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Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Prayer in the Words of St. Patrick

By Angier Brock

In Christ of the Celts, Philip Newell recounts a story from the Irish oral tradition in which St. Patrick is summoned on the Last Day into the presence of God. Patrick responds by saying he will not appear unless all of his people are allowed to accompany him. Three times this happens, the same summons and the same response, until God agrees that all of St. Patrick’s people may join him. But God also requires that Patrick do one thing.  

Because the story stops short of revealing what that one thing is, I am free to imagine my own way in. And so I wonder: If I were summoned into God’s holy presence—and could take “all my people” with me if I agreed to the one thing God asked—who would “all my people” be, and what is the one thing God would require of me?   

These are provocative questions. The first asks me to ponder how expansive (or limited) my sense of “my people” is. Although I would like to believe I would err on the side of inclusion, there are definitely people I would be tempted to exclude. I suspect that whom I would “allow” into heaven reveals a lot about how open I am to the possibility of forgiveness and grace.

The other question is also difficult. Do I imagine God would ask of me one clear, grand, and dramatic gesture—for example, to sell everything I own and give all to the poor, or to take a vow of silence and never speak a word to anyone again? Or would God’s demand be more subtle—something along the lines of asking that I become more fully the me that is created in God’s image, the me that God knit together in my mother’s womb. Wow. What would that look like? And would it be any less difficult to do?

Of the many traditions associated with St. Patrick, one is his authorship of a prayer, often called “St. Patrick’s Breastplate” or the “Lorica of St. Patrick,” essentially a paean to the Trinity with an emphasis on the Christ. Originally written in Gaelic, its wording varies somewhat in different hymnals and recordings, with some versions being a bit more contemporary (and less flowery) that what follows. Here, however, are two verses of a commonly used 1889 version penned by a woman named Cecil F. Alexander:
I bind unto myself today the virtues of the starlit heavens,
the glorious sun’s life-giving ray, the whiteness of the moon at even,
the flashing of the lightning free, the whirling wind’s tempestuous shocks,
the stable earth, the deep salt sea, around the old eternal rocks.

I bind unto myself today the power of God to hold and lead,
God’s eye to watch, God’s might to stay, God’s ear to hearken to my need;
the wisdom of my God to teach, God’s hand to guide, God’s shield to ward;
the word of God to give me speech, God’s heavenly host to be my guard. 

What if what God requested of Patrick was simply that he live into this prayer? What if God wants that for you and me as well?  

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