Book Review: Confession of St. Patrick

The Confession of St. Patrick

St. Patrick. The Confession of St. Patrick  and Letter to Coroticus. Translated by John Skinner. New York: Image, 1998.

The Confession of St. Patrick is the story of that ancient first missionary to Ireland. He primarily speaks in his own defense. It is not quite known what the circumstances were that caused him to write it, but at the very least there were rumors about his conduct and spending, and his superiors wanted him to come back to Britain.

He tells his life story here, beginning with his childhood in England. He speaks of being taken prisoner and brought to Ireland by pirates, and then being sold into slavery. Though he was raised in a Christian household, Patrick did not know God as his God. It was in Ireland as he was a slave tending sheep, that he finally began to experience God.

One night he was told in a dream to get up and go, which he did reluctantly. He knew that price would be high if his escape was discovered. He found his way out to a shore, where a boat was about to leave, and had room for one person to climb aboard. Even there, the adventures had only just begun, because the sailors got lost and wound up in Gaul. They were near death from starvation, and they asked Patrick what to do. He told them to call upon the Living God, at which point food immediately became available. The group all converted to Christ, and Patrick became something of a hero.

He came back to his home, took up the training for the diaconate and then to become a presbyter. After many years, he had another dream of the Irish people calling for him to come back and save them. His superiors were not thrilled about this dream, but they eventually sent him out, and he eventually converted thousands of souls.

It seems that Patrick must have used guerilla tactics, since he was essentially a one-man mission team facing off against a country of untamed barbarians who were schooled primarily in vanity and bloodlust. The Irish people were truly a strange bunch, much like their Scottish cousins who had required Hadrian’s Wall to keep them away out of the Romans’ hair. Irish gods were especially terrifying, and it would seem as though the people lived between drunkenness, druidic cults, and wars at any given time. The people who were born into this odd cocktail at the boundary of life were notably hardened, disagreeable, and dangerous.

However Patrick stood his ground, his success is undeniable. He turned the most vicious known nation into a nation of extremist Christians, who became monks and missionaries, and eventually brought Christianity back to the European continent, where the Germans had nearly wiped it out.

Probably the most interesting thing about this account is the extent to which Patrick expresses his own life in the words of Scripture. Nearly every few sentences, Patrick quotes a biblical account of suffering or triumph to express his own life’s story. I find it wonderful, because I think it says something about his relationship to God and to the other authors of Scripture. I think he is saying that he is on the same journey that so many others have been on in the past, and that what happened to Paul has been fulfilled again in his own life, and that God gives his saints similar experiences because they are living in obedience to the same God. It is one of the most satisfying ways I can think of for understanding “fulfilled” kinds of language.