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Words: attributed to Patrick (b. circa 387; d. circa 461); English adaptation, James Dominick Quinn (b. Apr. 21, 1919; d. Apr. 8, 2010)
Music: Bunessan, a Gaelic tune first published in 1888, in Lachlan Macbean’s Songs and Hymns of the Gael.
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Note: To Patrick, the famed missionary to Ireland, is attributed St. Patrick’s Breastplate, called a Lorica, or prayer for protection. (Hence the use of the word breastplate, a protection for the heart, as in Ephesians 6:14). The poem is contained in the ancient Book of Armagh, along with Patrick’s authentic confession.
In 1889, hymn writer Cecil Frances Alexander (1818-1895) produced a lengthy versification of the whole prayer (see St. Patrick’s Breastplate). James Quinn was a Jesuit scholar. In 1969 he wrote a more focused adaptation of one part of the original. The old melody Bunessan has also been used with Eleanor Farjeon’s hymn Morning Has Broken.
Patrick was the well known missionary from Britain, called of God to serve among the people of Ireland. He was at least a third generation Christian, the son of a church deacon. Early in his life, he did not follow his parent’s example. But when he was sixteen years old, God got his attention.
Fierce Irish raiders broke through the weak defenses of the Romans, and attacked Patrick’s town. He was carried away as a slave, then sold to a warrior chief, and sent to work in Ireland caring for a herd of pigs. Suffering from constant hunger, cold and loneliness, he turned to God for strength, becoming a man of prayer.
Eventually Patrick fled two hundred miles to a southeastern harbour, where he boarded a trade ship, and made it back to Britain. At home, it is said Patrick had a dream of the Irish people calling to him, “Please, holy youth, come and walk with us again.” The experience, if truly reported, echoes a vision the Apostle Paul had. In Paul’s vision, “a man of Macedonia stood and pleaded with him, saying, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us’” (Acts 16:9). The apostle took it as a message from the Lord.
For Patrick’s part, his heart was moved for the needs of his former captors, and he decided to go back. He took seriously the Lord’s commission: “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation” (Mk. 16:15, ESV).
When he arrived in Ireland, aside from a few small churches, most of the Irish were pagans, worshiping everything from plants to planets. Magic and even human sacrifice was practiced by the Druid priests. Patrick’s strategy was not to take away people’s beliefs in spirits, but to expose these as evil demons, showing that God’s power was greater. He met with stiff opposition, and was constantly in danger of being murdered by the Druids. However, he convinced a local king to tolerate Christianity, and when the king’s brother was converted, Patrick was granted land on which to build a church.
Soon he moved on to other unreached areas. When there was a group of new Christians, he would build a church. He planted many new churches, and baptized many converts. This in spite of the fact that he felt he was uneducated, compared to many with whom he worked, and was often extremely nervous speaking. Women played a large role in the ministry, though Patrick himself was careful not to even accept gifts from women, to avoid any mark on his reputation. He continued ministering for thirty years, and it’s said that Ireland became literate for the first time in his generation.
Patrick’s Confession, was his personal testimony. Calling himself “Patrick the sinner,” he wrote:
“I pray those who believe and fear God, that no one should ever say my ignorance accomplished any small thing that I did in accordance with God’s will. Judge, and let it be truly believed, that it was the gift of God.”
The poem of which he is possibly the author is mainly about the Lord’s protection. In it he prays to be surrounded by Christ. Several English paraphrases or adaptations have been made of all or part of the prayer, included Alexander’s mentioned above. James Quinn’s is more simple and direct.
1) Christ be beside me, Christ be before me,
Christ be behind me–King of my life.
Christ be within me, Christ be below me,
Christ be above me–never to part.
Notice the way the third stanza below expresses the hope that, when others look at him or think of him, the One they will truly be drawn to is the Lord Jesus, because “Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20). It is reminiscent of John the Baptist’s declaration about Christ:
“He must increase, but I must decrease. [He must grow more prominent; I must grow less so]” (Jn. 3:30, Amplified Bible).
3) Christ be in all hearts thinking about me,
Christ be on all tongues telling of me;
Christ be the vision in eyes that see me,
In ears that hear me Christ ever be.
1) In what ways do you see John’s words being fulfilled in your own life?
2) How do John’s words relate to the life of a local church?
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