Monday, 26 November 2007

Praying the Jesus Prayer

Patrick Comerford

There is a dictum in The Philokalia attributed to Evagrius the Solitary, in which he says: “If you are a theologian, you will pray truly. And if you pray truly, you are a theologian.” [Treatise on Prayer, 61.]

To pray truly, we can learn from the traditions of others. There are rich treasures in each and every Christian tradition that we can draw on without compromising our own Christian tradition, experience and spirituality. The Orthodox insights into and traditions about prayer have influenced many Anglicans, including Archbishop Michael Ramsey and Archbishop Rowan Williams. Many in the Western world have been helped to pray through the books of Metropolitan Anthony Bloom.

To pray does not mean to think about God in contrast to thinking about other things, or to spend time with God in contrast to spending time with our family and friends. To pray means to think and live our entire life in the Presence of God. The Russian theologian, Paul Evdokimov (1900-1969), the biographer of Saint Seraphim of Sarov, remarks: “Our whole life, every act and gesture, even a smile must become a hymn or adoration, an offering, a prayer. We must become prayer – prayer incarnate.” (Paul Evdokimov, Ages of the Spiritual Life, p. 211.)

The practice of the Jesus Prayer is one of the rich treasurers in the Orthodox tradition than can help each of us to develop our own practice of prayer.

The Jesus Prayer

The Jesus Prayer is one of the best known traditions within Orthodoxy. Its words say simply:

Κύριε Ἰησοῦ Χριστέ,
Υἱὲ Θεοῦ,
ἐλέησόν με τὸν ἁμαρτωλό.

Lord Jesus Christ,
Son of God,
have mercy on me the sinner.

The Jesus Prayer, also called the Prayer of the Heart by some Church Fathers, is a short, simple prayer that has been widely used, taught and discussed throughout the history of Eastern Christianity. In order to enter more deeply into the life of prayer and to come to grips with the Scriptural challenge to pray unceasingly, the Orthodox tradition offers the Jesus Prayer – which is sometimes called the prayer of the heart – as a means of concentration and as a focal point for our inner life.

The exact words of the prayer have varied from the most simple possible involving the name “Jesus,” such as “Lord have mercy,” to the more common extended form: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

The Jesus Prayer is, for the Eastern Orthodox, one of the most profound and mystical prayers and it is often repeated continually as a part of personal ascetic practice.

Theology and practice

The practice of repeating the prayer continually dates back to at least the 5th century. The earliest known mention is in the writings of Saint Diadochos of Photiki (400-486), a work found in the first volume of The Philokalia, a collection of texts on prayer compiled between the 4th and the 15th centuries. In that collection, Saint Diadochos ties the practice of the Jesus Prayer to the purification of the soul. He also teaches that repetition of the prayer produces inner peace.

The Jesus Prayer is also described by Saint John Cassian (died 435) in his description of the repetitive use of a passage of the Psalms. The use of the Jesus Prayer is recommended by Saint John of Sinai (523–603) in The Ladder of Divine Ascent and in the work of Saint Hesychios (?8th century), Pros Theodoulon, found in the first volume of The Philokalia.

Later, the theology of the Jesus Prayer was most clearly set out by Saint Gregory Palamas (1296–1359). Its practice became an integral part of Hesychasm, and the subject of The Philokalia. Today, Mount Athos is a centre of the practice of the Jesus Prayer.

Introduction to the West

The use of the Jesus Prayer according to the tradition of The Philokalia is the subject of the Russian classic, The Way of a Pilgrim. The anonymous Russian pilgrim in The Way of the Pilgrim discovers the Jesus Prayer and with it the answers to many of his questions in that key compendium of Orthodox spirituality and prayer.

In The Way of a Pilgrim, the pilgrim recounts his desperate longing “to pray without ceasing.” He wanders, with Bible in hand, in search of someone who can teach him. Eventually, the pilgrim takes a wise monk as his spiritual father or staretz. He instructs the pilgrim in prayer, and gives him The Philokalia to read.

The pilgrim recalls the conversation:

“Read this book,” he said. “It is called The Philokalia, and it contains the full and detailed science of constant interior prayer, set forth by 25 Holy Fathers. The book is marked by lofty wisdom and is so profitable to use that it is considered the foremost and best manual of the contemplative spiritual life …”

“Is it then more sublime that the Bible?” I asked.

“No, it is not that. But it contains clear explanations of what the Bible holds in secret and which cannot be easily grasped by our short-sighted understanding.”

The staretz compares the Bible to the Sun and The Philokalia to a small piece of glass that enables a person to view its rays, and reads to the pilgrim instructions from Saint Symeon the New Theologian quoted in The Philokalia: “Sit down alone and in silence. Lower your head, shut your eyes, breathe out gently and imagine yourself looking into your own heart. Carry your mind, that is, your thoughts, from your head to your heart. As you breathe out say, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.’ Say it moving your lips gently, or simply say it in your mind. Try to put all other thoughts aside. Be calm, be patient, and repeat the process very frequently.”

At first, the pilgrim is bored, is sleepy and is distracted by other thoughts. The staretz encourages him to persevere, gives him a prayer rope (Greek komvoschini; Russian chotki), and tells him to use it as a counter as he repeats the Jesus Prayer. He tells him to repeat the Jesus Prayer 3,000 times a day, “quietly and without hurry … without deliberately increasing or diminishing the number. God will help you, and by this means you will reach also the unceasing activity of the heart.”

After the first few days, the pilgrim no longer finds that he has been set a hard task, but soon finds that he is praying again, both “easily and joyfully.” His spiritual father increases the number to 6,000 and then to 12,000, so that the pilgrim reaches the point where the prayer wakes him up early in the morning. Now his whole desire is fixed on saying the Jesus Prayer and he is filled with joy.

The Pilgrim subject of The Way of the Pilgrim reports that the Jesus Prayer has two very concrete effects upon his vision of the world:

1, Firstly, it transfigures his relationship with the material creation around him. The world becomes transparent, a sign, a means of communicating God’s presence. He writes: “When I prayed in my heart, everything around me seemed delightful and marvellous. The trees, the grass, the birds, the air, the light seemed to be telling me that they existed for man’s sake, that they witnessed to the love of God for man, that all things prayed to God and sang his praise.”

2, Secondly, the Jesus Prayer transfigures his relationship to his fellow human beings. His relationships are given form within their proper context: the forgiveness and compassion of the crucified and risen Lord. “Again I started off on my wanderings. But now I did not walk along as before, filled with care. The invocation of the Name of Jesus gladdened my way. Everybody was kind to me. If anyone harms me I have only to think, ‘How sweet is the Prayer of Jesus!’ and the injury and the anger alike pass away and I forget it all.”

