Friday, 18 July 2008

Holy Fools and Sober Drunkenness in the Cloisters

Master’s Court in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge (Photograph Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Metropolitan Kallistos Ware has been a popular speaker on Orthodoxy for decades, and introduced many people to Orthodoxy through his popular book, The Orthodox Church, which was first published in 1963, when he was only 29, and only five years after he joined the Orthodox Church.

Metropolitan Kallistos is a monk of the Monastery of Saint John on Patmos, titular Bishop of Diokleia and as assistant bishop in the Orthodox Archdiocese of Thyateira and Great Britain, under the Ecumenical Patriarchate. A Fellow of Pembroke College, Oxford, for 35 years he was Spalding Lecturer in Eastern Orthodox Studies at the University of Oxford.

I first heard Metropolitan Kallistos as a visiting lecturer when I was a student at the Irish School of Ecumenics (1982-1984). It was wonderful to hear him again this week in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, at the summer school on “The Ascent to Holiness” organised by the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies.

In his paper, Metropolitan Kallistos asked: “What is a Saint?” When the priest in the Orthodox liturgy says: “The holy things for the holy people,” he pointed out, this could also be translated as: “The sacraments for the saints,” or: “The holy things for the saints.”

There is one who is holy, Jesus Christ. Sanctity belongs to God, and we merely participate in God’s holiness. But sanctity is a universal vocation, to be a saint is the norm; a saint is a normal human being, as God intended humanity to be. All the baptised are called to be saints.

He related sainthood and sanctity to the descent of the Holy Spirit to Pentecost. In the Orthodox Calendar, the Sunday after Pentecost is All Saints’ Day. We are spirit bearers, and this is the fulfilment of Pentecost (Acts 2: 4), all are conferred with the gift of the Holy Spirit.

As he offered three descriptions of what it is to be a saint, he said is always good to have three points to make. He had been told to always have three points in sermon – although when he heard some sermons it would be good if they even had one point, and “some have none.”

He recalled a visit to Mount Athos in the early 1970s with Philip Sherrard and Gerald Palmer while they were working on their translation of the Philokalia. As they sat on a balcony on Chilandar overlooking a lake, they listened to frogs singing below. “These frogs were quite liturgical. First they started on the right bank, then on the left bank. They sang antiphonally, and there were a few soloists too, as they glorified God.”

For Gerald Palmer, a saint is someone who is conscious of God all the time, someone who sees Christ everywhere, and that way fulfils Paul’s call to pray without ceasing. A saint is a person of continual prayer, someone who not only prays all the time but is prayer all the time.

He shared a story he heard in a sermon when he was a boy of 10. An old man was sitting and appeared to be doing nothing for a long time. A child asked him why he was sitting there and doing nothing for such a long time. I’m not doing nothing, he explained. I sit and look at God, and God sits and looks at me.

The saints are intensely alive, and living in and with the living Christ, he said. They share the mind of Christ and hear our prayers.

He listed the three qualities of a saint as sociability, specificity and secrecy.

Looking at sociability, he said koinonia teaches us that the communion of saints is a relationship with one another and of God with us. It is a mark of sanctity to share. God is love, but not self-love, turned inwards. God is shared love, mutual love. When we are made in the image of God we are made in the image of the Trinity and we are called to reproduce on earth the movement of mutual love that passes between the three divine persons, the perichoresis of the Trinity.

To be a true human being is to reproduce the love of the Trinity. This is the basis or the origin of the holiness that marks the saints. John McMurray defined personhood in terms of relationship: “I need you in order to be myself.” The saint is the one who realises this to the highest possible way.

The Lord’s Prayer uses the word us five times, our three times, and we once, but never uses the words I, me or my, we were reminded.

Metropolitan Kallistos told the story of Saint Macarius who came across the skull of a pagan priest who told him he was in hell. The saint asked him what hell was like, and was told that those who were there were bound one to another, back-to-back, unable to see each other’s faces. “There is the essence of hell – not to be able to see the face of the other, not to be able to relate, not to be able to love.”

Speaking of specificity, he spoke of the variety among the saints: “The saints are surprising. It is sin that is monotonous. Sanctity is surprising. There are no new sins, always new forms of sanctity … Saints express the uniqueness of our human vocation.”

Martin Buber had once written about an Hasidic rabbi who was afraid that at the last judgment he would be asked not why he was not Abraham, not why he was not Moses, but why he had not been the unique person God had created him to be.

His third description of sainthood was hidenness. He said the saints were often ignored and attacked in their own lifetimes, and it was only after death that they had been glorified. He gave examples from the lives of Saint John Maximovitch of Shanghai and Saint Seraphim of Sarov.

“They did not have an easy time. Often they were secret, hidden, not recognised in their own lifetimes. That’s why we have the Feast of All Saints … The world is being supported by hidden persons of prayer ... the saints are hidden from the outside world, and from themselves, often not aware of their position.”

The Macarian Homilies

When we were having lunch in the Monastery of Saint John the Baptist in Tolleshunt Knights on Tuesday, one of the monks was reading from the Homilies of Saint Macarius during our lunch. And so it was interesting to hear Dr Marcus Plested explore the Homilies of Saint Macarius on Thursday when he spoke on “Experiencing Holiness: Saint Macarius.”

Dr Plested is Vice-Principal and Academic Director of the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, and author of The Macarian Legacy (Oxford University Press, 2004).

As he distinguished Saint Macarius of the Homilies from other saints with the same name, he too told the story of Saint Macarius of Egypt coming across the skull of a soul now languishing in hell. He also told the story Saint Macarius of Alexandria who healed a hyena’s blind whelp, and was thanked by the hyena later with a sheepskin.

Saint Macarius of the Homilies wrote simply under the title of “the Blessed One.” His homilies are extraordinarily worked, with rich imagery and a vibrant symbolism in Syriac poetry that combines the spiritual traditions of the Syriac and Greek theological, ascetic and spiritual traditions.

For Saint Macarius, when the soul becomes the dwelling place of God, man’s purpose becomes fulfilled. The movement is double one. The throne of the Godhead is our intellect, and the throne of our intellect is the Godhead and the Spirit. God serves the person in the city of the soul, and the souls serves God in the heavenly city. God’s love bridges the gap between the Creator and the creature. Sainthood is not to be attained only in the afterlife, but is to be achieved here within the soul, although it is only at the resurrection that this sainthood becomes evident on the outside.

Macarius is a deeply practical theologian when it comes to sin and evil. By the experience of sin and grace, the soul is educated and becomes more perceptive and vigilant. He says: “The soul has got to undergo its own Passover” – we have to taste both the sweetness of the lamb and the bitterness of the herbs.

Holy Fools and King Lear

The Principal of the IOCS, Professor David Frost, is a distinguished translator of liturgical texts and the Psalms, and with a particular expertise in Shakespeare. It was a culturally uplifting experience to hear him talk on “Shakespeare and Nous: Holy Fools in King Lear.”

Great artists are the prophets and seers of their age, with enduring relevance and the power to influence beliefs and change lives, he told us. For many, King Lear is the most agnostic and despairing of Shakespeare’s works, but he said in essence it is both compatible with Christian belief and it is fundamentally Christian in its message, which is matched only by great Russian writers such as Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, he said.

The play constantly raises questions about morals and the origins of evil, offers ambiguous or agnostic answers, and defies any efforts to resolve.

The naïve faith in the powers above of some of the “rational” characters is called into question by the defeat of Lear and Cordelia’s defeat, the murder of Cordelia and the death of Lear. Albany tries to tidy up afterwards and set things to right. Yet Shakespeare remains deliberately ambiguous, providing an altered ending from an older story to reflect on how things turn out in the world.

Dr Frost then took the unnamed character of the Servant, who is moved by pity and who suffers death, as an example of nous, which is seen by both Plato and Plotinus, and in Eastern Orthodoxy, as “the eye of the soul.” This Servant is ordinary, unredeemed humanity, capable of acts of common decency.

To Cordelia is reserved role of redeeming the play from black despair. When she replies to her father, “No cause, no cause,” she refuses to accept that anything done to her allows her to seek vengeance or to hate. Love is feely given to those who don’t deserve it. The acceptance of undeserved love allows re-establishment of relationship. Reconciliation is made possible by the power of nous. Cordelia forgives as we would wish to be forgiven. The power of nous breaks in when it is least expected. Whatever the practical fate of those who forgive, the Christian ethic of forgiveness is vindicated in the play. The alternative is that the world will tear itself apart. We know what we must choose, even if the world around us may not survive.

‘Sober Drunkenness’

Later, Archimandrite Ephrem Lash, who has been a regular lecturer at the institute in Cambridge, spoke about the Liturgy in his paper, “Sober Drunkenness: Holiness in the Liturgy.” Father Ephrem comes from an interesting family: his uncle, a Downside monk, was Bishop of Bombay, his brother is the Roman Catholic theologian, Professor Nicholas Lash of Cambridge, he is an uncle of the actor Ralph Fiennes, while he is a monk of Mount Athos and an archimandrite attached to the Ecumenical Throne in Constantinople, and is now working in a mainly Greek-Cypriot parish in London.

He said the Liturgy is a communal act, not private devotions. “We do not go to church to pray as individuals, we go to make a joyful noise unto God.” Everything about the Liturgy is holy, and the object of the liturgy is to make us partakers of God’s holiness, to have communion. The gifts are made holy by the work of the Trinity, where the Holy Spirit is the agent of the Holy Trinity. The Epiklesis or invocation of the Holy Spirit is not a magic moment, but about hallowing or making holy.

He said again that the purpose of the Liturgy is not to produce the “real presence,” but is communion, with the holy gifts transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ so that we may eat and drink them. And he was so right when he said: “There is no magic moment.” The whole Liturgy is one complete holy action, and it cannot be broken up into parts.

The Mitre and the Cloisters

At the end of the day, we held our celebration dinner in the Old Library in Sidney Sussex. And then a few of us – Anglicans, Lutherans and Orthodox, from Ireland, England, Iceland, Canada, the Church of Ireland, the Church of England, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Iceland, the Antiochan Orthodox Church and the Russian Orthodox Church – adjourned to the Mitre, between Sidney and Magdalene.

Later as we sipped port in the Cloisters back at Sidney Sussex, we agreed the Mitre was an appropriately named pub. Were we indulging in sober drunkenness or was it drunken sobriety? We may not have been holy fools, but we certainly had what came close to “magic moments” or even communion with one another this past week.

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

A Living Word (V): Learning from others: the Bahá’is

The shrine of the Bab on Mount Carmel, outside Haifa, which I first visited in 1987

Patrick Comerford

The Bahá’i Faith, founded by Bahá’u’lláh, is one of the world’s newest monotheistic faiths. Its origins can be traced to Iran in 1844, and there are now five to six million Bahá’is around the world. In many countries they are persecuted, ostracised and mistrusted.

Like the members of the other great monotheistic faiths, the Bahá’is have their own sacred scriptures, laws, calendar and holy days.

There are more than five million believers in Bahá’i Faith around the world. The first connection between Ireland and the Bahá’i Faith was formed in 1848, when an Irish doctor treated the Báb – the predecessor of Bahá’u’lláh – in his prison cell.

In the first years of the 20th century, several people became Bahá’is in Ireland, and the American consul in Cork and his family were well-known Bahais at the time.

The Bahai community in Ireland was formally constituted sixty years ago at a meeting in Dundrum in Dublin on April 20 1948. In the 1950s and 1960s, the Bahá’i community in Ireland expanded with a steady and increasing flow of new Irish Bahá’i, joined by a number of new arrivals from overseas.

What can we learn from this small, peaceful, monotheistic faith community?

The most important principle for a Bahá’i is the oneness of humanity. Bahá’is believe that the creation of harmony and unity between all peoples is the fundamental purpose of all religion. They say that the one-ness of humanity is the foundation for the other principles of social justice to which Bahá’i s are committed.

Despite persecution, marginalisation and mistrust, this small monotheistic faith community remains committed to universal peace and religious tolerance.

This contribution to A Living Word was first broadcast on 18 July 2008 on RTÉ Radio 1. A Living Word is broadcast Monday to Friday at 6:40 a.m. as part of Risin Time with Maxi and repeated Tuesday to Saturday at 12:58 a.m. as part of Late Date. A Living Word is Radio 1's long-standing two-minute daily meditation. The archives are available at:

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

Thursday, 17 July 2008

Visiting Christ’s Garden and God’s House

The Revd Christopher Woods in Christ’s College, Cambridge, where he is chaplain (Photograph © Patrick Comerford, 2008)

Patrick Comerford

Last night, a former student at the Church of Ireland Theological College, the Revd Christopher Woods, invited me to dinner in the Fellows’ dining room at Christ’s College, Cambridge, where he has been chaplain since last September.

Christ’s College is the college of the poet John Milton, who came up in 1628; Erasmus Darwin (1825), to my delight because of his Lichfield connections; the historian Simon Schama; the satirist Sacha Baron Cohen; and Archbishop Rowan Williams, who must be facing the toughest weeks ever at the moment at the Lambeth Conference.

This year in Christ’s, they are marking the four-hundreth anniversary of Milton’s birth; next year, the plan to mark the bicentenary of Darwin’s birth; the portraits of both hang in the Hall, which was largely rebuilt by George Gilbert Scott the younger in 1876. Perhaps after this year’s events at the Lambeth Conference they will want to hang a portrait of Archbishop Williams in the Hall too. Christ’s was also the college of the novelist C.P. Snow, who was a fellow of Christ’s in the 1930s and 1940s, and he described the college in his novel The Masters (1951).

The Fellows’ Building in Christ’s dates from 1642, and is one of the earliest examples of classical architecture in Cambridge. The central gates lead to the Fellows’ Garden, which was laid out in the early 19th century. Despite that date, it claims to still have Milton’s mulberry tree. This mulberry tree was probably planted 400 years ago in 1608, the year of John Milton’s birth, on the orders of King James I to encourage the silk industry. The scheme was short-lived, because the wrong sort of mulberry bush was planted. But it is said Milton sat under the tree to write his poetry. It is said that Milton was a pale, delicate, long-haired young man, and that the other students nicknamed him “the Lady of Christ’s.” The Fellows’ Garden also has several beehives, and even has an early 18th century bathing pool, built for hardy bathing.

The origins of Christ’s College date back to 1440s, when the small College of God’s House was established in the aftermath of the Black Death as one of the first dedicated teacher training colleges in England.

Almost a century later, Bishop John Fisher used his influence with Lady Margaret Beaufort, the mother of King Henry VII and grandmother of King Henry VIII, to secure a new charter on 1 May 1505 that turned the College of God’s House into a new college dedicated to Jesus Christ. But it is has been known ever after as Christ’s College. I wondered why it wasn’t known, perhaps, as Jesus College. But Jesus College – the college of Thomas Cranmer – is in Jesus Lane, just around the corner from me at Sidney Sussex College. But I’m still learning about the peculiarities of Cambridge college names – Jesus College was established in 1496 as “The College of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Saint John the Evangelist and the Virgin Saint Radegund.”

The entrance to Christ’s College is also peculiar. In many ways, it is similar to the magnificent gateway of Lady Margaret Beaufort’s other foundation, Saint John’s. But due to the rise of the street levels over 500 years, the bottom of the wooden entrance gates has had to be removed. When I walked through these entrance gates, I found that the First Court, which dates from the time of God’s House, is not square like other Cambridge college courts, because it follows the street line.

The chapel of Christ’s dates back to God’s House, and retains on the north side some of the oldest stained glass in Cambridge, dating back to pre-Reformation days of the late 15th and early 16th centuries, as well as one of the few surviving mediaeval eagle lecterns. High on the wall on the south side of the chapel is the window of Lady Margaret’s oratory, which allowed her to view the worship in the chapel below. The window, which connects the chapel with the Master’s Lodge, was later blocked up but was reopened in 1899. The chapel was enlarged in 1506, and Christopher showed me some of the original features, now hidden behind the wooden panelling which dates from 1702.

On the north side of the altar, there is a peculiar monument to two inseparable fellows of Christ’s, Sir John Finch and Sir Thomas Baines – Baines died in Constantinople, and Finch had his body embalmed and shipped back to England, so they could be buried together in Cambridge. I wonder what a Lambeth Conference would have thought of that in those days.

Christ’s College also played a central role in the story of the Cambridge Platonists, whose numbers from Christ’s included Ralph Cudworth, Henry More, Benjamin Whichcote and William Paley, author of the Evidences of Christianity (1794). They believed, in contrast to many of their contemporaries, in reason as the primary route to God, “for the spiritual is most rational,” as Whichcote declared. Charles Darwin later lived in Paley’s old rooms in First Court.

The last ordained Master of Christ’s College was the Revd Dr Charles Raven an outspoken pacifist in the 1940s and 1950s who was a great friend of the late Archbishop George Otto Simms. And in the 1950s, the Revd John Brown was chaplain before moving to the Church of Ireland Theological College.

There is an apocryphal story that once after he had said grace in Latin before dinner in the theological college, he was challenged by a student who said: “I didn’t understand what have you said.” To which John Brown retorted immediately: “I wasn’t speaking to you.”

We said grace in Latin before and after dinner last night. Then, after a bottle of port it was back to the B Bar, which was once the old Arts Cinema in Market Passage, a few steps away from Sidney Sussex, to catch up with my email, my Facebook messages, and my blogging.

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

A Living Word (IV): Learning from others: Sikhs

Patrick Comerford

A few weeks ago, I was celebrating the Eucharist in Saint John’s Church, Sandymount. As I strolled back to lunch, I passed the old cinema on Serpentine Avenue that is now home to Dublin’s Sikh community.

During the warm welcome I received in the Sikh temple or Gurudwara, I was reminded constantly that this too is one of the great monotheistic communities of faith.

There are 20 million Sikhs around the world. They are the world’s fifth largest religion. There are about 1,200 Sikhs in the Republic of Ireland. It may be one of Ireland’s newest religious communities, but the Sikh religion dates back to the 15th century.

People of all religious backgrounds, even those with no religious faith, are welcome in the Gurudwara, where Sikh public worship of the one God focuses on listening to and singing the words of the Sikh Scriptures.

Men and women are equal among Sikhs. All sit on the floor, symbolising down-to-earth humility before God and equality with one another. The equality of all, regardless of religion, caste, colour, creed, age, gender or class, is a core Sikh value.

Afterwards, everyone present – Sikh or not – is invited to the Langar or vegetarian meal, expressing the Sikh values of sharing, community, inclusiveness and the oneness of humanity.

This meal reminds Sikhs they must be prepared to serve all who come to their door. The voluntary serving of the meal shows the Sikh value voluntary, selfless service. The meal reminds Sikhs that everyone is equal and that Sikhs must be prepared to share their possessions.

I left the Gurudwara wondering whether we Christians convey the same values when strangers visit our churches.

This contribution to A Living Word was first broadcast on 17 July 2008 on RTÉ Radio 1. A Living Word is broadcast Monday to Friday at 6:40 a.m. as part of Risin Time with Maxi and repeated Tuesday to Saturday at 12:58 a.m. as part of Late Date. A Living Word is Radio 1's long-standing two-minute daily meditation. The archives are available at:

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

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

The Ascent to Holiness and the Search for the Holy Man

A view across Cambridge from my room in Sidney Sussex College (Photograph © Patrick Comerford 2008)

Patrick Comerford

The participants in the Cambridge summer school organised by the Institute for Christian Orthodox Studies – lecturers and students – come from a variety of backgrounds, although we are mainly Orthodox and Anglican, with a large number of priests from both traditions. And so it is very that we began today with Orthodox Matins in the Anglican Chapel of Sidney Sussex College.

The summer school topic is “The Ascent to Holiness,” drawing on The Ladder of Ascent by Saint John Climakos. Dr George Bebabwi was back with us this morning and looked at “Holiness in the Eastern and Western Churches.” And once again, there were real nuggets of wisdom as he strayed from his prepared text.

Holiness is not a virtue, he told us, but is “a participation in the holiness of God, period.” Humility, silence and ascetism are virtues in the practice of holiness. But holiness is not; rather, it is a participation in God’s holiness.

To be holy is to receive or to participate in the holiness of God. When we receive Holy Communion, we receive and participate in the holiness of Christ. But we cannot acquire holiness. We can protect holiness by ascetism, but we cannot acquire holiness.

To stay in the realm of grace requires practice. But grace is received, not achieved.

For the Fathers of the Church, to be holy is to receive the spirit of holiness. God is holy, but holiness in the New Testament and for the Early Fathers is to partake in the divine nature.

Christ is the head of the body, which is the Church, and every member of the body participates in the holiness of Christ. Holiness, in its definition, is deification; it is not a virtue, but is the work of the Holy Spirit within us.

Every human being is made in the image of God. And so, if holiness means being dedicated to God, then in every person there is a glimpse of God.

He told the story of a rabbi who once suggested to God, “let’s play.”

“Play what?” asked God.

“Let’s play hide and seek,” suggested the rabbi.

“But I’ve been doing it all along in Old Testament,” said God.

“Then hide in the human heart,” the rabbi prompted.


“Because that’s the last place humans will look into and search.”

Saint Macarius had written that the outer form of life is fading away, but in the inner life we can sense the bones and tissues of Christ.

Cardinal John Henry Newman once explained that he preferred beauty to food, because once you eat a meal the food gone, but when you see something beautiful, the memory of it lasts for a long time, and offers a glimpse of immortal life.

Later in the morning, Professor Sebastian Brock spoke on “Holiness in Song: St Ephrem the Syrian.” Dr Brock was introduced by Professor David Frost, who described him as the world’s foremost Syriac scholar. The two worked together on the translations of the Psalms used in the Alternative Service Book of the Church of England (1980) and the Alternative Prayer Book of the Church of Ireland (1984). Dr Brock was a reader in Syriac Studies at the University of Oxford’s Oriental Institute in the university of Oxford, is now a professorial Fellow at Wolfson College, oxford, and is a Fellow of the British Academy.

Saint Ephrem wrote most of his theology, at the height of the Arian controversy, as poetry. For Saint Ephrem, right being means responsible living, on a horizontal plane with the rest of humanity and the rest of creation, and on a vertical plane with God. It is only our with realisation of the inter-connectedness and interdependence of every human being that right action becomes an imperative that is directed towards all other human beings, and towards the whole environment and whole creation.

He spoke of the interior liturgy of the heart which is required as a response to the outward liturgy of the Church, and spoke of the three churches that need each other and need to function together: the heavenly church with the heavenly liturgy; the church of the altar and the liturgy on earth; and the church of the human heart with its interior liturgy.

In the afternoon, Professor Frost read a paper by his wife, Dr Christine Mangala, on “Holiness in Eastern Religion: an Orthodox Perspective.” She comes from an ancient family of Brahmin poets, sages and priests in the Shivite religious tradition in India, and was the first woman to win Nehru Memorial Scholarship. Today, like her husband, she is an Orthodox Christian. It would have been fascinating to meet her, but she cannot be in Cambridge this week because she is teaching on behalf of the Syrian Orthodox Church in Aleppo.

She tells the story of an ashram near Madras that is visited regularly by a well-dressed Westerner. Once he arrives, he takes off all his clothes, covers himself in white ashes and renounces the world. The local people respect and venerate this naked sadhu, flocking in their hundreds to be in his presence. But what they do not know is that back in Europe he is high-flying, French fashion designer, who needs to cast off his life as a fashion guru in order to liberate himself from the world of fashion and to explore seek out his inner self.

