Author’s note: there are many legends and stories of St. Patrick. In an attempt to view the saint from a different perspective, I offer a reflection on one of the most significant events in the life of the “Apostle to the Irish” as a creative non-fiction short story. The following is based on actual accounts of the life of St. Patrick, but some scenes and dialogue have been createed – and some artistic license has been taken – in my own attempt to imagine what the events depicted might have been like and to fill in gaps in the record. Any errors are, of course, my own.
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.
Patricius set the crude pen aside and rubbed his face with his hands. He was no longer a young man, and the journey was taking its toll on him. It was odd to be travelling during Holy Week. They had set off from Sabhall the preceding morning, Holy Thursday, after Mass. It was well that they had spent Good Friday in the ardor of their passage; their suffering steps could be united to the bloody footfalls of their Lord and God as He ascended the hill to Calvary. He began again to write.
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.
It was not the difficulties of the road that worried him. It was what lay ahead. He and his companions were going to Tara. They had pushed hard the first two days so that they could keep some of their vigor in reserve for Easter, along with their inevitable conflict with the gathered chieftains and their king, who were meeting at Tara for the annual great feast.
How far he had come since the days when, on the shores near his Father’s estate in Brittania, that ship full of rough men had lain anchor. He had been little more than a beardless boy, and his curiosity had been his undoing. Seeing the strangers on the shore, he had gone to speak with them and find out what tales they could offer from their journeys. Instead, the strong and weathered men had set upon him, subduing him easily. In fetters they had taken him back to Éire, where he had been sold into slavery to the high-druid Milchu. Upon his return to the island, the poor old fool had burned himself to death in a fire rather than face the possibility of conversion and subjugation to the Christian God.
In a way, Patricius understood. Being forced to serve a foreign master upon his being made a slave had seemed at the time an insurmountable torment. He had considered taking his own life then, in his godless youth. But the beauty of the countryside, the simple nobility of the Éirean people, and the time spent alone in an ever-deepening intimacy with the God he had been blessed to come to know during his captivity had served as an unexpected boon and blessing.
When the angel had at last, after six long years, admonished him to flee, to return to the empire, he had left with a knowledge of the Éirean tongue, of the demonic magic of their druids, and of the utter hunger of their people for true faith.
He could have never foreseen the twists and turns that the Divine Hand would guide him through to the present moment. His studies in religion and apostolic work with the wise and holy shepherd Germain; his ordination to the sacred priesthood; a pilgrimage to Rome and to the very apostolic court of Celestine, Roman Pontiff and champion over heresy; his commission at the pope’s own command to renounce the name of his birth and return to Éire as Patricius, the “father of his people”; the elevation to the rank of bishop at the hands of the noble Maximus; and finally, the evangelical commission he had now embarked upon, which, he was quite certain, would eventually grant him his heart’s secret desire: to pour out his blood for Christ.
He did not find himself worthy — simple, uneducated man that he was — to be counted among the apostles and saints who had done such work before him. But if he was going to try, he would most certainly require their help.
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.
He wondered as he sat, hunched over his parchment by the flickering light of a dwindling taper, if he should set off on his own in the night, and spare his companions the coming peril. He had already sent the eager young Beningus ahead of their party in the hopes that he could bring them more news of the gathering at Tara. The boy had the energy of several men, and his zeal would no doubt make him fleet of foot. He knew also the customs of the people and could pass unmolested amongst them, inasmuch as his father Secsnen was one of their chieftans and thus held sway with them. Still, he worried over the youth, who had so ardently desired to join the Lord’s service. Patricius had heard tales of Lóegaire, the Ard Rí na hÉireann – High King of the folk of Éire. His temper was legendary, as were the cruelty and dark arts of his druid counselors. But God would provide. He would deliver them. Patricius returned with renewed fervor to the composition of his prayer. God would provide, but they would need all the aid and succour it was within their power to request.
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 women, and smiths, and druids,
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.
