History of Hymns: 'Christ Beside Me'
By Beth R. Holzemer
“Christ Beside Me”
Attr. to St. Patrick’s Breastplate
Adapt. by James Quinn
The Faith We Sing, 2166
Christ beside me,
Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
King of my heart;
Christ within me,
Christ below me,
Christ above me
never to part.*
*© 1969 Selah Publishing Company. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
The story of St. Patrick (c. 5th cent.), patron saint of Ireland, is filled with mystery and miracle – from his surviving a pirate kidnapping and driving all the snakes from Ireland to turning his walking stick into a living tree. This history provides the backstory for the text of the hymn “Christ Beside Me.” Patrick raised this prayer of protection, as he and his fellow monks feared an ambush by bloodthirsty men who opposed their Christian evangelism. God answered the holy man’s prayers by making him appear to his attackers as a wild deer and his monks as fawns following him. Thus, this song is also known as “The Deer’s Cry” or the Lorica (a prayer of protection) of St. Patrick. For the complete modern translation of the Lorica of St. Patrick, see www.ancienttexts.org/library/celtic/ctexts/p03.html.
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 way to lie before me . . .
(Excerpt from St. Patrick’s Breastplate)
The Latin word lorica means “armor” or “breastplate,” and its use here hearkens to the apostle Paul’s admonition to the church members in Ephesus to gird themselves for spiritual warfare with the whole armor of God (Ephesians 6: 14-17, NIV):
Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
The psalmist also sings of the Lord’s mighty strength and protection:
He will surely deliver you from the hunter’s snare and from the destructive plague. With his feathers he will cover you, under his wings you will find safety. His truth is your shield and armor and protection of God (Psalm 91:3-4, ISV).
Attributions of this ancient hymn to St. Patrick have been traced to at least 690, with the earliest manuscripts dated from the eleventh century. The original Gaelic beginning with “Atomriug indiuniurt tréun togarim Trindóit” (“At Temur today I invoke the mighty power of the Trinity”) was first brought to light in an Irish journal by George Petrie. A word-by-word translation from Gaelic into Latin may be found beginning at https://archive.org/details/jstor-30078991/page/n31 (pp. 56-67), with Petrie’s literal translation on pages 67-68 (Petrie, 1839, pp. 56-68). The section from this translation that most closely corresponds to the hymn, beginning in Gaelic “Crist lium, Crist rium,” is as follows:
Christ [be] with me,
Christ before me,
Christ after me,
Christ in me,
Christ under me,
Christ over me,
Christ at my right side,
Christ at my left side,
Christ at this side,
Christ at that side,
Christ at my back (p. 67).
The first significant singing translation and adaptation of this prayer was composed by the wife of a Church of England clergyman, Mrs. Cecil Francis Alexander (1818-1895), as “I bind unto myself today the strong name of the Trinity” (1869). The result was a lengthy hymn with many stanzas and a multipart musical setting of an Irish melody, given the name ST. PATRICK by the eminent Irish musician Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924), who arranged it in 1902. While included in many hymnals past and present in English-speaking countries around the world, it is less likely to be sung in worship because of its length and complexity.
The three stanzas included in The Faith We Sing (stanza 1 being repeated as the third) are part of a larger prayer text that Patrick bookends with:
I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity
Through belief in the threeness
Through confession of the Oneness
Towards the creator.
This affirms our Christian understanding of the Trinity – God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit as separate, yet one. To pagan Irish, the number three held great significance; and they worshiped several triple deities (Monaghan, 2004, XIII-XIV). Legend holds that St. Patrick used the shamrock to underscore his explanation of the Trinity to nonbelievers, and many images depict him holding a shamrock in one hand (Hegarty, 2012, 14).
The stanzas following this opening petition invoke a panoply of sources of strength: the resurrected Christ, angels, prophets, patriarchs, apostles, confessors, virgins and righteous men. Patrick prays eloquently for the strength of earth and heaven, especially the wisdom and guidance of God. Next, Patrick prays for 360 degrees of physical protection in times of both strife and peace, asking God’s shielding amid psychological warfare against heretics, liars, idolaters, false profits and “against the spells of women, smiths, and wizards.”
At this point, we encounter the text found in our hymn. Not surprisingly, Scottish Jesuit priest James Quinn (1919-2010), who adapted the words for musical setting in 1969, does not include allusions to Christ in a fort, chariot seat, or poop deck. St. Patrick concludes beautifully with his desire to be a beacon of Christ in his every word and deed. Quinn also composed a companion text attributed to St. Patrick to the tune BUNESSEN, “This day God gives me strength of high heaven.” Quinn’s adaptation was first published in New Hymns for All Seasons (London, 1969) and appears in fifteen hymnals in the United States and the United Kingdom.
Quinn’s adaptation is also set to the Scottish folk tune BUNESSEN. It first appeared in print in 1931 and is most likely best known as “Morning Has Broken” by English poet and literary figure Eleanor Farjeon (1881-1965). It was made famous when it was recorded in 1971 by Yusuf Islam (b. 1948), known by his stage name as the British recording artist Cat Stevens prior to his conversion to Islam.
The most famous lorica that is sung today is the hymn “Be Thou My Vision” in a versification by Irish woman Eleanor Hull (1860-1835) from a translation by Irish Catholic Máiri Ni Bhroin (Mary E. Byrne, 1880-1931) found in The United Methodist Hymnal,. 451. See https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/history-of-hymns-be-thou-my-vision.
Sources and Further Reading
Carl P. Daw, Jr., Glory to God: A Companion (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2016), 7-8, 668.
Neil Hegarty, The Story of Ireland: A History of the Irish People (New York: Ebury Publishing, 2012).
Patricia Monaghan, The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore (New York: Infobase Publishing, 2004).
George Pietrie, “On the History and Antiquities of Tara Hill,” The Transactions of the Royal British Academy 18 (1839): 25-232.
James Quinn, Praise for the Seasons: The Hymns of James Quinn SJ (Kingston, NY: Selah Publishing Co., Inc., 1994).
Verses marked NIV are from New International Version (NIV) Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
Beth R. Holzemer, M.M., is Director of Traditional Music and Worship at First United Methodist Church, Hopkinsville, KY, and a member of the Fellowship of United Methodists in Music and Worship Arts.