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History Of The Scottish Nation
Vol 2, Chapter 11 - Patrick finds peace; Preparation for future work; Escapes from Ireland


Now, at last, a hand was put forth to heal this sorely wounded man. As he lay on the mountains of Antrim, stricken down by an unseen but mighty power, with no friend by his side to pour oil into his wounds and bind up his sores, there passed by One who turned and looked with compassion upon him, and stretching out His hand lifted him out of the "mire" to use his own phrase, in which he lay. "HE WHO ALONE IS ABLE" are the few simple but emphatic words in which Patrick records this mighty transaction, "He who alone is able came, and in His mercy lifted me up."

This deliverer, Patrick saw, had Himself been wounded, and so deeply wounded that He still retained the marks of His sufferings. Hence His sympathy, which would not let Him pass by and leave Patrick to die of his hurt. Drawing near to him, and showing him the wounds in His own hands and feet, and the scar deep graven in His side, He said to Patrick, "Fear not: I bore your sins on the bitter tree. All is forgiven you. Be of good cheer."

These words were not altogether new to the son of Calpurnius. He had heard them, or their equivalents, in his early home. They had been woven into his father's prayers, and they had received yet more formal statement in his mother's counsels and instructions. But he had failed to grasp their momentous import. The salvation which they announced was to him a matter of no immediate concern. What mattered it to Patrick whether this salvation were an out-and-out gift, or whether it were wages to be worked for and earned like other wages? What good would this birthright do him? So thought he then, but it was otherwise now. He saw that without this salvation he was lost, body and soul, for ever. When, therefore, these truths, so commonplace and meaningless before, were heard again, he felt as if the finger of a man's hand had come forth and written them before him in characters of light, and written them specially for him. The veil dropped. He saw that the words were "eternal life," not an abstract dogma announced for the world's assent, but an actual gift held out for his own acceptance. He knew now what the wounds in the hands and feet of that compassionate One who had passed by him signified. He saw that they had been borne for him; and so he cast himself into His arms. A wonderful joy sprang up in his soul. In that moment the bolt of his dungeon was drawn back, and Patrick walked forth into liberty—into a new life.

The future apostle of Ireland, and through Ireland of Northern Europe, now clearly saw that it was not his own tears, though copious and bitter, nor his cries, though frequent and loud, which had opened the door of that dark prison in which he had so long sat. It was God's sovereign blessed hand which had flung back that ponderous portal, and brought him forth. There he would have been sitting still had not that gracious One passed by him, and shown him His wounds. He had been travelling on the great broad road which the bulk of Christendom was to pursue in the ages that were to come, that even of self-inflicted penance and self-righteous performances. But journey as he might he came no nearer the light; around him was still still the darkness, within him was still the horror. He had not caught even a glimmer of the dawn. But when the sight of the Wounded One was vouchsafed to him it was as when the sun rises on the earth. He saw himself already at the gates of that Peace which he had begun to despair of ever finding. Thus was Patrick made to know the better and the worse road, that standing, as he did, at that eventful epoch, when Christendom was parting into two companies, and going to the right and to the left, he might lift up his voice and warn all, that of these two paths, the beginnings lie close together, but their endings are wide apart, even as death and destruction are from life. From tending his master's swine, on the bleak hillside, amid the stormy blasts, Patrick was taken to teach this great lesson at this formative epoch to the men of Christendom, having himself first been taught it. But not just yet was he to enter on his work.

As aforetime, weighed down by the great sorrow that lay upon him, he felt not the pangs of hunger, nor regarded the rude buffeting of the tempest, so now, the new-born joy, that filled his soul, made him equally insensible to the physical discomforts and sufferings to which he was still subjected. He was still the slave, if not of his first master, of some other chieftain into whose hands he had passed; for he speaks of having served four masters; and the vile drudgery of the swine-herd continued to occupy him from day to day; but, no longer sad at heart, the hills which aforetime had re-echoed his complainings now became vocal with his joy. It was his wont to rise while it was yet dark, that he might renew his song of praise. It mattered not though the earth was clad in snow and the heavens were black with storm he "prevented the dawning," not now to utter the cry of anguish, but to sing "songs of deliverance."He tells us in his "Confession" that he rose, long before daylight, and in all weathers, in snow, in frost, in rain, that he might have time for prayer; and he suffered no inconvenience therefrom, "for," says he, "the spirit of God was warm in me."

