Friday, 31 July 2009

The great August sale in Portrane

The beach at Portrane ... a little corner of heaven worth visiting during the August weekend (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Forget about the winter weather that’s blasting through Dublin at the moment.

Forget about the economic disaster that we’re facing in Irel;and at the moment.

Get into the summer mood, and go and help someone who’s in greater need than we are.

For nearly 20 years, my cousin Mary Lynders of Portrane has been working tirelessly for those less fortunate both at home and abroad.

Each year for the three days of the August Bank Holiday weekend she transforms her beautiful tropical garden on the North Dublin coast into a monster market to raise much needed funds for the charity Heart To Hand, which works with people in need in Albania and Romania.

Mary was moved to work with Hand to Heart after watching the television news on Saint Stephen’s Day 1990, when news broke about the collapse of the old regimes in Albania and Romania. She was horrified at the images on the news and felt she had to make a difference.

Since then she has been running her great sales in the Portrane each bank holiday weekend.

This year’s sale starts on Saturday 1 August and runs until Monday 3 August (inclusive) 2009.

Don’t worry about getting washed out. Don’t worry about the fact that we all have less money in our pockets. The fun is great, the cause is well-deserved, and I can guarantee you’ll get more than you give.

There will be tents, gazebos, marquees and open tables for the book stalls, the bric-a-brac, the antiques, the furniture, the designer clothes, the Halloween and Christmas gifts, the toys and novelties, the children’s gifts, the plants … and the wheel-of-fortune, where most of the children – and even some of the adults – put their hopes on winning the Giant Toblerone.

You name it and Mary had someone to run a stall with it to raise funds for “Hand to Heart,” the project that has become her life’s mission and that consumes every waking and thinking moment of her committed life. Mary’s enthusiasm is so infectious that she has persuaded, enlisted, cajoled and conscripted the most diverse but wonderful group of assistants for the mega sale, which takes place in full carnival atmosphere.

Those who come to support the mega sale each year can hardly imagine the year-round slog of hard work and preparation that goes in to making this weekend the success it is. Mary and her daughters, Antoinette, Mar, and Anna, spend sleepless nights and forego weekends just to get everything together, and to pack the containers that no-one sees during the sale.

“Heart to Hand” is a registered, non-denominational, charity working with the poorest of the poor in countries like Albania, Bosnia, Moldova and Romania, sending out medicine, clothing, shoes, food, non-perishable goods, furniture, and other humanitarian aid, as well as helping education, building and training projects, with support channelled through local communities, schools, orphanages and churches.

“Heart to Hand” has helped to build Saint Joseph’s House, a shelter for street children in Bucharest and that opened in 1999 to cater for 26 street children and that is run by an organisation known appropriately as the Street Children of Bucharest. “Heart to Hand” is also involved in supporting Caritas in northern Romania in training and education programmes. One example is provided by a massive attic that has been converted into school rooms, offices and toilets for the children of a local village, where a state-of-the-art school is now in place.

Will this year’s sale in Portrane equal if not pass last year’s figure of more than €32,000?

If you miss the sale, you can still send your donation to “Heart to Hand,” c/o Mrs Mary Lynders, the Quay, Portrane, Co Dublin. But I’d prefer to see you there. If you don’t go, don’t ask afterwards where did summer go.

You can read more about “Heart to Hand” at, where there is more information about the charity and its story.

Anglicans need to emphasise reconciliation

The Church of Ireland Gazette, in today’s edition (31 July 2009) carries the following photograph and report on page 3:

Linda Chambers de Bruijn (centre) of USPG Ireland at the USPG conference with two new USPG area mission advisers from Ireland, Nola Nixon (left) and Declan Barry.

Anglicans need to emphasise reconciliation,
USPG annual conference told

Anglicans need to access their God-given capacity for “forgiveness, compassion and reconciliation” instead of insisting that some people are “not worthy of full respect, dignity or inclusion.” This was the message of Dr Jenny Plane-Te Paa, principal of Saint John the Evangelist Theological College, in Auckland, New Zealand, at the annual conference of the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (USPG) – Anglicans in World Mission.

Dr Plane-Te Paa suggested there was a tendency among Anglicans – especially some of those in leadership – to debate issues on impersonal committees rather than engaging in “vulnerable and intimate” dialogue.

In her closing address at the USPG conference held at the High Leigh Conference Centre, Hoddesdon, Hertfordshire, she said: “There is a postmodern tendency for shifting moral responsibility away from the self towards socially-constructed agencies or by floating responsibility inside a bureaucratic rule of nobody.” As a consequence, she said, the problems of the Anglican Communion “are managed by disengagement and commitment – avoidance rather than by unseverable vulnerable intimacy and the struggle to understand the other as divinely, albeit differently, created.”

She spoke with disappointment about meeting a very few bishops and archbishops who regarded some people as “not worthy of full respect, dignity or inclusion.”

By contrast, in travelling the world, she had found “there is very little which radically differentiates the ways in which the ordinary every day Anglican people gather in abiding faith and witness.” The way forward was to concentrate on “finding our proper selves in God who is love.”

She said: “It is only in our capacity and willingness to let go of outrage, despair and memories of hurt that we can act with grace. There, and only there, can we fully exercise our God-given capacity for forgiveness, compassion and reconciliation.”

The theme of the annual USPG conference was “Mission, reconciliation and hope.” Representatives from dioceses in Britain and Ireland met representatives from throughout the global Anglican Communion to consider how they could participate together in resolving conflicts, both on their doorsteps and in other countries.

In two seminar-workshops attended by international delegates, Ms Linda Chambers de Bruijn of USPG Ireland and Canon Patrick Comerford of the Church of Ireland Theological Institute spoke of the work of the Hard Gospel Project in the Church of Ireland and the barriers to reconciliation that still remain in Ireland, north and south.

Canon Comerford and the Revd Ken Gibson of the Leprosy Mission were recently elected by the Standing Committee to represent the Church of Ireland on the Council of USPG.

At the USPG council meeting during the conference, the Bishop of Cashel and Ossory, the Right Revd Michael Burrows – who chairs the board of USPG Ireland – was co-opted to the council. Mrs Linda Ali, a lay canon of York Cathedral, was elected chair of USPG in succession to the Revd Dr Alan Moses.

Monday, 27 July 2009

Some good news from my biopsies

Patrick Comerford

This morning I was told the results are back from my tests and biopsies two weeks ago. The results confirm Sarcoidosis I can begin looking at the options for treatment next week. But the good news is that the biopsies show no tumours, no cancers and that there is no TB.

Meanwhile, apart living with sarcoidosis, I have been learning in the past few months to live with a severe deficiency of Vitamin B12.

Initially, I was on a course of Vitamin B12 injections every second day. Eventually this was reduced to one injection a week. Now I go to my GP for an injection once a month, and the next injection is due later this week.

Vitamin B12 occurs naturally only in animal products, including eggs, meat and milk, and in a particular strain of nutritional yeast. And so, my deficiency of B12 can be traced directly to my vegetarian diet of almost 40 years, and my natural dislike for the taste of cow’s milk.

B12 deficiency is common among vegetarians and vegans who do not take B12 supplements. In vegans, the risk is very high because none of their natural food sources contain B12. One American study found blood levels below normal in 92% of vegans, 64% of lacto-vegetarians, and 47% of lacto-ovo-vegetarians who did not supplement their diet with B12 – although recent research suggests that these figures may even be higher than first suggested. This deficiency is also very significant in parts of Africa, India, and South and Central America, where there are low intakes of animal products, particularly among the poor.

Vitamin B12 is found in foods that come from animals, including fish, meat, poultry, eggs, milk, and milk products and fortified breakfast cereals. Other sources include nutritional yeast, fortified soy milks, and fortified energy bars.

This condition is brought about by an inadequate dietary intake or impaired absorption of Vitamin B12. In serious cases, this deficiency has the potential of causing severe and irreversible damage to the nervous system, including sub-acute combined degeneration of the spinal cord.

Early and even fairly pronounced deficiency of B12 does not always cause distinct or specific symptoms. Common early symptoms are tiredness or a decreased mental work capacity, decreased concentration and decreased memory, irritability and depression.

Sleep disturbances may occur, because B12 may be involved in the regulation of the sleep wake cycle by the pineal gland, through melatonin. The neurological signs of B12 deficiency, which can occur without anaemia, include sensory disturbances due to damage to peripheral nerves caused by demyelination and irreversible nerve cell death. The symptoms include numbness and/or tingling of the extremities, impaired sense of smell, loss of appetite, disturbed co-ordination and, if not treated in time, an ataxic gait, especially in the dark when there is less visual reference, a syndrome known as sub-acute combined degeneration of the spinal cord.

B-12 deficiency can also cause symptoms of mania, psychosis, fatigue, memory impairment, irritability, depression and personality changes. Other symptoms include shortness of breath, which can occur when walking just a few yards and migraine headaches.

Vitamin B12 can be given as intramuscular injections. After half a dozen injections over the first couple of weeks, the body stores of B12 n the liver are refilled but have to be maintained for the rest of a patient’s life with monthly to quarterly injections.

My GP and those he referred to me have been quick in diagnosing my deficiency of Vitamin B12 and in putting me on a course of supplementary injections. The next injection is due on Friday.

This deficiency and the regular injections I need would be enough to cope with at the moment. Having to cope with Sarcoidosis too just makes it all more difficult and more demanding. But I am glad I know what’s wrong. With all the prayers and support and love I have received, and with the professionalism of my GP and the consultants I have been seeing, I know I’m coming through to the other side.

