One of my favourite hymns is St Patrick’s Breastplate. It’s a powerfully affirming hymn that has weathered the centuries of Christian devotion and remains a lively hymn to the Holy Trinity. I vividly remember singing this with a full congregation in the small Cathedral Church of St Mary of the Isles in Scotland, and feeling upheld by the hope of the gospel that if God is for us who can be against us…nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.
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 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 spicèd tomb,
his riding up the heavenly way,
his coming at the day of doom: I bind unto myself today.
Some people use this ancient Celtic hymn as part of their daily devotion and indeed the hymn was designed that way, and draws on Paul’s metaphor of the ‘Armour of God’ in the letter to the Ephesians.
In that letter Paul urges us to equip ourselves with the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith and so on… That is, Paul urges us to make good choices in the way we live out our faith: to take on a discipline of faith that deliberately and regularly chooses to gird our lives with practices and patterns of faith that sustain and nurture the love and grace of God within us.
The hymn we call St Patrick’s breastplate does that in a similar way. It is actually an ancient Celtic ‘Caim’, or encircling prayer. Celtic Christians regularly used prayers which were learned by heart from their mother’s knee, which sought to encompass God’s presence in their lives throughout the day.
An encircling prayer like St Patrick’s breastplate could well have been used as people dressed for the day, and as they put on their clothes they prayed
I bind unto myself today the strong name of the Trinity…
So dressing itself became a prayer, just as the act of lighting the morning fire was an act of devotion. For example as the woman of the house prepared to light the fire she prayed:
As I kindle this fire, kindle a flame of love in my heart…
Over the last thirty years or more there has been a resurgence of interest in Celtic spirituality, where some of these ancient practices are given fresh expression. One of my favourite modern day encircling prayers goes like this:
Circle me O God – keep hope within despair without
Circle me, O God – keep peace within, keep turmoil out …..
This Sunday we celebrate God as Holy Trinity – just as St Patrick’s breastplate affirms – and we do that in these days of physical distancing. As these restrictions are gradually eased we need to remain careful and cautious because we do not want to see more people affected by the Covid 19 virus.
So I offer you these prayers as an invitation to bind our lives more closely in God.