Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Knowing God … as Father, Son and Holy Spirit

Andrei Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity … this icon of the Hospitality of Abraham (Genesis 18: 1-16) is an aid to understanding God as Trinity

Patrick Comerford


In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

On Monday morning, [the Revd Dr] Maurice [Elliott, Director of the Church of Ireland Theological Institute,] was talking in chapel about “Knowing God” … and more particularly about knowing God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

The novelist and Anglican spiritual writer, Dorothy Sayers wrote an essay, ‘The Dogma is the Drama’ (Dorothy L. Sayers, Creed or Chaos, London: Methuen, 1947), on the relevance of Christian doctrine to real life. In it she drew up a kind of questionnaire with the sort of answers she felt ordinary people would give to questions like this. She wrote:

Question: What does the Church think of God the Father?

Answer: He is omnipotent and holy. He created the world and imposed on man conditions impossible of fulfilment. He is very angry if these are not carried out. He sometimes interferes by means of arbitrary judgment and miracles, distributed with a good sense of favouritism. He likes to be truckled to, and is always ready to pounce on anybody who trips up over a difficulty in the Law, or is having a bit of fun. He is rather like a dictator, only larger and more arbitrary.

Question: What does the Church think of God the Son?

Answer: He is in some way to be identified with Jesus of Nazareth. It was not his fault that the world was made like this and, unlike God the Father, he is friendly to man and did his best to reconcile man and God. He has a good deal of influence with God, and if you want anything done, it’s best to apply to him.

Question: What does the Church think of God the Holy Ghost?

Answer: I don’t know exactly. He was never seen or heard of till Whit Sunday. There is a sin against him which damns you for ever, but nobody knows what it is.

Question: What is the doctrine of the Holy Trinity?

Answer: “The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, the Holy Ghost incomprehensible” – the whole thing incomprehensible. Something put in by theologians to make it more difficult. Nothing to do with daily life and reality.

Incomprehensible, nothing to do with daily life and reality. Are these some of the difficulties you could imagine when it comes to thinking and talking about the Trinity?

So I want to introduce you to a way of thinking of God as the Trinity through a Bible study and through an icon:

Bible Study: Genesis 18: 1-16:

The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. He said, “My Lord, if I find favour with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on – since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.”

And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.” Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.

They said to him, “Where is your wife Sarah?” And he said, “There, in the tent.”

Then one said, “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ’Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.”

But Sarah denied, saying, “I did not laugh”; for she was afraid. He said, “Oh yes, you did laugh.” Then the men set out from there, and they looked toward Sodom; and Abraham went with them to set them on their way.

The Trinity in the Old Testament:

This is one place in the Old Testament when God is revealed in three persons simultaneously. Sometimes that event is depicted as a representation of the Trinity. At the baptism of Jesus, we see Jesus, and we see the Holy Spirit as a dove, but we only hear the voice of God. The one time when the Trinity is revealed simultaneously is in this story in Genesis 18: 1-16, the Visitation of Abraham:

“The Lord appeared to [Abraham] by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men stood in front of him” (Genesis 18: 1-2).

The story in Genesis does not encourage us to fix too closely on distinctions between the three visitors. “They” speak to Abraham, but later it is “the Lord” who is speaking. When Abraham bows before them, he bows before the Lord. When Sarah laughs, the Lord questions Abraham. When she denies she laughed, he says, “Oh yes, you did laugh. And then “the men” depart, and Abraham remained standing before the Lord (Genesis 18: 22).

The three visitors or angels who appear to Abraham and Sarah are a visitation from the Lord – God has appeared to them in the form of three persons.

Andrei Rublev and his icon

One of the most famous representations of this story is in Andrei Rublev’s icon often known as “The Old Testament Trinity.” I have copies of this icon over my desk in my study at home and in my study here in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. It must be the best-known and most-admired icon among Western Christians. It was written in 1411 by Andrei Rublev (Андрéй Рублёв) (ca 1360/1370-ca 1430), a Russian monk who was the greatest mediaeval Russian writer of icons and frescoes.

Sometimes, in icons presenting the Old Testament Trinity, Abraham and Sarah are seen in the background, holding plates of food. In those cases, the icon is known as “The Hospitality of Abraham.” But in Rublev’s icon, the three figures sit alone.

Andrei Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity is a profound symbol of Trinitarian love, and draws the beholder into the communio personarum of the Trinity. It is often used in discussions of the mystery of the Trinity, and in his preface to The Trinity and the Kingdom, Jurgen Moltmann acknowledges Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity as his inspiration for writing this book.

The three faces are identical and help us to understand the nature of the Trinity. Theologians would warn us against distinguishing the three into separate bodies as this suggests division, rather than the unity of the Trinity. It would be safer, perhaps, to understand that all three together somehow represent the Trinity. But the three figures are enclosed in an artist’s circle, illustrating the co-inherence of the Trinity. Each figure wears a blue garment – the colour of the heavens – but each wears something that speaks of their own identity.

The three mysterious strangers visit Abraham, and he hastily orders his servants to prepare a meal for them, and he treats the three with great reverence. The guests are described simply as three men, but when Abraham addresses them, they respond in unison (the author of Genesis writes “they said”).

Curiously, at times only one of the men addresses Abraham, and when he does he is named as the Lord. The Lord appeared to Abraham, but when he looks out of his tent to see who is there, he sees three men. There is no mention of Abraham being frightened by this apparition, or questioning the unity of the three in speech, and the obvious priority of the one.

The text says that the Lord appeared, but it does not clearly state that Abraham knew that it was God himself who was visiting him. Whether he knew his visitors to be God or merely his messengers, Abraham offers them his finest hospitality.

For many, this scene is a foreshadowing of the revelation of the Trinitarian God that will come with Christ’s Incarnation. Abraham’s three visitors are viewed as being God-Yahweh, God’s Word, and God’s Spirit: in other words, the Holy Trinity.

Such a reading of this scene can only be made through the lens of the Incarnation, and Christ’s revelation of the Father and Holy Spirit, both in what he said, and what he did – the manifestation of the Trinity at Christ’s baptism, and in his Transfiguration. Similarly, Rublev could only portray this scene in an icon because of the Incarnation of Christ, who is the perfect icon of the Father.

A contemporary interpretation of Andrei Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity

All three figures portrayed in the icon have a few things in common. Each holds a rod, a half shepherd’s crook and half sceptre, symbolising the equality among the three. Each wears a cloak of blue, the colour symbolic of divinity in the language of icons. And each face is exactly the same, perhaps another sign of the oneness in the distinction of the three.

Nevertheless, the figures are seated in their doxological order: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The first figure is at rest within itself. This figure wears a blue garment that is almost hidden by a shimmering, ethereal robe. “You robe yourself in light as in a garment” (Psalm 104: 2). This represents the Father, the One who is Creator, who cannot be seen by his human creatures. Both hands clasp the staff. All authority in heaven and on earth belongs to the Father.

The Father’s divinity (the blue tunic) is cloaked in a colour that is light and almost transparent, yet opaque as well, symbolising the ineffable, hidden nature of the Creator and Lord of all. In one hand he holds the rod, and with the other he blesses, as if to show that he is pleased with the Son’s acceptance of his mission. His gaze is turned toward the other two, but his head is not inclined – rather, Son and Spirit incline their heads toward him, acknowledging the one who is their origin and source.

The central figure is Christ, the Word and Son of God, who is at the centre of all creation, and through whom all things are made. This second figure also wears the blue of divinity. Both Father and Spirit wear blue, but is the other colour in which the second figure is robed earth brown or royal purple? Reddish purple is a symbol of royal priesthood. Christ is royalty – the King – and he is Priest, the one who condescends to his creation and becomes part of it. Christ is the High Priest, the one in whose place stands every earthly priest who celebrates the Liturgy.

If then it is purple, it is deep purple-red. This is the purple of royalty. At one time, purple fabric was very expensive. Lydia in the Acts of the Apostles may have been a very rich woman as a trader in purple goods (Acts 16: 14). The only source of purple dye was a tiny gland at the back of the head of the murex snail. Only the very wealthy could afford it, and so purple was associated exclusively with royalty.

On the other hand, if the second figure is robed in brown rather than purple, the colour of the garment speaks of the earth and of his humanity. The gold stripe speaks of kingship, for this is the Christ. But it is worn like a deacon’s stole, for this is the Servant King.

