Ladies and gentlemen, our esteemed Rabbit Room contributor, Mr. Jonathan Rogers, has been toiling away for the past year (even going so far as to sequester himself alone in a mountain cabin) to deliver his latest book: a biography of the legendary Saint Patrick.
Saint Patrick was, as far as we know, the first Christian missionary ever to take the gospel to barbarians beyond the borders of the Roman Empire. This biography looks at what motivated a son of Roman privilege to minister to the very people who had kidnapped and enslaved him in his youth—and examines why the Irish found his vision of the gospel so compelling
Below is an excerpt from the introduction to Saint Patrick.. Read it. And then support Jonathan and his family by buying it.
Patrick offered a solution that was both surprising and entirely characteristic of the saint of legend. He had with him a stone altar, a gift from the pope himself, which he threw into the sea, and there it floated. He then instructed the leper to sit on the altar. When the ship sailed, the altar sailed beside it, all the way across the Irish Sea. When the vessel landed in Ireland, so did the leper and his makeshift boat. Patrick praised God, and the sailors’ and passengers’ stony hearts were transformed into hearts of compassion and charity.
This story is typical of the body of legend that grew up around Saint Patrick. The saint’s compassion for the downtrodden is on full display. A former slave himself, Patrick was more attuned than most—even most saints—to matters of social justice. But even more uniquely Patrician is the sense of holy mirth that pervades the story. It’s funny, that picture of a man riding a stone altar across the sea. There is more than simple humor happening here, however. This is divine comedy. In a comic reversal, the leper enjoys a first-class berth—borne along on the mercy seat, you might say—while those who rejected him look on from the crowded deck….
A remarkable number of the Patrick legends are comic, portraying the saint as a man you would enjoy being around. Consider, by contrast, Patrick’s contemporary, Saint Augustine, with his towering intellect and moral and theological precision. You can’t help respecting the man, but you wouldn’t necessarily want him at your Christmas party. Of the Patrick legends, nineteenth-century Irish poet Aubrey de Vere wrote, “Their predominant character is their brightness and gladsomeness.”…
Some of the comic reversals in the Patrick legends are truly outlandish. In one tale, Patrick and his disciples were passing by a sepulchre “of wondrous length,” so big that Patrick’s followers refused to believe that any man could be buried there. Patrick, to prove that there was indeed a man in the tomb, prayed to bring him back to life. “Then stood one before them horrible in stature and in aspect.” This terrifying giant broke down weeping at the sight of Patrick, the man who had released him from the torments of hell. He then begged to join Patrick’s retinue, but Patrick refused him, fearful that no one could stand to look on such a terrifying figure as that “man of gigantic stature.” The saint did, however, invite the giant to believe in the triune God and thus escape hell permanently. The giant believed, was baptized, died again, and was buried, this time to rest in peace.
The monstrous, the horrible, the barbaric folded into the love of a God who laughs. The terrible giant weeping for joy at the sight of the saint who released him from his torments. This is the divine comedy that shaped the career not just of the Patrick we know from legend, but the Patrick we know from the historical record.
That historical record is admittedly brief. Everything we can reliably know of Patrick the man comes from two letters written by Patrick that, together, are fewer than twenty pages in length. Hard facts—in the form of specific dates and verifiable place names—are hard to come by in these two documents. But what Patrick’s letters lack in details of his outward life, they more than make up for in their portrait of his inner life. He wrote in the Confession, “I want my brethren and kinsfolk to know my nature so that they may be able to perceive my soul’s desire.” And he did reveal himself—his motivations, his doubts, his desires, his fears, his affections—to a remarkable degree in these two documents.
Patrick revealed, among other things, that he believed the gospel he preached. He believed that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, Roman nor barbarian. He believed that God can utterly transform a human heart. He believed that he could rely entirely on God’s mercy, rather than being compelled to paper over his own sins. And he believed that even in the highly charged political atmosphere in which these letters were written and read, Christ was the defender of the weak—including Patrick himself.
Before Patrick, Christianity had never spread in any significant way outside the Roman Empire. Ireland was the first country ever to submit to the teachings of Christ without first submitting to the sword of Rome. It looked like a fool’s errand, this mission to convert a people as wild and uncouth and violent as the Irish. And yet before he was finished, Patrick had laid the foundation for the near total Christianization of the island. In How the Irish Saved Civilization, Thomas Cahill shows that, thanks to the work of Saint Patrick, Ireland grew civilized even while civilization elsewhere in Western Europe collapsed: “the land of Ireland was rushing even more rapidly from chaos to peace.”
The achievements of the historical Patrick were no less miraculous than those of the legendary Patrick. Perhaps the most miraculous thing of all was that, even as he brought the gospel of Christ to bear on the Irish, Patrick left their Irishness intact. The Irish didn’t have to become Roman in order to become Christian; that may seem obvious from where we sit, but it wasn’t at all obvious in Patrick’s time. His was a renewed vision of what it means to be a follower of Christ: just as the apostle Paul brought Christianity out from under the umbrella of Jewish culture, Patrick demonstrated that Christianity was bigger than the Roman Empire.