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Patrick's greatest lesson: humility

Usually we honor great men and women by celebrating their birthdays. But St. Patrick is different.

Today we celebrate his "death day." Not because he died singing in the flames as a martyr but because his beginnings were so humble no one knows when he came into the world.

Most people have heard what's been said about St. Patrick — how he drove the snakes from Ireland and used the three-leafed shamrock to teach pagans about the Holy Trinity — but few have heard what the good saint had to say for himself. So the other day I took some time to sift through St. Patrick's "Confessions," his final words to the world before returning to God's green acre.

The "Confessions" are short — about 62 Bible-style verses — but they are pressure-packed with religion. We learn about Patrick's youth, about his life in captivity and his Christian conversion. We learn of his return to Ireland and his success as a missionary.

But, for me, the most striking thing about Patrick's last testament is its humility. He never revels in his success because, to his mind, he was never successful. God was successful.

He begins his "Confessions," "I, Patrick, a sinner, a most simple countryman," then he goes on to say, "I am presuming to try to grasp in my old age what I did not gain in my youth because my sins prevented me from making what I read my own. . . ."

How many people over 50 haven't had similar feelings?

What caught and held my eye in the "Confessions," however, was how Patrick compared his former self to a stone — dense, dull and hard-hearted. He writes:

"Before I was humbled I was like a stone lying in deep mire, and he that is mighty came and, in his mercy, raised me up and, indeed, lifted me high up and placed me on top of the wall. And from there I ought to shout out in gratitude to the Lord for his great favours. . . ."

In Patrick's era, as in biblical times, stone was the most unbreakable element on earth. It may be why Satan tempted Christ to turn stones into bread. Softening stones would be a major miracle. Didn't Moses strike a stone with his staff and produce fresh, life-giving water? Did Moses have more power than Jesus? (Jesus eventually did soften stones, of course — hearts of stone.)

And when Jesus told the Pharisees that God could raise up "children of Abraham" from nearby stones, the rebuke must have hit hard — not unlike someone telling us today that being church members doesn't make us superior. God can turn clumps of lead into church members.

When God lifted Patrick "the stone" to the top of the wall, Patrick still saw himself as a stone.

He didn't believe he was something special. He believed he was made by someone special. In his lifetime, Patrick supposedly baptized 100,000 souls and built 200 churches. And he could do that because he believed he hadn't done any of it. His gaze was always on the Almighty.

That attitude shows up in another piece of Patrick's writing, his famous "breastplate prayer," a prayer that ends with the hypnotic incantation: "Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ on my right, Christ on my left, Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down, Christ when I arise. . . ."

You don't become a saint because you cleanse a country of snakes. You become a saint because you cleanse your heart of the serpents there — as Patrick did.

In the end, Patrick lived so long ago (about A.D. 400) that some people wonder if he was real at all. But his breastplate prayer and "Confessions" show us the man was very real indeed — more real, in fact, than a good many people we pass every day.