She described bizarre bazaar in India, especially on the banks of the Ganges, of so-called holy men with their ascetic practices, many of them extreme cases with fakirs, swamis, and gurus engaging self-torture, growing lengthy nails and beards, standing on one leg, or lying on beds of nails.

But this raises questions for Orthodox Christians, she said. Can there be saints in non-Christian religions? Can there be manifestation of the Holy Spirit in other religions? And how should Christians respond to them?

She spoke about Eastern teachers who encouraged their followers to make a clean sweep of suffering and evil as delusional. But she found they were often shallow and slick, offensive and patronising, with inadequate answers about evil and suffering, which they dismissed as delusional. With their futile philosophical quests for self-realisation, they did not inspire a sense of holiness; they were not purifying the ego, but destroying it.

Holiness is inconceivable within an impersonalist world view, she said. Holiness is the luminous, active mystery of God, present in all his transcendent actions.

But then the question had to be asked: is there anything in Hindu traditions that we can acknowledge as genuine? She had also found true holiness in the everyday life of ordinary Hindus, expressed in their everyday lives, their music, their poetry and even in their dance. The search for the love and grace of a personal God are deeply rooted in the Hindu psyche, and in their poetry especially we can find a longing for the divine, the holy, the pure.

She compared some of the bakthi poets with those who are called blessed in the beatitudes because they are hungering for God. Some of them had experienced God in a vision that was a vision of light; they celebrate life and exude joy, but also sorrow over a suffering world. Their pleas to God are deeply poignant, but they rejoice at the same time. And joy in sorrow and sorrow in joy must be recognised as trait of saintliness.

The holy women and men we remembered this evening during Orthodox Vespers in the college chapel included Saint Marina the Martyr of Antioch and Saint Andrei Rublev, the great Russian icon writer. Then it was off to dinner with a former student at the Church of Ireland Theological College, the Revd Christopher Woods, who has been the chaplain at Christ’s College, Cambridge, for the past year.

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

A Living Word (III): Learning from others: Jews

The interior of the Irish Jewish Museum on Walworth Road, off Dublin’s South Circular Road

Patrick Comerford

The date for Easter this year is so early that many Christians probably did not notice the later date for Passover this year, from 19 to 28 April.

Passover is the principal Jewish festival. It reminds us all of the principles that we cannot be free to worship God and to have a loving relationship with God unless we are free ourselves. Passover is a reminder that civil, political and religious rights are inseparable.

In a similar way, the second great Jewish festival, Pentecost, is a celebration both of the freedom the Exodus brings and the new covenant with God that it leads to.

The Jewish celebration of Pentecost is a reminder of God’s great and generous provision for us. As a Christian, of course, my celebration of Pentecost each year reminds me of God’s bountiful generosity in the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

But the Jewish celebration of Pentecost also serves to remind me that when God meets my needs God is aware of both my spiritual and my physical needs, and that I cannot expect those needs to be met unless I also want God to be generous in providing for the needs of others.

The third great Jewish festival, the Feast of Tabernacles, is a beautiful reminder of the beauty of God’s creation. I cannot live in this world and think that it is only there to meet my needs and demands. It has been entrusted to my care, to our care, and we have a responsibility for that creation, not just as a fashion statement, but because God asks us to take care of it. We are all God’s partners in his great plan for creation.

This contribution to A Living Word was first broadcast on 16 July 2008 on RTÉ Radio 1. A Living Word is broadcast Monday to Friday at 6:40 a.m. as part of Risin Time with Maxi and repeated Tuesday to Saturday at 12:58 a.m. as part of Late Date. A Living Word is Radio 1’s long-standing two-minute daily meditation. The archives are available at:

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

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

A bus from Jesus to monastic holiness

Sister Magdalen at Saint John's Monastery in Tolleshunt Knights, near Maldon, Essex (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, in his classical introductory book, The Orthodox Church, tells the story of Vladimir, Prince of Kiev, who was still a pagan when he felt the need to know what the true religion was. He sent his followers to visit different countries in turn. They first visited the Muslim Bulgars of the Volga, but reported back: “There is no joy among them, but mournfulness and a great smell; and there is nothing good about them.”

The envoys next visited Germany and Rome. In those places, they found the worship more satisfactory, but complained too that the worship was without beauty.

Finally, they travelled on to Constantinople, where they attended the Divine Liturgy in the Great Church of Aghia Sophia, and discovered what they desired. They reported back to Kiev: “We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. We cannot describe it to you: only this we know, that God dwells there among humans, and that their service surpasses the worship of all other places. For we cannot forget that beauty.”

Bishop Kallistos is due to speak tomorrow on “What is a Saint?” at the summer school in Sidney Sussex College Cambridge organised by the Institute for Orthodox Studies. Today, Saint Vladimir of Kiev was being commemorated in the Orthodox Calendar, and the participants experienced some of that beauty and holiness when we visited the monks and nuns at the Stavropegic Monastery of Saint John the Baptist in Tolleshunt Knights, near Maldon in Essex.

This monastery, which was founded by Archimandrite Sophrony (1896-1993), a disciple of Saint Silouan (1866-1938) of Mount Athos, is a mixed community and gives a central place to the Jesus Prayer and is a popular place for pilgrims and Orthodox visitors.

Our visit involved an early start from Cambridge, catching a bus on Jesus Lane at 6 a.m. so we could be in the monastery just after 7 for the Divine Liturgy. And there we experienced as liturgy commemorating Saint Vladimir, but a liturgy that would have gripped Vladimir’s envoys with its unforgettable beauty.

After breakfast, Sister Magdalen spoke to us in the Silouan Hall about “Monastic Holiness” and “Monastic Spirituality.” For her, “Holiness is the divine life lived in human life, made possible in the incarnation, which shows us it is possible to live as the sons or daughters of God.”

In the monastic life, she explained simple, if you love Christ then you o his will. If you were irritated by the habits or behaviour of another member of the community, you did not get angry or complain, but prayed in words such as: “Lord have mercy on Sister Magdalen and by her holy prayers have mercy on me.”

Sister Magadlen is the author of a number of books, including Conversations with Children: Communicating our Faith. As she communicated her faith to us, she was full of wisdom, learning, humour and personal humility. For her the world is sustained by prayer, and every prayer is a cosmic event with cosmic dimensions and cosmic consequences.

And she told the tender story of a monk who came to the city and wept when he saw a finely dressed prostitute. He was asked why he was crying, and explained that he was weeping “for her soul and for myself.” He had understood that she had spent many hours in dressing herself and preparing herself for what he knew was going to be a short moment, while he knew he was constantly standing before the Eternal Throne but felt he had spent little time in preparation.

We had a shared meal again with the monks and nuns at lunchtime, before returning to Cambridge this afternoon. But in spiritual terms I had spent a summer’s day sipping spiritual cocktails by the spiritual swimming pool.

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

A Living Word (II): Learning from others: Muslims

Learning from our Muslim neighbours: Archbishop John Neill with Dr Ali Selim (left) and Patrick Comerford (right) during a recent visit to the Mosque in Clonskeagh, Dublin

Patrick Comerford

Today there are over 30,000 Muslims living in Ireland. Many people still see Muslims as being different or foreign, although many Muslims in Ireland were born here.

The very negative reactions to the recent comments by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, show how difficult it is for Christian leaders to suggest that there is something of value, something we can learn, from our Muslim neighbours.

But I have always been impressed by the way Muslims are able to express the core values of their faith in simple words that are easily understood. I wonder how many Christians could express their faith with such confidence. How many would not be ashamed to confess it so openly?

Faithful Muslims pray five times a day. How many Christians can say our daily life is punctuated by a rhythm of prayer?

Muslims say giving to the needy is a religious obligation, and that charity is something that goes beyond religious obligation. If Christians were equally generous I imagine we could make major inroads into solving the problems of poverty in Ireland and globally.

Muslims are required to fast throughout the month of Ramadan. Their commitment to this puts to shame my half-hearted efforts at Lent or Advent.

And every Muslim tries to make a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in their life. If only I could remind myself constantly that life itself is one long pilgrimage!

These five pillars of Islam are five imaginative and generous ways my Muslim neighbours remind me of the core values and challenges at the heart of my Christian faith.

This contribution to A Living Word was first broadcast on 15 July 2008 on RTÉ Radio 1. A Living Word is broadcast Monday to Friday at 6:40 a.m. as part of Risin Time with Maxi and repeated Tuesday to Saturday at 12:58 a.m. as part of Late Date. A Living Word is Radio 1's long-standing two-minute daily meditation. The archives are available at:

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

Monday, 14 July 2008

Humour with the Desert Fathers in Cambridge

A view with a room: looking up towards my room (K5) in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2008)

Patrick Comerford

If anyone has doubts about the potential for humour among the Early Fathers, the wisdom of taking part in a summer school on Patristic studies or wonders where humour and relevance might be found in these subjects, then the opening day of the summer school on ‘The Ascent to Holiness’ at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, today (Monday, 14 July) would have dispelled all misgivings.

Dr George Bebabwi only barely managed to stick to his script as he delivered his paper on ‘Discernment’ with great style and humour. Dr Bebabwi is an Egyptian scholar now living in Indianapolis. He is a former director of the Institute for Christian Orthodox Studies, has lectured on Islam and Judaism in Cambridge, and was a tutor at Saint John’s College Nottingham while Bishop Richard Henderson was a student there.

At an early stage in his presentation he warned us against any “method” being applied to discernment and the search for holiness. “Christian life is not controlled by methods or guided by techniques. We have a fellowship with the persons of the divine and Holy Trinity,” he told us. So, to participate in the life of God denies for us a method or a technique. We cannot be part of the life of a person – any person – by learning a method or a technique.”

But he also warned against what he described as “learning wisdom.” He quoted from the Egyptian Desert Father, Abba Poemen, who said: “A man who teaches without doing what he teaches is like a spring which cleanses and gives drinks to everyone, but is not able to purify itself.”

He told us the story of a monk in Egypt who wanted to be martyr. His abbot warned him against false heroism and told him it was easy to be unusual. True heroism, the abbot said, is found in daily life, looking for reality and finding God’s will there. The monk persisted in his quest for martyrdom, however, and headed off to an area controlled by nomadic tribes, and demanded to become a martyr. But once they captured him, he was unable to resist, and rather than accept the pain of martyrdom he worshipped their idols. He returned to the monastery, where the abbot reminded him that true heroism often lies in dealing with daily realities rather than seeking to be dramatic or unusual. And he reminded us of an old priest who once told him: “You live the cross when you make the sign of the cross – accepting the harsh times when they come.”

Waiting for godly action

In another story he told, the Devil appeared to a rabbi saying he wanted to repent. The rabbi said this was too much to deal with on his own and he needed to call a minyan or quorum of rabbis to deal with it. The rabbis prayed, and eventually, when God appeared to them in a cloud, he asked them: “Why doesn’t he speak to me directly. Let him repent.”

The first rabbi returned, and reported to the Devil, who said “Yes, I’ll repent. But he has to accept me as I am.”

Once again, the rabbis went back and told God what the Devil had said. To this God replied: “He has to repent, and he has to accept me as I am.”

It was a serious treatment of discerning between good and evil, right and false doctrine, the intentions of the heart and its secret movements, and holy angels and evil ones, drawing on the writings of the Desert Fathers. But throughout the discussion, there were moments of great compassion and humour. But then, as he quoted Saint Anthony, the founder of monasticism, as saying: “Joy and not fear are the signs of the holy.”

