You may know the Irish poem “Saint Patrick’s Breastplate” from the nineteenth-century hymn “I Bind Unto Myself Today”; or, depending on your preferred generation of Christian music, from Keith and Kristyn Getty’s recording of their song “Holy Spirit, Living Breath of God.”

But the text and its story are both a bit longer. While the poem is traditionally attributed to the fifth-century patron saint of Ireland, it doesn’t appear until the eighth century, and its attribution to Patrick dates only from the eleventh. It tells us less about the faith and deeds of Patrick, therefore, then it does about later Christians interested in telling his story. 

That story was, in part, about Patrick’s legendary effort to incorporate the wild, untamed, pagan land of Ireland into the fold of orthodox Christendom. And so the full text of the poem includes passages like this:

I summon today all those powers between me and these evils,
against every cruel merciless power that may oppose my body and my soul,
against incantations of false prophets,
against black laws of heathenry,
against false laws of heretics,
against craft of idolatry,
against spells of women and smiths and wizards…
Christ to protect me today
against poison, against burning,
against drowning, against wounding,
so that there may come to me abundance of reward.

You won’t find that stanza in a hymn! But these lines, with their sense of righteous embattlement, fit this text’s genre perfectly. It’s not a hymn of praise; it’s a lorica (literally “body armor,” hence “breastplate”), a traditional prayer for divine protection from enemies. Some scholars think that loricas date back to pre-Christian druidic prayers to pagan gods, which would make this text a Christian version of the very “incantations of false prophets” that it rails against. 

According to the narrative preserved alongside the poem, Patrick recited this lorica when he saw his enemies lying in wait to ambush him. Responding to his cry for help, God caused Patrick’s enemies to see his entourage not as hostile missionaries but as a harmless deer with her fawns. 

Which brings us, finally, to my favorite musical setting of this poem, Estonian composer Arvo Pärt’s short choral work The Deer’s Cry. Though it was commissioned by an Irish musical society, Pärt’s piece does not go the expected route of borrowing the timbres and melodies of Irish folk music.

Rather, the piece begins starkly, unmelodically, with the altos with the altos, tenors, and basses singing the refrain “Christ with me.” The words are halting and hesitant, separated from each other by rests and staccato marks. The harmony is both simple and unstable: the chords are familiar ones like A minor and D minor but many of them are in second inversion, robbing them of some of their usual forward pull. This is no battle cry or fiery incantation. It is a stifled plea for help.

After four repetitions of the motif, the sopranos enter with a new piece of text: “Christ before me, Christ behind me,” etc. Their thin, high line sounds almost like a stable, heavenly response to the other singers’ shaky request for aid. But the text is still that of the lorica, as if the only help God gives is to strengthen the prayers of the needy.

Throughout the entire piece, the sopranos sing the three notes of the A-minor triad (A, C, and E) almost exclusively. The only exceptions are neighbor notes that quickly resolve to those three pitches. This is a favorite technique of Pärt’s, and he refers to it as tintinnabuli, since the melody jumps between chord tones like a set of bells (tintinnabulum is Latin for “little bell”). In this piece, it makes the sopranos sound both celestial and transparent, there but not there.

But their presence helps. As the soprano line climbs higher, the other singers begin to gain strength, singing “Christ on my right, Christ on my left” richly and without pauses. When they do return to the “Christ with me” motif after singing “Christ when I arise,” their articulation is smoother, and the end of that phrase creates one of the clearest harmonic moments in the entire piece: a straightforward cadence to A-minor as the sopranos sing “Christ!” high in their range. Help has come!

Even here at the piece’s climax, however, Pärt does not altogether transcend the hesitant tone of the beginning. The dynamic marking here, while the loudest in the piece, is only mezzo-forte, medium loud. In this music, as in life, Christ’s presence refuses to overwhelm. (Of course, the audience cannot see the score, so Pärt’s compositional restraint here has to be matched by restraint on the performers’ part [ha!] as well.)

The following passage is texturally rich, with the singers divided into up to eight parts. But the harmonies remain simple: the only real chords are A minor and its expected counterpart E major. We don’t get any truly lush harmonies until the phrase “Christ in every eye that sees me…” and this is when the voices are falling away, diminishing in both pitch and volume. And even here, the sopranos stick to their A-minor bells.

Then, after a lengthy pause, the opening motif is repeated twice more, this time by the entire chorus. But the sopranos add one note that didn’t appear at the piece’s beginning: an A above middle C, the same note on which they started their heavenly response earlier. To incongruously quote Beauty and the Beast, there may be something here that wasn’t here before.

If I lost you in the weeds up there, here’s the gist: Pärt’s piece emphasizes the weakness of the lorica’s speaker and the near imperceptibility of divine help. God responds to our helplessness not with angelic armies but with heavenly bells that recall the “still, small voice” of 1 Kings 13.

A Deer’s Cry therefore asks us to reconsider our assumptions about divine help and protection. The title alone points us to one particular part of the lorica’s story: not the evil druids but God’s gentle, non-violent intervention. The choice of text—a small piece of the lorica as a whole—identifies the all-encompassing presence of Christ in our lives, and the visibility of that presence to others, as the most important kind of divine protection. And the music confirms and deepens these impressions with its simple harmonies, cautious dynamics, and utter lack of militarism. At a time when American Christians are frequently tempted to think of themselves as persecuted by latter-day druids like Secularism or Liberalism or Conservatism, Pärt’s re-reading of this text is a healthy reminder that God’s protection often changes us more than it changes our enemies.

That’s not to say there’s no place in the Christian life for breastplates and body armor. We just shouldn’t be surprised when they don’t crash and clang but rather ring like a bell.

 

See Jacqueline Borsje’s article “The Secret of the Celt’s Revisited” for more on the reception history of “Saint Patrick’s Breastplate.”

1 Comment

  1. Kyric Koning

    I think most of us would rather have God appear in the big ways, like the miracles spoken of in the Bible, but that often isn’t how God works. I love the line “God’s protection often changes us more than it changes our enemies.” We need to understand the little things matter too.

    Reply

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