The Scriptural foundations

This story in The Way of the Pilgrim became familiar to many in the west in the 1960s through the popularity of JD Salinger’s novel, Franney and Zooey, when the distressed young woman describes the Jesus Prayer to her boyfriend over lunch in a restaurant. But what are the Scriptural and theological foundations of the Jesus Prayer?

The Apostle Paul urges the Christians of Thessaloniki to “pray without ceasing” (I Thessalonians 5: 1). In his letter to Rome, he instructs the Christian community there to “be constant in prayer” (Romans 12: 12). He not only demands unceasing prayer on the part of the Christians in his care, but he practices it himself. “We constantly thank God for you” (I Thessalonians 2: 13), he writes, and he comforts Timothy with the words: “Always I remember you in my prayers” (2 Timothy 1: 3).

Whenever the Apostle Paul speaks of prayer in his letters, two Greek words repeatedly appear: pantote, which means always; and adialeptos, meaning without interruption or unceasingly.

Prayer, then, is not merely a part of life which we can conveniently lay aside if something we deem more important comes up. Prayer is all of life, must be all of life. Prayer is as essential to our life as breathing. But how can we be expected to pray all the time? How can we fit more time for prayer into our already overcrowded lives?

This prayer, in its simplicity and clarity, is rooted in the Scriptures, and its words are based on:

* the cry of the blind man at the side of the road near Jericho, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me” (Luke 18: 38);

* the cry of the ten lepers who called to him, “Jesus, Master, take pity on us” (Luke 17: 13);

* the cry for mercy of the publican, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner” (Luke 18: 14);

* and the sentiments of the cry of the penitent thief on the cross (Luke 23: 42).

Three levels of praying the Jesus Prayer

The Jesus Prayer is a prayer in which the first step taken on the spiritual journey is recognising my own sinfulness, my essential estrangement from God and the people around me. The Jesus Prayer is a prayer in which I admit my desperate need of a Saviour. For “if we say we have no sin in us, we are deceiving ourselves and refusing to admit the truth” (I John 1:8).

In order to offer some broad, general guidelines for those interested in using the Jesus Prayer to develop their inner life, Saint Theophan the Recluse (1815-1894), a 19th century Russian spiritual writer, distinguishes three levels in the saying of the Jesus Prayer:

1, It begins as oral prayer or prayer of the lips, a simple recitation which Theophan defines as prayers’ “verbal expression and shape.” Although very important, this level of prayer is still external to us and is only the first step, for “the essence or soul of prayer is within a man’s mind and heart.”

2, As we enter more deeply into prayer, we reach a level at which we begin to pray without distraction. Saint Theophan remarks that at this point, “the mind is focused upon the words” of the Jesus Prayer, “speaking them as if they were our own.”

3, He describes the third and final level as prayer of the heart. At this stage, prayer is no longer something we do but who we are. Such prayer is a gift of the Spirit, and is to return to the Father as the Prodigal Son did (Luke 15: 32). The prayer of the heart is the prayer of adoption, when “God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit that cries ‘Abba, Father!’” (Galatians 4: 6).

This return to the Father through Christ in the Holy Spirit is the goal of all Christian spirituality. It is to be open to the presence of the Kingdom in our midst.

The practice of the Jesus Prayer

There is a very great emphasis on humility in the practice of the Jesus Prayer. When it is practised on a continuing basis, the Jesus Prayer becomes automatic.

There are many warnings about the disaster that will befall those who would use it in pride, arrogance or conceit. And in many texts, it is said that those who use the Jesus Prayer must only be members of the Orthodox Church in good standing. And there are warnings that the person praying the Jesus Prayer must never treat it as a string of syllables whose “surface” or overt verbal meaning is secondary or unimportant. The Orthodox person steeped in the traditional use of the Jesus Prayer considers any bare repetition of the Jesus Prayer as a mere string of syllables, perhaps with a “mystical” inner meaning beyond the overt verbal meaning, to be worthless or even dangerous.

But those who maintain the practice of the Jesus Prayer find it becomes automatic and that they continue with it 24 hours a day, seven days a week, rejecting all tempting thoughts, paying extreme attention to the consciousness of the inner world and to the words of the Jesus Prayer, not letting the mind wander in any way at all.

The practice of the Jesus Prayer is in the mind, in the heart, free of images. The stage of practice known as “the guard of the mind” is a very advanced stage of ascetical and spiritual practice. But attempting to accomplish this prematurely can cause very serious spiritual and emotional harm.

To pray does not mean to think about God in contrast to thinking about other things, or to spend time with God in contrast to spending time with our family and friends. To pray means to think and live our entire life in the Presence of God. The Russian theologian, Paul Evdokimov, remarks: “Our whole life, every act and gesture, even a smile must become a hymn or adoration, an offering, a prayer. We must become prayer-prayer incarnate.”

Yet the practice of the Jesus Prayer is one of the rich treasurers in the Orthodox tradition offers to those who would pursue the task of developing their own practice of prayer. As Paul Evdokimov says: “Our whole life, every act and gesture, even a smile must become a hymn or adoration, an offering, a prayer. We must become prayer – prayer incarnate.”

In his Ages of the Spiritual Life, Paul Evdokimov wrote: “In a special manner the invocation of the name of Jesus makes the grace of his Incarnation universal, allowing each of us our personal share and disposing our hearts to receive the Lord … When the divine Name is pronounced over a country or a person, these enter into an intimate relationship with God … The “prayer of the heart” frees and enlarges it and attracts Jesus to it … In this prayer … the whole Bible with its entire message is reduced to its essential simplicity … When Jesus is drawn into the heart, the liturgy becomes interiorised and the Kingdom is in the peaceful soul. The Name dwells in us as its temple and there the divine presence transmutes and Christifies us… (Paul Evdokimov, Ages of the Spiritual Life, pp 211-212).

In this way, as with Saint Seraphim of Sarov, the prayer of the heart is much more than an arcane spiritual practice. Rather, its genius is that it summarises all that the scriptures say, the whole of life is to be “in Christ” and the Spirit.

(c) Patrick Comerford, 2007

This essay is based on lectures given at the Church of Ireland Theological College on the NSM and B.Th. courses in 2006 and 2007. The illustration shows an icon of Christ Pantocrator by Andreas Ritzos in the Monastery of Toplou in Crete

Saturday, 17 November 2007

Advent: a time of waiting

+ May I speak to you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen

One night last week, we were driving through Dundrum village, and I commented on the Christmas lights and decorations. I thought they were tasteful but a little early. After all, we haven’t yet moved into the Season of Advent.