At one stage, he told a story from the Abbot Sophronius of a desert monk who was called on for an exorcism. The monk slowly took out the scroll of the Book Genesis and started to read methodically and carefully at Chapter 1, Verse 1, not verse-by-verse, or even word-by-word, but letter-by-letter: “I-N T-H-E B-E-G-I-N-N-I-N-G, G-O- …” Before he got any further, the Devil interrupted the monk, demanding in an outraged voice: “This is an exorcism – aren’t you supposed to be reading the Psalms.” “I’ll get to them, in my own good time,” the monk replied nonchalantly. “I can’t wait that long,” was the impatient response. “I’m out of here now.”

Holiness in Scripture

In the first paper at the morning session, the Revd Dr Nikolai Sakharov looked at “Holiness in the Old and New Testaments.” He traced the movement from early ideas that saw holiness as the holiness of God, whose holiness was linked to being separate from the world, through later ideas about the physical dimensions of holiness, including the holiness of inanimate objects set aside for the worship of God, the holiness of people who were set aside for worship and who were expected to be ritually pure, or the holiness of soldiers, prophets and Israel as a nation, before moving on the concept of the holiness of people being found in spiritual holiness.

However, in the New Testament, holiness comes with living the word and following Christ in loving others. “For us Orthodox Christians, to love is not just to be nice,” he said. “To love is no longer an ethical or moral category, but an ontological category.”

And he added: “Christ is our living commandment. How otherwise can you teach people to love? There is no other way aside from example.”

The morning lectures were chaired by the Principal of the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, Professor David Frost, who was a key contributor to the collects and the translations of the Psalms in the Alternative Prayer Book published by the Church of Ireland in 1984.

‘True and False Holiness’

In the afternoon, the Revd Dr Fraser Watts spoke about “True and False Holiness,” looking at holiness and the personal transformation of the person on the pathway to holiness. Dr Watts is the Starbridge Lecturer in Theology and the Natural Sciences at the University of Cambridge, a post that owes its origins and inspiration to the author Susan Howatch. An Anglican priest, he is also vice-chaplain at the Church of Saint Edward the Martyr in Cambridge.

He said that theology, like philosophy, is better when it is done with another discipline. He spoke of the benefits of binocular vision, and said it is difficult with to estimate depth with just one eye.

He said it was clear to psychologists that spiritual practices have a transforming effect on people who are on the path to holiness, helping them emotionally, reducing their anxieties or freeing them from addictions, he said. But for Christians, the path to holiness cannot be advanced on pragmatic grounds, he said. It must be the right and proper response to God’s saving work in Christ and our life in the Church, and not about the benefits such as reducing anxiety and guilt.

Referring to the developments in forgiveness therapy in psychology in the past decade or so, he said psychology is now better at giving helpful advice about forgiveness. But forgiveness should not be just because of the benefits, but because it is right and proper, he said. “God has forgiven humanity, so we should forgive.”

Looking at key moments of personal transformation found in encounters with Jesus in the Gospels, he said they were marked by three characteristics: Promise, involving the promise of enormous, deep personal transformation; Cost, in which that promise was balanced by a warning of the Costliness of moving towards transformation, “which doesn’t come cheap”; and Reassurance – on this costly path, we will not be on our own, for the Spirit will be with us.

He said psychotherapy and counselling understand the needs for hope and expectation, but also understand the cost involved. If we find ourselves stuck in one limited way of relating to people, there is a promise of another, better way, but it comes at the cost of letting go of limited ways bin order to move onto something higher and bigger. That journey need not be faced alone, and the need accompaniment and support along the way is recognised by the counsellor or therapist.

We are all different people, he said, with different journeys, different starting points, so there is no identikit model of what it is to become a holy person. There is a variety of people, each on our own journey. But our similarities mean that there are points on the map that may help us all, even if we do not have identical journeys.

Later there was an interesting discussion about the psychology of grace and deep and superficial forms of forgiveness. “Forgiveness is not just forgetting, but is costly,” he said. “And it carries obligations.” And yet he recognised that there are times when forgiveness is not possible, “not just because people haven’t reached the point where possible, but also because of the enormity of what has happened.”

Holy men and wise women

The Revd Professor Andrew Louth is one of the leading patristic scholars in Britain today. He has been Professor of Patristic and Byzantine Studies at University of Durham since 1996. He was received into the Orthodox Church in 1989 and was ordained in Durham in 2003. He spoke in the afternoon about “The Holy Man in Late Antiquity.”

In a very wise paper, he looked at the difference between the saint and the martyr, between the holy man and the saint, between the holy man and the wise woman, and the between holy man and the holy place.

Tomorrow we’re off to meet some modern holy men and wise women when we visit the Monastery of Saint John the Baptist in Tolleshunt, Essex, where Dr Sakharov is a monk.

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

Simply Sidney

Chapel Court, Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge

Patrick Comerford

There’s a popular story in Drogheda of a young child proudly bringing a group of her friends into Saint Peter’s Church to show them “the head of Blessed Oliver Cromwell.”

Well, they don’t have the head of Oliver Plunkett in Cambridge, but they do have the head of Oliver Cromwell, which is said to be buried under the floor of the Chapel of Sidney Sussex College, where I took part in Matins this morning.

I arrived in Cambridge last night for the Ninth Cambridge Summer School, which has been organised by the Institute for Christian Studies, which is part of the Cambridge Theological Federation. Before we got down to work this morning, we had dinner in the Dining Hall at Sidney Sussex College last night and then went around the corner to Wesley House on Jesus Lane for Vespers and for a very relaxed reception on the lawn.

The theme of this year’s summer school is “The Ascent to Holiness,” and my participation is possible because of a generous grant from the Oulton Fund. Throughout the week, the summer school is taking place in Sidney Sussex College, and my room, which looks out towards Sidney Street, is K5 – what a laugh if they really had placed me in K9. My stairs is in New Parlour, which is part of Cloister Court, and looks out over Sidney Street to Sainsbury’s and Trinity College. Cloister Court is an inspired and charming neo-Jacobean building designed by Pearson as New Court and built in 1890 to provide more room for the growing numbers of undergraduates.

Sidney Sussex is sometimes known simply as Sidney, although students from neighbouring colleges also call it “Sidney Sainsbury’s” – well I am only a few steps across the street from the Sidney Street branch of Sainsbury’s, which every Cambridge student uses because of its central location.

Sidney is one of the 31 colleges that make up the University of Cambridge. But Sidney Sussex is a very well-kept secret. Its legacy of Nobel Prize winners, its Elizabethan brickwork, its charming Cloister Court, its haunting Chapel, its exquisite rococo Hall, mediaeval cellars and its beautiful ancient gardens all lie behind a rather self-effacing wall of Roman cement. The student population is relatively small with about 350 undergraduates and 190 graduates. But Sidney Sussex has traditionally excelled in certain subjects, notably engineering, history and law. And Sidney boasts strong women’s football and netball teams … and performs well at darts.

The college also claims to have the cheapest bar in Cambridge, although I have yet to find it … perhaps it’s not open at the moment.

For those who delight in Trivial Pursuits, Sidney Sussex had a winning team on University Challenge in both 1971 and 1978-1979, and the 1978 team went on to win the “Champion of Champions” University Challenge Reunion in 2002. But then, this small college has always punched way above its weight and from 1596 Sidney fellows and students have made a huge impact on all aspects of English national culture, religion, politics, business, law and science.

A Puritan foundation

From the beginning, Sidney Sussex was an avowedly Puritan foundation: “some good and godlie moniment for the mainteynance of good learninge.” The college motto is: “Dieu me garde de calomnie.”

Oliver Cromwell was among the first students here, although his father became ill and he never graduated. His head is now buried beneath the college chapel. Sidney has produced soldiers, political cartoonists, alchemists, spies, murderers, ghosts and arsonists as well as media personalities, film and opera directors, a Premiership football club chairman, best-selling authors, the man who introduced soccer to Hungary, the 1928 Grand National winner and – according to Dorothy Sayers – it must have been the college of Sherlock Holmes.

Sidney excels academically across the board in most subjects yet retains its unique friendly, informal yet traditional atmosphere. It has given us five Nobel Prize winners (the fourth highest among Cambridge colleges). From the 1940s, history has also been a huge success story with Asa Briggs, David Thomson, Derek Beales, Tim Blanning, Otto Smail, John Brewer and Helen Castor among the many names who have acquired international reputations. Politicians and commentators include the former Foreign Secretary David Owen, and Frank Owen, the legendary editor of the Evening Standard. In the arts, there is John Madden, director of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, and Christopher Page, who brought the music of the mediaeval mystic Hildegard of Bingen to our attention.

Who was Lady Sidney Sussex?

For a college officially founded on Saint Valentine’s Day, Sidney also had a “Lovers’ Walk.” But was Lady Frances Sidney Sussex a romantic person, and how did Sidney Sussex College get its strange name?

Before Sidney was founded, the Grey Friars, or Franciscans inhabited this site for almost 300 before the upheavals of the Reformation which led to Sidney's foundation as an explicitly protestant college. The cellars housing Sidney’s wine below Hall Court are said to be mediaeval structures from that monastic age.

Long after the Reformation and the dissolution of the monastic foundations, Sidney Sussex, founded in 1596, and was named after its founder, Frances Sidney, Countess of Sussex. Lady Frances Sidney is an enigmatic woman. She was the aunt of the poet Sir Phillip Sidney, and was married to the leading courtier and soldier, the Earl of Sussex. At Queen Elizabeth’s court, she was an adviser and patron of literature and music. Her homes included Bermondsey, near the royal palace at Greenwich, and the magnificent New Hall at Boreham, Essex, close to the Mildmay family who founded Emmanuel, another Protestant college in Cambridge.

She died in 1589 and is commemorated in a grand physical monument in Westminster Abbey as well as the “goodly and godly” one at Cambridge. But what inspired Lady Frances to found a college in Cambridge in the first place? Her will was written just after the Spanish Armada and five years after the death of her husband, who had been a loyal Catholic under Mary and a fierce rival of Leicester and his protégé, Lady Frances’s nephew, Sir Philip Sidney. Was it her idea to leave a small sum to found a college, or did the idea come from powerful and influential her theological mentor, Archbishop Whitgift?

Whitgift was a moderate Calvinist and a strong enemy of radical Puritanism. Nevertheless, he wanted a serious transformation of the training of priests in the Church of England priests. James Montagu, the first Sidney master, was James I’s editor and one of the translators of the Authorised Version of Bible in 1611.

Other fellows and students in the crucial years leading up to the English Civil War included: Thomas Gataker, a classical scholar and Puritan theologian who became embroiled in a debate about predestination and gambling; the High Churchman and Hebraicist John Pocklington, whose Sunday No Sabbath was burned in 1635; Samuel Ward of Ipswich, who was a celebrated preacher based in Ipswich and one of Britain's first political cartoonists; Jeremiah Whitaker, the oriental scholar and friend of Cromwell who took a leading role at the seminal 1643 Westminster Assembly of Divines; the royalist Sir Thomas Adams, founder of an Arabic professorship at Cambridge and Lord Mayor of London; and Thomas Adams, who was a major influence on John Bunyan.

However, there is a question as to whether Sidney was ever really a Puritan college, for royalists abounded at Sidney too. The most notable was Archbishop John Bramhall (1594-1663) of Armagh, who played a crucial role alongside the saintly Bishop Jeremy Taylor in the Church of Ireland after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660.

Sidney took a lead in science and medicine too. Bishop Seth Ward of Winchester was a major mathematician and astronomer and a founder of the Royal Society. John Sterne was founder of the Royal College of Physicians in Dublin as well as a professor of law and Hebrew.

