Friday, 25 April 2008

Saint Mark’s Day: a reflection

Saint Mark’s Basilica, Venice: part of the glory and splendour of the Serene Republic (Photograph © Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Acts 15: 35-41; Ephesians 4: 7-16; Psalm: 119: 9-16; Mark 13: 5-13.

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

We are still in the Easter season, and Saint Mark’s Gospel offers us one of the most challenging readings on the Resurrection. Yet, consistently, students at the Church of Ireland Theological College have greatly enjoyed and been enriched by the way Dr Wilfrid Harrington has worked through Saint Mark’s Gospel.

So, perhaps it is important that we are commemorating Saint Mark this morning.

Saint Mark the Evangelist (Greek, Μάρκος) is traditionally said to have been a companion of the Apostle Peter. He accompanied the Apostle Paul and Saint Barnabas on Saint Paul’s first journey. After a sharp dispute, Barnabas separated from Paul, taking Mark to Cyprus (Acts 15: 35-41). It was, perhaps, this separation that led eventually to the writing of the Gospel according to Saint Mark.

Later Paul calls upon the services of Mark, the kinsman of Barnabas, and Mark is named as Paul’s fellow worker. Among the four evangelists, Saint Mark’s symbol is the lion.

Saint Mark is also revered as the founder of the See of Alexandria, the seat of both the Coptic Pope and the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria. His successors have included many of the great fathers of the church, including Saint Athansius. I suppose, in some ways, we could call him the founder of Christianity in Africa. The Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria has survived through generations of schism and persecution, while the Greek Orthodox Church of Alexandria is said to be the fastest growing missionary Church in Africa.

In the year 828, what was believed to be the body of Saint Mark was stolen from the Patriarchal Church in Alexandria by two Venetian merchants and was taken in a pork barrel to Venice, where Saint Mark’s Basilica was to house the relics and Saint Mark was proclaimed the patron saint of the Serene Republic.

Although Coptic Christians say they managed to hold on to the head of Saint Mark, which is kept in Saint Mark’s Patriarchal Cathedral in Alexandria, a mosaic on the façade of the basilica shows the sailors covering the body with layers of pork, knowing Muslims would not touch pork and so their theft would go undetected.

When Saint Mark’s Basilica was being rebuilt in Venice in 1063, they could not find the stolen body. However, according to tradition, over a generation later, in 1094, the saint himself revealed the location of his body by sticking his arm out through a pillar. The newfound body was then placed in a new sarcophagus in the basilica. In 1968, Pope Cyril VI of Alexandria sent an official delegation to Rome to receive a relic of Saint Mark from Pope Paul VI.

But the missing bodies of saints and where they are kept are far less important than the lessons we can learn from the lives of saints such as Mark.

Although Mark was not an apostle, one of the 12, he is an important figure in terms of passing on the apostolic faith.

There are more Christians today in Egypt than there are in Ireland. Egypt’s 7 million Christians are a witness to how Christian faith can survive flourish through all the difficulties of history. The survival of the Coptic Orthodox Church and the missionary successes of the Church of Alexandria should inspire and give hope to the whole Church.

Mark bridges the gap between Eastern and Western Christianity too. Venetians wanted his body as much as Romans wanted to monopolise the Apostle Peter. But Mark is an important figure in terms of understanding that our Christian faith must not to be limited to its European cultural expressions. African expressions of Christianity are not exotic or different, they are authentic and apostolic.

I have been to both Saint Mark’s Basilica in Venice and to Saint Mark’s Patriarchal Cathedral in Alexandria. I have gazed in wonder at both those mosaics in Venice, and at the empty place kept vacant and waiting in Alexandria for the return of their saint. But as I looked at them I also recalled that empty tomb that is described at the end of Saint Mark’s Gospel. The living body is more important than the dead body.

This morning in our Holy Communion, as we remember Saint Mark, may we be strengthened in our faith in the Risen Christ, and rejoice in the Body of Christ, Amen.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological College. This reflection was shared at the College Eucharist on Saint Mark’s Day, 25 April 2008.

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

A reply to Dean MacCarthy’s views on Islam

Peaceful co-existence: a mosque and a church side-by-side in the Nile Delta in Egypt (Photograph © Patrick Comerford)

The Letters to the Editor page of The Irish Times today (23 April 2008) includes this letter:


Dean Robert MacCarthy’s unfortunate turn of phrase is in danger of being interpreted as describing other faiths, including Islam and Hinduism as “cults.” Whatever his personal views may be, the official position of the Church of Ireland has been set out in the Guidelines for Interfaith Events & Dialogue, published by the Bishops of the Church of Ireland and prepared by the Committee for Christian Unity. This publication is the first of its kind by a member-church of the Anglican Communion.

These guidelines were launched recently by the Minister for Integration, Mr Conor Lenihan, and are available online at: They say that ,in “relating to people of other faiths, it is important to create and develop relationships and understanding between people as individual and communities.”

They call on Church of Ireland clergy and people to “take positive and proactive steps in establishing good neighbourly relationships and to foster an accurate understanding of what other people believe.”

They emphasise the significance and importance of “respect, openness and honesty.”

If the dean has implied anything other than “respect, openness and honesty,” then perhaps I should assure Muslims, Hindus and other people of faith of the determination of the Interfaith Working Group of the Church of Ireland to foster the best of relationships and understanding. - Yours, etc,

(Rev Canon) Patrick Comerford,
Interfaith Working Group,
Church of Ireland,
Dublin 14

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Celebrating Easter in Greece

Patrick Comerford

This week my friends in Greece are preparing for the most important holiday in the Greek calendar. The celebration of Orthodox Easter (Pascha, Greek: Πάσχα) is unique in almost every corner of Greece. Special traditions mark Christ’s Crucifixion and Resurrection.

The unique Greek way of celebrating Holy Week and Easter began at the weekend with the Saturday of Lazarus, with children going from door to door singing the Hymn of Lazaros and collecting money and eggs.

Palm Sunday recalls Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem.

On Holy Monday, the Greek Church recalls the parable of the barren fig tree. The first days of Holy Week remind us of Christ’s last instructions with his disciples. These teachings inspire the readings and hymns during Great Compline, Matins, Hours, and the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts with Vespers.

The evening services on Holy Tuesday emphasise the need for true repentance. The Gospel reading recalls Christ’s prophecies of his second coming and the Last Judgment.

On the afternoon of Holy Wednesday, the Greek Orthodox Church administers the sacrament of Holy Unction for the bodily and spiritual health of those who are present.

Holy Thursday celebrates the Last Supper. In the evening, the Holy Passion service includes 12 Gospel readings, with Christ’s last instructions to his disciples are heard.

Friday of Holy Week, traditionally called Great and Good Friday, is a day of mourning, marking the crucifixion. The drama of the death of Christ is followed with great devotion.

Early in the morning, girls collect spring flowers for the epitaphios or bier of Christ. Vespers in the evening are followed by the procession of the bier. Mournful dirges are heard all day and culminate in the evening with the spiritually up-lifting candlelit procession of the epitaphios through the streets.

The Resurrection Liturgy takes place on Saturday evening. The most significant moment of the year comes at midnight with the ceremony of the lighting of candles.

Afterwards, people carefully take home their lighted candles with the holy light of the Resurrection. Before entering their homes they mark a cross with the smoke of the candle on top of the door, they then use the candle to light the oil candle before their icon-stand, and try to keep this light burning throughout the year.

‘Holy Fire’ from Jerusalem

At the Orthodox Patriarchate in Jerusalem on Holy Saturday, the Patriarch enters the Holy Sepulchre alone to pray. Moments later he emerges with burning tapers to proclaim that Christ has risen, and the bells ring out.

In this centuries-old annual ritual, the Patriarch miraculously receives the holy fire from the entirely darkened chamber surrounding Christ’s burial place.

The holy fire is later flown to Athens Airport, where it is received by a guard of honour and is sent out to distant parts of Greece. The flame arrives in Athens at the church of Ayioi Anargyroi in Plaka, the seat of the representative of the Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem to the Archbishop of Athens. From there, it is sent out to the churches of Attica for the midnight service.

Local customs

Throughout Greece, there is a plethora of customs and traditions associated with Easter. There is a festive atmosphere everywhere and people eat and dance often late into the night and early morning.

Many places in Greece celebrate Easter in their own way.

On the island of Patmos, the ceremony of the Washing of the Feet takes place on Holy Thursday morning. It is based on the New Testament and can be compared to corresponding Byzantine customs.

On the island of Tinos, portable Holy Sepulchres from both the Orthodox and Catholic churches are brought to the island port, where the clergy chant together and the portable Holy Sepulchre of the church of Aghios Nicolaos is brought into the sea.

In Vrodathos on the island of Chios, once the psalm commemorating the resurrection of Christ begins on Holy Saturday, fireworks light up the midnight sky.

On the island of Corfu, the body of the island’s patron, Saint Spyridon, which has not decomposed, is carried around and the island capital, and many believe that it performs miracles. On Easter Saturday, ceramic pots are thrown out of people's windows to cast away Evil.

On the island of Crete, and in many parts of Greece, a doll is made of old clothes from each house hold and burned, symbolising the burning of Judas.

In Nafpaktos in central central Greece, on the evening of Good Friday, large crowds of people accompany the epitaphios as it is carried through the town's harbour where lighted torches. There at the entrance to the fortress, torches form a large cross that lights up the harbour, creating a scene of unforgettable beauty.

In Leonidio in the Peloponnese on the night of the Resurrection, the sky is filled with hot-air balloons from each parish.

In Thrace and Macedonia young women in traditional clothing called the Lazarins go around the villages singing traditional Easter songs.

Fasting and food

Complete fasting is part of the Orthodox discipline of Holy Week. On Palm Sunday, no meat dishes are served. On Good Friday, no sweet things are eaten: instead, Greeks eat soup made with sesame-paste, lettuce or lentils with vinegar.

Following 40 days of fasting, the traditional Pascha meal in Greece is a banquet of meat, eggs and other long-forbidden animal products. Cheese, eggs, and richly scented breads play an important part on the table, but the meal is almost always centred on meat ... as this vegetarian has noticed.

On Easter Day, the celebrations begin early in the morning with the cracking of red eggs and an outdoor feast of roast lamb followed by dancing.

The Easter table reflects the culinary differences around Greece. Recipes have evolved based on the lie of the land, on what is available place by place, and on the tastes and origins of local populations.

Lamb (or goat on the islands) is the traditional Easter meat served throughout Greece, although how it’s cooked varies from region to region. Spit-roast lamb, which originated in Roumeli, is now the prevalent tradition, but many areas preserve their distinctive way of preparing the Easter dish. On many islands –including Andros, Samos, Naxos, and Rhodes – lamb is stuffed with rice and herbs and then baked in the oven.

