When we last left off Patricius, or as he would later be known, Patrick, was fasting (much to the consternation of the Irish)… the hunger pains had probably long since passed and now he was in that strange twilight of malnourishment, where he tells us that he felt neither illness nor fatigue… a fact he attributed to the strength of the Holy Spirit.
One night he was asleep in his bunk when he heard a voice in the darkness.
I like to imagine that it was a bit socially awkward and opened up with something like “Hey…. uh…. how’s it going?”
But Patrick tells us that the dream voice simply said “You have fasted well – soon you will be going home.”
So even without my awkward opening, can you imagine the confusion that must have followed that event? First of all, on a very basic level he was hearing voices. How bizarre is that? Did he think he was going crazy? Even the most pious of people would probably have not assumed that it was god speaking to them. After all, that is an extremely prideful leap of faith to make. Why would god, or his messengers, speak to a poor British slave?
What made him so important as to deserve that level of attention? Why not speak to the Emperor and help guide Rome… why him?
Furthermore, why would he be going home? Wasn’t this his lot in life? Many Christians owned slaves, even Christian slaves. His father was a Christian and he owned slaves, in fact. What he was suffering wasn’t an affront against god, it was merely a burden that he must endure. And besides, this was all temporary… the religious education he likely received in his childhood would have comforted him and reminded him that this was all a passing matter, and that what was to come in the afterlife was the most important part of his existence. So he simply needed to bear the weight of his life well and keep his eye firmly fixed on the afterlife.
The fasting would have all been a part of that. A spiritual cleansing of a sort.
And then along came this voice telling him that he would be leaving. How? When?
He came to Ireland as a teenager, and now he was in his twenties. He wasn’t so naive as to believe he would be freed by his master. The Irish didn’t treat their slaves the way the Romans did. Even if he was exceptional, it was highly unlikely that he would ever be freed or given the chance to buy his freedom. That wasn’t part of Irish culture.
So how would he go home? Was the voice talking of escape? How on earth would he accomplish that? Ignoring the fact that this was nearly irreligious as it was focused upon the temporal life rather than the spiritual one, escape was basically impossible. Irish law didn’t mess around when it came to slavery. First of all, it was quite possible that he’d be put to death if he was caught. So that right there was a hell of a deterrent. But beyond that, if you came across an escaped slave you were required to return him or her. The law was clear and lacked exceptions, even if you were a king you’d have to return the slave.
So he couldn’t count on any help on his flight through the countryside. Actually, everyone would be an enemy, and he would also stand out like a sore thumb with his British accent.
And then to make matters even worse, Ireland is an island (I know, I’m blowing your mind here). But this is significant, because how on earth are you going to get off the island when you’re an escaped slave without any money and the entire island is bound by law to return you to your master? It isn’t like you could just board a ship. What… are you going to swim back home?
This was complete madness!
Maybe he dismissed the voice in his dream as his own despair and nothing more.
And then the next night he heard the voice again. He was told that a ship was ready for him, and even told him where to find it.
Two hundred miles to the south.
TWO HUNDRED MILES!?!
Through enemy territory! Through lands unknown to him! Even in friendly territory, this would be a journey that could take weeks. Sources from roughly around this period report that going from one side of Ireland to the other (which was around 150 miles) could take almost three weeks. And that’s walking out in the open and using roads.
But here we are talking of 200 miles and Patrick would have to hide, maybe only travelling at night, avoiding villages, avoiding known crossings, avoiding roads… this was not a small matter for the young man. It could have taken well over a month from him to get to the harbor. And he was a noble turned shepherd. He was no expert on foraging or hunting… how would he feed himself? It wasn’t like he could steal food, that would put him too close to the very people who would be hunting him. Besides, that would have broken one of god’s commandments, and it would hardly be fitting to be following the word of god while at the same time breaking the rules.
And it wasn’t as if he had a bunch of body fat upon which he could draw from, he was already fasting. And fasting at home was very different from fasting while on the run.
This was a nightmare scenario.
But he was now convinced that it was god that was speaking to him, so he had to trust in that and go.
Now interestingly, Patrick tells us how far he went, but he doesn’t tell us where he went nor does he tell us where he lived during those years in captivity. This is one of many things that have cast doubt upon Patrick’s story. And I think that doubt is completely warranted. This tale of escape seems very unlikely, but we will continue our tale.
So on one particular night, Patrick decided to heed the call of of the voice and set off into the unknown. We don’t know what he brought with him, if anything. I would hope he brought at least some provisions, since his journey would take so long, but we just don’t know. And while we don’t know where he left from and where he was headed, it’s hard to say what course he took. Naturally. But given the length of his journey and the fact he was seeking a harbor, it’s a fair guess to assume that he was crossing from the Western part of Ireland to the eastern. Meaning that for the initial portion of his journey the weather would have been some of the harshest that Ireland could throw at him. He would have had to have crossed rivers and trek through unfriendly hillsides. The evenings were probably bitterly cold. And on several occasions he probably had to sleep in wet clothing, as lighting a fire would have been far too big of a risk.
But after a long and brutal journey through hostile territory, Patrick finally made it to the Harbor that the voice described. And here’s where Patrick truly became terrified. No longer was he moving through the hills and valleys alone, hiding from any signs of life. He didn’t have to interact with anyone, and thus his thick accent wouldn’t give him away. But now he had to find a way to get on a ship… how on earth could he accomplish that without being caught? How was he going to find someone willing to allow him to board the ship when he couldn’t provide any payment and there was probably a fairly sizable reward for returning him to his master?
There, watching the harbor from a safe distance, Patrick must have felt beyond hope. All he had was the voice from his dream to guide him. But maybe that was enough. So he spotted a ship making preparations to set sail, and he steeled himself and approached the captain. The ship itself was crewed by Pagans, which means that they were might have been Irish merchants or slavers. But Patrick had to take the chance. He asked to join the crew.
Several months ago, that might have been a tempting offer. Patrick was probably strong, weatherbeaten, and hard from his years as a slave. But that was before the fasting and before the likely months of starvation as he travelled across Ireland. By this point, Patrick must have been mostly skin and bones, his eyes sunken in, his skin sallow. Hardly the sort of man that a busy Captain would have wanted to take on board.
And as you might imagine, the Captain refused the offer, telling him that there was no way Patrick would set sail with them.
What now? What could he do? He was exposed and this captain wasn’t going to let him come with him. Maybe he could ask another captain, but every time he did that he risked getting turned in. Every time he opened his mouth, he ran the risk of a passerby recognizing his foreign accent and putting two and two together.
Patrick tells us that he started to pray and began walking back to his hiding spot, where he had spent the night before. And then he heard one of the sailors shout to him, asking him to return.
Patrick doesn’t tell us what went through his mind at that point, but you have to wonder, don’t you? Was he tempted to run? I think I would have probably considered it. The guilt and fear of getting caught as a runaway would have clouded any possibility that maybe something good might come of it. If it were me, I think upon being called upon, I would have legged it.
But Patrick didn’t. He turned and faced the Captain, and this time he was offered a position with the crew. Why did they change their minds? We’re not told. But he was offered a position… on a condition.
Patrick says the sailors insisted that he suck on their breasts.
Seriously. And this is exactly as strange as it sounds. Even more strangely, Patrick wrote about it in a casual way. Like we, the reader, should know about this behavior and not be shocked by it. Apparently, it was some sort of ritual among the sailors, or maybe they were just messing with him. Regardless, Patrick thought it was a pagan practice and refused for fear of angering god. The sailors dropped the issue and they set sail.
After six years in captivity, Patrick was at last free of Ireland.