Maire B. de Paor, who goes by her patron saint's name Sister Declan, is an Irish religious scholar who has published numerous books on Gaelic Christianity. In "Patrick: The Pilgrim Apostle of Ireland," Paor chronicles the life of the legendary patron saint.

Kidnapped as a teenager, Patrick was smuggled to Ireland and enslaved. He became a shepherd and prayed for his release for six years. Once freed, he returned to evangelize his pagan captors. Until recently, many believed Patrick was a barely literate rustic. In her book, Paor seeks to uncover the true "poet and apostle" Patrick as revealed through his two major literary works, the Confessio and the Epistola. During her first visit to the U.S., Paor talked with Beliefnet's Manya Brachear about the life behind the legend.

What's different about your book?

My focus is on Patrick's pilgrimage of faith from the time of his humiliation, conversion, vocation, mission and then his crucifixion, I call it, the way his best friend let him down and the way he was probably deposed from office. And his name was not respected in Ireland for another 200 years. He was practically unheard of for almost another 200 years. He was forgotten for the best part of 200 years.

What are specific things that people may not know about St. Patrick?

He was a man of marvelous initiatives far ahead of his superiors, the other bishops in Britain. When he came to Ireland he saw two things. He saw they were a country people; that there were a lot of slaves, as there were in Britain of course. And they were pagan in the northern part of the country. There were a lot of Christians in pockets in the south near Dublin but not in the north. So what did he do? He organized his mission. He went off and became a priest in southern France. He came back to Ireland with permission from his bishops even though they frowned on it a bit and he started his mission.

He preached the word of God to rich and poor, to kings and princes and to the poor slaves as well because he knew their life after living with them for six years. And he trained them himself to become monks and virgins of Christ.

Then you see he needed to ordain them but he wasn't able because he was only a priest. He asked for a bishop. His best friend said Patrick himself should be raised to the dignity of bishop. And Patrick was consecrated bishop.

He ordained his young students for the priesthood and set up little convents where the nuns prayed above all things, but maybe did some teaching and copied the Gospels, all the works that were needed for the time, and helped socially with the poor and sick and all that. Then he left the priest in charge there and he went on to another parish and did exactly the same. He went on and on and on.

And in that way he moved right across the country. When he reached the last furthest part on the edge of the ocean, he was sure that was the ends of the earth. So he thought the end of the world would come. But what happened? It was the Irish monks and the Irish priests, and the Irish nuns and lay people Irish scholars who went out in boats to Europe and who converted the pagans after the fall of the Roman Empire in the following century.

Patrick apparently used a lot of symbolism. They say he used the shamrock to demonstrate the concept of Trinity.

Patrick never used the shamrock.

That's a myth?

I have great sympathy for the people who introduced that into Irish culture. They were Anglo-Irish. They began to look around for Irish symbols to make themselves Irish you see they knew nothing about Irish culture. They found out that Patrick had enormous devotion to the blessed Trinity and that the Irish had tremendous devotion to the blessed Trinity - the Father, the Son and the Spirit. That runs all through the confession. And so they saw a shamrock growing and they said this will do. And it's a very good symbol. The unity and trinity of God. The unity of God is the stem. The three leaves are Father, Son and Spirit but they're growing out of the one stem, the unity of God. But that only came into vogue about the 17th century.

This thing about hammering the snakes out, the snakes are a symbol of the seven deadly sins. Snakes are hammered with prayer and fasting. Jesus said that "this evil is only cast out by prayer and fasting." This is the origin of the snakes being hammered out.

I've heard the hammering of the snakes represented the conversion of the pagans. But did Patrick preserve Celtic Pagan spirituality in his Christian mission?

He baptized what was good. That wasn't Patrick alone. That was the whole policy set by (Pope) Gregory the Great: to take what was good and beautiful and baptize it. We know very little about the Irish except that they had great reverence for the sun, as the sun that gave heat and made the crops grow and they thanked God for it. There's no proof whatever that they adored the sun. But they appreciated it.

He baptized what was good. That wasn't Patrick alone. That was the whole policy set by (Pope) Gregory the Great: to take what was good and beautiful and baptize it. We know very little about the Irish except that they had great reverence for the sun, as the sun that gave heat and made the crops grow and they thanked God for it. There's no proof whatever that they adored the sun. But they appreciated it.

What are other Pagan contributions to Celtic Christianity?

Going up to the mountains to pray. Also holy wells. Water was sacred to them because again it was one of the staples of life. It was very admirable.

How can knowing the "real St. Patrick" deepen one's spirituality?

What strikes me is Patrick's humility, even though I don't like that word. It's his consciousness of the truth before God. His consciousness that he really is totally and utterly dependent on God for everything. He's like an empty cup. Everything he has, that cup is filled to the brim. Everything in it is poured in by God. God's gift is mentioned at the very end of the Confession: "I cannot hide the gift of God which he has bestowed on me in the land of my captivity."

Do you think Patrick is more inspiring for the Irish or for Christians?

He's not for Irish Catholics alone. He's an inspiration for Irish Protestants. Over here in America, he's an inspiration. A priest in Massachusetts who loves this book on Patrick, has taken it and studied it and given lecture upon lecture on it. Now he's a pure Italian. He hasn't a drop of Irish blood in his veins.

Patrick's Confessio is a confession of sin, a confession of praise to God and a confession of faith in God. It is concentric in structure. It's divided into five parts. The climax is not at the end. The climax is at the center. There are 4,570 words in the original Latin confession. The central line has seven words. "Look you ought be raised to the dignity of bishop." It is exactly in the center. It is the same distance from the first word and it is the same distance of the last word. In other words it is symmetrically composed. That was the way writing was done in those days. A numerological technique they call "the counting of words."

I've got a letter from a Mormon. He sent me four pages of the Book of the Mormons showing that they too had concentric structure in their writings. And told me in a marvelous letter how inspired he was by Patrick. And he died shortly after writing me that letter.

A Muslim who read the book very carefully. He went to look at the Koran and found that the Koran also has this structure in it. It's universal. It will appeal to anyone. We are all brothers and sisters of Christ whether we know it or not.

Patrick is a Christian who became conformed to the image of Jesus Christ, above all in his forgiveness and his gratitute to God in good times and in bad. That's typical of Gaelic Christianity. But it's typical of pure Christianity in any country, in any nation, under every heaven.

We're all called. It should end in really turning around on the road and turning back with all our hearts to God. That's what Patrick did. That's why people respond, because he's so genuine.

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