St. Patrick, Natural Icons and the Sacramental Creation

Readings: Isaiah 13:2-13; Genesis 8:4-21; Proverbs 10:31-11:12

St. Patrick, the Bishop of Armagh and Enlightener of Ireland, was born as a slave in Britain—either Scotland or Wales— between 385 and 390, travelled to Ireland in response to the call of God, eventually became bishop of the area of Armagh, in Northern Ireland, and died, having braved many dangers for Christ, on March 17, 461. Today his name is, alas, associated with carousing and noise, activities that deformed his feast-day, perhaps as those weary with Lent sought a release from fasting! Because of the uproarious nature of the popular holiday, the bishop’s lasting legacy as a primary missionary in Ireland is almost forgotten, except for the wearing of the green (with a touch of orange, if you hail from Northern Ireland), and a fleeting association with the shamrock.

The Kontakion for his feast-day is instructive:

From slavery you escaped to freedom in Christ’s service:
He sent you to deliver Ireland from the devil’s bondage.
You planted the Word of the Gospel in pagan hearts.
In your journeys and hardships you rivaled the Apostle Paul!
Having received the reward for your labors in heaven,
Never cease to pray for the flock you have gathered on earth,
Holy Bishop Patrick!

The celebratory atmosphere of the contemporary St. Patrick’s day celebration is a distortion of the positive approach to God’s creation that we see in the Saint. Though an imperfect symbol, the shamrock, a three-in-one plant, was close at hand everywhere, and became a useful bridge by which St. Patrick could lift their eyes to the Triune God, the Creator of all. We also see St. Patrick’s celebration of God’s world in that famous hymn called the Lorica, or Breastplate of St. Patrick. The story goes that this luminous prayer was used by the saint and his associates as they braved the dangers of pagan Ireland, bringing the gospel to those people, and teaching to them the mystery of the Holy Trinity by means of the natural world. Let’s consider the prayer, in the version known best in the West, translated as a hymn by Cecil Frances Alexander, alongside the OT readings appointed for March 17. There are many verses, but they are worth reading (or hearing!) in total. I also append a link so that you may hear the hymn sung in the setting of an ancient Irish tune, St. Patrick:

St. Patrick’s Breastplate  (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gRHjyJCZFnM)

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 today to me forever
By power of faith, Christ’s incarnation;
His baptism in Jordan river,
His death on Cross for my salvation;
His bursting from the spicèd tomb,
His riding up the heavenly 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 prophets’ scrolls,
All good deeds done unto the Lord
And purity of virgin souls.

I bind unto myself today
The virtues of the star-lit 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 power of God to hold and lead,
His eye 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;
Or 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.

Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

I bind unto myself the Name,
The strong Name of the Trinity,
By invocation of the same,
The Three in One and One in Three.
By Whom all nature hath creation,
Eternal Father, Spirit, Word:
Praise to the Lord of my salvation,
Salvation is of Christ the Lord.

Much could be said about this prayer. First, it begins where all Orthodox prayer should, by adoring the Triune God, and by acknowledging the God-Man who has done all for us, from Incarnation to Baptism, to Crucifixion, to Resurrection, to Ascension, to promised Return to Judge and fulfill all things! This acknowledgement of God is followed by situating ourselves within the worship of the heavenly bodiless powers, and within the life of the Church—Prophets, Apostles, Confessors and Patriarchs. It is only as one immersed in this story of salvation that the Christian can then see the world as it truly is—the handiwork of God that points to Him, “by Whom all nature hath creation.”

Without the understanding of what God has done for us, the cosmos can be a threatening place—whirling, crashing, flashing! But there is virtue in the strength, for it witnesses to the God of all things, and reminds us that this God is not our mascot, but our LORD:

I bind unto myself today
The virtues of the star-lit 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.

Our reading from Isaiah acknowledges the threatening nature of this world, not always friendly to humankind, since the Fall. Here the prophet envisages the coming of the great war-machine of Babylon against the civilized world of the sixth century BC, and the judgment of God’s own people. The very elements of the world are seen as echoing this great calamity:

Behold, the day of the LORD comes, which cannot be escaped, a day of wrath and fierce anger, to make the earth a desolation and to destroy its sinners from it.
For the stars of the heavens and their constellations will not give their light; the sun will be dark at its rising and the moon will not shed its light.
I will punish the world for its evil, and the wicked for their iniquity; I will put an end to the pride of the arrogant, and lay low the haughtiness of the ruthless…
Therefore I will make the heavens tremble, and the earth will be shaken out of its place, at the wrath of the LORD of hosts in the day of His fierce anger. (Isa 13:9-13)

We can envisage such events because we know the importance of sun, moon and stars, and what can happen during natural disasters. We know well our fragility, how ever since Adam humankind has had to work against thorns and the stubborn recalcitrance of nature, and how, from time-to-time, this disordered world wreaks havoc as water rises mightily beyond its boundaries, or the earth quakes. If this can happen in the natural course of events, then we know that we stand only because of God’s favor and protection.

