Powerful Protection: St Patrick’s Lorica

10th July, 2020: This is an old post from my previous blog. I re-post it because it is one of the most popular and one that I regularly refer people to. Often in life we feel the effects of the spiritual conflict between good and evil, we feel and sometimes are, attacked, and we need a prayer for protection. Of course it is always important to recognise that the conflict is as much within us as outside. Our own selfishness and sinfulness attacks us. It is important that we never think of those who attack us as ‘evil’ and ourselves as ‘good’. With the addition of readings this prayer makes a good little liturgy, almost a ‘little Office’. I have used it with both adults and teenagers. It works really well prayed outdoors, especially early in the morning at sunrise; with hot chocolate and marshmallows around a fire at night; or on a stormy day on a mountain-top …

My great grandparents came from the west of Ireland at the end of the nineteenth century and ended up in Chesterfield in Derbyshire. The family story is that they lived, along with many other Irish immigrants, in Brown’s Yard and that great-gran was a laundry woman. Although she was born in England my grandmother considered herself Irish and it was from her I learnt the faith.

My Irish forebears were reversing the journey made by St Patrick. I have always loved the Lorica, St Patrick’s breastplate, in its full version (as found in the English Hymnal). The strong sense of the spiritual combat permeates the whole prayer but also the wonderful, dynamic relationship of the Trinity which is alive and powerful.

The Lorica makes a lovely little liturgy all by itself. The addition of readings – in the booklet below I suggest either Ephesians 6 (the breastplate of righteousness) or Deuteronomy 6 (the Sh’ma) and that lovely verse from Hosea “I will betroth me unto thee for ever” seem to work really well.

I have used this booklet of the Lorica as a morning liturgy on retreat with parishioners and have strong memories of standing in the grounds of Llangasty Retreat House with friends from St Andrew’s, Earlsfield singing it in the morning sun. My other memory of it is on a blustery, rainy day on Dartmoor with a group of pupils from Trinity, singing it with rain blowing into my face and the booklet disintegrating in my hands. It is a bracing outdoor prayer for a stormy day.

Lorica booklet in PDF format.

Most hymn books omit sections of the Lorica which is a shame. For those of us who live the spiritual conflict on a daily basis (isn’t that everyone?) – it’s a powerful prayer.

From Cyberhymnal: “The lyr­ics are a trans­la­tion of a Gael­ic po­em called “St. Pat­rick’s Lor­i­ca,” or breast­plate. (A “lorica” was a mys­tic­al gar­ment that was sup­posed to pro­tect the wear­er from dan­ger and ill­ness, and guar­an­tee ent­ry in­to Hea­ven.) Ce­cil Alex­an­der penned these words at the re­quest of H. H. Dick­in­son, Dean of the Cha­pel Roy­al at Dub­lin Cas­tle. I wrote to her sug­gest­ing that she should fill a gap in our Irish Church Hymn­al by giv­ing us a me­tric­al ver­sion of St. Patrick’s “Lor­i­ca” and I sent her a care­ful­ly col­lat­ed co­py of the best prose trans­la­tions of it. With­in a week she sent me that ex­qui­site­ly beau­ti­ful as well as faith­ful ver­sion which ap­pears in the ap­pend­ix to our Church Hymn­al. This hymn can be a chall­enge to sing with­out see­ing the words matched to the notes, but it is a mas­ter­piece ne­ver­the­less.”

The text:

I bind unto myself today 
The strong Name of the Trinity, 
By invocation of the same 
The Three in One and One in Three. 

I bind this today to me forever 
By power of faith, 
Christ’s incarnation; 
His baptism in Jordan river, 
His death on Cross for my salvation; 
His bursting from the spicèd tomb, 
His riding up the heavenly way, 
His coming at the day of doom 
I bind unto myself today. 

I bind unto myself the power 
Of the great love of cherubim; 
The sweet ‘Well done’ in judgment hour, 
The service of the seraphim, 
Confessors’ faith, Apostles’ word, 
The Patriarchs’ prayers, the prophets’ scrolls, 
All good deeds done unto the Lord 
And purity of virgin souls. 

I bind unto myself today 
The virtues of the star lit heaven, 
The glorious sun’s life giving ray, 
The whiteness of the moon at even, 
The flashing of the lightning free, 
The whirling wind’s tempestuous shocks, 
The stable earth, the deep salt sea 
Around the old eternal rocks. 