Patrick had now received his first great preparation for his future work. His conversion was arranged, as we have seen, in all its circumstances, so as to teach him a great lesson; and in the light of that lesson he continued to walk all his life after. It brought out in clear, bold relief, the freeness and sovereignty of God's grace. No priest was near to co-operate with his mystic rites in effecting his conversion, no friend was present to assist him with his prayers. Patrick was alone in the midst of the pagan darkness; yet there we behold him undergoing that great change which Rome professes to work by her sacraments, and which, she tells us, cannot be effected without them. How manifest was it in this case that the "new creature" was formed solely by the Spirit working by the instrumentality of the truth—the truth heard when young, and recalled to the memory—to the entire exclusion of all the appliances of ecclesiasticism. What a rebuke to that Sacramentalism which was in that age rising in the church, and which continued to develop till at last it supplanted within the Roman pale the Gospel. And what a lesson did his conversion read to him, that "not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us." When Patrick presented himself at his Heavenly Father's door, it was in no robe woven on his own loom, it was in no garment borrowed or bought from priest; he came in his rags— the rags of his corrupt nature and sinful life, and begged for admittance. Was he told that in this beggarly attire he could not be admitted? was he bidden go back to the Church, and when she had purified him by her rites and penance, return and be received? No! the moment he presented himself, his Father ran and fell upon the neck of the wretched and ragged man, and embraced him and kissed him. Thus did Patrick exemplify, first of all, in his own person, the sovereignty of grace, and the power of the truth, before being sent forth to preach the Gospel to others. It was here that he learned his theology. He had no Bible by him, but its truths, taught him when young, revived in his memory, and he read them all over again by the new light which had dawned in his soul. They were more palpable and clear than when he had read them on the actual page, for now they were written not with pen and ink, they were graven by the Spirit on the tablets of his heart. A theology so pure he could not have learned in any school of Christendom at that day. Patrick drew his theology from the original and unpolluted fountains: the Word of God, and the Spirit; the same at which the apostles had drunk on the day of Pentecost. It was the theology of the early church, which in God's providence is ever renewed when a Divine revival is to visit the world.

Patrick was now replenished with the gift of Divine knowledge, but he was not immediately let go from bondage, and sent forth to begin his great mission. He needed to have his experience deepened, and his knowledge enlarged. If meditation and solitude be the nurse of genius, and if they feed the springs of bold conception and daring effort, not less do they nourish that sublimer genius which prompts to the loftier enterprises of the Christian, and sustain at the proper pitch the faculties necessary for their successful accomplishment. The young convert, led by the ardour of his zeal, is sometimes tempted to rush into the field of public labour, his powers still immature. Patrick was preserved from this error, and it was essential he should, for the work before him was to be done not at a heat, but by the patient and persistent forth-putting of fully ripened powers. He lacked, as yet, many subordinate qualifications essential to success in his future mission. He must learn the dialect of the people to whom he was afterwards to proclaim the Gospel. He must study their dispositions and know how access was to be obtained to their hearts. He must observe their social habits, their political arrangements, and above all, he must ponder their deep spiritual misery, and mark the cords with which idolatry had bound them, that at a future day he might undo that heavy yoke, and lead them forth into the same liberty into which a Divine and gracious hand had conducted himself. Therefore was he still retained in this land, a slave to his master—though the sting had now been taken out of that slavery, and though occupied in ignoble tasks, learning all the while noble lessons.

Six years had passed away, and now Patrick had fulfilled his appointed term of captivity. Dreams of escape from Ireland began to visit him by night. In his sleep he heard a voice saying to him, "Youth, thou fastest well, soon thou shalt go to thy native home—lo! thy ship is ready." Was it wonderful that the exile should see in his sleep his fatherland, and imagine himself there again, or on the way thither? Without seeing miracle or vision in this, as many of his biographers have done, we see none the less the mysterious touches which the Divine Hand sometimes gives to the human spirit when "deep sleep falleth on man." Patrick knew that his captivity was wholly of Divine ordering; he knew also that it had gained its end; and this begot in him an ardent hope that now its close was not distant, and by night this hope returned clothed in the vivid drapery of an accomplished reality. The dream gave him spirit and courage to flee.

How far the youth had to travel, or at what point of the coast he arrived, it is impossible to determine amid the dubious and conflicting accounts of his biographers. The "Book of Armagh" makes Patrick journey two hundred miles; the "Scholiast on Fiacc" reduces the distance to sixty, others say a hundred. Lanigan makes him arrive at Bantry Bay.[1] On reaching the shore he saw, as it had seemed in his dream, a ship lying close in land. The sight awoke within him a yet more intense desire to be free. Lifting up his voice, he besought the captain to take him on board. A refusal, much to his chagrin, was the reply sent back. An emaciated figure, clad in the garb of a swine-herd, the plight doubtless in which Patrick presented himself, was not an attractive object, nor one fitted to make the ship's crew wish to have any nearer acquaintance with him. The ship was on the point of departing without him. He sent up a prayer to heaven—the cry of a heart that panted for deliverance and fully confided in God. It was the act of an instant. The voice was again heard speaking to him from the ship, and telling him that the captain was willing to take him on board.

The sail spread and the anchor lifted, we behold the vessel, with Patrick on board, ploughing her way through the waters of the Irish Channel, her prow turned in the direction of the British shore. The youth was fleeing from slavery, with all its humiliating and brutalizing adjuncts, but with a heart full of thankfulness that the day had ever dawned upon him—the darkest he had ever seen, as he then deemed it; the happiest of all his life, he now saw it to be, when the robber-band, darting from their galleys, and enclosing the quiet village of Bonaven, made him their prey, and carried him captive to that land whose mountains, in his flight from it, were now sinking behind him. By losing his liberty he had found it, but he had found a better liberty than the liberty he lost. Nor—though the crime reflected disgrace not only on its perpetrators, but also on the country to which they belonged—had Ireland cause to reflect, save with profoundest gratitude, as the sequel will show, on an occurrence which had brought this youth to its shore, and retained him so many years a bondsman.


Footnote

1. See Todd's Life of St. Patrick, p. 36, Dublin, 1864.


 

 


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