ONE MORNING a sixteen-year-old boy was kidnapped from his house by a band of knife-wielding thugs and taken to another country, there to be sold as a slave. The year was 401 a.d.
He was made a shepherd. Slaves were not allowed to wear clothes, so he was often dangerously cold and frequently on the verge of starvation. He spent months at a time without seeing another human being — a severe psychological torture.
But this greatest of difficulties was transformed into the greatest of blessings because it gave him an opportunity not many get in a lifetime. Long lengths of solitude have been used by people all through history to meditate, to learn to control the mind and to explore the depths of feeling and thought to a degree impossible in the hubbub of normal life.
He wasn’t looking for such an “opportunity,” but he got it anyway. He had never been a religious person, but to hold himself together and take his mind off the pain, he began to pray, so much that “...in one day,” he wrote later, “I would say as many as a hundred prayers and after dark nearly as many again...I would wake and pray before daybreak — through snow, frost, and rain....”
This young man, at the onset of his manhood, got a “raw deal.” But therein lies the lesson. Nobody gets a perfect life. The question is not “What could I have done if I’d gotten a better life?” but rather “What can I do with the life I’ve got?”
How can you take your personality, your circumstances, your upbringing, the time and place you live in, and make something extraordinary out of it? What can you do with what you’ve got?
The young slave prayed. He didn’t have much else available to do, so he did what he could with all his might. And after six years of praying, he heard a voice in his sleep say that his prayers would be answered: He was going home. He sat bolt upright and the voice said, “Look, your ship is ready.”
He was a long way from the ocean, but he started walking. After two hundred miles, he came to the ocean and there was a ship, preparing to leave for Britain, his homeland. Somehow he got aboard the ship and went home to reunite with his family.
But he had changed. The sixteen-year-old boy had become a holy man. He had visions. He heard the voices of the people from the island he had left — Ireland — calling him back. The voices were persistent, and he eventually left his family to become ordained as a priest and a bishop with the intention of returning to Ireland and converting the Irish to Christianity.
At the time, the Irish were fierce, illiterate, Iron-Age people. For over eleven hundred years, the Roman Empire had been spreading its civilizing influence from Africa to Britain, but Rome never conquered Ireland.
The people of Ireland warred constantly. They made human sacrifices of prisoners of war and sacrificed newborns to the gods of the harvest. They hung the skulls of their enemies on their belts as ornaments.
Our slave-boy-turned-bishop decided to make these people literate and peaceful. Braving dangers and obstacles of tremendous magnitude, he actually succeeded! By the end of his life, Ireland was Christian. Slavery had ceased entirely. Wars were much less frequent, and literacy was spreading.
How did he do it? He began by teaching people to read — starting with the Bible. Students eventually became teachers and went to other parts of the island to create new places of learning, and wherever they went, they brought the know-how to turn sheepskin into paper and paper into books.
Copying books became the major religious activity of that country. The Irish had a long-standing love of words, and it expressed itself to the full when they became literate. Monks spent their lives copying books: the Bible, the lives of saints, and the works accumulated by the Roman culture — Latin, Greek, and Hebrew books, grammars, the works of Plato, Aristotle, Virgil, Homer, Greek philosophy, math, geometry, astronomy.
In fact, because so many books were being copied, they were saved, because as Ireland was being civilized, the Roman Empire was falling apart. Libraries disappeared in Europe. Books were no longer copied (except in the city of Rome itself), and children were no longer taught to read. The civilization that had been built up over eleven centuries disintegrated. This was the beginning of the Dark Ages.
Because our slave-boy-turned-bishop transformed his suffering into a mission, civilization itself, in the form of literature and the accumulated knowledge contained in that literature, was saved and not lost during that time of darkness. He was named a saint, the famous Saint Patrick. You can read the full and fascinating story if you like in the excellent book How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill.
“Very interesting,” you might say, “but what does that have to do with me?”
Well...you are also in some circumstances or other, and it’s not all peaches and cream, is it? There’s some stuff you don’t like — maybe something about your circumstances, perhaps, or maybe some events that occurred in your childhood.
But here you are, with that past, with these circumstances, with the things you consider less than ideal. What are you going to do with them? If those circumstances have made you uniquely qualified for some contribution, what would it be?
You may not know the answer to that question right now, but keep in mind that the circumstances you think only spell misery may contain the seeds of something profoundly Good. Assume that’s true, and the assumption will begin to gather evidence until your misery is transformed, as Saint Patrick’s suffering was, from a raw deal to the perfect preparation for something better.