St. Patrick’s Breastplate: My confirmation hymn, our bounden duty and seeking God’s presence when the rubber hits the road

In Chicago they dye the river green. And in Springfield, the candidates in our April 2 city election joined the good and the great downtown to march in our annual St. Patrick’s Day parade. Amid the festivities, my parish church, Peace Lutheran, remembered the actual fifth-century saint by posting the above meme to Facebook.

All of which reminded me of my confirmation hymn, a Victorian Anglo-Irish setting of a poem attributed to St. Patrick. It’s known by the tune name ST. PATRICK’S BREASTPLATE or by its first line, “I bind unto myself this day …”

The hymn, incorporating ST. PATRICK’S BREASTPLATE and a tune called DEIRDRE in the sixth verse, was No. 268 in the Episcopal Hymnal of 1940 that I grew up with. Several melodies have been written for the text, also known as a daily prayer of St. Patrick. As I know it, the hymn combines words by Anglo-Irish hymnwriter Ce­cil Frances Alex­an­der with music by Charles Villiers Stanford, an Irish composer who taught in England’s Cambridge University at a time when classical music drew heavily on folk traditions.

But as much as I love the music, it’s the poem that resonates with me.

The text of Mrs. Alexander’s hymn is based on an ancient Irish poem that has been attributed to St. Patrick for more than a thousand years, when it was directed in 693 CE to be sung in the monasteries and churches of Ireland. (As with other ancient writing, of course, it’s doubtful that he actually wrote it.) Sometimes it is known as “The Deer’s Cry,” reflecting an ancient legend that St. Patrick and his followers were transformed into deer while singing it in order to escape a Druid high king of Ireland.

The legend, I think, is quite lovely. Citing a collection of 11th-century Irish manuscripts, the Hymnal Companion to the Lutheran Book of Worship, ed. Marilyn Kay Stulken (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1981) says:

According to legend Patrick and the Druid king Loegaire met at Tara Hill, where a festival of the Druid fire-worshipers was about to begin with the extinction of all fires through the country. Patrick however, defiantly lighted a Paschal fire on the Hill of Slane in full view of the King, who then set out to kill Patrick. In the pursuit, Patrick and his companions were miraculously transformed into deer and recited this hymn in flight; hence its title, “Faeth Fiada,” or “The Deer’s Cry” (272-73).

Hence also the name ST. PATRICK’S BREASTPLATE — as they sang the hymn, according to the legend, St. Patrick and his band were protected from harm.

Well, it makes a good story. The facts are a bit more prosaic, but it’s still a remarkable piece of Celtic literature — and spirituality.

According to a note on the Oxford Scholarship website, the poem is based on an “an early example of Irish Christian literature,” incorporating “a prayer of protection with possible origins in pre-Christian magic. The hymn calls on Christ to surround the supplicant in all bodily directions and invokes God for protection against, among other evils, the magic of women, blacksmiths, and druids.”

So we’re dealing with legend here, but I like stories. Often the stories tell me more than doctrine does, and a good legend is plenty good enough for me.

As far as I’m concerned, it’s still St. Patrick’s hymn. And I’ve made it my own, too. Today’s trials are quite different from those of pagan Ireland, and I have never been called upon to light an Easter fire in defiance of the High King Lóegaire mac Néill at Tara, but the hymn has served me well through my own tribulations.

And I was reminded of it at an opportune time.

For Lent this year I’ve been trying to journal the ancient practice of lectio divina (literally, “sacred reading”), a spiritual discipline that combines prayer, meditation and reading the psalms or other scripture. Jesuit author and magazine editor James Martin sums up a simplified version of the practice like this: Read, Think, Pray, Act.

At any rate, when St. Patrick’s hymn popped up on my Facebook feed the morning of St. Patrick’s Day, I decided to make it the focus of one of my first lectio divina meditations. (Full disclosure: Lectio divina is normally applied to reading scripture, not hymns or old Irish poems, and I’m taking liberties with it here.) That said, I’ll consider Fr. Martin’s four steps in order below, summarizing them in italics before trying out the technique on the text of the hymn:

READ: Fr. Martin suggests: “What does the text say? First, you read the text. At the most basic level, you ask: What is going on in this Bible passage?”

