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