Perhaps the most important figure at Sidney in the early 18th century was the theologian and moral philosopher William Wollaston, whose Religion of Nature Delineated (1724) led to his being one of five British “worthies,” alongside Newton and Boyle. The Lichfield-born writer, Samuel Johnson, famed for his dictionary, is known as Dr Johnson because of the honorary doctorate he received in Dublin. But he once made visit Sidney which nearly led, it seems, to the great doctor becoming a Fellow.

A High Church tradition

Although the head of Oliver Cromwell was somewhere beneath the chapel floor as we sang Matins this morning, the Chapel of Sidney Sussex now has a very visible High Church tradition, now adorned with a previously unthinkable Catholic altarpiece by the Venetian painter Pittoni. The Chapel was redesigned by James Essex in the 1770s and is an impressive make-over of a plain if evocative 17th century religious space.

For much of the early Victorian period, Sidney became in effect an Anglican seminary. The Victorians included Robert Machray, who became Canada’s first archbishop, the pioneering Anglo-Catholic Thomas Pelham Dale, who was jailed for his ritualism and High Church practices, and John Wale Hicks, who became an Anglo-Catholic Bishop of Bloemfontein. A new chapel was built in Sidney in the Edwardian era, becoming in the eyes of many the finest and most elaborate modern Catholic-style chapel in Cambridge.

But why did this once “Puritan” college respond so positively to the rise of the High Church tradition and Anglo-Catholicism? I hope to find out over the next week, even if I don’t find the cheap beer.

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

A Living Word (I): Learning from others: the monotheistic faiths

Patrick Comerford

Some years ago, Newsweek magazine ran a front cover feature proclaiming the oft-forgotten truth that Jews, Christians and Muslims all claim to be the children of Abraham, and that the members of the three great monotheistic faiths share much in common with one another – that those common beliefs and values outweigh our differences.

Why is so difficult, then, to share with one another what we believe, and the common values that come from those beliefs.

The great monotheistic faiths are often seen as Judaism, Christianity and Islam. But we could also add the Sikhs and the Bahá’i community. All believe in the one God. All revere sacred scripture, even if we cannot agree on the content of those holy books, and all believe that our God wants a world where we are at peace with one another, where we love one another as we love ourselves, and where that love is translated in action for social justice and universal peace.

In our changing Ireland, the small Jewish community has a lengthy and respected place in Irish life, culture and politics. There are now more than 30,000 Muslims in Ireland, many of them Irish-born. And the other monotheistic traditions – the Sikhs and the Bahá’i community – are growing.

Instead of seeing other faith traditions as exotic or foreign, how can we see them as traditions that can contribute positively to Irish values? Is there something new we can learn from them – something new about ourselves?

Join me this week on a pilgrimage of exploration, learning something from these faith communities. I hope your faith, your hope, and your love will be strengthened – because each of these traditions has enriched my life too.

This contribution to A Living Word was first broadcast on 14 July 2008 on RTÉ Radio 1. A Living Word is broadcast Monday to Friday at 6:40 a.m. as part of Risin Time with Maxi and repeated Tuesday to Saturday at 12:58 a.m. as part of Late Date. A Living Word is Radio 1's long-standing two-minute daily meditation. The archives are available at:

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

An Anglican crisis?

The Irish Times carries the following editorial comment this morning:

Women bishops

The General Synod of the Church of England, after a marathon seven-hour debate in York last week, agreed to press ahead with the ordination of woman as bishops. The move was met with mixed reaction, both within the Church of England and throughout the wider ecumenical community, with warnings about dire consequences from traditionalists and conservatives within the Church of England and expressions of regret from the Vatican. But the Church of England has taken longer to reach this decision than many of its partner churches in the Anglican Communion: although the Church of Ireland has yet to elect and consecrate a woman as bishop, the principle has long been accepted; and there are woman bishops in many other autonomous, self-governing member churches of the Anglican Communion, from New Zealand and Australia to Canada and the United States.

The guarantees provided in the past to the opponents of women priests have only deepened divisions. This time round, the General Synod has refused to provide formal guarantees for clergy who are opposed to the idea of a woman as bishop. However, legislation is a lengthy process and it may yet be the year 2015 before a woman becomes a bishop in England.

Few of the 700 bishops of the Anglican Communion gathering in Canterbury this week for the Lambeth Conference will be fretting over last week’s decision. They are more likely to be worried about the ever-deepening conflicts and divisions within Anglicanism, stirred by the consecration of a gay bishop in the US, same-sex unions in Canada, and the recent mass gatherings of conservative bishops and lobbyists in both Jerusalem and London where division was the order of the day. These reactionaries, who are threatening schism and separation, are a fragile coalition of some conservative evangelicals who have openly attacked Archbishop Alan Harper’s recent conciliatory speech and want a much narrower church and, on the other hand, Anglo-Catholic traditionalists looking over their shoulders at Rome.

The Vatican’s Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity said the decision in York raises a further obstacle to reconciliation between Anglicans and Rome. But that missive fails to recognise that the Church of England is only one among 40 or so member churches of the Anglican Communion, that woman priests and bishops have become an acceptable reality for Anglicans, Lutherans and many others, and that an increasing number of Catholics yearn for the day when they too can debate the possibility of having woman as priests and even as bishops.

Sunday, 13 July 2008

Moonlight Sonata by Yannis Ritsos

The Acropolis in Athens under Moonlight (Photograph: Athens News Agency)


Patrick Comerford

One of my favourite poems is Moonlight Sonata by Yannis Ritsos.

Yannis Ritsos (1909-1990), the poet of the Greek left, is considered one of the four greatest Greek poets of the 20th century, alongside Kostis Palamis (1859-1943), Giorgos Seferis (1900-1971) and Odysseus Elytis (1911-1996). The French poet Louis Aragon once described him as “the greatest poet of our age.”

Ritsos published 120 collections of poems, nine volumes of prose, and several translations of Russian and Eastern European poetry. Many of his poems have been set to music by the Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis. His poetry was banned at times in Greece for its left-wing politics and sympathies. His great works include Tractor (1934), Pyramids (1935), Epitaphios (1936) and Vigil (1941/1953). Although his poems are marked by their strong political content, one of the exceptions is his Moonlight Sonata:

I know that each one of us travels to love alone,
alone to faith and to death.
I know it. I’ve tried it. It doesn’t help.
Let me come with you.

Yannis Ritsos was born in Greece in the old walled town of Monemvassia on 1 May 1909, the last child in a noble, land-owning family. During his youth his family was devastated by economic ruin after his father went bankrupt, the unexpected early death from tuberculosis of both his mother and his eldest brother, and his father’s lengthy spells in a psychiatric unit. Yannis Ritsos spent four years between 1927 and 1931 in a sanatorium with tuberculosis. The experience of these tragic events marks his work and shaped him as a poet and as a revolutionary.

Ritsos lived most of his life in Athens. In his early 20s, he became involved in left-wing politics, and he spent many years in detention, in prison and in internal exile.

He published his first collection of poetry, Tractors, in 1934, follwed by Pyramids in 1935. These two collections achieved a fragile balance between faith in the future and personal despair. His epic poem Epitaphios (1936) uses the shape of the traditional popular poetry to express in clear and simple language its moving message of fraternity, solidarity and hope in the future. Later, the setting of Epitaphios by Mikis Theodorakis in 1960 sparked a cultural revolution in Greece.

The Metaxas regime tried to silence Ritsos from August 1936, and his Epitaphios was burnt publicly. But he continued writing. The Song of my Sister (1937), Symphony of the Spring (1938), and The Lady of the Vineyards (1945-1947), inspired the Seventh Symphony by Theodorakis (1983-1984), also known as Symphony of the Spring.

After World War II, during the Greek civil war, Ritsos fought against the fascists, and spent four years in various detention camps, including Lémnos, Ayios Ephstratios and Makronissos. Despite this, he published his collection Vigil (1941-1953), and a long poetic chronicle of that terrifying decade: Districts of the World (1949-1951), the basis of another later composition of Theodorakis.

Romiossini (Greek-ness), first published only in 1954 and set into music by Theodorakis in 1966, is a proud and shattering hymn to the glory of a once-humiliated Greece and its freed people.

His mature works include The Moonlight Sonata (1956), The Stranger (1958), The Old Women and the Sea (1958), The Dead House (1959-1962) and a set of monologues inspired by mythology and the ancient tragedies: Orestes (1962-1966) and Philoctetes (1963-1965).

Between 1967 and 1971, the military junta deported Ritsos to Yaros and Leros before sending him to Samos. But he continued writing: Persephone (1965-1970), Agamemnon (1966-1970), Ismene (1966-1971), Ajax (1967-1969) and Chrysothemis (1967-1970) – both written during his internal island exile – Helena (1970-1972), The Return of Iphigenia (1971-1972) and Phaedra (1974-1975).

Ritsos also wrote also several short poems that reflected his people’s living nightmare. In the 1980s, he also wrote novels. Nine books are united under the title of The Iconostasis of the Anonymous Saints (1983-1985), which has been translated in three volumes by my good friend, Amy Mims (Athens: Kedros, 1996-2001), who has also published a critical biography of Ritsos in Greece.

The poems in his last book, Late in the night (1987-1989), are filled with sadness and the conscience of losses, but preserve a sense of hope and creativity.

During the last decades of his life, he was active in the peace movement. He received the Lenin Peace Prize in 1977 and the International Peace Prize in 1979. In 1986, he was a founder with Theodorakis of the Greek-Turkish Friendship Society. Shortly before his death, he declared: “Man’s inclination is towards well-being, happiness and peace. There must be peace throughout the world because you cannot yourself be at peace when your brother is being wronged.”

Ritsos was unsuccessfully proposed nine times for the Nobel Prize for Literature. When he won the Lenin Peace Prize, he declared: “This prize – it’s more important for me than the Nobel.”

Despite his often tragic view of life, Ritsos was not pessimistic: “I love life, and especially I love beauty.” He died in Athens on 11 November 1990.

Moonlight Sonata: the setting

After its publication over fifty years ago in 1956, Moonlight Sonata won the National Poetry Prize of Greece. It was soon translated into French by Aragon, who first introduced Ritsos to literary Europe. It has been translated into English by Peter Green and Beverley Ardsley of Austin, Texas (1993), and by Marjorie Chambers of Queen’s University Belfast (2001), and is included in many anthologies.

The scene is set in a dark, decaying, haunted family mansion in the Plaka in Athens, full of memories, old furniture and collected bric-a-brac, its plaster flaking off and its floorboards lifting and cracking. Because this crumbling house appears to be close to the steps of the Church of Aghios Nikólaos Rangava, I imagine the crumbling mansion described by Ritsos is similar to the crumbling mansion that was once home to the great Irish-born Philhellene, Sir Richard Church. The former glory of this house and her failure to maintain it have become major burdens for the Woman in the Black, who is the narrator of this poem.

The Woman in Black might be an early version of Ismene or Elektra. She lives with a gnawing loneliness and is losing her battle against age and death. Yet in her acute erotic awareness of the young male visitor in the house, she prefigures the more intense eroticism of Phaedra. Trapped in her house of memories, she longs to escape the cloying house and her past and to embrace some real human connections, to embrace the present and the future. Constantly her refrain ends sadly with the persistent line: Άφησε με να έρθω μαζί σου ... “Let me come with you.”

But can there ever be an escape from the past?

The poem:

Ανοιξιάτικο βράδυ. Μεγάλο δωμάτιο παλιού σπιτιού. Μια ηλικιωμένη γυναίκα, ντυμένη στα μαύρα, μιλάει σ' έναν νέο. Δεν έχουν ανάψει φως. Απ' τα δύο παράθυρα μπαίνει ένα αμείλικτο φεγγαρόφωτο. Ξέχασα να πω ότι η Γυναίκα με τα Μαύρα έχει εκδώσει δύο-τρεις ενδιαφέρουσες ποιητικές συλλογές θρησκευτικής πνοής. Λοιπόν, η Γυναίκα με τα Μαύρα μιλάει στον Νέο:

Άφησέ με να έρθω μαζί σου. Τι φεγγάρι απόψε!
Είναι καλό το φεγγάρι, – δε θα φαίνεται
που άσπρισαν τα μαλλιά μου. Το φεγγάρι
θα κάνει πάλι χρυσά τα μαλλιά μου. Δε θα καταλάβεις.
Άφησέ με να έρθω μαζί σου ...