One of the nicest Greek customs is the use of red eggs for the Easter celebration. Greeks mainly colour eggs red to signify the blood of Christ. They use hard-boiled eggs, painted red on Holy Thursday. People rap their eggs against their friends’ eggs and the owner of the last uncracked egg is said to be lucky.

The other delicacies in the Paschal feast vary from region to region. They include cheese pies, regional fresh cheeses and yogurt served with honey. The sweets include special tsoureki and of course, the koulouria , tis Lambris (Paschal cookies).

Christos Anesti! Alithos Anesti! Kalo Pascha! Kali Anastasi!

ΚΑΛΗ ΑΝΑΣΤΑΣΗ, Υγεία και κάθε Ευλογία Θεού

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological College

Friday, 18 April 2008

Icon exhibition in Christ Church Cathedral Dublin

An icon of Saint Patrick from the exhibition of Greek icons coming to Christ Church Cathedral Dublin

Patrick Comerford

The Gordon Gallery, Derry, is bringing its exhibition of contemporary Greek icons to Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, in early May. The exhibition has been organised in collaboration with the Hellenic Foundation for Culture and the Panhellenic Society of Iconographers and includes icons written by Dimitris Kolioussis and other leading iconographers in Greece.

The exhibition takes place in the crypt of Christ Church Cathedral from Tuesday 5 May to Saturday 10 May. This is a rare opportunity to see and buy icons written in the Byzantine tradition. Works like these have not been seen in Ireland since Gordon Galleries hosted an exhibition of icons written by Sister Aloysius McVeigh in Derry in 1993.

There is a sumptuous catalogue to go with this exhibition, and I was delighted to have been asked to contribute an introduction to the spirituality of icons.

Other contributors to the catalogue include Dr Margaret Mullett, Director of the Institute of Byzantine Studies, Queen’s University Belfast; Dr Lyn Rodley of the Institute of Byzantine Studies, QUB; Sister Aloysius McVeigh.

When this exhibition came to Derry in March, it was opened by Dr Victoria Solomonidis, Minister Counsellor (Cultural Affairs) at the Greek Embassy in London and Representative of the Hellenic Foundation for Culture.

The exhibition will be opened officially in the crypt in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, by the Greek Ambassador in Dublin, Mr George Alexandros Vallindas, on Tuesday 6 May and continues until Saturday 10 May from 9.45 a.m. to 4.45 p.m. each day.

For my thoughts on the exhibition in Derry visit:

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological College, Dublin

Thursday, 17 April 2008

Is there a Celtic Spirituality?

Saint Chad’s Well at Saint Chad’s Church, Lichfield. Saint Chad is an interesting link between Celtic spirituality in Ireland and the seventh century church in England (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2007)

Patrick Comerford


There is a fresh and new interest in Celtic Spirituality that is not confined to Ireland but that is a worldwide phenomenon. At an academic level it has been stimulated by the work of scholars such as the Jesuit Diarmud Ó Laoghaire, the Carmelite Peter O’Dwyer and the Redemptorist John Ó Ríordáin and writers such as the late John O’Donohue, poet and author of Anam Cara (1997) who died earlier this year. Last weekend, a group of first year students visited Durham Cathedral, including the shrine of Saint Cuthbert.

But if we are going to talk about Celtic spirituality, we should begin with a word of caution or warning: firstly, there is a lot of second-rate, romantic talk about Celtic spirituality and Celtic religion; and secondly, it is difficult to say if there is such a group of people as Celts. The term Celts comes from terms used by the Greeks and Romans to describe the people who lived in Gaul (France). But who were the Celts?

Much of the writing about Celtic spirituality is superficial, amateur, new age material, making spurious claims for the writers and against Christianity. For example:

“Perhaps it is this mixture of pagan and Christian that makes Celtic Spirituality so interesting and so accessible today. For many the established churches have become too sterile and dead, trapped in their mausoleums of stone and religious diktat. It is easier to find spiritual truth in a sacred grove than a dusty half empty church hall.”

Or what do you make of this claim:

“Celtic Spirituality … is not a religion, it is a series of beliefs and practices to help you become aware of the spiritual world around you and your place in it. Whether you find it suitable to work with Jesus, his apostles and the Celtic Saints, or Brigid, Mannán Mac Lir and the Celtic gods, it matters little. What matters is that your life is enriched; you are at peace with your inner-being and that you become aware of the magic and incredible world that surrounds us all.”

Patrick Wormald observes: “It is difficult to resist the impression that what Protestant confessionalism did for the idea of a ‘Celtic’ church until the 1960s is now being done by ‘new age’ paganism, based on notions of some sort of ‘Celtic spirituality’ allegedly distinguished by a unique ‘closeness to nature’.”

We need to approach any discussion about Celtic spirituality with both theological and cultural caution.

The Celts: who were they?

The English word Celt is modern. Romantic antiquarian interest from the 17th century on led to the term “Celt” being extended. It is first used in the modern way in 1707 in the writings of Edward Lhuyd, whose work, along with that of other late 17th century scholars, brought academic attention to the languages and history of these early inhabitants of these islands. The rise of nationalism brought Celtic revivals from the 19th century in areas where the use of Celtic languages had continued.

“Celtic” is now used to identify the languages and cultures of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, the Isle of Man and Brittany – known traditionally as the six Celtic nations. But “Celtic” is also used to describe Continental European regions with a Celtic heritage but without a Celtic language, such as northern Iberia, and to a lesser degree France.

But was there ever such a group as “Celtic” people? During the Iron Age, Celtic-speaking people lived across a wide range of lands, from the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal) to Anatolia (Asia Minor). But the origin of the people we call Celts is a subject of debate and controversy. Did they originate in southern Europe, or in what is now southern Germany and Austria? And how did they reach the remote Atlantic coast and islands of Western Europe we now know as the “Celtic fringe”?

“Celticity” generally refers to the shared cultural indicators of a group peoples, such as language, myths, artefacts and social organisation. But recent theories emphasise their shared culture and language rather than seeking any common ethnicity.

The origin of the names used since classical times for the Celtic peoples is obscure and has been controversial. Indeed, there are 19 records of the alternative term “Pictish” being used for the inhabitants of Ireland and Britain before the 18th century.

There are few written records of ancient Celtic languages and most of the evidence for personal names and place names is found in Greek and Roman authors. And the only direct archaeological evidence for Celtic-speaking peoples comes from coins and inscriptions.

The Greek and Latin words that give us the term Celt (Latin Celtus, plural Celti or Celtae; Greek Κέλτης, plural Κέλται, or Κελτός, plural Κελτοί) seem to be based on a native Celtic ethnic name. A direct clue that the different names used by Greek writers (Κελτοί or Γαλᾶται) and Latin writers (Galli) refer to speakers of the same or similar languages comes from Saint Jerome (AD 342-419), who, in his commentary on the Apostle Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians, notes the language of the Anatolian Galatians at his time.

The first literary reference to the Celtic people, as Κελτοί (Κeltoi), is by the Greek historian Hecataeus of Miletus in 517 BC. He says that the town of Massilia (Marseilles) is near the Celts and also mentions a Celtic town of Nyrex (Noreia in Austria?). Herodotus appears to locate the Keltoi either at the source of the Danube or in Iberia, but the reference is not clear.

The English Gaul(s) and Latin Gallus or Galli may derive from a Celtic ethnic or tribal name that was borrowed into Latin during Celtic expansions into Italy in the 400s BC. On the other hand, its root may be the common Celtic galno, meaning power or strength. The Greek Γαλᾶται (Galatai) seems to be based on the same root, borrowed directly from the same hypothetical Celtic source which gave us Galli (the suffix -atai is simply an ethnic name indicator). There are indications too of a Romance adaptation of the Germanic Walha- when it comes to the English word Welsh, which originates from word wælisc, the Anglo-Saxon form of walhiska-, the Germanic word for “foreign.”

There are many competing theories about the original homeland of the Celts. For some scholars, Celtic proto-language may have arisen in the Pontic-Caspian region. Strabo suggests that the Celtic heartland was in southern France. Pliny the Elder says the Celts originated in southern Portugal and Spain.

Celts settled in Thrace (southern Bulgaria and northern Greece), where they ruled for over a century, and in Anatolia (Asia Minor), where they we know them in the New Testament as the Galatians. The Galatians maintained their Celtic language for at least 700 years, if we accept the evidence from Saint Jerome.

Whatever their origins may have been, by the Roman period most of the inhabitants of the isles of Ireland and Britain were speaking Goidelic or Brythonic languages, close counterparts to Gallic languages spoken on continental Europe.

The Book of Leinster, written in the 12th century but drawing on a much earlier Irish oral tradition, states that the first Celts to arrive in Ireland were from Iberia. But we do not know what languages were spoken in Ireland and Britain before the Celts arrived.

There is little archaeological evidence in Ireland for large intrusive groups of Celtic immigrants. European Celtic influences and language may have been absorbed gradually. But did the Celts arrive in Ireland by invasion? Or did their culture and language spread gradually to other peoples already living on these islands? As one writer in The Irish Times argued recently, just because we all eat pasta and pizza, drink Chianti, holiday in Tuscany and are familiar with Versace and Gucci, doesn’t make us Italian, even in culture. Nor does it indicate there was ever an Italian invasion of Ireland. Were the Celtic languages and culture adopted as some sort of early fashion statement?

Celtic Christianity

Is there any way in which we talk about a “Celtic Christianity” with distinguishing, unique traditions, especially in spirituality, liturgies and rituals that mark it out from other traditions in the Church in the neighbouring sub-Roman world?

“Celtic Christianity,” or Insular Christianity – sometimes called the “Celtic Church” – broadly refers to the early mediaeval Christian practice that developed around the Irish Sea in the 5th and 6th centuries, among many people on these islands, including the Irish, Scots, Welsh, Cornish, Manx, Cumbrians, but excluding the Anglo-Saxons and some Picts. By extension, the term can refer to the monastic networks founded from Scotland and Ireland on Continental Europe, especially Gaul (France).

The term “Celtic Christianity” is sometimes extended beyond the 7th century to describe later Christian practice in these areas. But the history of Irish, Welsh, Scots, Breton, Cornish, and Manx churches diverges significantly after the 8th century, with great differences developing between even rival Irish traditions.

Historians generally avoid this use of the term in this context. Indeed, many historians do not use the term “Celtic Church”, since that entails a sense of there being a unified and identifiable entity separated from greater Latin Christendom.

It is easy to exaggerate the cohesiveness of the Celtic Christian communities. Scholars have long recognised that the term “Celtic Church” is simply inappropriate to describe Christianity among Celtic-speaking peoples, since this would imply a notion of unity, or a self-identifying entity, that simply did not exist.

Patrick Wormald writes: “One of the common misconceptions is that there was a ‘Roman Church’ to which the ‘Celtic’ [Church] was nationally opposed.” Celtic-speaking areas were part of Latin Christendom as a whole. Within that Latin Christendom, there was a significant degree of variations in liturgy and structure, alongside a respect for the standing of the see of Rome.

