Next Tuesday, countless people around the world will celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. It’s a day when many people become honorary Irish. They will attend parades and celebrate at parties with green beer, corned beef and cabbage as they wear the green and celebrate all things Irish. In Ireland, where St. Patrick is the country’s patron saint, St. Patrick’s Day is a national and religious holiday to honour this figure who is widely viewed as the founder of Christianity in Ireland.
So who was St. Patrick? It may come as a surprise to learn that he wasn’t born in Ireland. We don’t know much about him with any certainty. Many of the stories we tell about St. Patrick are legends which developed long after he died.
He was born around 385 in the north of Roman Britain, which is likely modern–day Scotland. In his autobiographical Confessio, Patrick writes that he was abducted from his home at the age of 16 by Irish pirates and sold into slavery in Ireland. One of the earliest legends is that he ended up working as a shepherd. He began praying on the hillsides and was converted to Christianity. He began to pray night and day during the six years of his slavery.
What is more certain is that six years after being enslaved, he escaped and returned to his family in Britain. He trained to become a priest and headed back to Ireland, where he lived out his ministry until he died on March 17, 461.
Legends about Patrick abound. Many are familiar with the legend that St. Patrick banished all the snakes from Ireland. But perhaps the most famous legend about Patrick is his use of the shamrock to explain the Trinity—three leaves in one plant, all originating from one stem. You will often see this symbol in stained glass windows for the Trinity.
Many also associate him with a prayer called St. Patrick’s Breastplate. Legend has it that the saint sang this prayer when he was being pursued by a local chieftain. The chieftain’s men laid an ambush as Patrick traveled along a lonely wooded road. But as they closed in on Patrick, they saw only a wild deer bounding across the road—which accounts for the hymn’s original title as “Deer’s Cry”.
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One of the central images of the prayer is the ancient Celtic practice of drawing a circle around themselves as they began a journey. The circle reminded them that they were always encircled by God’s care.
“I arise today through the strength of heaven; Light of the sun, Splendour of fire, Speed of lightning, Swiftness of the wind, Depth of the sea, Stability of the earth, Firmness of the 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 hosts to save me afar and anear, alone or in a multitude.
“Christ shield me today against wounding. 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 in the heart of everyone who thinks of me, Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me, Christ in the eye that sees me, Christ in the ear that hears me.
“I arise today through the mighty strength of the Lord of creation.”
It is a strong prayer. God permeates everything as the life–giving energy of creation. But rather than being impersonal or indifferent to the affairs of mortals, the Energy of the Universe is personal and protective, as close as our next step or the air we breathe. Whether or not we are aware of it, we are always encircled by God’s love, which is larger than our own lives and planetary journeys.
Today, in a time when everything seems to be in flux, we need the wisdom of St. Patrick. All the old certainties are disappearing. We are being tossed about in the seas of uncertainty. The world’s religious traditions are in flux and the spiritual landscape in North America is shifting.
Some people predict the end of the world or life as we know it through comets coming close to the earth, shifting tectonic plates, or the reversal of the earth’s axis. Others anticipate a catastrophic second coming of Jesus and proclaim loudly and confidently that COVID–19 is God’s punishment on a sinful world. Still others are anxious that the world is coming to an end because we have not cared well enough for mother earth.
We need courage, inspiration, and perseverance. We can surround ourselves in a moving circle that joins adventure and safety; a circle that spirals outward to embrace the ever–changing world.
The wisdom and strength of St. Patrick can help us draw such a sacred circle around ourselves, reminding us that God is our companion in all of life.
That doesn’t mean that we simply sit back and let God do his thing. God doesn’t work that way.
Rather, as we are able to envision drawing a sacred circle around ourselves, we will find new strength to work with God so that we might do our part to heal our society, our relationships, our environment.
Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook