Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Breastplate of St. Patrick: Still Relevant After 1500 Years

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 every eye that sees me,
     Christ in every ear that hears me.

Window in St. Patrick's Cathedral, Armagh
     Pious tradition attributes authorship of the prayer above, known as “The Breastplate of St. Patrick”, to the Apostle of Ireland himself.  As is the case with the beloved "Prayer of St. Francis", experts tell us the eponymous Saint is most likely not the real author.  I myself would much rather hang out with Pious Tradition than with The Experts any day, but for our purposes here we'll just say that it could have been written by St. Patrick.  In any case, while the prayer as you see it above is the most well-known version, it is really only a part of a much longer composition (full text here).  At one time this magnificent prayer, in its complete form, was a part of my morning devotions every day.
     "The Breastplate of St. Patrick" is, in fact, written as a morning prayer, and more: it is a statement of faith, a brief but comprehensive catechesis, and a call for Divine help against the dangers that beset us from both earthly and spiritual sources.  Those things are as necssary today as they were in 5th century Ireland, and St. Patrick's prayer is a powerful and inspiring way to start our daily journey.
     The "Breastplate" opens with "I arise today/Through a mighty strength, the invocation of
Trinity . . ." St. Patrick is famous for his emphasis on the Trinity, reportedly using the tree-leafed
shamrock to illustrate the doctrine (as memorialized in the present-day stained glass window
from the cathedral in Armagh, his primatial see).  Here, he also emphasizes "the Oneness of the
Creator of creation."  In converting a pagan people, Patrick needed to impress upon them that
there was indeed only one God, as distinct from their pagan pantheon, although expressed in
three Persons.  The Triune God is also unlike their familiar gods in that He alone is the universal
Creator, as opposed to pagan deities who were hardly less subject to greater forces than were
mortal men. In our own day we also need to be reminded that God is Love (1 John 4:8), and
Love reaches its perfection in a union of persons, but also that God the Creator is master of all
the blind forces of nature with which we wrestle.
     The next “I arise today . . .” is followed by a brief Christology: incarnation, crucifixion,
resurrection and descent to the Dead. We no less than our newly-christened forefathers need to
understand who it is we follow.
     A third “I arise today . . . .” is followed by a litany of various Angels, Patriarchs, Prophets,
and Saints, which re-establishes for us that our devotion to the Person of Jesus Christ also connects us to all the lesser persons, living and dead, in the Communion of Saints.
     Next, “I arise today/Through strength of heaven,/the light of the sun . . .” and so on, through a
list of natural forces which, St. Patrick here reminds us, come below us in the order of creation,
and are so much the more under God’s power (how often we moderns forget both of these
     After a fifth “I arise today . . .” we see a litany of the various manifestations of God’s Providential care:

     God’s strength to pilot me,
     God’s might to uphold me,
     God’s wisdom to guide me . . .

And so on. At the end of this section we shift our focus to the various evils that beset us:

     God's host to save me
     From snares of devils,
     From temptation of vices,
     From everyone who shall wish me ill,
     Afar and near.

     In the next section we call for God’s help against these evils, which are laid out in more detail:

     I summon today
     All these powers between me and those evils,
     Against every cruel and merciless power
     That may oppose my body and soul,
     Against incantations of false prophets,
     Against black laws of pagandom,
     Against false laws of heretics,
     Against craft of idolatry,
     Against spells of witches and smiths and wizards,
     Against every knowledge that corrupts man's body and soul.
     Christ shield me today
     Against poison, against burning,
     Against drowning, against wounding,
     So that there may come to me
     an abundance of reward.

Notice the priority given to spiritual evils, which Christians have traditionally understood to be
far more serious dangers than the physical hazards at the end of the passage, but which are
ignored or even derided today (as I discuss here).
     At this point we come to the famous passage quoted at the top of this post, from which the prayer takes its name, in which we call upon Christ to surround us, to “armor” us, with his protection.
     Finally, the prayer ends by repeated the invocation with which it starts:

     I arise today,
     Through a mighty strength,
     The invocation of the Trinity,
     Through belief in the Threeness,
     Through confession of the Oneness
     Of the Creator of creation.

     As I read through this prayer, which was composed for ancient pagans who knew nothing of Christianity, I am struck by how well it is suited to our current post-Christian, neo-pagan culture.  I think I’ll start praying it more often.

(See also "St. Patrick and Slavery to Sin")