Όταν έχει φεγγάρι μεγαλώνουν οι σκιές μες στο σπίτι,
αόρατα χέρια τραβούν τις κουρτίνες,
ένα δάχτυλο αχνό γράφει στη σκόνη του πιάνου
λησμονημένα λόγια δε θέλω να τ ακούσω. Σώπα.
Άφησε με να έρθω μαζί σου
λίγο πιο κάτου, ως την μάντρα του τουβλάδικου,
ως εκεί που στρίβει ο δρόμος και φαίνεται
η πολιτεία τσιμεντένια κι αέρινη, ασβεστωμένη με φεγγαρόφωτο,
τόσο αδιάφορη κι άυλη
τόσο θετική σαν μεταφυσική
που μπορείς επιτέλους να πιστέψεις πως υπάρχεις και δεν υπάρχεις
πως ποτέ δεν υπήρξες, δεν υπήρξε ο χρόνος κι η φθορά του.
Άφησε με να έρθω μαζί σου ....

Θα καθίσουμε λίγο στο πεζούλι, πάνω στο ύψωμα,
κι όπως θα μας φυσάει ο ανοιξιάτικος αέρας
μπορεί να φανταστούμε κιόλας πως θα πετάξουμε,
γιατί, πολλές φορές, και τώρα ακόμη, ακούω τον θόρυβο του φουστανιού μου
σαν τον θόρυβο δύο δυνατών φτερών που ανοιγοκλείνουν,
κι όταν κλείνεσαι μέσα σ αυτόν τον ήχο του πετάγματος
νιώθεις κρουστό το λαιμό σου, τα πλευρά σου, τη σάρκα σου,
κι έτσι σφιγμένος μες στους μυώνες του γαλάζιου αγέρα,
μέσα στα ρωμαλέα νεύρα του ύψους,
δεν έχει σημασία αν φεύγεις ή αν γυρίζεις
κι ούτε έχει σημασία που άσπρισαν τα μαλλιά μου,
(δεν είναι τούτο η λύπη μου η λύπη μου
είναι που δεν ασπρίζει κι η καρδιά μου).
Άφησε με να έρθω μαζί σου ...

Το ξέρω πως καθένας μοναχός πορεύεται στον έρωτα,
μοναχός στη δόξα και στο θάνατο.
Το ξέρω. Το δοκίμασα. Δεν ωφελεί.
Άφησε με να έρθω μαζί σου....

Τούτο το σπίτι στοίχειωσε, με διώχνει –
θέλω να πω έχει παλιώσει πολύ, τα καρφιά ξεκολλάνε,
τα κάδρα ρίχνονται σα να βουτάνε στο κενό,
οι σουβάδες πέφτουν αθόρυβα
όπως πέφτει το καπέλο του πεθαμένου
απ' την κρεμάστρα στο σκοτεινό διάδρομο
όπως πέφτει το μάλλινο τριμμένο γάντι της σιωπής απ' τα γόνατά της
ή όπως πέφτει μιά λουρίδα φεγγάρι στην παλιά, ξεκοιλιασμένη πολυθρόνα.

Κάποτε υπήρξε νέα κι αυτή, – όχι η φωτογραφία που κοιτάς με τόση δυσπιστία –
λέω για την πολυθρόνα, πολύ αναπαυτική, μπορούσες ώρες ολόκληρες να κάθεσαι
και με κλεισμένα μάτια να ονειρεύεσαι ό,τι τύχει
– μιάν αμμουδιά στρωτή, νοτισμένη, στιλβωμένη από φεγγάρι,
πιο στιλβωμένη απ' τα παλιά λουστρίνια μου που κάθε μήνα τα δίνω
στο στιλβωτήριο της γωνίας,
ή ένα πανί ψαρόβαρκας που χάνεται στο βάθος λικνισμένο απ' την ίδια του ανάσα,
τριγωνικό πανί σα μαντίλι διπλωμένο λοξά μόνο στα δύο
σα να μην είχε τίποτα να κλείσει ή να κρατήσει
ή ν' ανεμίσει διάπλατο σε αποχαιρετισμό.
Πάντα μου είχα μανία με τα μαντίλια,
όχι για να κρατήσω τίποτα δεμένο,
τίποτα σπόρους λουλουδιών ή χαμομήλι μαζεμένο στους αγρούς με το λιόγερμα
ή να το δέσω τέσσερις κόμπους σαν το αντικρινό γιαπί
ή να σκουπίζω τα μάτια μου, – διατήρησα καλή την όρασή μου,
ποτέ μου δεν φόρεσα γυαλιά. Μιά απλή ιδιοτροπία τα μαντίλια ...

Τώρα τα διπλώνω στα τέσσερα, στα οχτώ, στα δεκάξι
ν' απασχολώ τα δάχτυλά μου.
Και τώρα θυμήθηκα
πως έτσι μετρούσα τη μουσική σαν πήγαινα στο Ωδείο
με μπλε ποδιά κι άσπρο γιακά, με δύο ξανθές πλεξούδες
– 8, 16, 32, 64, –
κρατημένη απ' το χέρι μιας μικρής φίλης μου ροδακινιάς όλο φως και ροζ λουλούδια,
(συγχώρεσέ μου αυτά τα λόγια κακή συνήθεια) – 32, 64, – κι οι δικοί μου στήριζαν
μεγάλες ελπίδες στο μουσικό μου τάλαντο. Λοιπόν, σου λεγα για την πολυθρόνα –
ξεκοιλιασμένη – φαίνονται οι σκουριασμένες σούστες, τα άχερα –
έλεγα να την πάω δίπλα στο επιπλοποιείο,
μα που καιρός και λεφτά και διάθεση – τι να πρωτοδιορθώσεις ; –
έλεγα να ρίξω ένα σεντόνι πάνω της, – φοβήθηκα
τ' άσπρο σεντόνι σε τέτοιο φεγγαρόφωτο. Εδώ κάθισαν
άνθρωποι που ονειρεύτηκαν μεγάλα όνειρα, όπως κι εσύ κι όπως κι εγώ άλλωστε,
και τώρα ξεκουράζονται κάτω απ' το χώμα δίχως να ενοχλούνται απ' τη βροχή ή το φεγγάρι.
Άφησε με να έρθω μαζί σου ...

Θα σταθούμε λιγάκι στην κορφή της μαρμάρινης σκάλας του Αϊ-Νικόλα,
ύστερα εσύ θα κατηφορίσεις κι εγώ θα γυρίσω πίσω
έχοντας στ' αριστερό πλευρό μου τη ζέστα απ' το τυχαίο άγγιγμα του σακακιού σου
κι ακόμη μερικά τετράγωνα φώτα από μικρά συνοικιακά παράθυρα
κι αυτή την πάλλευκη άχνα απ' το φεγγάρι που 'ναι σα μια μεγάλη συνοδεία
ασημένιων κύκνων –
και δε φοβάμαι αυτή την έκφραση, γιατί εγώ
πολλές ανοιξιάτικες νύχτες συνομίλησα άλλοτε με το Θεό που μου εμφανίστηκε
ντυμένος την αχλύ και την δόξα ενός τέτοιου σεληνόφωτος,
και πολλούς νέους, πιο ωραίους κι από σένα ακόμη, του εθυσίασα,
έτσι λευκή κι απρόσιτη ν' ατμίζομαι μες στη λευκή μου φλόγα, στη λευκότητα του σεληνόφωτος,
πυρπολημένη απ' τ' αδηφάγα μάτια των αντρών κι απ' τη δισταχτικήν έκσταση των εφήβων,
πολιορκημένη από εξαίσια, ηλιοκαμένα σώματα, άλκιμα μέλη γυμνασμένα στο κολύμπι, στο κουπί, στο στίβο, στο ποδόσφαιρο
(που έκανα πως δεν τα 'βλεπα)
– ξέρεις, καμιά φορά, θαυμάζοντας, ξεχνάς, ό, τι θαυμάζεις,
σου φτάνει ο θαυμασμός σου, –
θε μου, τι μάτια πάναστρα, κι ανυψωνόμουν σε μιαν αποθέωση αρνημένων άστρων
γιατί, έτσι πολιορκημένη απ' έξω κι από μέσα,
άλλος δρόμος δε μου 'μενε παρά μονάχα προς τα πάνω ή προς τα κάτω.
– Όχι, δε φτάνει.
Άφησε με να έρθω μαζί σου ...

Το ξέρω η ώρα είναι πια περασμένη. Άφησέ με,
γιατί τόσα χρόνια, μέρες και νύχτες και πορφυρά μεσημέρια, έμεινα μόνη,
ανένδοτη, μόνη και πάναγνη,
ακόμη στη συζυγική μου κλίνη πάναγνη και μόνη,
γράφοντας ένδοξους στίχους στα γόνατα του Θεού,
στίχους που, σε διαβεβαιώ, θα μένουνε σα λαξευμένοι σε άμεμπτο μάρμαρο
πέρα απ' τη ζωή μου και τη ζωή σου, πέρα πολύ. Δε φτάνει.
Άφησε με να έρθω μαζί σου ...

Τούτο το σπίτι δε με σηκώνει πια.
Δεν αντέχω να το σηκώνω στη ράχη μου.
Πρέπει πάντα να προσέχεις, να προσέχεις,
να στεριώνεις τον τοίχο με το μεγάλο μπουφέ
να στεριώνεις τον μπουφέ με το πανάρχαιο σκαλιστό τραπέζι
να στεριώνεις το τραπέζι με τις καρέκλες
να στεριώνεις τις καρέκλες με τα χέρια σου
να βάζεις τον ώμο σου κάτω απ' το δοκάρι που κρέμασε.
Και το πιάνο, σα μαύρο φέρετρο κλεισμένο. Δε τολμάς να τ' ανοίξεις.

Όλο να προσέχεις, να προσέχεις, μην πέσουν, μην πέσεις. Δεν αντέχω.
Άφησε με να έρθω μαζί σου ...

Τούτο το σπίτι, παρ όλους τους νεκρούς του, δεν εννοεί να πεθάνει.
Επιμένει να ζει με τους νεκρούς του
να ζει απ' τους νεκρούς του
να ζει απ' τη βεβαιότητα του θανάτου του
και να νοικοκυρεύει ακόμη τους νεκρούς του σ' ετοιμόρροπα κρεββάτια και ράφια.
Άφησε με να έρθω μαζί σου ...

Εδώ, όσο σιγά κι αν περπατήσω μες στην άχνα της βραδιάς,
είτε με τις παντούφλες, είτε ξυπόλυτη,
κάτι θα τρίξει, – ένα τζάμι ραγίζει ή κάποιος καθρέφτης,
κάποια βήματα ακούγονται, – δεν είναι δικά μου.
Έξω, στο δρόμο μπορεί να μην ακούγονται τούτα τα βήματα, –
η μεταμέλεια, λένε, φοράει ξυλοπάπουτσα, –
κι αν κάνεις να κοιτάξεις σ' αυτόν ή τον άλλον καθρέφτη,
πίσω απ' την σκόνη και τις ραγισματιές,
διακρίνεις πιο θαμπό και πιο τεμαχισμένο το πρόσωπό σου,
το πρόσωπο σου που άλλο δε ζήτησες στη ζωή παρά να το κρατήσεις
καθάριο κι αδιαίρετο.

