Escape To Freedom
Once when Patrick was out in the woods, on the mountain slopes, he heard a voice in the night. He had been praying, as usual.
‘Your ship is ready,’ the voice announced.
This was very strange. What ship? Patrick wondered. He was nowhere near any of the harbours which were far away on the east coast of Ireland. He knew that merchant ships frequently crossed the sae to Britain or Gaul, but in Co.Mayo he seemed to be on the edged of the world, at the very farthest point in Europe. No ships would sail westward into the mysterious unexplored ocean of the Atlantic. That would be impossible. He could not have been called to go ‘over the edge’ into the blue and the great unknown, way from people
So the voice must have been urging him to travel eastwards. Although he knew no one and felt a complete stranger, he started on the two-hundred mile journey to the east coast. Great courage was needed for this adventure. He was leaving the master whom he had been serving for the past six years. He hints that he was in some ways sorry to be going away in spite of the hard times he had faced. Did he think that he was letting his master down? Who would look after the sheep that he had cared for? Was he right to turn his back on the life to which he had become accustomed and go off to some unknown and distant spot? It was like plunging into a deep and dark hole.
Apparently he had never tried to escape his master and become a runaway. His master, even if strict, may have been kindly and humane. His good qualities may have struck Patrick after he had left service. The dream, however, convinced him that he must go. Those words about the ship had sounded loud and clear. He never forgot them, even in his old age. Nor did fear hold him back. He never felt afraid because he had an inner confidence that God would lead him. A new life was opening up before him. He was in a cheerful mood and full of expectation when he came at last to the seashore and there before his eyes was the ship of his vision.
Taken On Board
The ship was on the point of moving out to sea when Patrick arrived. It had already been untied from its moorings. The anchor was raised. Patrick was only just in time to have a ward with the crew. He asked about the voyage they were undertaking and politely sounded them out about the possibility of joining them on board. Whatever the ordinary members of the ship’s crew thought about the suggestion that Patrick should be given a lift across the water, it was quite clear that the captain was strongly against the idea. He brushed Patrick off with an angry refusal. He used a Latin word nequaquam, which might be translated by the modern phrase ‘No way’. The captain was extremely emphatic and bluntly rude. ‘No way, no way will you be coming with us!’ he shouted.
He sounded rather like those bullies who appear so sure of themselves, when in fact, they are covering up their own fears. But this loud-voiced captain for all his blustering may have sensed in Patrick’s manner and gentle approach something that made him wonder about this young traveller. Patrick seems to have been someone out of the ordinary. The captain began to have doubts. To refuse to take Patrick on board might bring bad luck.
So the conversation did not end there. Patrick walked away from the ship and back to the little hut on the shore where he had spent the previous night. There he began to pray, turning to God as to a faithful friend. Meanwhile, the captain was having second thoughts. After all, Patrick did not look like an ordinary stowaway. His pleasant manner, which was to charm many people throughout his active life, certainly did not suggest that he was an undesirable person escaping from some kind of trouble. Nor did he look as if he was flying away from the clutches of a pursuer.
To Patrick’s surprise, a shout came from the direction of the boat.
‘Come back, quickly!’ they were shouting. ‘Come, we will take you with us. We trust you. Make friends with us!’
Clearly they had begun to think differently about this stranger. He appeared to have good intentions in his heart. They were no longer suspicious of him. Indeed they might be very glad to have him with them on board; he might bring them good luck.
They themselves were not Christians but they were beginning to see that the journey might be more successful with Patrick than without him. While Patrick swain their invitation an answer to his prayer: the captain had changed his mind.
Off they sailed together. They were three days at sea before they reached land on the opposite shore. From Patrick’s account of the voyage, it is not clear whether the harbour that they reached was in Britain or on the French coast. Most people think that they landed in Britain, perhaps somewhere on the coast of Wales, or even further south off Cornwall.
Lost And Found
When the ship reached land, the crew and Patrick set off across the country. By this time, all in the ship had come to admire him. They were very happy that he should stay with them. They lost their way more than once. They could very easily have gone round in circles as there would have been very few paths or woodland tracks to guide them, and no familiar landmarks to show them where they were going. We can picture the misery and despair that they must have felt, when they seemed to be making no progress.
They were a full twenty-eight days on the move across country before they found any thing to eat.
‘We ran out of food,’ Patrick wrote, recalling this uncomfortable experience. ‘The captain of the ship came up to me and said, “You who are a Christian, can you explain the meaning of all this? You say that your God is great and all-powerful. Why are you not able to pray to Him for us? Here we are perishing with hunger and we can scarcely believe that we will ever again see another human being.”’
Patrick replied, speaking with great assurance. ‘Turn with complete trust to my Lord and God. Turn to Him with all your heart. Ask Him today for food, so that He may arrange for you all to have enough to satisfy your appetites. You will certainly be fed, because He has a plentiful supply of food everywhere.
Everything turned out well after that. A herd of pigs suddenly appeared on the path before them. They killed a great number of them. Then they stayed for two nights in that spot and ate their fill. Their bodies, which had grown weak and tired from hunger, were restored to their former strength. They all gave thanks enthusiastically to the God who had rescued them. Patrick became a hero. His shipmates paid him great respect. On the following days, they had plenty of food. They found some wild honey and offered a little to Patrick, asking him to taste it and saying ‘This is a sacrifice.’ These words suggested pagan worship. Patrick, somewhat embarrassed, did not accept this kind of offering. He was reluctant to join in a ceremony which was clearly not Christian. He thanked God, whom he had come to regard as a friend, that he had been guided not to share in this kind of superstitious ceremony, which implied that God was to be feared rather than loved.