Now I'm packing to head off to England for a few days in Somerset and Wiltshire. I’m visiting Bristol, Bath, Calne and Quemerford, a small village where I have ancestral roots. Thanks to all for prayers and support. I may have Sarcoidosis – but it will never have me.

Sunday, 26 July 2009

Enjoying Street’s architecture in Christ Church Cathedral

Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Donaldytong)

Patrick Comerford

This morning [Sunday 26 July] I was the celebrant at the Cathedral Eucharist in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. Once again, we had a large number of visitors, and as I stood at the West Door I met people from England, the US, Canada, Hong Kong, Sweden and Germany, among other places.

The preacher this morning was my friend and former colleague, a former Precentor of the Cathedral, the Revd Canon Dr Adrian Empey, who retired last year as Principal of the Church of Ireland Theological College.

This morning I also received a letter addressed to me at the cathedral, which revealed some surprising family links.

I was long aware of a Comerford family from Ireland that had lived in Somerset since the early 19th century. Although I have been unable, to date, to establish which part of Ireland these Comerfords came from, in the early part of the last century some of them moved back to Dublin and were near-neighbours of my father’s family. The coincidence of first names, among other factors, contributed to both families believing they were related.

That part of the family moved back to England again after World War I, and an inscription on a memorial in Rathfarnham Parish Hall – across the road from the house where I was born – led me to believe that the only one son in that family, Charles Henry Comerford, had died during World War I.

Now, however, a descendant of the family has written to me, and has filled out some interesting details for his branch of the family.

From the early 19th century, the Comerford family flourished in Pill St George in Somerset, near Bristol, which had a strong association with the sea and where some of the men in the family became pilots and mariners on the River Avon and in the Bristol Channel.

Edward Comerford, a pilot who lived in Pill, Somerset, in the mid-19th century, was the father of Edward John Griffin Comerford (1860-1937), who was born Pill St George, Somerset. He was 33 when he was married his first wife, Leah Adelaide Shepherd, in Pill in 1893, and they had an only son, (Dr) Charles Henry Comerford (1894-post 1924), who was born in Somerset a year after they married.

Leah died when Henry was still a small boy, and in 1909 Edward Comerford was married again in All Saints’ Church, Wraxall, near Bristol. His second wife was Mary Elizabeth Winstone of Wraxall, they moved soon after to Dublin, where Edward worked for WD & HO Wills, the Bristol-based tobacco company, as a commercial traveller.

Edward, Mary Elizabeth, and Charles were parishioners in Rathfarnham Church of Ireland parish and lived at 30 Brighton Road, Rathgar, within walking distance of a number of members of my own family – indeed I had an aunt and uncle who also worked for worked for WD & HO Wills on the South Circular Road. In Dublin, Edward and Mary had one daughter Noreen Mary, who was born in 1916.

Edward Comerford while he was still living in Dublin in 1920 ... his family lived in Rathgar during the first three decades of the last century (Photograph couresy Simon Street)

Edward and Mary Comerford continued to live at 30 Brighton Road until about 1921. Their neighbours on Brighton Road included James Walter Beckett, who lived at Number 32 Brighton Road. He was a builder, Cumann na nGaedhael TD for Dublin South (1927-1937, 1938), and an uncle of the playwright Samuel Beckett. Edward and Elizabeth Comerford later moved to Chorlton-cum-Hardy, near Manchester, England, where he died in 1937. His widow Elizabeth died in 1953 in Lisbon, Portugal, where she was living with her daughter and son-in-law.

Edward Comerford’s only son, Dr Charles Henry Comerford, was born in Pill St George, Somerset, on 16 February 1894, but grew up in Dublin, having moved to Dublin with his father and step-mother. He studied medicine at Trinity College Dublin and enlisted in the army during World War I.

Because Charles is named on the War Memorial in the War Memorial Hall (Rathfarnham Parish Hall), Rathfarnham Road, Dublin, I always thought he had died in World War I. Now, however, his nephew tells me that Charles survived the war, and worked as medical practitioner in Cane Hill, Coulsdon, Surrey. The family links with the Bristol area continued, for in 1924 Charles married May Charity Edith Henderson in the parish church in Portishead, near Bristol.

Charles Comerford’s half-sister, Noreen Mary Comerford, married John Edmund Dudley Street, a direct descendant of George Edmund Street (1824-1881), the architect whose great works include the restoration of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, along with designing the Royal Courts of Justice (the Law Courts), London, Cuddesdon Theological College, Oxford, East Grinstead Convent, and Saint Philip and saint James Church, Oxford, which now houses the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies. Noreen and John Street have descendants living in England.

Little did I realise, as I often gazed on George Street’s architectural wonders in Christ Church Cathedral, that there was a connection between his family and the Comerford family. Who said that the theory of “Six Degrees of Separation” works best in the Church of Ireland?

Saturday, 25 July 2009

Walking and waiting on the seashore at Malahide

The Marina at Malahide (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

I’m still waiting for the results of the biopsy last week, when tissue samples were taken from above my lung, and for confirmation of the diagnosis of Sarcoidosis.

My legs – especially my knees – are still feeling shaky, I’m still short of breath, finding it difficult to fill my lungs with air, my neck is uncomfortable, and the dry cough remains. But for the last few days I have been less conscious of the sensation of “pins-and needles” or a tingling burning under my toes and feet.

There was no test cricket to provide an excuse to lie on the couch this afternoon watching television. And, although I may have spent too long standing on my feet last night at Paul Gillespie’s retirement party, this has been one of the sunniest days in Dublin for weeks, and I was determined to go for another walk by the seashore.

From this house, it’s easy to get to Malahide. It’s at the end of the M50 and only half an hour’s drive away. It lies on the coast, 16 km north of Dublin city centre, between Swords, Kinsealy and Portmarnock, on the opposite side of the Broadmeadow estuary from Portrane, where my grandparents were married and are buried.

As children, we loved playing on the beaches of Portrane, Portmarnock and Malahide. Even the name Malahide shows the connection between these Fingal villages: the Irish form of the name, Mullach Íde, dates from the 12th century as Mullach h-Íde, and may mean the sandhills of the Hydes, referring to the Norman family of Delahydes, who owned lands in Donabate, Portrane and Loughshinny, where I strolled along the seashore last Saturday.

The Vikings first landed in Malahide at the end of the eighth century, using Malahide Estuary and Baldoyle to the south as convenient bases. After the arrival of the Anglo-Normans, the last Viking King of Dublin retired to the area in 1171. From the 1180s, the history of the area is tied to the story of the Talbot family of Malahide Castle, who were granted extensive lands in the area.

In the centuries that followed, the Talbot family developed their estate and the small harbour settlement at Malahide. The area grew in popularity in the Georgian era as a seaside resort, and there are still some elegant Georgian houses in the town and along the seafront.

Despite the extensive growth of housing estates around Malahide in the last five decades, the village core has remained in tact. A fine new addition to life in Malahide is the Marina. The village is lively but intimate and friendly, with plenty of shops, pubs and restaurants without losing the traditional shop-fronts and cobble-lock side streets that give the village an intimate and cosy feeling.

Malahide Castle and demesne were once the estate of the Talbot family, who held the title of Baron Talbot of Malahide, and date back to the 12th century. The estate began in 1185, when Richard Talbot, a knight who accompanied Henry II to Ireland in 1174, was granted the “lands and harbour of Malahide.” The castle was home to the Talbot family for 791 years, from 1185 until 1976, apart from the Cromwellian interlude of 1649-1660.

The estate survived such losses as the Battle of the Boyne, when 14 members of the Talbot family sat down to breakfast in the Great Hall, and all were dead by evening, and the Penal Laws, although the family remained Roman Catholic until 1774. In the 1920s, the private papers of James Boswell were discovered in the castle, and sold to an American collector by Boswell’s great-great-grandson, Lord Talbot of Malahide.

On the death of the seventh Lord Talbot in 1973, Malahide Castle and Demesne passed to his sister, Rose, who sold the castle to the state two years later so she could pay her inheritance taxes. Malahide Castle is now run as a tourist attraction by Dublin Tourism and Fingal County Council. The attractions include the Fry Model Railway and the Talbot Botanic Gardens, with many plants from the southern hemisphere, including Chile and Australia.

The title of Baron Talbot of Malahide, in the County of Dublin, was created for the family in 1831. Since the reign of Edward IV, the head of the family has also held the title of Hereditary Lord Admiral of Malahide and the Adjacent Seas, a title that could have come straight out of a Gilbert and Sullivan opera.

Looking out across Malahide estuary and the adjacent seas this afternoon, it was possible to view Portrane to the north, with its round tower and clock tower, and Ireland’s Eye at Howth to the south. Perhaps summer hasn’t come at all, because there were few families playing on the beach or walking their dogs, although a few people looked happy sailing from the marina and the estuary out into the open sea.

After walking along the beach, and back again past the tennis club, the choice of restaurants for a very late lunch was enviable. There were places like Ciao on Marine Court, Cruzo at the Marina, the Greedy Goose, Giovanni’s and That’s Amore in Townyard Lane, each with equally attractive, inviting and enticing menus.

Eventually, I had to admit to feeling a little homesick for Greece, and opted for the late afternoon menu in Cape Greko, upstairs in New Street. This is the first Greek Cypriot restaurant on this side of Dublin, and we were well fed on saganaki, meletsanes, halloumi, and cod.

After a journey back along the coast, through Portmarnock, Baldoyle, Sutton, Bayside, Dollymount and Clontarf, I’m now on the couch at home, watching the Proms on BBC2 and listening to Sir Charles Mackerras conducting music by those very English composers, Elgar, Delius and Holst, who each died 75 years ago in 1934.

