Pilgrim Year Books and Box Set

The following is an excerpt from Steve's Lent book from the Pilgrim Year book series.

The Feast of Saint Patrick | The Holy Servant-Boy

Christ beside me, Christ before me,
Christ behind me, Christ within me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me.

Prayer of Saint Patrick

The stories of Saint Patrick are wild, fanciful and mostly unsubstantiated. As with the lives of many early saints, the lore compared to the actual lives lived may well be distant cousins. But that doesn’t mean the tales can’t be received as inspired by truth. The fruition of these legends over time witnesses to humanity’s relentless struggle through darkness toward light, from ignorance to understanding, from cursedness to blessedness. The stories tell of heroic, counter-intuitive deeds and selfless love, and show how profoundly the way of Christ has penetrated into culture like an invisible, raising yeast.

What we know of Patrick’s life comes from two documents written by the saint himself. We learn that he was born in Britain, likely in the early fifth century, to Christian heritage. His father was a deacon and his grandfather a priest. But Patrick said that in his youth he was not an active believer.

At the age of sixteen, raiders captured Patrick and took him to Ireland, where he was enslaved for six years, working as a shepherd. This experience of abrupt dislocation and enslavement softened his heart toward prayer and eventually led to his conversion to Christianity.

After six years, “a voice” told Patrick he would soon go home. Shortly after, he found a means to escape his captors, and after many setbacks and adventures, found his way home to his family. There he began to diligently attend to his Christian faith through study and prayer.

Some years later, Patrick had a vision of an Irishman named Victorius who delivered a letter from “The Voice of the Irish.” While reading the letter, the would-be saint heard their voices crying out to him, “We appeal to you, holy servant-boy, to come and walk among us.” And so he did.

It is wonderfully poetic that Patrick first went to Ireland involuntarily as a slave-shepherd, then later returned voluntarily as a servant-shepherd. Whatever else can be known about his life – which involved many hardships, including further imprisonment and sometimes violent opposition – his ministry was significant enough to earn him the title of beloved Patron Saint of Ireland.

Here are a few of the legends surrounding Saint Patrick’s life:

Staff: Whenever Saint Patrick stopped to teach the gospel, he’d plant his staff in the ground until he left. On one occasion, he stayed so long that the staff rooted and sprouted fresh leaves.

Snakes: It is also said that Saint Patrick banished snakes from Ireland during an epic battle with darkness during a forty-day fast. Truth be told, no evidence exists that snakes have ever lived on the Emerald Isle. Fiction writer Betty Rhodes has suggested that given the presence of serpent imagery on ancient Druid coins and arms, the legend likely points symbolically to Patrick’s battle against paganism.

Ghouls and gourds: Another legend suggests that our Halloween festivities have their genesis in the ministry of Saint Patrick. During the pagan festival of Samhain, it was believed that the souls of the dead rose to roam the earth for one long, terrifying night. People would dress in costumes so as to be unrecognizable to those among the dead who had been their enemies while alive. They would also carve ghoulish faces in gourds and place them in windows to scare away the dead.

According to the legend, Saint Patrick boldly walked about during Samhain, knocking on doors and handing treats to the terrified inhabitants, proclaiming that we need not be afraid of the dead, but that we may cheerfully celebrate their lives now hidden in Christ. Thus the connection between Halloween (All Hallow’s Eve) and All Saints’ Day.

Shamrocks: Perhaps the most charming legend of Saint Patrick is that of his use of the three-leafed shamrock to teach about the mystery of God’s triune life. The shamrock was another pagan symbol: the three leaves referring to a number of triple goddesses, with the green representing eternity and new life. Patrick appropriated the symbolism to teach of God’s nature: a nature we’ve come to understand as the co-inherent, mutually constituting persons of the Holy Trinity after whose image we are created to be persons in a community of love.

Malcolm Guite captures the legend and its meaning in this sonnet:

St. Patrick

Six years a slave, and then you slipped the yoke,
Till Christ recalled you, through your captors cries!
Patrick, you had the courage to turn back,
With open love to your old enemies,
Serving them now in Christ, not in their chains,
Bringing the freedom He gave you to share.
You heard the voice of Ireland, in your veins
Her passion and compassion burned like fire.

Now you rejoice amidst the three-in-one,
Refreshed in love and blessing all you knew,
Look back on us and bless us, Ireland’s son,
And plant the staff of prayer in all we do:
A gospel seed that flowers in belief,
A greening glory, coming into leaf.

Malcolm Guite

Given that the word ‘Lent’ refers to the greening of spring, and that the liturgical trajectory of the broader season of Eastertide opens to Trinity Sunday, the life and legends of Saint Patrick seem a fitting place to stop and stay during our pilgrimage from Lent to love.

Below is a song whose lyrics are attributed to a prayer of Saint Patrick traditionally called Saint Patrick’s Breastplate, or The Lorica.

music and (adapted) lyrics by Gayle Salmond

I bind unto myself today
The gift to call on the Trinity
The saving faith where I can say
Come Three-in-one, O One-in-three!

Be above me as high as the noonday sun
Be below me, the rock I set my feet upon
Be beside me, the wind on my left and right
Be behind me, Oh circle me with your truth and light!

I bind unto myself today
The love of Angels and Seraphim
The prayers and prophecies of Saints
The words and deeds of righteous men

Be above me as high as the noonday sun
Be below me, the rock I set my feet upon
Be beside me, the wind on my left and right
Be behind me, Oh circle me with your truth and light!

God’s ear to hear me
God’s hand to guide me
God’s strength to uphold me
God’s shield to hide me
Against all powers deceiving
Against my own unbelieving
Whether near or far…

I bind unto myself today
The hope to rise from the dust of earth
The songs of nature giving praise
To Father, Spirit, Living Word!

Be above me as high as the noonday sun
Be below me, the rock I set my feet upon
Be beside me, the wind on my left and right
Be behind me, Oh circle me with your truth and light!

Appears on the 2008 CD release: Steve  Bell / Devotion

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