St. Patrick’s Day came this year in a flurry of good news, answered prayers and an affirmation of my childhood faith. It came in the middle of a busy week, and I didn’t even remember it was St. Paddy’s until evening when I saw the pictures of corned beef, cabbage and full Irish breakfasts on social media. So to observe the occasion, belatedly, I rooted through the pantry and found a can of corned beef hash to fry up. ‘Twas a poor thing, but mine own.
But St. Patrick’s Day came, as it always does, accompanied by music. This happened when a Facebook friend shared a video of an Anglican hymn known as St. Patrick’s Breastplate. It sent me to YouTube, calling up different versions of the hymn, also known by its opening refrain, or incipit, “I bind unto myself today …” It’s one of my very favorites.
The words (quoted here from the Hymnary.org website) are a 19th-century translation of a ninth-century Irish text attributed to St. Patrick, and I’m pretty sure it was sung at my confirmation when I was 12 or 13, and it alludes to one of the few images for the Holy Trinity I’ve ever understood:
I bind unto myself today
the strong name of the Trinity
by invocation of the same,
the Three in One and One in Three.
Whether we actually sang it at my confirmation or not — by tradition it’s most often sung in Episcopal churches on Trinity Sunday — I consider it my confirmation hymn. One reason I’m OK with the doctrine of the Trinity because St. Patrick’s shamrock image made sense to me as a child. I didn’t know from shamrocks, of course, but I was familiar with white clover, which also has three leaves. I must have been a little off on my theology — and arithmetic — because I associated it with good luck. A little too “broad church” or heretical, I’m sure, but it worked for me.
As hard as I try, I don’t remember anything from my confirmation classes — I was one of those brats who pester their Sunday school teachers with wisecracks about the wives of King Henry VIII, anyway. But I do remember the bishop came over from Nashville for the occasion. And I’m sure we recited this toward the end of the service:
Bishop. Our help is in the Name of the Lord;
Answer. Who hath made heaven and earth.
Bishop. Blessed be the Name of the Lord;
Answer. Henceforth, world without end.
Bishop. Lord, hear our prayer.
Answer. And let our cry come unto thee.
I’m cheating — I looked it up online in the 1928 Episcopal prayer book. But I would have recited the answers, antiphonally or call-and-response style, along with the other kids in my confirmation class and the congregation. Then the bishop would have intoned, “Let us pray”:
ALMIGHTY and everliving God, who hast vouchsafed to regenerate these thy servants by Water and the Holy Ghost, and hast given unto them forgiveness of all their sins; Strengthen them, we beseech thee, O Lord, with the Holy Ghost, the Comforter, and daily increase in them thy manifold gifts of grace: the spirit of wisdom and under-standing, the spirit of counsel and ghostly strength, the spirit of knowledge and true godliness; and fill them, O Lord, with the spirit of thy holy fear, now and for ever. Amen.
That prayer, I remember (although much of the language would have been over my head at the age of 13). And I most certainly remember feeling protected by the faith. The hymn is known as St. Patrick’s Breastplate because it an accompanying legend has it that one verse protected the saint from the wrath of Lóegaire mac Néill, one of the sons of Niall of the Nine Hostages, an ancestor of the O’Neill clan and a legendary king of Ireland. An 11th-century manuscript called the Liber Hymnorum gives this account:
Saint Patrick sang this when an ambush was laid against his coming by Loegaire, that he might not go to Tara to sow the faith. And then it appeared before those lying in ambush that they (Saint Patrick and his monks) were wild deer with a fawn following them.
I don’t know how much of that I knew at 13, but the Anglican hymn based on the legend of St. Patrick offers a sense of being a part of the universe and protected by what we sometimes refer to as nature and nature’s God. I’ve always loved one verse, which I think breathes the essence of Celtic spirituality:
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.
Surely it’s significant here that I grew up in a parish dedicated to St. Francis, the patron saint of nature, and my father was a scientist with the TVA’s Division of Forestry, Fisheries and Wildlife. While we were driving on the highway, he’d point out the layers of limestone, shale, sandstone and coal seams in the old eternal rocks we passed by.
But the verses that stood out the most, and the reason why I consider the Breastplate my confirmation hymn, were these:
I bind unto myself today
the power of God to hold and lead,
God’s eye to watch, God’s might to stay,
God’s ear to hearken to my need,
the wisdom of my God to teach,
God’s hand to guide, God’s shield to ward,
the word of God to give me speech,
God’s heavenly host to be my guard.