It was naïve of me. Already, the Christmas shopping brochures have gone out, even from our mission and development agencies and from the charities; the jingles are being broadcast with increasing frequency; even the travel agencies appear to be booked out for most of the post-Christmas skiing packages.

It seems that once the clocks go back, we start looking forward to Christmas.

But without Advent, and the preparation for Advent, without a proper period of waiting and watching in the Church for Christmas, then our images of Christmas, our ideas of what it’s all about, our expectations of what we should hear as being at the heart of the Christmas message, will lack fullness and promise.

Advent is a time to prepare for the coming of Christ, but not only as a little baby. If Christ remains merely an object of sentimentality in the Christmas crib and on the Christmas cards, then he is reduced to having no more significance and being no more challenging than Santa Claus, the Snowman and the jolly Dickensian characters carolling and carousing in their top hats and frock coats.

If all we are looking forward to at Christmas is the warm glow that comes with mulled wine and mince pies, then of course Advent is just a good commercial opportunity. But if the coming of Christ is not to be relegated to a sentimental seasonal interlude, then we have to recover a true sense of Advent.

The lectionary readings for the Sundays before Advent provide us with opportunities to prepare for a meaningful Advent so that, in turn, we can prepare for a meaningful Christmas.

In our readings this morning, we are called to prepare for the coming of Christ not just as a cuddly, Christmas-card baby, but as Christ the King. And so we are being reminded that Christ comes at Christmas in three ways:

* The Christ Child who reminds us that God-in-Christ takes on our flesh: God makes us in his image and likeness, and then at the incarnation takes on our image and likeness.

* Christ who calls us to be his Disciples: Discipleship, being a Christian, is not just about taking on a label, but about living out the Gospel.

* And Christ who comes at Christmas as the Christ of the new Creation, with the fulfilment of God’s plans for all creation.

Preparing for the Coming of Christ should not be reduced to shopping for presents in the shopping centres, being caught up in the materialism and consumerism of our age. Our reading from the Prophet Isaiah this morning [Isaiah 65: 17-25] reminds us that there’s more to Christmas than all the shopping experiences a Dundrum Town Centre can offer.

That second coming of Christ brings the promise of a new earth, a new Jerusalem. It is much, much more than the promise of yet another new pair of socks or a new golf accessory can offer me. That vision of health and wholeness and long-life is in sharp contrast to the second-rate promises of health and long life we offer people today with our two-tier health care and hospital services.

But if we believe that the prophetic and beatific visions in our reading from Isaiah are more than mere idle dreaming, that the promise of the coming Kingdom of God is more than a clever ploy to postpone attending to the needs of humanity today, then we will wlecome the wake-up call issued by the Apostle Paul in our Epistle reading [II Thessalonians 3: 6-13].

Being a Christian, being a disciple, being one who looks forward to the coming of Christ as King, means we cannot sit back and be comfortable about our Church membership and our faith. When the Apostle Paul upbraids those who are content with a passive faith, he compares them with lazy people who are happy to eat other people’s bread and spend other people’s money.

The faith we have today came to us through the hard work, the labours and the endeavours of the saints of the past. This church, Saint John the Evangelist, was built over a century and a half ago by people who had a vision for a particular witness within the Anglican tradition. Moving on into the future with hope, and with relevance, may mean not just preserving what we have inherited but also discovering its fresh application and relevance to society’s needs today, even tomorrow.

In the midst of the crass commercialism of today – when patients in hospitals are reduced to being consumers, and when choice means offering you two or three ways of spending your money rather than asking about your needs and your values – then a rediscovery of the values packed into the call to worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness offers new hope in exploring how we can give people a taste of the promises of the coming of the Kingdom of God.

Our Gospel reading [Luke 21: 5-19] this morning may sound frightening at first. With all its talk of being led astray, of wars and insurrections, of earthquakes, famines and plagues, trials and persecutions, it sounds gloomy on first reading. But has this not been the way of the world throughout the ages? Is this not the story of the church throughout the generations? There have been divisions in the past, there will be divisions in the future. Not only is the present crisis in Anglicanism not a new experience for the whole Church, it is not new even within the Anglican Communion.

Some bishops are saying they will not go to the next Lambeth Conference unless there is complete agreement by all the bishops beforehand. On that basis, there would never have been a council of the Church in the past. Peter and Paul disagreed thoroughly at the Council of Jerusalem. If there had been no disagreement among the bishops of the early church, there would have been no need for the Councils of Nicaea and Constantinople, and today we would have no creeds.

When there are disagreements in the Church, we must disover the space that allows the Holy Spirit in to lead us. Then those disagreements can turn to creative tension ... and creative tension in turn can open us to new understandings of our calling and our discipleship and provide new insights into the kingdom of God.

No-one said that being a member of the Church was going to be easy and cheap. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s great work, in the midst of times of trail and tribulation, was not Oh for an easy life of Discipleship, but The Cost of Discipleship. Jesus tells his disciples in our Gospel reading this morning that in the future they may find the going is rough and the going is tough. But despite rejection and hatred, he promises, they will find words and wisdom and will find the endurance that leads to souls being saved, to more people responding to the call to discipleship.

The Church may face divisions and disputes throughout the ages. Some of them may be petty and some of them may be over-powering. But we have the promise of wisdom – the gift of the Holy Spirit. An uncertain future is not a comfortable message at Advent. But it is a reminder that we should not be too worried about our own immediate future but should always keep our minds fixed on the coming of Christ and the coming of his kingdom. If we do that, then the Church can be a sign, a symbol, a sacrament, of the coming Kingdom, a taste of the heavenly banquet.

And I’d rather have that Advent vision any evening than all the lights and all the baubles in the weeks before Christmas. And so, keep heart, keep faith, keep the vision – for Christ has better plans for us than we can ever know.

And now may all our thoughts words and deed be to the glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

This semon was preached at the Sung Eucharist in the Church of Saint John the Evangelist, Sandymount, Dublin, on Sunday 18 November 2007.

Sunday, 11 November 2007

Sermon for Remembrance Day, 2007

Luke 20: 27-38

+ In the name of the Father and of the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen

Some years ago, back in the early 1990s, Barbara and I with our two sons, Jamie and Joe, were visiting what was then known in a politically incorrect way as a maiden aunt. Margaret lived alone in my grandmother’s house in Terenure, her widowed half-sister having died over two decades earlier.

Over the years, my Aunt Margaret had been very generous in sharing stories about the Comerford family, who we were, where we had lived, what we had done over the generations.

There was great excitement among two young boys as she solemnly handed over a sword, a family heirloom dating back to 1798. And then she quietly took out an old box of photographs, going through them one-by-one as she made sure we had photographs of my uncles and aunts, my grandparents, two of my great-grandfathers, and even one of my great-great-grandfather … the man who owned that sword in 1798.

The solemnity of that occasion cannot be under-estimated. She knew she was growing old, and that she was going to die without children to whom she could hand on the family memorabilia, the family traditions, the family stories, the family memories. She was handing them on to her nephew and his children, to the next generation and to the generation after.

As she went through those old, fading sepia photographs carefully, one-by-one, one photograph seemed to very precious as she withdrew it from the pack and turned it upside-down, out of vieew, away from our inquisitive, inquiring eyes.

It was indelicate, insensitive, of me to ask to see it. She left it turned down. “No-one you would know,” she said dismissively, and she went on trying to retrieve some more photographs, but perhaps a little more furtively now.

That one mysterious photograph remained on its own, turned face-down. When she stood up from the table and left the room briefly, we wondered whether she really wanted us to see that one, single photograph, without embarrassing her with any questions she was going to find difficult to deal with.

Yes, she was giving us that time. We turned it over slowly and respectfully, and there was a photograph of a dashing, handsome young man in his uniform. We turned it back over. We didn’t ask any more questions, and she never had another opportunity to provide any answers.

We can only imagine. We can only imagine her as a young woman who had many hopes, and many dreams; many hopes and many dreams that were shattered by the awful turn of events during World War II.

Perhaps the memories were bitter-sweet, too difficult to speak of. Perhaps she was thinking as she handed over the photographs and the sword that had the course of events been slightly different, she might instead have been handing over the sword and those photographs, along with the traditions and the memories, to her own sons or grandsons.

Perhaps her memory had been triggered, and she had recalled her own father coming back home from Thessaloniki in the middle of World War I, physically weary and mentally shattered by the evacuations from Suvla Bay and Gallipoli, the battles in northern Greece and southern Serbia, and what would eventually prove to be a deadly bout of malaria picked up in Thessaoliniki in the summer of 1916.

These were the hidden stories of my grandfather’s life and eventually his lonely death in hospital that were never passed on by his widow, my grandmother, or by his children, including that aunt. My father was too young at the time of my grandfather’s death to have remembered how he died.

My aunt’s stories were the hidden stories of a young Irishman who went out to battle, but whose very name is now forgotten, never been passed on. She died without ever telling us who this man was, this man who I now imagine might one day have been my uncle had he returned home.

And so my widowed grandmother, and her daughter, lived on in that house, sold eventually after Margaret’s death over 12 years ago in 1995.

What hopes had these women once had, one for her husband the other for a boyfriend? What hopes had they that were shattered by war. How did they feel as old soldiers paraded out, with their medals and poppies, and as politicians pledged: “We will remember them.”

The way to remember my grandfather would have been to provide him with proper medical care and attention. But he died a lonely death and is buried in a small country churchyard. The way to remember him might have been to see that his widow and children were well looked after. Instead, it was left to charities like the British Legion, Toc H (named after Bishop Talbot’s son) and the Earl Haig Fund to look after those shattered and broken lives.

The best way to look after him was to endeavour to abolish all wars. World War I was supposedly the war to end all wars. But look at the world today, look at the horrors in Europe in the last few decades that we have euphemistically labelled “ethnic cleansing,” look at the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan today, and we have to ask if the concept of a “war to end all wars” was just a dream that kept hope alive on the beaches of Suvla and in the trenches in France.

When I listen to General Sir Michael Jackson and some of the other generals who have been through the horrors of war, I deeply respect their commitment to ending war, their commitment to their soldiers and their soldiers’ lives, and agree with their judgment that war is the failure of diplomacy and politics.

And when diplomacy and politics fail, the victims are not just the soldiers who die on the battlefield or who return home battered and beaten, waiting to die. The victims include the widows who are left to fend and to parent on their own, the young children like my father who grow up without knowing their own fathers or having a role model when it comes to being a parent. And the victims include those whose dreams and hopes are shattered, like the young woman whose hero never comes home.

The woman in our Gospel story this morning reminds me so much of the many forgotten women who are the hidden victims of so many wars.

The Sadducees are interested in point-scoring. They typify the politics and diplomacy of failure. They come to Jesus as the great point scorers of their day. They pose great political and theological dilemmas that seek to make Jesus captive to one theological or political position of the day.

If Jesus could only answer their interesting conundrum about this woman, then they could decide where he stood politically and theologically. Is he one of us? Or is he one of them? On the one hand, if he frequents the Temple so often, he must be a Sadducee, a supporter of the priestly caste. And the political implications of that are that he supports the political status quo and accepts, however reluctantly, the Roman occupation. On the other hand, as he frequents the synagogues so often, he must be a Pharisee, one of the rabbis, who seeks a purer nation, free and undefiled by the heathen occupiers.

And they bring the sad example of a widowed, childless woman to trap him, to corner him, to box him into one or other of two sides. Is he in the blue corner? Or is he in the red corner?

What is shocking for Jesus here? He was comfortable both in the Temple and in the Synagogue. He knew the traps and snares of both the priests and the Pharisees. And if he limited the importance of his message to one or other party, how could his message be relevant not only to the whole nation, but to the whole world, to the whole created order, the cosmos? And in their efforts to trap Jesus, this sad woman’s story is posed as some sort of legalistic and theological conundrum.

But in using the woman’s story, his inquisitors are abusing this woman. Where is their compassion for her? Had anyone considered what the future looked like for a woman whose husband had died leaving her childless? Instead of having compassion for her, they were seeing her as a negotiable commodity. Without children, she was dismissed as a failure. And without children, there was the fear that the family property would pass, after her eventual death, to her side of the family. She was a threat to the financial, social and economic stability of her in-laws. Her only value was as a negotiable item. For those priests, their only concern was to make sure that the dead man’s family could hold to the dead man’s property.

No one considered that the death of husband before she ever had children deprived this woman of love, took away her hopes for the future, shattered her confidence, left her lonely and feeling forsaken. As she heard the religious leaders of the day using her case as a means of entrapment, as a little in-joke among the religious leaders of the day, would it be surprising at all, if her religious faith, her faith in God, had been shattered too?

In his answer, Jesus affirms the value of every life. Long after the memories of the dead have faded away, and their grandchildren have forgotten them, long after their names are forgotten among those to whom they might have been uncles or aunts, long after politicians and diplomats have doled out their limited dollops of compassion and have allowed old soldiers and old widows to die and fade away, they will be like angels and children of God, children of the Resurrection, and to God all of them shall be alive.

The inquisitors of Jesus in this morning’s Gospel story are caught showing no charity and no love, no understanding of hope and the need for hope. And they are exposed, therefore, as totally lacking in faith.

The test of our faith lies in how we exercise the gifts and faith, hope and love. The test for any society of its core values must be in how it respects and meets the needs, cares, for its most vulnerable members, especially needy children, and elderly people like our widows. The trumpet call at Remembrance Day must not just be about remembering the dead, but remembering the living too. Do we use those on the margins as political footballs, or perhaps even totally forget them? Or do we realise that they too need our compassion, need the fruits of our gifts of faith, and of hope, and of love? For by our actions we will show whether or not we believe in God who is the God of the living, and who sees us all as children of the Resurrection.

+ And now may all praise, honour and glory be to that eternal God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

This semon was preached in Whitechurch Parish, Rathfarnham, Co Dublin, on Remebrance Day, Sunday 11 November 2007.

Saturday, 10 November 2007

Why old soldiers must never fade away on Remembrance Day

Stephen Comerford and Bridget Lynders on their wedding day in Donabate on 7 February 1905.

Why old soldiers must never fade away on Remembrance Day

By Patrick Comerford

A BOY who grows up without knowing his grandfather has a sense of loss or that something is missing. I never knew either of my grandfathers, nor did I have any Comerford first cousins. Family traditions were generously handed on by a widowed and a maiden aunt, two half-sisters who lived in my grandmother’s house in Terenure. But I was an adult long before I saw a photograph of my grandfather, Stephen Edward Comerford. He died shortly after my father’s second birthday, and so even my father was unable to tell me what his father looked like. I never knew what he looked like, what his political views and values were, who his friends were, or whether he had any sporting interests. I could never answer that very Irish question: “Where was he in 1916?”

I knew all about the Comerford family story, how we had come from a village of a similar name village in England to Ireland and remained in the south-east for centuries. I knew the houses and homes they had lived in generation after generation. I knew of Cromwellian confiscations and the 1798 Rising. I knew of farmers and shopkeepers, mayors and mapmakers, bishops and lawyers, painters priests, poets and plasterers – stories shared by many families who had lived in the Kilkenny, Wexford, Carlow and Waterford area for generations. But those stories never compensated for not knowing the everyday details of my grandfather’s life. I set out to find him: where he was born, where he lived and worked, even where he was in 1916 – and the tragic story of his lonely death.

When he died on 21 January 1921, Grandfather Stephen was living in Rathmines, but he was buried in Saint Catherine’s, the old Church of Ireland churchyard in Portrane in north Co Dublin. His gravestone says he was 49, and I searched for a birth certificate between 1870 and 1872. Both his given age at death and the spelling of his surname at birth complicated the search. Eventually, I found the birth certificate for Stephen Edward Commerford, who was born on 28 December 1867. His father, James Comerford, a Victorian-era stuccodore from Bunclody (Newtownbarry), Co Wexford, moved from Wexford to Dublin to work on the new churches built by Edward Pugin and George Ashlin.

With the rapid growth of suburban housing in Dublin, James and his family prospered, working on houses built in Rathmines and Ranelagh by builders and developers such as Plunkett and Carson.

James Comerford was radical in his politics – his own father had taken part in the 1798 Rising, and James and other family members turned the plasterers’ guild into a trade union. He remained an active trade unionist into old age, serving as chair of the union and using this position to bring family members from Wexford to work in Dublin.

Insights from union records

Trade union records provide an insight into Stephen’s life as a stucco plasterer. In 1884, at the age of 16, Grandfather Stephen was apprenticed to his father“to learn his Art” for seven years. When times were good, he worked on Ashlin’s churches, on Ashlin’s hospital in Portrane, and on the friezes on the Sunlight Building and the Irish House in Dublin. When times were not so good, he worked on the interiors of suburban and rural houses. Throughout those years, he was an active trade unionist. In 1893, he was a founding member of the Regular Stucco Plasterers’ Trade Union, and was a union council member for many years. As branch secretary, he supported a Parnell commemoration in 1899, and an Irish-language demonstration in 1902. In 1903, the union became the Operative Plasterers’ Trade Society.

The union records include his travelling expenses on the Harcourt Street line from Beechwood Avenue to union meetings. Those records, census returns, Thom’s Directory, his children’s birth certificates, and other family details, made it easy to track the different houses Stephen lived in. during his working life. He was living at 2 Mountpleasant Villas, Ranelagh, when he married his first wife, Anne Cullen of 11 Merrion Square, in 1899. They moved to 11 Upper Beechwood Avenue, where they looked after his ailing father until James died there in 1902 at the age of 85. There Anne had three children, Edmond Joseph, Mary (May), and Arthur James. But tragedy soon hit the family: 24 days after Arthur’s birth, Anne died at 11 Upper Beechwood Avenue in 1903 of “septicaemia 9 days peritonitis certified.” She was only 32.

Stephen was a young widower with three children under the age of three, commuting between Ranelagh and Portrane. In Portrane he stayed with the Lynders family, and there he met my grandmother, his second wife. Less than 15 months after Anne’s death, Bridget Lynders and Stephen Comerford were married in Donabate in 1905. That summer, tragedy struck again when Stephen’s eldest son, four-year-old Edmond, died of meningitis in Clonskeagh Hospital.

After Edmond’s death, Stephen and Bridget moved from Beechwood Avenue and lived at 2 Mountpleasant Villas, 102 South Lotts Road, Ringsend, and 2 Old Mountpleasant (1909-1913). That house stood opposite Saint Columba’s, the former “tin church” in Ranelagh, and is now part of ‘The Hill’ public house.

By 1913, they were living at 7 Swanville Place, Rathmines, and were still there when Stephen died in 1921. They had four children: Patrick (1907), Robert (1909), Margaret (1912), and my father, Stephen Edward (1918). As children, they were well-sp-out. Although there was a gap after 1913, my father’s birth-date allowed me to think that Grandfather Stephen was at home in Rathmines during World War I when anyone asked: “Where was your grandfather in 1916?”

An intriguing gap

But I had some lingering doubts about this gap. Later respectability ruled out prison, and a later child ruled out an affair with another woman. And yet his early death and family silence left me without clues for 1913-1918, a short span but crucial period.