And I’m looking forward to celebrating the Eucharist in Christ Church Cathedral at 11 a.m. tomorrow morning, to a visit to Somerset and Wiltshire next week, and to being back for the Great Portrane Sale next week, run by Mary Lynders to support projects in Albania and Romania.

They’ll probably tell me next week that I have Sarcoidosis. But if I have Sarcoidosis, Sarcoidosis will never have me.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

There ain’t no cure for love

Leonard Cohen in the O2 in Dublin (Photograph: The Irish Times/Dave Meehan)

Patrick Comerford

Leonard Cohen’s concerts in the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham, last year, must have been the cultural highlight of 2008 in Dublin. I thought then this was the last time I was going to see him in concert, and so it is a real bonus to all his fans that he is on tour once again this year, with four concerts in Dublin this week.

Few artists get a standing ovation as they come on stage, few artists are given a standing ovation at the interval, and few come back on stage for three or more encores. But Leonard Cohen could not have gone to sleep last night without knowing how much he is loved by his Dublin audiences; and his Dublin audiences are going home from the O2 each night knowing how comfortable he is at being in – as he describes it – this city of poets and writers.

It was a packed programme, with almost 30 numbers, and Cohen stayed on stage from 8 until 11.15 p.m – no warm-up acts, only a short interval, and complete generosity on the part of both the singer and those who were sung to.

He came on stage to rapturous applause, and was soon on his knees before us as he sang Dance Me to the End of Love.

I’ve said before that I’d like this song at my funeral, after the commendation as my coffin is being taken out. I’m not being morbid; I love its Greek meolody and strains, but it’s such a beautiful poem too, and if it’s understood as being about divine love as much as human love then it’s very appropriate.

He followed this with The Future, but as he came to the line “and the white man dancing” he changed the words to “white girls dancing” and “the sublime Webb sisters,” Hattie and Charley, did a backwards flip.

Next we heard Ain’t No Cure for Love:

I loved you for al long, long time.
I know this love is real.
It don’t matter how it all went wrong.
That can’t change the way I feel.
And I can’t believe that time will heal
this wound I’m speaking of –
There ain’t no cure, there ain’t no cure, there ain’t no cure for love.

I’m aching for you baby.
I can’t pretend I’m not …
There ain’t no cure, there ain’t no cure, there ain’t no cure for love

Then came Bird on the Wire, Everybody Knows, In my secret Life, Who by Fire, That don’t make it Junk and Waiting for the Miracle.

He told us it was a privilege to play for us tonight, and that it was the dream of every singer to be greeted the way he had been greeted that night. Finally, before the interlude, he sang Anthem, and he was on his knees once again when he came to those so truthful lines:

There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in

Before leaving the stage, there was his typical, graceful acknowledgment of his accompanying musicians and singers.

He came back with The Tower of Song, which is frank and honest about his aging:

My friends are gone and my hair is grey.
I ache in the places where I used to play.
And I’m crazy for love but I’m not coming on.
I’m just paying my rent every day in the tower of song

And the audience, predictably, responded with laughter to the lines:

I was born like this, I had no choice.
I was born with the gift of a golden voice …

Next we heard some old favourites: Suzanne, The Sisters of Mercy and The Partisan, before Sharon Robinson gave us her own, moving solo version of Boogie Street:

O Crown of Light, O Darkened One,
I never thought we’d meet.
You kiss my lips, and then it’s done:
I’m back on Boogie Street …

And O my love, I still recall
The pleasures that we knew;
The rivers and the waterfall,
Wherein I bathed with you.
Bewildered by your beauty there,
I’d kneel to dry your feet.
By such instructions you prepare
A man for Boogie Street.

After all the mangled and sanitised versions we have been bombarded with in recent years, it was good to hear Leonard Cohen sing Hallelujah as he meant it to be sung and heard. And then, after I’m your man, he read – or recited – as a poem, rather than singing, A Thousand Kisses Deep:

The ponies run, the girls are young,
The odds are there to beat.
You win a while, and then it’s done –
Your little winning streak.
And summoned now to deal
With your invincible defeat,
You live your life as if it’s real,
A Thousand Kisses Deep.

I’m turning tricks, I’m getting fixed,
I’m back on Boogie Street.
You lose your grip, and then you slip
Into the Masterpiece.
And maybe I had miles to drive,
And promises to keep:
You ditch it all to stay alive,
A Thousand Kisses Deep.

And sometimes when the night is slow,
The wretched and the meek,
We gather up our hearts and go,
A Thousand Kisses Deep.

Confined to sex, we pressed against
The limits of the sea:
I saw there were no oceans left
For scavengers like me.
I made it to the forward deck.
I blessed our remnant fleet –
And then consented to be wrecked,
A Thousand Kisses Deep.

I’m turning tricks, I’m getting fixed,
I’m back on Boogie Street.
I guess they won’t exchange the gifts
That you were meant to keep.
And quiet is the thought of you,
The file on you complete,
Except what we forgot to do,
A Thousand Kisses Deep.

And sometimes when the night is slow,
The wretched and the meek,
We gather up our hearts and go,
A Thousand Kisses Deep.

The ponies run, the girls are young,
The odds are there to beat . . .

Forty years ago, Cohen was more feted as a poet than as a song-writer or as a musician, and last night it was obvious that he still remains a poet first and foremost.

This was followed by Take This Waltz, and some more old favourites, So Long, Marianne, First we take Manhattan, and Famous Blue Raincoat.

Cohen is deeply spiritual in his words and in his poetry, and If it be your will is a real prayer for every singer and poet. He spoke the first verse, and then handed over to the Webb sisters, who accompanied themselves on harp and guitar:

If it be your will
That I speak no more
And my voice be still
As it was before
I will speak no more
I shall abide until
I am spoken for
If it be your will

It could have been the end, it might have been an appropriate end, when he sang Closing Time. But with humour he came back on stage and told us in song: I tried to leave you … “at least a hundred times.”

But no, a poet like this couldn’t end on a humorous note like that. His poetry is infused with Biblical imagery, and he ended with a short number drawing on the story of Ruth: Whither Thou Goest:

Whither thou goest I will go
Whither thou lodgest I will lodge
Thy people shall be,
My people.

Whither thou goest I will go
Whither thou goest I will go ...
Whither thou goest I will go ...

Leonard Cohen performs again at the O2 tomorrow evening [Wednesday, 22 July 2009]. That concert is sold out, but some tickets are still available for the next evening [Thursday, 23 July 2009] from Ticketmaster at 0818-719300. He is in the Odyssey Arena, Belfast, on Sunday 26 July, and then goes on to Portugal, Spain, Italy, Turkey, France, Austria, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Serbia, Romania and Israel. It’s a gruelling and demanding tour for a man of any age. Whither he goes, if he’s back in Dublin next year, I’ll go too.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

From Dublin to Beijing, after 30 years

On a visit to Beijing five years ago

Patrick Comerford

Thirty years ago, I was travelling to Japan to take up a fellowship that would allow me to study politics and economics and travel throughout Japan. This was the first fellowship of its kind awarded by Journalistes en Europe and Nihon Shimbun Kyokai, and was facilitated through a generous sabbatical from The Irish Times.

Although I was 27 and a world-wise journalist, until then I had never been further west than Achill Island or further east than Greenwich. We have all become so used to long-haul flights at this stage, it is hard to imagine now what a mammoth trek the journey from Dublin to Tokyo was in those days … and it took days.

Pakistan International Airways offered the cheapest – but probably the longest – route from London, through Damascus in Syria, Dharhan in eastern Saudi Arabia, Karachi in Pakistan and Beijing in China.

It was a sad surprise to be told that I could get off the plane at Beijing. For two hours, I was left on the plane as it refuelled and was cleaned. The cleaners were kind and smiling, but spoke no English. The lone, young policeman who was deputed to watch over me and make sure I made no attempt to get off the plane had some English and was friendly and polite.

He explained that there were no diplomatic relations between the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of Ireland. And all I wanted to do was a little bit of harmless, duty-free souvenir shopping. But my passport was meaningless, in the eyes of Chinese officials. I had to stay on board, with the air conditioning off and no-one to provide me with anything to drink.

After a full-term in Japan, I was returning to Ireland at the end of the summer. Once again, there was another marathon journey ahead of, through Beijing, Islamabad and Rawalpindi, Istanbul, Amsterdam and London. I was off to see more of the big, wide world.

But on the return journey, the atmosphere at Beijing Airport had changed dramatically. Yes, of course I could get off, of course I could go shopping, of course I could take photographs. During my sojourn in Japan, Dessie O’Malley had visited Beijing, and full diplomatic relations between Ireland and China had been ratified.

I have since been back to China and the Far East, on many occasions in the last thirty years, as a journalist, as a peace campaigner, and while I was involved in the Dublin University Far Eastern Mission. In China, I have been to Beijing, Shanghai, Pudong, Hong Kong, Hangzhou, Guiyang, Anshun and in many small towns and villages throughout Guizhou Province.

Everywhere, the Churches have been warmly welcome, and it was a particular pleasure a few years ago to be with the Irish community in Shanghai on Saint Patrick’s Day. Internal politics in China and the lack of diplomatic relations between Dublin and Beijing would have rendered this unimaginable thirty years ago.

Earlier this month, New Island, in collaboration with RTÉ, has published a new book, China and the Irish, to mark the thirtieth anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the People's Republic of China and the Republic of Ireland.