And this, the lorica or breastplate that St. Patrick and his companions sang on the way to the seat of the high kings of Ireland at Tara:
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.
This verse I remember being sung at a brisk walking tempo, not quite a march. But in the interpretation I shared to Facebook, at the Episcopal Church of the Redeemer, in Kenmore, Washington (at 3:59 in the video embedded above), it’s sung at a slower, more contemplative tempo that brings out another side to it. One that I like better, or that feels more in tune with my life as I live it now, every time I hear it.
Especially with a hymn I’ve known and loved all my life, I can’t separate the words from the music. There are other lovely interpretations of St, Patrick’s poem, including this one by Irish vocalist Rita Connolly — music by her husband, uilleann piper and symphonic composer Shaun Davey — but the one I know is the one I keep coming back to.
I’ve blogged about the Anglican hymn before. (Link here for more about its composition and videos of different performances, including a very nice cover of guitarist John Fahey’s arrangement and amateur video of the installation of the Rt. Rev. Andrew Dietsche as 16th Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New York in 2013 at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City.) The words are by Victorian churchwoman Cecil Frances Alexander, who also wrote “All Things Bright and Beautiful,” and the melodies — there are two of them — are by Anglo-Irish composer Charles Villiers Stanford, who also arranged Thomas Moore’s Irish Melodies and taught at Cambridge and the Royal College of Music. Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst were among his pupils.
[Full disclosure (if you read the linked post): When I blogged about the hymn before, in the spring of 2013, I was going to learn it on the mountain dulcimer so I could sing it on Trinity Sunday that year. Well, I didn’t. The dulcimer is a diatonic instrument, and the modulation from G major to G minor just wasn’t going to happen!]
So how can a Victorian setting of a ninth-century hymn that supposedly helped a band of Christian missionaries morph into deer in an 11th-century legend of St. Patrick and the high kings of Tara possibly have any relevance in the year 2021 as we — hopefully — begin to emerge from a year-long pandemic?
A good question, and a hard one.
I think the answer, to the extent I have an answer, lies in that prayer the bishop of Tennessee, or his suffragan, offered up for my confirmation class (although I don’t remember a word of it), asking God to “daily increase in [us] thy manifold gifts of grace: the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and ghostly strength.” (I probably don’t need to point out “ghostly” means something like spiritual in 21st-century English. There are reasons why they revised the prayer book sometime after I left the church!) And I’m reminded that when I questioned my faith as a teenager, the Rev. William G. Pollard, nuclear physicist and parish priest of Oak Ridge, Tenn., smiled at me and said, “You’ll be back. … Give it time, you’ll come back to the church.”
I didn’t know what he meant at the time. (I wrote about that, too, link here and scroll down to the section headed “Faith, Hope and Subatomic Particles.”) But I did come back. It was a good 50 years later, and to a different denomination, but I came back.
There’s something in Luther’s catechism, too, that I think says pretty much the same thing as the bishop’s prayer. That’s why sometimes I call myself a “Lutheropalian” — when I started going to a Lutheran church, I studied Luther and I liked what I saw (well, most of what I saw). But I keep circling around and coming back to what I learned as a kid. ELCA and the Episcopal Church are in full communion anyway, so it’s not a big stretch. In his explanation of the Apostle’s Creed, Luther paraphrases it like this:
I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Ghost has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith; even as He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth […] This is most certainly true.
As soon as I saw that in the Small Catechism, it resonated with me. I believe I cannot believe … but I am called by the gospel, by the Holy Ghost (in the translation I’m using — there’s those ghosts again! — more recent translations have Holy Spirit). And, as out of patience as I get with it at times, the Holy Spirit calls, gathers, enlightens and sanctifies us working with and through the church.
Or, as my old-fashioned translation of the catechism has it, the “one holy Christian Church, the communion of saints.” I would cast the net wider, to take in all the Abrahamic faiths, Buddhists, Sikhs, secular humanists, the spiritual-but-not-religious folks and “nones” who show up so regularly in public opinion surveys … all of God’s children. And I’d most certainly cast the net to take in 13-year-olds who daydream through confirmation class and won’t remember a word of it later.
[Published March 20, 2021]