The Inscrutable St. Patrick


The first modern, comprehensive biography of St. Patrick was written by the scholar J.B. Bury, who was a professor of history at Cambridge University for many years.  As usual in a work by this great author, it is thoroughly sourced and documented, and yet retains a readability and freshness that makes it timeless.  He relates this fable that supposedly happened during the foundation of Armagh in A.D. 444.

Patrick laid his eyes on a hill named Macha and desired to acquire it to construct a monastery.  The local king, Daire, refused this request, and gave the saint another parcel.  One of the king’s men later brought a horse to graze in a field owned by the monastery.  Patrick asked him not to do this, but he was rebuffed.  The following day, the horse was found dead.  The king’s man told Daire that the saint was responsible.  The king then ordered a group of men to capture Patrick and slay him.

But soon after, the king was stricken with an illness.  His wife was superstitious, and believed that it was some sort of curse that had come about from trying to kill a holy man.  She begged Daire to call off the assassins; she also told the king to seek the saint’s blessing.  This he did.  Men went to Patrick and told him that the king was sick.  So the saint consecrated some water and first sprinkled it on the dead horse.  The horse was instantly revived, apparently from the dead.  Some of the water was also brought to the king, and it restored him to health as well.


The king was grateful for the gesture and desired to repay the saint.  He had a large bronze vessel–very expensive–brought to the saint.  Patrick said only this:  Gratias agamus, which in Latin literally means, “We give you thanks.”  But the king, ignorant of the language, only heard something that sounded to him like gratzacham.  The taciturn Patrick said nothing else to the king.

When Daire returned home, he became more and more peeved at this inscrutable religious man.  He ordered a few of his servants to bring back the bronze vessel, which the ascetic Patrick apparently could not appreciate.  When the men brought back the bronze vessel, the king asked his men what Patrick’s response had been.  “He only said one word to us, and it was gratzacham.”

The king now was amused.  “What kind of man is this?  He says gratzacham when he gets something, and gratzacham when he loses something.  This must be a good word.”  He then went right away to pay Patrick another visit, and this time he delivered the bronze vessel in person.  “Please keep this, holy man, for you are a steadfast and solid-minded man.”  And he gave Patrick this vessel, as well as the land that the saint had originally wanted.

This was how the saint demonstrated that patience, and a dash of inscrutability, are more effective than bellowing and bombast.


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