I bind unto myself today 
The power of God to hold and lead, 
His eye to watch, 
His might to stay, 
His ear to hearken to my need. 
The wisdom of my God to teach, 
His hand to guide, 
His shield to ward; 
The word of God to give me speech, 
His heavenly host to be my guard. 

Against the demon snares of sin, 
The vice that gives temptation force, 
The natural lusts that war within, 
The hostile men that mar my course; 
Or few or many, far or nigh, 
In every place and in all hours,
Against their fierce hostility 
I bind to me these holy powers. 

Against all Satan’s spells and wiles, 
Against false words of heresy, 
Against the knowledge that defiles, 
Against the heart’s idolatry, 
Against the wizard’s evil craft, 
Against the death wound and the burning, 
The choking wave, the poisoned shaft, 
Protect me, Christ, till Thy returning. 

Scripture Reading: 
Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. Wherefore take unto you the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having your loins girt about with truth, and having on the breastplate of righteousness; And your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace; Above all, taking the shield of faith, wherewith ye shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God: Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication for all saints. 
Eph. 6:10-18 

Or: 
Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD: And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might. And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart: And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up. And thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thine hand, and they shall be as frontlets between thine eyes. And thou shalt write them upon the posts of thy house, and on thy gates. Dt. 6: 4-9
Christ be with me,Christ within me,
Christ behind me,
Christ before me, 
Christ beside me, 
Christ to win me, 
Christ to comfort and restore me. 

Christ beneath me, 
Christ above me, 
Christ in quiet, 
Christ in danger, 
Christ in hearts of all that love me, 
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger. 

Scripture Reading: 
I will betroth thee unto me for ever; yea, I will betroth thee unto me in righteousness, and in judgment, and in loving kindness, and in mercies. I will even betroth thee unto me in faithfulness: and thou shalt know the LORD. 
Hosea 2:19
I bind unto myself the Name, 
The strong Name of the Trinity, 
By invocation of the same, 
The Three in One and One in Three. 
By Whom all nature hath creation, 
Eternal Father, Spirit, Word: 
Praise to the Lord of my salvation, 
Salvation is of Christ the Lord.

Funerals – Ministry for Mission in a Time of Pandemic

Don Cupitt,” said Bishop Paul in a conversation, “asks the right questions, but comes up with the wrong answers.” It was one of the many wise things that the Bishop of Liverpool has said to me, and one of several that I have gone away and written down. It’s spot on. I love reading Cupitt. He writes beautifully and he does ask the right questions.

Three of Cupitt’s books are among my favourites:

The Meaning of it All in Everyday Speech (SCM 2011)

The New Religion of Life in Everyday Speech (SCM 1999)

And, The Kingdom Come in Everyday Speech (SCM 2000)

Cupitt is interested in what language we use for the ultimate. Which idioms describe what is meaningful. He spends much time examining idioms including the word ‘life’, but is also interested in the way in which ‘it‘ carries meaning:

“A particularly interesting family of terms is the group It, It all, Things and Everything, which enter into dozens – perhaps hundreds – of idioms . In these idioms it seems to indicate the whole of a person’s circumstances, considered from a finalising point of view … it is evident that the It-group of terms could be shown to figure in a large number of idioms that have a markedly theological flavour … For when we say: ‘This is it, the real thing!‘ we posit a kind of divine completeness, a totality, an unsurpassable finality, more clearly than we ever do with the life-idioms. In its flowing contingency, life is closer to Being; whereas it is perhaps closer to the traditional God,”

The New Religion of Life SCM 1999, pp 104-105

I’ve been re-reading these books during the lockdown and they have worn well. What drove me back to them was a ministry of funerals that I have been exercising, in the area where I live, to help out the local clergy and friends and acquaintances who are vulnerable in some way and have been self-isolating.

When I was first ordained I took plenty of funerals in my two curacies. Since then I have been working full-time in education and I have tried to do one or two funerals during the school holidays to keep my hand in. But most of the funerals I have taken have been relatives, friends or, in tragic circumstances, members of staff, and even, children.

Observing regular funeral ministry from the outside has enabled me to notice two major developments. The rise of civil celebrants. Not just radical humanists and secularists opposed to religion in general, but non-clergy and sometimes ‘inter-faith’ celebrants who will perform ceremonies which are distinctly spiritual and often include elements of Christian liturgy. Most commonly Psalm 23 and theLord’s Prayer. Many clergy are deeply scathing of these services. To those of us who are committed, believing, Christians, there clearly is something missing. But many people I meet speak very highly indeed of the service provided by Civil Celebrants. Many of the Funeral Directors I have spoken to rate them highly. Yes, it can be more convenient to Funeral Directors to have people who are not doing other work and are easily available or who can even commit to certain periods of time a crematorium. However, what is always mentioned to me is the flexibility that Civil Celebrants show in crafting the service and the care they take to provide what the bereaved want. Many of them have clearly developed very high skills in pastoral care. A good number also offer continuing pastoral care, links to counselling, work with Undertakers to invite families to an annual memorial service.

