangers. It was Easter morning, so, as St. Patrick and his little band advanced, they chanted the Easter litanies. So noble and holy did St. Patrick look that one of the bards rose as he drew near. This little act of politeness on the part of the bard brought him special grace from heaven, and he accepted the Christian Faith.
Standing quietly in the midst of the circle of priests and princes, St. Patrick looked around him. He met countless pairs of fierce eyes fixed upon him, as the princes sat in silence, "with the rims of their shields against their chins"; and as he looked at them he longed to win them all for God, and he prayed for grace and power to do what was needed. Then he told them why he had come to Ireland.
The King left his Druids to reply. They did so by doing all sorts of horrible magic. And certainly they made things happen, much as people called "spiritists" do nowadays; but it was not by God's power, so it must have been the Devil who helped them. Whatever the Druids did, St. Patrick undid, and then did something more wonderful. The Druids were furious, and no one knows what might have happened had not St. Patrick caused an earthquake to happen, by God's power. So terrified were the Irish that they went half mad and began killing each other, and St. Patrick and his men escaped.
But the next day St. Patrick boldly came back, though he knew the King meant to kill him. He was given a cup of poisoned wine to drink. Well, what of that? Did not Our Lord say to His disciples, when He sent them out to convert the world, "If you drink any deadly thing it shall not hurt you"? St. Patrick made the sign of the cross over the cup and drank it, and nothing happened.
Then the Druids arranged a horrible test. They laid two great fires, one of dry faggots and the other of wet, green wood. On the dry wood they laid the boy Benignus, dressed in a Druid's white robe. On the green they put a Druid, clad in St. Patrick's cloak. Then they said they would set fire to both piles. St. Patrick accepted the challenge. (If you had been the boy, would you have "got the wind up," do you think, or would you have trusted St. Patrick?)
Well, they set fire to the two piles of wood. Strange to say, the green wood blazed up, with many sizzlings and cracklings and much smoke, but the dry wood simply wouldn't light. There was, however, a sudden flame, and the Druid's robe on the boy flared up and was soon burnt to ashes, leaving Benignus quite all right, and, I expect, very pleased with himself! Meanwhile, horrible noises had been coming from the other pile, and when the smoke and flames died down there were only charred cinders where there had once been a Druid. But St. Patrick's cloak had not been burnt at all.
As the King still would not believe, St. Patrick had to make another earthquake happen, which swallowed up so many of the King's subjects that he gave in, and said St. Patrick might preach, though he himself never accepted the Faith.
So, on the green plains of Tara, St. Patrick preached a wonderful sermon to the Irish, who by this time had come crowding round to see the stranger who could beat the Druids at their own game. During this sermon St. Patrick stooped down and picked a leaf of shamrock, and, holding it up, showed the people how the little green leaf was three and yet one. He said that would help them to understand how the Blessed Trinity is three—God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost—and yet is really only one God. That is why the Irish wear shamrock on St. Patrick's Day (March 17th).
Many more miracles did St. Patrick which I can't tell you about now; and he went from place to place, winning thousands of men for Christ, and giving spiritual life to their souls by baptizing them.
One Shrove Tuesday St. Patrick went up on to the top of a lonely, rugged mountain above the sea, and there he stayed without any food all through Lent till Easter. And all the time he prayed and prayed and prayed for the men of Ireland and their fate on the Judgment Day. At the end of his long and painful time of prayer God sent an angel to tell him his request was granted. So, with his heart full of joy, St. Patrick knelt and blessed Ireland, and as he gave his blessing hundreds of poisonous snakes came out of their holes and went slithering away into the sea, where they were all drowned. (That is why you see pictures of St. Patrick with snakes.) And now, every year, thousands of Irish people go on pilgrimage up that mountain.
Before I end I must just tell you one little story about a young Irish Prince who didn't give in to himself. This Prince and his followers, after hearing St. Patrick preach, decided to become followers of Christ and be baptized. St. Patrick, being a Bishop, carried a thing called a crozier—a kind of long staff, like a shepherd's crook, because Bishop means shepherd. St. Patrick's crozier had rather a sharp point at the end, and during the ceremony of Baptism, somehow, by accident, he pierced the Prince's bare foot with it, but did not notice what he had done. The Prince said nothing, and did not wince or seem surprised. Afterwards, when St. Patrick found out what he had done, and asked the Prince why he had said nothing, the Prince replied: "I thought it was the rule of faith." A bit of poetry has been written about it, which puts it rather nicely. The Prince says, in it: "I thought, thus called to follow Him Whose Feet Were pierced with nails, haply the blissful rite Some little pain included."
Everywhere St. Patrick went he was loved, and soon the fame of him had spread through the whole country. The superstitious religion of the Druids altogether died down, and Ireland became a Christian country. St. Patrick made a set of wise laws, and by these the Irish were governed for a thousand years.
At last came the time when his great work was finished. The little boy, Benignus, had grown up and taken over St. Patrick's work. St. Patrick had written his "Confession." And now, at one hundred and twenty, he was quite ready for the rest and the reward of heaven. He was very happy; his great work had been accomplished. God had been very good to him. And so, satisfied, he lay down to die, knowing that all the men of Ireland were praying for their beloved father.
So, on March 17th, in the year 493, St. Patrick passed from this world into the glory of Heaven.