Hymn Guide: St. Patrick’s Breastplate

By

St. Patrick’s Breastplate is one of the great hymns of the church, sung especially for Saint Patrick’s Day, on Trinity Sunday, and at baptisms, confirmations, and ordinations. It is an Old Irish prayer of protection called a lorica, and the text is attributed to St. Patrick or his followers in early Celtic monasticism. Literally, lorica is the Latin term for body armor, thus the title “St. Patrick’s Breastplate.” Cecil Alexander translated the prayer into an English hymn in 1889, and since then, it has also been known by its first line: “I bind unto myself today.”

Musically, this is one of the more challenging hymns to sing, not only because it is long but also because it contains multiple tunes: ST PATRICK for “binding verses,” but then DIERDRE for the “Christ be with me” verses. Some who encounter the hymn for the first time find it disorienting or even objectionable, but others receive this very strangeness as a part of its appeal and its power. This is an ancient prayer that reverberates across time, a witness to the strength of the Trinitarian God in every generation.

Sponsored

Verse by Verse

Verse 1

For Saint Patrick, the Trinity is not so much an abstract doctrine in need of explanation as it is the very character of God to be applied to our lives. That is why he seeks to bind the Trinity to himself:

I bind unto myself today
The strong name of the Trinity
By invocation of the same
The Three in One, and One in Three.

The language here is reminiscent of the great commission in Matthew, where Jesus sends the apostles to make disciples of the nations, “baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19). As the Trinitarian name graced our baptism, in this hymn we apply it to ourselves once again, inviting God’s grace and protection for today.

Verse 2

Within this Trinitarian strength, the second verse applies the incarnation of the Son:

I bind this day to me for ever
By power of faith, Christ’s incarnation
His baptism in the Jordan river
His death on cross for my salvation
His bursting from the spiced tomb
His riding up the heavenly way
His coming at the day of doom
I bind unto myself today.

This verse, of course, sounds much like the early Creeds of the church, which similarly emphasized Jesus Christ’s life, death, resurrection, ascension, and second coming. An additional detail included here is Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River, which picks up on the Trinitarian significance of Jesus’ baptism and our own.

Verse 3

The third verse focuses on the holy creatures of God:

I bind unto myself the power
Of the great love of cherubim
The sweet “Well done” in judgment hour
The service of the seraphim
Confessor’s faith, apostle’s word
The patriarch’s prayers the prophets scrolls
All good deeds done unto the Lord
And purity of virgin souls.

This verse references angels and saints from across the full sweep of time. The reference to cherubim recalls the angels at the Garden of Eden, the patriarchs and prophets represent the people of God in the Old Testament, the apostles represent the New Testament, the confessors and virgins represent the church, and the seraphim and the spoken “Well done” point to judgment at the end of time. Thus, in this verse, we bind to ourselves the communion of the saints in heaven and on earth, which provides strength in even the most challenging of circumstances.

Verse 4

The fourth verse focuses on God’s natural creation:

I bind unto myself today
The virtues of the starlit heav’n
The glorious sun’s life-giving ray
The whiteness of the moon and 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.

The natural imagery here, so typical of Celtic spirituality, recalls the Biblical creation stories in Genesis, Job, and the Psalms. Job 38-39 details the mystery of God’s creation in the beginning, and Psalm 148 speaks to the praise that every natural creature gives unto God. This verse also speaks of the “virtues” that we find in creation and thus suggests that we humans can use these virtues to our created purpose, as instructed in Genesis 1, to “fill the earth, subdue it, and take dominion” (Genesis 1:28-29).

Verse 5

The fifth verse returns to the attributes of God himself:

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.

Notice the bodily references to God’s eye, ear, hand, and shield. Of course, Christians understand that God is a spirit and, therefore, without a body, but the scriptures speak metaphorically of God’s body parts to communicate his character. This verse does the same, pointing to God’s capacity to watch, listen, guide, and protect. This power is exercised in the Christian life by the Holy Spirit, who leads us in prayer, protects us from evil, comforts us in affliction, and strengthens us for service. Moreover, the reference to God’s wisdom and his Word brings us back to God’s Son, Jesus Christ, who is the focus of the next verse.

Verse 6

This sixth verse is sung to a different tune and often more slowly to underscore Christ’s significance.

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.

There are two key details to see here. First, the direct address to Christ and the repetition of his name. To this point, the hymn has been speaking about God but not to him. But here, at the mystical core of the hymn, we speak directly to God in Christ.

Second, we apply Christ to every point of ourselves, both outside in every direction and also inside of ourselves and inside everyone we engage. David Adam says this is a “weaving of the Presence around our lives like the Celtic patterns on stones and in the illuminated Gospels: Christ moves in and out, over and under” (from The Edge of Glory: Prayers in the Celtic Tradition).

Verse 7

The seventh verse concludes the hymn with a return to the explicit discussion of the Trinity:

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
Of whom all nature hath creation
Eternal Father, Spirit, Word:
Praise to the Lord of my salvation
Salvation is of Christ the Lord.

The final verse recapitulates the first and then situates the same Trinity as being present and revealed in Creation, as Father, Spirit, and Word. We know this truth of the Trinity in Creation because of Christ, who saves us. Thus, the final lines praise the Lord for his salvation and assert the fundamental claim of the faith: “Salvation is of Christ the Lord.”

In conclusion, St. Patrick’s Breastplate is a mysterious and deeply moving hymn to the Trinity through the salvation of Christ. Though we are faced with many dangers, insecurities, temptations, and evils in this life, through Christ, we may put on the Trinity as spiritual armor, confident in the hope of our Lord.

St. Patrick’s Breastplate on Video

The first video, from Leeds Cathedral, is a standout setting by Melville Cook for organ and choir.  The second is for harp and voice, arranged and sung by Kathryn Lillich.

Photo of Saint Patrick Stained Glass by Nheyob, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Published on

June 3, 2023

Author

Peter Johnston

The Ven. Dr. Peter Johnston is the Ministry President of Anglican Compass. He is a priest and archdeacon in the Anglican Diocese of All Nations and the rector of Trinity Lafayette. He lives with his wife, Carla, and their seven children near Lafayette, Louisiana.

View more from Peter Johnston

Comments

Please comment with both clarity and charity!

Subscribe to Comments
Notify of

2 Comments
Oldest
Newest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments