Patrick, child of a Christian family, was captured and brought as a slave to pagan Ireland.
At the end of the fourth century, Roman Britain experienced what we would describe today as cutbacks. The imperial city itself was threatened by barbarian hordes, and its protection required that the legions be recalled from some of the more remote corners of the Empire. The minor nobility of Britain, to which Patrick’s family belonged, put a brave face on this development and tried to carry on as if nothing had happened. Times were unsettled, with growing problems of lawlessness and little or no defence against raids and kidnappings by Irish savages, but no one doubted that in due course the peace of the empire, Pax Romana, would prevail.
Calpurnius was a prominent official in a town called Bannavan Taburniae and Patrick was his son. Although nobody knows for sure where this place was, it probably stood on the west coast of Britain – anywhere from the Firth of Clyde to the Severn Estuary. As was quite normal for members of the nobility, Calpurnius was also a deacon and his father, Potitus, was a priest. One reason for getting ordained in those days was to avoid the heavy burden of tax, but it would be wrong to assume that these men were motivated solely by self-interest. In later years, Patrick would speak highly about the clergy he knew as a youngster and he regretted having paid no heed to their warnings.
It is likely that Calpurnius and his father were decent, conscientious people who saw their civil and religious duties as part of one allegiance. They were, after all, citizens of a Christian empire. In those anxious years after the departure of the legions, Calpurnius and his fellow magistrates must have struggled to keep up an appearance of normality. Any thought that the legions might not return must have been dismissed as defeatist. They must have spoken about the achievements and values of Roman civilization to their children and this impressed the young Patrick because years later his writings were informed by an eager but thoughtful loyalty to the Empire.
The young Patrick
There is little about Patrick’s early years in his writings but he does speak of one incident which happened within the space of an hour when he was fourteen. He gives no details except to say that in later years it would weigh upon his conscience. At the time, however, it seems to have had little effect one way or another because it did not repeat itself, nor did it alter his casual disregard for what he heard in church. The impression we get of Patrick during those early years is of a lively but easy-going youth with perhaps a single, carefully-guarded secret.
In spite of the growing political uncertainty, Patrick’s home life would have been comfortable and self-assured. The family had slaves who would have done the menial, household tasks and Calpurnius would have been a man of standing in the community. On the coast, not too far from Bannavan Taburniae, the family had a summer residence and it was there, when Patrick was sixteen, that disaster struck. ‘I was taken into captivity in Ireland with so many thousands’ (Conf. 1).
No doubt Calpurnius had often stood on the shore near his house looking out to sea but all the comfort and familiarity of that scene would have been destroyed on the day Patrick was taken prisoner. In the years which followed, even the good memories would have become a source of grief and the place itself must have felt strange and somehow distant:
By the waters of Babylon
We sat down and wept
leaving our harps,
hanging on the poplars there. (Psalm 137:1-2)
Captivity and exile
Patrick, a Roman citizen, son of Calpurnius, grandson of Potitus, stood barefoot among sheep in a pagan place. Hardly a month had passed since he had been lying on his own bed in Bannavan Taburniae on the brink of falling asleep. The peace of the night was suddenly shattered. There were shouts and screams. Patrick was about to go and see what was happening when wild men came and took hold of him.
They dragged him out into the night air. As he tried to resist, they beat him and threw him half naked into a boat. Others were thrown into the boat with him, and the voyage which followed was endless and miserable. It was cold and everyone was afraid. In spite of his fear, or perhaps because of it, Patrick was thinking of how he could escape. He had no plans, no ideas, but he was determined to flee for home because he had no other way of imagining the future, no other point of reference, except that hope.
The boat finally reached dry land and in the days and weeks which followed he was constantly on the look-out for an opportunity to run away. But his captors were watching him and he knew that, if he ran, he could not get far because this was their land and he was a stranger. He would be recognised and no one would have any mercy. They had killed before and would not hesitate over killing him. Even if he did escape, he would have to find some way of crossing the sea. Slowly it dawned on him that he was alone on a mountainside in a foreign country with no one to speak to, no one to trust.
Terror and rage
Tears came. Tears of rage. Why did it have to be him? Why was he the unlucky one? Tears of loneliness. Would he ever see his family again? Would he ever see Bannavan Taburniae? Perhaps there was still hope. Soon they would have to send legions to Ireland to liberate all the Roman citizens who had been enslaved. They would never just leave him there.
Tears of dejection. What would become of him? How would these barbarians treat him? He couldn’t spend the rest of his life looking after sheep. Even the most miserable slave in the Empire had a better life than that. It would drive him mad.
He had to spend six years without the companionship and human warmth which are so helpful in the awkward and painful emergence into adulthood. Yet there must have been moments when he was grateful for an unexpected kindness because, in spite of the hardship of his life, a deep love was forming in his heart for those very people who enslaved him.
In the strength of God
Many years later, Patrick wrote about this time, how God made him aware of his lack of faith and his sinfulness and how he came to know God as a loving Father who watched over and cared for him. He prayed at every opportunity – day or night, in the woods or on the mountainside, in snow, frost or rain. He thought nothing of it ‘because the Spirit was fervent within me’ (Conf. 16).
One night, in his sleep, a voice told him that a ship was waiting to bring him to freedom and, as a result, he set out on a journey of two hundred miles. He didn’t know where he was going but ‘in the strength of God who guided my way to the good’ (Conf. 17) arrived at the ship on the day it was to set sail. At first the captain refused to take him but Patrick prayed and the captain changed his mind.
We can imagine Patrick’s happiness during that voyage, being carried to freedom and knowing that, but for the care of a loving God, none of this would have been possible. There, under the sky far out to sea, it must have been a foretaste of heaven:
When the Lord brought Zion’s captives home
it seemed like a dream,
then our mouths filled
with laughter, our lips with song. (Psalm 126: 1-2)