But we can talk about certain traditions in Celtic-speaking lands, and the development and spread of these traditions, especially in the 6th and 7th centuries. Some scholars call this expression of Christianity “Insular Christianity” when they talk of the Churches grouped around the Irish Sea, the “Celtic Mediterranean.” The term “Celtic Christianity” may also be used simply in the sense of different Catholic practices, institutions, and saints amongst the Celtic peoples, in which case it could be used meaningfully well beyond the 7th century.

Celtic Christianity

Saint Patrick:

Britain was the most remote province in the Roman Empire. Christianity reached England in the first few centuries AD, and the first recorded martyr in England was Saint Alban, during the reign of Diocletian.

The Roman legions were withdrawn from England in 407 to defend Italy during the attacks by the Visigoths. Rome was sacked in 410, the legions did not return to England, and Roman influence came to an end. In the time that followed, these islands developed distinctively from the rest of Western Europe, and the Irish Sea acted as a centre from which a new culture developed among the “Celtic” peoples.

Christianity has central role in this process, with a distinctive, Insular Christianity emerging with its own traditions and practices.

Ireland had never been part of the Roman Empire. But Christianity came here from the former Roman outposts, and a unique Church organisation emerged, focussed on the monasteries, rather than on episcopal dioceses.

Important figures in this process included Saint Ninian, Palladius, and Saint Patrick, the so-called “Apostle to the Irish.”

The regions under Roman rule adopted Christianity along with the rest of the Roman Empire. Christianity first came to the Celts in the 2nd century, during the Roman occupation of England and Wales, possibly through Christians in the army. However, Ireland and Scotland were outside Roman rule and only moved from Celtic polytheism to Christianity in the 5th century AD.

Ireland was converted under missionaries from Britain such as Patrick.

As this distinctive expression of Christianity was emerging and developing, the Anglo-Saxons, who were not yet Christians, were migrating to or invading England from Frisia and other Germanic areas.

Celtic missions

Early Celtic saints and founding figures of the Church included Saint Martin in France, Saint Ninian in Scotland, Saint Patrick and Saint Brigid in Ireland, Saint Illtyd, Saint Samson and Saint David in Wales and Brittany. Other important Celtic saints, or saints who influenced the development of Christianity in the Celtic-speaking areas include Saints Dubricius, Illtud, David, Cadoc, Deiniol, Samson, Paul Aurelian, Petroc, Piran, Ia, Brigit, Moluag, Kentigern (Mungo), and Germanus of Auxerre.

In the 6th and 7th centuries, monks from Ireland established monastic settlements in parts of Scotland. They included Saint Columba or Saint Colmcille, who settled on Iona. In the 6th century, Ireland became “a land of saints and scholars” and missionaries from Ireland became a major source of missionary work in Scotland, Saxon parts of Britain and central Europe.

As the Anglo-Saxons colonised what is now England, Celtic missionaries from Scotland and Ireland set out to evangelise them. In the year 631, Saint Aidan was sent from Iona to evangelise them from the island of Lindisfarne, on England’s north-east coast. Monks from Iona, under Saint Aidan, founded the See of Lindisfarne in Anglo-Saxon Northumbria in 635. From there, Celtic practice heavily influenced northern England, and the missionaries from Lindisfarne reached as far south as London.

Irish monks were also settling in Continental Europe, particularly in Gaul (France), including Saint Columbanus. Irish monks exerted a profound influence greater than many Continental centres that could boast much more ancient traditions.

Meanwhile, in 597, Pope Gregory sent a mission to the English, led by Augustine. These renewed links with the greater Latin West brought the Celtic-speaking peoples into close contact with other expressions of Christianity. Some of the customs and traditions that had developed in Celtic Christianity gave rise to disputes with the rest of the Western Church. These included questions on how to calculate the date of Easter, differences on the use of tonsure, and penitential rites.

Distinctive traditions

The achievements of Christianity in the Celtic-speaking world are significant. For example, Irish society had no pre-Christian history of literacy. Yet within a few generations of the arrival of Christianity, the monastic and clerical class of the isle had become fully integrated with the culture of Latin letters. Apart from their Latin texts, Irish monks also developed a written language for Old Irish.

Some of the greatest achievements of the Celtic tradition were during this period, such as the Book of Kells, and intricately carved high standing crosses.

The episcopal structures were adapted to an environment that was wholly different from the prevailing sub-Roman world. By the 7th century, the established ecclesiastical structure on Continental Europe was one bishop for each diocese. The bishop had his see in a city that was able to support a cathedral. This structure, to some degree, mirrored the secular administrative structures of the Roman Empire, which had subdivided provinces into “dioceses.” However, most of the Celtic world had never been part of the Roman Empire. With the notable exceptions of parts of Wales, Devon, and Cornwall, the Celtic world was without developed cities. And so a different ecclesiastical structure was needed for Insular Christianity, especially in Ireland.

This ecclesiastical structure developed around monastic communities ruled by abbots, and the monastic institutions were integrated into their royal houses and domains. Abbots often were not ordained as priests or bishops, and so separate bishops were still needed for sacramental functions. Unlike continental diocesan bishops, these bishops often had little authority within Celtic ecclesiastical structure.

The first example of a papal privilege granting a monastery freedom from episcopal oversight is provided by Pope Honorius I for one of Saint Columbanus’s monasteries.

Calculating the date of Easter

Celtic Christianity was often marked by its conservatism, even archaism. One example is the method used to calculate Easter, with Insular Christianity using a calculation table similar to one approved by Saint Jerome. However, by the 6th and 7th centuries this method was obsolete and the table been replaced by those of Victorius of Aquitaine and Dionysius Exiguus.

As the Celtic Churches renewed their contact with Continental Europe, the divergence became obvious. Most groups, including the southern Irish, accepted the updated tables, but not the monastery of Iona and the houses linked to it.

At the Synod of Whitby in 664, the rules of the Roman mission were accepted by the Church in England, and they were extended later throughout Britain and Ireland. But the decrees of Whitby did not immediately change the face of Christianity on these islands. There were pockets of resistance to the Roman mission, especially in Devon, Cornwall and Scotland, and the monks of Iona did not accept the decisions reached at Whitby in 664 until 716.

Irish monks kept a distinct tonsure, or method of cutting one’s hair, to distinguish their social identity as monks (rather than warriors or peasants, who wore different styles of hair). The ‘Celtic’ tonsure involved cutting away the hair above one’s forehead. This differed from the prevailing custom, which was to shave the top of the head, leaving a halo of hair – in imitation of Christ’s crown of thorns.


In Ireland a distinctive form of penance developed, where confession was made privately to a priest, under the seal of secrecy, and where penance was given privately and ordinarily performed privately as well. Certain handbooks were made, called “penitentials”, designed as a guide for confessors and as a means of regularising the penance given for each particular sin.

In the past, penance had been a public ritual. Penitents were divided into a separate part of the church during the liturgy, even coming to church in sackcloth and ashes in a process known as exomologesis that often involved general confession. This public penance may have been preceded by a private confession, and for some sins private penance may have been allowed. Nonetheless, penance and reconciliation was prevailingly a public rite that included absolution at its conclusion.

The Irish penitential practice spread throughout continental Europe, where the form of public penance had fallen into disuse. Saint Columbanus is said to have introduced the medicamenta paentitentiae, the “medicines of penance,” to Gaul at a time when they had come to be neglected. Alhough the process met some resistance, by 1215 the practice had become established as the norm, with the Fourth Lateran Council establishing a canonical statute requiring confession at a minimum of once per year.

Renewed interest in ‘Celtic Spirituality’

The notion of a “Celtic Church,” and its nature, has been a continual source of disagreement and symbolism, beginning especially with the Reformations. Some Roman Catholic writers argue that the idea of a separate tradition from that of Rome is an anachronism and mythological. Some authors accuse George Buchanan and others of supplying “the initial propaganda for the makers of the Scottish Kirk” by inventing the notion of a national “Celtic” Church opposed to a “Roman” one.

At times, the Reformations and the political events surrounding them have been interpreted as a return to true and original Christian traditions. However, what might be accepted or rejected as historically factual does not detract from the symbolic nature of a Celtic Church which was overtaken by Romanised Christianity.

Nevertheless, the Celtic tradition met more resistance after the 16th century Reformations. In Scotland, a combination of religious persecution and the 19th century Highland clearances caused the Celtic culture to fragment and the oral tradition began to be lost.

In the 19th century, however, there was a revival of interest in Celtic spirituality in these islands, with renewed interest in the poetry, customs or household prayers of the western Celtic fringes.

In Scotland, many of the poems and prayers were gathered in the 19th century to form a collection edited by Alexander Carmichael as the Carmina Gadelica (1900) and in Ireland by Douglas Hyde, a son of a Church of Ireland rector and later the first President of Ireland, in the Religious Songs of Connacht (1906).

In 1938, George McCleod, a Church of Scotland minister, rebuilt Iona’s ancient Abbey, fulfilling a prophecy of Saint Columba, and founded the modern Iona Community.

Since the 1980s, Celtic-style books of prayers by the Revd David Adam, Vicar of Lindisfarne, have became widely popular, as have a wave of books about Celtic Christianity, study courses, and Celtic interest networks.

Themes in Celtic Spirituality

For centuries the riches of Celtic spirituality were transmitted orally. These included prayers sung or chanted at the rising and setting of the sun, in the midst of daily work and routine, at a child's birth, or a loved one’s deathbed. There were prayers of daily life celebrating God as Life within all life, with creation as his dwelling place. God was always overwhelmingly present all around.


Celtic Christians saw a universe ablaze with God’s glory, suffused with a presence that calls, nods and beckons – a creation personally united with its Creator in every atom and fibre. – David Adam

There’s no plant in the ground
But is full of his blessing.
There’s no thing in the sea
But is full of his life...
There is nought in the sky
But proclaims his goodness.
Jesu! O Jesu! it’s good to praise thee!
– (Carmina Gadelica)

Saint Patrick called Jesus the True Sun. Ray Simpson writes in Celtic Blessings: “A good way to experience Jesus is to use what I call the Sun Bathing Exercise. Imagine Jesus as the smiling sunshine of God pouring rays of light upon you. Just soak these up, relax and feel better! Celtic Christians see Jesus as the divine light that permeates all creation. So by spending time in nature we can also be spending time with Jesus.”


The glory of God is seen in a human life lived to the full. – Saint Irenaeus of Lyons

O Son of God … dear child of Mary, you are the refined molten metal of our forge. – Tadhg Og O Huiginn

Christ is the supreme example of a complete human life. By being united to him, we can learn how to be fully human by finding a body-mind-intuition balance, and by growing in wisdom and, above all, love.

Worship and community

Early Celtic Christians shared their food, money, work, play and worship in little communities which were always open to the people who lived around them. Wherever they lived they saw Christ in their neighbour and made community with them.

