St Patrick’s Breastplate / The Deer’s Cry : music by Shaun Davey / Rita Connolly, Arvo Part, John Fahey, John Kenny, Melville Cook

St Patrick’s Breastplate  / The Deer’s Cry :  music by Shaun Davey / Rita Connolly, Arvo Part, John Fahey, John Kenny, Melville Cook

As a child, I was somewhat mystified why a certain hymn in our religion books was called “St Patrick’s Breastplate” but went:

Christ be beside me, Christ be before me,
Christ be behind me, King of my heart.
Christ be within me, Christ be below me,
Christ be above me, never to part.

Christ on my right hand, Christ on my left hand,
Christ all around me, shield in the strife.
Christ in my sleeping, Christ in my sitting,
Christ in my rising, light of my heart.

with no references to breastplates (or St Patrick)

Only much later did I hear a complete version and also read that this was an example of a lorica, an invocation of the divine for protection in the manner of a warrior putting on armour.

The text is first found in the Liber Hymnorum or “Book of Hymns”. It seems most dating of the hymn sets it later than the historical Patrick, who is therefore unlikely to actually be the author.


Two translations are presented here. Here is the second of those translations:

I arise to-day
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through belief in the threeness,
Through confession of the oneness
Of the Creator of Creation.

I arise to-day
Through the strength of Christ’s birth with His baptism,
Through the strength of His crucifixion with His burial,
Through the strength of His resurrection with His ascension,
Through the strength of His descent for the judgment of Doom.

I arise to-day
Through the strength of the love of Cherubim,
In obedience of angels,
In the service of archangels,
In hope of resurrection to meet with reward,
In prayers of patriarchs,
In predictions of prophets,
In preachings of apostles,
In faiths of confessors,
In innocence of holy virgins,
In deeds of righteous men.

I arise to-day
Through 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.

I arise to day
Through God’s strength to pilot me:
God’s might to uphold me,
God’s wisdom to guide me,
God’s eye to look before me,
God’s ear to hear me,
God’s word to speak for me,
God’s hand to guard me,
God’s way to lie before me,
God’s shield to protect me,
God’s host to save me
From snares of devils,
From temptations of vices,
From every one who shall wish me ill,
Afar and anear,
Alone and in a multitude.

I summon to-day all these powers between me and those evils,
Against every cruel merciless power that may oppose my body and soul,
Against incantations of false prophets,
Against black laws of pagandom,
Against false laws of heretics,
Against craft of idolatry,
Against spells of women and smiths and wizards,
Against every knowledge that corrupts man’s body and soul.

Christ to shield me to-day
Against poison, against burning,
Against drowning, against wounding,
So that there may come to me abundance of reward.
Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down, Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of every one who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.

I arise to-day
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through belief in the threeness,
Through confession of the oneness
Of the Creator of Creation.

There have been many musical settings of this text. My own memory of the Christ Be Beside me of my school days was a rather wishy washy acoustic guitar led dirge, though I did like the words. However the piece – which as the translation above reveals has a certain narrative drive and power – has lent itself to some excellent settings. Not all the text is generally set – the reference to “spells of women and smiths and druids” gets omitted. This site presents many versions and an excellent discussion on the piece as a hymn (some of the historical background given is slightly at variance with that above) with a helpful account of the musical background.

“This hymn can be a chall­enge to sing with­out see­ing the words matched to the notes,” observe the editors of the Cyberhymnal (linked below), “but it is a mas­ter­piece ne­ver­the­less.”

They’re correct on both counts.

The hymn is complex musically. As Wikipedia notes, “In many churches it is unique among standard hymns because the variations in length and metre of verses mean that at least three different tunes must be used – different in the melody sung by the congregation.”


Here is one of the most powerful versions from Shaun Davey’s “The Pilgrim” with vocals by Davey’s wife, Rita Connolly:

Many contemporary versions seem to owe quite a debt to Davey’s, although few come close to its power.

