St. Patrick, The Shamrock and the Trinity

by Fr. Michael Van Sloun

St. Patrick at St. Nicholas in Belle River

The shamrock is a symbol both for the Holy Trinity and St. Patrick (389-461). The shamrock is a clover plant with a yellow flower and leaflets made up of a stem with three small green leaves. The plant is very common and widely distributed throughout Ireland.

St. Patrick was a zealous missionary to the Irish, a people who upon his arrival in 432 had heard little or nothing of Jesus and his gospel. St. Patrick was an energetic traveler, a determined evangelizer, and a courageous preacher, and as he canvassed the countryside he was assailed by bitter opponents who threatened his life and undermined his message, but undeterred, he made hundreds and thousands of converts.

Whether St. Patrick was speaking to local pagans who knew nothing of the Christian faith, or to neophytes, newly-baptized disciples who were not well-grounded in the truths of the faith, he was faced with the daunting task of explaining profound mysteries such as the Trinity which are so difficult to understand.

There are several popular legends about how St. Patrick used the shamrock to explain the mystery of the Trinity. According to one story, St. Patrick went to Connaught where he met two of King Laoghaire’s daughters, Ethne and Fedelm. St. Patrick had been unable to persuade the king to convert, but he convinced the king’s daughters. During their time of instruction St. Patrick used a shamrock to visualize the mystery of the Trinity, how a single plant with three leaves is analogous to the one Triune God with three separate and distinct Persons (Thurston, H. J., ed., Butler’s Lives of the Saints, Vol. 1, 615).

According to another legend, St. Patrick used a shamrock to help explain the Trinity in a sermon he preached directly to King Laoghaire.

According to a third legend, St. Patrick was traveling and happened upon a number of Irish chieftains along a meadow. The tribal leaders were curious about the Trinity and asked St. Patrick for an explanation. So he bent down, picked a shamrock, and showed it to them, and explained how the three leaves are part of the one plant, and how similarly the three Persons, Father, Son, and Spirit, are part of one Supreme Being.

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia:“The beautiful prayer of St. Patrick, popularly known as ‘St. Patrick’s Breast-Plate,’ is supposed to have been composed by him in preparation for this victory over paganism. The following is a literal translation from the old Irish 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 day to me for ever,
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 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.

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.

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.

I bind unto myself today
the strong Name of the Trinity,
by invocation of the same,
the Three in One, and One in Three.
Of whom all nature hath creation,
eternal Father, Spirit, Word:
praise to the Lord of my salvation,
salvation is of Christ the Lord.

Words: attributed to St. Patrick (372-466);
trans. Cecil Frances Alexander (1818-1895), 1889

About Gertrude

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change. and the courage to change the things I can... On Twitter: @marion_luscombe
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