Today marks the second St. Patrick’s Day in a row without celebrations in Ireland, St. Patrick’s country, which is perhaps more appropriate than it sounds. Patrick would understand the experience of having plans upended. The only reason we think of Ireland as his homeland today is because his life did not go to plan. At all. Growing up in Wales (probably), he never thought that his future would be in Ireland, and he didn’t much care for God, either. Then, disaster struck. He tells us in his autobiography: “I was taken prisoner. I was about sixteen at the time. At that time, I did not know the true God. I was taken into captivity in Ireland, along with thousands of others.”
Captured by Irish pirates and enslaved, Patrick lost the next six years. Six. Years. Years that should have been his prime years, from 16 to 22, when he should have been establishing himself as a prosperous adult, like his father before him. Instead, he spent those years tending the sheep of his slave master. He speaks of being “brought low by hunger and nakedness daily” so that he “almost perished.”
Wasted. Lost. Precious time, stolen, unable to be returned. But that’s not how Patrick describes it. After telling us that he almost perished, his next words are: “However, it was very good for me, since God straightened me out, and he prepared me for what I would be today. I was far different then from what I am now.”
The disaster of slavery was a turning point for Patrick. Before, when his life was going according to his own plan, he says “I did not then believe in the living God, not even when I was a child. In fact, I remained in death and unbelief until I was reproved strongly, and actually brought low.” It was not until he faced death that Patrick discovered the source of true life. He had nowhere else to turn, so he turned to God, and God was there. As he tended someone else’s sheep, he prayed. As he prayed, “More and more the love of God increased, and my sense of awe before God. Faith grew, and my spirit was moved.”
Finding God was better than the best of Patrick’s old dreams—so much better that even when he gained his freedom, he later returned to the land of his captivity willingly, purposefully choosing to give the rest of his life to the very people who had treated him so badly. In the process he faced danger, death threats, and imprisonment. They didn’t stop him. He had found life, and he was confident that nothing could take it from him. Instead, he gladly used his own, temporary life on earth to bring the life of Christ to Ireland. As Jim Elliot said centuries later, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” Patrick was no fool. He is, right now, enjoying what he cannot lose. And even those years that seemed to be lost in solitude and slavery, pointless and wasted, were the years when Patrick was found by God. They were years that would change the course of his life, a life that would change the course of a nation, a nation that would change the course of the world.
As we face our own losses today, I pray that we also, like Patrick, will one day be able to look back and see that no time is lost if it brings us closer to God.