Here is a photo from the CD sleeve of “The Pilgrim” of Shaun Davey with some piper. I am not sure why I find this a wonderful photo, but I do:


Here is an austere, haunting Arvo Part setting:

The eclectic, eccentric American folk guitarist John Fahey
made an arrangement called “St Patrick’s Hymn” which sounds like an off-kilter Renaissance Fayre soundtrack:

This isn’t on YouTube as far as I can find, but here is someone else playing the arrangement:

Finally, here is something very different… and perhaps for those who find all the above a little too pious / inspirational / hymn-y this is a very different version by the British composer John Kenny sung by the choir of Gonville and Caius College Cambridge. Some interesting background from the John Kenny article linked to above:

At the point we actually had the three Celtic instruments – the great horns of the ancient Celtic world – reconstructed, I thought ‘yeah’, there is only one poem that I know that could combine these three cultures for real, and that’s possibly the oldest poem in old Irish that has come down to us.

The poem is called the Lorica, or ‘the Deer’s Cry’ – attributed to St Patrick himself. I’ve set the text in three languages; old Irish, ancient Celtic Latin and a wonderful English translation.

The piece features two ancient instruments – the Lochnashade horn, representing Irish culture and the Deskford Carnyx representing where St Patrick originally came from. It seemed appropriate to set with these instruments – this is a poem from the transitional period between Paganism and Christianity, between Roman culture and the hinterland culture of the Celtic Church.

Here is a whole Spotify playlist full of versions:

One of my favourites of these is the Rites Reserved version (first on the Spotify playlist above) – cannot find a YouTube link. While the arrangement is rather familiar, there is something in the instrumentation and vocals reminiscent of Judee Sill

Finally to end with a more “traditional” choral setting, firmly in the Anglican choral tradition. Charles Villiers Stanford’s setting seems to be the canonical hymnal one, but I somewhat prefer this by the organist and composer Melville Cook. As per the info on the YouTube video below:

During his service as Organist and Choirmaster of Leeds Parish Church (as it was then known) from 1937 to 1946, Melville Cook left a number of craftsmanly hymn settings for posterity, most of which survive in manuscript in the Leeds Minster Choir Library. At least one was published and printed locally – a large-scale score of the traditional Irish hymn known as ‘St Patrick’s Breastplate’. Dr Cook’s setting is a real gem, with an organ part of considerably more interest than the ‘standard’ version by Stanford


Poetry is Beauty’s Voice

I had a copy of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s “Wherever You Go, There You Are” for a long time… before mindfulness was as trendy as it is now. Recently I opened it again and was struck the meditation highlighted here. Watts and Hillman are not familiar to me. This post resonated with me with its discussion of the non-correspondence of language with absolute reality, and the poetry of living:

“I think we’ve spent so much of history arguing over the critique of good written poetic form, high art that carries us on the lofty tailwinds of meaning, that we’ve lost our ability to see poetry in its seed form and the many ways we live it daily. We’ve in some ways deeroticized it, made it too narrow, made people think it doesn’t apply to them. If we could recover this sense of poetries of living, it might help more people appreciate the high poetic craft again, as but one expression of the seed poem’s transfigurative power”

Signs of Life

“Words and measures do not give life; they merely symbolize it” (Alan Watts, The Wisdom of Insecurity 48).

For any kind of beauty there is, there is a form of poetry to give it voice.  We think of poetry often as involving meter, verse, stanza, rhyme, prosody–pricking the senses through artfully arranged language. However, I’ve experienced, and I know others have too, poetry that transcends or seems to happen prior to language, and, while the purist poets may object, that’s the topic of this blog.

Jon Kabat-Zinn gives a great example in his book Wherever You Go, There You Are of such language-less poetry when he writes of geese flying overhead:

“As I pull into the parking lot of the hospital, several hundred geese pass overhead…. Hundreds are in V’s, but many are in more complex arrangements. Everything is in motion.  Their lines dip and ascend with grace and harmony…

View original post 1,582 more words

“The silent are never at home in our culture again”

“The silent are never at home in our culture again”


Adam DeVille has a fascinating pair of posts (one here, one here) on Maggie RossSilence: A User’s Guide. Both posts are worth reading in full (and I must now read Ross’ book itself!)

In part 1 of these posts, deVille discusses his own dislike of the term “spirituality”:

This builds on a longstanding dislike I have had of the whole notion of “spirituality.” I remember very clearly in the early 1990s, as I moved from studying psychology to theology, taking my first undergraduate course in “spirituality” taught by a man who was bouncing across the stage with excitement that, at long last, “spirituality” was emerging as its own academic discipline, with new journals being founded every other week to prove its bona fides. The eagerness with which he raced to embrace all the trappings of middle-class North American academic respectability were then distasteful to me and have become all the more so over the passing years. I rapidly became deeply suspicious–before I had the language to express it–that “spirituality” was yet another triumph of the process of commodification that Western capitalism does with such seductive ease.


