By Herb O’Driscoll
Time: Spring 801 A.D.
Early in the sailing season of the year 801 A.D. small groups of Viking warships slid out of the harbours of Avaldsnes and Skiringsalr in southern Norway. One of those squadrons headed due west for the Orkneys, then sailed around the north coast of Scotland through the Hebrides and the Shetlands until they reached Iona. The other sailed southwest for Lindisfarne. As they terrorized the small coastal communities the news of their cruelty went ahead of them.
As news began to travel south, a monk of Iona crossed the powerful tidal race between the island and the west coast of Mull.
He had to work hard to keep the currach steady. It occurred to him that he wasn’t getting any younger. From that thought came others. He’d been hearing recently how the atmosphere in the small communities up and down the coast was changing. Up to a few years ago life had been vibrant and on the whole joyous. Now the first of the Viking longships had begun to appear among the western isles, bringing pillage, slavery, rape and death.
He began to think of the project he had begun, probably because he knew well his own life could be in danger at any time. He had begun to feel the need to express in some way what he had come to believe as a Christian Celt.
From time to time the abbot would speak to them about the Faith, teaching, explaining. He was fond of speaking of the Trinity, a kind of shorthand word for God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But somehow the abbot was never exciting or moving, and so the idea came to his student to write a poem. Because he knew his abbot would have to approve his work, he had begun with language he knew the abbot would like.
I bind unto myself today
The strong name of the Trinity…
A few days later he had had added two verses about Jesus, his life and the things that had happened to him. There were a few lines he was particularly proud of…His death on cross for my salvation. His bursting from the spic-ed tomb. His riding up the heavenly way. His coming at the day of doom.
That last line had made him shudder, thinking again of the Viking ships.
A sudden squall blew the tiny craft off course, but instead of fear he suddenly found himself challenged, even elated by the squall, the heaving of the sea and the shriek of the gulls. He realized that new lines were coming into his mind, lines that were capturing the beauty and grandeur all around him. Suddenly, risking himself, he stood up and shouted his new words into the rising gale.
I bind unto myself today
the virtues of the starlit 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.
He felt himself filled with gratitude for the inspiration that had come. All he wanted now was to beach the currach safely on the mainland shore, get to the community he was bound for, find a bit of manuscript and something to write with, and to capture the new lines before they faded from his mind.
He felt that he would always remember that moment in the squall, the feeling of an intense sense of oneness with creation itself, with the ocean, the wind, the gulls, the clouds, the sun, the distant hills. The strange and wonderful thing was that he had never before or since felt more secure, more at peace.
Perhaps that was the reason for what happened a few weeks later, just before he was due to return to his own community on the island. He was working in the small scriptorum his host abbot had lent him. He had just finished copying his newly completed verses when he realized that something more was demanding to be written. He felt almost as if his hand was being guided. He knew with absolute certainty that these new unexpected lines expressed his own deepest faith. “Christ be with me” he wrote, then continued to write…
All of this was long long ago. We will probably never know who he was. Doubtless he would have returned to his island, again pulling against the current, hearing the scream of gulls and seeing the surfacing of the odd curious seal.
The community must have accepted and preserved his verses. At some stage someone dedicated them to the long dead but revered Saint of their northern world, and the song became known as Saint Patrick’s Breastplate. One thing we do know. The Vikings did indeed come to Iona , coming ashore on the beach at the north end of the island. There on the white sands they slaughtered forty of the monks.
But we also know this, that the words of our unknown poet would be sung for more than a thousand years.
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.
This we know because ours are the voices that sing them.