Reading through the text of St Patrick’s Confession, one is struck again and again by the highly personal and charismatic nature of his walk with God.
One such encounter is described in section 20. It follows after his escape from Irish slavery, and a gruelling 28 day march through a “wilderness” (Brittany?) with the starving pagan crew of the ship. He’s in his early twenties, but has already impressed his captors with his faith and confident trust in God’s provision (and the answers to prayer which have kept them supplied!)
That same night while I was sleeping, Satan strongly put me to the test – I will remember it as long as I live! It was as if an enormous rock fell on me, and I lost all power in my limbs. Although I knew little about the life of the spirit at the time, how was it that I knew to call upon Helias? While these things were happening, I saw the sun rise in the sky, and while I was calling “Helias! Helias!” with all my strength, the splendour of the sun fell on me; and immediately, all that weight was lifted from me. I believe that I was helped by Christ the Lord, and that his spirit cried out for me. I trust that it will be like this whenever I am under stress, as the gospel says: “In that day, the Lord testifies, it will not be you will speak, but the Spirit of your Father who speaks in you.”
The encounter is described as a test (temptation, trial) of Satan where Patrick felt powerless (as if an enormous rock fell on me) and unable to function normally (and I lost all power in my limbs). Remember that he’s in a high-stress situation, surrounded by imminent danger, deprivation and almost hopeless.
But he has been schooled in such situations, during his six years of captivity, to turn to God. Earlier in the text (section 16), he discusses his time as a shepherd at length: I prayed frequently during the day. More and more the love of God increased, and my sense of awe before God. Faith grew, and my spirit was moved, so that in one day I would pray up to one hundred times, and at night perhaps the same. I even remained in the woods and on the mountain, and I would rise to pray before dawn in snow and ice and rain. I never felt the worse for it, and I never felt lazy – as I realise now, the spirit was burning in me at that time.
So though he describes himself as “ignaro in spiritu,” knowing little about the life of the spirit, he knows enough to recognise spiritual attack, and to respond with the energies of prayer.
The reference to Helias is a little obscure. He may be referring to the prophet Elijah (Elias in Latin); just as Jesus on the cross (Matthew 27:46-47) called on God using the Hebrew name “Eli”, and bystanders thought he was calling on Elijah.
Also, there seems to be a play on words, as he refers to the sun shining on him, for the Greek word for “sun” is “Helios.” In section 60, Patrick writes of the sun again, and says that Jesus Christ is the sun that does not perish. And this leads on to another referent, which is almost certainly the passage in Acts 9 relating to the conversion of Saul/Paul. “Suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven: And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice...” Both passages convey the idea of light rendering a journeying man powerless. Patrick recounts how the splendour of the sun fell on me.
It’s a powerful and articulate expression of charismatic experience.
And as the splendour of the sun fell on him, he senses that all that weight was lifted from me. The weight of oppression, anxiety, the consciousness of satanic attack through the very human circumstances which seemed to prevail and almost crush him.
And I believe that I was helped by Christ the Lord, and that his spirit cried out for me. This last note is characteristic. His spirit cried out for me clearly relates to other passages in the Confession where Patrick quotes Romans 8:26,27, where Paul mentions the Spirit interceding on our behalf “with groanings that cannot be uttered.”
It’s part of the way Patrick understood hiumself as joined to Christ, and so personally identified with the mission of his master, that His spirit cried out for me.
He concludes the passage with a real humility: I trust that it will be like this whenever I am under stress, as the gospel says: “In that day, the Lord testifies, it will not be you will speak, but the Spirit of your Father who speaks in you. This is a highly particular interpretation of Matthew 10:19-20: It is not you that speaks, but the Spirit of your Father who speaks in you. Matthew’s verse is about Christian apologetics, but Patrick’s verse refers -it seems to me- to his intense times of prayer and worship.