Celtic writers talked about worshipping God with the "five stringed harp" – meaning all five senses. The Celtic churches punctuated each day and night with periods of prayer.

The Trinity

Celtic Christians had a strong emphasis on the Holy Trinity. They followed the one God who embraces the world with his two arms of love: the right arm is Christ, the left arm is the Spirit.

I lie down this night with God
And God will lie down with me
I lie down this night with Christ
And Christ will lie down with me
I lie down this night with the Spirit
And the Spirit will lie down with me.
– (Carmina Gadelica)

Everyday prayers

The Celts prayed about anything and everything in a natural way. Prayers for frequent activities were learned by heart and handed down by word of mouth or later in writing.

Some of the Celtic prayers are blessings:

Bless to me, O God
Each thing my eye sees,
Each sound my ear hears,
Each person I meet.

Some Celtic prayers were “circling prayers”:

Circle me, Lord.
Keep peace within,
keep harm without.
Circle me, Lord.
Keep love within,
keep hate without.

Prayer and imagination

Celtic prayer is also marked by the use of imagination, for example, by imagining that Jesus, his mother or friends were in the kitchen, in the house, in the workplace, or even in the bedroom. Here are some examples:

I will do my household chores as would Mary, mother of Jesus.

I will travel to my next place in the presence of the angels of protection.

Who is that near me when I am sad and alone?
It is Jesus, the King of the sun.

Armour (“Breastplate”) prayers

The most famous of the armour or breastplate prayers for protection is known as Saint Patrick’s Breastplate. This invites God’s force-field to strengthen us for life’s struggles.

The armour consists of:

1. God – the three in one
2. Human valour as lived by Christ
3. Angels and great souls
4. Powers of creation
5. Spiritual gifts

The praying person then confronts negative forces one by one, invites Christ into each situation, and repeats the opening invocation.

In the prayer we call Saint Patrick’s Breastplate (see Hymns 322 and 611 in Church Hymnal) the writer imagines that he is Patrick, putting on the different items of God’s armour: God, good spirits, saints, powers of creation, spiritual gifts – just like a suit of armour. The eighth verse of this prayer (Hymn 322) has these words:

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.

Blessing prayers

The Celtic way was to bless everything in life (except evil), however earthy or everyday, all around the clock. Animals, food, gifts, jobs, lovemaking, meals, travel. Here are examples of an anniversary and a sleep blessing:

On this your anniversary
God give you the best of memories,
Christ give you pardon for failings,
Spirit give you the fruits of friendship.

Sleep in peace,
Sleep soundly,
Sleep in love.
Weaver of dreams
Weave well in you as you sleep.
– Ray Simpson, Celtic Blessings.

Miracles and Celtic saints

In Celtic Christianity, saints were regarded as holy spiritual overlords who were close to God, provided assistance in times of need, had special influence in the court of heaven, and were able to plead with God for favours.

Many miracles were associated with them, including visions, healings, favours granted, mystical appearances and more. Places where miracles had been performed became pilgrimage sites.

The Anamchara

Celtic Christians recognised the importance of shared spiritual journeys, and their Anamchara or Soul Friend, was their spiritual director. Anamchara were sought out as men and women of wisdom, great spirituality and insight, who were willing to share their understanding of the faith with others. Saint Brigid said that “the person without an Anamchara is like a body without a head.”

Some Celtic saints:

Saint Brigid of Kildare

Saint Brigid is second only to Saint Patrick as the patron of Ireland. She is also known as Mary of the Gael. A passage in the Book of Lismore testifies to her importance: “It is she who helpeth everyone who is in danger; it is she that abateth the pestilences; it is she that quelleth the rage and the storm of the sea. She is the prophetess of Christ; she is the Queen of the South; she is the Mary of the Gael.”

Saint Brigid is said to offer protection to poets, blacksmiths, healers, cattle, dairymaids, midwives, newborn babies and fugitives. The numerous stories of miracles performed by her even in childhood convey the impression that she was really a person of compassion, charity and strength. To fetch well water which tasted more like ale for a sick servant or to pick up rushes from the floor to twist into a cross to explain the message of salvation to a dying man show her practicality and resourcefulness. Her generosity was legendary and frequently necessitated resort to prayer to make good the deficit.

Her father Dubtach was a pagan nobleman in Leinster, and her mother his Christian bondwoman, Brotseach, whom he sold to a Druid who lived at Faughart near Dundalk. There the child was born in the mid-5th century, ca 451 or 453, and given Christian baptism with the name of Brid or Brigid. It is said that as a child she was taken to hear Saint Patrick preach, and as she listened to him she fell into an ecstasy.

At marriageable age, perhaps 14, she decided to enter the religious life. She left home with seven other young girls and travelled to Co Meath where Saint Macaille was bishop.

Brigid founded the first convent in Ireland. She went to Ardagh to make their final vows before Saint Mel, a nephew of Saint Patrick. Here Brigid founded another convent and she remained there for 12 years.

Later, a unique community of monks and nuns developed at Kildare, with Brigid as Abbess of the nuns and Conleth, the first Bishop of Kildare, as Abbot of the monks, but with the reins of authority firmly in Brigid’s hands. Kildare became a centre for spirituality and learning, healing, faith-sharing and evangelism.

Brigid died on 1 February ca 521 and 528. She is depicted in art as an abbess holding a lamp or candle with often a cow in the background. This poem is ascribed to her:

I long for a great lake of ale I long for the meats of belief and pure piety I long for the flails of penance at my house I long for them to have barrels full of peace I long to give away jars full of love I long for them to have cellars full of mercy I long for cheerfulness to be in their drinking I long for Jesus too to be there among them.

For a sermon on the occasion of Saint Brigid’s Day, 1 February 2008, visit:

Saint Columba

Columba is intimately associated with Iona, a tiny island off the west coast of Scotland - and is credited with bringing Christianity to Scotland. But he was born in Ireland and lived here until his 40s, and is linked to a number of Irish monastic foundations, including Kells and Derry.

He was born in Co Donegal in December 520 into a wealthy royal family and was given the name Colum (“the dove”). He became a priest at a monastery founded by Saint Finian and spent many years in his home region establishing literally hundreds of churches and monasteries.

It is said that during a visit to see Saint Finnian, Columba secretly copied a beautifully inscribed Psalter that Finnian had brought back from Rome, and in doing this devalued the original book. Columba refused to give back the copy and Finnian challenged him in court. The king ruled in favour of Finnian, saying famously: “To every cow belongs her calf; to every book belongs its copy.”

However, when Columba still refused to give back his copy a clan war broke out between the king’s followers and Columba’s supporters. Many people were killed in the fighting, and Columba was ashamed. He decided to make restitution by bringing to Christ, as many people in another land as had lost their life in his own land in the war. He had chosen the way of “white martyrdom” – exiling himself from his homeland as a penance.

In 563, at the age of 42, Columba and 12 companion monks sailed in a currach to the island of Iona, where he settled in Iona and founded a monastery.

The monks on Iona lived in separate cells and spent many hours in worship and contemplation, and in producing beautiful copies of the Gospels. They worked hard on the land to support themselves and to provide hospitality to visitors. Iona became the largest Christian centre in northern Britain, attracting thousands of monks.

Iona later became a centre for missionary outreach. Much of the highlands of Scotland were evangelised from Iona.

It is said that Saint Columba raised from the dead a child of one of the Pictish kings in Inverness, who was then converted to Christianity and encouraged his subjects also to convert. Columba wrote many poems and songs.

In 597, at the age of 76, a week before he died, Columba climbed the hill overlooking the monastery in Iona, blessed the monks, and said: “In Iona of my heart, Iona of my love, Instead of monks’ voices shall be lowing of cattle, But ere the world come to an end Iona shall be as it was.” During his last days he dictated a prayer to his monks:

See that you are at peace among yourselves,
my children, and love one another.
Take the example of the good men of ancient
times and God will comfort and aid you,
both in this world and in the world to come.

His feast day is 9 June.

Iona continued to be an important Christian centre after Columba’s death, and there was a Benedictine monastery and convent there from the Middle Ages. The monasteries and convent on Iona were closed by the Scottish reformers in the 1560s. They fell into ruin and the island returned to a grazing place.

Iona Abbey, and the founding of the Iona Community in the 1930s by George Macleod which continues to grow and inspire Christians today from throughout the world. Again, just as Columba predicted.

Saint Cuthbert (636-687)

Saint Cuthbert was born around 634 in the Scottish border country near Melrose. Later, he worked there a shepherd. One night, by the River Leader, he had a vision of a great light, stretching from earth to heaven. The light faded and Cuthbert was left to wonder about the meaning of the vision. He learned later that on that same night, 31 August 651, Saint Aidan, Bishop of Lindisfarne, had died. To the young shepherd, the vision seemed to be a challenge and a call to serve God. He entered the Monastery of Old Melrose – one of the parent seats of the Church in Scotland and founded by Aidan – and there he spent 13 years as a monk.

Eata, Abbot of Melrose, took Cuthbert with him to Ripon where they entered the monastery together. Cuthbert later returned to Melrose as Prior in 661. As prior, he took part in the Synod of Whitby in 664, when accepted the synod decisions on the date of Easter and the tonsure.

Cuthbert returned to Lindisfarne as Prior but then travelled the length and breadth of Northumbria, from the River Tees to the Firth of Forth. He preached in Galloway, giving his name to the largest county, Kirk-Cuthbert, now known as Kirkcudbright. He was a missionary as well as a monk and won many for Christ through his conversations rather than by preaching.

Cuthbert was reputed to have the gift of healing and so, wherever he went, people would flock to him in scenes reminiscent of the ministry of Christ. Bede says that no one took home with them the burden that they came with.

Tradition has it that, on his journeys, Cuthbert stopped by the shores of the Nor' Loch just below Edinburgh Castle and built a little hut there on the site of the present Saint Cuthbert’s Church.

In search of a solitary life, Cuthbert and some of his monks built a round cell and chapel of stones and turf six miles south of Lindisfarne. He lived there for eight years, devoting his time to prayer.

In York on Easter Day, 26 March 685, he was consecrated bishop and became Bishop of Lindisfarne, following in Aidan's footsteps. He died in 687.

Saint Cuthbert was known for his miracles during his life, and also after his death. During the Danish raids in Northumbria in 698, Cuthbert’s followers moved his body and carried it from place to place for safety. In 883, he was buried in Chester-le-Street and in 996 he was reburied in Durham Cathedral, where his shrine remains to this day.

Some key centres for Celtic spirituality:


Glencolubkille and Garton, Co Donegal: Garton is the birthplace of Saint Columba, and he described Glencolumbkille as “Glen of the psalms and the prayers, glen of Heaven.”

