Wednesday, 16 April 2008

Anglican spirituality and women writers

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

Patrick Comerford

Introduction


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

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

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

Part 1:

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

Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1, mysticism is practical, not theoretical;

2, mysticism is an entirely spiritual activity;

3, the business and method of mysticism is love;

4, mysticism entails a definite psychological experience.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dorothy Sayers (1893-1957)

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part 2:

Cecil Alexander (1818-1895)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christ be with me, Christ within me, Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me, Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me, Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.


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

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


Florence Li Tim-Oi (1907-1992)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elizabeth Canham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michele Guinness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part 4 offers her 50 best celebration recipes.

Resources and Reading:

Cecil Frances Alexander:

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

Florence Li Tim-Oi:

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

Elizabeth Canham:

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

Michele Guinness:

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


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