St Patrick and Creation (Original format here.)
Fr Seán McDonagh SSC
St Patrick’s Day is normally celebrated on March 17th. However, this year, because it falls on the Monday of Holy Week, the feast has been moved to the previous Saturday, March 15th. St Patrick’s Day is celebrated, not just in Ireland, but in the English speaking countries where Irish emigrants settled in the 19th and 20th century. In more recent years, it is celebrated in almost every corner of the globe.
Those who keep the religious observance of the Feast will hear sermons on the life of Patrick as told in his Confessions. Some preachers may highlight his conversion and willingness to return as missionary to the land where he was enslaved. Others may focus on his commitment to Christ and his life of prayer. In Ireland, many preachers may hone in on the fact that the faith which he preached so successfully is under significant pressure in contemporary Ireland. Few, I fear, will speak about the sensitivity to the presence of God in creation which is a hallmark of early Irish Christianity.
We get a glimpse of that sensitivity in the prayer-poem, The Cry of the Deer. Legend has it that on Easter morning, Patrick lit the Easter Fire on the Hill of Slane in County Meath before King Laoghaire had lit the royal fire at Tara which is also in Meath. Patrick and his companions were summoned to appear before the High King and explain why they had usurped the right of the High King to light the first fire.
On the journey between Slane and Tara, druids and their supporters lay in wait to ambush Patrick and his followers. At the point where they were passing their would-be assassins, Patrick and his companions appeared as a doe followed by fawns. This is why the hymn they were chanting on their way was called, The Cry of the Deer. It is often referred to as St Patrick’s Breastplate.
Did St Patrick write the poem? Most probably he did not and, furthermore there is no historical evidence that Patrick ever visited Tara. By the late 7th or early 8th century, it would have suited the O’Neill family, who were High Kings of Ireland at the time, to have Patrick visit Tara to give his legitimacy to their reign. Nevertheless, according to Thomas Cahill, the poem is Patrician to the core in its devotion to Christ and its sensitivity to God’s presence in all creation.
It is obvious from reading the poem that the author experiences himself as a person of the Universe. He is supported by the Light of sun, Radiance of moon, splendour of fire, Speed of lightening, Swiftness of wind, Depth of the Sea, Stability of earth, Firmness of rock.
He does not experience himself as an insignificant individual, cast adrift and alone amid the boundlessness of space, as is the plight of some many people today. The support he experiences from God’s creation does not prevent him from trusting totally in God. He prays for divine guidance in maneuvering safely through some of the difficult journeys of life. Dangers included in this list include dangerous journeys, poisoning, drowning, the incantation of false prophets and the craft of idolatry.
The author’s confidence is buoyed up by, 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 to 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,
In the second last section we get a glimpse of his commitment to Christ and of his understanding of the protective nature of Christ’s presence, Christ in me, Christ before me. He also affirms the presence of Christ in the lives of those he meets, Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me. This is as relevant for Christians today as itwas when the poem was first written.
In the final stanza, he draws strength from his belief in the Triune nature of God who is the Creator of Creation. The power of this Trinitarian love working its way through all creation is captured by the poet, Patrick Kavanagh in his poem, The Great Hunger.
Yet sometimes when the sun comes through a gap
These men know God the Father in a tree,
The Holy Spirit is the rising sap,
And Christ will be green leaves that will come
At Easter from the sealed and guarded tomb.
You can find the English translation of St Patrick's Breastplate by Mrs Cecil F. Alexander here.
The best-known part of the poem is below, this Irish version by Seamus Kelleher. In the seminaries of the Columbans this prayer used to be said in the chapel after each meal. In Dalgan Park, Navan, our Irish seminary, we always prayed it in Irish.
Saint Patrick's Breastplate
Christ with me,
Christ before me,
Críost i mo dhiaidh,
Christ behind me,
Críost istigh ionam,
Christ within me,
Christ below me,
Críost os mo chionn,
Christ above me,
Críost ar mo lámh dheas,
Christ on my right hand,
Críost ar mo lámh chlé,
Christ on my left hand,
Críost i mo lúi dom,
Críost i mo lúi dom,
Christ in my sleeping,
Críost i mo sheasamh dom,
Christ in my waking,
Críost i gcrói gach duine atá ag cuimhneamh orm,
Christ in the heart of all who think of me,
Críost i mbéal gach duine a labhráionn liom,
Christ in the mouth of all who speak of me,
Críost i ngach súil a fhéachann orm,
Christ in every eye that looks at me,
Críost i ngach cluas a éisteann liom.
Christ in Every ear that listens to me.