Glendalough, Co Wicklow: Glendalough in the Wicklow Mountains, 25 miles from Dublin, is the best preserved “monastic city” in Ireland, with its round tower, seven churches and visitor's centre, which tells the story of its founder, Saint Kevin.


Iona: Saint Columba established his monastery on Iona in the 6th century. The modern Iona Community was founded in 1938 as an ecumenical community committed to seeking new ways of living the Christian faith in today’s world.

Whithorn: Saint Ninian founded the first large Christian community here in the 5th century. The Whithorn Dig is excavating the site, and provides a focus for visitors. Half a mile away on the shore hundreds of pilgrims have inscribed prayers on the rocks at Saint Ninian’s Cave.


Saint David’s and Saint Non’s: Saint David’s Cathedral is near the site of the great monastic community founded by Wales’s patron saint. At nearby Saint Non’s, a well and retreat house mark the traditional site where David’s mother, Non, gave birth, and is the start of a coastal pilgrim trail.


Lindisfarne, Northumberland: Lindisfarne has sometimes been described as the “cradle of English Christianity.” Alcuin, adviser to the Emperor Charlemagne, described Lindisfarne as “the holiest place in England.” It was from Lindisfarne that Saint Aidan and Saint Cuthbert spread the Christian faith north and south.

Whitby, Yorkshire: The ruins of Saint Hilda’s Abbey and the magnificent Caedmon Cross in the churchyard opposite stand out like sentinels on this cliff top site. This was once the largest English monastic community for men and women. Today, the Order of The Holy Paraclete offers retreat accommodation at Saint Hilda’s Priory.

Durham: The shrine of Saint Cuthbert is at Durham Cathedral.

Lichfield: The shrine of Saint Chad, who was educated at an Irish monastery and established the church in Mercia.

Bradwell, Essex: The 9th century chapel in Bradwell was founded by Saint Cedd of Lindisfarne.

Resources and links:

Web resources:

The Centre for the Study of Religion in Celtic Societies at the University of Wales has an e-library: click here
The Iona Community:
The Island of Lindisfarne:
Saint Hilda’s Priory, the Order of the Holy Paraclete, Whitby:
Wild Goose Resource Group:


David Adam, Border Lands (Sheed & Ward). The Best of David Adam's Celtic vision. This is a compilation of four of his most popular books and includes prayers, meditations and Celtic art.
David Adam, The Eye of the Eagle (Triangle). The Celtic hymn, Be Thou My Vision, is still popular after 12 centuries. David Adam takes the reader through this hymn, seeking to discover the spiritual riches that are hidden in all our lives.
Ian Bradley, The Celtic Way (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1993). Ian Bradley is a Presbyterian minister from the Church of Scotland and lectured in the Department of Theology in the University of Aberdeen. This is a good, sound introduction to Celtic spirituality.
Celtic Daily Prayer from the Northumbria Community (London: Harper Collins, 2000). An introduction to daily prayer drawing on resources from the “Celtic Church” throughout these islands, with good notes and introductions to further resources.
The Iona Community Worship Book (Glasgow: Wild Goose, 1994 ed).
Mary Keaney, Celtic Heritage Saints (Dublin: Veritas, 1998) … introduces us to scholars, adventurous sailors, saints who get their heads chopped off, friends and enemies of kings. Good for using in schools, Sunday schools, and with confirmation classes.
Diana Leatham, They Built on Rock (Hodder & Stoughton). This book tells the stories of the Celtic saints who maintained their faith during the Dark Ages. The people profiled include Saint Cuthbert, Saint Ninian, Saint David and Saint Columba.
James P. Mackey, An introduction to Celtic Christianity (Edinburgh T&T Clark, 1995 ed). A well-edited collection of essays by 14 of the best experts on Celtic Christianity, including mission, liturgy, prayers, hymns and the arts.
Caitlín Matthews, Celtic Devotional: daily prayers and rituals (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan 2004): some useful resources, including prayer, blessings and ceremonies.
Patrick Murray, The Deer’s Cry (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1986). A useful anthology of poetry and verse.
Peter O’Dwyer, Céilí Dé: Spiritual reform in Ireland 750-900 (Dublin: Editions Tailliura, 1981). The story of the movement within Celtic monasticism that gave us Saint Maelruain’s Monastery in Tallaght and the Derrynaflann Chalice.
Pat Robson, The Celtic Heart (London: Fount, 1998). A collection of Celtic writings celebrating the seasons of life by an Anglican priest living in Cornwall. It includes short biographies of saints and influential figures.
Michael Rodgers and Marcus Losack, Glendalough: A Celtic Pilgrimage (Dublin: Columba Press, 1996). A useful guidebook to our nearest Celtic monastic foundation.
GO Simms, Commemorating Saints & Others of the Irish Church (Dublin: Columba Press, 1999) … biographical notes and suggestions for intercessions.
Ray Simpson, Celtic Blessings (Loyola Press). How many of us have whispered an impromptu prayer to our computer, begging it not to crash? Celtic Blessings reveals that such actions are part of an ancient and sacred ritual.
Ray Simpson, Exploring Celtic Spirituality (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1995; Stowmarket: Kevin Mayhew, 2004). The chapters of this book feature different aspects of Celtic spirituality, including cherishing the earth, contemplative prayer and the healing of society. There are prayers and responses at the end of each chapter.
Martin Wallace, The Celtic Resource Book (London: Church House Publishing). The whole breadth of Celtic Christianity is spanned here – from liturgies and prayers and the stories of Celtic saints, through to Celtic art. The book includes liturgies for different times of the day, for use at home or in larger groups.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, Church of Ireland Theological College. This essay is based on notes prepared for a seminar on Celtic Spirituality on the Year I course, Christian Spirituality on 17 April 2008.

Wednesday, 16 April 2008

Anglican spirituality and women writers

The Revd Florence Li Tim-Oi with Archbishop Robert Runcie during a visit to Lambeth Palace

Patrick Comerford


Over the past few weeks, we have been looking at some key writers in Anglican spirituality. These have included: Lancelot Andrewes, George Herbert, Jeremy Taylor, William Law, John Keble, Charles Gore and William Temple.

So far we have not looked at any women writers. It might have been interesting for example to look at earlier figures such as Julian of Norwich, influential women such as Susanna (Annesley) Wesley, a rectory wife and mother of the Wesley brothers, or how women writers such as Jane Austen or Emily Bronte looked at the Church and the clergy of the Church of England. But there are important women who made interesting and formative contributions to Anglican spirituality over the centuries, including Hannah More (1745-1833), the social reformer Josephine Butler (1828-1906) – who once said “God and one woman make a majority” – Florence Nightingale, Mary Sumner (1828-1921), who founded the Mothers’ Union, Vida Dutton Scudder (1861-1954), Verna J. Dozier and Madeline L’Engle, or writers like Susan Howatch and Catherine Fox.

But I have chosen six modern Anglican women writers who have made significant contributions to Anglicanism and the development of Anglican spirituality, and to our understanding of ministry: Evelyn Underhill, Dorothy Sayers, Cecil Alexander, Florence Li Tim-Oi, Elizabeth Canham, and Michele Guinness.

Part 1:

Our first two presentations were on Evelyn Underhill and Dorothy Sayers.

Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941)

Evelyn Underhill was an English novelist and poet, a pacifist and an Anglo-Catholic known for her numerous writings on mysticism, spirituality and liturgy. She wrote over 30 books, either under her maiden name, Evelyn Underhill, or under the pen-name John Cordelier. As a journalist she later became editor of The Spectator. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, she was one of the most widely read writers on the spiritual life.

She was the first woman to lecture to the clergy in the Church of England, in 1926 she became the first woman to officially conduct a spiritual retreat for clergy in the Church of England, and she was one of the first women theologians to lecture in English colleges and universities.

She was born in Wolverhampton, the only child of Sir Arthur Underhill, a barrister. She described her early mystical insights as “abrupt experiences of the peaceful, undifferentiated plane of reality – like the ‘still desert’ of the mystic – in which there was no multiplicity nor need of explanation.” The meaning of these experiences became a life-long quest and source of private angst, leading to her research and writing on the subject of mysticism.

She later attended King’s College, London. Although she never received a degree, she was later elected a fellow of both King’s College for Women and King’s College and received an honorary DD from Aberdeen University. In 1921 she was invited by the University of Oxford to give the first of a new series of lectures on religion – the first woman to have such an honour.

In 1907 she married her childhood sweetheart, Hubert Stuart Moore. Neither her husband nor her parents shared her interest in spiritual matters. Initially she was an agnostic, but she gradually began to acquire an interest in Neoplatonism and from there became increasingly drawn to Catholicism, despite her husband’s fears and anxieties, and eventually she became a prominent Anglo-Catholic. The couple had no children, and she travelled regularly to Switzerland, France and Italy, where she pursued her interests in art and Catholicism, visiting numerous churches and monasteries.

Her spiritual mentor from 1921 to 1924 was Baron Friedrich von Hugel, who encouraged her to adopt a much more Christocentric view as opposed to her initial theistic and intellectual approach. She described him as “the most wonderful personality … so saintly, truthful, sane and tolerant,” and through his influence she became more engaged with charitable, down-to-earth activities.

After his death in 1925, her writings became more focused on the Holy Spirit, and she became prominent in the Church of England as a lay leader of spiritual retreats, a spiritual director for hundreds, a guest speaker, a radio lecturer, and an advocate of the power of contemplative prayer.

She sought the centre of life in experience and the heart. It was a fundamental axiom of Evelyn Underhill, that all of life is sacred – and that this is what “incarnation” was about.

Her fiction was written in the six years between 1903-1909 and represents her four major interests of that general period: philosophy (neoplatonism), theism and mysticism, the Roman Catholic liturgy, and human love and compassion.

Her first book was a small book of satirical poems on legal dilemmas, The Bar-Lamb's Ballad Book. She then wrote three highly unconventional though profoundly spiritual novels – The Grey World (1904), The Lost Word (1907), and The Column of Dust (1909). Like Charles Williams and more recently Susan Howatch, she uses her narratives to explore the sacramental intersection of the physical with the spiritual. She uses that sacramental framework very effectively to illustrate the unfolding of a human drama.

Her first novel, The Grey World (1904), was described by one reviewer as an extremely interesting psychological study. The hero’s mystical journey begins with death, and then moves through reincarnation, beyond the grey world, and into the choice of a simple life devoted to beauty, reflecting Underhill’s own serious perspective as a young woman: “It seems so much easier in these days to live morally than to live beautifully. Lots of us manage to exist for years without ever sinning against society, but we sin against loveliness every hour of the day.”

The Lost Word (1907) and The Column of Dust (1909) are also concerned with the problem of living in two worlds and reflect her own spiritual challenges. In The Column of Dust, her heroine encounters a rift in the solid stuff of her universe: “She had seen, abruptly, the insecurity of those defences which protect our illusions and ward off the horrors of truth. She had found a little hole in the wall of appearances; and peeping through, had caught a glimpse of that seething pot of spiritual forces whence, now and then, a bubble rises to the surface of things.”