Other families have fascinating stories from that time. My wife Barbara had two grandfathers who were on opposing sides in 1916: Joseph Doyle, a sergeant in the Irish Citizens’ Army, was interned in Frongoch after the Rising; Patrick Culley was decorated for his part in the trenches in France with the Royal Army Medical Corps. Recently, when Barbara’s uncle was home from London, I tried to provide him with a fuller picture of Patrick Culley’s war-time role. During an idle moment, as I searched for his medal records, I keyed in my grandfather’s name. The missing gap was about to be filled.

Stephen Comerford enlisted as a private in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers – “the Toffs and the Toughs” – on 14 July 1915 as a private, regimental number 9062. His “theatre of war” was the Balkans, and he was discharged on 3 May 1916, only three days after the Easter Rising ended in Dublin. But his discharge was not related to to events in Ireland or any political conflict, for when the war was over he was decorated with three medals: the Victory Medal, the British Medal and the 1914-1915 Star.

The disaster at Gallipoli

The Royal Dublin Fusiliers arrived on the Greek island of Lemnos in late July, and were sent to Gallipoli on 6-7 August. But the landing of 2,500 men at Suvla Bay was disorganised and incompetent. General Sir Frederick Stopford, from Courtown, Co Wexford, stayed on board his ship, while General Sir Bryan Mahon kept his distance on the island of Imbros. Chocolate Hill was captured on 7-8 August, but at a heavy cost. They tried to capture Scimitar Hill, but were forced to withdraw following heavy fighting. By the time Suvla Bay was fully evacuated, 2,000 men had been killed or died of their wounds in a disastrous, ill-planned and unsuccessful escapade.

The survivors were evacuated to Thessaloniki in October as part of an allied force requested by the Greek Prime Minister, Eleftherios Venizelos, to support Serbia against invading Bulgarians, Germans and Austrians. But the pro-German King Constantine wanted Greece to remain neutral, and Venizelos resigned on 7 October. The Irish soldiers relieved a French division at Lake Dorian, and took part in the Battle of Kotsurino on 6-8 December 1915, but were forced to retreat with the allied forces back into Greece.

That winter in Greece was severe, and more than 1,600 men of all ranks were evacuated, suffering from frostbite and other ailments. Those who remained in Thessaloniki continued to suffer casualties from disease, dysentery, malaria and frostbite. In the soaring summer’s heat of 1916, many Irish soldiers came down with malaria and were evacuated through Thessaloniki.

Stephen Comerford was discharged on 3 May 1916 and was sent back to Dublin. Malaria was life-threatening, but in Stephen Comerford’s case it was life-saving … for a short time at least.

At the capture of Yenikoi in October 1916, the fusiliers suffered heavy casualties, including “friendly fire” from their own artillery. In 1917 they were moved out of Thessaoloniki. Some were sent to Egypt to take part in the Palestine Campaign, including the Third Battle of Gaza and the capture of Jerusalem. Others were moved to France, where they fought at Ypres and in the trenches, continuing to suffer devastating losses untilb the war ended on 11 November 1918. Just over a month later, Stephen Comerford’s youngest child, my father Stephen Edward Comerford, was born in Rathmines on 14 December 1918.

A soldier’s untimely death

After returning home, my grandfather continued to suffer from malaria. No more children were born and he died alone in hospital on 21 January 1921 at the age of 53. He had survived Gallipoli, only to succumb to malaria in Thessaloniki. Malaria had saved his life – he might otherwise have died in the Balkans, the Middle East or the trenches in France. Malaria eventually killed him, but not before my father was born.

My father – the child born at the end of World War I – was the only one of seven children to have children himself. Malaria not only saved my grandfather’s life, but it ensured that he had grandchildren and that the family line continued. My grandmother continued to live in Rathmines until 1935, when she moved to Ashdale Park, Terenure.

When she died in 1948, she too was buried in Portrane, close to other members of the Lynders family.

In the political climate of post-independence Ireland, stories like my grandfather’s were forgotten. His lonely hospital death was filled with sadness, typifying how those soldiers were easily forgotten by those who sent them to war. His only reward was three medals.

Over the past three decades, I have worked regularly and had lengthy holidays throughout Greece and Turkey. But whenever I was in Thessaloniki or Turkey, I never realised that my father might never have been born and I might never have been born had my grandfather not survived in Gallipoli or Serbia, contracted malaria in Greece and been sent home in 1916. And so this pacifist is happy to wear a poppy on Remembrance Day, if only to say that men like my grandfather should never have been neglected, and their story should never be forgotten.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation at the Church of Ireland Theological College, Dublin. This essay was first published in November 2007 in the Church Review (Diocese of Dublin and Glendalough) and the Diocesan Magazine (Diocese of Cashel and Ossory).

My pilgrimage to a mediaeval hospital in the ‘city of philosophers’

Saint John’s, John Street, Lichfield

Patrick Comerford

The China Forum of CTBI (Churches Together in Britain and Ireland) met recently in Birmingham. Bourneville and Selly Oak are pleasant, leafy suburbs that owe their planning and prosperity to the Cadbury family and the wealth of the chocolate industry. Although few people think of visiting Birmingham as tourists, the city has many associations with JR Tolkien and his Lord of the Rings cycle, and in between the motorway junctions, high-rise shopping centres and office blocks, Saint Martin’s in the Bull Ring is a spiritual oasis.

The China Forum met at Woodbrooke, the Quaker study centre that was once the home of the Cadbury family, and Gandhi was their guest there in 1931. After the forum, I took the train from Selly Oak to Lichfield, a small, charming cathedral city north of Birmingham. I last stayed there over 35 years ago, and my return was both a quiet personal retreat and a pilgrimage of thanks.

I first visited Lichfield as an 18-year-old in 1970, researching supposed family connections with the area. The Comberford family from the nearby village of Comberford gave its name to the Comberford Chapel in the North Transept of Saint Editha’s Church in Tamworth. In the 15th century, John Comberford left a bequest to the Franciscan Friary in John Street, Lichfield. In the 16th century, Canon Henry Comberford was dismissed as Precentor of Lichfield Cathedral when the bailiffs accused him of “lewd preaching and misdemeanour.” In the 17th century, Colonel William Comberford took part in the first of three sieges of Lichfield at the height of the English Civil War. And in the 18th century, Joseph Comerford of Clonmel erected a plaque in the Comberford Chapel, claiming kinship between the Comerford family in Ireland and the Comberford family of Lichfield and Tamworth.