With his two fingers, formed to spell the Greek letters Chi-Rho, an abbreviation of the word Christ, the Son blesses the cup at the centre of the table. The cup he blesses, as one of the visitors, is the calf Abraham ordered to be slaughtered and prepared. In the symbolic language of the icon, however, the cup contains the sacrificial Lamb, a foreshadowing of his sacrifice on the cross. His blessing shows his acceptance of this sacrifice, as does the inclination of his head and its gaze toward the figure to his left – the Father.

The Spirit lays his hand on the table as if to signify that he will be with the Son throughout his mission. The Father blesses the Son for his acceptance of his saving work that will invite his creation – all of humanity – into the communion of the Trinity. Their love is not self-enclosed, but reaches beyond the Trinity, and this is the model for the love of all human persons.

The Christ figure rests two fingers on the table – laying onto it his divine and his human nature. He points to a cup filled with wine. He is the incarnate Lord, and he is present to us today as we share in the common cup of the Eucharist.

Behind the second figure is a tree. This could be the oak tree at Mamre under which the three angelic visitors rested. The hospitality of Abraham and Sarah was rewarded in the gift of a son..

But the tree also represents the Cross on which Christ died. This is the tree of death which becomes the tree of eternal life – it was lost to humanity by the disobedience of Adam and Eve, but was restored to us by the obedience of Jesus. The Cross is the place where death and life confront each other, where death gives way to resurrection and eternal life.

The tree behind is also the tree of life in Revelation, which bears 12 kinds of fruit, one for each month of the year, and the leaves of this tree are for the healing of the nations. This is the Christ who will return again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and to usher in his Kingdom, which will have no end.

The niche in the front of the table or altar represents the empty tomb of Christ.

The Son and Spirit incline their heads towards the Father, who is the Source. Yet they do not dissolve into each other, or into him. Each is a subject – a hypostasis – and yet they are one.

The icon shows the divine taxis of the Father as arche or source; the Spirit as the one who prepares the way for the Son’s mission and, at the same time, is intimately tied to him; and the Son, deferring in everything to the will of the Father, accepting the sacrifice he must make, and accomplishing all through the Holy Spirit. And so the Ascended Christ, the Son, is now seated at the right hand of the Father.

This is the Risen Christ, in all his ascended glory, who is now seated to the right of the Father – from our perspective, from where we stand to view the icon and to enter into the mystery of the Trinity.

The figure seated to the right of the icon represents the Holy Spirit. He wears a cloak of green over the blue of his divinity, symbolising life and regeneration. The action of the Holy Spirit transfigures and transforms, and it is through him that we are invited to experience new life, especially through the Holy Mysteries of Baptism, Chrismation (Confirmation), Eucharist, and Marriage.

The Spirit’s head is inclined towards the middle figure and draws our eyes there as well. As he does in the life of Christ in the New Testament, the Spirit is pointing us towards the Word, revealing to the beholder of the icon who he is.

The Christ figure in turn inclines towards the figure on the left – and we are drawn to gaze there too. A blue robe speaks of divinity, while a green robe represents new life – the new Life in the Spirit.

The green mantle of the Spirit, scintillating with light, is another of Rublev’s achievements. Green belongs to the Spirit because the Spirit is the source of life. On the Feast of Pentecost, Orthodox churches are decorated with greenery, boughs and branches, and many people will come to church dressed in green or wearing some green clothing.

You may recall Maurice’s comparison on Monday morning of the chapel light that points to the icon of Christ, and how he compared this with the action of the Holy Spirit.

In Rublev’s icon, the Spirit inclines towards the central figure, drawing our gaze to the Christ figure. And the Son and the Spirit both bow their heads to the Father.

But all three show equality in other ways. Each carries a slim red staff, an emblem of authority. The Son and the Holy Spirit both gaze towards the Father, inclining their heads. There is an expression of deference: the Son is begotten of the Father, the Spirit proceeds from the Father.

In the Creed, the Holy Spirit is the Lord, the Giver of Life. This sense of the Spirit as the source of life, everywhere present, filling all things, contributes to one of the distinctive insights and approaches of Orthodox theology, which is intimately bound up with daily life. There is no such thing as theology which is purely intellectual. If theology fails to change me, if it fails to flood me with light, then it is ineffective.

The Spirit touches the table – earthing the divine life of God. It is the Holy Spirit who has spoken through the prophets. Notice the mountain behind the third figure. Mountains are places where people often encountered God, places where heaven and earth seem to touch: Moses met God on mountains. Elijah, as he sought refuge in the crag on the mountain, could not find God in the earthquake, the wind, or the fire, but in the gentle breeze that carried the voice of God deep into his being. Jesus was transfigured while in prayer on a mountain.

The three figures sit around a stone table that early Christians would have recognised as an altar. The niche in the front represents a tomb – not only the empty tomb of Christ, but also the Christian custom from the time of the catacombs of placing the bones of departed believers beneath their altars.

All three figures make a similar gesture towards the chalice with their right hands – note that the Father and the Son are holding their fingers in the form of a blessing. On the table is a gold chalice containing red wine mixed with bread – the Eastern Orthodox way of preparing and receiving the Eucharist, combining leavened bread and wine in the same chalice and receiving from a spoon.

You may notice the way Rublev handles perspective in his icon. The top of the table, and the tops of the pedestals the Father and Spirit rest their feet upon, tilt dramatically towards us, as if we are looking down on the scene from above.

At the level of the figures’ faces, however, we seem to be looking at the three directly from about shoulder height. The perspective has been intentionally distorted in order to give us the feeling that the scene is bursting out toward us, with the chalice in the centre pressing itself our way. In conventional art, we expect things to get smaller as they go into the distance, but here the viewer is the vanishing point; if God did not sustain us, we would vanish.

We are drawn into the circle that embraces the Trinity by the gesture of the Spirit towards the small rectangle at the base of the table. This is where we are included in the divine circle. This rectangular space speaks about the narrow road leading to the house of God.

We are each individually and collectively made in God’s image, and as such is made in the image of the Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Each person who is baptised actually enters into the life of the Trinity in a unique way, and takes his or her first steps on the path toward divinisation – a path only to be realised in its fullness in the eschaton.

Behind the first figure is a house – the dwelling place of God. “In my Father’s house are many mansions – I go to prepare a place for you ...” The house represents the church, the communion of saints, and the promise of the resurrection of the dead.

Each figure has a halo, which should not be understood as a flat disk behind the head, but as a globe of light encircling the head, like the sphere around a candle flame. In each figure, we have a vision of the future, the coming of the kingdom and the life of the world to come.

There is a timeless yet eternal way in which each figure is written by Rublev. All three look alike. The Son is not depicted in the familiar likeness of Jesus. This visitation to Abraham took place many centuries before the Incarnation. And so Rublev drew on the indication in Genesis that the three resembled angels.

I asked you at the Eucharist yesterday as we remembered Saint Michael and All Angels to ponder how you imagine angels. These three figures in Rublev’s icon are depicted in the way angels usually appear in iconography: as young men with long, curly hair pulled back, no beards, and delicate gold wings. It is a moment in the past, a moment in the present and a moment in the future, when we shall all be restored to being in the image and likeness of God our Creator.

God creates all people, men and women. He creates out of love, for a specific purpose, making our destiny eternal life with him. This divinisation means that we are created to experience life within the Trinitarian communion of persons.

God has, in a very real way, entered into the mystery of our humanity, so that we may enter into the mystery that is his communio personarum.

“This deifying union has, nevertheless, to be fulfilled ever more and more even in this present life, through the transformation of our corruptible and depraved nature and by its adaptation to eternal life. If God has given us in the Church all the objective conditions, all the means that we need for the attainment of this end, we, on our side, must produce the necessary subjective conditions: for it is in this synergy, in this co-operation of man with God, that the union is fulfilled. This subjective aspect of our union with God constitutes the way of union which is the Christian life.” [Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (Crestwood, NY: Saint Vladimir’s Press, 2002), p. 196.]

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin. This essay is based on notes prepared for a tutorial group Wednesday, 30 September 2009.

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Messengers of God and bringers of good news

The Archangel Michael ... a contemporary icon

Patrick Comerford

Tuesday 29 September 2009, Saint Michael and All Angels, 8.30 a.m., Holy Communion: Genesis 28: 10-17; Psalm 103: 19-22; Revelation 12: 7-12; John 1: 47-51.


Everlasting God,
you have ordained and constituted the ministries
of angels and mortals in a wonderful order:
Grant that as your holy angels always serve you in heaven,
so, at your command,
they may help and defend us on earth;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

May I speak to you in the name of +the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

I have to confess I am a cathedral buff. On city breaks, I love visiting cathedrals, not just for their liturgy, worship and music, but for their architecture and art too.