Τα χείλη του ποτηριού γυαλίζουν στο φεγγαρόφωτο
σαν κυκλικό ξυράφι – πώς να το φέρω στα χείλη μου;
όσο κι αν διψώ, – πως να το φέρω ; – Βλέπεις ;
έχω ακόμη διάθεση για παρομοιώσεις, – αυτό μου απόμεινε,
αυτό με βεβαιώνει ακόμη πως δεν λείπω.
Άφησε με να έρθω μαζί σου ...

Φορές-φορές, την ώρα που βραδιάζει, έχω την αίσθηση
πως έξω απ' τα παράθυρα περνάει ο αρκουδιάρης
με τη γριά βαρειά του αρκούδα
με το μαλλί της όλο αγκάθια και τριβόλια
σηκώνοντας σκόνη στο συνοικιακό δρόμο
ένα ερημικό σύννεφο σκόνη που θυμιάζει το σούρουπο
και τα παιδιά έχουν γυρίσει σπίτια τους για το δείπνο και δεν τ' αφή – νουν πιαν να βγουν έξω
μ' όλο που πίσω απ' τους τοίχους μαντεύουν το περπάτημα της γριάς αρκούδας –
κι η αρκούδα κουρασμένη πορεύεται μες στη σοφία της μοναξιάς της,
μην ξέροντας για πού και γιατί –
έχει βαρύνει, δεν μπορεί πια να χορεύει στα πισινά της πόδια
δεν μπορεί να φοράει τη δαντελένια σκουφίτσα της να διασκεδάζει τα παιδιά,
τους αργόσχολους, τους απαιτητικούς,
και το μόνο που θέλει είναι να πλαγιάσει στο χώμα
αφήνοντας να την πατάνε στην κοιλιά,
παίζοντας έτσι το τελευταίο παιχνίδι της,
δείχνοντας την τρομερή της δύναμη για παραίτηση,
την ανυπακοή της στα συμφέροντα των άλλων, στους κρίκους των χειλιών της, στην ανάγκη των δοντιών της,
την ανυπακοή της στον πόνο και στη ζωή
με τη σίγουρη συμμαχία του θανάτου – έστω κι ενός αργού θανάτου –
την τελική της ανυπακοή στο θάνατο με τη συνέχεια και τη γνώση της ζωής
που ανηφοράει με γνώση και με πράξη πάνω απ τη σκλαβιά της.

Μα ποιος μπορεί να παίξει ως το τέλος αυτό το παιχνίδι ;
Κι η αρκούδα σηκώνεται πάλι και πορεύεται
υπακούοντας στο λουρί της, στους κρίκους της, στα δόντια της,
χαμογελώντας με τα σκισμένα χείλη της στις πενταροδεκάρες που της
ρίχνουνε τα ωραία κι ανυποψίαστα παιδιά
(ωραία ακριβώς γιατί είναι ανυποψίαστα)
και λέγοντας ευχαριστώ. Γιατί οι αρκούδες που γεράσανε
το μόνο που έμαθαν να λένε είναι: ευχαριστώ, ευχαριστώ.
Άφησέ με να έρθω μαζί σου ...

Τούτο το σπίτι με πνίγει. Μάλιστα η κουζίνα
είναι σαν το βυθό της θάλασσας. Τα μπρίκια κρεμασμένα γυαλίζουν
σα στρογγυλά, μεγάλα μάτια απίθανων ψαριών,
τα πιάτα σαλεύουν αργά σαν τις μέδουσες,
φύκια κι όστρακα πιάνονται στα μαλλιά μου – δεν μπορώ να τα ξεκολλήσω ύστερα,
δεν μπορώ ν' ανέβω πάλι στην επιφάνεια –
ο δίσκος μου πέφτει απ' τα χέρια άηχος, – σωριάζομαι
και βλέπω τις φυσαλίδες απ' την ανάσα μου ν' ανεβαίνουν, ν' ανεβαίνουν
και προσπαθώ να διασκεδάσω κοιτάζοντές τες
κι αναρωτιέμαι τι θα λέει αν κάποιος βρίσκεται από πάνω και βλέπει αυτές τις φυσαλίδες,
τάχα πως πνίγεται κάποιος ή πως ένας δύτης ανιχνεύει τους βυθούς ;

Κι αλήθεια δεν είναι λίγες οι φορές που ανακαλύπτω εκεί, στο βάθος του πνιγμού,
κοράλλια και μαργαριτάρια και θυσαυρούς ναυαγισμένων πλοίων,
απρόοπτες συναντήσεις, και χτεσινά και σημερινά μελλούμενα,
μιαν επαλήθευση σχεδόν αιωνιότητας,
κάποιο ξανάσαμα, κάποιο χαμόγελο αθανασίας, όπως λένε,
μιαν ευτυχία, μια μέθη, κι ενθουσιασμόν ακόμη,
κοράλλια και μαργαριτάρια και ζαφείρια,
μονάχα που δεν ξέρω να τα δώσω – όχι, τα δίνω,
μονάχα που δεν ξέρω αν μπορούν να τα πάρουν – πάντως εγώ τα δίνω.
Άφησέ με να έρθω μαζί σου ...

Μια στιγμή, να πάρω τη ζακέτα μου.
Τούτο τον άστατο καιρό, όσο να 'ναι, πρέπει να φυλαγόμαστε.
Έχει υγρασία τα βράδια, και το φεγγάρι
δε σου φαίνεται, αλήθεια, πως επιτείνει την ψύχρα;

Άσενα σου κουμπώσω το πουκάμισο – τι δυνατό το στήθος σου,
– τι δυνατό φεγγάρι, – η πολυθρόνα, λέω κι όταν σηκώνω το φλιτζάνι απ' το τραπέζι
μένει από κάτω μιά τρύπα σιωπή, βάζω αμέσως την παλάμη μου επάνω
να μην κοιτάξω μέσα, – αφήνω πάλι το φλιτζάνι στη θέση του,
και το φεγγάρι μια τρύπα στο κρανίο του κόσμου – μην κοιτάξεις μέσα,
έχει μια δύναμη μαγνητική που σε τραβάει – μην κοιτάξεις, μην κοιτάχτε,
ακούστε με που σας μιλάω – θα πέσετε μέσα. Τούτος ο ίλιγγος ωραίος, ανάλαφρος θα πέσεις, –
ένα μαρμάρινο πηγάδι το φεγγάρι,
ίσκιοι σαλεύουν και βουβά φτερά, μυστιριακές φωνές – δεν τις ακούτε ;

Βαθύ-βαθύ το πέσιμο,
βαθύ-βαθύ το ανέβασμα,
το αέρινο άγαλμα κρουστό μες στ' ανοιχτά φτερά του,
βαθειά-βαθειά η αμείλικτη ευεργεσία της σιωπής, –
τρέμουσες φωταψίες της άλλης όχθης, όπως ταλαντεύεσαι μες στο ίδιο σου το κύμα,
ανάσα ωκεανού. Ωραίος, ανάλαφρος
ο ίλιγγος τούτος, – πρόσεξε, θα πέσεις. Μην κοιτάς εμένα,
εμένα η θέση μου είναι το ταλάντευμα – ο εξαίσιος ίλιγγος. Έτσι κάθε απόβραδο
έχω λιγάκι πονοκέφαλο, κάτι ζαλάδες ...

Συχνά πετάγομαι στο φαρμακείο απέναντι για καμμιάν ασπιρίνη,
άλλοτε πάλι βαριέμαι και μένω με τον πονοκέφαλό μου
ν' ακούω μες στους τοίχους τον κούφιο θόρυβο που κάνουν οι σωλήνες του νερού,
ή ψήνω έναν καφέ, και, πάντα αφηρημένη,
ξεχνιέμαι κ ετοιμάζω – δυο ποιος να τον πιει τον άλλον ; –
αστείο αλήθεια, τον αφήνω στο περβάζι να κρυώνει
ή κάποτε πίνω και τον δεύτερο, κοιτάζοντας απ' το παράθυρο τον πράσινο γλόμπο του φαρμακείου
σαν το πράσινο φως ενός αθόρυβου τραίνου που έρχεται να με πάρει
με τα μαντίλια μου, τα στραβοπατημένα μου παπούτσια, τη μαύρη τσάντα μου, τα ποιήματα μου,
χωρίς καθόλου βαλίτσες – τι να τις κάνεις;
Άφησέ με να έρθω μαζί σου ...

Α, φεύγεις; Καληνύχτα. Όχι, δε θα έρθω. Καληνύχτα.
Εγώ θα βγω σε λίγο. Ευχαριστώ. Γιατί, επιτέλους, πρέπει
να βγω απ' αυτό το τσακισμένο σπίτι.
Πρέπει να δω λιγάκι πολιτεία, – όχι, όχι το φεγγάρι –
την πολιτεία με τα ροζιασμένα χέρια της, την πολιτεία του μεροκάματου,
την πολιτεία που ορκίζεται στο ψωμί και στη γροθιά της
την πολιτεία που μας αντέχει στη ράχη της
με τις μικρότητες μας, τις κακίες, τις έχτρες μας,
με τις φιλοδοξίες, την άγνοιά μας και τα γερατειά μας, –
ν' ακούσω τα μεγάλα βήματά της πολιτείας,
να μην ακούω πια τα βήματα σου
μήτε τα βήματα του Θεού, μήτε και τα δικά μου βήματα. Καληνύχτα ...

(Το δωμάτιο σκοτεινιάζει. Φαίνεται πως κάποιο σύννεφο θα έκρυψε το φεγγάρι. Μονομιάς, σαν κάποιο χέρι να δυνάμωσε το ραδιόφωνο του γειτονικού μπαρ, ακούστηκε μια πολύ γνωστή μουσική φράση. Και τότε κατάλαβα πως όλη τούτη τη σκηνή τη συνόδευε χαμηλόφωνα η “Σονάτα του Σεληνόφωτος,” μόνο το πρώτο μέρος. Ο νέος θα κατηφορίζει τώρα μ' ένα ειρωνικό κι ίσως συμπονετικό χαμόγελο στα καλογραμμένα χείλη του και μ' ένα συναίσθημα απαιλευθέρωσης. Όταν θα φτάσει ακριβώς στον Αη-Νικόλα, πριν κατέβει τη μαρμάρινη σκάλα, θα γελάσει, - ένα γέλιο δυνατό, ασυγκράτητο. Το γέλιο του δε θ' ακουστεί καθόλου ανάρμοστα κάτω απ' το φεγγάρι. Ίσως το μόνο ανάρμοστο να είναι το ότι δεν είναι καθόλου ανάρμοστο. Σε λίγο ο Νέος θα σωπάσει, θα σοβαρευτεί και θα πει: “Η παρακμή μιάς εποχής.” Έτσι, ολότελα ήσυχος πια, θα ξεκουμπώσει πάλι το πουκάμισό του και θα τραβήξει το δρόμο του. Όσο για τη γυναίκα με τα μαύρα, δεν ξέρω αν βγήκε τελικά απ το σπίτι. Το φεγγαρόφωτο λάμπει ξανά. Και στις γωνίες του δωματίου οι σκιές σφίγγονται από μιαν αβάσταχτη μετάνοια, σχεδόν οργή, όχι τόσο για τη ζωή, όσο για την άχρηστη εξομολόγηση. Ακούτε; Το ραδιόφωνο συνεχίζει.) ...