This is a pioneering work and the first to explore relations between the Chinese people and the people of Ireland. The book includes eleven essays on an astonishing range of topics, from diplomatic history to music, from business to botanical exchanges and literary connections.

Nine of the essays were first broadcast from June to August last year as part of the Thomas David lecture Series in the lead up to the Beijing Olympics. In addition, the book has a welcoming letter from President Mary McAleese and an afterword by the current Irish Ambassador to China, Declan Kelleher.

This book makes it clear that although formal diplomatic relations go back only thirty years, the people of China and Ireland have a long and complex relationship going back over the centuries.

The editor of China and the Irish, Dr Jerusha McCormack, taught in UCD for thirty years, and for the past five years has been Visiting professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University. The other contributors are Dr Shane McCausland of the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin, Dr Richard O’Leary of Queen’s University Belfast, Fintan O’Toole and Ruadhán Mac Cormaic of The Irish Times, Brendan Parson (the Earl of Rosse), who worked for almost twenty years with UN agencies, Dr Hwee-San Tan of Goldsmiths College London and the University of Surrey, Richard Barrett and Pauline Byrne of Treasury Holdings, and myself.

In our shared chapter – “Heroism and Zeal: Pioneers of the Irish Christian Missions to China” (pp 73-87) – Richard O’Leary and I look at the story of Irish missionaries who have been working in China since the 1840s, particularly those who worked there with the support of the Dublin University Far Eastern Mission, the Church Mission Society and the Maynooth Mission to China (the Columban fathers and sisters).

There were others too, including Vincentians and Christian Brothers, Methodists like Dr George Hadden from Wexford, his wife Helen, and the Revd Desmond Gilliland, and Presbyterians such as the Revd Dr Jack Weir.

This is a beautifully printed and illustrated volume and it’s been a real pleasure to be involved in this publication.

Jerusha McCormack (ed), China and the Irish (Dublin: New Island, ISBN: 9781848400429; hardback, 160 pp, €29.99).

Saturday, 18 July 2009

Walks along the shore in Skerries and Loughshinny

Patrick Comerford

After spending half the week in hospital, I was determined to get out this afternoon and get some sea air into those lungs of mine.

Skerries has been a strong favourite since my schooldays nearby in Gormanston, and I wasn’t going to let either those jangly knees or a little onshore rain to stop me having a short stroll beside the beach, in the village and out along the harbour, before stopping in “Stoop Your Head” for a light lunch.

But the rain was persistent. Perhaps I should head back along the coast.

Heading south along the coast road past Saint Patrick’s Church in Holmpatrick and out towards Rush, it was a long time since I had been in Loughshinny. This is a quaint little fishing village, with a small cove that has two sandy beaches and peculiar coastline rock formations in MMM shapes.

It’s surprising that despite the rapid growth of housing in Rush, Lusk and Skerries, Loughshinny remains largely unspoiled. This is part of Fingal’s traditional fishing and market garden area, and Loughshinny has a unique, picturesque – almost quaint – charm. These little coves and beaches around the Fingal coast are as good as anything in the West of Ireland, and I’m almost reluctant to share the secret.

The local Loughshinny and District Development Association has designed a Millennium Historical Walk along three routes of equal length, each 3.5 km long. The themes of these historic routes include local lore about love, wealth, war, tragedies, murder, and the breath-taking scenery of the area – all the right ingredients for a creative writer looking for inspiration.

But my lungs and knees weren’t energetic enough to try any routes as long as these this afternoon. Instead, I had a pleasant to stroll along the sandy shoreline and up around the small harbour, listening to the small waves kissing the twin beaches in the bay. Looking out to sea, there were spectacular views of the Skerries Islands and Lambay.

Until the second half of the 17th century, the Anglo-Norman Delahide family owned this area, and their coat-of-arms is now used by the village for official purposes such as twinning.

At the top of a hill overlooking Loughshinny stand the ruins of an old Church and the last remains of Baldungan Castle. The church is said to have been built by the Knights Templar who dedicated it to the “The Sweet Mother of God” – a very Greek Orthodox dedication that they must have taken back from the Mediterranean during the Crusades.

Baldungan Castle later passed to the de Barnewall family, then to the de Bermingham family, and through them by marriage to the St Lawrence family of Howth in 1508.

The castle was sacked in 1642 after a three-day siege. It is said that over 250 people were slaughtered and two captured priests were hanged.

The castle was never repaired and has since fallen into ruin. But those ruins now add to the charm of this little corner of Fingal and have captured this priest.

The official website for the village of Loughshinny, maintained by the Loughshinny Development Association, is at

Friday, 17 July 2009

Living with sarcoidosis?

Patrick Comerford

I have spent the past three or four days in hospital for the latest round of tests aimed at confirming whether I have a condition known as sarcoidosis.

I have known for a long time that something is wrong. I have a dry cough that creates difficulties for my lungs when I cough, and that also leaves me breathless – not an easy complaint to cope with when I’m lecturing or preaching.

My knees are constantly complaining about their bad condition – for a long time I thought this was just age creeping up on me, but I knew there was something wrong when I took a bad tumble last September, and I now find it difficult to walk downhill.

I have a regular sensation of “pins-and-needles” under my feet. There is a slight swelling on the sides of my neck. And I regularly wake up early, wondering why I’ve only had four or five hours sleep, why I am still feel tired, and why I am feeling sweaty.

When I was in my early twenties, I lived on four or five hours sleep a night, and never worried about it. But the warning signs seem to have been there for a few years now: a painful kidney-stone, dismissed later as being nothing more than a kidney-stone; my knees going from under me as I climbed down Mount Sinai a few years ago, barely making it back in time to Saint Catherine’s Monastery long after everyone else was sitting down to breakfast.

None of these symptoms has been helped by the fact that I’m also suffering from a deficiency of Vitamin B12 – probably brought about by almost forty years of vegetarianism.

But then, like most people, I never heard of sarcoidosis until the symptoms began to present themselves a few months ago.

I think I now know every exit and entrance to Saint James’s Hospital, the Adelaide and Meath Hospital in Tallaght and the Blackrock Clinic, as well as the faces if not the names of most people queuing in my GP’s clinic.

I have been for lung tests, blood tests, kidney tests and heart tests. I have had local and general anaesthetics. I have had X-rays and CT scans. I have seen consultants and dieticians. And now I have had biopsies, ECTs, saline drips and oxygen masks.

What is sarcoidosis?

Sarcoidosis is commonly referred to in a friendly sort of way as “sarcoid.” But it is no friend to the body. It is an auto-immune disease or condition that causes the body to attack itself. No-one appears to know why this happens. But infection often precedes the first signs or symptoms. It often shows up first of all in breathlessness, blurred vision, painful joints or a general loss of well-being. Although many people with sarcoidosis look healthy, they don’t feel well. Sarcoidosis can even kill, although for most people who develop this condition a full recovery is likely.

With sarcoidosis, areas of inflammation may appear on the body. Any part of the body can be affected but the most commonly affected areas are the lungs, skin, eyes and lymph nodes. One area alone may be affected, or it may be many at once.

As with many diseases, sarcoidosis is often present without causing any symptoms. When the symptoms do appear, however, they appear either abruptly, as in acute sarcoidosis, or gradually over a number of years, as in chronic sarcoidosis.

The symptoms of acute sarcoidosis can include fever, cough, joint pains and tiredness, and it makes people feel generally unwell. Red, tender lumps (erythema nodosum) can appear on the shins, and if the eyes are affected they become red and the vision becomes blurred. The lymph nodes can become enlarged and tender.

Over the years, chronic sarcoidosis causes coughing and shortness of breath as the lungs become more and more inflamed and their ability to function deteriorates. The eyes and shins may also be affected in the same way as in acute sarcoidosis.

Although sarcoidosis can occur at any age, I am surprised to learn that young adults are far more likely to develop it. It sometimes runs in families.

Sarcoidosis involves inflammation that produces tiny lumps in different organs. These lumps grow together to make larger lumps, damaging the way the organs and the body works. Many people with sarcoidosis have these lumps in their lungs, and while sarcoidosis is not cancer, one of the treatments may be a low dosage of chemotherapy.

It is not always easy to diagnose sarcoidosis as many other conditions display similar symptoms. My case may be like so many where it is only discovered after a chest x-ray reveals the characteristic swollen lymph nodes or shadowing in the lungs.

Examining a sample of tissue taken from affected skin or lung under the microscope can help to provide an accurate confirmation. And that’s why I have been in hospital for most of this week.

Now all I want to do is sit back on the couch and watch the Test match. The results from examining the tissue samples from my lungs should be ready within the next few weeks.

If I have sarcoidosis, then I’ll have to deal with it. I don’t want to be walking around like the “drunken sailor” for the next few years. But, while I may have sarcoidosis, sarcoidosis will never have me. I used to love walking a few miles a day, and I’m determined to recover that pleasure and exercise.

Monday, 13 July 2009

Spiritual summertime moments of music

Patrick Comerford

For two Sunday mornings in a row I’ve had the real pleasure of listening to the Mass in G Minor by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) with glorious choirs and wonderful settings.

This Vaughan Williams Mass was the setting for the Cathedral Eucharist in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, yesterday [Sunday 12 July], and on the previous Sunday for the Choral Eucharist in the chapel of King’s College, Cambridge.

The Mass in G Minor, written by Vaughan Williams in 1921, is the first Mass written in a distinctly English manner since the 16th century. Vaughan Williams dedicated his Mass to his friend Gustav Holst (1874-1934) and to the Whitsunstide Singers at Thaxted in North Essex, where Holst lived for many years. At the time, the Vicar of Thaxted was Conrad Noel (1869-1942), one of the most prominent-ever Christian Socialists. When he hung the Red Flag alongside the flag of Saint George in his church, his action stirred “the Battle of the Flags,” with students from Cambridge leading attacks on the church to remove the flags.

Vaughan Williams had been an undergraduate at Trinity College, Cambridge, and was a great-nephew of Charles Darwin, whose bicentenary is being marked throughout Cambridge, especially at his alma mater, Christ’s College, and in a special exhibition in the Fitzwilliam Museum.

The Mass is written for an unaccompanied double choir and four soloists, and divided into five movements: Kyrie; Gloria in Excelsis; Credo; Sanctus; and Agnus Dei.

It was appropriate therefore that I heard the Mass in Cambridge last week and that we had two choirs in Christ Church Cathedral yesterday … the Choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, and the Choir of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.

As an added bonus, as our Communion hymn, we sang We come as guests invited, which is set to the tune King’s Lynn, an adaptation by Vaughan Williams of a traditional English folk melody, King’s Lynn.

In his Mass in G Minor, Vaughan Williams pays homage to the traditions of Tudor Church music while remaining distinctively 20th century. The early 1920s marked a pastoral interlude for Vaughan Williams, and his work at the time also included The Lark Ascending, The Pastoral Symphony and The Shepherds of the Delectable Mountains. In 1921, the same year as the latter two pieces, Vaughan Williams also wrote his Mass in G Minor.

The musical link between the Mass in G Minor and his pastoral works is impossible to miss. The Mass is full of the rich harmonies associated with the composer in his most “English summertime” moments, but the origins of the piece are also, as with Howell’s Requiem, in the revival of English polyphony and with the identification by Vaughan Williams of his music with “the imperishable glories of English prose.”

The Mass was dedicated to Gustav Holst and the Whitsuntide Singers – Holst and Vaughan Williams had been students together and at the time were very close friends.

This Mass was first performed by the City of Birmingham Choir on 6 December 1922. But while its first performance was in a concert venue, Vaughan Williams intended the Mass to be used in a liturgical setting. Eventually it had its first liturgical performance at Westminster Cathedral, under the direction of RR Terry, who took an instant liking to the work.

Terry and Holst both championed the liturgical use of the Mass. The success of the Mass in G Minor as a liturgical work in post-war Britain is best summed up in Terry’s own words to Vaughan Williams: “I’m quite sincere when I say that it is the work one has all along been waiting for. In your individual and modern idiom you have really captured the old liturgical spirit and atmosphere.”

As the choirs sang the Mass on Sunday morning, I could imagine Christ in some way benignly above the green and golden countryside of Cambridgeshire and North Essex, including Thaxted, which an old school friend, Frank Domoney, had taken the time to drive me through late on Friday afternoon ... to paraphrae Vaughan Williams, it was an “English summertime” moment.

Sunday, 12 July 2009

When Achill is like an Aegean island in the sun

Dugort beach ... Achill on a summer’s day is like an Aegean island in the sun (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Achill Island was one of my favourite boltholes for many years. I often retreated there, promising myself I was going to use the time to write and to be creative. In winter, without a dial telephone on the island, I was inaccessible. In summer, as the island basked in sunshine and I looked at the whitewashed cottages, the golden beaches, the blue skies and the blue seas, I could imagine I was on an Aegean island in Greece.

I first visited the island in 1974, and I was a regular visitor from 1980 on. Over the years, I made many friends there, sometimes finding myself on Achill five or six times a year. Saint Thomas’s, the small Church of Ireland parish church (right) in Dugort, was always open, providing a welcome place for prayer and contemplation.

But the lure of Greece was captivating, and I hadn’t been back for five or six years. Then an old friend died in a tragic accident earlier this summer. Without much thought or planning, I was back on Achill on one of the sunniest and hottest days of this summer.

The welcome was as warm as ever. After Tommy’s funeral in Bunacurry, I headed back to the Strand Hotel, where I had stayed over the years. Once again, as I stared out over the long beach below, it was tempting to forget time and responsibilities and to linger a little longer.

Largest off-shore island

At 148 sq km (57 square miles), Achill Island is Ireland’s largest off-shore island, although a bridge across Achill Sound has linked Achill Island and the Curraun Peninsula since 1887. Today, the island has a population of 2,700, but at the end of the Neolithic Period, Achill had a population of 500–1,000 people around 4000 BC, and the settlement of people increased during the Iron Age.

Achill Island lies in the Barony of Burrishoole, in the territory of ancient Umhall (Umhall Uactarach and Umhall Ioctarach, or Upper Umhall and Lower Umhall), that originally embraced an area extending from the Galway/Mayo border to Achill Head. The O’Malleys were hereditary chieftains of Umhall from the ninth century. After the Anglo-Norman invasion of Connacht, Umhall passed to the Butlers, and in the late 14th century Thomas le Botiller was recorded as being in possession of Akkyll and Owyll. Later, the de Burgo family owned the island.

The migration of people to Achill from other parts of Ireland, particularly from Ulster, stepped up in the 17th and 18th centuries, due to political and religious turmoils. But it was religious and social unrest in the 19th century that made Canon Edward Nangle synonymous with Achill Island.

Nangle’s Social Gospel

Canon Edward Nangle’s portrait in Saint Thomas’s Church, Dugort (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Nangle’s name has been shrouded in controversy for the past century and a half. He has been accused of sectarian bigotry, of “souperism” – the worst sort of proselytism – during the Great Famine, and of dealing a deathly blow to the Gaelic culture of the indigenous inhabitants of Achill.

But back in 1996, Scoil Acla, the Achill Summer School, invited me to present a paper reassessing Nangle’s contribution to the development of the island.

Canon Edward Nangle (1799-1883) was born in Dublin into a prominent Roman Catholic family from Co Meath, whose members included Edmund Nagle, regarded by many as a saint after his death in the 17th century. Edward’s widowed father sent him to the Cavan Royal School, where his contemporaries included Thomas Fowell Buxton, the great Liberal reformer and campaigner against slavery, and Robert Daly, the celebrated evangelical Bishop of Cashel.

Nangle’s first choice of career was medicine. After ordination he failed miserably as a curate at first in Athboy (Meath), where he stayed for only a few months, and then in Monkstown (Dublin), where he stayed for a mere fortnight.

He first came to the West in 1831 on the steamer Nottingham with a cargo of Indian meal after famine and cholera swept through Mayo and Sligo. He stayed overnight at Achill Sound, before crossing on foot to the island while the tide was out, and then made his way on horseback to Bullsmouth, Dugort and Keel. Moved by the temporal and spiritual destitution of the people, he set about laying the foundations for his Achill Mission. Land at Dugort was leased at a nominal rent from Sir Richard O’Donel of Newport, more lands were bought, and the Nangle family settled in Dugort in 1834.

For the next 18 years, Nangle worked ceaselessly and selflessly on the island. Schools were opened at Dugort, Slievemore, Cashel and Keel, new churches were built at Dugort, Achill Sound and on Inishbiggle, the leased land was bought out and redistributed, a clinic provided medical care as good as the hospitals of the day, crop rotation was introduced, the Irish language was promoted popularly, a printing press published a weekly newspaper and printed prayer books and Bibles in Irish, and new-built piers optimised the fishermen’s catches.

Nangle has been accused of sectarian and bigoted polemic. His language was undoubtedly strong, and we would all be embarrassed to hear it today. But then, no-one can be proud of the rhetoric deployed in all the Churches at the time. On the Roman Catholic side, Archbishop McHale was quick to stoop to denigratory terms such as “the demon of fanaticism and religious rancour,” “fanatic,” and “spiritual poison,” or to claim that the mission was funded by money coming from the “credulous dupes of imposture,” and to pillory Nangle’s new parishioners as people “who worship a stone for their god.”

Other Roman Catholics were kinder to Nangle: the Parish Priest of Belmullet, Dean John Patrick Lyons, praised Nangle as “an excellent man, and he is doing a great deal of good to the poor people of Achill, among whom, with a most praiseworthy philanthropy, he has buried himself.”

A surprising consequence of Nangle’s mission was the Roman Catholic awakening to the neglect of the island people. Resident priests were introduced for the first time, a monastery was built at Bunacurry, and schools were founded.

The Achill Mission was also responsible for introducing tourism to Achill: the first hotel, the Slievemore Hotel, opened in 1839. Nor should it be forgotten that Nangle was a man of culture too: Mrs Violet McDowell reminded me once that he could play the violin with virtuosity, knew his Haydn and Mozart, painted in watercolours and loved to quote from Byron’s poetry. His legacy rests not with the polemic of the past but in his social application of the Gospel which continues to benefit the islanders and Achill’s economy.

A haven for writers

Dugort Strand ... Achill has inspired generations of writers (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

I should have been at home that weekend, writing this column on the Ryan report on child abuse in institutional homes and the collapse of credibility and respectability for the religious orders, or writing about the current economic and political meltdown, and the loss of savings and investments by pension funds and ordinary people. But then, ever since Nangle began publishing his Achill Missionary Herald and Western Witness in 1837, Achill has been a retreat and safe refuge for artists and writers.

The Belfast-born artist Paul Henry (1876-1958) stayed on Achill Island for a number of years in the early 1900s and some of his most famous paintings are of the island’s dramatic landscape. The American realist painter Robert Henri (1865-1929) came to Achill on a regular basis in the early 20th century, and is reputed to have painted portraits of almost all the children in Dooagh village. More recently, Achill has inspired artists and painters such as Camille Souter and Cyril Gray.

