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


“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…

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“the vulgar and rather infantile things you really do want” – Adam deVille on prayer and psychoanalysis

I have linked before to Eastern Christian Books, the blog of Adam de Ville. One of deVille’s recurrent themes is the unnecessary and unhelpful perceived antagonism between psychoanalysis and religion.. I recently linked to a brilliant post on the psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas and the idea of the “normotic” self.

DeVille’s most recent post is a particular highlight. Again he draws on Bollas, but also the theologian Herbert McCabe. I particular love the line on prayer from McCabe that deVille cites here, contrasting the worthy things our superegos tend to direct us to exhort the Almighty to do with the “vulgar and rather infantile things you really do want”:

The beauty of this, as I have long appreciated it, is that “psychoanalysis does not provide ready answers to patients symptoms or lives,” as Bollas admits. This, he recognizes, is “disconcerting” for those who think that clinicians are supposed to be experts. In fact, Bollas … says that the free associating of the unconscious of both analyst and analysand “subverts the analyst’s natural authoritarian tendencies as well as the patient’s wish to be dominated.”

In this regard, Bollas puts me in mind of how Maggie Ross describes the mistaken notions behind modern concepts and practices of “spiritual direction,” much of which consists of attempts at “mind control” as she puts it, and the result of which is to reinforce one’s narcissism. Silence, for Ross, whose book shows considerable familiarity with psychoanalytic ideas, is the goal, and is hugely valuable in itself–a point that also becomes abundantly clear in reading the psychoanalytic literature about silent patients who nonetheless get better–start with another fascinating English Anglican, the analyst Nina Coltart, for examples of this; see her Slouching Towards Bethlehem.

McCabe doesn’t come right out and advocate freely associating during prayer, but he very much leans in that direction. This is something I’ll have to think about some more, but it does seem to me a helpful way to conceive of prayer and the problems of being distracted during or bored by prayer, or restlessly wondering about the futility of it all.

Rather than fighting that, McCabe advocates letting your mind wander until you find what you really want to pray about, and then praying about it. Here, again without using the words per se, McCabe seems to me to establish the “fundamental rule” (cf. Freud’s “On Beginning the Treatment”) of prayer outside the shackles of whatever spiritual superegos may be trying to tell us otherwise. If we let ourselves pray for what we are really concerned about, McCabe says, those prayers not only will almost always be, but in fact should be “the vulgar and rather infantile things you really do want,” instead of all the pious and high-minded things we think we should pray about.

If we’re distracted during prayer, it’s because we’re not praying for the right things (he notes those on sinking ships never report distractions during their prayers!), and constraining ourselves to pray for the things our superego tells us to–the “proper and respectable and ‘religious'” things. Instead of that, as he drolly puts it, “you could let world peace rest for a while.”And while you’re at it, let your mind run to those distractions because they “are nearly always your real wants breaking in on your prayer.” (Lest we worry that this is an excuse for descending into infantile selfishness, McCabe says that if we are honest in prayer about our desires, the Holy Spirit will invariably lead us deeper, for prayer involves change and growing up.) If psychoanalysis involves, as Bollas argued in his first major book The Shadow of the Object, a certain “ordinary regression to dependence” for a time, does this not also describe how we are in prayer with our Father in heaven as we pray for the things closest to us that matter most to us?

“The pilgrimage is not all plain sailing, not all peak experience” – Peter Reason on the messy human reality of pilgrimage

“The pilgrimage is not all plain sailing, not all peak experience” – Peter Reason on the messy human reality of pilgrimage

One of the charms of Peter Reason’s In Search of Grace“ is his human honesty at the gap between the lofty ambition of pilgrimage and actual experience. At the very outset of his voyage, he writes of “the repetitive anxiousness that so often comes in the small hours … I lost all sense of why I was on this journey; all sense of pilgrimage disappeared.” He expands on this theme:

It is not uncommon for travellers to feel resistant at the point of setting out. For years the French writer and traveller Sylvian Tesson had wanted to spend the winter in a small cabin in Siberia. In Consolations of the Forest he writes about the challenge of rousing himself from bed on the morning he is to set out and wonders if he will undermine his own desire. In The Snow Leopard, Peter Matthiessen describes the calamitous weather and uncertainty about porters at the beginning of a trip in the Himalayas. The forthcoming journey is losing all sense of reality and he asks “where did I imagine I was going, where and why?”


I suspect that in order to gather the energy for a significant journey we have to idealise it in our minds beforehand. There has to be a grand purpose to make it all worthwhile. So I have described my voyage as a pilgrimage (rather than a sailing cruise) I had thought of it as a “deep ecology homage” But once I set off, these worthy ambitions ran up against the unrelenting and sometimes frightening reality of the wild world. The high-minded purposes become meaningless and difficult to hold on to. The pilgrimage is not all plain sailing, not all peak experience. We can only engage with the world on its own terms, terms that include inclement weather, the contingency of plans, and the unreliability of equipment. And they meet with my fragility as a human being; my mistakes, my indulgences in emotions, my fear, the gap between my high expectations and the reality.