For my generation, when it comes to art and architecture, Coventry Cathedral is one of the most influential cathedrals in the Church of England. I was overpowered when I first visited Saint Michael’s Cathedral in 1970.

Basil Spence’s cathedral symbolises new life and hope in the aftermath of World War II and the Holocaust. Its community, life and values, centred on the Cross of Nails, influenced many like me in the 1960s and 1970s.

And Coventry’s art and architecture have had a profound and lasting influence too: even my old school chapel was a mini-replica of Coventry. Many of us are familiar with images of Jacob Epstein’s sculptures; Graham Sutherland’s great tapestry; the Chapel of Christ in Gethsemane framed by his crown of thorns; the Chapel of Unity; the unusual aisle windows; or the Coventry Cross of Nails.

Sir Jacob Epstein’s bronze statues of Saint Michael and the Devil on the wall outside Coventry Cathedral

Even before you enter the cathedral, Saint Michael features prominently. As you approach the building, you are overlooked – overwhelmed – by Epstein’s bronze statues of Saint Michael and the Devil on the wall.

When Basil Spence commissioned Jacob Epstein, some members of the rebuilding committee objected. They claimed some of his earlier works were controversial. And, although Coventry was at the centre of post-war reconciliation, some even objected that he was a Jew – to which Spence retorted: “So was Jesus Christ.”

The Screen of Saints and Angels by John Hutton at the entrance to Coventry Cathedral

The new cathedral is entered through the “West Wall” or “Screen of Saints and Angels.” This glass screen, 70 ft high and 45 ft wide, with panels by John Hutton, was inspired by Basil Spence’s plans for the new cathedral, rising up from the ruins of the bombed cathedral, inspired in turn by his vision of a new church rising through a screen of angels and saints, linking the old and the new.

Gazing at this screen, especially on a sunny day, picking out the angels and archangels, patriarchs and prophets, apostles and saints, you also see a vivid reflection of the old ruins in the glass.

Graham Sutherland’s tapestry showing Christ in Glory ...on the right, between Saint John and Saint Mark, Saint Michael is hurling down the devil

Inside, Graham Sutherland’s great tapestry shows Christ in Glory surrounded by four figures from the Book of Revelation, the four evangelists. Beneath Christ’s feet is a chalice with a dragon, referring to our reading this morning from the Book of Revelation: “Then another portent appeared in heaven: a great red dragon … But they have conquered him by the blood of the lamb” (Revelation 12: 3, 11).

On the right, between Saint John and Saint Mark, you can pick out Saint Michael hurling down the devil. This refers to the verses: “And war broke out in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon … The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world – he was thrown down to the earth” (Revelation 12: 7-9).

What is your image of an angel? Is it fluffy little cherubs with white wings and pudgy cheeks, floating above the earth on white fluffy clouds?

Or is an angel for you someone like the angels in the screen that is the West Wall of Coventry, inviting you into the Communion of Saints, into a Church that is built on the past but looking anew to the future?

Is an angel some “new age” figure, easily dismissed because of the weird views of the authors of all those angel books on the popular “Mind and Spirit” shelves of our bookshops?

Or is an angel for you like the Archangel Michael depicted by Jacob Epstein and Graham Sutherland, inviting you into the triumph of good over evil, to join Christ in Glory?

Is Saint Michael the patron saint of shoppers at Marks and Spencer and all others who have made the shopping malls their earthly cathedrals? Or, like the Michael of Coventry Cathedral, does he challenge you to reflect on our values today? For the name Michael (Hebrew, מִיכָאֵל; Greek, Μιχαήλ) asks the question: “Who is like El (the Lord God)?”

In the Bible, Michael is mentioned by name only in the Book of Daniel, the Epistle of Jude and the Book of Revelation. But he represents reliance on the strength of God and the triumph of good over evil.

Facing the world ... the Gethsemane Chapel in Coventry Cathedral

In today’s world, where angels and archangels are often the stuff of fantasy, science fiction and new-age babble, it is worth reminding ourselves that angels are nothing more than – but nothing less than – the messengers of God, the bringers of good news.

Traditionally Michael’s virtues were standing up for God’s people and their rights, taking a clear stand against manifest evil, firmly opposing oppression, violence and corruption, while always seeking forbearance and mercy, clemency and justice – are virtues we should always keep before us in our ministry and mission as messengers of God.

In our first hymn this morning, Ye holy angels bright (Irish Church Hymnal 376), Richard Baxter invites each of us to join with the angels, the saints above and the saints on earth in praising God. We join in that praise in the Gloria, and it is an invitation that is repeated again in the Great Thanksgiving: “And so with all your people, with angels and archangels, and with all the company of heaven, we proclaim your great and glorious name, for ever praising you ...”

How shall I sing that majesty ... Coe Fen in Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Our second hymn, How shall I sing that majesty (Irish Church Hymnal 468), contrasts God’s heavenly glory, splendour and majesty with our own inadequacies and frailties. It emphasises the truth that when we attempt to sing of God’s glory, all our human efforts appear feeble and pathetic.

As I sing that hymn to one of my favourite tunes, Kenneth Naylor’s Coe Fen, I am forced to ask: “Who am I?” – the question we all ask when we first hear God’s call to mission and ministry.

I may not feel as powerful and agile as Michael when it comes to battling for the world and confronting evil. But we do this in the company of the great heavenly host of archangels and angels, patriarchs and prophets, apostles and saints, strengthened by God alone. For we should always be prepared, like Michael and the angels, to ask and to answer the question: “Who is like the Lord God?”

And so may all we think say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Post Communion Prayer:

Lord of heaven,
in this eucharist you have brought us near
to an innumerable company of angels
and to the spirits of the saints made perfect.
As in this food of our earthly pilgrimage
we have shared their fellowship,
so may we come to share their joy in heaven;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This reflection was shared at the Michaelmas Eucharist in the institute chapel on Saint Michael’s Day, 29 September 2009

Monday, 28 September 2009

Great uncles at Finnstown House

Finnstown House, Lucan ... once the home of my Great-Uncle Con Crowley, now a country house hotel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

On Sunday morning [27 September 2009], I was preaching during Morning Prayer and assisting at the Eucharist in Saint Columba’s College, Rathfarnham. By early afternoon, I was in Lucan for the baptism of my newest grand-nephew, Matthew Melinn.

Later, we went back to celebrate over lunch in Finnstown House, the country house hotel outside Lucan.

Although most of my memories of visiting Finnstown House in my childhood in the late 1950s or early 1960s are vague, I have one distinct memory of running through the fields in the surrounding farm, falling head-first into a bed of nettles and being badly stung. At that time, Finnstown House it was the home of my Great Uncle Con and Great-Aunt Hannah. Cornelius D. Crowley (1879-1972), of Finnstown House, Lucan, Co Dublin, and Roscrea, Co Tipperary, was originally from Millstreet, Co Cork. He was one of my great-uncles, a brother of my grandmother, Maria (Crowley) Murphy (1882-1953) of Millstreet, Co Cork.

For many years Con Crowley was a director of the Roscrea Meat Company with his brother Jeremiah D. Crowley of Wallstown Castle, Castltownroche, Co Cork – the other directors included Robert Briscoe TD and G Fasenfeld. After World War II, Con Crowley bought Finnstown House, an 18th century manor house outside Lucan, Co Dublin, that is said to incorporate parts of the older Finnstown Castle.

The Italian-style fountain on the front lawn at Finnstown House (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Records dating from 1547 refer to the area as “Fyne’s Town,” while 17th century maps spell the name “Fyan’s Town.” At one time, the three principle country houses or estates in the parish of Esker, outside Lucan, were Hermitage, Woodville and Finnstown. Hermitage is now a golf club and Woodville has been demolished, so Finnstown House is the only one of the three that is now open to the public.

Joseph Browne was living at Finnstown in 1622. By the 1640s, Finnstown was owned by Lamerick Nottingham, a brother-in-law of Patrick Sarsfield, Earl of Lucan and hero of the Siege of Limerick. In 1650, Finnstown Castle belonged to Alderman Walter Kennedy. When he died in 1672, Finnstown passed to his eldest son, Christopher Kennedy. However, the Kennedys’ Jacobite loyalties were their undoing, and Christopher Kennedy’s son, Colonel Thomas Kennedy, fled to Spain.