* * *
In the morning, Patricius arose early to greet God through prayer, and to encounter His presence in the quiet majesty of His creation. Beningus had returned in the small hours of the morning, but having been compelled to rest by the others of their party (and, no doubt, told not to disturb the aging bishop in his sleep), he had cast himself down upon a bed of soft moss and now slumbered deeply. Patricius did not wake him. Not yet. He offered to hear the confessions of those gathered with him, and gave them absolution. When at last the boy arose, he called him to his side and walked with him down to the bank of a nearby stream so that they could speak privately.
“What news, Beningus?”
“Master Patrick,” the boy said – as the people of this land struggled with the pronunciation of his title in the Latin tongue – “King Lóegaire has decreed that in advance of the feast, all fires throughout his kingdom must be extinguished, until the great signal fire is lit to mark the beginning of the gathering of the chieftains. Even now, they are gathering at his royal home. But what is worse…”
“It’s just that…” the boy hesitated.
“Our Lord has commanded us, ‘Be Not Afraid!'” Patricius admonished. “Tell me what you have learned.”
“They have heard of your coming.” The boy admitted with a sigh. “The druids, some of them serve as oracles. They have foretold that you will bring news of your God…our God…to the people. They have offered a reward to any who might lay hands on you and bring them before their circle.”
Patricius looked at the young man, his face grown ashen with fear, and smiled.
“Sweet Beningus, do not be discouraged. They do our work for us! They have spread the word of our arrival and the tidings of salvation we bring. Do you not think Our Lord and God will do the rest?”
Beningus took courage from this, and felt slightly more at ease. He worried sometimes about this holy man whom he had chosen to give up everything to follow. He seemed always so willing to walk straight into the path of danger. But he was a man of great faith, and of miracles. Patrick possessed something that he had never seen in those who made sacrifice to the ancient idols. He had joy. He had peace. And he was utterly without fear.
Patricius gathered together the small band, and falling to their knees, he led them in the new prayer he had composed in anticipation of their arrival at Tara. At its conclusion, he said to them, “In the cities under the rule of the Roman Emperor, there are great garrisons of soldiers, Legionaries of the very army that has subdued most of the world. These wear armor of strong metal to protect their bodies from harm. What I have given to you today is something greater. It is a spiritual breastplate, an armor, as the Apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Ephesians, that is of God. That we may be able to ‘stand against the deceits of the devil. For our wrestling is not against flesh and blood; but against principalities and power, against the rulers of the world of this darkness, against the spirits of wickedness in the high places.’ We wear no armor of iron or bronze. We enter, like the prophet Daniel, into the Lion’s Den. Yet even if they pierce our bodies or take our lives, they can never seize from us our immortal souls – so long as we give them completely over to Our Lord.”
The little troop was somber, but Patricius sensed that they were stouthearted, and ready for whatever would come.
The remaining journey was a bit shorter, and thus not so arduous as the previous days’ marches had been. The group walked at a measured pace, praying and singing together as they went. They talked little of the things of this world, and Patricius, as was his custom, spent a portion of the time teaching them about their newly adopted Christian faith. When he grew tired, the group withdrew into a recollective silence.
As they came into the little village of Slane, they ascended a hill they found there to get a better view of the countryside. Patricius at last motioned for them to stop.
“Beningus,” he said. “Where is Tara from here?”
“Across the valley, beyond the river Bhóinn.” the boy said. “Do you see that hill, opposite us, over there?” He pointed to the Southern horizon. “It’s still the better part of a day’s journey from here.”
“But we can see it from here. And that means they can see us.” Patricius said, a thoughtful expression on his face.
“True.” Beningus answered.
“Then we shall stop here for now. The sun has fallen low. We would not make it all the way to Tara before dark. And this is a most joyous occasion. It is the vigil of Our Lord’s glorious resurrection! Gather wood for a fire. As much as you can find.”
“But Master Patrick!” the boy exclaimed. “What of the king’s order?”