According to the LBW Companion, my go-to source for information about hymns, “I bind unto myself …” was written for St. Patrick’s Day 1889, when it was sung in Anglican churches throughout Ireland. Mrs. Alexander’s original has seven verses — a YouTube video of the uncut original at St. James Anglican Church in Kansas City lasts 7 minutes and 27 seconds. Most hymnals today, as well as the authoritative website Hymnary.org, include only three or four verses.

(The Kansas City video has all the words, which can be difficult to find on line. But the video that really speaks to me is from the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer in Kenmore, Wash. It’s more like what I remember from my little parish, St. Francis in Norris, Tenn. [minus the pipe organ and the trumpet, however]. And I love the way Redeemer’s choir director — who conducts from the organ — conveys her sense of the music.)

ST. PATRICK’S BREASTPLATE, Feast of St. Michael, 2014, Church of the Redeemer

The hymn begins with a straightforward invocation of the Trinity and a statement of the fundamentals of the Christian faith, as Anglicans of the Victorian period understood them:

I bind unto myself today
the strong name of the Trinity
by invocation of the same,
the Three in One and One in Three.

I bind this day to me forever,
by power of faith, Christ’s incarnation,
his baptism in the Jordan river,
his death on cross for my salvation,
his bursting from the spiced tomb,
his riding up the heavenly way,
his coming at the day of doom,
I bind unto myself today.

Quite a bit of this is pure Victorian, but it is lovely. And the invocation of the Trinity is in the original old Irish poem (as translated for Padraic Colum’s Anthology of Irish Verse reprinted in Bartleby.com). So is this stanza, and to me it conveys the essence of Celtic Christianity — not to mention the spirit behind contemporary expressions like Laudato Si’:

I bind unto myself today
the virtues of the starlit heaven,
the glorious sun’s life-giving ray,
the whiteness of the moon at even,
the flashing of the lightning free,
the whirling wind’s tempestuous shocks,
the stable earth, the deep salt sea
around the old eternal rocks.

Then comes the actual “breastplate,” the part that St. Patrick sang as he and his people escaped from the high king at Tara. It modulates from G minor to G major, and from unison to harmony. I remember the tempo from back in my day as like a march, although I mostly hear it now on YouTube sung softly and slowly, and I love the way today’s legato brings out the harmony.

But mostly I love it because it stays with me when the rubber hits the road:

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 in mouth of friend and stranger.

At the end the hymn modulates back to G minor, and repeats the invocation, “I bind unto myself today / The strong name of the Trinity …” But that breastplate, the sixth verse in the old 1940 hymnal, is the part that stayed with me.

THINK: Fr. Martin also refers to this step as meditation. He asks: “What is God saying to me through the text? At this point, you ask whether there is something that God might want to reveal to you through this passage. Often, it might connect with something in your life. …”

We sang ST. PATRICK’S BREASTPLATE at my confirmation, that much I recall. But that’s about all. I remember the bishop came over from Nashville, and I remember some Q&A. I just looked it up in the 1928 edition of the Book of Common Prayer we used, and this is a fair sample:

Question. What does our Lord Jesus Christ teach us about these Commandments?
Answer. Our Lord Jesus Christ teaches us that they are summed up in these two Commandments: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy mind, with all thy soul, and with all thy strength; this is the first and great Commandment. And the second is: Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
Question. What then do you chiefly learn from the Ten Commandments?
Answer. I learn two things from these Commandments; my duty towards God, and my duty towards my Neighbour …

We heard pretty much the same language in church every Sunday. It was called the Summary of the Law, and it was part of the services of Morning Prayer and Holy Communion.

Even as a kid, I loved the language of the 1928 prayer book. But frankly, confirmation didn’t make much of an impression on me. I guess I was asked, “What is your bounden duty as a member of the Church?” At least that’s what it says in the prayer book. And I guess I duly answered, “My bounden duty is to follow Christ, to worship God every Sunday in his Church; and to work and pray and give for the spread of his kingdom.” And sometime later, presumably, the bishop laid his hands on my head and I was confirmed.

