The swineherd

​Every fortnight people from a farming background, or who have a heart for the countryside in the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, offer a personal reflection on faith and rural life. They hope that you will be encouraged by it.

​Yesterday was St Patrick’s Day, a day celebrated across Ireland and in many other countries, as people recall the one who, perhaps more than any other, brought Christianity to this island in the 5th Century BC.

Now, to be honest, a lot that is said about Patrick today is based more on tradition, or ‘folk-lore’ than on hard historical evidence. Because the truth is that we know relatively little about the details of his life with certainty.

What we do know is that he grew up in Britain, possibly somewhere near the west of England, and that he was captured in his teens by raiders who crossed from Ireland, and was brought back to work as a slave, a ‘swineherd’, looking after pigs near Slemish in County Antrim. And this seems to be as close as Patrick got to any sort of agriculture.

Slemish Mountain.
Slemish Mountain.
Slemish Mountain.

After his time on Slemish we also know that he spent some time in a place called St Honorat, an island in the Mediterranean off the southern coast of France.

Returning to Ireland later, he was instrumental in establishing Christian churches in many places throughout the island, although there are few details of his travels.

The most concrete information we have about Patrick comes from his own ‘Confessions’. Here is what he wrote about himself, referring to his life around the time of his captivity.

He says that, when he came to Ireland first as a slave, he did not know God, but “the Lord opened the understanding of my unbelief that, late as it was, I might remember my faults and turn to the Lord with all my heart; and He had regard to my low estate, and pitied my youth and ignorance, and kept guard over me even before I knew Him…and He strengthened and comforted me as a father does his son.”

Reading this I was struck by some great truths that were unfolding from his writing. Firstly, all of us by nature (like Patrick himself) are strangers to God, we do not know Him.

He must reveal Himself to us by His Spirit and through His Word, and “open our understanding” so that we see our need of a Saviour.

If you are not yet a Christian, pray earnestly and constantly that God will do this for you!

Secondly, Patrick was a sinner (He “remembered his faults and turned to God with all his heart”) and repented. All of us must come to God the same way.

In Acts 20:21 we read that, everywhere the Apostle Paul went, he preached that people “…must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.”

And the way of salvation is still the same.

Thirdly, God had regard for him and pitied him. In other words, God showed him mercy, and we all need that same mercy today. And a wonderful Gospel truth is that God “delights in mercy” (Micah 7:18).

Finally, Patrick became a child of God, and God dealt with him as a father deals with his son. In other words, he became a part of God’s family.

All of us need God to reveal Himself to us, to show us our sin and enable us to repent and trust in Jesus, to have mercy on us, and to bring us into His family, just as He did with Patrick all those years ago.

Rev Dr Kenneth Patterson is a former GP who was ordained for the ministry in 1990. He retired in 2013 after 19 years as Minister of Castledawson and Curran Presbyterian churches in South Derry.

Having worked on farms during his student days, before coming a minister, as a hobby he now enjoys restoring vintage farm machinery.

If you would like to talk to someone about any of the issues raised in this article, please email Rev Kenny Hanna, PCI’s Rural Chaplain at [email protected] or call him on 07938 488 372.