By 1837, Finnstown House was owned by John Rorke, a Dublin solicitor with offices in Upper Temple Street. In the 1860s, Thomas James Nash (1825-1887) from Millstreet, Co Cork, bought Finnstown House and its surrounding estate of almost 3,000 acres.

Thomas Nash’s father, James Nash, lived at Tullig House in Millstreet, Co Cork. When James Nash died on 23 August 1849, he left Thomas a wealthy landowner at the age of 24. Nash married a daughter of Richard Grainger (1797-1861), the planner who designed the city centre of Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the 1830s and 1840s.

The portico and main entrance at Finnstown House (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Shortly after he came into the possession of Finnstown House, Thomas Nash commissioned an architect to redesign the front rooms of Finnstown House. His eldest son, Richard Grainger Nash (1860-1914) of Finnstown House, was the pioneering force behind both the Lucan Dairies and Lucan Mineral Waters, founded by the Nash family in the late 19th century. The mineral water business peaked in the Edwardian era, with Nash’s ginger beer being marketed and sold in popular stone jars. The Lucan Dairies were bought in the 1960s by the American company WR Grace, and later became part of Unilever.

In 1917, Richard Nash’s widow, Caroline, married the Revd Canon Charles Follis, Rector of Carbery in the Diocese of Kildare. In 1918, she sold Finnstown House. She died in 1967 aged 88.

Con Crowley sold Finnstown House and the immediate grounds and fields to Christopher Keogh and his family in the 1960s. However, the Crowley family continues to farm some of the land today at neighbouring Coolmore.

The Keoghs hosted several hunt balls for the South County Dublin Hunt at Finnstown House. Then in 1986, the Keogh family sold Finnstown to Eoin and Nora Hickey, who opened Finnstown Country House Hotel on Saint Patrick’s Day 1987.

Today, the hotel stands in 45 acres of manicured lawns and gardens and is now part of the Mansfield Group.

I don’t know if Con Crowley ever knew that Thomas Nash, an earlier owner of Finnstown House, was also from Millstreet. But he never forgot his roots in north Co Cork. He erected two stained glass windows in Saint Patrick’s Church, Millstreet, in memory of his parents Denis and Margaret Crowley – my great-grandparents – who are buried in the grounds of Drishane Castle, on the edge of Millstreet.

On Sunday, I was the proud great-uncle at Finnstown House. Little did I realise when I fell in the nettles 35 or 40 years ago that I would enjoy returning to Finnstown House for such a happy family celebration.

Wallstown Castle, near Shanballymore, Mallow, Co Cork ... home of Jeremiah D. Crowley, brother of Cornelius D. Crowley (1879-1972) of Finnstown House, and of my grandmother, Maria (Crowley) Murphy (1882-1953) of Millstreet, Co Cork

(Last updated: 19.12.2013.)

Sunday, 27 September 2009

Back to Church on Back-to-Church Sunday

Saint Columba’s College, Rathfarnham (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Saint Columba’s College, Rathfarnham, Co Dublin: Sunday 27 September 2009 (Trinity 16), 10 a.m., Morning Prayer and Holy Communion.

Esther 7: 1-6, 9-10; 9: 20-22; Psalm 124; James 5: 13-20; Mark 9: 38-50.

May I speak to you in the name of + the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

There’s a big campaign in England today to get people to come back to Church.

The Church of England and the other mainstream churches are calling this “Back-to-Church Sunday.” Today, half a million people are inviting someone special back to church with them this morning.

There has been a week-long drive to get this “open invitation” across to a wider public, with some bishops speaking about the need for the Church to shed what is seen as a “middle class” image.

In the past week, Bishop Stephen Cottrell of Reading has spoken of the need for the Church to be truly welcoming.

He says he meets “people who think you have to be highly educated or suited and booted to be a person who goes to church. That’s so frustrating.”

And he asked: “How did it come to this, that we have become known as just the Marks and Spencer option when in our heart of hearts we know that Jesus would just as likely be in the queue at Asda or Aldi?”

He pointed out how Jesus got us started with church simply. “Like this: sitting us down in groups on the grass and telling simple stories. Not simplistic. But certainly not complicated. All his first disciples were down-to-earth people who wanted to know what life was all about.”

But he also pointed out that churches in his area are “places of warmth and honesty. Sanctuaries of deep conversation, of tears and laughter. Not a hobby but a way of life.”

Does that fit your description of your home church?

According to Bishop Stephen, church is “definitely not about how you look, what you do, how you sound, how well you sing. Just come as you are. Come with a friend. All are welcome. Churches are still where best friends are made. And where people can be just as they are.”

Someone has even written a rap-style poem for Back-to-Church Sunday:

You might have left for so many reasons,
but am I wrong to sense that now’s the season
to stop,
turn around,
walk back?
Don’t look to make no airs and graces.
Faked up smiles and masked up faces.
No need to make no innovation.
Please accept this as your invitation

Bishop Steven Croft of Sheffield has made his own YouTube invitation, inviting people to “come as they are” to church today.

He says: “We have to get past the idea that Church is only for a certain kind of person: that you can only come to church in certain clothes or talk in a particular way. The Christian faith has good things for everyone and there are people of every background in our churches.”

He adds: “The Church … is learning to become again the church for the whole nation – poor and rich. We have to learn to speak the language of ordinary people. So everyone is welcome back to church this coming Sunday and any Sunday.”

In another diocese, as they prepared for Back-to-Church Sunday, they tried to find out what people think about the Church and the Christian faith, and to find out too what the Church could do to get more people to return.

Bishop Tim Stevens of Leicester visited a supermarket near Loughborough to encourage shoppers to come back to church and in a local café he spoke to a group of people who have recently decided to come back to church.

Bishop Tim said, “Many people seemed to be receptive to Jesus, but more hesitant about the Church. Over the years many have felt something pushed or pulled them away from Church, or that it wasn’t always connecting with their lives.”

But all the energies and efforts behind Back-to-Church Sunday should not stop today. Archbishop Rowan Williams says “the Church’s responsibility to welcome all comers isn’t … restricted to one Sunday in the year! But this Sunday in particular prompts us to do a better job of saying to people that we are truly glad to see newcomers and they always have a right to be part of the family.”

He hopes that Back-to-Church Sunday will assure everyone “that they are loved and valued by God – and by those who worship God.”

The idea of Back-to-Church Sunday began in Manchester five years ago. Last year, it is estimated, 37,000 people took up the invitation to come back.

Recent research by the Diocese of Lichfield suggests that six months after the event between 12 and 15 per cent of those who accept the invitation to come back to church have become regular church members. A further significant proportion keep in touch with their inviting churches, even if they attend less frequently.

Why is that so many people don’t go to church to the point that the Church needs to organise a Back-to-Church Sunday? Last year, a survey of people in the US who don’t go to Church, found 72% believe that “God, a higher or supreme being, actually exists.” But just as many (72%) also said the Church is “full of hypocrites.” Indeed, 44% agree with the statement: “Christians get on my nerves.”

Most of the unchurched (86%) said they believe they can have a “good relationship with God without belonging to a church.” And 79% say “Christianity today is more about organised religion than loving God and loving people.”

One of the key researchers involved in producing this report said: “These outsiders are making a clear comment that churches are not getting through on the two greatest commandments” – to love God and to love your neighbour. Scott McConnell says: “When they look at churches … they don’t see people living out the faith.”

Perhaps church-going is a habit you associate with your parents or with home life. For the rest of your life it may also have memories of what has become a habit and what has become part of your regular life here in Saint Columba’s College.

Chapel life here is one of the great riches in the heritage of this foundation. But perhaps it’s something you take for granted, or something even a small number of you resent.

Already, in your teens, you may be questioning the reasons people come to church. Perhaps there was even a glimmer of identification with those who don’t go to church.

You may be thinking things like Church is boring, churchgoers make themselves too exclusive and too unwelcoming, and for a variety of reasons you may even decide in adult life to slip out of the habit of regular church-going.

When you do make the decision to come back to Church, I hope you get a true and a warm welcome. And I hope you remember that inside the Church there are many of us who regret that some people – clergy as well as laity – can be too smug and can too easily rush to guard and protect their church against outsiders, can be very unwelcoming when it comes to new churchgoers.

But, you know, in our Gospel reading this morning Jesus reprimands the disciples for being smug and jealous and unwelcoming.

To put the story in its context or setting, Jesus and the disciples are in Capernaum. But on the way there the disciples have been arguing with one another about who is the greatest.