After these wanderings were over, Patrick returned home to his parents. They were overjoyed to welcome him back and hoped that he would never again be taken from them. Little did they know, however, what had happened to their son. His time in Ireland had completely changed his outlook on life. Now he saw everything at home in a very different light.
More Visions And Voices
One night the prophet Elijah came to him in a dream. Elijah in the Old Testament had influenced the kings of his day. In some ways this particular prophet was a lonely figure who had to say unpopular things to people in power when the country was in danger. He was the prophet who heard a voice bringing him a message from God. It was still, small voice. God did not speak to him in a thunderstorm or a rushing wind or in the flames of a fire, but rather in a quiet way, without any showy, sensational signs.
Patrick felt that he also had a bright future in front of him. If he was not to be a prophet, he would certainly be a servant of God. A ‘still, small voice’ was calling him too.
Dreams are often confusing. In Patrick’s mind the Hebrew name Elijah was mixed up with the Greek word Helios meaning ‘the sun’. The dream threw light upon his dark future. Christ had often been called ‘the light’ and was even given the title of ‘the sun of righteousness’. All these ideas came into the dream.
Fortunately this dream, which had started in rather a terrifying way with a great rock falling on Patrick’s body and pinning him to the ground, ended happily. He thought no more of Elijah’s misery and unpopularity, for the sun shone through and changed the whole scene of dark suffering into a brilliant bright view of the countryside. A voice gave him courage. It assured him that when he preached about Christ to others it was not he, Patrick, who was speaking the words. It was the spirit of God speaking in him.
Patrick’s next vision was crucial. It was quite startling. This time the voice was ‘the cry of the Irish’. In his dream he saw a man called Victoricus standing in front of him. In his hand he held a whole sheaf of letters which seemed to be written messages and notes from all sorts of people in Ireland. They were asking Patrick to come over to Ireland and be with them again. He seemed to see them crowding round the trees in the forest of Foclut ‘by the western sea’, which looked just like the Mayo country he had known so well.
The voice went on: ‘Holy boy, we ask you to come and walk among us again.’
The invitation was most pressing. Patrick felt like the apostle Paul who had had a dream many years earlier in which a manly voice from Macedonia cried out: ‘Come over, and help us.’
As a result, Paul, who was at Troy in Asia, crossed over to Europe by boat with the good news of the Christian gospel. So the message of Christ passed from one continent to another.
Victoricus stands out in the story of Patrick as a very important figure. He is the only person in Ireland mentioned in Patrick’s Confession.
Dreams Come True
Dreams of this sort continued. They gave Patrick great encouragement as he prepared himself for the work that lay ahead. Sometimes these dreams were warnings. They showed him what a difficult task he was undertaking. One night he was greatly delighted when he heard the familiar, unmistakable voice tell him confidentially, ‘He who gave His life for you, He it is who speaks in you.’ Patrick woke up, overjoyed. This was surely a genuine call. He must obey it.
Soon le learned new things about God and prayer. He was careful not to think that he knew all the answers to the questions that faced him. He realised that as a result of the hard and painful times he had endured, he had learned to be humble and never to be self-satisfied.
Patrick Defends Himself
Patrick was a very sensitive person. He felt things deeply. This was part of his greatness. He was concerned about other people and kept thinking of ways in which he could help them. he shared their difficulties and Patrick became very worried when he heard that some of the older members of the Church, his seniors, disapproved of the suggestion that he should be sent to Ireland as a bishop.
Some of these seniors wanted him to remain in Britain. Others had heard that his behaviour in his youth had not been free from faults. They doubted if he was really fit to undertake the sacred duties of the Church’s ministry, in spite of the training he had received in the years after his captivity in Ireland. There were unpleasant rumours circulating about his misspent youth. Had he turned to pagan worship and superstition? We simply do not know what faults they were referring to.
Patrick admitted that as a fifteen-year-old he had felt guilty about himself and his life. He was quite depressed about it. He told a close friend about this worry and, at the time, this sharing of his burden with another appeared to bring great relief. The friend did not cease to be a friend after hearing all that Patrick had to say. Indeed, the friend, who was a great admirer of Patrick, had gone so far as to tell him, ‘You should be raised to the rank of a bishop.’
Imagine, then, the shock which followed when this close friend to whom Patrick had ‘entrusted his soul’, broke confidence and told the Church authorities about this dark secret of long ago. Patrick was greatly taken aback.
In sorrow rather than in anger, and certainly without any bitterness, he said: ‘How did my close friend take it into his head, afterwards, publicly, before everyone – both those who wished me well and my enemies who were ill-disposed to me – to discredit me for something which he had, of his own accord, been glad to pardon me? The Lord, also, who is greater than all, had granted me pardon.’
God Is On His Side
The last vision that Patrick wrote about gave him fresh hope after all the agonies he had suffered, and restored his confidence in himself. During the night he saw some writing. He found it hard to describe the details of this vision but he seems to have seen his own face on a coin. The heads of Roman emperors were often engraved in letters encircling the head. In his dream, Patrick read not words of honour but words of shame and disgrace surrounding his head. This seemed to be a sign that he was rejected and dishonoured. In fact, this was not so. Together with the vision, he heard a voice from God which said: ‘We have seen with displeasure the face of the man denounced here.’
Patrick took note that the words were not ‘you have seen’ but ‘we have seen’. He knew that God was on his side. God was supporting Patrick, not denouncing him. God disapproved of the words which attempted to damage Patrick’s reputation and blacken his character.
These visions tells us more than mere words can express about those searching days of preparation before Patrick eventually set out to bring the Christian faith to Ireland.