The Spirituality of St Patrick

These excerpts are taken from an essay by Christopher O’Donnell, O.Carm., which appears in “St Patrick: Spirit and Prayer” and are reproduced here with permission.

We have from St Patrick two brief works: his Confession, a spiritual autobiography, and an angry letter to the soldiers of the pirate Coroticus who had kidnapped and murdered some of Patrick’s Christians.

Every time we read the Confession we can be struck by some other new thought. There are any number of ways of summing up this great work in a few words, depending on what element of Patrick’s teaching or complex personality we focus on at a particular time. But there is perhaps one key to his spirituality, what he called the “desire of his life” which he wants others to know. This lies somehow in his single-mindedness. He had fallen in love with God, he wanted nothing but what God wanted. God’s will was expressed for him in the very concrete terms of a mission in exile – so nothing else mattered.

People today seek spirituality. Some find a value, a meaning for their lives which continues to sustain them. Others try on spiritualities like new clothes, and abandon them when they become tired of them. Patrick shows us a spirituality, which is very simple. He is loved, blessed and called by God and he responds. Patrick had stickability. His holy mountain in the West of Ireland – Croagh Patrick – has many lessons for us. We can see its majestic summit from a distance. But as we begin to climb, the summit vanishes and all we can see is the intervening slope. The summit is often covered by fog. For ordinary people Croagh Patrick is quite a difficult climb, and it demands grit and determination to get to the top. Patrick can lead us to ascend life’s mountain where, like Moses and Patrick, we meet the living God.

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Saint Patrick is the patron saint and apostle of Ireland. He was born about the year 389 in what was then Roman Britain, possibly in Wales. Around the year 403 he was carried off by pirates and sold as a slave in Ireland where he remained for six years before escaping back to Britain. However, the call of the people of Ireland was ever with him and so he became a priest and was consecrated bishop by St Germanus at Auxerre. He returned to Ireland to take up the missionary work of St Palladius. He travelled about the island bringing the message of the Gospel and his work was supported by miracles, though much of his life is now unknown to us. There are only two writings of his known to us today, of which the Confessions are the largest and most important. Patrick established what is now the primatial church of Ireland at Armagh about the year 444.

He died at Saul on Strangford Lough in northeast Ireland about 461. At Saul there is a grave reputed to be that of St Patrick and also of St Brigid and St Columba (also known as St Colmcille). The three bodies are said to have been brought there by John De Courcy in the twelfth century, thereby fulfilling the old legend that the three saints should lie together in the same place in death.

Patrick’s feastday is celebrated with full solemnity in Ireland and throughout many parts of the world on March 17.

In the west of Ireland there is a mountain named after the saint – Croagh Patrick – to which many thousands of pilgrims come each year to climb to top of this stony mountain and to pray for Patrick’s protection on Ireland and its people. Many still complete the walk barefoot.

“St Patrick: Spirit and Prayer” by Jude Groden, RSM, with essay on the spirituality of St Patrick by Christopher O’Donnell, O.Carm. © Jude Groden and Christopher O’Donnell, O.Carm. 2002. ISBN: 0 85597 637 3. Published by McCrimmons: Great Wakering, Essex, England.