Jesus sits them down and tells them that to be great means to be like a child, and that if we don’t welcome the child-like among us, then we don’t welcome him.

Does the church learn from this? Did the disciples learn from this? It appears not.

One of the 12, John, complains that someone who is not part of their inner circle has been casting out demons in Christ’s name. Did they welcome him? Did they praise him for bringing comfort to distressed people and for restoring them to a good quality of life?

Instead of being smug among themselves, arguing about who among them was the greatest, the disciples should have been like this man, bringing comfort to those who were in trouble, looking after those who were thirsty both physically and spiritually.

I once worked as a journalist in The Irish Times. A former colleague there, who was ordained a priest in the Church of Ireland a few years before me, was visiting our house one evening. I asked him what was the difference between the two – being a journalist and being a priest.

And with a grin he told me: “Not much. I continue to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.”

Perhaps not in so many words, but in our Gospel reading this morning Jesus tells the disciples that they should be afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted.

If we don’t do this in the Church, people are in danger of seeing us as hypocrites.

But if we had been faithful in the past in doing what Christ commands us to do, then there might be no need for Back-to-Church Sundays.

I hope when you leave here, when it comes to make adult choices, that you will make a commitment to Sunday churchgoing, and not just because it was a habit during your schooldays here.

I hope you find the Church open, welcoming, relevant and refusing to be smug or elitist. That you will play your part in keeping it so. And that you will invite your friends to come back to Church too.

And now may all praise, honour and glory be to God, +Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin. This sermon was delivered at the Service of Morning Prayer and Holy Communion in Saint Columba’s College, Rathfarnham, Co Dublin, on Sunday 27 September 2009

Saturday, 26 September 2009

An autumn walk on the beach in Skerries

Skerries ... has the potential to be the Kinsale of Fingal (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

Patrick Comerford

I have worked almost two weeks on the run without a day off. Some of the days have been short, like last Sunday, when I finished at lunchtime and had a wonderful afternoon in Kilkenny and Castlecomer. But some of the days have been long – to 14 hours on occasions – with early starts and committee meetings that went on until late in the evening.

It has been tougher on some of those days because my lung s have felt the residual dust left from the building work during the refurbishing work at the institute.

My sarcoidosis leaves me with an irritating dry cough and short of breath, so that I have found myself short of breath many evenings this week, often unable to continue a full conversation at the dinner table.

Today came with great relief. The unusual late summer sunshine was a clear invitation to go for a walk on the beach in Skerries. This is one of the most charming villages in north Co Dublin – I can’t understand why the restaurateurs of Skerries have not yet succeeded in promoting this as the Kinsale of Fingal.

After buying the Guardian in Gerry’s, it was still bright and almost sunny after 6 as I set off for a stroll along the beach this evening. The view across to the islands was crisp and clear, as they stood out in relief, dotted along the horizon.

After that ramble, I went for dinner in Tarragon, a small bistro restaurant on Strand Street in the heart of Skerries, where they have regular food and wine evenings and are committed to using local ingredients.

Conor McGloughlin and Francois Grelet opened Tarragon a year ago. They change the menu every two to three months so they can introduce seasonal produce while maintaining some of their classic favourites. It was full by the time I left at 8.30. I must return soon.

It’s only 40 minutes home from Skerries. But I felt this afternoon I was a world away from the problems sarcoidosis has brought me. Already I’m looking to forward to preaching in the chapel of Saint Columba’s College, Rathfarnham tomorrow morning, to the baptism of a great-nephew in Lucan tomorrow afternoon, and to the week ahead.

Once again I feel that while I may have sarcoidosis, sarcoidosis does not have me.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Seeing, believing and relationships

Jesus before Herod Antipas (Duccio di Buoninsegna, 1308)

Patrick Comerford

Opening Prayer (the Collect of the Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity):

O Lord,
Hear the prayers of your own people who call upon you;
and grant that they may both perceive and know
what things they ought to do,
and also may have grace and power faithfully to fulfil them;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Collect of Sunday next, Trinity 16, speaks about perception and knowing. And the Gospel reading provided in the Lectionary for the Eucharist today (Luke 9: 7-9) provides an interesting insight into the difference between perception and knowledge, between seeing and knowing (parallel texts: Matthew 14: 1-2; Mark 6: 14-16).

Herod is perplexed by who people were saying Jesus was (verse 7). The disciples later report the same discussion among the people too: some say that Jesus is John the Baptist raised from the dead, some that he is Elijah, others that he is one of the ancient prophets (cf verses 7-8 and verse 19).

Herod is a practical, pragmatic and realistic man. He knows the first answer cannot be not true – he has already had John executed, and he knows Elijah and the other prophets are dead.

And so the sceptic in Herod wants to see for himself (verse 9). I have to say I find it easy to identify with the sceptical Herod’s dilemma here. He talks in analytical and descriptive terms.

Like all rookie journalists are trained to at the beginning of their careers, Herod wants to ask those essential questions: Who? Where? What? Why? He wants tangible and empirical evidence. But there is no talk relationship.

Compare Herod’s story with how disciples are asked to ponder the same question later in this chapter (verses 18-20).

They tell Jesus that they too have heard people say he is John the Baptist raised from the dead, some that he is Elijah, others that he is one of the ancient prophets. But, unlike Herod, they can see Jesus. And when he asks them that searching question, “But who do you say that I am?” (verse 20), Peter answers for himself: “The Messiah of God” (verse 20).

Yet Jesus sternly orders and commands them to tell this to no-one (verse 21) and then immediately proceeds to talk about himself in terms of relationship – he calls himself “The Son of Man.”

Who is Christ for you? How would you answer this question?

Ponder for a moment if you were asked who someone close to you is, who he or she is for you.

Quite often we described the ones we love most and who love us most in terms of relationship: Father, Mother, Son, Daughter, Sister, Brother, Wife, Husband. Not as teacher, doctor, social worker, or whatever.

The disciples have given a role answer about Jesus rather than a relationship answer.

Consider what your relationship is with the people you are closest to. And what words best describe your relationship with God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit?

Are they kinship words?

Are they words that imply and point to mutual love?

What is the evidence of that love?

How does God show love to you? Be thankful.

How do you show love for God? Be thankful.

Let us conclude with the prayer Jesus has taught us, the Lord’s Prayer, which open by affirming our relationship with God:

“Our Father …”

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This reflection was shared at a meeting of the academic staff on Thursday 24 September 2009.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Jesus calls the 12 and sends them out

Then Jesus called the Twelve together ... and he sent them out (Luke 9: 1-2)

Patrick Comerford

Wednesday 23 September 2009, 5 p.m., the Community Eucharist: Ezra 9: 5-9; Psalm 48; Luke 9: 1-6.

May all praise honour and glory be to God, +Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Our Gospel reading this evening looks like a good choice of reading for an ordination or a commissioning service. This incident comes after a number of well-known stories in Saint Luke’s Gospel, including the calming of a storm on the lake, the healing of a demoniac, the raising of Jairus’s daughter and the healing of a woman with a haemorrhage.

Now we are moving into a turning point in the public life of Jesus and in his relationship with his disciples.

This is, in fact, the third tour of Galilee by Jesus. On the first tour, he was accompanied just by the four fishermen he had called first – Peter, Andrew, James and John. On the second tour, all of the 12 were with him. Then, on this third tour of Galilee, we will find him left on his own after he sends the Twelve out on this on their own first mission.

In this reading, Jesus sends out the 12 on their first mission, their first time on their own without his being with them.

They are not to be choosy about where they go or where they stay. They are to stay in the first house that accepts them. Wherever they find that they or their message is not welcome, they are to shake the dust from their feet – for it is not the disciples who are rejected, but the Good News of Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of God itself, and the one in whose name they have been sent them that are being rejected.

And so the 12 go out, from town to town, proclaiming the Gospel and restoring people to wholeness wherever they went.

This is the same mission each one of you will be entrusted with within the next eight or nine months. You are being called, individually and together, to proclaim the Gospel by word and by lifestyle, to be sources of healing and wholeness, to live lives that are witnesses to the Risen Lord.

Now, I wonder how many of us would like to be sent out in ministry next summer being told to cure, to preach and to heal, but being told we have nothing to take with us.

The limits imposed on the 12 are even more restrictive than those I experience travelling with Ryanair: they are to take no bag, no food, no money and no change of clothes.

And if you think Ryanair habitually sends you to airports in places you never heard of instead of sending you to places you planned to visit, imagine how perplexed the 12 must have been about their prospective destinations.

