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St. Patrick’s Answer To The Powers Of Hell — Then And Now

July 3, 2018 Featured Today No Comments

By JAMES MONTI

Many of us, I’m sure, are still reeling from the evil outcome of the recent vote in Ireland that by overthrowing the legal protection of the unborn will effectively expose to a sentence of death countless innocent Irish children. Sixteen centuries ago, Ireland was likewise in the shadow of death, the nation under the sway of pagan Druids. But on a spring evening in Slane, in Ireland’s County Meath, a fire was lit on a hilltop to begin the Easter Vigil that night, lit by “a man sent from God” (John 1:6), whose name was Patrick. That light shone in the darkness, and the darkness was not able to overcome it (John 1:5).
St. Patrick’s pivotal and decisive confrontation with Ireland’s powers of darkness is said to have come at Tara, where on that Easter night Ireland’s pagan king Laogaire and his Druid clergy spotted the Slane fire off in the distance, and ultimately resolved to snuff out both the Christian faith it symbolized and the missionary who had come to light it.
We know from Patrick’s own writings that in the course of his apostolic labors he did indeed encounter hostility, persecution, and very real threats to his life. In his Confessio he speaks of undergoing “insults from unbelievers,” “many persecutions even unto chains” and of expecting daily either to be “massacred” or to suffer some other calamity at the hands of his foes (text in Maire B. De Paor, PBVM, ed., Patrick: The Pilgrim Apostle of Ireland: St. Patrick’s Confessio and Epistola, Dublin, Veritas, 1998, pp. 247, 261).
It was the confrontation with paganism at Tara that is said to have inspired Patrick to compose the prayer attributed to him for at least a thousand years — his Lorica (“Breastplate”). The earliest explicit reference to this prayer and the circumstances of its composition is in the tenth to eleventh century Tripartite Life of St. Patrick, which relates that when the pagan king Laogaire, intent upon putting Patrick to death, had set an ambush for him on the roads leading to Tara, the saint prayed in these words for protection.
Thereupon a “cloak of darkness” concealed Patrick and the clerics accompanying him, so that “not a man of them appeared.” All that the would-be assassins saw as Patrick and his companions passed was a retinue of “eight deer…and behind them a fawn” (text in Whitley Stokes, ed., The Tripartite Life of Patrick, with Other Documents relating to that Saint, part 1, London, Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1887, pp. 46-53, esp. 47).
The preamble that accompanies this prayer in the earliest work to record its full text, the eleventh-century Liber Hymnorum, says that it is “a lorica [breastplate] of faith for the protection of body and soul against demons and men and vices,” and that when anyone “shall recite it daily with pious meditation on God, demons shall not dare to face him,” and it shall even serve as a breastplate for his soul after death (text in J.H. Bernard and R. Atkinson, The Irish Liber Hymnorum, London, Henry Bradshaw Society, 1898, volume 2, p. 49).
This hymn is a spiritual call to battle — indeed the Irish genre to which it belongs, that of the lorica, was intended as a supplication to be offered when vesting for warfare, as well as a morning offering to be said while dressing for the “battle” of a new day (Carl Daw, Glory to God: A Companion, Louisville, Ky., Westminster John Knox Press, 2016, p. 7).
The original Irish text has been translated in various ways, but perhaps the most compelling rendering of this text in English, and by far the most powerful setting of the prayer to music, has been the full nine-verse adaptation entitled, “I bind unto myself today,” its wording the work of the Anglican hymn-writer Mrs. Cecil Frances Alexander (1818-1895) and its music composed by the Englishman Charles Villiers Stanton (1852-1924).
When in 1893 Mrs. Alexander’s rendering of the Lorica was published as “Hymn 583” in the Irish Anglican volume, Church Hymnal: Appendix, the words of St. Paul, “Put on the whole armour of God” (Eph. 6:11), were printed as an epigraph just below the title of the hymn (Robert Prescott Stewart, ed., Church Hymnal: Appendix, Dublin, Association for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1893, p. 118).
Clearly Patrick’s prayer draws its inspiration in large part from St. Paul’s famous battle analogy in his Epistle to the Ephesians, in which he speaks of girding oneself with truth, putting on “the breastplate of righteousness” and “taking the shield of faith . . . the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit” (Eph. 6:11-17).
Ludwig Bieler describes Patrick’s Lorica as combining “a profoundly religious spirit with poetic grandeur” (L. Bieler, ed., The Works of Saint Patrick; St. Secundinus, Hymn on St. Patrick, Ancient Christian Writers, n. 17, Westminster, Md., and London, Newman Press/Longmans, Green and Co., 1953, p. 68). Far from taking excessive liberties with the original, Mrs. Alexander’s adaptation serves only to accentuate, heighten, and underline the meaning and poetry of Patrick’s words by polishing and smoothing the phraseology. The lyricism of Mrs. Alexander’s translation laid the groundwork for what Charles Villiers Stanton would subsequently achieve in setting the prayer to truly worthy music.
For his setting of the Lorica Stanton chose a traditional Irish melody known simply as the “Hymn of St. Bernard,” a tune of an age and origin lost in the mists of history that in times past had been employed to sing St. Bernard’s Jesu dulcis memoria (melody in George Petrie and C.V. Stanford, eds., The Complete Collection of Irish Music, London, Boosey and Co., 1902-1905, n. 1048, p. 266). One modern hymnal describes Stanford’s musical setting of the text to the St. Bernard melody as “rugged, outdoor, striding music,” a work of “bounding energy” imbued with “grandeur” and “a bracing aura of intense experience” (Daw, Glory to God, pp. 8-9).
Stanton’s musical setting of “I bind unto myself today” can be heard in its uncut nine-verse entirety in an excellent 1997 digital recording by David Hill and the Winchester Cathedral Choir (from Hyperion CDS44311/3). Here we quote the first seven verses:
“I bind unto myself today / The strong Name of the Trinity, / By invocation of the same, / The Three in One, and One in Three.
“I bind this day to me for ever, / By pow’r of faith, Christ’s Incarnation; / His baptism in Jordan River; / His death on Cross for my salvation; / His bursting from the spiced tomb; / His riding up the Heav’nly way; / His coming at the day of doom; / I bind unto myself today.
“I bind unto myself the power / Of the great love of Cherubim; / The sweet ‘Well done’ in judgment hour; / The service of the Seraphim, / Confessors’ faith, Apostles’ word, / The Patriarchs’ prayers, the Prophet’s scrolls, / All good deeds done unto the Lord, / And purity of virgin souls.
“I bind unto myself today / The virtues of the starlit heaven, / 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 pow’r of God to hold, and lead, / His eyes 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.
“Against the demon snares of sin, / The vice that gives temptation force, / The natural lusts that war within, / The hostile men that mar my course; / Of few or many, far or nigh, / In every place, and in all hours, / Against their fierce hostility, / I bind to me these holy powers.
“Against all Satan’s spells and wiles, / Against false words of heresy, / Against the knowledge that defiles, / Against the heart’s idolatry, / Against the wizard’s evil craft, / Against the death-wound and the burning, / The choking wave, the poisoned shaft, / Protect me, Christ, till Thy returning” (text in Stewart, Church Hymnal: Appendix, pp. 118-121, 124-125).

