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Maewyn Succat and the Radical Forgiveness of Saint Patrick

Maewyn (pronounced My Win) Succat was not a particularly religious 16-year-old boy born to upper-middle-class Italian parents who raised him in a loving home enjoying the finer things of life. One day while celebrating with friends at a villa on the coast of Wales, he was taken, kidnapped, and brought to Ireland to be ransomed or, if no payment was made, sold into slavery. For six long years, Maewyn lived in the snowy, rocky hill country of Ireland as a slave tending his master’s sheep. He said of those years, “His constant companions were cold and hunger.” It was during those long, lonely years that Maewyn found a spiritual awakening. “I used to stay out in the forests and on the mountain, and I would wake up before daylight to pray in the snow, in icy coldness, in rain, and I used to feel neither ill nor any slothfulness, as I now see, the Spirit was burning in me.” After six years as a slave, Maewyn fled. Now a fugitive on the run in a foreign country, a price on his head, he made his way to a port and begged passage on a ship bound for his home in Britain. 

Once home with family and friends, he felt unsettled in his old life. Restless, like a set of clothes that no longer fit, Maewyn knew pain and suffering had changed him. Once aimless and without direction, Maewyn now felt a deep passion and purpose in helping those who had enslaved him. Rather than finding employment in the family business or going to school, he went to a monastery and studied as a priest. After 12 years, Maewyn changed his name to Patrick (father), and he returned to the shores of Ireland (where he was still a wanted fugitive) with love and compassion in his heart for those who treated him with such brutality. 

Today we celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day with green beer and stories of snakes (or the lack of them); however, the powerful, positive impact made by this hero of the faith is a debt few of us understand or appreciate. In his book How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe, Thomas Cahill outlines the value of Saint Patrick’s contribution, not the least of which includes the bibles we enjoy today. 

Most of us will never know the pain and suffering of someone like Maewyn, but we can relate to their feelings. They are feelings of isolation and loneliness, anxiety, and financial insecurity. They are the feelings of injustice, anger, and hatred that become the temptation to lash out, fighting fire with fire, and push back against the “other.” They are the feelings that justify exclusion, segregation, and even violence. 

How do we travel the distance from where we are to where we want to be? How does Maewyn become Saint Patrick? Many in Maewyn’s shoes would have embraced bitterness and resentment from unthinkable abuse, kidnapping, and cruel slavery. Many would petition the government, launch an attack, and seek revenge. Saint Patrick did not. Many would have gone back to a life of ease and comfort, feeling they were “owed.” Saint Patrick did not. Many would have considered circumstances insurmountable and withdrawn. Saint Patrick did not. 

After the hardships of this past year, past four years, do I have the compassion to reach out to those who supported, condoned, and helped orchestrate that hardship as Saint Patrick did? Will I forgive them, releasing them of my resentment, frustration, and anger, actively seeking them out as the objects of compassionate ministry? Have I even considered the damaging nature of allowing the toxin of bitterness to make its home within me? Do I require political repentance before offering my love and friendship, waiting for them to “get it,” or will I act first extending the love of Jesus? 

When I look at my list of “heroes of the faith,” those I admire and try to emulate, they all seem to have some version of Saint Patrick’s story, most notably Jesus. 

Luke 23:34 Jesus said, “Forgive them, Father! They don’t know what they are doing.” They divided his clothes among themselves by throwing dice. 

Honesty requires me to admit I am not who I should be. Thanks to examples like Maewyn, at a minimum, now I can both see the road ahead and, with one step of forgiveness and empathetic compassion, begin the journey towards my healing. 

Pain, sorrow, and suffering can give birth to many things. In Saint Patrick and so many other heroes of the faith, we find an example of the letters in red: 

“But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who mistreat you.” -Luke 6:27-28 

Pain, suffering, and sorrow find their redemption in acting upon their opposites. Just as fighting fire with fire celebrates destruction, so resentment is dissolved by forgiveness and release. The softness of a whisper quells anger. Hatred and bitterness are crushed beneath the loving light of compassion and mercy. Fear gives way to faith, and grace is greater than all injustice. Even though we confront evil with positive action, only walking towards God’s light will free us from our personal, internal darkness. 

Are you angry? Are you resentful and bitter over the past? Are there those whom you cannot or will not forgive? Maewyn Succat would tell us that with God’s help, there is a Saint Patrick within, waiting to be released.

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