What happened to the 12? We’re not told. Instead, the narrative is interrupted by a discussion of some of Herod’s delusions (verses 7-9).

By the time Herod has finished his self-questioning, the 12 are back. Jesus takes them off to Bethsaida. They’re followed by the crowds, and Jesus shows the 12 exactly what they should have been doing in mission: he welcomes the crowd, he speaks to them of the Kingdom of God, and he cures those who need healing (verse 11).

I imagine the story of the 12 being sent out as being a bit like your first pastoral placement in Year I. How many of us were left free to make a bags of it? And then, in the process of reflection and evaluation, we learned from those gaffes and those mistakes, from those times we went in with both feet first, when we found we weren’t welcome or said the wrong things, and were left to shake the dust from our feet.

When Jesus takes the 12 off to Bethsaida he tries to show the 12 how to do it. But do they learn? It seems not. Instead, they ask him to send the crowd away, to go out also and look for places to stay (verse 12). They haven’t healed them, they haven’t cured them, they haven’t spoken to them of the Kingdom; and now they’re reluctant to feed them or to shelter them.

We can see this is an image of their refusal to allow the outsiders to become the insiders, to invite them to hear the Gospel and to join in fellowship at the sacred meal.

And so Jesus puts the same questions to them that Herod has put to himself (verses 18-22), he challenges them to take up the Cross (verses 23-27), and offers some of them a vision of his glory (verses 28-36).

Perhaps it was because the disciples were aware of their weaknesses that they learned anew, that they didn’t resent the episode in the following chapter when the 70 are sent out 70 others, two-by-two.

There will be times in your ministry and mission that you feel not perhaps that you have failed but that you have only risen to second best.

But in our failures, in our weaknesses, in those moments when we rise up to being only at our second best, we must never be discouraged.

As Ken Rue reminded the NSM and MTh students who were here at the weekend, God does not call the equipped to ministry – instead, God equips the called.

A willingness to learn must include a willingness to learn by my mistakes – and believe you me, I make many of them.

We know the disciples made many more mistakes – Peter went on to deny Christ three times at the most crucial moment; Thomas doubted him after his death and resurrection; Philip was admonished (see John 14: 8); next Sunday’s Gospel reading comes just as the 12 are caught squabbling among themselves.

We, they, we all have our weaknesses. But when we accept our vulnerability we not only learn, but we also become humble before Christ, who accepted vulnerability and emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness … humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross (Philippians 2: 7-8).

In our ministry and mission, we must put our confidence and trust not in our own skills ands abilities, but be willing to learn from our mistakes, be accepting of our weaknesses, be open to our own vulnerability, and be confident that we will be continually equipped and continually strengthened by Christ who calls us and who sends us.

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the glory of God, +Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin. This address was delivered at the Mid-Week Community Eucharist on Wednesday 23 September 2009

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

A mediaeval priory and modern parish in Kilkenny

1, Saint John’s ... a mediaeval monastic foundation in Kilkenny (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

I was back in Kilkenny earlier this week to preach at the Harvest Thanksgiving Eucharist in Saint John’s Church in John Street on Sunday. The early morning journey down to Kilkenny brought me through beautiful countryside with the mist rising from the golden fields as the late summer sun started to break through.

Although I know many of the parishioners of Saint John’sand I have often seen and photographed this church from the outside, this was my first time inside Saint John’s Church.

As Vicar of the Kilkenny Cathedral group of parishes, the Revd Elaine Murray is the priest-in-charge of Saint John’s Church. The Harvest Eucharist was a beautiful moment to be in the church, and the parishioners were warmly welcoming and delighted to show me around the church and its grounds afterwards (for my sermon, see What hope can we offer to the children of Swaziland?).

I was particularly pleased to visit Saint John’s this year, as this year saw the 500th anniversary of the death of Bishop Edmund Comerford, who was Prior of Saint John’s at the same time as he was Dean of Saint Canice’s Cathedral and Bishop of Ferns (see Comerford Profiles 1: Edmund Comerford (d. 1509): the last pre-Reformation Bishop of Ferns). Edmund Comerford probably lived at Saint John’s throughout this time until his death on Easter Day, 1509.

Mediaeval monastic foundation

2, Saint John’s Church in John Street, Kilkenny, on Sunday morning (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Augustinians had settled on the east side of the river in Kilkenny before 1202 because in that year Bishop Felix O’Dulany granted a charter to Brother Osbert, the Prior of Saint John’s Hospital, giving the prior and his friars the tithes of Kilkenny Castle. The original priory probably stood immediately east of John’s Bridge in Kilkenny.

Then, about 1211, William Marshall the elder, Earl of Pembroke, granted a new charter to the Augustinians in which he assigned the new site of Saint John’s Abbey and Saint John’s Parish to the Canons Regular of Saint Augustine. The charter describes Saint John’s as parochiam ultra pontem de Kilkennia, versus orientem &; adjacentem eidem ponti or “the parish beyond the bridge of Kilkenny, to the east and adjoining the same bridge.”

The charter gave the Augustinians a new site for their priory on the present site in John Street, along with the three city parishes of Fennell, Kilmologga and Saint John’s itself, along with a fourth parish of Loughmerans. Other churches or parishes granted to Saint John’s later in the mediaeval period included Claragh, Jerpoint, Dromerthir (Kilmodum), Kilmelag, Dunfert, Tibretbreytaynm Kildreynagh, McCully, Castleconer and Scatheryk (Skirke).

3, The Eucharist was first celebrated in Saint John’s on the Feast of Saint John the Apostle in 1220 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Eucharist was celebrated in the new priory church for the first time at the High Altar in Saint John’s on the Feast of Saint John the Apostle in 1220. That year too, the community was also granted the lands identified today with Jenkinstown to the north of Kilkenny, and around 1227 the Augustinians of Saint John were granted the churches of Saint Evin and Saint Mary in New Ross by William Marshall junior, Earl of Pembroke.

Building work continued at Saint John’s, with a new Lady Chapel added at the end of the 13th century, so that the Mass was celebrated in the Lady Chapel of Saint John’s for the first time on 25 March 1290.

New houses and new buildings are recorded in 1325, although the campanile or bell tower of the Priory Church fell in 1329. Over the years, the Priory continued to expand, and we can imagine how at one stage the Priory was at least twice the length of the present building.

The Civic Records of Kilkenny record that the Prior and community of Saint John’s were jailed in 1331. A generation or more later – some time between 1361 and 1405 – the Prior of Saint John’s, Walter Walsh, was excommunicated and the Priory was placed under interdict by the Bishop of Ossory.

The Priory was suppressed, along with the other monastic foundations, during the reign of Henry VIII. The last Prior was Richard Cantwell, and on 21 March 1540 he surrendered the Priory, which then was granted to the Mayor and Citizens of Kilkenny. Richard Cantwell was then appointed Curate and Chaplain of the Parish Church of Saint John the Evangelist, while four canons of the Priory, Thomas Marshall, Robert Purcell, Robert Rothe and James Bycton, were granted pensions of £2 a year each.

During the Confederation of Kilkenny in the mid-17th century, part of the priory site was also occupied by the Capuchins. But at Cardinal Rinucinni’s prompting, Dean Thomas Rothe handed over Saint John’s to the Jesuits in 1645 for use as a college or seminary.

The Jesuits were driven out in 1650, but during the reign of James II, the Priory changed hands once again when it was handed over to the Capuchin Friars, who were already using a plot of ground that had been part of the original priory lands and had built an oratory there.

At the end of that century, after the Williamite Wars had ended, both the Jesuits and Capuchins were expelled from Kilkenny and much of the site at Saint John’s fell into ruin.

Around 1780, most of the nave of the main chapel of the friary was torn down, along with its two towers and other buildings on the site. Some of the remaining stones were salvaged and were used to build the first military barracks in Kilkenny.

A modern parish church

The Lady Chapel of Saint John’s, which was left standing, was known for the large number of windows in its wall: there were five triple lancets lighting the south side alone, so that the Lady Chapel was once known as the “Lantern of Ireland.”

4, When Saint John’s was rebuilt in 1817, many of the once-celebrated lancet windows were filled in (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In 1817, the Lady Chapel it was re-roofed and consecrated as the Church of Ireland Parish Church of Saint John’s. As part of the rebuilding, many of the once-celebrated lancet windows were filled in, although the east window probably dates back to around 1300.