A light-filled evening

Over a period of three or four years in the early 1970s, I was a regular visitor to Lichfield, staying in Birmingham Road, just 10 minutes walk from the city centre. My first articles as a freelance journalist were published in three local newspapers, the Lichfield Mercury, the Tamworth Herald and the Rugeley Mercury. Early one summer afternoon in 1971, having spent a few days at Wilderhope Manor in Shropshire, I was back in Lichfield for the weekend. By then, I was thinking of moving to Lichfield and working there. That evening, by chance or by accident, as I strolled into the centre, I found myself outside Saint John’s Hospital, on the corner of Birmingham Road and Saint John’s Street.

Despite its name, Saint John’s is a mediaeval almshouse, not a medical centre. Its tall Elizabethan chimney stacks are one of the best-loved landmarks in Lichfield. Behind them, a courtyard leads to the almshouse and Saint John’s Chapel. My curious mind led me in, I lifted the latch on the church door, and little did I realise what would happen and how my life would change for ever.

At 19, I had little interest in religious matters, and I was entering Saint John’s with an inquisitive mind, out of historical and architectural interest. Inside, the church at first appeared quaint and dark. But as I sat down, I felt slightly uneasy. Then, for the first time in my life, I felt surrounded and filled by the light and love of God. It is a feeling that has remained constant and that has stayed with me since every day of my life.

How could I respond to this new, warm and glowing sensation? This was unlike any previous emotion or sensation. I stood at the eagle lectern and turned the pages of the open Bible. If I decided to do nothing, I would still know for the rest of my life that God loves me, and that the light of God is there to light up my whole being and existence.

A lifestyle challenge

I headed out and down Saint John’s Street, up Beacon Street and into Saint Chad’s Cathedral. There I slipped into the chapter stalls, in time for choral evensong. Never before had public worship or a church service been so meaningful. I was slightly disconcerted when a residentiary canon asked whether I had come to evensong because I was considering ordination. I had no idea of what he was suggesting, and no idea of what the future held for me.

In the weeks and months that followed, I had to think about responding to this new, life-changing experience. I continued to write for the Lichfield Mercury and the other local newspapers, and also wrote for the Kilkenny People. But within a year I had found a full-time job with the Wexford People. My lifestyle and my values were changing gradually. During that process, I was impressed by the actions of the Anglican Dean of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Johannesburg, as he resisted apartheid and gave sanctuary and refuge to the victims of police brutality.

Over the years, my response to that first experience of Christ in my life in Saint John’s was one of adventurous discipleship. I became a vegetarian and a pacifist by choice, and my political values were challenged radically. I became involved in campaigns and causes, including Amnesty International, the Anti-Apartheid Movement, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and Christian Aid. For some years I was an active Quaker. But active discipleship also needs reflection. I returned to third-level education, studied theology, and eventually – after a long and interesting pilgrimage – found myself back within Anglicanism and considering ordination.

Return to Lichfield

It is almost 36 years since that beautiful, sunny, light-filled afternoon. Eventually I stopped writing for the Lichfield Mercury and later lost contact with the friends I had in the area in my late teens and early 20s. Now, at last, it was time to write for the first time about that first real experience of God coming into my life. And so, for the first time after 33 or 34 years, I returned to Lichfield this year, not to renew old contacts, but on a pilgrimage and for a retreat.

Stepping into Saint John’s once again for the first time in over three decades, the small pews, the tiled floor, and the warm feeling were still there. I sat down and prayed, and humbly thanked God for a life that has since been filled with love and light, and blessed with many opportunities. Yes, some things had changed. There was no Bible on the Eagle Lectern, and the East Window was aglow with a new stained glass window designed by John Piper, “The Christ in Glory.”

After that, it was only natural to return to Saint Chad’s Cathedral. I was sad to hear that on Wednesdays there is normally no Choral Evensong in the cathedral. But this week was exceptional … there was a visiting choir from Abbot’s Bromley School for Girls. Once again I slipped into the chapter stalls, and was fed spiritually by one of the riches we should treasure in Anglican liturgical tradition. I returned again to Saint John’s that evening for Compline and a Lenten talk, and in the morning for the Eucharist, celebrated by the Master of Saint John’s, the Revd Canon Roger Williams.

Lichfield traces its history back to the Romans. When they left in the fifth century, a Celtic settlement may have continued in the area. In 669, Saint Chad moved his bishopric to Lichfield. His first church probably stood on the site of the present cathedral. Although Chad was only bishop for three years, he converted many, and after his death his shrine attracted pilgrims in great numbers.

In the 12th century, Bishop Roger de Clinton rebuilt the Saxon cathedral and laid out ladder-shaped street pattern that survives to this day. Under Queen Mary’s charter, Lichfield became a county in its own right in 1533. The cathedral suffered badly during the English Civil War, and the central spire collapsed under bombardment from Parliamentarian forces in 1646. Bishop John Hacket began rebuilding the cathedral and the close in 1662. The city prospered again and became a thriving coaching city on the main route from London to the north-west of England and Ireland. By the 18th century, Daniel Defoe described Lichfield as the best town for “good conversation and good company.” By then, Lichfield was a centre of great intellectual activity and home to Samuel Johnson, David Garrick, Erasmus Darwin and Anna Seward.

Johnson said Lichfield was “a city of philosophers” and in 1776, he took Boswell there to show him “genuine civilised life in an English provincial town.” Lichfield retains its civilised life, with many charming buildings, including the house where Johnson was born, and the Cathedral Close. The three spires of Saint Chad’s Cathedral, known affectionately as “the Ladies of the Vale,” are unique among mediaeval cathedrals. The octagonal Chapter House, dating from 1249, has an unusual medieval pedilavium, where feet were washed on Maundy Thursday, and houses the eighth-century illuminated Lichfield Gospels.

In the early 19th century, the cathedral acquired two other treasures: Sir Brooke Boothby bought the magnificent Flemish stained glass from Herckenrode Abbey which was placed in the windows of the Lady Chapel; and Francis Chantrey sculpted “The Sleeping Children,” a monument to two young sisters who died in 1812.

Saving a priory

The story of Saint John’s Hospital begins in 1129 when Roger de Clinton became Bishop of Lichfield. He rebuilt the cathedral and built a defensive ditch and gates, or barrs, around the southern part of the city. Pilgrims to the shrine of Saint Chad who arrived at the city gates after the curfew were not allowed to enter and had no place to shelter. The bishop built a priory outside Culstubbe Gate, completed in 1135. Augustinian canons were installed to provide hospitality for pilgrims, and so began the “Hospital of Saint John Baptist Without the Barrs of the City of Lichfield.”

