80. ST. PATRICK’S BREASTPLATE – ancient Celtic hymn

Here’s one I’ve carried around in my head for a long time; and knew I’d have to write about, but how to start? I think I need to tell you about my first trip to York.

It was the late 1970s. For youngish twentysomethings with aspirations of lives characterised by meaningful Christian service, and by deeper, fresher and more creative worship, there was much to be excited about. Whether it was jumping on bandwagons, or simply recognizing communities, churches and movements that were proving visionary and innovative, it was hard not to chase up sources of inspirational teaching and vibrant worship resources. Saint Michael-le-Belfrey in York was one of those places where ‘it was happening’. Not only had their rector, Canon David Watson become a renowned conference speaker on many aspects of New Testament lifestyle-rediscovery taking place alongside the broader ‘charismatic renewal’ in the church, but the church’s worship-life and ministry were also beginning to make names for themselves, perhaps along the lines of The Fisherfolk /Community of Celebration output, which, one imagined, had helped to inform their own communal vision, as it had for so many up and down the country.

Fairly fancy free in those days, at least during holiday times, I decided to go and visit the church to get the flavour of it, and even -who knows-return with sparks of something which might prove useful for my own little fellowship. I caught trains (my pre-car days, I think) and booked into a youth hostel for the Saturday night. Mooched around the charity shops and bookshops of York on the Saturday afternoon, (bought some CS Lewis first editions sold decades later on ebay!), checked out the glorious Minster, discovered St Michael’s own coffee-and-book shop across the square from the church, and picked up the music group’s debut LP ‘With Thanksgiving’. Some cracking songs on that, a few of which I was to sample on the following morning.

That following morning was the main reason I’d come, of course. I got there bright and early, and was glad that I did, not just because there was a modest struggle for a good seat, but because Andrew Maries, director of worship at Saint Michael-le-Belfrey, used the 30 minutes prior to the start of the service to lead the congregation through a few of the more unfamiliar songs, so that when we encountered them in the service itself, we could join in with unembarrassed abandon. One such practice was the children’s song – Robert Stoodley’s ‘Everybody Song’ (from the aforementioned LP). And then there was this long, strange hymn I had never heard before. ‘St Patrick’s Breastplate’ he called it. Maries must have been a brilliant teacher that morning because we got into it; we couple of hundred or whatever gathered before the service, were led to surprising confidence in the twists and turns and trills of that alien song. So much so that although I remember very few of the words, the tune has never left my head since that time.

Hard to say exactly what thrilled me and arrested me so completely about that song – no one simple factor, I’m sure. I know more about the song now than I did then of course; I know for instance that this hymn was a tidied up, metrical version of the long Celtic prayer/hymn/series of invocations attributed to fifth century St Patrick, but probably written ‘in the spirit of Patrick’ (as scholars seem to agree) in the eighth century. The Victorian hymn-lyricist, Mrs. Alexander, based her version on several prose translations of the original. I know too that the man who set this metrical hymn to music (Stanford) chose two Irish tunes as the bases of his melody. Those tunes certainly helped to arrest me! I say tunes, because of course, the penultimate verse of the hymn changes completely into this (as it seemed to me then) poignantly simple, invocatory chant (‘Christ be with me, Christ within me,/ Christ behind me, Christ before me…’). This too was intriguing!

But the language of the song seemed so different from most hymnody I knew -less flowery and sentimental than Victorian hymns, less didactic than many of the Wesleyan hymns, less simplistic than many of the modern hymns. I felt caught off guard, even, by the kind of robust earthiness and physicality of some of the imagery – even the very idea of ‘binding [spiritual truths] to myself..’ seemed quite startling and new.

Today we are all pretty familiar with the idea of ‘Celtic spirituality’ – and perhaps it’s a little bit sad, even, that its ‘in-fashion trendiness’ in at least the UK Christian church (including slightly unreal prettied-up versions of it being marketed) has perhaps distracted from some of the valid reasons why Christian writers and teachers began to find in aspects of ancient Christian Celtic texts and symbols elements which could help to refocus and reinvigorate contemporary worship. Including, for instance, more holistic praise-responses incorporating an awareness of the natural world. So we get this in the song too – ‘I bind unto myself today/ The virtues of the starlit heaven/ The glorious sun’s life giving ray..’ Encompassing nature in all its moods –‘the whirling wind’s tempestuous shocks/ the stable earth, the deep salt sea/around the old eternal rocks’. This too was arresting!

Scholars will no doubt propose several hypotheses about why the idea of ‘trinity’ grabbed the Celtic imagination so unshakeably (some magical, mystical power to the number 3 etc) but the song sort of reinforces that theological concept with new vigour, too. Another reason. I could go on. I could comment on every verse but, as ever, that would give a slightly unrealistic reflection of its initial impact on me which was of course not close and analytical. [Others have written in both commentative and reflective ways about this song. See footnote*]. Other imagery in the hymn boldly referenced the scary hostilities and evils of a dark world, though, that needed us to pray prayers like the ones for protection and shelter included in the song , and to invoke and declare stuff like this about ‘binding to ourselves’ these God-bolstered vigorous and virile realities!

So I returned to our little valleys congregation, with a few books, a half-poem about York Minster, a new LP, some stories about the church (‘There’s no easy answer to involving kids in the service’ I said, remembering how chaotic the presence of children had been in St Michael’s as much as anywhere else; oh and extolling the excellent teaching of young Rev. Graham Cray). Why I didn’t share this song which had been a memorable discovery from my trip, I’m not entirely sure. It wasn’t a guitar song, that’s certain, so I couldn’t have ‘shared’ it easily. Did a selfish part of me want to hold it secretly in my own head for my own private prayers and invocations? I don’t know. But I’ve certainly buried it firmly within myself.

I do know that I regret not having sung it enough over the years – not just in my head or on my own, but out loud with others, I mean, in congregations of the faithful, and preferably with some loud lusty pipe organ as accompaniment!

[I mentioned that at least two modern Christian books reflect on the hymn – David Adam’s ‘The Cry of the Deer’ and John Davies’s ‘A Song for Every Morning’]

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