Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Saint Patrick's Prayer

It is, perhaps, an interesting feature of Saint Patrick's Day that Catholics, especially Irish ones, will enthusiastically quote, write, and sing--the words of a notable Protestant poet.

I refer to the common translation of the prayer usually called St. Patrick's Breastplate; it is legendary that the Irish saint is responsible for this prayer, though like so many things about this great saint's life it's hard to establish his authorship with any certainty. A poetic translation from the 1920s of this prayer may be found here, and reads as follows:

I ARISE to-day
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 to-day
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 devils,
From temptations of vices,
From every one who shall wish me ill,
Afar and anear,
Alone and in a multitude.

Christ to shield me to-day
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 every one who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.

I arise to-day
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through belief in the threeness,
Through confession of the oneness
Of the Creator of Creation.

Now, there are several other versions out there, and some of them claim to be a literal translation of the original prayer. Unfortunately, a little further digging reveals that the prayer we have today is most probably a composite of two prayers attributed to St. Patrick, one the Lorica, or breastplate (the "Christ with me, Christ before me etc." part) and the other the Deer's Cry, the prayer which according to legend allowed St. Patrick and his followers to slip past a band of pagan enemies undetected.

Whatever the case may be, it's clear that the most well-known "translation" is actually the poetic hymn composed by Cecil Frances Alexander. She--yes, she's a she, even though the name "Cecil" threw me a little--was a Protestant Church of Ireland lady married to the Reverend William Alexander of the Diocese of Derry. The terse biography on this page contains the interesting information that her husband's age, six years younger than her own, caused "great family concern, and birthdate deferentially altered accordingly..." Thus some biographies of Mrs. Alexander list her birth date as 1825 instead of 1818!

Mrs. Alexander is well known for some of her other hymns, many of which have also found their way into Catholic hymn-books; these include "There is a green hill far away," "All things bright and beautiful," and the lovely Christmas hymn, "Once in Royal David's city." One of her early books was called "Hymns for Little Children," and Mrs. Alexander wrote about her poetic efforts for children as follows:
The writer’s wish would be to prolong the child’s love of the glorious Old Testament stories, by throwing round them something of the poetical tinge which is attractive to almost every mind in opening youth; and thus to connect associations of quiet pleasure with the examples of holy life, and the doctrines of saving truth, which the Bible contains in such exceeding abundance.’
A link to "Hymns for Little Children" is here; it's interesting to glance through the poems, to see a few that are still familiar, and a few that, with their focus on the graveyard, seem a bit morbid for young childhood.

According to the Cyberhymnal website:

The lyr­ics are a trans­la­tion of a Gael­ic po­em called “St. Pat­rick’s Lor­i­ca,” or breast­plate. (A “lorica” was a mys­tic­al gar­ment that was sup­posed to pro­tect the wear­er from dan­ger and ill­ness, and guar­an­tee ent­ry in­to Hea­ven.) Ce­cil Alex­an­der penned these words at the re­quest of H. H. Dick­in­son, Dean of the Cha­pel Roy­al at Dub­lin Cas­tle:

I wrote to her sug­gest­ing that she should fill a gap in our Irish Church Hymn­al by giv­ing us a me­tric­al ver­sion of St. Patrick’s “Lor­i­ca” and I sent her a care­ful­ly col­lat­ed co­py of the best prose trans­la­tions of it. With­in a week she sent me that ex­qui­site­ly beau­ti­ful as well as faith­ful ver­sion which ap­pears in the ap­pend­ix to our Church Hymn­al.

Mrs. Alexander's version of St. Patrick's Breastplate, then, came from several different prose translations of the prayer; it is still very well-loved today, since her gift for arranging the various translations into a lovely poetic form shows forth whether the poem is read or sung.

Our choir sang part of Mrs. Alexander's hymn on Sunday. There are too many verses for the entire thing to be easily sung at Mass, especially during the post-Communion period; we sang the first verse, and then verses 8 and 9 (by the Cyberhymnal arrangement). It was nice to be able to include this song on the Sunday before St. Patrick's Day.

I think that St. Patrick, who fought so hard to bring the Faith to Ireland, would be pleased that his prayer brings together both Protestants and Catholics to sing about the Trinity. We should keep praying for the unity that Christ wants for all Christians, and remember on this feast day to ask St. Patrick to help unite all who sincerely seek to follow Christ, to know, love, and serve Him, and to worship in His Church.

1 comment:

Rebecca said...

It's such a powerful prayer and hymn. Love it.