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Wikimedia Commons

Who Was Saint Patrick?

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Slave, traveler, evangelist, abolitionist, and saint. A scant 400 years after Jesus' birth, the priest known as Patrick took the Great Commission seriously, to spread the gospel to the ends of the earth by converting the frightening barbarians of that scary outpost known as Ireland. Dates and details of Patrick's life are somewhat ambiguous since written records from fifth-century Ireland are scarce. A lot of what we know comes from what little Patrick himself wrote, or from biographies written long after his time.

According to tradition, Saint Patrick was born Maewyn Succat in Britain (different sources say England, Scotland, or Wales) to Roman parents around AD 387. In his later ministry, he went by the name Patricius Daorbae which means "Patrick who was once a slave."

When he was around 16 years old, Patrick was kidnapped by Irish marauders who sold him into slavery to a Druid herdsman named Milchu. Patrick remained in Ireland for six years. During this time, Patrick learned the Celtic language and became acquainted with the practices of the Druids. He later wrote that he became close to God during this time and prayed every night for his deliverance. He ran away after hearing direction from an angel and walked 200 miles to catch a boat back to Britain. Afterward, Patrick was sent to France to begin his training for the priesthood despite the long break in his formal education. When he achieved priesthood, Patrick was assigned to Britain, but his dream was to return to Ireland to convert the pagans.

According to later biographers, his teachers recommended him to Pope Celestine I for a mission to Ireland, or it’s possible he left for Ireland on his own because of a vision. While Patrick was not the first Catholic bishop assigned to Ireland, he was the first who set a goal of converting the entire country. His predecessor Palladius was mainly concerned with ministering to the existing Irish Christian minority in the south and protecting them from the influence of the Druids. Celestine sent Patrick to Ireland in 428 or 432.

Patrick's first quest in Ireland was to see the slave owner of his youth, the Druid Milchu; not to seek revenge, but to convert him. Milchu heard the news of the priest's arrival in Ireland and he committed suicide by burning himself, his home, and his treasures before Patrick arrived. Sources of this story vary, with some saying Milchu killed himself out of fear that Patrick was seeking revenge. Others say Milchu was a proud Druid who preferred death to listening to the foreign gospel. In any case, Patrick was devastated.

Patrick's first church was in what is now County Down. He converted a Druid chieftain named Dichu who granted him a barn on a hill, or Sabhail (pronounced Saul), where Patrick founded a church.

The priest traveled from coast to coast in Ireland, visiting kings and chieftains, speaking their language and evangelizing. He confronted Druids and performed miracles by resisting their powers and escaping the several times he was taken prisoner. Patrick converted leaders and slaves alike, and founded churches in many corners of Ireland. One Easter, Patrick and his followers started a fire early in the morning near Tara. The local law forbade anyone starting a fire before the king did, so King Laoghaire and his Druid priest faced off with Patrick, who did not back down but told those present of his powerful God. As the story goes, a Druid magician challenged Patrick to a trial by fire, which led to the magician's death.

Image Cathedral of Armagh. Image by Brian Shaw.

Patrick was especially proud of bringing Christianity to Ulster in the northern part of Ireland, and founded the Cathedral of Armagh, which still stands on a hill he selected.

Odhran, St. Patrick's charioteer, became a martyr by saving the bishop's life. Odhran heard a rumor of an assassination, and persuaded Patrick to change jobs with him on the appointed day as a special favor. Unaware of the threat, Patrick granted his wish, and Odhran was attacked and killed.

Patrick was one of the first people in the history of the world to publicly denounce the institution of slavery. Slaves had no voice—those in power owned slaves, and the church didn't condemn slavery for another thousand years. Patrick, however, had been there, done that, and his identification with the downtrodden helped him convert those who were ignored by the powers that be. He was also an early feminist, actively evangelizing women in an age when many missionaries discounted or feared them. His activities in this area may have led to some trouble with the Catholic church, which led to Patrick writing his extensive Confessio.

Croagh Patrick, or St. Patrick's Mountain, was his refuge and purgatory. It was on this hill that Patrick fasted and prayed for 40 days straight for the people of Ireland. He pleaded to God for special treatment for the Irish on judgment day. The hill became a pilgrimage site, and gold was discovered there in the 1980s, but is not mined.

Later in life, Patrick retired to his first church, Sabhail. He wished to die at Armagh, but a vision told him to stop his journey and return to Saul and remain there. St. Patrick died in 463 or 491 or some year on March 17th, which became his feast day, as is the custom for saints, although St. Patrick was never officially canonized by the Vatican, as his sainthood predated formal canonization.