“I serve but one King, child, and He is Christ, the Ard Rí of the universe. Tonight, we will celebrate His Pasch, and the emergence from the darkness of the tomb after three days. We honor this by lighting a great flame after darkness has fallen, just as the light of the resurrected Lord pierces the darkness of sin in the world. While you gather wood, I will set about preparing for the Holy Mass.”
* * *
Lóegaire was pleased. The table was piled high with good food and wine. Roasted venison and lamb, fresh salmon and oysters brought from the sea, delicious roasted herbs and wild greens, steaming hearth cakes and loaves of bread. The grand feast would not take place until the following day, but he was never one to avoid an occasion to eat, drink, and show off his great bounty to the assembled chieftans. Most had already arrived and now sheltered within his walls. Some would be there in the morning.
From the corner of his eye, he saw Lochru, a snake of a man if ever there was one, come slinking into the banquet hall. He did not walk so much as glide across the floor, his skeletal face buried in shadow beneath a cavernous cowl crowned with the skull and antlers of a buck. His robe was layered with pelts of various colors and textures, and these were girded by one of the man’s prized possessions: a belt braided from human skin, taken from one of his ritual sacrifices. The king found the arch-druid revolting, but he was far too useful to cast off. And likely far too dangerous to make an enemy of.
“Oh King, live forever.” Lochru hissed as he approached the throne. “It seems that the foreign priest has arrived. He has broken your decree; a conflagration blazes now atop the hill of Slane.”
Lóegaire’s stomach knotted. The druid oracles had been warning of coming of the Roman for some time. It was not their custom to succumb to fear, but something about this man, this Patrick, had them in a panic.
“He dares defy me on my own lands?!?” the king bellowed. The conversation in the banquet hall died down instantly at the sound of his voice. All eyes turned in their direction.
“It is worse even than this, Oh King.” Lochru growled, his own voice guttural and full of menace. “This fire, which has been against the royal edict, will blaze forever in this land unless it be this very night extinguished.”
Just then, the druid’s eyes caught the reflection of the blazing hearth. Was it a reflection? The king shuddered inwardly as he saw them glow like embers within the darkness that shrouded his face.
“Go.” Lóegaire ordered. “Find him. Kill him. Bring me his hide.”
“As you command.” Lochru’s voice was no longer entirely his own.
* * *
Patricius and his companions drew strength from the Easter liturgy. They received the precious Body of Christ beside the forbidden paschal flame, kneeling atop the hill. When the Mass was concluded, they stayed together and prayed, watching as Lóegaire’s men approached, on horseback, visible under the silver light of a nearly full moon.
When at last they arrived, the group consisted of ten armed men and half as many druids. The warriors leveled their weapons at the unarmed Christians, and one of the druids stepped forward, pulling back his hood to reveal a clean-shaven head, heavily tattooed with strange shapes and symbols.
“You have violated the decree of Lóegaire, high king of Éire, in the lighting of this flame. For this offense, the king has ordered you all to die.” He motioned with his hand, and the warriors moved to advance.
“You will not harm us.” Patricius responded. His tone was level, but there was iron in his voice. “You have no power even to extinguish this flame.”
The fighting men had stopped when Patricius spoke, but now they looked at each other and laughed. They moved forward again, this time towards the roaring fire. With spears and swords they spread the logs apart, scattering embers, but the flames grew even larger. They pulled oiled skins filled with water from their saddles, and again attempted to extinguish the blaze, but this seemed only to feed the conflagration.
“You cannot extinguish the fires of God’s love for the Éirean people.” Patricius said calmly. “He will have you as his own. You will have no other gods but Him.”
The soldiers turned, enraged, upon Patricius and his companions. With savage cries they lunged at the men, but the Christians merely walked through their midst, suffering not a single blow. Confused and humiliated, the king’s men attempted once again to seize or slay their unarmed foes, only to be held back by some unseen force, unable to proceed.
“I am not here to do my own bidding, but that of Him who sent me.” Patricius locked his gaze on the druid who seemed to be leading the king’s emissaries.
