An Ignatian colloquy for Trinity 2020 — 2 of ___

St. Patrick’s Breastplate, arr. Rod Lewis, Columbia, S.C., Trinity Sunday 2020

Editor’s note. As I try to jumpstart my prayer life, I’ve been experimenting with Jesuit prayer exercises known as Ignatian contemplation and the Triple Colloquy, in which you imagine yourself interacting with Jesus. In the first (link HERE), I imagined myself on an introductory Zoom call with Jesus, whom I envision as kind of a spiritual director; in this one, I imagine receiving another email from Jesus suggesting I try another contemplative practice called lectio divina. Since it’s the day before Trinity Sunday (and since I’m not yet comfortable with the Ignatian Colloquy), I decide to reflect on St. Patrick’s hymn to the Holy Trinity instead. My reflection, which I imagine emailing back to Jesus at, follows:

When I experiment with Catholic spiritual exercises, I’ve had the most success so far with lectio divina. I follow a simplified four-step version that James Martin SJ wrote up for a publication called Word Among Us; it’s no longer available online, but I copied the bare bones of it to Ordinary Time, and use the four words in Fr. Martin’s title — “Read, Think, Pray, Act” as sort of an outline.

With this post, since I’m beginning it the Saturday before Trinity Sunday, I’m going to play fast and loose with lectio by reflecting on an ancient Irish hymn instead of scripture. It’s known as St. Patrick’s Breastplate, and it fits the occasion because it’s based on a poem that begins:

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

It’s long been a favorite of mine. Its message is pretty much what I take to be the essential message of the Christian faith, and the 19th-century Anglican version I grew up with is one of the jewels in the crown of Anglican hymnody.

Traditionally attributed to St. Patrick, the Old Irish poem has been reliably dated to the 8th or 9th centuries. Its genre is known as a lorica, or breastplate, according to Wikipedia, “in which the petitioner invokes all the power of God as a safeguard against evil in its many forms.” Useful stuff.

There’s a lovely story behind it. According to an 11th-century manuscript in Dublin, the Liber Hymnorum (book of hymns), St. Patrick “sang this when an ambush was laid against his coming by Loegaire [the high king of Ireland] 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.” So it’s very old, and I think the poem itself is one of the more powerful literary works, in genres as disparate as St. Francis’ Canticle of the Creatures, Beowulf and the Norse sagas, that have come down to us from the Middle Ages and before. To this day, the original poem is known as the “Deer’s Cry.” Look for Irish composer Shaun Davie’s setting online. It was sung when Pope Francis visited Dublin.)

More to the point, in all of its translations St. Patrick’s Breastplate is as good a statement of my personal faith as I’ve found anywhere. In and out of the church. In a lifetime of reading about religion and spirituality.

The words I first learned are by Cecil Frances Alexander, the wife of an archbishop of Armagh (head of the Church of Ireland) who also wrote “All Things Bright and Beautiful” and “Once in Royal David’s City”; and its traditional Irish melodies were arranged by Anglo-Irish composer Charles Villiers Stanford, a classical musician who also edited collections of Thomas Moore‘s songs and  George Petrie‘s Collection of the Ancient Music of Ireland.

The version I grew up with in the 1940 Episcopal hymnal uses one of Stanford’s melodies (called ST. PATRICK in the hymnal), but substitutes an air collected by Edward Bunting (called DEIRDRE) for the second; in this, it follows the distinguished composer and folksong collector Ralph Vaughan Williams’ 1906 hymnal for the Church of England. You can’t ask for a better musical pedigree, in my opinion.

The arrangement embedded at the top of this post, by Rod Lewis of Columbia, S.C., also speaks to me both musically and spiritually.

A faculty member at Columbia International University, Lewis arranged the Anglo-Irish Victorian hymn and recorded it with former students for Trinity Sunday 2020 — during the initial surge of the COVID-19 pandemic — at the Church of the Apostles in Columbia. It’s part of the Anglican Church in North America that split off from the Episcopal Church over hot-button issues like abortion and gay marriage, but there’s nothing political or divisive about Lewis’ arrangement. It has some of the authentic feel of trad Irish music, and his students perform with depth of feeling and conviction.

