Patrick’s Confession (13)
And when I was attacked by certain of my seniors, who came and cast up my sins against my laborious episcopate; on that day I was powerfully tempted and might have fallen, now and in eternity. But the Lord showed His benign mercy to His disciple, who is an exile for His Name, and He came mightily to my support in this humiliation. Since it was not through my fault that I was brought into scandal and disgrace, I pray God that it will not be reckoned against them as sin.
They found a pretext from thirty years earlier, bringing against me words of a confession I made before I was a deacon. Because, in an anxious and melancholy state of mind, I had privately told my dearest friend about something I had done one day – indeed, in one hour – when I was a boy, before I had strength of character. I am not sure – God alone knows – if I had yet reached the age of fifteen, and I was still, since my childhood, not a believer in the living God; rather I remained in death and unbelief until I was severely chastised and truly brought down to earth, every day, by hunger and nakedness.
Translation, Liam De Paor, St. Patrick’s World
Patrick breaks into his story of conversion and calling to recount a more recent episode, one which may have had a hand in prompting this Confession in the first place. His “seniors” in Britain had called him to give an accounting for some sin in his life, which he had confessed years before, prior to his becoming a deacon, to a dear friend.
We do not know what the sin was, but it occurred during Patrick’s childhood, and it made a lasting impression of shame. Thinking about becoming a deacon, he must have been weighed down by this sin, whether he had confessed and repented of it sufficiently. He entrusted his anxious concerns to a dear friend, who, later, and for whatever reason, passed along Patrick’s youthful failing to his overseers in Britain. Now they were using this as part of a pretense for trying to get him to come home and report.
Patrick appears to have been greatly alarmed that his superiors had come to know about this. He says he nearly “lost his faith” over the matter; however, rather than see this as some kind of latent Pelagianism in Patrick, we should read this comment as he intends, as a way of extolling the sustaining grace of the Lord. We can hear exasperation in that phrase, “cast up my sins against my laborious episcopate.” He had been working in Ireland for some time, and had known no little success, when this situation was thrown up at him. Had he not proved his calling? Had he not done enough to show that the grace of God was with him?
Patrick was humiliated for this to come out and disgraced by the confrontation with his seniors. However, he does not hold it against them, and he seems to have had no ill feelings toward his friend, who betrayed him.
In Patrick’s mind the situation was over and done with. It was part of the process God had used – together with his enslavement – to bring him down and prepare him for the Gospel and his calling to Ireland. But it is to Patrick’s credit that he still seems to have felt pain and remorse for something committed so long ago. Patrick was secure in the grace and love of God. He clearly resented the intrusions of the bishops in Britain, but, knowing himself to be “a sinner”, he did not hesitate to include this brief account at this point in his Confession, prior to telling of how he took up his calling. He wanted his readers to know about the situation before they learned about the many ways God used him, in spite of his sinfulness.
Patrick will offer a final musing on this situation in the paragraphs that follow. But he considers himself to have been vindicated by God, both in terms of the fruitful ministry he was able to realize, and in dealing with this confrontation and disappointment so late in the course of his episcopate.