The second factor I have noticed is the number of clergy who tell me that funeral ministry is a waste of time. Using exactly that language. In particular a sense in which funerals for very elderly non-churchgoers where there are no living family and friends are dismissed.

My, negative, reaction to these comments is based, I think on four things:

a) a catholic belief in praying for the dead and the importance of that

b) a strongly Anglican commitment to the Parish, although the parish system as a comprehensive totality was probably always somewhat mythological, recent decades and the events of the Corona Virus are seeing it moving from life-support to palliative care, I think we need to hold on to a theology of parochial-community life in which we genuinely serve the whole population

c) the pastoral instinct to provide care and nurture for those who mourn. In the Beatitudes Jesus, does, after all, declare those who mourn to be blessed.

c) my own experience that funerals are a profoundly missional opportunity. Some of the individuals who it has been my privilege to accompany on a journey to faith have been though funeral ministry. Some of them still keep in touch with me many years later and one is now a priest.

For the Church of England reduction in fee income from funerals (and weddings) is a very significant issue, particularly in a diocese, like my own in Liverpool where there are virtually no historic assets. Earning income should never be the purpose of pastoral ministry but good stewardship demands that we address this issue. As good stewards if clergy are not conducting funerals we need to suggest ways to replace this income.

An innovative approach taken in Liverpool has been the creation of the Good Funeral Company and the recruitment of a remarkable and gifted, priest, Mother Juliet Stephenson to run it (if you ever need clergy training on funeral ministry she is your woman!). You can read more about the GFC here. The mission statement is wonderfully simple and jargon free:

Making good Christian-based funeral services available, personalised, accessible, and affordable for anyone in the Diocese of Liverpool who wants to mark a loved one’s death through prayer.

As soon as it became apparent that I would have some funeral ministry in this crisis I emailed Mother Juliet to ask what she would recommend. Her email reply was enormously helpful, I reproduce it almost in full:

“I attach the service that I am doing in an hour. (it is not what we did as curates…because what we did as curates is not wanted by anyone who is fringe…and on the edge)

Some bits from Iona / celtic stuff and reworked prayers from over the years.

AND…I do not cut and paste, I have several hundred ways of saying the God loves everyone…

He forgives us all, because of JC…

I usually get a bible reading in there…but can be amazingly creative with lyrics from Eric Clapton songs too!

You will see the poems and reading and tribute, that the family have provided…

And I welcomed it all…that’s amazing, that’s wonderful…because this is what THEY want.

I am the MC…and the one who will bless.

I was asked, to do this…because the FD’s know that I do a celebration of life with prayers, and I am good.

The woman used to go to church, but the family have no connection at all….

If I couldn’t do it, they would have had a celebrant, and NOT a vicar

Like I say, I think the success of the GFC, is that we are being offered as celebrants that pray…celebrants that pray and bless…and are authorised to do so.

This is what the FD’s like about what we do.

I get asked to do ‘celebrations of life’…because the perception of vicars is that we can only recite pre-prepared words from the book, and say very little about the woman in the box…

This is why we lose out, over and over again.

You will see very little of the purple book…

And yet, 

– we still gather, we reflect, we offer tributes, a bible reading and short ‘popular religion’ reflection and prayer.

We are (at least I operate now)  in a world where people want white feathers as signs, robins for comfort, shooting stars across the sky to wish upon.

– rather than words from scripture about men they have never heard of…’Lazarus’

We are amidst folk who want Whitney Houston, YNWA, Perry Como and Monty Python.

– rather than hymns, psalms and symphonies…

And if we can’t connect with this world, with the grace of God, and stop being precious about ‘Lazarus’ or ‘penitential prayers’…we lose it.

We can still talk of hope, forgiveness, resurrection.

We can still offer formal prayers, encourage the corporate saying of the Lord’s prayer

And commend and commit and bless.

If we use comforting, and familiar phrases…like the words to enter into the chapel ‘Jesus said I am…’ that’s good.

If we say with conviction ‘in sure and certain hope…’ that’s good.