One last note before I launch into the lectio — I’m pretty sure we sang “I bind unto myself this day” when I was confirmed in 1955 by suffragan Bishop John Vander Horst of the Episcopal diocese of Tennessee. I’ve long regarded it as a sufficient statement of my faith — even in the years when I was alienated from organized religion — and, when I think about it, that’s exactly the way I still regard it.

Read. Father Martin’s four-step outline is simplicity itself. “What does the text say?” he asks. “First, you read the text.”

In this case, I think the text is actually best read while listening to the music. YouTube user Andrew Remillard has recorded it on the piano while showing the music from the 1940 Hymnal. Or you can open two windows and watch Rod Lewis’ students (above) while following the lyrics on the website. Another online video, from a St. Patrick’s Day service at St. James Anglican Church in Kansas City, displays the text as it is sung.

The hymn opens with St. Patrick’s invocation of the Trinity and continues with other articles of the Christian faith:

I bind this day to me forever,
by power of faith, Christ’s incarnation,
his baptism in the Jordan river […]

St. Patrick — or the 9th-century monk writing in his voice — goes on to invoke “the power / of the great love of cherubim; ‘ the sweet ‘Well done’ in judgment hour.” That line has always appealed to me. It gave me something to aspire to as a youngster, and I can still think of no accolade higher than well done, good and faithful servant. Perhaps the hymn’s finest poetry comes as it invokes “the virtues of the starlit heaven” and the wonders of God’s creation —

the flashing of the lightning free,
the whirling wind’s tempestuous shocks,
the stable earth, the deep salt sea
around the old eternal rocks

— in terms that grow out of the old Celtic spirituality but find affirmation in Laudato Si’ and the response by most faith traditions to today’s climate crisis.

I don’t know how much the next stanza appealed to me in confirmation class. Frankly, I don’t remember much of it. But now as I’ve returned to the church, I can see more utility, and perhaps a measure of protection in ways I can’t quite define, in the teachings of the church:

the wisdom of my God to teach,
his hand to guide, his shield to ward,
the word of God to give me speech,
his heav’nly host to be my guard.

The key modulates, from G minor to G mayor in the Episcopal hymnal version, and then comes what I consider the “breastplate,” or lorica, itself: “Christ be with me, Christ within me, / Christ behind me, Christ before me.” When I hear this ( or better yet, when I sing it), I can’t help but think of St. Patrick and his acolytes transformed into deer when they sang these words on the way to light an Easter fire at Tara. It goes like this:

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.

I think there’s something powerful — and somehow applicable to today — in the legend.

The original poem’s alternate title, the “Deer’s Cry,” appears to be a mistranslation by the 11th-century monks who edited the Liber Hymnorum. Instead of deer, modern scholars argue, the original poem refers to a magical mist of concealment called féth fíada that allowed pagan heroes like the Tuatha Dé Danann to “enshroud themselves, rendering their presence invisible to human eyesight.”

So we’re dealing with something very old here, even pre-Christian, as St. Patrick takes on the powers of ancient Celtic myth. In a somewhat tongue-and-cheek online article for the Jesuit magazine America’s website, associate editor Jim McDermott suggests it’s “the magical equivalent of stealing your opponent’s rhyme and using it against them.” Powerful stuff.

McDermott’s article, which was posted the day before St. Paddy’s, is titled “The Crazy Stories About St. Patrick That Are Actually True.” I don’t want to put too much credence in an 11th-century legend, but do we have here an Old Irish commentary on the power of prayer?

Think. “At this point,” says Father Martin. “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.”

Good question! I’m not sure I have a hard-and-fast answer to it.

But for some reason, this hymn was able to get through to me, even as a 12-year-old, when the creeds and other religious doctrines didn’t.

A memory comes to mind from about the same time I was confirmed. Maybe a little before. When we’d recite the Apostle’s Creed in church, I’d cross my fingers behind my back when we got to parts of it that didn’t square with my 12-year-old’s understanding of the scientific evidence. I don’t know what the people in the pew behind us thought of that. (I’d like to hope they understood, even sympathized.) But I figured God wouldn’t like it if I said things that weren’t true, and he’d understand why I was crossing my fingers.

So what do I find to be true 60-plus years later, now that I’m pushing 80?

Parts of St. Patrick’s Breastplate, the “virtues of the starlit heav’n / the glorious sun’s life-giving ray […] the stable earth, the deep salt sea / around the old eternal rocks,” I’ve always felt to be true and right. And the lorica — the protection against evil — has always stayed with me, even when I was well and truly out of the church.

