Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd
June 11, 2017
Eph 6:10-17; II Cor 13:11-13
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, our God.
St. Patrick is a well-loved Irish saint, perhaps best known for chasing the snakes out of Ireland. The only problem is—St. Patrick was not Irish—he was born in Scotland, nor was he ever officially sainted; and there never were any snakes in Ireland. Myths aside, what we do know of his life story is still inspirational. In the late 5th century, when Patrick was 16 years old, he was captured by Irish pirates and sold into slavery in Ireland, where he then worked as a shepherd for 6 years. Thomas Cahill suggests that his two constant companions during this time were nakedness and hunger. What literally saved his life was prayer. Although his grandfather was a priest and his father a deacon, he did not draw upon his Christian faith until he was enslaved. He wrote that he did not know the true God until he began praying for forgiveness for his past sins and for God’s guidance, comfort and strength during his enslavement.
Inspired by a dream, Patrick was finally able to escape and he boarded a ship back home. He continued deepening his faith, studied for the priesthood and was ordained. He dreamt that a man from Ireland gave him a letter in which the people asked him to “come and walk among us.” He understood this dream to be a calling to return as a missionary to the very people who were his slave masters.
At that time, Ireland followed a type of Celtic animistic polytheism, in which they worshipped many gods that were believed to inhabit elements of nature. Patrick taught them about the Trinity—one God in the three persons of the Creator, the Christ and Holy Spirit. While he rejected their many gods, he did not reject their teaching of the sacredness of nature. Patrick is said to have picked a cloverleaf, or shamrock as the Irish say, to explain the Trinity. Holding up the shamrock, he asked, “How many leaves are here—three or one?” “Both,” came the answer. “Exactly,” he replied. God also is three in one and one in three: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” This story inspired the Irish to choose the Shamrock as their national symbol. In the Breastplate of St. Patrick, a prayer attributed to Patrick, it talks about the Trinity and honours the presence of God through the forces of nature. I will often invoke this part of St. Patrick’s Breastplate as I begin my morning meditation:
I arise today from the strength of heaven:
light of sun, radiance of moon, splendour of fire,
speed of lightning, swiftness of wind, depth of sea,
stability of earth, firmness of rock.
This prayer is called St. Patrick’s Breastplate because it is a prayer for protection. Patrick was inspired by our reading from Ephesians, which talks about putting on the armour of God to gird ourselves for spiritual battle. This battle is fought not with physical armament, but with spiritual fortification against the forces of hate and evil.
Indeed, sometimes it does seem like a raging battle against hate in our world today, as well as inside us when we strive to rid ourselves of those negative forces that battle away against our psyches. Patrick had to face this inner battle as he returned to his former slave masters. He attributes to prayer his ability to forgive and find God setting him free of hatred and revenge—so much so that one of his first converts to Christianity was a chieftain called Milchu, his former slave master. Imagine having love and forgiveness for someone who had treated you harshly and inhumanely. This is a powerful message and may have been why Patrick was so successful in his missionary endeavours. Ireland soon became known as one of Europe’s Christian centers, which in turn began to send out their own missionaries to places such as Iona in Scotland.
Patrick’s prayerful devotion and forgiving nature was matched by his determined dedication to end the slave trade. He was particularly concerned about how women were treated as slaves and how many of them found their faith sustaining them. He wrote, “it is the women kept in slavery who suffer the most—and who keep their spirits up despite the menacing and terrorizing they must endure. The Lord gives grace to his handmaids; and though they are forbidden to do so, they follow him with backbone.” Although Britain ignored his pleas, the slave trade in Ireland eventually ended within Patrick’s lifetime.
Someone once called Patrick a practical theologian and social activist. He was able to live out his faith in a way that converted the masses. He was also strategic in his work—he converted the leaders first, knowing that the people would follow. All was not without controversy, though. The reason we know so much about him is that he had to write documents defending himself when he was brought to trial by other Christians, accusing him of benefitting financially from his relationships with the upper class. He denied those charges in these documents, but even the most sainted, godly followers of Jesus are marked by accusations false or otherwise. In Patrick’s case, these trials certainly helped to keep him humble in the midst of his tremendous success.
And so, we have a prayer written with great humility that honours the Trinity, God’s presence through nature and Christ’s presence around and within us. No matter our successes or failures, we always stand in need of God’s grace. May we draw daily on God’s forgiveness, guidance and strength.
I will close with a continuation of St. Patrick’s Breastplate:
I bind to myself today
the virtue of the incarnation of Christ with his baptism,
the virtue of His crucifixion with His burial,
the virtue of His resurrection with His ascension,
the virtue of His coming on the judgement day.
I bind to myself today
God’s power to pilot me, God’s might to uphold me, God’s wisdom to teach me,
God’s eye to watch over me, God’s ear to hear me, God’s word to give me speech, God’s hand to guide me, God’s way to lie before me, God’s shield to shelter me,
God’s host to secure me
Christ protect me today…Christ be with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ within me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ at my right, Christ at my left,
Christ where I lie, Christ where I sit, Christ where I arise,
Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.
I bind to myself today
the strong virtue of an invocation of the Trinity,
I believe the Trinity in the unity
the Creator of the universe.