The tattooed man had been observing the ill fortune of the soldiers at his command with growing perplexity. Something within him now rose up, dark and desperate, and it began to take control, grasping to seize his very thoughts and movements. He began, involuntarily, an incantation, in a voice not his own, in a language he did not speak. The violent, repulsive thing moving within him frightened him, but it also made him feel an exhilarating rush of power. He chose not to fight it, but rather to surrender to its whims. He heard his brother druids join in with him, each losing themselves in the trance of the magic. His vision darkened as he saw the power of the spell move outward from him toward the intruders, seeking to crush them, to drive them out of existence.
“Your false gods have no power any longer. It is Jesus, the Incarnate God, who now compels you.” Patricius spoke with an authority that those in his party had never heard.
At the name of Jesus, the druids and the soldiers who accompanied them fell to the ground.
“Go back to your masters.” Patricius said. “Tell them that the feast day of our God is of far greater import than the feast day of your king. In the morning, we will bring Him with us to Tara.”
At that, the king’s men departed in haste, none understanding what had befallen them.
* * *
After a little rest, Patricius and his followers gathered up their things and began their procession towards the palace of the king. Patricius gave to Beningus a book of the Gospels, which, as they at last approached the hill of Tara, he bore aloft, announcing the arrival in that place of the Good News of the Lord. Patricius, who preferred simple dress over ostentation, submitted in humility to the noble trappings of his office. On his head he wore his bishop’s mitre; on his holy person he bore the full regalia of his episcopal attire; in his hand he bore a crosier fashioned from yew, within its crook was nestled an intricate carving of a lamb, crowned with thorns and bearing a cross.
Lóegaire himself came out to face them, accompanied by the gathered chieftans and the men at arms that had journeyed with them from their clans. By the king’s side was yet another druid, his face obscured by darkness, who wore upon his head a pair of antlers that appeared less a decoration than the features of a horned crown.
The king looked every bit the part of the fearsome warrior. He stood head and shoulders above the men gathered near him, his full, copper-colored beard splaid wildly upon his barrel chest. Even beneath his furs and raiment it was clear that he had a thick neck, and shoulders corded with heavy muscle. His hand rested on the hilt of his sword, a buckler strapped to his other wrist.
“Who dares present himself so haughtily, in defiance of his king?” Lóegaire roared. All else were silent. The procession, at last, came to a halt. Patricius stepped forward.
“It is I, Patricius, simple and least faithful servant of my Lord and God, Jesus Christ, and shepherd, though unworthy, of His people. I have come to tell you of His great love, and of His ardent desire for the hearts of your countrymen.”
“Who is this god of yours that he renders my men at arms, and even the magic of my priests, powerless before him?”
“He is the True God, creator of the universe, master of heaven and earth, of sea and river and sun and moon, who gives breath and life to all. He is the King of Kings, who lays low the mighty, and who tolerates no other gods before Him.”
“Mighty words, stranger. We shall see.” Lóegaire nodded almost imperceptibly, his eyes never leaving those of Patricius. The antlered druid stepped forward, and began his own incantation, echoed at some distance by his unseen brothers scattered throughout the assembled crowd.
Patricius could feel power of Satan gathering. He saw his minions rising up from the earth, gathering like stormclouds above the assembly. The sky grew thick with their presence, and darkness descended over the land. Patricius noted that even the eyes of the king grew wide as the supernatural storm coalesced above, though he perceived that to most of those gathered, all that was observed was some mysterious force of nature, not the writhing, fetid bodies of fallen angels. The sky was soon blackened, the sun entirely obscured. The howls of the damned blended with a fearsome gale, frigid and penetrating, and Patricius shivered despite his heavy vestments. The air was filled with the thick and pungent odor of sulfur, of rotting things, of death.
“Lochru!” Patrick shouted above the fearsome din, for the Lord had revealed to his mind that this was the arch-druid’s name. “You play with forces you do not understand! Repent, and be saved from the damnation into which your soul shall surely fall!”
“I understand these powers all too well, priest!” came Lochru’s reply. The voice was not that of a man, but of some rough beast. “I know them, for they are mine to command. They are the legions of my kingdom.”