To Patrick’s sanctified eyes, the natural world, however, was not just a source of worry, or lurking danger, but an icon of the Almighty—from the “old eternal rocks” to the fragile shamrock that blooms copiously on the Irish hillside, but only for a day or two. His were the same eyes of a St. Basil, whose prayer during the Anaphora asks God to show the bread and wine to be the body and blood of our Lord. His were the same kind of eyes as Fr. Alexander Schmemann, who speaks about the created things that God has made as having both an iconic function, for to opened eyes, God can be revealed in what he has made, and as actually sharing in the wonder of God:

[There is] a sacramental character of the world and of man’s place in the world. The term ‘sacramental’ means here that …the world …is an epiphany of God, a means of His revelation, presence and power…We need water and bread and wine in order to be in communion with God…By being restored through the blessing to its proper function, “holy water” is revealed as the true, full, adequate water, and matter becomes again means of communion with and knowledge of God.”

Schmemann insists that when bread, wine, oil and water are blessed, they are released to do what they always were intended to do—lead us to God.
St. Patrick saw this, too. Even the wild things of the created order are meant, by their nature, to give glory to God, and to show this glory to humankind: star-lit sky, the light of the sun, the lightening, the waves.
After all, even though disasters may come, we have the assurance of God that His final will is to bless us, that we may be with Him. In this regard the second reading for March 17 is a helpful reminder. This reading comes at the end of Noah’s ordeal in the ark, and God’s judgment of the primordial world. At this point in the story, the flood is subsiding, Noah sends out the birds to reconnoiter, and finally they land, and give thanks to God. God comments on the scene, by determining:

 I will not any more curse the earth because of the works of men, or because the imagination of man is intently bent upon evil things from his youth. I will not any more smite all living flesh as I have done. All the days of the earth, seed and harvest, cold and heat, summer and spring, shall not cease by day or night. (Gen 8:21-22)

St. Patrick, knowing the heart of God, was confident that, despite the dangers all around, God would give him enough regularity in earth, seed, harvest, cold and heat, and the seasons, so that he could accomplish his mission in Ireland. The created order was his ally in this, and not his enemy. It is not that the godly man or woman is to be naïve, nor surprised if evil or danger comes. But even that can be used by the Creator and Re-creator of all to bring about good. He has, let us remember, trampled down death by death. And so, with St. Patrick, we can call upon the Lord to keep us safe, against the snares of sin, vice, and lust, against those who are hostile in high places, against Satan’s wiles, against heresy, and against physical harm. Even if we are hurt, Jesus says, “not a hair of your head will perish,”—not so as to take us from Him— for he is with us always.

During this season of Lent, when we may be subject to fierce attacks of the enemy to turn us from God, it is good to hold close to ourselves the promise that we are hedged around, before and behind: Christ with and within us, behind and before us, beneath and above us, in quiet and danger, comforting and restoring us through the words of those who know Him. As March 17’s reading from the Proverbs declares, “The mouth of the righteous drops wisdom …and grace… The righteousness of upright men delivers them….At the death of a just man his hope does not perish.” (Proverbs 10:31, 11:6-8). So, along with the other things that God has made, created human beings, made in Christ’s image, also become means of grace, dropping wisdom for us. And we in our turn may bless others with the comfort that we have received. For we know, whatever comes our way, that our hope is secure, for he has conquered all that opposes the Father, even death itself, and aims to renew and reclaim all that is His. St. Patrick was a part of that, and so, too, are we called to be, in our own time.

Holy Bishop Patrick,
Faithful shepherd of Christ’s royal flock,
You filled Ireland with the radiance of the Gospel:
The mighty strength of the Trinity!
Now that you stand before the Savior,
Pray that He may preserve us in faith and love!

4 comments:

  1. Wonderful! Thank you for your inspiring message about St. Patrick. With almost everyone wearing green, I started wondering about who St. Patrick was. I didn’t think he invented “green” beer!!! There had to be a lot more to his life. You answered the questions I had in my mind.

  2. Dear Professor Humphrey – Thanks for this fine tribute to St. Patrick. I too wish that more reverent attention could be given to this special day when we remember the great evangelist. With your kind permission I once more would like to repost your article on my own wee blog, giving you full attribution and linking to your own blog. Blessings dear lady. Ron <
    PS I have the honor of having been born on St. Patrick's day.

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