It’s all pretty vague in my mind after 60-plus years, but I do remember that march-like hymn, “Christ be with me, Christ within me, / Christ behind me, Christ before me …” And I remember singing it to myself later, sometimes away from church when I felt like I needed some extra help, a shield or a breastplate if you will.

It stayed with me, too, even after I left the church at the age of 18.

Many years later, when I entered a 12-step recovery program at the age of 50, I rediscovered St. Patrick’s hymn and made a photocopy at 25 percent reduction, small enough to fold up and carry with me in my billfold. If that sounds like I was using it as a good luck charm instead of a prayer, I won’t argue the point. But it knowing it was there did help keep me clean and sober.

It was in 12-step recovery that I learned to pray. The 11th Step of Alcoholics Anonymous says we: “Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out” [italics in the original].

More recently I’ve learned about prayers of supplication, which Wikipedia defines as a prayer “wherein one party humbly or earnestly asks another party to provide something, either for the party who is doing the supplicating (e.g., ‘Please spare my life.’) or on behalf of someone else.” And here’s where St. Patrick’s Breastplate comes back into my life, because I’ve been using it when I’ve needed help, protection for myself or others. Perhaps sometimes, yes, as a good-luck charm instead of a properly articulated prayer, but certainly humbly or earnestly asking for something. Christ be with me, Christ within me, / Christ behind me, Christ before me / Christ to comfort and restore me.

Last month I was in the emergency room at St. John’s while Debi was treated for internal bleeding. I’ve seen enough ER’s to know they often involve waiting, so I grabbed a book on the way out of the house as I followed the ambulance. It turned out to be Bradley Houston’s A Graceful Life: Lutheran Spirituality for Today (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 2000). Houston is a religion professor at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, and it reads like an undergraduate text or collateral reading book.

Good choice, although I grabbed the book at random and certainly didn’t plan the choice. Some of what I read in the emergency room addressed the same issue — when is Christ with us? Houston writes:

Faith is trust in the present Christ, loving him, seeking from him all that is best. This notion of Christ present is often hard to grasp. A great many Christians think of Jesus mainly as someone who long ago set and example and paid a price for their sins. In such an understanding, Christ accomplished mighty things in the past and now dwells in heaven. Such a Christ feels rather distant. But for Luther, Jesus Christ is alive and very much present in and with the believer. Luther had a powerful sense of living day by day in the intimate companionship of Christ. (49)

So, as Christ was with St. Patrick and his band, as they fled the high king Logaire O’Neill of Tara, and as Christ was with Luther, when he wrote his catechisms in Wittenberg, so I felt that Christ was with me — and Debi — in the form of a collateral reading book from Luther College in the ER at St. John’s Hospital. I read on:

Why does God not quickly deliver us from suffering? The fact that God did not spare Jesus from the cross tells us something very significant about the way God works. It is not God’s highest goal to each of us live a long, carefree life. God is more concerned in fashioning people who have deep faith in God and love for one another. (53)

Shape-shifting isn’t on offer anymore, if it ever was, and I don’t expect to turn into a deer anytime soon. But, yes, I believe in some manner Christ is with us, Christ beside us, Christ before us, Christ to comfort and restore us.

More recently I read a book titled Good Goats: Healing Our Image of God (Mahwah, NY: Paulist, 1994), by Dennis Linn, Sheila Fabricant Linn and Matthew Linn. It has the blessing of the Jesuits (technically an Imprimi Potest, which is the Latin for “it can be printed”), and it is deemed “well within the parameters of orthodoxy of many Christian traditions” (v). Citing Jewish Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, the Linns say, “Healing involves resolving grief and discovering that God has been present all along in the depth of our pain, suffering with us” (30-31, 73).

In ways I can’t begin to sort out (and I suspect it would be almost blasphemous to try), intercessory prayer, petitions and this sense of God with us, Christ with us are inextricably linked in my mind now. Maybe it was a glimmering of that sense that I bound unto myself that day back in the 1950s when I was confirmed in St. Francis’ Episcopal Church in Norris, Tenn. I’d like to hope it was.