If we listen to their heartache, and connect where they are, and see how they gain comfort and assurance that God is real, and heaven is worth believing in…because a white feather drifted onto the windscreen of their car…then that also is very good.

This is what the civil celebrants can’t do effectively…they have to rely wholly on the ‘universe’ and ‘stars’…

We have Jesus…

And we have Easter…

Amen brother! 

This may never be the way you would ever choose to do services…it works, and people pray at them. 

I also asked members of the Sodality, the community of priests I belong to to send me their compiled texts and had a number of conversations with them. This was really helpful. As was a conversation with Fr Daniel Ackerley, a deacon-aspirant to the Sodality who is an experienced Funeral Director. Among many other things he said:

Somebody once said that a funeral service should be like a cup of hot chocolate on a cold winters day. Every word should be soothing.

There is a bit of me that baulked at this. No! We are here to admit that we are sinners, in need of a Saviour and to pray that the dead may have forgiveness! But then I got real.

Famously, a principle of mission for the Jesuits is to go in and learn a language, a culture to be able to speak to it and understand it. Fr Daniel knows well that what people are wanting in a funeral is that cup of hot chocolate. If we stand on our liturgical, theological preciousness and do no translation we will not be understood.

Having been taught early on never to throw anything away in ministry I also had the funeral service I developed in my second full-time parish (St Mary, Portsea). This drew on what must have then been ASB, but I had looked at books more widely, I can’t now remember which. There may have been some Iona, and possibly the Uniting Church in Australia. I had become a correspondent of Jim Cotter and he offered some helpful advice too.

The service I have developed is posted at the top and bottom of this post. I shared the original version with members of the Sodality and also with one or two others. One or two of the local Funeral Directors have also commented positively and with helpful suggestions. Last week I took a funeral for the partner of a woman who was a published poet and is a poet herself. She worked in great detail on the text we agreed and this was really helpful in improving the English. Finally, Fr Steven Shakespeare, an aspirant to our Sodality, and a well-known, published liturgist has published a book of liturgies The Earth Cries Glory. I have used elements from this woven into the service (and one complete set of intercessions), these are marked SS. I am trying to persuade Fr Steven to produce a book of pastoral liturgies.

I am not making any great claims for my liturgy. It is a ‘work in progress’ and offered for discussion more than anything else. I would welcome any comments. I hope that you can see that I have taken Cupitt’s questions seriously particularly in using the word ‘life’, but also and perhaps less surprisingly ‘love’. ‘It’ is more complex but I do find myself using that sort of language in my more informal words. Using the language of everyday life is, of course, exactly what Jesus did, always talking about himself in this way and avoiding institutionally religious language: way, truth life, gate, bread, shepherd …

Don Cupitt perfectly captures the language that our culture uses around what is meaningful, how to describe the ultimate, the significant. However, he comes up with the wrong answers, a non-realist interpretation of God. Civil Celebrants are doing the same thing. The question is the right one, what language (not just words, but music, images actions) speaks to people where they are? As a Christian I know that their answer is not enough. The world does need a Saviour, but it is our task to speak of Jesus in ways that our culture understands, because Jesus is, yes, so much more than a cup of hot chocolate on a cold winter’s night, but he is that too and what more important time than now to need that. Each day as I kneel before the Blessed Sacrament I pray “Sweet Sacrament Divine”:

Sweet Sacrament of rest,
Ark from the ocean’s roar,
Within thy shelter blest
Soon may we reach the shore;
Save us, for still the tempest raves,
Save, lest we sink beneath the waves:
Sweet Sacrament of rest.

Sweetness indeed, sweetness on a cold winter’s night, sweetness in a time of death and pandemic.

Growing the church: teaching children to understand Christianity

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In our diocese of Liverpool we have a Rule of Life. It is quite wonderfully simple. Designed to be understood by a four year old:

Pray – Read – Learn – Tell – Serve – Give

In my preaching around the churches of the diocese and in my work in schools I quite often talk about these simple words. On many occasions I hand out cards with the six words on and ask people to write one thing that they are doing for each word, or, on some occasions, one thing they could do. 

Every single time that I have done this there is one word that people get stuck on:

Tell

There are, no doubt, cultural reasons for this. We are British. We don’t like to talk about religion. Even worse, we are Anglicans!