There is something of the ridiculous in this. I boldly wrote that on pilgrimage we leave the comforts and habits of home in order to meet the more-than-human world more directly. But I was discombobulated when I had to live through what this actually means in practice. The grand purposes with which the pilgrim sets out will only survive and deepen as they are tested against experience.

“an author whose books were marvellous but rather the same” – Elizabeth Taylor and Andrei Makine


I have just begun reading Elizabeth Taylor’s At Mrs Lippincote’s (not, it feels obligatory to point out, not that Elizabeth Taylor. From Valerie Martin‘s introduction:

Though I never met either of them, Kingsley Amis introduced me to Elizabeth Taylor. He did it slyly, with deceptive nonchalance, as one might present a powerful relative to an acquaintance at a party; he knew she was important but had his doubts about me. This happened in his novel Difficulties With Girls. After a poor lunch of macaroni cheese, Jenny Standish, much neglected wife of the libidinous Patrick, has gone to the library in search of steady company. ‘Everything seemed to be out, bar an enormous saga about Southern Belles, but then she spotted a new Elizabeth Taylor on the returns shelf.’ At home, Jenny is disappointed to discover that ‘the new Elizabeth Taylor turned out to be an old Elizabeth Taylor in a new impression and with a different outside, and she must have been slipping not to have checked, always advisable with an author whose books were marvellous but rather the same.’

I am just starting to read Elizabeth Taylor (though I already know her mother died of politeness, suffering appendicitis on Christmas Day and refusing to bother the doctor), but, as Martin goes on to write “for any novelist, let alone one as famously cranky and hard on the women as Sir Kingsley, to stop cold the progress of his own story in order to extol the virtues of another novelist is unusual, to say the least” and so far I am impressed. The quote from Difficulties With Girls Martin cites also put me in mind of another novelist with a seemingly very different thematic concern than Taylor’s, Andrei Makine. I have had occasion to cite Makine a couple of times before. And I am nursing a longer essay on this remarkable writer, whose work is of a high pitch of lyrical intensity, who offers an unimpeachable insight into the tragedy of Russia in the twentieth (and twenty-first) century, with emotion but without sentimentality, managing to depict the USSR as a tyranny which treated the lives of its citizens (supposedly what the whole enterprise was about) as utterly disposable – while, without exoneration or excuse, capturing the moments of idealism that could capture youthful enthusiasm.


But they are rather the same – a narrator born in the post war couple of decades, now an exile in the West rather like Makine himself, recovering via memory a now vanished world which was defined by the gargantuan, heroic sacrifices of the Great Patriotic War (as WWII is still known in Russia) There are variations – The Woman Who Waited’s erotic longing and ironic release, The Life of An Unknown Man’s satire of the New Russia, Confessions of a Lapsed Standard Bearer’s more direct focus on childhood memory, A Life’s Music musical themes – but the overall pattern is the same.

And yet, his work is marvellous. So much for range!


Appreciating nature in the 6th Century: From “The Consolation of Philosophy”, Boethius

It is often argued that appreciation of nature is a phenomenon of industrial societies. The implication being that “nature” is something that intellectuals and city folk appreciate – not people living closer to the messy reality of the natural world whose survival is linked with a struggle.


One contra example is the nature poetry of the Irish monks which Flann O’Brien wrote about for his MA Thesis. Another (seems) to be evidenced in this passage from Boethius (obviously an elite source, but nevertheless a contra example to the idea that appreciation of nature is a phenomenon of industrial society alone:

Perhaps, again, you find pleasure in the beauty of the countryside. Creation is indeed very beautiful, and the countryside a beautiful part of creation. In the same way we are sometimes delighted by the appearance of the sea when it’s very calm and look up with wonder at the sky, the stars, the moon and the sun.

(trans. Victor Watts

The passage in the context of The Consolation of Philosophy implies that these are common sentiments of the time. It goes on to somewhat throw cold water on consolation from the natural world:

However, not one of these has anything to do with you, and you daren’t take credit for the splendour of any of them. The fact that flowers blossom in spring confers no distinction on you, and the swelling fullness of the autumn harvest is no work of yours. You are, in fact, enraptured with empty joys, embracing blessings that are alien to you as if they were your own. I ask you, why? For Fortune can never make yours what Nature has made alien to you. Of course the fruits of the land are appointed as food for living beings; but if you wish only to satisfy your needs – and that is all Nature requires – there is no need to seek an excess from Fortune. Nature is content with few and little: if you try to press superfluous additions upon what is sufficient for Nature, your bounty will become sickening if not harmful.

Of course, quite aprat from responding to this passage int he context of the book and of the philosophy fo the time, one could ask whether “nature is content with few and little” is in fact a reasonable reason to give for deriving consolation from it.