It was just over a year ago that the first Covid-19 lockdown began. I remember, because for the first time in years I’d decided to cook a St. Patrick’s Day dinner for a small group of friends. I ended up making little packages of the dinner and leaving them on people’s doorsteps instead!
So much has happened this year, and it’s somehow appropriate to turn to the saint whose feast day fell at such a significant time in our lives. Because, in one sense, he’s been with us all along—throughout this plague year, and well before it.
Today most people associate St. Patrick with banishing snakes from Ireland or using shamrocks to teach the Trinity. Those are nice stories, but that’s all they are—stories. Yet the real Patrick’s life and faith and work were much more compelling than any of the legends that have sprung up around him. In fact, his life provides an inspiring lesson in God’s grace and mercy.
Captured as a teenager, Patrick was sold into slavery in Ireland, where he worked as a shepherd (his companions, we are told, were Cold and Hunger), and became a Christian. He escaped to Britain, but after 25 years God sent him back to Ireland to convert and minister to his former captors.
Patrick served in regions of Ireland where outsiders had never traveled, bringing a new way of life to a violent, war-oriented pagan culture. “Daily I expect to be murdered or betrayed or reduced to slavery if the occasion arises,” he wrote. “But I fear nothing, because of the promises of heaven.” What a sentiment for our times, as the pandemic continues to claim lives all around us!
I fear nothing, because of the promises of heaven.
There is a lot we can learn this year from Patrick’s story. He wasn’t afraid to try and change what was wrong with the culture. He taught that women were not a commodity, but that they had choices for their lives. He advocated reading and learning in a culture that clung to superstition. He was one of Christianity’s first outspoken opponents of slavery.
There is also comfort we can draw this year from Patrick’s story. This has not just been a pandemic year for us: the earth has been rocked with civil unrest, with the breakdown of structures we once thought permanent, with wild economic disparities throughout the world. Patrick’s Ireland was perceived pretty much as the end of the earth: the collapsing Roman Empire meant many people believed civilized society was drawing to a close. That feels familiar, doesn’t it? Yet Patrick’s story tells us clearly that no matter what empires might come and go, no matter how barbaric the civilizations around us may seem, the Word of God endures it all. Like the forgotten Irish people, we are all worthy to be saved.
A tenth-century manuscript in Dublin is known as St. Patrick’s Breastplate—a suit of armor, as it were, for going out into the world. Patrick didn’t actually write it, but its protective words echo his faith and are particularly relevant to us in March of 2021:
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 prayer goes on for several stanzas, and concludes with:
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,
of Whom all nature hath creation,
eternal Father, Spirit, Word:
Praise to the Lord of my salvation,
salvation is of Christ the Lord.
This Lent, this St. Patrick’s Day, this time of turmoil and uncertainty might be a good time to include the St. Patrick’s Breastplate prayer in our daily routines. It is a prayer of protection, a prayer of faith, and ultimately a prayer of joy in our salvation.
And we can all use a little joy right now.
by Jeannette de Beauvoir
Photo Credit: bobosh_t AKA “Father Ted” on Flickr, Christ the Saviour Church