Reflection on the Mighty Hymn Sung at Matriculation

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABy tradition here, one of the librarians at The General Theological Seminary shared this meditation with each of the incoming students on “St. Patrick’s Breastplate,” which will be sung at the Matriculation Service on October 3, 2013:

As you matriculate this Thursday at Evensong, you will be following one of the time-honored traditions at General Seminary by singing the hymn “I bind unto myself today.”  It’s one most of us know already, but perhaps it will have an added dimension of significance for you now, since it will be part of the service when you sign “the book” brought from the treasures of the GTS Archives and become full members of the GTS community. This stirring hymn, which is often called “St. Patrick’s Breastplate,” is filled with images of a world and its dangers perhaps more familiar to medieval monks, but still every bit as relevant for us.

By legend, the hymn is attributed to St. Patrick and written to protect his monastic community against enemy attack. The text is a good example of a lorica or “breastplate” – a statement of faith to be prayed as an appeal to God for protection. In fact, the tradition is that anyone who recites St. Patrick’s Breastplate every day with prayerful intention will be protected from demons, from poison and envy, from sudden death, and that “it shall be a lorica for his soul after his decease.” The hymn is also called “The Deer’s Cry,” in Gaelic Faeth Fiada; it’s a name derived from the legend that while Patrick and his band of monks were being ambushed, they cried to God by singing this hymn and were miraculously visible only as wild deer and allowed to pass by free.

The words we use in the Hymnal are a metrical paraphrase of the traditional Gaelic lyrics handed down the centuries, a translation crafted by Cecil Frances Alexander; this verse appeared in “Hymns for Little Children” in 1848, a collection which includes a preface by John Keble. The tune we sing is a traditional Irish melody adapted by Charles Villiars Standford, and called “St. Patrick’s Breastplate.” The Breastplate idea is a powerful one, and is grounded in scripture from both the Old and New Testaments as an image of the way God’s righteousness works: the writer of Third Isaiah describes putting on righteousness like a breastplate (Is. 59:17), and again in the Wisdom of Solomon (Wis. 5:18). In Ephesians, St. Paul rallies his listeners to “put on the breastplate of righteousness” (Eph. 6:14) in the spiritual battle against everything that separates us from the love of God.

From the first stanza, the text professes faith in God with the provocative image of strapping on the armor of the Creator’s threefold presence, binding to heart the Trinity. In stanza two, God’s power is shown in salvific episodes from the life of Christ: his baptism, his death on the Cross and his rising from the grave. Christ is pictured “riding up the heavenly way,” which may be an illusion to Elijah’s chariot (2 Kgs. 2:11). Stanza three outlines an order of God’s created beings seen through early Christian eyes: cherubim, seraphim, martyrs, apostles, patriarchs, prophets, virgins.

Stanza four tells the wonders of God’s creation in the mighty details of natural science: starlit heavens, glorious sunlight, white moon at night; flashes of lightning and storm winds, deep sea, eternal rocks. The text resonates with echoes of the first Genesis creation story (Gen. 1:1-2:3), the Venite, and perhaps even best reflects the images in God’s Speech from the Whirlwind in Job (38:1-42:6). It’s easy to picture this hymn sung gathered around a roaring campfire at night, especially the incantation quality of stanza five invoking the mighty power of God’s eye to watch, God’s ear to hearken, God’s wisdom to teach, God’s hand to guide, God’s Word to give us speech. Stanza six professes Christ’s presence dwelling within us and all around us, in those who support our vocations, and even in our adversaries, and is sung to a tune called “Deirdre,” said to be the first known Irish air.

One of the chief delights of our Matriculation service is hearing the organ variations offered by Prof. David Hurd which rise in intensity between the verses of the hymn, so that no matter how many incoming students are called to come up to the book in this or any other year, we might just finish the hymn as the last one signs. Prof. Hurd has been offering these interludes ever since 1976, and says they are not written down, but originally improvised every year at the keyboard: “It’s a time when the musical occasion is the actual accompaniment to a liturgical action.” He says it’s his opportunity to go with the imagery, to “play the text.” This is a text about commitment, and our connection to the Trinity. “It’s an important creedal moment,” he said, “which is at once very personal and very communal.”

May the message of this venerable hymn bless you and protect you in navigating the way forward in your studies at General.

By the way, a recording was made of St. Patrick’s Breastplate at the Matriculation ceremony back in 2002; it was an enormous incoming class, so it goes on and on and on with Prof. Hurd’s magnificent improvisation. It’s available to stream below.

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