In part 2, deVille draws further on Ross’ bracing approach to many oft-abused concepts:

One of the biggest misunderstandings–as I have long thought myself–comes down to the primacy people give to the notion of “experience,” which Ross says is “perhaps the most significant of the frequently misused words in this list.” Experience, Ross says, is solipsistic in today’s usage, running totally contrary to “ancient, patristic, and medieval” wariness of the term; it invites narcissism and notions of control.

Faith is another misused word–and here Ross agrees very much with Fr. Paul Tarazi, as his interview on here last week showed–because it refers, wrongly, to a set of abstract doctrines rather than the practice of trust.

: All these terms “have become useless and misleading” and function to justify “weirdness,” “exoticism,” “voyeurism (a kind of spiritual pornography” (90). See below for more on the problems with “mysticism.”

Spiritual Direction: I was moving from studying psychology to theology in the late 1990s when all of a sudden it seemed (as I noted in part I) that the study of something called “spirituality” exploded in revolting fashion, and along with it, very predictably, came the attempts to make money off that by people setting themselves up as “spiritual directors” everywhere, offering expensive courses in how you, too, could become a director, or at least benefit from on-going direction. A couple of these people to whom I spoke, including one woman in charge of just such a brand-new centre for spiritual direction and formation, were so dim and tedious, so incurious and uninformed about everything, that I felt myself falling rapidly into a coma after about two sentences.

But what these newly minted “spiritual directors” lacked in intellectual substance was more than made up for by the aggressively preening self-importance of their tone. All this is to say I greatly cheered Ross’s denunciation of “spiritual direction, so-called” as having “little to no relationship to the desert practice of manifestation of thoughts. It evolved as a form of mind control.” As she continues, “modern so-called spiritual direction is counter-productive and a distraction: it tends to make the ‘directee’ become increasingly preoccupied with his or her self-construct and imagined ‘spiritual life’ instead of moving towards self-forgetfulness in beholding the divine other.”


There is a wider cultural context to this:

One of the points Ross makes clear here, and elsewhere in the book, is that most of us have lost the capacity for observing how our minds work. Indeed, as Christopher Bollas (inter alia) has also recently noted, we live in a time that scorns the idea of thinking about our minds and the unconscious influences on them. But this loss, this refusal, this scorn, makes us incapable of enduring silence and so living in the wellsprings of the deep mind. Without this, we are bereft of what we need for any serious transfiguration in our life. (In this regard I would say that Ross’s critique echoes those who suggest our reliance on overly hasty “cures” approved by modern “therapists” and pharmaceutical companies, and especially the insurance companies who pay the bills of both, are, as I suggested here, far less effective than the slower work of often silently lying on the couch of unknowing.)

It is that lack of control over “unknowing” that makes silence so suspect. Much of this and later chapters in her book are spent by Ross discussing problems with the many translations of the famous work The Cloud of Unknowing, almost all versions of which use the word “experience and other anachronisms” the effect of which is to “have obscured behold, so that it rarely appears.” Beholding something, as she is at pains to show at length, is different from thinking we “experience” (and thus presumably, at least partially, control) it. It is the Gallacher edition of the Cloud (linked above and at left) that she says almost alone avoids this problem.


Previously I posted a link to an interview with the media theorist Marie Thompson which made reference to “the conservative politics of silence”. From a rather different perspective, Ross and DeVille share this concern:

For those worried about the “political” implications of all this, Ross is clear in several places that emergence into silence does not give rise to a crabbed “me and my cell and the rest of you go to hell” Christianity. Rather, she says the ethics and politics of silence are “green” in caring for creation. Silence, she says, makes one simultaneously more liberal and more conservative: liberal in wanting to share the riches with everyone, and conservative in wanting to hang onto the experience of silence and protect it via a sort of “custody of the ears.” Those who are immersed in silence come quickly to have a pronounced intolerance for reading about violence, for going to loud parties and pointless meetings, etc.

For me, “simultaneously more liberal and more conservative” captures something not just about our encounter with silence, or with Christ, or indeed with many other phenomena (secular as well as religious), onto which we tend to try and shoehorn our own political preferences and biases.