Here is Yannis Ritsos reading the poem (with Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata playing in the background):

The translation by Peter Green and Beverly Bardsley in The Fourth Dimension (London: Anvil Press Poetry, 1993) reads:

Moonlight Sonata

A spring evening. A large room in an old house. A woman of a certain age, dressed in black, is speaking to a young man. They have not turned on the lights. Through both windows the moonlight shines relentlessly. I forgot to mention that the Woman in Black has published two or three interesting volume of poetry with a religious flavour. So, the Woman in Black is speaking to the Young Man:

Let me come with you. What a moon there is tonight!
The moon is kind – it won’t show
that my hair turned white. The moon
will turn my hair to gold again. You wouldn’t understand.
Let me come with you ...
When there’s a moon the shadows in the house grow larger,
invisible hands draw the curtains,
a ghostly finger writes forgotten words in the dust
on the piano – I don’t want to hear them. Hush.

Let me come with you
a little farther down, as far as the brickyard wall,
to the point where the road turns and the city appears
concrete and airy, whitewashed with moonlight,
so indifferent and insubstantial
so positive, like metaphysics,
that finally you can believe you exist and do not exist,
that you never existed, that time with its destruction never existed.
Let me come with you ...

We’ll sit for a little on the low wall, up on the hill,
and as the spring breeze blows around us
perhaps we’ll even imagine that we are flying,
because, often, and now especially, I hear the sound of my own dress
like the sound of two powerful wings opening and closing,
and when you enclose yourself within the sound of that flight
you feel the tight mesh of your throat, your ribs, your flesh,
and thus constricted amid the muscles of the azure air,
amid the strong nerves of the heavens,
it makes no difference whether you go or return
and it makes no difference that my hair has turned white
(that is not my sorrow – my sorrow is
that my heart too does not turn white).
Let me come with you ...

I know that each one of us travels to love alone,
alone to faith and to death.
I know it. I’ve tried it. It doesn’t help.
Let me come with you ...

This house is haunted, it preys on me –
what I mean is, it has aged a great deal, the nails are working loose,
the portraits drop as though plunging into the void,
the plaster falls without a sound
as the dead man’s hat falls from the peg in the dark hallway
as the worn woolen glove falls from the knee of silence
or as moonbeam falls on the old, gutted armchair.

Once it too was new – not the photograph that you are starting at so dubiously –
I mean the armchair, very comfortable, you could sit in it for hours
with your eyes closed and dream whatever came into your head
– a sandy beach, smooth, wet, shining in the moonlight,
shining more than my old patent leather shoes that I send each month to the shoeshine shop on the corner,
or a fishing boat’s sail that sinks to the bottom rocked by its own breathing,
a three-cornered sail like a handkerchief folded slantwise in half only
as though it had nothing to shut up or hold fast
no reason to flutter open in farewell. I have always has a passion for handkerchiefs,
not to keep anything tied in them,
no flower seeds or camomile gathered in the fields at sunset,
nor to tie them with four knots like the caps the workers wear on the construction site across the street,
nor to dab my eyes – I’ve kept my eyesight good;
I’ve never worn glasses. A harmless idiosyncracy, handkerchiefs.

Now I fold them in quarters, in eighths, in sixteenths
to keep my fingers occupied. And now I remember
that this is how I counted the music when I went to the Odeion
with a blue pinafore and a white collar, with two blond braids
– 8, 16, 32, 64 –
hand in hand with a small friend of mine, peachy, all light and picked flowers,
(forgive me such digressions – a bad habit) – 32, 64 – and my family rested
great hopes on my musical talent. But I was telling you about the armchair –
gutted – the rusted springs are showing, the stuffing –
I thought of sending it next door to the furniture shop,
but where’s the time and the money and the inclination – what to fix first? –
I thought of throwing a sheet over it – I was afraid
of a white sheet in so much moonlight. People sat here
who dreamed great dreams, as you do and I too,
and now they rest under earth untroubled by rain or the moon.
Let me come with you ...

We’ll pause for a little at the top of St. Nicholas’ marble steps,
and afterward you’ll descend and I will turn back,
having on my left side the warmth from a casual touch of your jacket
and some squares of light, too, from small neighbourhood windows
and this pure white mist from the moon, like a great procession of silver swans –
and I do not fear this manifestation, for at another time
on many spring evenings I talked with God who appeared to me
clothed in the haze and glory of such a moonlight –
and many young men, more handsome even than you, I sacrificed to him –
I dissolved, so white, so unapproachable, amid my white flame, in the whiteness of moonlight,
burnt up by men’s voracious eyes and the tentative rapture of youths,
besieged by splendid bronzed bodies,
strong limbs exercising at the pool, with oars, on the track, at soccer (I pretended not to see them),
foreheads, lips and throats, knees, fingers and eyes,
chests and arms and thighs (and truly I did not see them)
– you know, sometimes, when you’re entranced, you forget what entranced you, the entrancement alone is enough –
my God, what star-bright eyes, and I was lifted up to an apotheosis of disavowed stars
because, besieged thus from without and from within,
no other road was left me save only the way up or the way down. – No, it is not enough.
Let me come with you ...

I know it’s very late. Let me,
because for so many years – days, nights, and crimson noons – I’ve stayed alone,
unyielding, alone and immaculate,
even in my marriage bed immaculate and alone,
writing glorious verses to lay on the knees of God,
verses that, I assure you, will endure as if chiselled in flawless marble
beyond my life and your life, well beyond. It is not enough.
Let me come with you ...

This house can’t bear me anymore.
I cannot endure to bear it on my back.
You must always be careful, be careful,
to hold up the wall with the large buffet
to hold up the table with the chairs
to hold up the chairs with your hands
to place your shoulder under the hanging beam.
And the piano, like a closed black coffin. You do not dare to open it.
You have to be so careful, so careful, lest they fall, lest you fall. I cannot bear it.
Let me come with you ...

This house, despite all its dead, has no intention of dying.
It insists on living with its dead
on living off its dead
on living off the certainty of its death
and on still keeping house for its dead, the rotting beds and shelves.
Let me come with you ...

Here, however quietly I walk through the mist of evening,
whether in slippers or barefoot,
there will be some sound: a pane of glass cracks or a mirror,
some steps are heard – not my own.
Outside, in the street, perhaps these steps are not heard –
repentance, they say, wears wooden shoes –
and if you look into this or that other mirror,
behind the dust and the cracks,
you discern – darkened and more fragmented – your face,
your face, which all your life you sought only to keep clean and whole.
The lip of the glass gleams in the moonlight
like a round razor – how can I lift it to my lips?
however much I thirst – how can I lift it – Do you see?
I am already in a mood for similes – this at least is left me,
reassuring me still that my wits are not failing.
Let me come with you ...

At times, when evening descends, I have the feeling
that outside the window the bear-keeper is going by with his old heavy she-bear,
her fur full of burrs and thorns,
stirring dust in the neighborhood street
a desolate cloud of dust that censes the dusk,
and the children have gone home for supper and aren’t allowed outdoors again,
even though behind the walls they divine the old bear’s passing –
and the tired bear passes in the wisdom of her solitude, not knowing wherefore and why –
she’s grown heavy, can no longer dance on her hind legs,
can’t wear her lace cap to amuse the children, the idlers, the importunate,
and all she wants is to lie down on the ground
letting them trample on her belly, playing thus her final game,
showing her dreadful power for resignation,
her indifference to the interest of others, to the rings in her lips, the compulsion of her teeth,
her indifference to pain and to life
with the sure complicity of death – even a slow death –
her final indifference to death with the continuity and knowledge of life
which transcends her enslavement with knowledge and with action.

But who can play this game to the end?
And the bear gets up again and moves on
obedient to her leash, her rings, her teeth,
smiling with torn lips at the pennies the beautiful and unsuspecting children toss
(beautiful precisely because unsuspecting)
and saying thank you. Because bears that have grown old
can say only one thing: thank you; thank you.
Let me come with you ...

This house stifles me. The kitchen especially
is like the depths of the sea. The hanging coffee pots gleam
like round, huge eyes of improbable fish,
the plates undulate slowly like medusas,
seaweed and shells catch in my hair – later I can’t pull them loose –
I can’t get back to the surface –
the tray falls silently from my hands – I sink down
and I see the bubbles from my breath rising, rising
and I try to divert myself watching them
and I wonder what someone would say who happened to be above and saw these bubbles,
perhaps that someone was drowning or a diver exploring the depths?

And in fact more than a few times I’ve discovered there, in the depths of drowning,
coral and pearls and treasures of shipwrecked vessels,
unexpected encounters, past, present, and yet to come,
a confirmation almost of eternity,
a certain respite, a certain smile of immortality, as they say,
a happiness, an intoxication, inspiration even,
coral and pearls and sapphires;
only I don’t know how to give them – no, I do give them;
only I don’t know if they can take them – but still, I give them.
Let me come with you ...

One moment while I get my jacket.
The way this weather’s so changeable, I must be careful.
It’s damp in the evening, and doesn’t the moon
seem to you, honestly, as if it intensifies the cold?
Let me button your shirt – how strong your chest is
– how strong the moon – the armchair, I mean – and whenever I lift the cup from the table
a hole of silence is left underneath. I place my palm over it at once
so as not to see through it – I put the cup back in its place;
and the moon’s a hole in the skull of the world – don’t look through it,
it’s a magnetic force that draws you – don’t look, don’t any of you look,
listen to what I’m telling you – you’ll fall in. This giddiness,
beautiful, ethereal – you will fall in –
the moon’s marble well,
shadows stir and mute wings, mysterious voices – don’t you hear them?

Deep, deep the fall,
deep, deep the ascent,
the airy statue enmeshed in its open wings,
deep, deep the inexorable benevolence of the silence –
trembling lights on the opposite shore, so that you sway in your own wave,
the breathing of the ocean. Beautiful, ethereal
this giddiness – be careful, you’ll fall. Don’t look at me,
for me my place is this wavering – this splendid vertigo. And so every evening
I have little headache, some dizzy spells.

Often I slip out to the pharmacy across the street for a few aspirin,
but at times I’m too tired and I stay here with my headache
and listen to the hollow sound the pipes make in the walls,
or drink some coffee, and, absentminded as usual,
I forget and make two – who’ll drink the other?
It’s really funny, I leave it on the windowsill to cool
or sometimes drink them both, looking out the window at the bright green globe of the pharmacy
that’s like the green light of a silent train coming to take me away
with my handkerchiefs, my run-down shoes, my black purse, my verses,
but no suitcases – what would one do with them?
Let my come with you ...

Oh, are you going? Goodnight. No, I won’t come. Goodnight.
I’ll be going myself in a little. Thank you. Because, in the end, I must
get out of this broken-down house.
I must see a bit of the city – no, not the moon –
the city with its calloused hands, the city of daily work,
the city that swears by bread and by its fist,
the city that bears all of us on its back
with our pettiness, sins, and hatreds,
our ambitions, our ignorance and our senility.
I need to hear the great footsteps of the city,
and no longer to hear your footsteps
or God’s, or my own. Goodnight.

The room grows dark. It looks as though a cloud may have covered the moon. All at once, as if someone had turned up the radio in the nearby bar, a very familiar musical phrase can be heard. Then I realize that “The Moonlight Sonata”, just the first movement, has been playing very softly through this entire scene. The Young Man will go down the hill now with an ironic and perhaps sympathetic smile on his finely chiselled lips and with a feeling of release. Just as he reaches St. Nicolas, before he goes down the marble steps, he will laugh – a loud, uncontrollable laugh. His laughter will not sound at all unseemly beneath the moon. Perhaps the only unseemly thing will be that nothing is unseemly. Soon the Young Man will fall silent, become serious, and say: “The decline of an era.” So, thoroughly calm once more, he will unbutton his shirt again and go on his way. As for the woman in black, I don’t know whether she finally did get out of the house. The moon is shining again. And in the corners of the room the shadows intensify with an intolerable regret, almost fury, not so much for the life, as for the useless confession. Can you hear? The radio plays on:


Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological College. For an earlier essay on Yannis Ritsos and his epic poem Epitaphios see: