Preface: Worship music for this Sunday’s St. Patrick Day celebration can still be found at this link: https://rickleejames.com/2013/03/10/worship-music-for-st-patricks-day/
Song written by Rick Lee James and Eddie Kirkland
Why Does St. Patrick Matter?
Imagine living in Ireland in the early 5th century. It’s a land without literacy. It’s a land without cities. It’s a place where magic and reality ran together under the influence of the Druids. It’s a place where gods lived in the stones on the ground and in the trees of the forest. It’s a place where human sacrifice was practiced and fierce warriors would bring terror upon their enemies with stories of magical shape shifting abilities. To enter into this world is to enter into the world of St. Patrick.
St. Patrick’s given name was Patricius. He was born into a middle class home on in Romanized Britain. Slavery was widespread in that region and as a young boy Patricius was kidnapped by Irish slavers. As a slave he was forced into the wild country side to be a shepherd. It was a life of poverty and isolation where hunger and nakedness were his constant companions.
Patricius really didn’t believe in God and found priests to be foolish in the days before his enslavement, but now in the cold, isolated fields of Ireland he turned to the God of his parents and began to pray.
During this miserable 6 year period of isolation, Patricius became something he most likely would have never become without it, a holy man who learned how to listen and how pray. On the final night of his captivity he heard a voice that told him, “your hungers are rewarded: you are going home.” To make a long story a bit shorter, he escaped in a lifeboat after traveling seemingly endless miles and eventually returned to his family. He then went on to study in France (Gaul as it was known then), became a priest, then a bishop and feeling the call of God on his life was led back to Ireland as a missionary.
It’s hard for me to imagine the amount of courage it took for Patrick to return to the land that had enslaved him and stolen away his youth. To confront bloodthirsty Irishmen wielding battle-axes with nothing more than the love of Jesus Christ is evidence of that courage.
However, the pagans of Ireland were not utterly without virtue. They could be courageous, loyal, and generous and these virtues were exemplified by Patricius winning him converts by the thousands. As he gained influence, he became the first public figure to take a stand against slavery, imploring the Britons to end the practice in Ireland altogether.
Possibly the greatest contribution made to the world by St. Patrick is that he introduced the printed word to the Irish. When Rome fell in the early 5th century to Gothic illiterate rule, their scriptoriums were destroyed, their books burned and the employment of copyists was ended.
By contrast, the Irish rapidly embraced literacy and education. This former warrior society led into Christianity without bloodshed. Many of them became fascinated by stories of early Christian Martyrs and their desire to re-create Martyr-like circumstances, led certain pious men to the concept of the Green Martyr. The Green Martyrs were reclusive holy-men removed themselves from society, venturing into forests and other wild places for the purpose of study and prayer.
This is where the concept of monasteries came from. Religious people would gather together to study, pray, and copy old books. These Irish monasteries took on the prehistoric Irish virtue of hospitality and all who would come were welcomed.
In this once illiterate land full of stories of shape-shifters and mythology now began to fill with libraries and something that seems unique even in our “enlightened” times, an open-minded Christianity. After the Bible and the Gospels were copied by the copyists, the stories of Greek mythology and prehistoric Irish tales were copied down in monastic scriptoriums. Irish monasteries viewed all learning as sacred, not just what was found in scripture.
In their open-minded brand of Christianity they observed old holidays like May Day, Halloween, and Easter, even though it had been banned by Rome.
The irony is that in the 5th century when Rome fell and Europe fell into anarchy, their well-educated academics fled to Ireland. The monasteries of Ireland became cultural hubs for exiled European academics where the last remaining books of antiquity were copied and treasured. This is, as author Thomas Cahill tells us in his book by the same name, “How the Irish Saved Civilization.”
I wonder if St. Patrick had any idea that his introduction of literacy, as well as Christianity, to the Irish people would in turn save western culture. That is why St. Patrick is so important not only to Christianity but to the world.
There is a very famous prayer known as “St. Patrick’s Breastplate”. Characteristics of its language would assign it to the 7th or 8th century so it cannot be definitively ascribed to St. Patrick himself, but it is Patrician to its core. Like Patrick, the prayer sees the universe itself as the great sacrament designed by a loving creator to blessed human beings. To quote Thomas Cahill from his book How the Irish Saved Civilization: “it is, in attitude, the work of a Christian druid, a man of both faith and magic. Its feeling is entirely un-Augustinian; but it is this feeling that will go on to animate the best poetry of the Middle Ages. If Patrick did not write it, it surely takes its inspiration from him. For in this cosmic incantation, the inarticulate outcast who wept for slaves, aided common men in difficulty, and loved sunrise and sea at last finds his voice: Appropriately, it is an Irish voice.”
The Breastplate of St. Patrick
I arise today Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity, Through the belief in the threeness, Through the confession of the oneness Of the Creator of Creation.
I arise today Through the strength of Christ’s birth with his baptism, Through the strength of his crucifixion with his burial, Through the strength of his resurrection with his ascension, Through the strength of his descent for the Judgment Day.
I arise today Through the strength of the love of Cherubim, In obedience of angels, In the service of archangels, In hope of resurrection to meet with reward, In prayers of patriarchs, In predictions of prophets, In preaching of apostles, In faith of confessors, In innocence of holy virgins, In deeds of righteous men.
I arise today Through the strength of heaven: Light of sun, Radiance of moon, Splendor of fire, Speed of lightning, Swiftness of wind, Depth of sea, Stability of earth, Firmness of rock.
I arise today Through God’s strength to pilot me: God’s might to uphold me, God’s wisdom to guide me, God’s eye to look before me, God’s ear to hear me, God’s word to speak for me, God’s hand to guard me, God’s way to lie before me, God’s shield to protect me, God’s host to save me From snares of demons, From temptations of vices, From everyone who shall wish me ill, Afar and anear, Alone and in multitude.
I summon today all these powers between me and those evils, Against every cruel 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 to shield me today Against poison, against burning, Against drowning, against wounding, So that there may come to me abundance of reward. 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.
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.