Wandering Saints

(The) power of maintaining life in others, lives within each of us, and from each of us does it recede when unused. It is a concentrated power. If you are not acquainted with it, your Majesty can have no inkling of what it is like, what it portends, or the ways in which it slips from one. – Haniel Long, “The Marvelous Adventure of Cabeza de Vaca”

What really is a saint and how, historically, have we recognized them? I don’t mean in any religious sense, Catholic or otherwise. I mean, people whose vision was so elevated they changed everyone around them and impacted the flow of history.

What comes to mind are two men who lived very similar lives (another example of eternal recurrence, which I have mentioned in other blog posts in the Time category). One, Saint Patrick, became one of the most famous of all Catholic saints. The other, Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, was a Spanish soldier and Conquistador who died in relative obscurity and probably would not be remembered today if he had not written his memoirs.

Saint Patrick


Patrick was born in what is now England in 387 AD. Around the age of 16, he was kidnapped by Irish pirates and sold as a slave in northern Ireland. He lived as a slave until around the age of 22 (about six years), when he escaped and returned to England. With extensive knowledge of Irish language and culture as a result of his years of enslavement, Patrick believed he was called by God to return to Ireland and evangelize. Where other missionaries had failed, Patrick was successful, largely due to his understanding of Irish ways and his ability to value and integrate their culture rather than supersede it. Ireland remains the only country in history to convert to Christianity voluntarily, and without a bloody war of conquest.

Cabeza de Vaca


In 1527, Cabeza de Vaca was appointed second-in-command of a Spanish expedition to conquer what is now the state of Florida. The ill-fated expedition suffered shipwreck and other misfortunes, such that the 300-strong original force was reduced to only four survivors. Cabeza de Vaca was enslaved by an Indian tribe and held for years, during which time he learned Indian languages and customs. Eventually he escaped and became a wandering trader among the various tribes along the Gulf Coast. For years he walked from Florida all the way to the Arizona border, enduring incredible hardship, but acquiring a growing appreciation for the tribes he encountered. He practiced faith-healing among them and became a messiah, curing the sick and even reportedly raising the dead, with entire Indian villages giving him all they possessed and following him on his journey, like the disciples of Christ. He returned to Spain after this epic adventure which lasted about seven years.

Like Saint Patrick, Cabeza de Vaca learned to love a people he had been raised to despise, by the bizarre twist of fate that caused both  men to become enslaved to those very people. Saint Patrick was so moved he became an evangelist to and apologist for, the Irish. Cabeza de Vaca tried in vain to convince his fellow Spaniards, once he finally returned to Spain, to treat Native Americans as fellow human beings and children of God. Cabeza de Vaca, like Saint Patrick, “conquered” a people without violence, but with compassion an a desire to integrate rather than destroy their culture.

The Test of Time

It seems to me that history is like a plant. As it grows, it throws out shoots with a specific intent. Often, these shoots are pruned or torn off by external forces, perhaps because the time is not right. Saint Patrick was successful in his mission and became a beloved historical figure and saint. About 1,000 years later, Cabeza de Vaca was despised and discredited, and his insights never heeded. And yet they were the same man.


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