It is the time of year that we turn our thoughts to the holy Apostle of Ireland and the marvelous conversion of Eire wrought by St. Patrick and his successors. His life and mission bore extraordinary fruit in the abundance of spiritual treasures that have come out of Ireland over the centuries, and in Ireland we see first hand what is possible when zealous men and women are willing to lay down everything for the Gospel - and when a people embraces it with their whole heart. Can the Church ever sufficiently express her gratitude for the blessings conferred upon her by her Irish sons and daughters? And it all goes back to the Holy Youth, St. Patrick, Apostle of Ireland.
The most famous thing ever penned by St. Patrick was his wonderful prayer, the "Breastplate of St. Patrick", in which the powers and attributes of God are invoked as protection against all of the powers of the enemy. This prayer has enjoyed a broad popularity over the years; I've even known Protestants who will pray it. It particularly gets a lot of currency around St. Patrick's day. As we got closer to St. Patrick's Day, I took note of various versions of the prayer being circulated in bulletins, on prayer cards, and on the popular sites on the Internet. The most recent version of the prayer, which I saw in a parish bulletin, looked like this:
I arise today
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 today
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 today
Through the strength of the love of cherubim,
In the obedience of angels,
In the service of archangels,
In the hope of resurrection to meet with reward,
In the prayers of patriarchs,
In the predictions of prophets,
In the preaching of apostles,
In the faith of confessors,
In the innocence of holy virgins,
In the deeds of righteous men.
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.
I arise today, 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 shield to protect me,
God's host to save me
From snares of devils,
From temptation of vices,
From everyone who shall wish me ill,
afar and near.
I summon today
All these powers between me and those evils,
Against every cruel and merciless power
that may oppose my body and soul,
Against every knowledge that corrupts man's body and soul...
Christ to shield me today
Against poison, against burning,
Against drowning, against wounding,
So that there may come to me an 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 everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.
A very beautiful prayed indeed. But if you, like myself, are very familiar with this prayer, you will have noticed a certain clause was omitted. Notice the ellipsis in the second to last stanza at the line "that corrupts man's body and soul"? There is an omitted phrase that ought to be there. The missing phrase is:
Against incantations of false prophets,
Against black laws of pagandom,
Against false laws of heretics,
Against craft of idolatry,
Against spells of witches and smiths and wizards,
References to magic and witchcraft, as well as heresy and pagandom, are categorically omitted. I received a St. Patrick holy card this week which similarly omitted this clause, although to be fair, it omitted other parts of the prayer, too, most likely in the interest of space. But I have noticed it frequently over the years, too often to be a coincidence. The segments of Patrick's prayer that speak of the evil influence of witchcraft, paganism, and heresy are always first to be omitted.
The rationale is not difficult to discern; the modern Church does not take seriously the power of the demonic. If a parish priest believes in Satan at all, he most likely does not believe in things like "spells of witches and smiths and wizards" or the demonic influence present in the "black laws of pagandom." Neither do most Catholics. To pray about such things as protection from witches would seem rather uneducated and rustic to the modern Catholic. So there is a kind of reductionist anti-supernaturalism to think about.
Furthermore, this portion of the prayer is very unecumenical and devastating to interreligious dialogue, because it points unapologetically to a demonic intent behind heresy and non-Christian religions. That is a no-no.
A further point to consider is that these phrases about witchcraft and pagandom are actually the heart of the prayer. We know the story of St. Patrick well. We know that, when he was praying for protection on his mission, it was primarily against the intrigues of the pagan druids and their foul magic that he was praying. This was why he invoked all the powers of God and His hosts - to counter the malicious, demonic influences the druids were conjuring against him. So the heart of the prayer is removed.
And if the heart be removed, much of the power is removed as well. Don't misunderstand; prayers are not magic spells, whose efficacy depends on perfect formal recitation or the inclusion of certain phrases. But there is a very ancient principle of spiritual warfare that if an enemy is to be overcome it must be called out by name; this is why exorcists always labor to find out the name of the demon afflicting a person - because there is a power in calling things by their name. The principle is very mysterious, but absolutely affirmed by Catholic Tradition and even practiced by Christ Himself (cf. Mark 5:9). If we fail to name the specific evils we are praying against, it makes our prayer less pointed and, in our opinion, detracts from its efficacy because it fails to adhere to the very ancient practice of naming the spiritual evils being prayed against.
St. Patrick was an extremely holy and powerful saint, and there is great power in the Breastplate; in fact, the "Breastplate of St. Patrick" is one of the most powerful, efficacious prayers in the entire Tradition. It is a prayer of warfare, a prayer which unambiguously names the true enemy and engages them in the name of Christ in a struggle to the end. Patrick's spirituality, and all Irish spirituality, has a lively sense of the reality of the spirit world and the snares that beset a Christian attempting to witness to his faith. It is this awareness which has faded today and which is so desperately needed. Therefore, let us pray the Breastplate this St. Patrick's day - in its entirety and the fullness of its power, as the holy Apostle of Ireland composed it.