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Do 'Close Door' Buttons in Elevators Actually Do Anything?
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When you’re running late for work, one small comfort is finding an empty elevator waiting for you at your office building. You scurry inside, and since no one else is waiting to enter, you jab the 'close door' button. The doors comply, the elevator starts moving, and you breathe a sigh of relief.

This is a familiar scenario for many, but it’s also a big fat lie. That’s because most of the door-close buttons in U.S. elevators don’t actually work. In fact, they’re programmed that way.

But before you get ready to send off a strongly worded email to your office building’s elevator manufacturer, you may want to hear why this is the case. When the Americans With Disabilities Act was first passed in 1990, certain requirements for elevators were outlined, such as the installation of raised buttons, braille signs, and audible signals.

The act ensured that someone with a disability would have enough time to get inside, stipulating that elevator doors must remain fully open for at least three seconds and thereby preventing the button from cutting that time short. Some elevator manufacturers took it one step further by deactivating the button entirely.

Since the life span of an elevator is about 25 years and the Disabilities Act has been around for 28 years, it’s safe to assume that most of the elevators in operation today do not have a functioning 'close door' button, The New York Times reports. Only firefighters are able to close elevator doors manually through the use of a key.

It's important to note that there are exceptions to this rule, though. As the New York Daily News noted, New York City elevators are required by law to have working 'close door' buttons, even though some operate on a long delay (so long, in fact, that it calls the button's usefulness into question).

However, you’re in luck if you’re taking a lift (which, of course, is British for “elevator”). 'Close door' buttons are fully functional in most elevators in the UK, according to The Telegraph. A spokesman for the Lift and Escalator Industry Association told the newspaper that not all elevators have the button, but when they’re present, they do work. Again, the time it takes for the doors to shut after pressing the button varies from lift to lift.

While U.S. elevator manufacturers have a seemingly good reason for disabling the 'close door' button, some may question the point of propagating the myth and installing a button that serves no purpose in the first place. In response, some would argue that placebo buttons serve an important psychological function in society.

"Perceived control is very important," Harvard psychologist Ellen J. Langer told The New York Times. "It diminishes stress and promotes well-being."

That’s right: By believing that you’re in control of your fate—or at least how quickly you can make it up to the sixth floor—you’re better off. It doesn’t end with elevators, either. Buttons placed at city crosswalks are often disabled, and the thermostats in many office buildings are rigged so that the temperature can’t be altered (even if the numbers appear to change).

Some might swear up and down that elevator 'close door' buttons work, but this, too, could be your brain deceiving you. As author David McRaney wrote in an essay: “If you happen to find yourself pressing a nonfunctional close-door button, and later the doors close, you’ll probably never notice because a little spurt of happiness will cascade through your brain once you see what you believe is a response to your action. Your behavior was just reinforced. You will keep pressing the button in the future.”

According to The New Yorker, these buttons are designed to alleviate some of the subconscious anxiety that comes from stepping inside a tiny box that's hoisted up some 20 or 40 or 80 floors by a cable: “Elevator design is rooted in deception—to disguise not only the bare fact of the box hanging by ropes but also the tethering of tenants to a system over which they have no command."

So now you know: Next time you’re running late to work, take comfort in the fact that those few extra seconds you would’ve saved by pressing a functioning 'close door' button aren’t worth all that much in the long run.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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What’s the Difference Between Prison and Jail?
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Many people use the terms jail and prison interchangeably, and while both terms refer to areas where people are held, there's a substantial difference between the two methods of incarceration. Where a person who is accused of a crime is held, and for how long, is a factor in determining the difference between the two—and whether a person is held in a jail or a prison is largely determined by the severity of the crime they have committed.

A jail (or, for our British friends, a gaol) refers to a small, temporary holding facility—run by local governments and supervised by county sheriff departments—that is designed to detain recently arrested people who have committed a minor offense or misdemeanor. A person can also be held in jail for an extended period of time if the sentence for their offense is less than a year. There are currently 3163 local jail facilities in the United States.

A jail is different from the similarly temporary “lockup”—sort of like “pre-jail”—which is located in local police departments and holds offenders unable to post bail, people arrested for public drunkenness who are kept until they are sober, or, most importantly, offenders waiting to be processed into the jail system.

A prison, on the other hand, is usually a large state- or federal-run facility meant to house people convicted of a serious crime or felony, and whose sentences for those crimes surpass 365 days. A prison could also be called a “penitentiary,” among other names.

To be put in a state prison, a person must be convicted of breaking a state law. To be put in a federal prison, a person must be convicted of breaking federal law. Basic amenities in a prison are more extensive than in a jail because, obviously, an inmate is likely to spend more than a year of his or her life confined inside a prison. As of 2012, there were 4575 operating prisons in the U.S.—the most in the world. The country with the second highest number of operating prisons is Russia, which has just 1029 facilities.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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