Meanwhile, the building to the west of the priory ruins had ceased being used as a barracks by 1818. It was bought by the Evans Trust, set up under the terms of the will of Joseph Evans of Belevan, who died in 1818, and the old barracks became the Evans Poor House or Asylum. Today, the building is derelict and crumbling, but there are interesting plans to restore it as a library.

Robertson, who supervised the transformation of Evans Poor House, may also have been the architect for the restoration of the Lady Chapel as Saint John’s Parish Church.

Mediaeval ruins and monuments

A small opening at the west end of Saint John’s Church brought me into the roofless remains of the chancel of the old priory church. The lean-to vestry of the church does not manage to fully detract from the impact of the majestic seven-light East Window, which dates from about 1250. Inside the ruins, some late mediaeval tombs are still worth seeing. The oldest tomb, dating from the 14th century, is in the north wall of the chancel, and is also the burial place of John Langton and Beale Archer his wife, who both died in 1571, their son Richard Langton, who died in 1566 and his wife Anastasia Phelan, and their son, Edward Langton.

5, The Purcell tomb in the north-east corner of the chancel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford

Beside this monument is the altar tomb of a Purcell couple in the north-east corner of the chancel, dating from 1500 and with carvings of the Crucifixion and the Apostles. The head and feet of the effigy of the knight have been broken off; the lady beside him has a long flowing robe and a horned headdress.

Other old Kilkenny family names can be seen on the monuments and tombs, including Cowley, Rothe, Langton and Shee. Michael Cowley was one of the first aldermen of Kilkenny under the new charter of 1609, and was Mayor of Kilkenny in 1626.

Inside Saint John’s, on the floor of the former Lady Chapel is the stone covering the vault of the Langton family. Those buried there include Silvester Langton (died 1749) of the Butterslip, Kilkenny, his first wife Anne Langton (died 1719), his second wife Mary Sexton Tobin (died 1755), as well as his daughters Mary Fitzpatrick (died 1746) and Jane Langton (died 1801) and his son Joseph Langton (died 1760). Silvester and Mary Langton were the parents of Anne Langton, wife of James Comerford (1720-1809)) of the Butterslip, Kilkenny (see 4: Comerford of Ballybur Castle and Kilkenny City).

6, Nos 5 and 6 John’s Quay ... also known as Prior’s Orchard ... has an interesting pair of double doors (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The area between Saint John’s Church and John’s Quay is known as known as Prior’s Orchard, a name that is also given to Nos 5 and 6 John’s Quay, a three-storey, four-bay Georgian building, where the two entrance doors share an excellent portico. This pedimented portico has three pilasters, each with a band of fluting, and is probably the work of the Colles family. Above the cornice is a small stepped parapet in a style that has been described as “Kilkenny Egyptian Revival.”

I missed mentioning this interesting building earlier this year when I blogged about the double doors of Kilkenny (see The double doors of Kilkenny).

Some Comerford signs and shops

After lunch in the Zuni Hotel on Patrick Street, I went in search of some more signs of the Comerford presence, past and present, in Kilkenny and the surrounding area.

7, Park Villa, with the Comerford coat-of-arms on the welcome sign (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Heading out on the Castlecomer Road, “Park Villa” is a family-run Bed and Breakfast guesthouse just opposite the Newpark Hotel (see Outside, the welcome sign includes an interpretation of the Comerford coat-of-arms.

9, The Comerford shop in Barrack Street, Castlecomer, is boarded up and crumbling, but has an important architectural feature (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

North of Kilkenny, in Castlecomer, I stopped in The Square and walked up Barrack Street to see the unique Comerford shop-front on a building that that is blocked up and beginning to crumble.

9, The Comerford shopfront is a unique feature in the architecture of Co Kilkenny (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The shop-front dates from about 1900, although the house was probably built about 1825. According to An Introduction to the Architectural Heritage of County Kilkenny (Dublin, 2006), archival photography dating to the beginning of the last century indicates that Castlecomer once had “a shopfront genre particular to the town.” This style was identified by a cornice brought forward as a canopy.

Although the Comerford shop in Barrack Street is no longer in use, “this last surviving shopfront of this type in Barrack Street retains most, if not all, of the original detailing, including traditional painted lettering.”

10, Late summer sunshine and flowers in a Comerford shopfront garden outside Castlecomer (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

North of Castlecomer, the late summer sunshine continued to shine on the flowers that were still in full bloom in the small garden outside another small Comerford shop. It was a beautiful day, and so you can easily understand how they still have to peel me out of Kilkenny every time I visit it if I am to get back to home and work in Dublin.

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

Monday, 21 September 2009

Saint Matthew: responding to Christ’s call

The Calling of Saint Matthew (Caravaggio)

Patrick Comerford

Monday 21 September 2009 (Saint Matthew), 8.30, Holy Communion: Proverbs 3: 13-18; Psalm 119: 65-72; II Corinthians 4: 1-6; Matthew 9: 9-13


O almighty God,
whose blessed Son called Matthew the tax-collector
to be an apostle and evangelist:
Give us grace to forsake the selfish pursuit of gain
and the possessive love of riches;
that we may follow the way of your Son Jesus Christ,
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

May I speak to you in the name of +the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Matthew the Evangelist (מתי/מתתיהו, Gift of Yahweh; Ματθαίος) is one of the Twelve and is identified with both the author of the first of the four gospels and with Levi the publican or tax collector in the Gospels according to Mark and Luke.

According to tradition, Matthew was the son of Alpheus a publican or a tax collector by profession. He was the Levi in the Gospels according to Mark and Luke, and was called to be a disciple while he was sitting in the tax collectors’ place at Capernaum.

We know little about Matthew’s subsequent career – what we do know is little more than speculation and legend. Saint Irenaeus says Matthew preached the Gospel among the Hebrews, Saint Clement of Alexandria claimed that he did this for 15 years, and Eusebius maintains that, before going into other countries, he gave them his Gospel in his mother tongue.

Some ancient writers say Matthew later worked in Ethiopia to the south of the Caspian Sea – not Ethiopia in Africa; other say he worked in Persia, Parthia, Macedonia or Syria. According to Heracleon, who is quoted by Clement of Alexandria, Matthew did not die a martyr, but other accounts, including the Roman Martyrology, say he died a martyr’s death in Ethiopia.

Like the other evangelists, Matthew is often depicted in Christian art as one of the four living creatures of Revelation (4: 7) – in Matthew’s case the winged man, carrying a lance in his hand. There are three paintings of Matthew by Carravagio in the church of San Luigi del Francesci in Rome. Those three paintings, which are among the landmarks of Western art, Matthew, depict Saint Matthew and the Angel, Matthew being called by Christ, and the Martyrdom of Matthew.

Caravaggio, in depicting the calling of Matthew, shows Levi the tax collector sitting at a table with four assistants, counting the day’s proceeds. This group is lighted from a source at the upper right of the painting. Christ, his eyes veiled, with his halo the only indication of his divinity, enters with Saint Peter. A gesture of Christ’s right hand – all the more powerful and compelling because of its languor – summons Levi.

Surprised by the intrusion and perhaps dazzled by the sudden light from the just-opened door, Levi draws back and gestures toward himself with his left hand as if to say: “Who, me?” His right hand is still on the coin he had been counting before Christ’s entrance.

Today, Matthew is regarded as the patron saint of accountants and bankers. Given the unsaintly performance of our bankers in recent years, I don’t know that I would be particularly happy with the prospect of being the patron saint of bankers being put to me as a good career move in heaven. But then Christ came not to call the righteous but sinners to salvation.

Perhaps Matthew should be the patron saint of those who answer the call to ministry. And welcome back to your final year of being equipped to answer that call. I hope none of us will be worried about how we are remembered, whether people get it right about where we worked in ministry and mission, or whether they even get my name right.

As long as I answered that call when it came, and abandoned everything else, including career prospects and the possibility of wealth, to answer that call faithfully and fully.

And now may all we think, say and do be to the glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Post Communion Prayer:

God of mercy and compassion,
we have shared the joy of salvation
that Matthew knew when Jesus called him.
Renew our calling to proclaim the one
who came not to call the righteous but sinners to salvation,
your Son Jesus Christ our Lord.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This reflection was shared at the Eucharist in the chapel on 21 September 2009.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

What hope can we offer to the children of Swaziland?

