I summon today all these powers…
…Against incantations of false prophets, against black laws of pagandom,
against false laws of heretics, against craft of idolatry,
against spells of witches and smiths and wizards,
Against every knowledge that corrupts man's body and soul
The Lorica of Saint Patrick (St. Patrick's Breastplate Prayer)
I must confess, at first glance I feel like I just stepped fully into the Middle Ages or stumbled onto Platform 9 3/4 into the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Incantations, black laws, spells, and the like in our day tend to remain safely tucked away in fantasy novels, movies, or Renaissance Festivals. So why not just include these specific and seemingly outdated examples of evil in our previous section so we could gloss over them and move on with something more relevant?
Believe me, I thought about it.
In fact, making this separation ultimately resulted in a 41 day series rather than my intended 40 day journey. What concerns me, however, is that in reading any ancient work it is so easy to gloss over things that seem irrelevant, even in Scripture. And so I pause today with this difficult stanza to practice the discipline of discovering the timeless, Holy Spirit inspired truths within even the most distant writings of the Saints who have gone before us.
For me, the timeless word that strikes at the heart is “knowledge.” “…Against every knowledge that corrupts man’s body and soul.”
All of these examples are forms of knowledge in Patrick’s world, even if they are what we might consider less than scientific or rational.
Paul writes to the church at Corinth,
By ordinary human standards not many were wise, not many were powerful, not many were from the upper class. But God chose what the world considers foolish to shame the wise. God chose what the world considers weak to shame the strong.
1 Corinthians 1:26b-27
Just a few verses earlier in 1:18, he declares that “the cross is foolishness to those who are being destroyed.”
This issue of knowledge and evil creates a very fine line which we must walk in step with the Spirit. On one hand, we must be careful what kinds of knowledge we assume will corrupt us. Both Galileo and Copernicus were deemed heretics by the church and yet both are widely recognized with high regard today. We no longer condemn the belief that the earth revolves around the sun as a contradiction of Scripture. We recognize that the Biblical writers described creation in the best ways they could given their limited scientific knowledge. Christians today continue to hurt the church’s witness when we declare heretical things that are often simply matters of opinion or increased awareness and understandings of reality.
On the other hand, there are certainly heretical, idolatrous and pagan teachings which do corrupt our bodies and souls. Often these teachings find their way into the church in benign ways. Our theology of heaven or the return of Christ, for example, is often distorted in such a way that we fail to be good stewards of creation as God commanded because we assume it will all be destroyed anyway. Our understanding of God’s blessings and grace has led us to mistreat countless groups throughout history who we assume God has not blessed in the same way those of us who live with privilege understand blessings.
What if the greater danger today is not the knowledge of pagan ways, but the knowledge we think we have of God’s word that has been so distorted by our own cultural values that we are no longer recognizable as a “people of the Book.”
Let us not forget that those with the greatest religious knowledge in the gospels are condemned by Jesus as those who “strain out a gnat while swallowing a camel” (Matthew 23:34). Knowledge is not inherently good or evil, pagan or holy, secular or sacred. All knowledge may be interpreted and used for good or for evil. Let us indeed weigh and evaluate carefully our sources of knowledge, but even more, let us be wise that we do not use our knowledge in ways that might corrupt our bodies and souls.
1. What first impressions did you have in reading the section of St. Patrick’s prayer?
2. In what ways do you see this admonition to summon God’s strength against these particular evils as relevant and applicable for you today?
3. How might God be inviting you to become more discerning in your sources and your application of knowledge?
Our journey through St. Patrick's Breastplate Prayer continues next week:
Christ to shield me today
against poison, against burning,
against drowning, against wounding,
So that there may come to me an abundance of reward.