Saint Patrick’s Sinning Past December 17, 2010Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient , trackback
Most saints begin life as, well, saints. They help their parents with chores; they annoy more normal brothers and sisters; and they make discreet enquiries into career prospects for monks and nuns. However, there are some – Beachcombing likes to think of them as ‘the rogues’ – who have more colourful pasts. Typically these men or women sow wild seeds in their youth before a dramatic conversion in middle age. They add colour and spirit to the monotony of sanctity. And it is Ireland’s special privilege to count their own patron, St Patrick, among these dilettantes.
Usually it is left to later biographers to cover up the indiscreet youth of ‘the rogues’. But this was never possible with Patrick because he wrote, back in the fifth century, an autobiography, the Confessio, where he himself decried his past sins. The Confessio is short and is more of an apology than a conventional narrative of his life – there is, for example, no straightforward chronology. However, from his words we do gather some important facts about his misspent early years that are perhaps surprising for those, like Beachcombing, who associate Patrick with dying snakes and clover patches.
One of the big shocks is Patrick’s nationality. Ask anyone where Patrick was from and nine out of ten will answer ‘Ireland, of course’. In fact, Patrick grew up in a wealthy family in Roman or post Roman Britain. Patrick’s family was Christian – his grandfather had been a priest. But Patrick insists that their faith was superficial and as a teenager, in the saint’s words: ‘[I] did not know the true God’.
Typically rogue saints have a kind of mid-life crisis after which they begin to live holy lives. However, Patrick is unusual in this respect, because he set out on his road to Damascus at a very young age.
Beachcombing says ‘set out’. In fact, Patrick was given a push…
In his mid teens (‘almost sixteen’), Patrick was visiting ‘a little villa’ that his family owned – frustratingly no one knows where in Britain Patrick lived – when it was suddenly attacked by Scotti. The Scotti were Irish pirates who, in the late fourth and early fifth century, regularly attacked Britain in search of slaves and Patrick ‘with so many thousands of others’ was dragged away into captivity in Ireland. Once there he was sold to an Irish warlord – unreliable tradition tells us in Donegal – and Patrick was sent out to look after his master’s sheep in the wilds. It was a dramatic change for a teenager from a rich Romano-British family. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, hardship worked changes, the now penitent Patrick turning towards God.
‘…after I reached Ireland I pastured the flocks every day and I used to pray many times a day; more and more did my love of God and my fear of Him increase, and my faith grew and my spirit was stirred, and as a result I would say up to a hundred prayers in one day, and almost as many at night; I would even stay in the forests and on the mountains and would wake to pray before dawn in all weathers, snow, frost and rain; and I felt no harm and there was no listlessness in me – as I now realise, it was because the Spirit was fervent within me.’
Of his boyhood we know little else. But Patrick does tell us that, in his late teens or early twenties, he managed to escape from his master and found his way, after various adventures, back to his family in Britain. However, Patrick’s experience in the Irish hills had changed him. And, like many Britons who came after and lived for a time there, he could not forget Ireland. Following a vision – Patrick would probably have been diagnosed with schizophrenia in the twenty-first century – he announced to his horrified family that he wanted to return to convert the very people who had enslaved him. It was a decision that defined Patrick and that changed history.
Patrick also alludes in his writing to a great sin that the saint committed in his youth before going to Ireland, that he revealed to a confessor and that later, embarrassingly, became public knowledge. What this sin was no one today knows, though Beachcombing has spent most of the afternoon with flu in bed trying to guess.
‘They [Patrick’s elders or congregation] brought up against me after thirty years an occurrence I had confessed before becoming a deacon. On account of the anxiety in my sorrowful mind, I laid before my close friend what I had perpetrated on a day – nay, rather in one hour – in my boyhood because I was not yet proof against sin. God knows – I do not – whether I was fifteen years old at the time, and I did not then believe in the living God, nor had I believed, since my infancy; but I remained in death and unbelief until I was severely rebuked, and in truth I was humbled every day by hunger and nakedness.’
So the sin has to be (i) committable by a fifteen year old, (ii) doable ‘in an hour’ and (iii) serious enough that Patrick’s fellow Christians were scandalised thirty odd years later. Patrick, in fact, almost lost his job as bishop over this buried mistake.
Any suggestions: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com.
Beachcombing would put his money on some form of sexual activity, deviant by late antique standards (that covers pretty much the whole gamut).
He finds it interesting that Patrick does not mention said sin. Beachcombing bets a macho undercurrent in Patrick would have recalled a murder or wounding and, in any case, the chances are that Patrick would not have referred to these in terms of ‘an hour’.
Irish tradition interestingly has obliterated all memory of the peccatum.
31 Jan 2010: Richard R. writes into suggest a homosexual act as Patrick’s forgotten sin. This is surely the obvious choice. The Roman Empire was wide open to a whole range of sexual activities that began to be frozen out in the late Empire with the coming of Christianity and other ‘mystery’ religions, enemies all of the body. Perhaps Patrick found himself in a peripheral province where the memo from central office had not got through? Or perhaps his physical urges simply overpowered him? Lying in bed last night Beachcombing was also remembering that there is more to sin than sex and violence. One of the crimes listed by early Western penitentials, for example, was to guide barbarian raiders. Did Patrick show a party of Scotti to a nearby settlement?! Thanks Richard!
24 Feb 2015: EC make a breathtaking suggestion. Patrick’s was a sexual sin with…. his sheep! Beach knows the literature well and this is the first time such a thing has been suggested. The Irish pentitentials did have penance for coupling with animals.