Over 1500 years ago, a group of seafaring raiders from an island known in its time as “the end of the world” kidnapped the son of a wealthy merchant and crossed the Irish Sea to sell him as a slave, and in the process, changed the history of its nation and its people forever.
The colorful tale full of intrigue and adventure recounting the story of Patrick’s capture, life as a slave, and eventual return to Ireland tends to get overshadowed by the trappings of an international holiday. We see it every year: green beer, parades, and packed bars. But were it not for the providential transference of this young man to the land at the end of the world, a whole people group may not have come to know the saving power of Christ’s gospel of grace and mercy.
Thomas Cahill writes in How the Irish Saved Civilization, “In becoming an Irishman, Patrick wedded his world to theirs, his faith to their life. . . . Patrick found a way of swimming down to the depths of the Irish psyche and warming and transforming Irish imagination—making it more humane and more noble while keeping it Irish.”
Faith was more than a side hustle for this adopted Irishman. For Patrick, he knew that faith meant trusting that all the horrors that came with kidnapping and slavery were part of a deliberate and wise plan of a merciful God to draw him to willingly enslave himself to a new Master, the righteous King Jesus.
That’s the story that Jessica Dunn tells in her book, Patrick: A Spark in the Darkness, released January 31, 2020 (Amazon). Dunn begins her account describing the life of Patrick as a privileged teen in the town of Bannavem (currently believed to be in Northamptonshire in east England), where his interests fall to hanging out with pagan friends and trying to avoid going to church with his grandfather, a devout Christian. He grumbles over the withdrawal of Roman troops because it meant his best friend would also depart, unaware that the resulting gaping hole in the line of defense threatens his town and his life.
Raiders sent from King Niall of Ireland capture Patrick and so begins his trial of humiliation, affliction, and assimilation. The Lord uses the suffering to break through the hardness of the young man’s heart, filled with hatred for the Irish, and ignite a spark of love for God and for the people of the land of his enslavement. “Patrick realized he had to become a slave,” writes Dunn, “so that he could become free in Christ.”
The true freedom Patrick found in Christ relieves him of anger, fear, and worldly selfishness, but it also draws the attention and the ire of some of his pagan captors, who see him as a threat to the control the druids had over the land. Dunn deftly portrays the growing tide of resentment and aggression toward Patrick, balancing it with pastoral scenes of his duties as a shepherd, alone on the hillsides with the flocks of the clan and free to sing and worship and pray to God. As the conflicting threads wind closer together, we see how Patrick’s Deliverer determines the way of escape for the boy—escape from danger, and escape from the island.
But this is not where the story ends; this is only the first half of the thrilling ride that is Patrick’s life! His tumultuous journey away from Ireland takes him to the continent, where he and his new captors encounter the scorched devastation left in the trail of the Vandals, the barbarian horde that had driven away the great Roman army. Closer and closer he draws, providentially, to the town where his uncle serves as a bishop, where God in his goodness reunites him with family. Eventually he returns to Bannavem, and though he acknowledges the rationale that he should now be content and happy, he is nonetheless restless, the torment-bound souls of his adopted Irish people on his mind night and day, until he receives a vision of a letter-bearer who gives him a missive entitled, “The Voice of the Irish”. He knows God is calling him back to Ireland to serve as a missionary of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Jessica Dunn’s story for advanced readers and adults is based on Patrick’s own Confessions, his autobiography, which begins
My name is Patrick. I am a sinner, a simple country person, and the least of all believers. I am looked down upon by many. My father was Calpornius. He was a deacon; his father was Potitus, a priest, who lived at Bannavem Taburniae. His home was near there, and that is where I was taken prisoner. I was about sixteen at the time.St Patrick’s Confessio
Illustrations that enrich the imagination of Dunn’s readers are provided by her son, Joshua, fleshing out the riveting tale about the man whom God used to turn the hearts of an island from pagan brutality to freedom in joyful service to Jesus, all beginning with the spark of faith shining brightly out of the darkness.
Later in life, Patrick penned a hymn that proclaimed his allegiance to Christ alone and above all earthly cares or idols. It’s often referred to as St. Patrick’s Breastplate, though he is never known to have donned such battlegear. Hence, many understand it to be a reference to the shield of God’s truth that surrounded Patrick throughout his life.
I bind to myself today The strong virtue of the Invocation of the Trinity: I believe the Trinity in the Unity The Creator of the Universe. I bind to myself today The virtue of the Incarnation of Christ with His Baptism, The virtue of His crucifixion with His burial, The virtue of His Resurrection with His Ascension, The virtue of His coming on the Judgement Day. I bind to myself today The virtue of the love of seraphim, In the obedience of angels, In the hope of resurrection unto reward, In prayers of Patriarchs, In predictions of Prophets, In preaching of Apostles, In faith of Confessors, In purity of holy Virgins, In deeds of righteous men. I bind to myself today The power of Heaven, The light of the sun, The brightness of the moon, The splendour of fire, The flashing of lightning, The swiftness of wind, The depth of sea, The stability of earth, The compactness of rocks. I bind to myself today God's Power to guide me, God's Might to uphold me, God's Wisdom to teach me, God's Eye to watch over me, God's Ear to hear me, God's Word to give me speech, God's Hand to guide me, God's Way to lie before me, God's Shield to shelter me, God's Host to secure me, Against the snares of demons, Against the seductions of vices, Against the lusts of nature, Against everyone who meditates injury to me, Whether far or near, Whether few or with many. I invoke today all these virtues Against every hostile merciless power Which may assail my body and my soul, Against the incantations of false prophets, Against the black laws of heathenism, Against the false laws of heresy, Against the deceits of idolatry, Against the spells of smiths and wizards, Against every knowledge that binds the soul of man. Christ, protect me today Against every poison, against burning, Against drowning, against death-wound, That I may receive abundant reward. Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ within me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ at my right, Christ at my left, Christ in the fort, Christ in the chariot seat, Christ in the poop deck, Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me, Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks to me, Christ in every eye that sees me, Christ in every ear that hears me. I bind to myself today The strong virtue of an invocation of the Trinity, I believe the Trinity in the Unity The Creator of the Universe.
- The first verse invokes the Trinity.
- The second verse invokes Christ’s baptism, death, resurrection, ascension and future return on the last day.
- The third verse invokes the virtues of angels, patriarchs, saints and martyrs.
- The fourth verse the virtues of the natural world: the sun, moon, fire, lightning etc.
- The fifth verse invokes various aspects of God—his wisdom, his eye, his ear, his hand.
- The sixth verse lists the things against which protection is required—against snares of devils, temptations of nature, those who wish ill.
- This list of things against which protection is required continues in the next verse—false prophets, heathens, heretics, wizards, druids, smiths (gobann).
- The next verse calls for Christ to be in all things—Christ in me, all around me, in the eye and ear and mouth of the people I meet.
- The last verse returns to the theme of the Trinity.
Never despairing of any opportunity to share the gospel, Patrick wrapped all he said and did in the grace of Christ, returning in peace to the island of his imprisonment, bringing the gift of the freedom found only in Christ with him. The first two men he addressed were among those called by God to believe, and in time, God used those men and many others to change forever the future of the land at the end of the world.