Evelyn Underhill’s novels suggest that perhaps for the mystic, two worlds may be better than one. For her, mystical experience seems inseparable from some kind of enhancement of consciousness or expansion of perceptual and aesthetic horizons – to see things as they are, in their meanness and insignificance when viewed in opposition to the divine reality, but in their luminosity and grandeur when seen bathed in divine radiance.

But at this stage the mystic’s mind is subject to fear and insecurity, its powers undeveloped. The Grey World takes us only to this point. Further stages demand suffering, because mysticism is more than merely vision or cultivating a latent potentiality of the soul in cosy isolation.

According to Underhill, the subsequent pain and tension, and final loss of the private painful ego-centred life for the sake of regaining one’s true self, has little to do with the first beatific vision.

Her two later novels are built on the ideal of total self-surrender even to the apparent sacrifice of the vision itself, as necessary for the fullest possible integration of human life. This was for her the equivalent of working out within, the life story of Jesus. One is reunited with the original vision – no longer as mere spectator but as part of it. This dimension of self-loss and resurrection is worked out in The Lost Word, but there is some doubt as to its general inevitability. In The Column of Dust, the heroine’s physical death reinforces dramatically the mystical death to which she has already surrendered to. Two lives are better than one but only on the condition that a process of painful re-integration intervenes to re-establish unity between Self and Reality.

All her characters derive their interest from the theological meaning and value which they represent and it is her ingenious handling of so much difficult symbolic material that makes her work psychologically interesting as a forerunner of 20th century writers such as Susan Howatch.

Her first novel received critical acclaim, but her last was generally derided. However her novels give remarkable insight into what we may assume was her decision to avoid what Saint Augustine described as the temptation of fuga in solitudinem(“the flight into solitude”), but instead acquiescing to a loving, positive acceptance of this world.

Underhill’s greatest book, Mysticism: A Study of the Nature and Development of Man’s Spiritual Consciousness, was published in 1911. The spirit of the book is romantic, engaged, and theoretical rather than historical or scientific. In it, she has little use for theoretical explanations and the traditional religious experience, formal classifications or analysis.

She dismisses William James’s pioneering study, The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), and his “four marks of the mystic state” (ineffability, noetic quality, transience, and passivity). She substituted:

1, mysticism is practical, not theoretical;

2, mysticism is an entirely spiritual activity;

3, the business and method of mysticism is love;

4, mysticism entails a definite psychological experience.

In her introduction, in order to free the subject from confusion and misapprehension, she approached it from the point of view of the psychologist, the symbolist and the theologian. To separate it from its most dubious connection she included a chapter on mysticism and magic. For many, mysticism is associated with the occult and fanaticism, while she knew the mystics throughout history to be the world’s spiritual pioneers.

Her description of the “dark night of the soul” leads us to believe she struggled with this throughout her own life. She quotes Mecthild of Magdeburg: “ … since Thou hast taken from me all that I had of Thee, yet of Thy grace leave me the gift which every dog has by nature: that of being true to Thee in my distress, when I am deprived of all consolation. This I desire more fervently than Thy heavenly Kingdom.”

Her last section is devoted to the unitive life, the sum of the mystic way. She struck new ground with her insistence that this state of union produced a glorious and fruitful creativeness, so that the mystic who attains this final perfectness is the most active doer – not the reclusive dreaming lover of God.

The book ends with a valuable appendix, a kind of who’s who of mysticism, which shows its persistence and interconnection from century to century.

She collaborated with the Indian mystic, poet and Nobel Laureate, Rabindranath Tagore, in a major translation of the work of Kabir (100 Poems of Kabir) in 1915, and wrote the introduction. In that same year, she also published a book on the 14th century Dutch mystic, Jan van Ruusbroec or Ruysbroeck (1293-1381), who features throughout her earlier Mysticism (1911).

The Mysticism of Plotinus first appeared as an essay in the Quarterly Review (1919), and in 1920 published as part of The Essentials of Mysticism.

Her book Worship (1936) looks in part 1 at the Nature of Worship, Ritual and Symbol, Sacrament and Sacrifice, the Characters of Christian Worship, the Principles of Corporate Worship, Liturgical Elements in Worship, the nature and significance of the Eucharist, and the Principles of Personal Worship, and in part 2 at Jewish Worship, the Beginnings of Christian Worship, Catholic Worship (Western and Eastern), worship in the Reformed Churches, Free Church worship, and the Anglican tradition.

Her 1936 work The Spiritual Life was especially influential as transcribed from a series of broadcasts given as a sequel to those by Dom Bernard Clements on the subject of prayer.

Evelyn Underhill’s life was greatly influenced by her husband’s resistance to her becoming a Roman Catholic. At first she believed she was only delaying her decision, but eventually she never joined.

In her earlier writings, Underhill often used the terms “mysticism” and “mystics,” but she later began to favour the terms “spirituality” and “saints” because she felt they were less threatening. She was often criticised for believing that the mystical. More than any other writer, she was responsible for introducing the forgotten authors of mediaeval and Catholic spirituality to the English-speaking world.

Although Underhill continued to struggle to the end, craving certainty that her beatific visions were purposeful, she suffered as a pacifist during World War II. She survived the London Blitz of 1940, but her health disintegrated further and she died the following year.

After her death, The Times claimed that on the subject of theology she was “unmatched by any of the professional teachers of her day.” Her friend and fellow theologian Charles Williams wrote the introduction to her posthumous Letters in 1943. Since 2000, the Church of England has commemorated her on 15 June.

Dorothy Sayers (1893-1957)

Dorothy Leigh Sayers was a renowned author and translator. She is best known for her mysteries, plays, essays and a series of novels and short stories set between the two World Wars featuring the aristocratic amateur sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey. However, she considered her translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy as her best work.

Dorthy Sayers, an only child, was born in Oxford, where her father, the Revd Henry Sayers, from Co Tipperary, was chaplain of Christ Church and headmaster of the Choir School, but grew up in Cambridgeshire. She studied modern languages and mediaeval literature Somerville College, Oxford, finishing with first-class honours in 1916. She was among the first women to receive a degree and in 1920 she graduated MA. For many years she was churchwarden of Saint Anne’s Church, Soho.

At 29, Sayers fell in love with novelist John Cournos, who wanted her to live with him without marriage. Broken-hearted she then became involved with Bill White, an unemployed car salesman, but when she became pregnant, he stormed out on her. Under an assumed name, she gave birth to her child in 1924. In 1926, she married Captain Oswald Atherton “Mac” Fleming, a divorced Scottish journalist.

Sayers was a good friend of CS Lewis and several of the other Inklings, including TS Eliot and JRR Tolkien. On some occasions, she joined Lewis at meetings of the Socratic Club. Lewis said he read her book The Man Born to be King every Easter, but said he was unable to appreciate her detective stories.

Dorothy Sayers’s first book of poetry was published in 1916 as Op. I (Oxford: Blackwell). She later worked for Blackwell’s and then as a teacher in several places, including Normandy. From 1922 to 1931, she was a copywriter with SH Benson’s, the London advertising agency that later became Ogilvy and Mather. She collaborated with the artist John Gilroy on “The Mustard Club” for Colman’s Mustard and the Guinness “Zoo” advertising campaign. A famous example from that campaign was the Toucan, his bill arching under a glass of Guinness, with Sayers’s jingle:

If he can say as you can
Guinness is good for you
How grand to be a Toucan
Just think what Toucan do

She is also credited with the phrase: “It pays to advertise.”

Although many only know her for her detective novels, Sayers herself considered her translation of Dante’s Divina Commedia as her best work. The third volume (Paradise) was completed by Barbara Reynolds in 1962. However, many regard her translation as idiosyncratic. For example, the famous line usually rendered “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here,” becomes in her translation: “Lay down all hope, you who go in by me.” Yet Umberto Eco says that of the various English translations, she “does the best in at least partially preserving the hendeca-syllables and the rhyme.”

Her translation includes extensive notes at the end of each canto, explaining the theological meaning of what she calls “a great Christian allegory.” Her translation was still being printed this year by Penguin.

She wrote three volumes of commentaries about Dante, religious essays, and several plays. The Man Born to be King is her best known play.

Her most notable religious book is probably The Mind of the Maker (1941) which explores at length the analogy between a human creator, such as a writer of novels and plays, and the doctrine of the Trinity in creation. She suggests that any human creation of significance involves the Idea, the Energy (the process of writing and that actual “incarnation” as a material object) and the Power (the process of reading/hearing and the effect it has on the audience) and that this “trinity” has useful analogies with the theological Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

She draws on striking examples from her own experiences as a writer, with elegant criticisms of writers when the balance between Idea, Energy and Power is not, in her view, adequate.

In recognition of the way in which her religious succeeded in presenting the orthodox Anglican position, she was offered a Lambeth DD by the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1943 but declined the honour. However, she accepted an honorary D Litt from the University of Durham in 1950. Mac Fleming died in 1950, and Dorothy died suddenly of a stroke on 17 December 1957.

One of Sayers’s recurring characters is the Hon. Frederick Arbuthnot. Sayers’s god-daughter Barbara Reynolds has suggested that the character of Aunt Dot in Rose Macaulay’s novel The Towers of Trebizond (1956) is based on Dorothy Sayers.

Part 2:

Cecil Alexander (1818-1895)

Cecil Frances Humphreys Alexander, known affectionately as Fanny Alexander, is one of the great Irish and Anglican hymn-writers and poets. She was born in Dublin in April 1818, the third child of Elizabeth (née Reed) and Major John Humphreys, who came to Ireland as a land-agent for the 4th Earl of Wicklow and later for the 2nd Marquess of Abercorn.

She began writing verse in her childhood. By the 1840s she was already known as a hymn writer and her compositions were soon included in Church of Ireland hymnbooks. She was a close friend of Lady [Harriet] Howard while living at Ballykean, Co Wicklow, and together they collaborated on tracts, published separately and then brought together.

Her religious work was strongly influenced by her contacts with the Oxford Movement. Particularly influential were Dean Hook of Chichester, whom she met while visiting her sister, Anne Humphreys Maguire, in Leamington, and who later edited her volume Verses for Holy Seasons (1846); and John Keble, who edited one of her anthologies, Hymns for Little Children (1848).

Her early works included Verses for Holy Seasons (1846); The Lord of the Forest and his Vassals (1847), an allegory for children; and Hymns for Little Children (1848), which included All things Bright and Beautiful. This latter book, Hymns for Little Children, reached its 69th edition before the close of the 19th century.

Some of her hymns, including All Things Bright and Beautiful, There is a Green Hill Far Away, and the Christmas carol Once in Royal David’s City, are known and loved by many millions of Christians around the world.

