The ancient Irish church/Chapter 2

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The end of the fourth century and beginning of the fifth was a time of trial to the inhabitants of Britain. Under the protection of the Romans they had made considerable progress in civilization and the arts of peace, but they had become quite unused to the science of war. Accordingly, when the Roman legions were withdrawn, the Britons found themselves in a defenceless condition, and exposed to the hostile attacks of those tribes which had never been brought under the imperial yoke. Picts came down from the northern parts of Scotland, Scots crossed over from the coasts of Ireland; they destroyed the villages, plundered the possessions, and sometimes even seized the persons of the more civilized, but less warlike inhabitants of the country from which the protectors had been withdrawn.

In one of these piratical expeditions, a prey of 'many thousand men' was brought across the sea, and placed as slaves among the tribes of Ulster. Among the rest was a young lad of sixteen, son of a deacon and grandson of a priest, who was destined by God to be thus prepared for a great mission, and to be the instrument in His hands of leading a whole nation to the knowledge of the truth. His baptismal name was Succat. He became better known to posterity by his Latin name of Patricius or Patrick.

There have come down to us a hymn in the Irish language, and two short works in Latin said to have been written by this famous man. In one of these, his Confession, he gives a short epitome of his life. In the other, his Epistle to Coroticus, he pleads with a Welsh prince for the liberation of some slaves who had been carried into captivity on the very day of their baptism. The Latin of these two documents is rude and archaic. The quotations from Scripture are numerous, and they show that the writer was not acquainted with Jerome's translation, but employed one of those older Latin versions[1] which were in use before the so-called Vulgate had obtained general acceptance. Both these considerations form a strong presumption in favour of the age and authenticity of these writings; and the presumption is further strengthened by the fact that they differ most essentially from the compositions of succeeding centuries, in the entire absence of the miraculous and the marvellous. These works, therefore, must be our principal guide in ascertaining the facts of Patrick's life.

We learn from the Confession that the hardships of his captivity were regarded by him as a just punishment for his sins, 'I knew not the true God,' he says, 'and was led away captive into Ireland with many thousand men, according to our deserts; because we had gone back from God, and had not kept His commandments, and were not obedient to our priests, who used to admonish us for our salvation;[2] and the Lord brought upon us the anger of His indignation, and scattered us among many nations, even to the ends of the earth.'

The immediate result on Patrick was to lead him to seek earnestly the grace of God. Day and night he continued instant in prayer, and the answer that came to his soul cannot be better described than in his own words. 'The Lord made me conscious of my unbelief, that all too late I might remember my faults and strengthen my whole heart towards the Lord my God, who had respect to my low estate, and had pity on my youth and ignorance. He kept me before I knew Him, and before I had sense or could distinguish between good and evil, and protected and comforted me, as a father his child. Therefore I cannot, nor indeed ought I to keep silence concerning so great benefits and such great grace bestowed on me in the land of my captivity; for this is the only recompense we can offer, that after God has reproved us or caused us to know our sinfulness, we should exalt and confess His wonders before every nation that is under the whole heaven.'

The history of the Christian Church furnishes us with many examples of what pious slaves can do; but it does not seem to have entered Patrick's mind at this time that as he had received so many blessings from the hand of God, he should endeavour to be a means of blessing to those who were around him. His only thought was of deliverance. Tending the sheep day by day, he was all the time longing for his liberty. After six years of servitude, acting on the impulse of a dream, he fled from his master and made his way to the shore. There he lived for a time in a rude hut which he constructed for himself, but was at length taken on board a vessel, and after some adventures found his way to his father's home in safety. But the freedom he had so earnestly desired did not bring the contentment that he had anticipated. Finding himself once more amongst Christian people, and enjoying the privileges of Christian worship, his thoughts were reverting continually to the people of Ireland, and a great purpose gradually formed itself in his mind: to return to the land of his captivity as a Christian missionary.