Tragic events in the Valley House inspired John Millington Synge as he wrote The Playboy of the Western World (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

John Millington Synge based his play The Playboy of the Western World (1907) partly on the story of James Lynchehaun, who was born at Achill Sound about 1860 and was educated in the monastery at Bunacurry. After being sacked as a teacher, Lynchehaun worked as an agent for Agnes MacDonnell on her estate at the Valley on Achill Island, which had been bought from the Earl of Cavan in late 19th century. When MacDonnell sacked Lynchehaun, a bitter dispute ensued over his cottage, and in 1894 the MacDonnell home, the Valley House, was set on fire and she was savagely attacked and left for dead. Although she survived, she was severely disfigured for the rest of her life. Lynchehaun gave Synge the character of Christy Mahon, the “playboy” who gives his play its title.

The German Nobel Prize-winning author, Heinrich Böll (1917-1985), wrote of his time on Achill in his Irish Journal (Irisches Tagebuch). His cottage near Dugort became an artists’ residence in 2001.

Other writers who lived on Achill include the late English travel writer Honor Tracey, whose supposed affair with Sir John Betjeman was at the heart of a literary hoax played on the writer A.N. Wilson. The novelist Graham Greene was introduced to Achill Island in 1947 by Catherine Walston and wrote parts of the novels The Heart of the Matter and The Fallen Idol in Dooagh. Achill is also said to have inspired some of Greene’s best poetry, but his cottage has since been demolished.

The poet and composer Raymond Deane was born on Achill, and more recently the Dublin-born poet Paul Durcan, who has family roots in Westport, Co Mayo, has built a home on the island close to Saint Thomas’s Church and the former missionary colony.

Parting and returning

Before I left Achill, it was a pleasure once again to call in to Gray’s Guesthouse in the former missionary colony at the foot of Slievemore and to visit Violet McDowell. Her brother, the late Cyril Gray, taught art in Newtown School, Waterford, for many years, while another brother, Bertie, was a vicar in Cornwall. Over the decades, Vi has got to know the majority of clergy in the Church of Ireland, and has played host to many of them.

Saint Thomas’s ... needs at least €45,000 for essential repairs (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

After a drive across to Keel, I returned to Slievemore and Dugort, and visited Saint Thomas’s Church. Today, the church is the spiritual home to a small congregation that is swollen in numbers in the summer months. After more than 150 years, the church is beginning to show its age. Essential work that is needed to keep it open includes the electrics, the internal roof and the windows, and parishioners say this work will cost at least €45,000.

After a final walk on the beach at Dugort, and a visit to Agnes McDonnell’s former home, the Valley House, it was time to head home. A balmy, dusky, summer evening was turning to night. But I can’t imagine it will be long before those Aegean charms call me back to Achill during these summer days.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay was first published in the July editions of the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough), and the Diocesan Magazine (Cashel and Ossory).

Donations to the Restoration of Saint Thomas’s can be sent to: St Thomas Restoration Fund, c/o T.H. Stevenson (Treasurer), Dugort, Achill Island, Co Mayo.

Saturday, 11 July 2009

Dance me to the end of love

The Bridge of Sighs at Saint John’s College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

My summer school in Cambridge ended around lunch time yesterday [Friday]. With an afternoon free, I thought it would be nice to spend a little time visiting some colleges I had only had a glimpse of before, and so I strolled off to see Saint John’s with its “Bridge of Sighs,” Clare with the oldest bridge of its kind on the Cam and its views of the river and the Backs, and Queens’, with its spectacular Mathematical Bridge.

The summer school, organised by the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, was on the theme of love and many of the speakers spoke of how God’s love for us and our love for God is a ladder or bridge across the gap between heaven and earth, between God and us.

I thought of that as I crossed each of these bridges, and those thoughts kept coming to the fore as I realised how almost every Cambridge college had been set up as part of a monastic or religious foundation, with the chapel at the heart of each college.

Saint John’s was founded by Lady Margaret Beaufort at the instigation of her confessor, Bishop John Fisher, who was later one of the Catholic martyrs of the English Reformation.

On the Front Gate is an image of Saint John the Evangelist, with his symbol of an eagle and holding the poison chalice from which he drew the potion in the form of a snake or serpent. The chapel was built by Gilbert Scott and has a choir that is almost equal to that of King’s in fame and reputation. The Bridge of Sighs, built in 1831, links Third Court at Saint John’s with New Court.

Punters under the bridge at Clare College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Clare College is the second oldest college in Cambridge. The chapel has an altar piece by Cipriani of the Annunciation and an octagonal antechapel. Clare also has the oldest bridge crossing the Cam and the first in classical style. From the bridge, there is a stunning view of the Gibbs Building and the Chapel at King’s College next door.

The Mathematical Bridge at Queens’College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Picturesque Queens’, with its mediaeval brickwork, Tudor half-timebering, cloisters and unique moondial, stands on the site of a former Carmelite friary. Erasmus lived here in 1510-1514 when he taught Greek in Cambridge.

The Mathematical Bridge, linking the older, mediaeval buildings with the very modern parts of Queens’, was first built in 1746. Traditionally it was supposed to have been built without nails. But this was found to be untrue when the bridge was rebuilt in 1905 … it always had iron screws or bolts at its joints.

Crossing back over the bridge again, I thought again once more of the image of God’s love as a bridge, and the theme of love that ran through our summer school all this week. Back in Dublin this afternoon, when rain put an end to watching cricket on the television, I was sitting listening to a recording of Leonard Cohen’s concert in London last year and started looking back at last year’s concert in Dublin and looking forward to this month’s concert in Dublin too.

I joked once again that at my funeral it would be nice to have my coffin taken out of the church to the sound of his Dance me to the end of love.

During the funeral itself, the hymns I would like include Abide with me, Lead kindly light, Thine be the glory and How shall I sing that majesty. But Leonard Cohen’s poems and songs are deeply spiritual with strong Biblical images. As I listened, I thought of the dramatic impact of David Frost’s reading from the Song of Songs earlier this week. If you read Dance me to the end of love as a prayer or a psalm, then it becomes a song of love, describing the love God has for us and the love we hope God receives from us.

Dance Me To The End Of Love

Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin
Dance me through the panic ’til I’m gathered safely in
Lift me like an olive branch and be my homeward dove
Dance me to the end of love
Dance me to the end of love

Oh let me see your beauty when the witnesses are gone
Let me feel you moving like they do in Babylon
Show me slowly what I only know the limits of
Dance me to the end of love
Dance me to the end of love

Dance me to the wedding now, dance me on and on
Dance me very tenderly and dance me very long
We’re both of us beneath our love, we’re both of us above
Dance me to the end of love
Dance me to the end of love

Dance me to the children who are asking to be born
Dance me through the curtains that our kisses have outworn
Raise a tent of shelter now,
though every thread is torn
Dance me to the end of love

Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin
Dance me through the panic till I’m gathered safely in
Touch me with your naked hand or touch me with your glove
Dance me to the end of love
Dance me to the end of love
Dance me to the end of love.

Friday, 10 July 2009

‘God is love and the true man is love’

Punting on the River Cam or the Backs, behind Clare College and King’s College Chapel, on a lazy summer afternoon in Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Each year, participants in the summer school of the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies go to Tolleshunt Knights in Essex to spend a day at the nearby Stavropegic Monastery of Saint John the Baptist. On Wednesday [8 July 2009], we spent a day in the monastery, attending the liturgy in the monastery church, and listening to the spiritual wisdom of Sister Magdalen.

This morning, the monastery came to the Cambridge, when one of the best-known monks at Saint John’s, Archimandrite Zacharias (Zacharou), spoke at the closing session of the summer school in Sidney Sussex College

Father Zacharias he is a senior member of the community at the Monastery of Saint John the Baptist, where he is much-loved as a spiritual director. He was born in Cyprus, earned his doctorate in Thessaloniki, and for 27 years worked closely with Father Sophrony until his death.

He is the author of Christ, Our Way and Our Life, The Enlargement of the Heart and of The Hidden Man of the Heart (2007). His latest book is a series of presentations on the place of the heart in the spiritual life of the Christian, with special reference to the writings of those two contemporary spiritual giants who have guided his life, Saint Silouan the Athonite (1866-1938) and his disciple and spiritual son, Elder Sophrony of Essex (1896-1993).

This morning, Father Zacharias spoke to us in two sessions on the topic “God is Love and the True Man is Love.” Throughout the week, we were told to expect that these were going to be meditations rather than lectures. But his heart-touching, deeply spiritual reflections on God’s self-less, absolute love were a fitting conclusion to a summer school that had “Love” as its theme, reminding us precisely why this is an important focus in theology and spirituality.

Throughout his talks, Father Zacharias showed how deeply he had been influenced and inspired by the teachings of Saint Silouan and Elder Sophrony.

Father Zacharias reminded us that our God is a revealed God, a Trinitarian God, and a God of love. We are made also in the image of this God and each of us is truly a person when we have love.

This love of God produces a vision of the greatness and the beauty of the love of God, while on the other hand it makes us conscious of our miserable state. The love of God leads to the state of prayer, which receives the love of God. It is God’s will that all should be saved. And so, the person of love becomes an intercessor for the whole world.

Love is the most excellent of all the gifts that God gives us, and invites us into eternal life in the living God. He did not fail to wrestle with the topic of holy “self-hatred,” which he said is necessary for regeneration and for restoring us to the image of God, who is holy and who is love. God is Love, so the truly human person is Love.

Drawing on Saint Gregory of Palamas, he said we can see the whole world in God, and feel love for the whole world in our deep heart, for there is an ontological unity of all people. It is for the praying Christian to pray lovingly for all of humanity, to live the tragedy of the whole human race, to have compassion and prayer for the whole human race and to suffer with all those who suffer.