She contributed lyric and narrative poems and French translations to the Dublin University Magazine under pseudonyms. When her Burial of Moses appeared anonymously in the Dublin University Magazine in 1856, the English poet Alfred Lord Tennyson said it was one of the few poems by a living author that he wished he had written himself.

She was a Sunday school teacher in 1850 when she married the Revd William Alexander, who was then Rector of Termonamongan in the Diocese of Derry. They were married in Strabane, Co Tyrone, and she was six years older than her husband, causing both families great concern.

They lived in Strabane (1860-1867), with trips to France until he became Bishop of Derry and Raphoe in 1867. He later became Archbishop of Armagh. He too wrote several books of poetry, the most important of which is Saint Augustine’s Holiday and other Poems.

Cecil Alexander was also involved in charitable work and was an indefatigable visitor to the poor and the sick. She was much involved with the Derry Home for Fallen Women and with the development of a district nurses service. Money from her first publications helped build the Derry and Raphoe Diocesan Institution for the Deaf and Dumb, which was founded in 1846 in Strabane. The profits from Hymns for Little Children were donated to this school.

She died in Derry on 12 October 1895. After her death, her husband collected and edited her poems, which were published as Poems of the late Mrs Alexander (1896).

Seven of her hymns were included in the Church of Ireland Hymnal (1873), the first hymnal authorised in the church after Disestablishment; 18 appeared in A Supplement to Hymns Ancient and Modern (1889); nine appeared in the Church of Ireland Hymnal (1960 and 1987 editions); and there are six in the current Church Hymnal (5th edition, 2005): 25, All things bright and beautiful; 177, Once in Royal David’s City; 244, There is a green hill far away; 284, The golden gates are lifted up; 322, Saint Patrick’s Breastplate; 584, Jesus calls us! O’er the tumult.

Perhaps her most famous hymn is There is a Green Hill far away. This hymn was inspired by a little hill outside the walls of Derry. In her mind it was on a hill like that on which Jesus was crucified. Her hymn was written to help her godchildren to understand the statements in the creed: “Suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried.”

This hymn was written while she sat by the bedside of a sick child. Several great composers have since written tunes for this hymn. Charles Gounod, the composer of Faust, said it is the most perfect hymn in the English language because of its charming simplicity.

The story is told of a busy doctor working in his consulting room, filled with patients in the middle of World War I. As he listened to their anxieties, he heard singing from a room above his consulting room. It was his wife and children singing There is a green hill far away. The doctor said to his patients: “If we all believed in the truth of that hymn we hear being sung, we would have less worry, anxiety and fear.”

All Things Bright and Beautiful (25) is a commentary on the creedal phrase “maker of heaven and earth.” The third stanza has since been challenged as a contravention of Christian egalitarian principles and for asserting class privileges and distinctions.

Mrs Alexander is also known for her metrical version of the hymn we know as Saint Patrick’s Breastplate. This is one verse from her rendering of the hymn:

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.

In his great work on hymns, Julian says her hymn Jesus calls us o’er the tumult had many variations. Mrs Alexander revised the hymn in 1881. Verse 3 as it is in Hymn 584 in the Church Hymnal reads:

Jesus calls us from the worship
of the vain world’s golden store,
from each idol that would keep us,
saying, ‘Christian, love me more!’

Florence Li Tim-Oi (1907-1992)

When she was born in Hong Kong on 5 May 1907 Li Tim-Oi’s father called her “Much Beloved” because he valued her as a daughter even if other parents preferred sons. When she was baptised as a student, Tim-Oi chose the name Florence after Florence Nightingale, the 19th century “Lady with the Lamp” who felt she had a vocation that was ignored by the Church.

In 1931 at the ordination of a deaconess in Hong Kong Cathedral, Florence heard and responded to the call to ministry. She took a four-year course at the theological college in Canton, was ordained deacon in 1941, and was given charge of the Anglican congregation in the Portuguese colony of Macao, which was thronged with refugees from war-torn China.

When a priest could no longer travel from Japanese-occupied territory to preside at the Eucharist, for three years Florence Tim-Oi was licensed to preside as a deacon. Bishop RO Hall of Hong Kong then asked her to meet him in Free China, where on 25 January 1944 he ordained her “a priest in the Church of God.” He knew that this was as momentous a step as when the Apostle Peter baptised the Gentile Cornelius. As Peter recognised that God had already given Cornelius the baptismal gift of the Spirit, so Bishop Hall thought he was merely confirming that God had already given Florence the gift of priestly ministry – although he resisted the temptation to rename her Cornelia.

Although Bishop Hall’s action was well received in his diocese, it caused a strom of protest throughout the wider Anglican Communion and pressure was brought on the bishop to have her relinquish the title and role of a priest.

When she became aware of the concern of the wider church and of the pressure on her bishop, Florence did not get angry and leave the church. Instead, she decided in 1946 to surrender her priest’s licence, but not her Holy Orders. For the next 39 years, she served faithfully under very difficult circumstances, when the knowledge that she had been ordained priest later helped to carry her through the worst excesses of the Maoist era in China. At the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1979, she resumed her ministry in the Church in China.

In 1983, arrangements were made for her to move to Canada, and she was appointed an honorary assistant at Saint John’s Chinese congregation and Saint Matthew’s parish in Toronto. By then, the Anglican Church in Canada had approved the ordination of women to the priesthood and in 1984, on the 40th anniversary of her ordination, with great joy and thanksgiving, she was reinstated as a priest.

The anniversary was also celebrated at Westminster Abbey and at Sheffield Cathedral in England, although the Church of England had not yet approved the ordination of women.

Until she died in 1992, she exercised her priesthood with such faithfulness and quiet dignity that won her tremendous respect for herself and gathered increasing support for other women seeking ordination. The very quality of her ministry in China and in Canada and the grace with which she exercised her priesthood helped convince many throughout the Anglican Communion and beyond that the Holy Spirit was working in and through women priests. Her contribution to the Church far exceeded the expectations of those involved in her ordination in 1944.

She was awarded Doctorates of Divinity by the General Theological Seminary, New York, and Trinity College, Toronto. She died on 26 February 1992 in Toronto and is buried there.

In 2003, the Episcopal Church of USA (now TEC) agreed to place the anniversary of her ordination as priest in the Church Calendar of Lesser Feasts and Fasts – to be observed on 24 January. In 2004, the Anglican Church of Canada agreed to include Florence Li Tim-Oi in the Calendar of Holy Persons in the Book of Alternative Services – on the anniversary of her death, 26 February.

Elizabeth Canham

The Revd Dr Elizabeth J. Canham is an author, retreat leader, spiritual director, former seminary professor and a priest in the Episcopal Church (TEC) in the US. She is the first woman ordained as deaconess in the Church of England and the first English woman ordained a priest in the TEC. She has been leading pilgrimages and retreats for more than 25 years, and has been a spiritual guide to pilgrimages in Israel, Egypt, Europe, Britain and Ireland, Europe, Israel and Egypt. She now devotes her time to writing, teaching and leading retreats and workshops internationally in many ecumenical settings, and has taught in British and American seminaries.

Dr Canham is a graduate of the London Bible College with a BD from London University, an STM (Master of Sacred Theology) in Spiritual Direction from the General Theological Seminary, New York, and a DMin (Doctor of Ministry) from the Graduate Theological Foundation.

Elizabeth Canham was born in Hatfield, Hertfordshire, and was brought up in what she describes as a Biblical fundamentalist family in England. After six years teaching in schools in England, and a year teaching in South Africa, in 1973 she became head of religious studies at a school in London. Through reading CS Lewis, she became an Anglican, and she was confirmed by Archbishop Robert Runcie, who was then Bishop of Saint Albans’s, in 1975.

That year, she became a lecturer in biblical studies at William Carlile College in London, and she was soon licensed as a Lay Reader. During an ecumenical retreat, she discovered the Anglican High Church tradition. In 1978, after the General Synod rejected proposals for the ordination of women, she was ordained a deaconess in Southwark Cathedral, although Bishop Mervyn Stockwood assured her at the time that in his eyes he had ordained her a deacon.

In her search to follow her vocation to the ordained priesthood, she chose voluntary exile and in 1981, with the encouragement of Bishop Stockwood, she moved to the US, where women had been ordained in TEC since 1976. For some months, as a deacon, she was a curate at Saint John’s, Union City, in Newark, and Saint David’s Episcopal Church in New Jersey.

Back in England, a special poem was written for her by Bishop Colin Winter of Namibia. She had prayed with David Winter as he lay dying, and shortly before his death he wrote a hymn to celebrate her ordination as priest.

She was ordained priest in Newark Cathedral on 5 December 1981. On a return visit to London the following month, the Dean of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, Alan Webster, invited her to celebrate Holy Communion in the deanery. He was censured for this by Bishop Graham Leonard of London, and Archbishop Runcie also expressed his concern.

After parish work in New York City and New Jersey, some as a lecturer in Christian Spirituality at the General Theological Seminary, New York, and on the diocesan staff in Western North Carolina, she moved to South Carolina in 1986 when she was invited to join the community of Holy Saviour Priory, Pinewood, an Episcopalian monastery following the Rule of Saint Benedict.

She remained at Pinewood Priory, directing the retreat ministry, until it closed in 1991. She is now Executive Director of Still Point Ministries at Black Mountain, North Carolina, an organisation she founded to facilitate retreats, workshops, spiritual direction and training for retreat leaders. She continues to celebrate her Celtic heritage and is working on a book that explores the desert tradition in Biblical, early Christian and Celtic communities.

Her books include Pilgrimage to Priesthood, Heart Whispers, Journaling with Jeremiah, Praying the Bible, and A Table of Delight.

Heart Whispers, her book on Benedictine spirituality, offering accessible insights from Benedictine spirituality to help the reader explore the need for faithful living in today’s stressful world. Through listening “with the ear of the heart,” Benedict, in the 6th century, gained a fresh perspective on Christian spirituality as he lived by three simple vows: stability, obedience, and conversion.

In Heart Whispers, Elizabeth Canham provides a guide to a daily rhythm that balances work and rest, study and play, and prayer and compassion. Life with God is a journey that grows richer and more blessed as we hear and respond to divine grace.

For God’s people, we have no lasting home here – all life is a pilgrimage. From the call of Abraham, through the Exodus to the baptismal journey of Christians, life is a pilgrimage. In the final chapter of the Rule, Saint Benedict asks: “Are you hastening toward your heavenly home?” Saint Benedict answers his rhetorical question: “Then with Christ’s help keep, this little rule that we have written for beginners” [p. 139].

Saint Benedict’s Rule is the way not only for vowed monastics but also for people outside monasteries is the message of this book. In this book, Elizabeth Canham offers valuable insights into the Rule of Saint Benedict, which she continues to use as her rule of life.