While these thoughts were in his heart, and he was pondering whether he should hearken to his relatives and friends, who counselled that as he had gone through so many tribulations he should go nowhere from them; or whether he should follow the dictates of that inward prompting which seemed to urge him forward, towards the great work, a voice seemed to come to him, which said, 'He who gave His life for thee is He who speaks in thee.' On another occasion he saw in a dream one, Victor, coming from Ireland, the bearer of innumerable letters, on one of which was written the words, 'The Voice of the Irish.' In describing this vision, he says, 'While I was reading the beginning of the letter, I thought that I heard in my mind the voice of the men themselves—those who live near the Wood of Foclut, which is beside the Western Sea. And thus they cried, "We pray thee, holy youth, to come and walk amongst us." And I was greatly pricked in my heart, and could not read any more; and so I awoke. Thanks be to God that after many years the Lord has given them the answer to their prayer.'

Notwithstanding these which he regarded as Divine intimations of the great mission which was before him, Patrick remained many years before giving himself up to the work. On every hand he encountered nothing but opposition. The members of his family earnestly besought him to relinquish the idea. They offered him many gifts and entreated him with sorrow and tears. His seniors reasoned with him, and were offended because he would not yield to them. Others were hindering him, and were talking behind his back and saying, 'Why does he run into danger amongst enemies who know not God?' They objected that one rustic in his manners and without proper education was unfit for the work. They even went so far as to bring against him an indiscretion of his boyhood, and to urge that by it he was for ever rendered unfit for the office of a Christian missionary. 'It was on account of the anxiety which it occasioned me,' he says, 'and with a sorrowful mind that I unbosomed myself to my dearest friend, telling him what I had done in my youth in one day, nay, rather, in one hour, because I was not yet able to overcome.' His 'dearest friend' on this occasion betrayed his confidence, hoping by this means to dissuade him from what seemed to be a most hazardous enterprise. So persistent was the opposition with which he was met that many refused to the last to recognise his work. He obtained in the end an abundant reward for his labour—'beautiful and beloved children,' as he puts it, 'brought forth in Christ in such multitudes.' Thus it was shown that his work was the work of God. But not even then did his friends regard his mission with favour. 'Mine own people,' he says regretfully, 'do not acknowledge me: a prophet has no honour in his own country.'

It is not to be wondered at that under such circumstances Patrick hesitated long before taking the decisive step. It was a grief to him in after years that he was so slow in obeying the heavenly call. 'I ought to give thanks to God without ceasing,' he says, 'who often pardoned my uncalled-for folly and negligence, who did not let His anger burn fiercely against me; who allowed me to work with Him, though I did not promptly follow what was shown me, and what the Spirit suggested.'

It is only incidentally that Patrick gives any information as to how he was occupied during this time of waiting. He tells us that he was living with his relatives 'in the Brittanias'[3] at the time when he had the dream about the 'Voice of the Irish.' He seems also to have been with them when his final resolve was taken, for he tells us that in going to Ireland he gave up all the advantages arising from his father's social position. 'My father was a decurio,' he says. 'I do not blush, neither am I sorry that I have bartered my nobility for the good of others.' From this it would appear that most of his time was spent with his family at their home in Britain.

In other places he speaks of his brothers in Gaul, probably using the word brothers in a religious sense, that is to say, members of the same ecclesiastical community. He says that his object in writing the Confession is that after his death he might leave it to his brethren in Gaul. And again he tells us that he sometimes earnestly desired to leave his work in Ireland in order that he might 'go as far as Gaul, to visit his brethren and see the face of the saints of the Lord.' The two statements are not incompatible. He may well have spent part of his time in his father's house, and part in one of the monasteries of Gaul, where he would have enjoyed spiritual and educational advantages which could not be had in Britain, owing to the disturbed state of the country and the withdrawal of the Roman legions.

