St. Patrick’s Breastplate

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St. Patrick’s Day, a day when things turn green. People wear green T-shirts, eat green bagels, drink green beer, stuff themselves with corned beef and cabbage and potatoes, and in short, party. It doesn’t matter whether or not they are actually Irish, of Irish descent, or even adopted Irish. Everybody’s Irish (except for those who are of Orange descent and sometimes even Orangemen). All of this is in honor of the saint known as St. Patrick, a patron saint of Ireland.

 

Patrick wasn’t actually Irish. He was born in Britain around 390, the son of a deacon and grandson of a priest. He was kidnapped by Irish pirates in his early teens and sold as a slave in Ireland. He really was not too interested in religion, even though his family was Christian, but his stint in slavery gave him lots of time to discover an interest and a deepening faith. Upon his return to Britain, after escaping slavery, he returned to his family, and eventually became a priest himself.

 

Several years after his ordination, he was sent back to Ireland as a missionary and evangelist. Through him, many of the Picts and Anglo Saxons were converted to Christianity, as well as many Celts. One reason for his success was his ability to meld Celtic and Christian symbols, belief and practices together, with each faction finding things they could accept and practice, such as the possibly apocryphal story of his explaining the Trinity by using a 3-leafed shamrock. Given his early slavery in Ireland, Patrick was a staunch opponent of slavery and made his beliefs about this quite clear.

 

Patrick wrote a spiritual diary, of sorts, detailing his spiritual progress and his shortcomings. This book, known as Confessio was a glimpse into his deep spirituality and is a classic of early Christian writings.

 

One of his best-loved lot attributions was what is called Saint Patrick’s Breastplate or the Lorica of Saint Patrick. It’s a very Celtic kind of prayer such as would be prayed by one facing a dangerous journey (which was the alleged reason for its writing) or even from everyday perils. Layer by layer Patrick sought to surround himself with the blessings of the Trinity, the company of heaven, natural forces of earth and the heavens, God’s care for every aspect of his life, and, in a pair of verses not usually read with the Lorica, asked protection from Satan, heresy, sin, idolatry, wizard’s craft, death-wounds, burning, choking, and poison. This prayer was his armor, his mental buckling on of impenetrable mental and spiritual protection.

 

It’s a beautiful prayer. We have it in our hymnal (Hymnal 1982, #370 1), as do other churches within the communion. It’s generally sung around St. Patrick’s Day but also at times of ordinations and consecrations, or just about any time a long processional is needed.

 

Our most familiar translation of the Breastplate is a poetic one done by Cecil Villiers Stanford. The first group of verses is very lyrical, then comes a center section that changes in meter and in a different mode of description. This is the part that always makes me feel as if I were wrapped in a soft warm blanket when I read it or sing it. In the hymn book it lies as verse six:

 

Christ be with me, Christ within me,

Christ behind me, Christ before me

Christ beside me, Christ to win me,

Christ to comfort and restore me,

Christ beneath me, Christ above me,

Christ in quiet, Christ in danger

Christ in hearts of all that love me,

Christ and mouth of friend and stranger.

 

I can’t think of a prayer that so completely puts me in the hand of Jesus. Christ is present in all planes and dimensions of my being.

 

In another, more literal, translation, it comes even closer, I think:

 

Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,

Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,

Christ on my right, Christ on my left,

Christ when I lie down,

Christ when I sit down,

Christ when I arise,

Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,

Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,

Christ in the eye of everyone who sees me,

Christ in every ear that hears me.2

 

It seems to me that everything that I am and do should reflect the Christ that surrounds me, fills me, and directs me. I think it’s a wonderful prayer for all of us in times of trouble, because it reminds us that Jesus is all that we are, have, and will be. Patrick’s confidence was amply displayed when he prayed this prayer.

 

If, on Sunday, I find myself in church, singing, “I bind unto myself today,” I won’t groan because it takes up about 2 1/2 pages of the hymnal, because it seems boring (which I don’t find it at all), or “What’s that weird part in the middle?” I try to read the words as I sing them and try to understand what Patrick or whoever wrote it was trying to accomplish with this prayer. It was a very personal prayer and a very Celtic one, possibly derived from a type of pagan prayer called a “binding spell.” Patrick’s adoption of Celtic tradition to incorporate into worship was one of his great abilities. It’s a pretty good prayer to consider even if I only read it once or twice a year. Saint Patrick has left me a nice warm blanket to help me feel safe and loved, because the world of the Trinity is a world of love – and, on one day of the year, a world of green things and camaraderie among all manner of folk.

 

Happy St. Patrick’s Day.

 

God bless.

 


 

NOTES:

  1. Hymnal 1982, Church Hymnal Corporation, New York (1985), #370. Words attributed to Patrick (372-466), translated by Cecil Villiers Stanford (1852-1924). Verse 6 is sung to the tune of Deirdre, one of the oldest known pieces of Irish music. The remaining verses are given the tune name St Patrick’s Breastplate.
  2. St. Patrick’s Breastplate, publisher unknown, Translation by Kuno Meyer ca. 1920.
  3. St Patrick’s Breastplate is also known as “The Deer’s Cry”.

 

 

Image: Shamrock plant By Accuruss (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

 

 

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