Praying for the whole of humanity becomes participation in the redeeming work of Christ. Prayer for the whole world often meets with resistance and hatred. But in their prayer, the saints are pleasing to God and God’s blessing descends on the whole world, so that their prayer sustains the world and is a participation in a cosmic event.

We should not be dejected by the state of the world, but participate in its suffering by praying for the whole world.

Later we had a very engaging discussion on suffering and pain in the world, theodicy, and the potential for salvation of all.

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

A Puritan foundation with a High Church chapel

The interior of the chapel in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, with The Holy Family, by the Venetian painter Giovanni Pittoni, above the altar

Patrick Comerford

Throughout this week, the participants in the Summer School of the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies have enjoyed the daily hospitality of the chapel at Sidney Sussex, and the convenient location of the college in the centre of Cambridge.

Sidney Sussex College is also conveniently opposite Sainsbury’s. Tourists are often confused by the fact that the college is often known simply as Sidney or even – because of its location – as Sidney Sainsbury’s. Every morning, I have been buying The Irish Times on the day of publication in Sainsbury’s across the street from Sidney Sussex on Sidney Street.

As a small college, Sidney Sussex and its grounds have changed little since it was founded in 1596, despite extensive reworking of the buildings in the 1800s. With about 350 undergraduates and 200 graduate students, this is still a small college, even by Cambridge standards. Indeed, this was rarely a wealthy college –some say that indeed this was a distinctly impoverished college until about 50 years ago.

Sidney performs mid-table when it comes to academia and sporting achievements. The unofficial Tompkins Table of undergraduate performance ranks Sidney at 14 out of 29 colleges, although traditionally Sidney’s students have excelled at history, law and engineering. However, a table like this fails to show that Sidney has strong women’s sport teams, and that the college team is always placed highly in darts and pool each year.

Sidney students – undergraduates and graduates alike – wonder whether there is a connection between these achievements and their bar. I wonder. The bar is a point of pride for them as it is the only student-run bar in Cambridge … and the cheapest. Since the students are only present during term-time, the bar has an unusual tradition of holding a “drink-the-bar-dry” evening every term on the last day of the licence. Drinks start out at the usual prices, but the prices decrease in inverse proportion to the remaining supply. And it is said all remaining drinks are free for the last hour of the licence.

Mind you, I have yet to experience this to confirm it. For the last few evenings, I have adjourned with friends to the Mitre in Bridge Street or the Eagle, across the street from Saint Bene’t’s in Benet Street. The Eagle dates back to 1625, and is still legally the property of Corpus Christi, whose Masters have included Archbishop Matthew Parker.

Apart from darts, pool and bars, Sidney Sussex students are proud to point out that they have always performed well on television in University Challenge, with winning teams in 1971, 1978 and 1979. Indeed, the 1978 team went on to win the “Champion of Champions” reunion competition in 2002.

Sidney alumni

This is all hard to credit to a college that was supposed to be affirmedly Puritan from its inception. When Sidney Sussex was founded in 1596 by Lady Frances Sidney, Countess of Sussex, this was supposed to be a firmly Puritan foundation. No wonder Oliver Cromwell was among the first students here and that thee college had an important role during the English Civil War – even if I am sceptical about the claims that Cromwell’s head is buried beneath the floor of the antechapel.

Better, perhaps, to think that, apart from Oliver Cromwell, the college's most famous alumni include Sherlock Holmes, well, yes, and Carol Vorderman, five Nobel Prize winners – which is the fourth highest figure for a Cambridge college – or even those Sidney graduates who were integral in breaking the Enigma Code at Bletchley Park.

But Sidney Sussex is older than Carol Vorderman – indeed the college might even claim to be older than Lady Frances Sidney Sussex, who has been smiling down on me benignly morning, noon and night at breakfast, lunch and dinner in the Hall all this week.

The plaque in Cloister Court remembering the Franciscans, including Duns Scotus, who lived on the site of Sidney Sussex College (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Although Sidney Sussex was founded in 1596, this college stands on an older, mediaeval site. The Grey Friars, or Franciscans, including Duns Scotus (1266-1308), one of the most important theologians and philosophers of the High Middle Ages, lived here for almost 300 years at their foundation in Bridge Street – now Sidney Street. Arguments continue over whether Duns Scotus was born in Duns in Berwickshire or in Ireland.

Greyfriars was a common name for Franciscan houses, just as Blackfriars was the name of Dominican houses. From the mid-14th century, Greyfriars in Cambridge included a church and cemetery on the site of the present Cloister Court – last year, my room there was on Staircase K. But the cloister itself was on the site of the present Hall Court, and it is said Sidney’s wine cellars below Hall Court are mediaeval structures from this lost monastic world. Greyfriars also had a refectory and several other buildings.

Cloister Court in Sidney Sussex College … the site of the Greyfriars’ church and cemetery (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Over half a century ago, excavations in 1958 unearthed traces of a huge complex of buildings, a lay graveyard complete with skeletons that have since been reburied, bucket-loads of superb shattered stained glass, and a massive Saxon jar.

Until the reformation, Greyfriars’ Church was used regularly for Cambridge University ceremonies. But in 1538, at the dissolution of the monasteries, the Franciscans were forced to leave this site, Henry VIII gave the freehold of the site to his new foundation, Trinity College, and most of the Greyfriars’ buildings were demolished.

It is said that after the dissolution Trinity removed much of the stone from Greyfriars to build its own chapel, and that 3,000 cartloads were removed in 1556 alone. Even the conduit from Greyfriars was redirected and it still supplies the fountain in Trinity Great Court.

A Puritan foundation?

A generation or two later, the foundation of Sidney Sussex was supposedly as a Puritan, Protestant seminary. But is it true to say that Sidney was ever really a Puritan college?

When visitors are shown around Sidney Sussex and the college chapel, guides relish in pointing out that Anglican churches are traditionally oriented on an East-West axis, but that the chapel here is oriented on an a South-North axis in some sort of Puritan protest. But is this so?

Perhaps it was due to the exigencies of the available site after a bruising battle with the Masters and Fellows of Trinity for possession of the former Greyfriars’ site. Perhaps nothing theological was intended at all. After all, the chapel at Emmanuel College, which is only a short walk away, had a similar orientation until Christopher Wren was invited to design a new chapel in 1667.

Shortly after the death of Lady Sidney Sussex, the Harrington and Montagu families became closely identified with the life of the college. Both families were among the rising powers in late Elizabethan and Jacobean England. One of the first aristocratic students here was the glamorous and talented Sir John Harrington, a son of one of the executors of Lady Sidney Sussex and the closest friend of Prince Henry. Sidney’s first master, James Montagu, was James I’s editor and one of the translators of the Authorised Bible (1611).

Men like this drew around them a remarkable body of fellows and students at Sidney in the decades preceding the English Civil War. Among the Puritans was Thomas Gataker, a classical scholar and Puritan theologian who became embroiled in a debate about predestination and gambling. William Bradshaw was the author of the important history English Puritanism (1605). Jeremiah Whitaker, a friend of Cromwell, moderated at the Westminster Assembly of Divines in 1643. Thomas Adams, the “prose Shakespeare of puritan theology,” was a major influence on John Bunyan. And there were the two related Daniel Dykes – one a puritan divine who refused to wear a surplice, the other a Baptist minister who was one Cromwell’s chaplains.

On the other hand, royalists prospered at Sidney too. Sir Thomas Adams founded an Arabic professorship at Cambridge. Walter Montagu, the author of The Shepherd’s Paradise, an eight-hour masque for Queen Henrietta Maria in the 1630s, was arrested as a spy in France and was sent to the Bastille by Richelieu. He converted to Roman Catholicism, and ended his days as an abbé in France. John Pocklington was a High Churchman and a Hebrew scholar whose Sunday No Sabbath was burned in 1635.

Sidney sent £100 to help Charles I during the English Civil War. The Caroline Restoration seems to have been the beginning of a deep and troubling change in at Sidney, which suffered under the stigma of its Cromwellian connections. Yet John Bramhall (1594-1663), who matriculated at Sidney, became the restoration Archbishop of Armagh in 1663, and is the subject of a major essay by TS Eliot. A little later, the celebrated Bishop of Winchester, Seth Ward (1617-1689), was at Sidney, as was John Sterne (1624-1669), the first president of the Royal College of Physicians in Ireland.

Ward was the restoration Bishop of Exeter and then of Salisbury. While Ward was at Salisbury, James II imposed Joshua Bassett, a Roman Catholic, was imposed on Sidney as Master. But Bassett fled overnight with the arrival of William of Orange.

Richard Reynolds (1674-1743), the early 18th century Bishop of Lincoln, was also at Sidney. But the most important figure at Sidney in the early 18th century may have the theologian and moral philosopher William Wollaston. His Religion of Nature Delineated (1724) achieved huge sales and led to his being chosen as one of five British “worthies” – along with Isaac Newton and Robert Boyle – who were sculpted by Rysbrack for Queen Caroline’s Hermitage at Kew. John Garnett, a Fellow of Sidney Sussex, became Bishop of Clogher (1758-1782), and his portrait still hangs on the stairs up to the Old Library, where we had our dinner last night, above the ante-chapel and looking out onto Chapel Court.

A new chapel

It is probably true that the one surviving building from the old Greyfriars was the refectory and kitchens, and that these were converted into the college chapel. However, the present chapel in Sidney Sussex dates from 1780, when the last buildings of Grey Friars on the site were torn down.