It Will Not Stand

It seems no coincidence that the postmodern descent of Irish society into Neopaganism has been preceded and accompanied in certain academic quarters by a romanticization of Ireland’s ancient pagan past, an eagerness to find pagan origins for traditional Irish music and literature to the point of casting ancient Irish Christian hymns and prayers such as the Lorica as more Druid than Christian in spirit.
One suspects that secular academes who feel the attraction of traditional Irish culture but who are embarrassed by its overtly Catholic context feel the need to reassure their secularistic audience that they have no sympathy for Catholicism. Yet the Lorica is inescapably Catholic. Its petitions for protection from various evils have their counterpart in the Church’s ancient Litany of the Saints, and its nature references in Verse Four all have their precedent in the Book of Daniel’s canticle of the three young men in the fiery furnace (Daniel 3:35-59).
Stanton’s employment of the “St. Bernard” melody for most of the Lorica is so captivating and enervating that when for the eighth and penultimate verse he temporarily lays it aside to resort to a different traditional Irish melody it can strike the listener as a disappointing departure. But the change in verbal structure for the phrases of this verse make such a musical detour a necessity, and this musically calmer interlude renders the return of the St. Bernard melody for the final verse all the more powerful.
Writing at a time when he himself was in danger of death at the hands of the seemingly unstoppable Nazis, Dietrich von Hildebrand (1889-1977) observed, “He who has true confidence in God knows that God has not become ‘indifferent’ to us because He allows His foes to parade in triumph for a while” (Transformation in Christ: On the Christian Attitude of Mind, New York, Longmans, Green and Co., 1948, p. 169).
The present “victory” for the culture of death in Ireland will not stand. Through the intercession of St. Patrick, and the prayers and sacrifices of those willing to follow his example, the light of Christ will in the end triumph over the darkness.

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