We’re going to use this odd little four-day period as getting-ready time. Before we start using the hymn itself as our devotional piece on Sunday, a little background knowledge on it that will enrich your encounter. And importantly, a Lenten examen will invite you to think about this Lenten road and how you want to walk it.
Introduction to the Hymn
St. Patrick’s Breastplate Prayer
The hymn “I Bind Unto Myself Today” is based on an Irish-language hymn traditionally attributed to St. Patrick. It’s recorded in an 11th century Irish hymn-book, but fragments of it appear in a 9th century source, and its linguistic content dates it to the early 8th century.
That 11th century hymn-book relays an origin story: St. Patrick sang it when the King of Ireland laid an ambush to stop him from coming to Tara to spread Christianity. When he sang, the ambush saw not St. Patrick and his monks, but a herd of deer and a wild fawn.
It’s called a Breastplate Prayer because of its genre: a protection prayer. Sometimes you’ll also hear it called a lorica prayer. A lorica is the fancy name for this genre of poetry, as well as the name of a piece of Roman chest armor…as well as the name of the shell on a few species of crustacean.
The translator: Cecil Frances Alexander
Cecil Frances Alexander was a 19th century Anglo-Irish hymnwriter and poet, and I guarantee you have heard her stuff before: “All Things Bright and Beautiful,” “Once in Royal David’s City,” and “There’s a Green Hill Far Away” are all her work.
She took on the work of translating a metrical form of the Breastplate Prayer at the request of H.H. Dickinson, Dean of Dublin Castle in 1889. He sent her the best prose translations of it, and within a week she sent him back a final draft of her version.
Go take a listen:
Here’s a YouTube version that is quite beautiful and meditative:
(You can feel free to sing it faster when you’re serenading your shower, though.)