Her story begins on top of a bus in the Old Kent Road, where she saw a sign on a building saying: “Clutch Clinic.” The sign referred to a car service centre specialising in repairing clutches. But in this signs, Elizabeth heard God calling her to open her hands, not to clutch things, but to let go and to be open to God’s grace [p 13]. She saw this as a call to conversion, to let go of all the things that get in the way of God’s gifts, including her home and country. Here is an important lesson about not holding on to things, of overcoming the desire to possess and control, in other words a lesson in detachment, a proper approach to creation. The good things of the world are for our use and enjoyment, they are God’s gift, but as soon as we cling to them we turn them into gods and lose that freedom God gave us, we become the slave of things.

Her chapter on “Praying the Scriptures” [pp. 25-40] is particularly enlightening and practical. In relinquishing Biblical fundamentalism, she did not abandon her love of the Scriptures, which “is like an intoxicant” [p. 26].

In seminary, she met Biblical criticism, which brought about a conflict with what she had been taught in her free church, “as a result, the schizophrenic syndrome between religious upbringing and the world of academia began” [p. 27]. The struggle lasted several years but she managed to avoid the loss of faith some people suffer in these circumstances. “Only when I could readily face the fear of loss – loss of certainty, external affirmation, an infallible Bible and a cherished support system – did the idols begin to shatter” [p. 27].

From this she gained new insights, and was led into the practice of lectio divina [pp. 28, 37-40]. It is only when one lets go of literalism that one can enter into monastic lectio divina. Her letting go of Biblical literalism also brought her a new understanding of creation, insights into ecology and a sympathy for liberation theology [pp. 27-28, 32-35].

Saint Benedict’s teaching on hospitality leads Elizabeth to ask: “Is my home truly a place of hospitality?” She sees God’s hospitality as a loving creator as a model for us. Every possession is gift, there can be no such thing as private ownership, we are lent things on trust, to use and enjoy, not to abuse and own.

Saint Benedict’s guidelines continue to “suggest ways in which our homes and church communities can become places of profound Christian hospitality today” [p. 42].

Saint Benedict’s attitude to things teaches us that we are guests in God’s world, entrusted with creation to look after, not to exploit [pp. 42-44]. This is an important lesson for us who are surrounded by advertisers telling us we need to own more, that our lives will be incomplete without the latest gadget or device, and when the health of society is measured by how much people buy [p. 44].

One of her chapters is on “Simplicity” [pp. 57-71]. At the beginning of the 21st century there is an urgent need for greater simplicity of lifestyle. We must learn to live more simply that others may simply live [pp 61-62]. Saint Benedict teaches us to be counter-cultural in our approach to life, to value skills and nature [pp 62-63].

Her chapter on prayer [pp 72-84] has helpful ideas on praying the psalms in our modern world and the importance of praying anywhere, whether in a noisy city or in a solitary country place [pp 62-81].

Saint Benedict has important lessons for people in any walk of life regarding work [pp 85-96]. Whatever has to be done, however menial, should be given full attention, and done with the utmost care [p. 91]. It is all a question of respect for things that God has made, and for people who will be affected by our work. With Saint Benedict there is no place for the “it’s-not-my-job” syndrome – if something needs doing then do it and do it well.

There are chapters on each of the Benedictine vows showing how the virtues they embody are essential for right living in the world today. “Stability lies in slowing down, being willing to wait ... refusing the quick-fix alternative ... discipleship is about faithful living, not visible success. Be prepared to wait, sometimes a long time, to hear the word of God that tells you it is time to move on” [pp 108-109]. This is sound advice for everyone.

Conversion of Life, which is the subject of Chapter 8 [pp 120-138], also serves as a theme underlying the whole book. For all Christians, conversion must be continuous from baptism to the grave. It is a quality we all need. Obedience [Chapter 9, pp 139-154] is prayerful listening to God and positive responding, the motive for which must be love.

These three Benedictine vows of stability, conversion of life and obedience, are interlocking, as Elizabeth Canham makes clear.

Most people suspect that it is difficult to practice spirituality in the midst of ordinary daily concerns. Elizabeth Canham offers a wisdom of spirituality that is grounded in the classic practices of Benedict, and she helps readers understand that the spiritual practices described by the 6th century Benedict were intended for ordinary working people.

Canham structures the book so that we begin with Scripture and then we move to that essential Benedictine spiritual practice of hospitality.

Prayer is a foundational discipline that Canham covers, but her conversation about other practices is a treat. She writes with an ease and charm as she yokes manual labour and rest, two spiritual practices that are misunderstood spiritually.

Canham seasons her work with her life’s experiences. Those experiences make visible the very Benedictine understanding of life as pilgrimage. Her understanding of Saint Benedict’s insights help the reader to take up these practices in a life in which chaos and disorder can be fended off. And that seems to have been a part of Benedict’s vision in the disorderly 6th century.

“Elizabeth Canham writes with great simplicity and honesty giving us vivid glimpses of her spiritual journey. Readers will be grateful for what she gives us here.” – Esther de Waal (The Church Times, 20.7.2001).

The Revd Dr Connie M. Stinson of McLean, Virginia, who leads a small study group of women who meet in an early morning group once a week, says they found this book “calmed and directed turbulent souls. This was especially important and meaningful to us since our first session ended just minutes before the tragedies of September 11 occurred. The book’s wisdom has continued to help carry us through. A previous acquaintance, however small, with the Benedictine way has been helpful to individual members.”

In Praying the Bible, a book which the Jesuit Daniel Fitzpatrick describes as “a practical and down-to-earth manual for prayer, useful for either Bible study or prayer groups as well as for individuals,” she points out that the Bible is our most valuable devotional guide.

But she accepts that it presents a problem for many of us. Those with years of academic study of scripture sometimes find the Bible difficult to view as divine inspiration. Those who lack critical insights into the Bible find a barrier between the scripture we read and the scriptures prayed by the ancient Hebrews and early Christians.

In Praying the Bible, Elizabeth Canham guides her readers’ use of the Bible as a focus for their prayer lives, while embracing the Biblical knowledge which connects us to the original spirituality of scripture.

In A Table of Delight, Elizabeth Canham explores the theme of wilderness as a place of holy encounter as well as struggle. Using stories from the Old and New Testament, she traces the human quest for God and the reality of divine grace in times of doubt and difficulty.

The Desert hermits learned to pray in isolated places and Irish monks often chose inhospitable “deserts” as their “place of resurrection.” Drawing wisdom from these forbears in faith and offering insights from her own experience, she offers contemporary Christians encouragement on their pilgrimage. In the darkest and most difficult times God does meet us with the sustenance we need and spreads a table in the wilderness – a table that delights us with sustaining nourishment.

“Weaving her own pilgrim journey into stories of Biblical and Celtic journeys, Elizabeth Canham voices the truth that the outer, external pilgrimage of our lives are of little value unless we are willing to make the most important inner journey into our own wilderness places,” says the Benedictine Sister Macrina Wiederkehr. “Something turned over in my heart while I was reading A Table of Delight. I was deeply moved.”

Her newest book, Ask the Animals (October, 2006), is a collection of 30 meditations, in which she shares her experiences of prayer through different animals.

“Ask the animals,” Job says, “and they will teach you; the birds of the air and they will tell you ... who among you does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this?” If you want to find God the best place you can look is God’s amazing creation – especially the world of animals. From the humpback whale, who offers a glimpse of God’s mystery, to the elephant, who models God’s fiercely protective love and compassion, to the blackbird, who opens our eyes to the song of joy that sings through the cosmos, the animal kingdom is a treasure trove of images of our Creator.

Michele Guinness

Michele Guinness is a freelance journalist and PR consultant, and has also worked as a researcher, writer and presenter for most of the major British television companies. At one time she presented her own three-hour, daily lunchtime programme on BBC local radio. She now works as Communications Officer for the Blackpool, Wyre and Fylde Primary Care NHS Trusts, and Blackpool Social Services and is married to the Revd Peter Guinness, an Anglican priest.

She has written seven books, including a chronicle of the Guinness family, with a special emphasis on the missionary side of the family, particularly Henry Grattan Guinness. Her book The Guinness Spirit is the inspiring story of Henry Grattan Guinness.

In her best-selling Child of the Covenant, Michele Guinness talks about making sense of being both Jewish and Christian. This biography tells of a Jewish girl rediscovering her roots by finding Christ. She tells how she was brought up to observe all the traditions and ritual of her Jewish culture. An encounter with a Christian raised many questions for her, and she turned to the Bible for the answers. She tells how she came face to face with the Messiah and had to make sense of being both Jewish and Christian.

In Promised Land, she continues her story, describing vividly the move to Peter’s first job, in “Grimlington,” a town representative of the industrial English North. But Grimlington turns out to be a promised land for Michele and her family, where they unearth hidden gold.

In The Heavenly Party, she draws upon her rich Jewish heritage, and integrates the sacred and secular using pilgrim festivals and symbol, ritual and liturgy. She explains what true celebration is, with ideas and resources for celebration at home or in the wider community.

Part 1 explores what true celebration is and looks at how Jesus loved to party.

Part 2 discusses festival parties, including anniversaries, a weekly Sabbath, events in the church calendar, and includes suggestions for rituals, prayers, liturgies.

Part 3 looks at general ideas for celebration, with suggestions on organising the celebration event.

Part 4 offers her 50 best celebration recipes.

Resources and Reading:

Cecil Frances Alexander:

See the notes on her hymns in the Church Hymnal (25, 177, 244, 284, 322, 584) in Edward Darling and Donald Davison (eds), Companion to Church Hymnal (Dublin: Columba Press, 2005).

Florence Li Tim-Oi:

Florence Tim-Oi Li, Raindrops of My Life (Toronto: Anglican Book Centre, 1996, 128 pp) – her own memoirs in English.
Florence Tim-Oi Li (with Ted Harrison), Much Beloved Daughter (London: DLT, 1985, 118pp).
David M Paton, R O – The Life and Times of Bishop Hall of Hong Kong (1985, 332 pp).
Beyond Hepu, a video by the Rev Dr Bob Browne containing memories of those who knew Florence Li Tim-Oi.

Elizabeth Canham:

Elizabeth Canham, Heart Whispers, Benedictine Wisdom for Today (Guildford, Surrey: Eagle Books, 2001).
Elizabeth Canham, Ask the Animals: Spiritual Wisdom from all God’s Creatures (Morehouse Publishing, November 2006).
Elizabeth Canham, Pilgrimage to Priesthood (London: SPCK, 1983).

Michele Guinness:

Michele Guinness, Child of the Covenant (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1994).
Michele Guinness, The Heavenly Party (Monarch).
Michele Guinness, Made for Each Other: Reflections on the Opposite Sex (London: SPCK, 1996).
Michele Guinness, Promised Land (Ulverscroft Large Print Books, 1989).
Michele Guinness, Tapestry of Voices: Meditations on Women’s Lives (2000).

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological College. This essay is based on notes prepared for a seminar on the Year I course Christian Spirituality on 16 April 2008.