Finally, deVille captures the tranfigurative power of silence, and its counter-cultural nature:

Finally, those who live in silence find there a refuge but not an escape. The silent are never at home in our culture again, but are able nonetheless to live because the richness of silence enables a life-sustaining transfiguration, which this book, Silence: A User’s Guide, itself goes some very considerable distance to advancing in surprising and welcome ways.

T.S. Eliot: Ash Wednesday

Last year I posted an extract from Eliot’s Ash Wednesday, along with an extract from an article by Matt Walther on what the poem meant to him. From The Broken Tower blog, here is an analysis of the poem that draws on Eliot’s heavy debt to Dante.

The Broken Tower

01x/24/Dian/15120/007uToday is Ash Wednesday and although I did not want to provide a reading of a long poem for some time, I thought not posting on T.S. Eliot’s Ash Wednesday (1930) would be a lost opportunity. Below is a Dantean reading of Eliot’s poem. The wonder of Eliot’s poetry (like most great poetry) is that it can lead you anywhere. So read this post and take from it what you will but take a break before reading the poem. Grab a coffee, watch Downton Abbey, but try to read the poem without me in your head. I’d love to hear any interpretations. Enjoy.

For Eliot, Dante was more than a poetic master who had achieved the heights of poetry. As Eliot struggled through life literally searching for perfection, he rediscovered Dante, finding in his poetry not merely a poetics but also a way of life. Now, I don’t solely mean in…

View original post 3,113 more words

From “Forgiveness”, by Herbert McCabe

From the sermon Forgiveness by Herbert McCabe:

It is very odd that people should think that when we do good God will reward us and when we do evil he will punish us. I mean it is very odd that Christians should think this, that God deals out to us what we deserve.

It is not, I suppose, really odd that other people should; I suppose it is the commonest way of thinking of God, for God tends to be just a great projection into the sky of our moral feelings, especially our guilt feelings. But I don’t believe in God if that’s what he is, and it is very odd that any Christian should, since there is so much in the gospels to tell us differently. You could say that the main theme of the preaching of Jesus is that God isn’t like that at all.Take the famous parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). In this, the younger son goes to a distant country far from his father and squanders all his father’s gifts in debauchery and generally having a high old time. After a bit he sees himself for what he is, so as to say, “I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants.”What his sin has done is to alter his whole relationship with his father; instead of being a son he now should be treated as one who gets his wages, gets exactly what he deserves. But there are two things here; there is the fact that this is what his sin has done, and there is the fact that he recognises this. To make sure you see that this is the crucial point of the story, Luke has it repeated twice. The vital thing is that the son has recognised his sin for what it is: something that changes God into a paymaster, or a judge.Sin is something that changes God into a projection of our guilt, so that we don’t see the real God at all; all we see is some kind of judge. God (the whole meaning and purpose and point of our existence) has become a condemnation of us. God has been turned into Satan, the accuser of man, the paymaster, the one who weighs our deeds and condemns us.It is very odd that so much casual Christian thinking should be a worship of Satan that we should think of the punitive satanic God as the only God available to the sinner. It is very odd that the view of God as seen from the Church should ever be simply the view of God as seen from hell. For damnation must be just being fixed in this illusion, stuck forever with the God of the Law, stuck forever with the God provided by our sin.

Pilgrimage to St Gobnait at Ballyvourney, Co. Cork

Happy to one and all – here is a post on Gobnait from Louise Nugent’s wonderful Pilgrimage in Medieval Ireland blog!

Pilgrimage In Medieval Ireland

Saint Gobnait: first impressions

I first came across St Gobnait when I wandered in to the Honan Chapel  around 14 years ago.  The Honan chapel is  very  beautiful  church located on the campus of University College Cork. It has many splendid stained glass windows by Harry Clarke, who in my opinion was Ireland’s finest stain glass artist.

As I wandered around the chapel I looked up at one of the many windows which depicted various Irish saints and there was Gobnait. Her window is one of the most beautiful depictions of a saint I had ever seen. The window shows  Gobnait of Baile Bhúirne/Ballyvourney adorned in blue robes and surrounded by bees, at her feet  are two men with   fearful expressions.  My curiosity immediately demanded that I find out who this saint was, where she came from and most importantly what was the connection with the bees? Stain glass image of St Gobnait in the  Honan Chapel . Taken…

View original post 4,490 more words