St. Patrick and the transforming power of suffering

Yesterday was St. Patrick’s Day, but one of the chief takeaways from his life can be appreciated every day of the year. From this fifth century saint, we see the transforming power of suffering at work. I admit it sounds a bit off to uphold suffering as a good, especially nowadays, when we run from pain in all its forms. But Patrick’s life is a story that only makes sense if we grant suffering’s essential part in the plot. And though it might seem inconceivable for now, our own suffering has the capacity to make our life stories much, much greater than they would be otherwise.

Often, we consider suffering to be a complete waste—a damper on our pursuit of success, pleasure, and overall well-being. There is even a modern tendency in some Christian circles to view suffering as a curse from God. If you’re really a true believer, God will bless you with material prosperity and good health, so the thought goes.

Well, the Christian faith couldn’t be more opposite. The Christian is expected to “take up” one’s “cross” and follow Jesus (Matt. 16:24). There is no guarantee of an easy life. St. Paul didn’t have it easy. Neither did St. Peter—both founding the church of Rome when their own blood. According to tradition, most of the other Apostles were killed for their faith as well. Mary, the first and closest disciple, had to endure watching her son mocked, falsely accused, tortured, and murdered. If you were Pope in the early 200s, chances are you’d be martyred.

Sounds a bit gloomy. After all, how could suffering be part of a good God’s plan? While suffering is inevitable, for the Christian, suffering is not the end of the story. Instead, it is able to act as a springboard to relationship with God and the ultimate good of the human person.

Let’s examine St. Patrick as a case in point.

In his youth, St. Patrick was not a serious Christian. He apparently had a well-to-do family and probably saw no real need for God. He admits to having committed some serious offense when he was fifteen, which some have speculated to be participation in a pagan ritual—something seriously opposed to by the minority Christian population in Roman Britain, his homeland. Or it may been a sexual encounter. Regardless, he admits that he was a lost soul, with no faith in God.

But that all changed. At the age of sixteen, Patrick was taken captive by pirates, brought to Ireland, and sold into slavery. Can you imagine? And for six years! He was tossed into the worst of conditions—far from home, under the whim of nature’s harshness, and with little hope. Naturally, such conditions shook him up, and he fell back on the only thing he had—the faith of his youth.

More and more, Patrick began to pray, even “as many as a hundred prayers” per day, wherever he was, and in whatever condition—“through snow, through frost, and through rain.” Patrick relied on God, who began to transform him:

And there the Lord opened the sense of my unbelief that I might at last remember my sins and be converted with all my heart to the Lord my God, who had regard for my abjection, and mercy on my youth and ignorance, and watched over me before I knew Him, and before I was able to distinguish between good and evil, and guarded me, and comforted me as would a father his son.” – The Confession of St. Patrick

After six years of slavery, Patrick was able to escape back home on a ship. Before long, however, he felt called back to minister to the Irish people. Eventually, he was ordained a bishop and left for Ireland around the year 430.

The Christian population in Ireland had been small, perhaps confined to a single community. But by the time of his death in the mid-400s, the peoples of Ireland had largely converted to Christ. The humble bishop was not without trial, as he often conflicted with the Druid pagans. His life was at stake on multiple occasions. But Patrick was an impressive presence. He baptized tens of thousands, ordained priests, set up hundreds of churches, and even convinced many to become monks and nuns.

St. Patrick’s influence cannot be undervalued.  His missionary activities were so extensive that he has become known as the “Apostle to Ireland.” Monastic communities were set up throughout, and through Irish missionaries, other lands would be gathered into the Christian fold.

But could there ever have been a Saint Patrick without those six formative years as a slave? Would Patrick ever have reached out to God if he had not experienced hardship? Would he have turned to prayer and the faith of his upbringing if he had not lost everything?

I’m willing to bet no. Sure, God could have converted Patrick and used him in some other way. But would he have dedicated himself to a life of intense missionary work? Probably not. Would he have lived a life of extraordinary holiness, performed hundreds of miracles, and converted an entire land? Eh, nah.

The story of Patrick expresses how God likes to work. Make no mistake: God doesn’t wish ill on anybody. But He desires to redeem our suffering. God seeks to bring a resurrection out of every cross. This way is not restricted to the holiest of saints. We can find evidence of it in our own lives. How often have we fled to God, deepened our prayer life, and searched for life’s answers—only after we have suffered in some way!

We can’t always see God at work on this side of Heaven. Sometimes it makes us frustrated and even angry with God. But we can trust that God will make use of our suffering for the good, so long as we let him—just like Patrick did.

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