Also, I do find a benchmark to aspire to. I still want to live so I can hear “the sweet ‘Well done’ in judgment hour.”

Maybe I haven’t come as far as I thought since I was a 12-year-old bargaining with God in the pews back in Tennessee — and I know I still take comfort in the idea that even my doubt can be a sign of faith. Now I can dress it up with learned discourse about Luther’s Anfechtung, the spiritual crises he experienced, but at the end of the day aren’t they pretty much the same thing? And, after all those years when a lack of faith kept me away from the church, now I can respond a couple of lines down in the same verse to the power of:

confessors’ faith, apostles’ word,
The patriarchs’ prayers, the prophets’ scrolls;
all good deeds done unto the Lord,
and purity of virgin souls.

Whatever else you can say about my soul, my inner 12-year-old doesn’t think of it as being pure. But I can get off that hook, too, by citing Luther: We’re simul iustus et peccator (at the same time saints and sinners), and it’s comforting to know the confessors, apostles, patriarchs and prophets were too. Perhaps I can be more forgiving of the church — and myself — than the facts of the case may suggest in the light of available evidence. And if making a 9th-century Old Irish hymn attested in an 11th-century legend my own — binding it unto myself this day — gives me a sense that others have walked down these paths before me, perhaps I can make their faith my own, too.

Pray. “What do I want to say to God about the text?” asks Father Martin. Fair warning: Coming after some of the most remarkable poetry to come out of Irish antiquity, my answer is going to be quite a letdown!

It goes something like this: Thank you, God, for lovely stories like those of St. Patrick, for poetry and the rich heritage of Christianity. Help me to remember that the flawed confessors, apostles, prophets and reformers — the saintly sinners or sinful saints — who made up the church for 2,000 years are capable of profound insights as well as the bigotry, mandated ignorance and general tomfoolery that alienated me from organized religion for so many years.

Thank you, too, for the diversity of opinion in the larger church that enabled me to find a church home with a rich tradition of its own, in the theology and witness of Martin Luther; that enabled me to discover Catholic social teaching and spirituality; and to reconnect with my basic faith formation growing up in the Anglican tradition. Help me to understand the good parts of this multifaceted Christian heritage; to forgive the bad parts; to discern the good in all these insights and others yet unknown; and to grow in my faith.

Act.Finally,” says Father Martin, “you act. Prayer should move us to action, even if it simply makes us want to be more compassionate and faithful.”

Yes, absolutely. But first steps first. I can’t help but feel that study, prayer and meditation — and, in a word, discernment — are a pretty good first step. So I’ll add a line to my prayer: Help me, O God, to act on my faith and discernment.

Links and References

Chris Fenner, “St. Patrick’s Hymn: Atomriug indíu niurt trén togairm trinoit,” Hymnology Archive

“I bind unto myself this day,” The Hymnal of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America 1940, ‎No. 268a

“Luther on ‘Simul Iustus et Peccator’ – Simultaneously Saint & Sinner,” Silverdale Lutheran Church, Silverdale, Wash.

Jim McDermott, SJ, “The crazy stories about St. Patrick that are actually true,” America, March 16, 2022

James Martin, SJ. “Read, Think, Pray, Act: ‘Lectio Divina’ in Four Easy Steps,” Word Among Us, November 2007 [dead link]; quoted in “Lectio divina — some how-to websites,” Ordinary Time, July 24, 2019

Ken Myers, “I bind unto myself today,” Cantica sacra, All Saints Anglican Church, Ivy, Virginia

Andrew Remillard, “I Bind Unto Myself Today (St Patrick’s Breastplate).” YouTube

David P. Scaer, “The Concept of Anfechtung in Luther’s Thought,” Concordia Theological Quarterly, 47, no. 1 (1983)

Wikipedia pages on Anfechtung (in German); féth fíada; lorica; Thomas Moore; George Petrie; religious skepticism; “St. Patrick’s Breastplate;” Charles Villiers Stanford; “Theology of Martin Luther“; and Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Part 2 of a ___-part series. Next: Taking another run at the Ignatian colloquy.

[Published June 22, 2020]

One thought on “Can an 11th-century legend of St. Patrick teach a 21st-century skeptic to pray? Echoes of a hymn from my confirmation

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