Shuan Davey, “The Deer’s Cry” [St. Patrick’s Breastplate].

[…] 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 to shield me

Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me,

Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me

I arise today.

–St. Patrick’s Breastplate, arr. Shuan Davey (GodSongs.net)

My assignment was to add a new question to a Jesuit prayer technique that seeks to discern God’s will for us by asking: What have I done for Christ? What am I doing for Christ? What ought I do for Christ? “Fine,” said my spiritual director. “Now add a fourth question: Who am I in Christ?” Oooh-kay, I thought. I don’t know what it means, but I’ll give it a try.

Who am I in Christ? That’s an interesting theological question, I’m thinking, but what do I do with it? How does it fit into my daily life?

Well, I worked it into my journal about the prayer technique (you can read it HERE). But that fourth question kept tugging at me. What does it mean to be “in Christ?” So I did what I always do: I went online and did a couple of Google keyword searches. I turned up a couple of bible verses, including this one from the letters of St. Paul (2 Cor. 5:17 NRSV).: So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; look, new things have come into being!

GotQuestions.org, the evangelical website where I found the passage from Paul, has a couple of elaborations on the theme: “When we are in Christ, we are “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4 KJV). God Himself, in the person of His Holy Spirit, takes up residence in our hearts. We are in Christ and He is in us” [link in the original]. And this: “In Christ, we can now choose to resist sin, whereas the old nature could not.”

There’s a strong whiff of Calvinism here, but it leads me to a Finnish theologian named Tuomo Mannermaa who wrote a book titled Christ Present in Faith: Luther’s View of Justification that’s long intrigued me. I’ve journaled about it (HERE and HERE, for example), and reading up on Mannerma and the Helsinki school of theology in turn leads me to a quote from Luther’s 1520 tract The Freedom of a Christian. It gets me a little closer:

We conclude, therefore, that a Christian lives not in himself, but in Christ and in his neighbour. Otherwise he is not a Christian. He lives in Christ through faith, in his neighbour through love. By faith he is caught up beyond himself into God. By love he descends beneath himself into his neighbour.

Love God, love your neighbor — it always gets back to that, doesn’t it?

I’ve studied enough church history to know that Mannermaa formed his concept of the indwelling of Christ in dialog with Russian Orthodox scholars (Finland has a significant Russian Orthodox minority), and he is indebted to the Orthodox concept of theosis. And the idea, which is also known as divinization and is defined as the “transforming effect of divine grace, the spirit of God, or the atonement of Christ,” goes back at least to St. Augustine and St. Athanasius — “For [Christ] was made man that we might be made God” — in the third century. Even further, perhaps, because Athanasius was a student of Polycarp’s, and Polycarp was a disciple of St. John the Evangelist. Luther had a mystical streak, especially in his early days, but I think his approach got to be more practical-minded as he left the university and took on more of a pastoral role. Luther famously said we are called to be “little Christs” by loving our neighbor. (So did C.S. Lewis.)

But that still doesn’t quite answer the question: Who am I in Christ?

So, as I sat with the question a while longer, a little thought nudged me. I often feel most at peace with myself when I’m listening to music or, better yet (at least before the pandemic), performing music. And I thought of an Old Irish poem attributed to St. Patrick that calls on Christ — on the Holy Trinity, to be precise — for protection and guidance.

An Anglican musical setting of the poem, in a late Victorian translation by Cecil Frances Alexander, was my conformation hymn more than 50 years ago (and I’ve blogged about it frequently, HERE, HERE and HERE, for example). It comes to mind every year around Trinity Sunday, also St. Patrick’s Day since the poem is attributed to St. Patrick and is often known as St. Patrick’s Breastplate. I guess what I’m trying to say is I feel like the hymn is very much a part of me. The verse that sticks in my mind goes like this:

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.

And that is likely to be as close as I’ll ever get to feeling the presence of Christ within me, or to answering the question: Who am I in Christ?

There’s a fine translation by Kuno Meyer, an early 20th-century German philologist, that was adapted by Irish composer Shaun Davey when he set it to music. Davey’s composition is titled the “Deer’s Cry,” after a lovely story recounting St. Patrick’s transformation when he lit an Easter fire at the pagan shrine at Tara, and the high king of Ireland tried to kill him. Singing the breastplate song for protection, Patrick and his disciples were transformed into deer and slipped away unseen.