“Then I defy you, Satan, you deceiver, to make them stop. Let the man Lochru free from your grasp. Send your minions back into the bowels of the earth. Restore the countenance of the sky.”
“I will not!” the devilish voice growled.
“You can not. You have no power over even your own.” Patricius challenged.
The body of the druid moved strangely now, his limbs jerking, his hooded head cocked at a strange angle to his body. He attempted to quell what he had summoned, but nothing happened. The howling increased in pitch and intensity. The winds battered the battle-hardened chieftans, turning their beards to ice, as they cowered like children before the rod.
“WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?!” the monster shrieked.
“It is not I,” Patricius shouted. “It is He, Christ Jesus, who works through me.”
Again, at the name of Jesus, those gathered tumbled to their knees. And no sooner was this done than the storm ceased. The blackness withdrew into the earth like a tide being drawn out to sea. Once again the sun shown bright and clear on the green hill of Tara.
“You will not have this land or its people. I will destroy you!” Lochru snarled. He threw back his hood, revealing a leathery skin not only tattooed, but scarred with strange marks, his face twisted into a hideous rictus of demonic mania. His mouth foamed, eyes rolling back in his head, and his body rose physically from the earth as it spasmed uncontrollably, his hands distorting into the shape of claws. A putrescent odor washed over the clean, grassy scent of the fields, gagging the men who watched, slack-jawed, or turned away in horror from the possessed man ascending above the crowd.
Patricius, moved by the Holy Spirit, fell to his knees and began to pray. His eyes closed, his petitions inaudible, he cried out to God and to the Blessed Virgin, begging them to crush the ancient serpent’s head and vanquish its power over the people of that land.
He opened his eyes at last, made the sign of the cross with his crosier in the direction of the thing now poised to strike him from above, and said, “By my apostolic authority, I bind you, in the name of Jesus, by the power of the Most Precious Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the power of God the Father, the power of the Holy Spirit, the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the blessed Apostles, Peter and Paul, and all the saints and angels, and I command you to depart, to leave those gathered here, and to go to the foot of the Holy Cross to receive your sentence, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.”
Lochru dropped from the sky like a stone. As he fell, his body smashed against the rocks of the crude pagan temple there, the life departing instantly from his broken body. Patricius steadied himself with his crosier and rose to his feet.
“It is Easter.” he said quietly to the astonished chieftains and their king. “It is the great feast day of our God, who today conquered death and darkness when He rose from the tomb. Let us give thanks to Him.”
* * *
Patricius was tired. Lóegaire had, most likely out of fear, allowed him and his followers to stay at his palace at Tara. He had ordered his men, however, to show no honor to the strangers.
The previous day, Patricius had pleaded with Lóegaire to accept what he had witnessed with his own eyes: the power of the True God. The king, stubborn and petulant over his defeat, would not hear it. Yet a young boy, Erc, a page in the royal household, had risen and shown reverence to the bishop, asking to learn about the Christian God.
Now, again, Patricius was standing in field outside the walls of the royal house, pleading with Lóegaire, whom he had been certain would have by now been convinced.
“Let me teach you and your subjects about God.”
“You have defeated my soldiers and my priests. You will not also claim my people.” Lóegaire replied.
A noise arose from the group gathered outside. One of the chieftains cleared his throat, then spoke.
“His God is powerful. This much we know. What have we to lose by hearing his words, oh king?”
Lóegaire glared at the man. He then looked down for a long time, stroking his beard. He was a man defeated, and it clearly upset him. At last, he turned to Patricius.
“And if I agree? What would you teach us about your God, Patrick?”
Patricius felt a swell of hope within him. To know God is to love Him. But how to begin? He heard the bees buzzing happily in the spring clover at his feet, and it came to him. He stooped to pick up sprig with three leaves on one stem.
“The Blessed Trinity. God is one, but He is also three…”
The Confessions of St. Patrick – Christian Classics Ethereal Library
The Catholic Encyclopedia Online – New Advent
Originally published on March 17, 2015.