So far we have followed Patrick's own writings, using them the more freely because there is such good reason for believing that the documents are authentic. But when we take up any of the large number of 'Lives of St. Patrick' which have been written, we feel that we are breathing an entirely different atmosphere. In the one case the moderate and unsensational character of the narrative disposes us to accept it as a truthful story. In the other, the preponderance of the miraculous element and the high colouring which manifestly belongs to a later age cause us to pause, and throw a considerable shadow of doubt over the whole account.

The oldest of Patrick's biographies is generally believed to have been composed not much more than a century after his death. Of this Life a manuscript exists, written in the first years of the ninth century, and in it the scribe complains that the copy from which he was transcribing had in many cases become illegible by reason of its age. Documents which can boast such a respectable antiquity are not to be lightly cast aside; but nevertheless they must always be used with extreme caution.

These old writers never made any distinction between the biography and the panegyric. They would have considered themselves unfaithful to their duty if they doubted any story that seemed to them to be creditable to the subject of their work. Even if the story were palpably untrue, they would have no hesitation in admitting it if they imagined that it would do good to the reader. Often, too, they were led into anachronisms by asking tliemselves what ought the subject of their memoir to have done, and then answering that question according to the ideas of the age in which they themselves lived.

In making use of these ancient sources of information, there are therefore two errors which are to be avoided. In the first place, that credulity which accepts every story, no matter how far-fetched or improbable; and in the second place, that scepticism which refuses to acknowledge any groundwork of truth, because some of the accessories of the story are manifestly untrue.

The biographers fill up this period of Saint Patrick's life with varied and extensive travels. He visits Saint Martin at Tours, and remains with him four years. He also becomes for a time the disciple of Saint Germanus, and with him visits Britain and aids in refuting the Pelagian heresy. He crosses the Alps into Italy. He visits some islands in the Mediterranean, and in one of them obtains the miraculous crozier known as the 'Staff of Jesus,' which was venerated as a most precious relic up to the time of the Reformation. Finally, he repairs to Rome, is consecrated by Pope Celestine, and with the apostolic commission thus obtained, sets out for his work in Ireland.

We can trace to some extent the growth of the legend. In Patrick's own works we have no intimation that he ever came in contact with any of the eminent men of other lands, but he intimates that he had some connection with Gaul, his biographers therefore considered it only fitting that he should have been instructed by the great religious leaders of the age in that country. Accordingly the story of his having been the disciple of Martin and Germanus is the first to make its appearance. At a later time the Papal sanction was regarded as indispensably necessary, and consequently we find that the story of his consecration by Pope Celestine then came forth, and was accepted by all succeeding biographers.

Happily it is not necessary for us now to enter at any length on the question as to how much of this should be received, and how much rejected. We know that the influence of Martin and Germanus was largely felt in Ireland. They were the leaders of the movement towards monasticism in Gaul, and from that movement Ireland to a great extent obtained its inspiration. But this influence can easily be accounted for without supposing that there was any personal contact between Patrick and the Gaulish leaders. This part of the story may therefore be regarded as doubtful, but not impossible.

On the other hand, the assertion that Patrick was consecrated by Pope Celestine labours under the most serious difficulties; for Roman influence was conspicuously absent from Ireland, and in the century after the arrival of Patrick the Roman teachers were met with bitter, and one might almost say unreasoning, hostility. Moreover, the legend did not take its rise until a Romanizing party had sprung up in the Church. We can therefore scarcely allow that Patrick ever had a commission from Rome. Patrick himself mentions no call except the inward call of the Spirit. He believed that God had chosen him for the work, and believing that, he made a full and unreserved dedication of himself to the service.

  1. For an account of the version used by Patrick and other early Celtic writers, see chapter xiii.
  2. This is curiously like a passage in the Second Epistle of Clement, chap. xvii.
  3. The Romans divided England into six provinces, of which two were named Brittania (Prima and Secunda). Brittania Prima was mostly south of the Thames, Brittania Secunda was in the west, and included Wales and some adjoining parts of England. Patrick speaks of his home being in the Brittanias, but gives no more precise information.