Saint John’s Church, Kilkenny (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Saint John’s Church, John Street, Kilkenny, Sunday 20 September 2009 (Trinity 15), 10 a.m., Harvest Thanksgiving Eucharist: Joel 2: 21-27; Psalm 126; I Timothy 2: 1-7; Matthew 6: 25-33

May all we think, say and do be to the glory of God, +Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

It’s wonderful to be here in Kilkenny this morning for your Harvest Thanksgiving, and I’d like to thank you and the Revd Elaine Murray for this kind invitation. I’m a regular visitor to Kilkenny, and you have to put up with me every month in the Diocesan Magazine, but I also read about you each month too. And so I already feel I know you.

With a name like mine, you can imagine that I have a lengthy connection with this diocese. Yes, it does go back generations and centuries. And it is a particular joy to be in Saint John’s for this year’s harvest because 500 years ago, Bishop Edmund Comerford, who died on Easter Day, 8 April 1509, was here as Prior of Saint John’s.

Edmund, we believe, was a brother of my direct ancestor, Richard Comerford of Ballybur, near Cuffesgrange. But I have to confess that, despite his Oxford education and being an Augustinian friar, Edmund was not a very model bishop or prior.

At the same time as being Prior of Saint John’s from 1498, he was Dean of Saint Canice’s from 1487, Rector of Callan from 1498 as well as a number of other parishes in the diocese, and Bishop of Ferns from 1505.

He probably never moved out of Kilkenny for very long when it came to looking after his responsibilities in the Diocese of Ferns, and he used all his power and privileges to look after the interests of the Butler family and his own family.

Edmund made special pleas to the Lateran – the equivalent in those days of the Vatican – for the ordination of an illegitimate young man, William Comerford, secured him a prebendal stall in Saint Canice’s that gave him a good income from church lands, and eventually manoeuvred things so that William succeeded Edmund as Dean of Saint Canice’s.

All along, we assumed in the family that William was the bishop’s nephew. But as I went through the Lateran archives it turns out that William was nothing of the sort … he was the bishop’s son.

Well, I suppose there is no point in exercising nepotism unless you can keep things in the family.

What a different sort of bishop he was to his successor, Bishop Michael Burrows. What a different set of priorities. What a different way of relating the priorities of the church to the needs of the world.

Last Sunday, in Saint Canice’s Cathedral, Bishop Michael completed his organ marathon, having visited every one of the 149 churches in these dioceses, playing Come, ye thankful people, come on the organ to raise funds for three projects in Ireland, Korea and Swaziland:

1, Protestant Aid: The recession means more and more unemployment and more and more families coming under huge financial pressure.

2, Korea: Archdeacon Paul Mooney’s outreach ministry in the Anglican Cathedral in Seoul, a huge and problem-laden city in Korea where many who benefit from the ministry can give little to support it.

3, Swaziland: Bishops’ Appeal is supporting USPG Ireland’s work in Swaziland. Bishop Michael chairs both Bishops’ Appeal and USPG Ireland, the oldest Anglican mission agency.

As far as I remember, Elaine – or as I see she’s now being referred to in the Diocesan Magazine, the “Rev Assembly” – was also the USPG representative when she was a student. And I see in blazing lights on the internet Tom Rothwell making a presentation on behalf of Saint John’s to the bishop.

In these times of recession, at a time when things are getting tougher for everybody, the need for organisations like Protestant Aid becomes more and more obvious.

But as things become more difficult at home, as the harvest at home leaves us with fewer and fewer pickings, one of the easiest ways to make savings is to cut back on our support for projects like Paul Mooney’s work in Seoul Cathedral or USPG’s work with the church in countries like Swaziland.

It’s not that people are so cruel and lacking in compassion and understanding to say things such as charity ought to begin at home. But it is easier to cut back on projects and spending that won’t be seen at home.

And that’s what is happening to government funding too. Who is going to notice a million here or a million there from the overseas aid budget? Few of us here, I’m sure. Politicians weighing up their options and looking only at short-term consequences, may say decisions like that are not going to lose them any votes. But it is going to lose lives.

I know only too well that farmers here haven’t been getting their share of the harvest this year. When the Apostle Paul is writing to Timothy, in the epistle reading we shared this morning, he talks about how we must share in suffering, and how the farmer who does the work ought to have the first share of the crops.

But for a few moments let me share some of the experiences of the harvest in Africa from the students and ordinands in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute who are continuing Elaine’s work on behalf of USPG today.

The students have been arriving back in the theological institute over this weekend, and as you can imagine the place has been abuzz, with everybody catching up on their summer holidays and their summer placements the length and breadth of this island.

But one student, the senior student, Paul Bogle, instead of taking a summer placement in an Irish parish, decided to work his summer placement through USPG with an Anglican parish in Swaziland, with Andrew and Rosemary Symonds, who have been USPG mission companions in Swaziland since 2005.

Andrew is the training officer for the Diocese of Swaziland and is a parish priest or rector, while Rosemary facilitates key community projects.

Paul was inspired to go to Swaziland after the students – men and women – took part in a sponsored shave earlier this year on Ash Wednesday to support USPG’s work in Swaziland – the same project Bishop Michael has been raising funds for during his organ marathon.

Children at Usuthu Mission Primary School in Swaziland (Photograph: Paul Bogle)

Now Swaziland is about as far away as one of our students could go on a parish placement. This small, land-locked country in southern Africa has a population of just one million people. But Swaziland has possibly the highest level of HIV/AIDS in the world: 40 per cent of the people there are HIV+, many children are born HIV+, and 20,000 new HIV cases are reported or diagnosed each year.

But there are only 2,000 hospital beds in Swaziland. This means most of the people are left to die at home.

To compound these problems, 40 per cent of the people are unemployed, and 69 per cent of the people live below the poverty line. And Swaziland now has 80,000 to 90,000 orphans, mainly because of HIV/AIDS – it is impossible for us to imagine the scale of this problem; in Ireland, it would mean having half a million orphans.

But for many people the biggest problem is not HIV – it is the problem of what they are going to eat. For many mothers, the only way to feed themselves is to sell themselves.

And because of the high infection rate, the HIV virus is spreading more rapidly that in other countries.

Life expectancy is low, the mortality rate is high, and so 15 per cent of households are headed by a child. Now, how can you expect a child to feed children, to look after their education, health and clothing?

With the support of the Bishops’ Appeal, USPG Ireland is working with the Anglican Church in the Diocese of Swaziland to provide feeding programmes and to provide training in horticulture and market gardening so that the diet of people and the ability of families to be self-sufficient can be improved significantly – a true harvest thanksgiving project.

To help this work, it has been possible too to make use of previously under-used church lands. All this is set in the context of the local church’s anti-HIV programme and the need to give people confidence that there can be a sustainable future for their communities, that Swaziland is not going to implode.

Hope is so important for people in Swaziland. But then, isn’t hope central to living out the Gospel?

Hope is at the heart of our Gospel reading this morning, which comes from the middle of the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. As a lecturer in theology, I sometimes think of the Sermon on the Mount as an ideal model for a lecture or seminar on discipleship, and on practising piety:

In the chapter in which we find this morning’s Gospel reading, Jesus has already spoken about giving alms in humility; about prayer, including praying simply and praying in the words of the Lord’s Prayer; about fasting without being dismal, but fasting joyfully; about refusing to hoard and keep things all for myself; about looking at things in the best possible light; and about putting God before our wealth.

In the section we shared this morning, verses 25 to 33, Christ hopes the disciples will realise that life is about more than our personal comforts. There’s more, in the following chapter, but there’s enough there for us and our harvest thought in the few verses we read this morning, I think.

It is very difficult if you are a 12 or 14-year-old girl looking after your younger sisters and brothers to continue to have hope if the younger ones are asking you last thing every night and first thing every morning “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?” (Matthew 6: 31).

And the only way we take those worries seriously, give those children hope, is to support projects such as USPG’s work in Swaziland, through Bishop Michael’s fund-raising campaign, by encouraging other students to follow in Paul Bogle’s footsteps, or directly supporting the work of mission agencies like USPG.

The harvest has been very poor here this year. And as the recession bites, those who have lost their jobs, those who have suffered pay cuts, farmers who are going to find this a very bleak autumn and winter indeed must be taken to heart.

But if we fret for ourselves and not for the children of Swaziland, can we say that we are striving first for the Kingdom of God and his righteousness? For as Jesus tells us this morning; “… your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6: 32-33).

And now may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin. This sermon was preached at the Harvest Thanksgiving Eucharist in Saint John’s Church, John Street, Kilkenny, on Sunday, 20 September 2009.

Bishop Michael Burrows accepting a donation from Tom Rothwell of Saint John’s Church, Kilkenny, following fund-raising for the bishop’s Musical Marathon