St Patrick’s Breastplate; Celtic Christianity   4 comments

Slemish, mountain in County Antrim where St Pa...

Slemish, mountain in County Antrim where St Patrick is reputed to have shepherded as a slave (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Saint Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland.  He lived in ‘the dark ages’ of the fourth century, so there are conflicting accounts of his life and a great number of legends about him. It is claimed that he wrote two documents, The Confession and The Letter to Coroticus. The first gives an account of his life, and the other tells us something of his style, personality and methods in urging Christian subjects to stand up against pagan leaders. In today’s increasingly secular society, the latter takes on fresh meaning.

He was born about 389 A.D., the son of a small landowner from Banwen in post-Roman Glamorgan (Morgannwg in Welsh), who brought him up as a Christian. When he was sixteen he was captured by ‘pirates’, who took him to Ireland as a slave. He was a shepherd on the estate of a chieftain in County Antrim, in the north of Ireland. During the six years of his captivity he resolved to give his life to the service of the gospel. He escaped to Wicklow, to the south of Dublin, and boarded a ship engaged in the trade of wolf-dogs. He was put off on the coast of Gaul and became a monk in the monastery at Lerins. In those days, the western sea routes around Britain and France were the chief means of transport around the various Celtic territiories, since the overland routes were slow, difficult and treacherous, even where the Romans had left roads.

After returning to his home in Britain, he conceived the idea of a Christian mission to Ireland, describing how, in a dream he saw a man named ‘Victorious’ holding letters from Ireland, one of which he gave to Patrick to read. The words in the letter began with ‘The Voice of the Irish’ which called upon him ‘to come again and walk among us as before’. He first returned to Gaul, where he was ordained by Bishop Amator, and for fourteen years he prepared for his vocation as a missionary.

 

wicklow mountains
wicklow mountains (Photo credit: lalui)

He returned to Ireland in 432 and probably landed again in Wicklow and began his mission in the kingdom of Ulidea in East Ulster. He needed the protection of the tribal kings and clan chieftains and succeeded in converting one of them, Dichu, who gave him a site on which to establish a place of worship, a wooden barn, or ‘saball’ in Irish, which became known as ‘Saul’. The most powerful chief, the High King of Tara, had ruled that every fire in Ireland must be put out at Easter and relighted from a fire in his castle, those disobeying being put to death. When Patrick was brought before the King for deliberately lighting his own fire on a hill opposite the castle, he said that he had done so as a sign that Christ, who had risen from the dead, was the Light of the World. He was set free, which reveals not just the strength of his faith, but also the growing strength of the faithful Christians. He then travelled throughout the country, founding communities, including the church and monastery at Armagh. He died in A.D. 461, supposedly on March 17th,  and was probably buried at Saul.

 

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Probably the most famous legend about him is his use of the shamrock to illustrate the doctrine of the Trinity, the mystery of the three-in-one. The shamrock thus became one of the national emblems of the Irish, the other being the harp (see the picture above). Perhaps the most significant legend, however, is that connecting Patrick with Joseph of Arimathea, which tells of Joseph visiting western Britain following the death of Jesus, bringing with him the Sangreal, or dish used at the Last Supper. This gave rise to the Arthurian legends of the Holy Grail. Joseph was said to have built a little chapel at Glastonbury, which was replaced by the Abbey, the ruins of which are a place of pilgrimage to this day. Patrick is said to have founded the monastic community there, at a time when the Tor would still have been part of the island of Afalon, easily reachable by ship from the western coasts of Britain and the eastern coasts of Ireland.

There is also a story from Glyn Rhosyn in Pembrokeshire that Patrick settled there, but was told by an angel, in a dream, to move on, since the place was being reserved for St David, who became the patron saint of ‘Y Cymru ‘, the Welsh. Another legend places him in the Celtic Kingdom of Strathclyde, at Dumbarton.

 

St Patrick Northern Ireland Flag
St Patrick Northern Ireland Flag (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The flag of St Patrick, a diagonal red cross on a white background, became part of the Union Flag when Ireland became part of the United Kingdom in 1801, joining the cross of St Andrew, for Scotland, and St George, for England. It remains on the flag to this day, although only Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom. St Patrick’s Day is celebrated North and South of the border, and is a public holiday in both the Republic and ‘the Province’, which is appropriate, since there was no border in Patrick’s day and much of his ministry was conducted in the north of the island. The flag of St David is not (yet) part of the UK flag, nor, of course, is the Red Dragon (Y Ddraig Goch), the national emblem of ‘the Principality’. Patrick also has a hymn named after him:

Saint Patrick’s Breastplate

I bind unto myself today

The Power of God to hold and lead,

His eye to watch, His might to stay,

His ear to hearken to my need,

The wisdom of my God to teach,

His hand to guide, His shield to ward,

The word of God to give me speech,

His heavenly host to be my guard.

 

Statue of St. Patrick in Aughagower, County Mayo
Statue of St. Patrick in Aughagower, County Mayo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The hymn is traditionally attributed to Patrick himself, and it certainly shows very clearly the blending of pagan mythology with Christian teaching in the early Celtic Church. It combines the functions of incantation, war-song and redal statement. The whole poem is given a tremendous force and unity by the notion of binding, so characteristic in Celtic art with its intricate knots and never-ending interlacing patterns, such as in the Book of Kells (see the picture above). The original Gaelic poem is known as ‘St Patrick’s Lorica’ . A ‘lorica’ was a spiritual coat or breastplate which not only charmed away disease or danger, but also secured a place in heaven for those who wore it day and night. The word became applied to spiritual poems which characteristically had three distinct parts: the invocation of the Trinity and the angels; the enumeration of various parts of the body to be protected; and a list of dangers from which immunity was being sought. The second of these elements is there in verse 8, where Christ’s presence in every part of the body is carefully invoked.

Legend has it that Patrick composed his lorica shortly after landing in Ireland on his mission, in 432, and to have used it in his defence before the pagan high king at Tara. Whether or not Patrick himself wrote the lorica, it is a supreme expression of the holiness and wholeness that marks Celtic Christianity, and which is summed up in another statement attributed to him:

Our God is the God of Heaven and Earth, of sea and river, sun and moon and stars, of the lofty mountain and lowly valley’

These words, and the words of the hymn itself, take on a new relevance for us, in our return to the ecological consciousness which Patrick himself epitomised in his ministry and teaching. The translation of Patrick’s lorica into the hymn was done by Cecil Frances Alexander (1818-95), the author of All Things Bright and Beautiful, Once in Royal David’s City and many other hymns, many especially written for children. It was written for St Patrick’s Day, 1889, set to the traditional Irish medley, St Patrick, by Stanford (1852-1924), with the eighth verse ‘Christ be with me’ sung to one of three other Irish melodies. It is also considered an appropriate hymn to be sung on Easter Eve, or Holy Saturday, associated in the early church with baptism, so it helps to direct our thoughts on this St Patrick’s Day towards the coming of Holy Week.

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4 responses to “St Patrick’s Breastplate; Celtic Christianity

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  1. Well done! And thanks for linking to my blog at domermom.com!!

  2. Pingback: St. Patrick | A Pastor's Thoughts

  3. Reblogged this on hungarywolf and commented:

    Edited, reblogged and posted for St Patrick’s Day (17 March), 2016.

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