The new chapel was re-designed by James Essex in the 1770s. It appears he had tough taskmasters, as he produced four plans for redesigning the chapel before he was allowed to proceed with his work. In the end, it was an impressive makeover of a plain if evocative 17th century religious space, meeting the classical tastes of the day.

One of the most striking features on entering the chapel is the remarkable Catholic altar-piece, The Holy Family, by the Venetian painter Giovanni Pittoni, which was bought in 1783 for 20 guineas. This Catholic work of art and its presentation would have been unthinkable in previous generations at Sidney Sussex … or would it?

By the early 19th century, Sidney was a very small college in terms of undergraduate admissions. And so it must have been a surprise for many Victorians period that was in effect an Anglican seminary. The “massive” Victorian, Robert Machray, became Canada’s first Anglican archbishop. The controversial Anglo-Catholic, Thomas Pelham Dale (1821-1892), was jailed in 1880 for his ritualism. Later, John Wale Hicks, who became Bishop of Bloemfontein, was typical of his time in publishing books on both doctrine and inorganic chemistry.

Despite this theological history, the reforms at Cambridge from 1850s on, despite being resisted fiercely by the Master of Sidney, Robert Phelps, changed Sidney’s intellectual course forever. From the largely theological and mathematical college it had been for its the first two centuries or so, it became a power-house in the rapidly expanding medical, natural, physical and chemical sciences, due principally to the inspiration of Clough Williams Ellis.

The laboratories that once stood along the Sidney Street wall beyond A Staircase, now a bicycle shed, were among the first in Cambridge. There, a string of important experiments were carried out by the metallurgist FH Neville. Neville’s portrait hangs at the top of the stairs leading to the Old Library. Following his conversion in 1904, Neville became the first-ever Roman Catholic fellow at Sidney Sussex ... the Jacobite master, Joshua Bassett, might have been pleased.

Meanwhile, the chapel, which had been redesigned by James Essex, was proving to be inadequate in size. It only extended to half its present length. However, between 1911 and 1923, TH Lyons completed the present proportions of the chapel, along with its fine neo-baroque interior.

His work suited the High Church complexion that had become part of the life of Sidney by then. He altered and lengthened the chapel, and gave it elaborate oak-panelled walls, a variegated marble floor and Sidney’s distinctive bell turret. The side chapel has the reserved sacrament.

The distinctive bell turret seen from my room in Sidney Sussex ... it was part of the alterations to the chapel a century ago by TH Lyons (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In transforming the sanctuary of Cromwell’s college into an Anglo-Catholic chapel, the Edwardian high churchmen inscribed above Pittoni’s Catholic Venetian altar-piece, The Holy Family, in large, capital, gilt letters the Latin phrase “Gvstando Vivimvs Deo.” Those words, “gustando vivimus deo,” “by tasting we live in God,” are taken from the seventh century Latin hymn for Easter Vespers, The Lamb’s high banquet we await.

Some more recent additions to the chapel include the panels of stained glass fragments that have been inserted into the antechapel window. These fragments were unearthed during the archaeological investigations about half a century ago in 1958 and they appear to come from the mediaeval windows of the former Franciscan church.

And so, in some unexpected way, the Franciscans have found a new place in the daily worship life in the chapel of Sidney Sussex College, and not merely in the presence this week of this former pupil of the Franciscans at Gormanston.

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

Thursday, 9 July 2009

Approach Scripture with love – and you will see its beauty

A view of my room and Staircase H through the arch at the Porter’s Lodge in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Love is a prerequisite for reading Scripture according to the Syriac Fathers as they were introduced to us this morning by Professor Sebastian Brock, when he spoke at the summer school of the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, this morning [Thursday 9 July 2009].

The foremost and most influential academic in the field of Syriac language, Dr Brock, is a former Reader in Syriac Studies at the Oriental Institute in the University of Oxford and is currently a Professorial Fellow at Wolfson College.

Dr Brock studied at Cambridge and completed his DPhil at Oxford. With scholars like Professor David Frost, he worked on the Liturgical Psalter, which has been used in the Church of Ireland, the Church of England and other churches throughout the Anglican Communion. He is widely published and his books include The Luminous Eye: The Spiritual World Vision of Saint Ephrem the Syrian and The Syriac Fathers on Prayer and the Spiritual Life.

His paper this morning drew on a Christian tradition that is in danger of being neglected or forgotten by the rest of the Church and the rest of the world. The Syriac tradition is the tradition of many Middle Eastern Christians, including those of Iraq, where half the Christian population has been driven out and is now living in miserable conditions in Syria, Jordan and other neighbouring countries.

Dr Brock described how the Syriac fathers had a tradition of producing sermons in verse, many of them very beautiful poems, and he drew delightfully from sermons and poems by three particular writers – Saint Ephrem, Jacob of Serugh and Isaac the Syrian.

Saint Ephrem lived before the great divisions in Christianity and so is part of the shared tradition of all the churches. Jacob lived at the time of the Chalcedonian divisions but is also regarded as a saint in the Maronite tradition, and so bridges the divide between Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian traditions. Isaac is part of the post-Chalcedonian Syriac tradition, but has been translated in Greek, Latin, Slavonic and other languages, so that he both speaks to monastic life today in a very modern way and speaks to all Christian traditions.

Saint Ephrem (306-373) wrote a wide variety of hymns, poems and sermons in verse, as well as prose Biblical exegesis. His writings remained popular for centuries after his death, and he has been called the most significant of all of the fathers of the Syriac tradition.

Saint Ephrem spoke of the divine initiative requiring a human response. There is a chasm between the creator and the created, and only the creator can cross this. If God had not initiated this, we would not have any knowledge about God at all. The first step is taken by God.

A common metaphor in the Syriac tradition is that of taking off one’s clothes and putting on one’s clothes. God is described by Ephrem as putting on words, allowing himself to be described in human terms and descending to our human level.

Humanity is endowed with free will, so God’s self-revelation in not imposed on human beings but is a matter of choice. Yet God remains hidden, and the response of faith is needed to see God in nature and in Scripture. They are symbols pointing to the hidden divine nature, which can only be seen through faith.

Saint Ephrem says the Bible is not to be read literally, and he warns that literal readings misrepresent God’s majesty and are ungrateful. Metaphors should not be taken literally:

“The Scriptures are laid out like a mirror
and the person whose eye is luminous
sees therein the image of Divine Reality.” – Hymns on Faith 67: 8

Ephrem saw the proper balance between truth and love:

“Truth and love are wings which cannot be separated,
for Truth without Love is not able to fly.
So too, Love without Truth is unable to soar up
for their yoke is one of harmony.” – Hymns on Faith 32: 3

In the Syriac tradition, Jacob of Serugh (451-521), “who lived in a backwards part of Syria,” is only second in stature to Ephrem the Syrian – while Ephrem is known as the “Harp of the Spirit,” Jacob is the “Flute of the Spirit.” His prodigious corpus includes more than 700 verse homilies, although so far only 225 of these have been edited and published.

For Jacob of Serugh, love is one of the prerequisites for reading Scripture: love:

“Approach Scripture with love – and you will see its beauty,
for if you do not approach it with love, it will not allow you to see its face.
If you read it with love, you will not get any profit,
for love is the gate through which a person enters into its true understanding.” – Homily 117

Isaac the Syrian, or Isaac of Nineveh, was a seventh century bishop and theologian who is remembered today for his 91 surviving homilies on the inner life. Like Jacob of Serugh, Isaac the Syrian describes the Scriptures as an ocean:

“The readings of Scripture is manifestly the fountainhead that gives birth to prayer – and by these two things [reading and prayer] we are transported in the direction of the love of God whose sweetness is poured out continually in our hearts like honey or a honeycomb, and our souls exult at the taste which the hidden mystery of prayer and the reading of Scripture pour into our hearts.”

This afternoon, Dr Brock spoke about “Christ, ‘the Bridegroom of our souls,’ in the Syriac tradition.’

In the Gospels, Christ speaks of himself as the bridegroom, as in the parable of the wise and foolish virgins in Matthew 25, or in John 3: 29, where Christ is implicitly the Bridegroom. This theme is taken up in Syriac liturgy, including festal and baptismal hymns and the Lenten Troidion for Monday of Holy Week:

“You are the Bridegroom of our souls,
and in You alone do we take delight.
Catch us with the fishing net of Your beauty,
capture us with the sweetness of Your love.” – Fenqitho (Festal Hymnary)

The liturgical texts of all the Syriac Churches include the references o the “Bridal Chambers of Light” or the “Bridal Chambers of Joys” as a regular substitute for the Kingdom of Heaven.

Once again, Dr Brock drew on the writings of the Syriac fathers, including Saint Ephrem and Jacob of Serugh. He quoted from Saint Ephrem who in one of his hymns referred to Christ in these verses:

“The soul is Your bride, the body Your bridal chamber,
Your guests are the senses and the thoughts;
and if a single body is a wedding feast for You,
how great is Your banquet for the whole Church!” – Hymns of Faith 14: 5

Staircase H in Chapel Court, Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In the morning, Dr Marcus Plested of IOCS spoke on “‘Wounded by Love’: Insights from Scripture and the Fathers,” looking at how three particular Patristic writers, Origen, Gregory of Nyssa and Macarius, treated the Song of Songs.

To end the evening, Father Alexander Tefft offered three observations on the conference theme of Love. Love is relational, love is in its essence impenetrable, and love inspires in us a sense of wonder and awe.

This evening we are invited to dinner in the Old Library at Sidney Sussex, and the summer school comes to an end tomorrow.

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