Christ Within Me
Portrait of Saint Patrick by Mary Cour Burrows
There was a moment recently at a religious conference when I
was standing with a group of people who shared my same interests.
We were holding the same books, using the same language, and I
felt at home.
the other side of the room was an entirely different group. Their
words and ways were different, and I knew from past
experiences with similar groups that there lay a danger of conflict
and rejection. Yet I had a compelling desire to go to the other
side and share something wonderful that I had received. I knew
I could express it in ways that they would understand. In that
moment I felt something akin to the spirit and calling of St.
Patrick, and sharing his desire and boldness, I surprised myself
across the room to the other group.
not always easy to explain the mystery of kinship with saints
and soulfriends we’ve never met. All I know is
that in spiritual companionship,
we have treasures that transcend time and place. For me, the experience
in that room gave me a glimpse into the vocation of St. Patrick
and his words of amazement seemed
to reflect what I was feeling as I stood between the groups.
know, God knows
Whether it was in me or beside me…
The one who gave his life for you,
he it is who speaks
in you. 1
Like all words
of faith, these words come alive in the context of a story. Patrick’s
story is compelling, transforming and powerful. Colorful legends
abound about his life. Two medieval
biographies have some historical authenticity, but it is in his
two actual writings The Confession and the Epistle
to the Soldiers of Coroticus that we see the Patrick who struggled, who prayed,
who preached the gospel, who spoke out against slavery, and who
in the end was one overcome with gratitude.
was born in Britain in the latter part of the fourth century.
father was a deacon in the Roman church as well as an estate
holder. Patrick had some religious training, but it had not affected
his life. At the age of sixteen he was captured by Irish raiders
and taken to Ireland as a slave. Separated from home and family,
he was forced to tend the sheep and cattle on isolated hillsides. In
his loneliness he began to cry out to God and by God’s
mercy he felt lifted up and comforted. This defining moment of
mercy became the touchstone of Patrick’s mission.
was like a stone that lies in deep mud
And he who is mighty came and in his compassion
Raised me up and exalted me very high. 2
Patrick’s companion in those years of isolation.
He learned to trust the spirit, so that when he heard a voice one
night in a dream saying, “Your ship is ready,” he felt
that the power of God was guiding his way for a purpose. He set
off into unfamiliar territory and after a long journey he found
the ship. The ship was his vessel to escape and return home. He
had been six years in captivity and awaited a new life.
Patrick’s new life was beginning, but it would not be the
life that he had envisioned. In the midst of his warm reception
at home, he had a vision of an Irishman bringing letters with voices
crying out, “Holy boy, return and walk among us.” Patrick
could not resist this call. He left the security of his homeland
and returned to Ireland. With little formal education, but remembering
what he had received there, his message was like the old Irish
saying, “I come like a prisoner to give you a key.” Having
knowledge of the language and the innate spirituality of the Celtic
people and their landscape, he was able to weave the Christian
story into an illuminating gospel of God’s power and presence.
At his death in 461, there were Christian communities throughout
would think that Patrick’s Confessions composed at
the end of his life would be a celebration of his marvelous mission.
What surprises us is the depth of his humility. He was called to
preach, and yet he feels inadequate in his education. He
was called to be an example, and yet he confesses his weaknesses.
where Patrick becomes a soulfriend to me. He is a model of one
who abandons his powerlessness to the mighty power of God. The
famous Breastplate Prayer attributed to St. Patrick is an affirmation
to this power.
my shield this day I call a might power.
The Holy Trinity! Affirming three ness,
In the making of all-through love-
For to the Lord belongs salvation
And to the Lord belongs salvation
And to Christ belongs salvation.
when I stand between two opposing groups and realize that reconciling
love is calling, I remember St. Patrick’s faith.
When I step out into unfamiliar territory, I take with me these
encircling words of St. Patrick’s Breastplate:
Christ before me
Christ behind me
Christ within me.
Excerpts from The Life and Writings of the Historical Saint
Patrick by R.P. Hanson, Seabury Press, New York, 1983
1. Confessions, III, 24, p. 94.
2. Confessions, I, 12, p. 84
©2006 Sylvia Maddox