Today is the feast day of Saint Patrick, and as we all begin to settle into our time at home, our time in quiet, we are painfully aware of how unnerving and uncertain everyone feels.
At the turn of the decade, I published an article titled, “Why Do We Fall,” which turned out to be one of our most well-received articles to date. If you recall from the article, we discussed the importance of the arts and what they provide for us. Not only are they a source of escape during trying times, but they also serve to teach us lessons, to provide us insight into how to handle the trials that life will inevitably throw our way.
At the beginning of this month, I mentioned that March is a month of contemplation. Since it falls during Lent, it becomes a time of sacrifice, which ultimately leads to introspection. At the time that I wrote the article, “March On”, I had no idea how much meaning those words would hold in just a few short weeks.
We are getting more than we bargained for this month. Some of us were prepared to give up coffee or alcohol or worrying for Lent, but we weren’t prepared to give up our day-to-day routines. We are now faced with the challenge of isolating ourselves, of separating ourselves from our friends, our peers, and our social lives in an attempt to help the greater good. We have all been called to make sacrifices greater than we had planned, and now in the peace and solitude of our homes, we are left to contemplate the uncertainty of the world around us.
In this time of confusion and fear, poetry provides a lovely sense of escape. In its cadence, we are allowed to lose ourselves in the rhythm of the verses and shut out the noise around us. It allows us to find quiet, and it is in that quiet that we can center ourselves and regain our composure.
As a prayer, we know it as St. Patrick’s Breastplate. As a poem, it is known as The Cry of the Deer. Written in 433 AD, the breastplate was a form of armor that covered the chest and was worn as a layer of protection in battle. This prayer was inscribed on the plate with the belief that a greater force was guiding the warriors who wore it.
The opening line of the poem immediately invokes strength with the announcement:
“I arise today through a mighty strength”.
The author then recites their conviction, and in the fourth stanza, the elements of the earth are brought into the verse.
"I arise today, through
The strength of heaven,
The light of the sun,
The radiance of the moon,
The splendor of fire,
The speed of lightning,
The swiftness of wind,
The depth of the sea,
The stability of the earth,
The firmness of rock."
Readers are reminded that the power through which the narrator moves comes from one formidable force, the same force that gives the sun its light and the sea its depth.
This poem shows a great sense of humanity through its compassion. While the narrator begins with a display of strength and assurance, the verses take a turn, eventually asking for protection from danger, from cruelty, from tragedy, and from those who would wish them ill.
If you apply this to a soldier going into battle, it would make sense that underneath their bravery is a deep sense of fear and uncertainty. The Breastplate’s purpose is to acknowledge this fear and to place it in the hands of a greater power, into the hands of God.
Stanzas 5-6 are glaringly reminiscent of several books from The Old Testament, such Psalm 23:4, which reads:
“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil, for you are with me;
Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”
And Psalm 55:22:
“Cast your cares on the Lord
And he will sustain you;
He will never let the righteous fall.”
And Joshua 1:9:
“Have I not commanded you?
Be strong and courageous.
Do not be terrified,
do not be discouraged,
for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”
In the narrator’s moments of fear, he summons the strength of his faith to assuage him, and
then goes on to state the most famous lines of the poem:
"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 everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me."
The narrator reminds readers to cast away their fears, and then urges them to recite their coat of armor. If you apply this to the context of the time when this was written, you get a beautiful imagery of warriors chanting this before going into battle. This verse is the reiteration of the heart of a faith that Saint Patrick brought to Ireland. A faith that believes that something greater than all of us lives within us, walks next to us, speaks through us, listens for us; something greater that carries us when we are too weak, and comforts us when we are too afraid.
For many of you, the past week has brought an overwhelming sense of panic. Many of you are in the service industry and are now faced with the uncertainty of where your next paycheck will come from. Many of you are business owners, painfully unsure of how long your doors will be closed. Many of you are nurses, doctors, and scrub techs, overworked, exhausted, and filled with anguish over what you have to see every day. Some of you are safe at home and have the blessing to continue your work remotely. Everyone’s situation is different, but we all share in the same doubt, in the same fear of the unknown. We all share in the same paralyzing confusion.
St. Patrick’s Breastplate, this inscribed coat of armor, was created to shield warriors not only from danger, but from the anxieties that plagued them. When you find yourself feeling like you’re sinking, like you can barely keep your head above water, like your fear is greater than your faith, read this breastplate and remember that you are not alone. Remember that you rise in strength each day, and that God will not give you a test that you aren’t equipped to handle.