Davey has done some brilliant film scores, and he’s one of my favorite semi-classical composers. He writes many of his pieces for his wife Rita Connolly, and she sang “Deer’s Cry” in 2011 for the inauguration of Michael D Higgins as president of Ireland, and in 2018 when Pope Francis visited Dublin; any number of fine renditions, by Connolly and others, are also available on YouTube.

But of them all, my favorite is a simple performance in 2009 by Rita Connolly, backed by Shaun Davey on harmonium and a local choir, at the Powerscourt Estate south of Dublin, featuring (A close second is by three members of the liturgy team at St. Patrick’s Basilica in Lough Derg, an ancient pilgrimage site in the north of Ireland.) Connolly, or a soloist, sings:

I arise today

Through the strength of Heaven
Light of sun
Radiance of moon […]

After invoking elements of fire, wind, the sea and “Stability of earth / Firmness of rock,” she calls on God’s strength; and God’s protection from ” all who shall wish me ill / Afar and anear
/ Alone and in a multitude.” As the song nears its end, she calls on Christ, and the choir joins her, singing in harmony:

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 to shield me
[…]

And with that, it ends:

I arise today.

And hearing it now, no less than in my growing-up years in a little Episcopal Church in Tennessee, I have a sense of what it must mean to “be in Christ.” And hearing the choir join in, with some gorgeous, soaring harmonies in the higher voices, am I alone in hearing an echo of the people of God? You don’t make harmony by yourself, you need a community. Shaun Davey’s setting of “The Deer’s Cry” is becoming as much a part of me as the Anglican hymn we sang at my confirmation.

Except in Shaun Davey’s translation, there’s something I missed in the hymn of my youth. I arise today. I’m in no position to make a pilgrimage to the Basilica of St. Patrick at Lough Derg in County Donegal, but I want my spiritual experiences to nudge me to do something. To be one of Martin Luther’s “little Christs.” To arise and light my own little Easter fire at whatever passes for Tara in 21st-century America. To act.

“Finally,” says Fr. James Martin in another context, “you act.” Because that’s how you roll if you’re in Christ; if you’re one with the people of God, that’s who you are.

Cites and Links

Cecil Frances Alexander, trans., “I bind unto myself this day,” Hymnary.org https://hymnary.org/text/i_bind_unto_myself_today.

Jordan Cooper, “Osiander and the Finnish Interpretation of Luther,” Just and Sinner, Patheos, June 3, 2014 https://www.patheos.com/blogs/justandsinner/osiander-and-the-finnish-interpretation-of-luther/.

Shaun Davey, “The Deer’s Cry” [arrangement of translation by Kuno Meyer], GodSongs.net https://www.godsongs.net/2016/05/the-deers-cry-davey-i-arise-today.html.

Shaun Davey Music, homepage https://shaundaveymusic.com/.

Becky Eldredge, “Ignatius and Me: The Triple Colloquy,” Becky Eldredge https://beckyeldredge.com/ignatiusandme-colloquy/.

Mark Ellingsen, “Reformation 500: 50 things Luther taught that you may not know,” Living Lutheran, Aug. 11, 2017 https://www.livinglutheran.org/2017/08/reformation-500-50-things-luther-taught-that-you-may-not-know/.

Lough Derg, the Sanctuary of St Patrick: A place of Christian Pilgrimage since 5th Century [website} https://www.loughderg.org/.

Kurt Marquart, “Luther and Theosis,” Concordia Theological Quarterly, 64, no. 3 (July 2000), 182ff http://www.ctsfw.net/media/pdfs/marquartlutherandtheosis.pdf.

Kuno Meyer, “St. Patrick’s Breastplate,” in Padraic Colum, ed., Anthology of Irish Verse, 1922 https://www.bartleby.com/250/49.html.

Who am I in Christ?” Got Questions Ministries, Jan. 24, 2022 https://www.gotquestions.org/who-in-Christ.html.

Wikipedia articles on Athanasius of Alexandria; Augustine of Hippo; divinization (Christian); Michael D. Higgins; Powerscourt Estate; St. Patrick’s Breastplate; and theosis.

Xrysostom [a screen name], “Luther, Lewis, and ‘Little Christs’,” Ask the Pastor, March 26, 2007 https://xrysostom.blogspot.com/2007/03/luther-lewis-and-christs.html.

[Published July 13, 2022]

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