However, I think there is a more fundamental reason for our nervousness around telling people about Jesus and our Christian faith. Many of us are just unsure about what we believe. I wrote recently about the Growing the Churchmaterial I use in parishes and how, beginning with first principles, I ask participants to think about who Jesus is, what Jesus means to them, what Jesus has done for them. I use a variety of phrases. The result is always pretty much the same. There are some comments about Jesus as a friend, someone to talk to, but mostly it is Jesus as an example of how to live that is given. Not once, on what must now be dozens of occasions, has anybody ever written about salvation, redemption or even the incarnation.

In his book The Table, Paul Bayes, Bishop of Liverpool, wrote about the experience of praying the Creed daily at the Office while in the United State with Episcopalian friends. The Creed is generally prayed morning and evening there as it always has been in the Prayer Book Office. I wrote about the neglect of the Creed when we pray the Office in the Church of England here. Having preached about the Creed at a Growing the Church event recently one priest commented that she ‘did not think of the Creed as a prayer’. Indeed, it is not addressed to God. However, I wonder if we re-introduced the Apostles’ Creed to our daily prayers, multiple times a day perhaps, it might remind us if the essentials, the essence of our faith. In 1 Corinthians 2:1 St Paul reminds the church in Corinth that he did not come using ‘lofty words’. One of the lovely things about the Apostles’ Creed is its simplicity. I must have been seven or eight when I learnt it off by heart (for my First Communion). I wonder how many church families now teach their children the Creed by heart?

The Creed works because it is a concise summary of the history of salvation. In just 108 words. It would be a great Confirmation class task to ask candidates to summarise the Christian father in the same number of words. Or perhaps even for candidates for ordination.

There are other ways of summarising the Christian faith. I have used one of these in the last two Growing the Churchsessions I’ve lead. It is the picture, the ‘frieze’. produced for the Understanding Christianity course produced for Religious Education in schools and shown at the top of this post. It illustrates the biblical narrative from Creation in Genesis at the left to the new heaven and the new earth in Revelation at the right, with the crucifixion at its centre. It is a powerful tool to use when teaching children but also with adults many of whom will not have thought of the biblical narrative in this holistic way before. It is a subtle and complex piece of art work and worth taking time and effort to reflect on. It would be wonderful if children becoming familiar with it in schools could also see it in church entrance halls or other areas.

One of the problems I often highlight in our provision of Christian learning for children in church is the pitch. It is all too often patronising to children. There is no excuse for colouring in and sticking other than as ways of passing time. Children studying Shakespeare when they are 10 in school need to be approaching Christian teaching with the same level of expectation and complexity. The only material I know that can help Sunday school teachers, those leading First Communion and Confirmation preparation, to do this is the Understanding Christianity resources. The material has been prepared for schools so can’t be taken off the shelf for use in church situations, although there is much in it that could be. 

A good deal of the material available for children in church situations is based on the lectionary or on bible stories. Of course, this is good, but children are used to sophisticated approaches to literature of all kinds. Ten year olds are certainly capable of understanding the rudiments of source criticism around the gospels, examining the authors purpose and identifying a variety of genres in Scripture. I have never seen even these simple things being done in church. But more significantly than that if children only gain a memory of a few stories and narratives they will have no intellectual framework into which to set these stories. That is where the whole span of the biblical narrative and a basic summary of christian doctrine is needed.

Finally, children can gain a high distorted view of Jesus if all they learn are the parables. The parables themselves are not, of course, children’s literature, although the simplicity of the structure of some of them can make us treat them that way. If children are to form a mature relationship with Jesus they need to know a lot more about him than the stories  he told. I once designed and taught for a number of years a unit of work to Year 9 pupils (13-14 year olds) called, simply ‘Jesus‘. At the beginning of the unit I asked pupils to write a letter to a friend telling them everything they knew about Jesus. Usually there would be an account of the nativity, very often a few stories, only occasionally the crucifixion and resurrection, and the naughtier pupils would say that Jesus was ‘boring’. During the term I would teach gospel passages that illustrated what sort of person Jesus is; how he reacted to people, the link passages that shows him not answering questions directly, coming at things at a tangent and so forth. At the end of the unit I would ask them to write a letter again to a friend telling them about Jesus. Then I would hand back their first letters for them to compare. I knew the unit had worked when pupils wrote or said that Jesus was ‘interesting’. As indeed he is.

Understanding Christianity is a great leap forward for Religious Education. I hope that we can make a similar leap in our Christian formation of children and young people in church so that they can relate to Jesus who is so utterly fascinating, and understand who he is and what he has done for us. If we could all explain that in 108 words it would powerfully enable our mission to bring people to Jesus, and our ability to grow the church in depth. That would give us something to tell.