PRAY: What do I want to say to God about the text? …

This part can be quite brief.

I had never been too comfortable before with prayers of supplication, at least not for myself, until Debi was in the hospital at the end of February. As it happened, both of our aging cats had recently been diagnosed with chronic diseases that require special diets, and I wound up acting as caretaker for a couple of cats who were rebelling against their new diets at the time. With hindsight, I think it was a blessing to have a couple of finicky eaters — and very, very annoying, endearing little animals –in my care when I got home from the hospital at night.

At any rate, between Debi and the cats — and a couple of other situations we won’t go into here — I got over some of my intellectualizing about intercessory prayer and prayers of petition.

I’ve been praying regularly now, for the first time in 50 or 60 years, although I’m not yet in the habit of drafting actual prayers with the Thee’s and Thy’s in place and I’ll never be able to match the language of the 1928 prayer book I grew up with.

But I did scribble out a draft of an intercession I posted to the Springfield Dominican Sisters’ prayer request page not long after Debi came home from the hospital, when the cats were getting used to their new diets and things were beginning to look up a little:

“Prayer that God will walk with us, guide, heal and protect me, my wife Debi, our family and friends as we care for each other and the animals in our care; and deal with loss and illness. Prayer of gratitude for concern and kindnesses shown to us; and for strength, wisdom and compassion so we can help the others as they have helped us.”

Other days, most days in fact, I just blurt it out. Or make the sign of the cross when I can’t put anything into words. Anyway, I think St. Patrick’s Breastplate is a prayer of petition now, and I generally include other people when I call it to mind, so it becomes a prayer of thanksgiving and an intercessory prayer as well. In fact, I think I’m doing that with all my prayers now, spoken or unspoken.

ACT: What do I want to do, based on my prayer? Finally, you act. Prayer should move us to action, even if it simply makes us want to be more compassionate and faithful. …

This can be brief, too.

There’s a third verse to ST. PATRICK’S BREASTPLATE in the 1940 hymnal that speaks, among other things, of “the great love of the cherubim; / The sweet “Well done” in judgment hour,” and “[t]he service of the seraphim.” It calls to mind the Summary of the Law in the Episcopal services of my youth. And it calls to mind a memorial plaque for a 19th-century professor in All Saints’ Chapel at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn., an Episcopal campus I visited often when I was going to church camp on Sewanee Mountain. It lists his degrees and accomplishments, and sums them up with this: “Well Done, Thou Good and Faithful Servant.”

His bounden duty, in other words.

Love God, love your neighbor, serve God by serving your neighbor. When I was growing up in the Episcopal Church 50-60 years ago, even our table grace spelled it out: Bless this food to our use, and us to thy service, and make us ever mindful of the needs of others.

Our bounden duty? Yes, I think so. Amen.

So that’s part of it. I think the other part — the breastplate part, “Christ in quiet, Christ in danger / Christ in hearts of all that love me, / Christ in mouth of friend and stranger” — also comes to me now in another prayer I love. We closed the Saturday afternoon contemporary service at Peace Lutheran, and I learned it during the time I sang with the contemporary praise team. Now I’m adding it to my small but growing collection of petitionary prayers. It goes like this:

PRAYER AS WE GO ON OUR WAY
Lord God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us.

Amen? Amen.

3 thoughts on “St. Patrick’s Breastplate: My confirmation hymn, our bounden duty and seeking God’s presence when the rubber hits the road”

    1. Thanks, Elizabeth! I put it up today as a place holder, because I wanted the March 17 date to show on the blog. My confirmation hymn when I was a kid was an Anglican hymn called “St. Patrick’s Breastplate” (“I bind unto myself this day the strong name of the Trinity …”), and it’s always meant a lot to me, even in all the years I was out of the the church. So I want to do something with it as I try to get into lectio divina for the journal — my spiritual director thinks it will be a good discipline, and I’m sure it will … even if all of this stuff is very new to me. Anyway, I’ll be posting more here as I go along, starting with a video clip or two.

      Appreciate your interest and encouragement as I stray out of my comfort zone into spiritual journaling.

      Liked by 2 people

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