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.