By 1458, Saint John’s no longer had a prior, and was a benefice held by ordinary diocesan priests. In 1495, Bishop William Smith re-founded Saint John’s as a hospital for aged men and as a free grammar school. At the dissolution of the monasteries, Bishop Smith’s wise changes saved, Saint John’s, which remained untouched, unlike the neighbouring Friary.

Since the Tractarian revival, Saint John’s Chapel has stood within the Catholic tradition of Anglicanism. Recent improvements include new flats, a common room, and the completion of the quadrangle. John Piper’s stunning East Window was installed in 1984.

This ancient chapel, with its daily and weekly round of services, attracts a regular and substantial congregation of both residents and visitors. Returning to Lichfield for my own quiet retreat and to Saint John’s for my pilgrimage was an opportunity to thank God for a life-changing moment that has left me ever since with that constant feeling of his love and light.

Revd Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation at the Church of Theological College. This article first appeared in the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough, May 2007) and the Diocesan Magazine (Cashel and Ossory) in May 2007

Saturday, 3 November 2007

Guide to a golden age

Guide to a golden age

Patrick Comerford

Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire
By Judith Herrin
Penguin/Allen Lane, 392 pp. £20

WHEN WB Yeats visited Ravenna in 1907, he was taken aback by the beauty of the Byzantine mosaics. More than two decades passed before he published Sailing to Byzantium, in 1928:

That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees
– Those dying generations – at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

For Yeats, the holy city of Byzantium – especially the Byzantium of Justinian – represented a golden age that produced lasting cultural monuments: the Justinian Code, which provided the basis of European law, and so many works of art and architecture, especially Aghia Sophia, the Church of Holy Wisdom, which was the model for his “Monuments of unageing intellect” and “magnificence”.

Yeats’s image of Byzantium as the height of European civilisation and culture is in sharp contrast to the modern use of the word “Byzantine” to denigrate corrupt, opaque and hypocritical politics. But without Byzantium, Western Europe might never have had a Renaissance or a Reformation. And it is this common misunderstanding of Byzantium and misuse of the word Byzantine that first inspired Judith Herrin to write her latest, masterful account of life in the great city.

Judith Herrin stands alongside John Julius Norwich and the late Steven Runciman as one of the finest Byzantine scholars of our day. Like Yeats, she was first enthralled by Byzantium during a visit to Ravenna. As a teenager on holidays with her mother she was smitten by the mosaic portraits of the Emperor Justinian and his wife, the Empress Theodosia. She was left with lasting questions of why these portraits were in San Vitale when the imperial couple had never visited Ravenna. The pursuit of an explanation was the beginning of a quest that established her lasting reputation as a Byzantine scholar with the publication of Women in Purple, a study of Irene and Theodora, the two female rulers who restored the veneration of icons in the eighth and ninth centuries.

Those religious and feminist perspectives inform Herrin's approach to Byzantium in her latest book. She has sailed not only to Byzantium (Constantinople or Istanbul) but travelled to Athens, Thessaloniki, throughout central Greece and the Peloponnese to Sparta and Mystras, to the islands of Crete, Kythera and Cyprus, to Ravenna and Venice, and she has climbed Mount Sinai in search of the legacy of Byzantium. As a woman, of course, she was unable to visit the very heartland of Byzantium as it remains today – the holy mountain of Mount Athos – and we might have benefited from her visiting Alexandria, the Byzantium of Cavafy. But in neither instance has her comprehensiveness been diminished or her enthusiasm dulled, and her account of Mount Athos, though succinct, is inviting.

Rather than providing one continuous narrative account of the history of an empire, Herrin offers a concise summary of this story in her first chapter, and confines the long lists of emperors to an appendix, allowing her to make the rest of her book accessible as she explores and examines Byzantium thematically. Her special emphases are the religious and the feminine, which enrich her painting of a magnificent panorama of the empire that lasted for over a thousand years, an empire that remains Europe's most stable and longest-lasting political society.

IN HER GRAND sweep, Herrin introduces some of the enchanting legacies of Byzantium. The architectural legacy includes the dome from the great church of Aghia Sophia; the artistic legacy was secured with the victories of Irene and Theodora over the iconoclasts. Naturally, there is a full chapter on Ravenna and its mosaics, her “first and most exciting introduction to Byzantine art”. There is a charming chapter on the introduction of silk production from China through Byzantium to Europe. And there is a beguiling chapter in which she entertains us with the story of how the fork was invented and popularised. From the moment sometime in 1004 or 1005 when the Byzantine aristocrat Maria Argryopoulania first used a dainty, two-pronged golden fork in Venice, western dining habits were changed for ever.

The plates, although difficult at times to follow in sequence with the text, include many of her own photographs. There is a weak reliance on Byzantine collections in London and Dumbarton Oaks, missing the rich material available in Greece at the Benaki Museum, the Byzantine Museum or from the collection from Mount Athos displayed in 1997 when Thessaloniki was the European City of Culture.

This is the story of Bulgar-slayers and eunuchs at the court, the narrative of the missionary brothers Cyril and Methodius, the account of the Great Schism and Europe’s shameful plunder of Byzantium during the fourth crusade in 1204, the explanation of why Western Europe and Eastern Europe have been separate and yet inseparable since Constantine the Great first divided his empire. Throughout, Herrin is attentive to detail but is never pedantic and never irrelevant. She challenges prejudices from the past and about the present, and allows Byzantium to ask the questions about the place of Istanbul and Turkey in today’s Europe.

She delightfully counters the modern stereotype of a city of tyrants, despots, cowards, eunuchs and effeminates, obsessed with hollow rituals and perpetuating a complex and incomprehensible bureaucracy. Instead, she restores Byzantium as a creative and surprising empire that gave the world not only an imperial system of government but gave us government built upon a trained civil service, a transparent tax system and an enduring legal code. It preserved classical learning and Greek philosophy. It gave us the richness of the liturgy and spirituality enshrined in today's Orthodox Church. It gave us the Creeds, the bezant and the fork, it introduced us to both silk and caviar, which was once a poor people’s food. And without all these, without the ability of Byzantium to stand against the march of Islam for the best part of seven centuries, what would Europe be today?

The photograph shows a modern icon of Christ in a monastery on the island of Corfu. The Byzantine tradition of iconography continues to this day in Greek churches. Photograph (c) Patrick Comerford

Canon Patrick Comerford is director of Spiritual Formation at the Church of Ireland Theological College. He is a contributor to the forthcoming volume, The Lure of Greece (edited by JV Luce, C Morris, C Souyoudzoglou-Haywood).

This review was first published in The Irish Times on 3 November 2007.