Monday, 30 November 2009

Can we be stubborn and obstinate like Saint Andrew?

Saint Andrew ... a window in Saint Andrew’s Church of Ireland Parish Church in Malahide, Co Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

30 November 2009: Saint Andrew the Apostle

Isaiah 52: 7-10; Psalm 19: 1-6; Romans 10: 12-18; Matthew 4: 18-22.

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

At the moment I am re-reading Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Gate of Angels (1990), a novel set in Saint Angelicus, a fictional Cambridge college, near Christ’s Pieces at the back of Sidney Sussex College.

Penelope Fitzgerald came from a well-known family of Anglican and Roman Catholic theologians. So you can understand how early in the novel she throws in the delightful piece of historical information that Saint Angelicus in Cambridge, like St Andrews in Scotland, has no legal existence. They both received their founding charters from Pope Benedict XIII, one of the last antipopes in Avignon.

In reality, Benedict XIII (Pedro de Luna) was no Pope at all – even his own schismatic followers deposed him at Pisa in 1409 and the antipope party even threw him out of Avignon, forcing him into a delusory and arrogant exile in Aragon. He had no legal right to grant a charter to any college or university.

But Pedro de Luna – whether he was a lunatic or simply liked the idea of being a Pope – was caught up in the nets of his yesterdays and stubbornly continued to behave like a Pope. His stubborn behaviour gave rise to the Spanish saying seguir en sus trece (to stay in his/her 13), referring to people who refuse to change their minds, who stick to their stubborn and obstinate behaviour.

Eventually, no-one but the Scots recognised him as Pope. But he clung to the delusions of office, granting charters to universities, and in a series of bulls in 1413 and 1414 set up St Andrews four or five years after he was sacked.

Now, far be it from me, in front of Maurice or Lynne, to challenge the historical legitimacy of St Andrews, or its claims to antiquity. But in the past and in antiquity some interesting claims have been made too on behalf of Saint Andrew, the apostle we commemorate this morning.

Andrew was a fisherman, working on the Lake of Galilee with his brother Simon Peter. He was a disciple of John the Baptist when he heard the call of Christ to follow him. Andrew hesitated for a moment, not because he had any doubts about that call, but because he wanted to bring his brother with him. He went to Peter and, as Saint John’s Gospel tells us, he told him: “We have found the Messiah … [and] he brought Simon to Jesus” (John 1: 41, 42).

In answering our call to ministry and mission, we must not forget those who are closest to us, those in our families and those who have worked with us. But, at the same time, like Andrew, we must be happy about leaving behind the nets of yesterday and not getting caught up in them.

Tradition says Andrew was so obstinate and so stubborn at his martyrdom in Patras that he insisted on being splayed on an X-shaped cross as he said he was unworthy to be crucified on a cross the same shape as the one on which Christ was crucified.

Unlike the other disciples named in this morning’s Gospel reading – Peter, James and John – Andrew never gave his name to an Epistle, never gave his name to a Gospel. But Andrew, the first-called of the Apostles, truly took up his cross and followed Jesus. And he called others to do the same.

His stubborn and obstinate commitment to mission, to travelling for the Gospel, has made him the patron saint of mission work and the patron saint of Constantinople, Greece, Romania, Ukraine, Russia – and even Scotland.

That stubborn and obstinate commitment to Christ, to the point of a martyr’s death, makes Andrew an appropriate saint to start off the Church Year at the beginning of Advent. As yesterday’s Gospel reading (Luke 21: 25-36) reminded us, Christmas is meaningless without looking forward to the Cross, the Resurrection, and in Advent the coming of Christ again in glory.

This morning Saint Andrew, the first-called of the Apostles, reminds us of the meaning of our call to ministry and mission. When you leave here, casting aside the nets of study, assignments and exams, may you remain stubborn and obstinate – not like Benedict XIII but like Saint Andrew, the first-called of the Apostles, in your commitment to Christ, his Church and his mission.

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


Almighty God,
who gave such grace to your apostle Saint Andrew
that he readily obeyed the call of your Son Jesus Christ
and brought his brother with him:
Call us by your holy Word
and give us grace to follow without delay,
and to tell the good news of your kingdom;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Offertory Sentence:

How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? (I John 3: 17).


In Andrew and all the saints
you have given us an example of godly living,
that, rejoicing in their fellowship,
we may run with perseverance the race that is set before us,
and with them receive the unfading crown of glory:

Post Communion Prayer:

may the gifts we have received at your table
keep us alert for your call
that we may always be ready to answer,
and, following the example of Saint Andrew,
always be ready to bear our witness
to our Saviour Jesus Christ.


God give you grace
to share the inheritance of Andrew and his apostles and his saints in glory:

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This sermon was preached in the chapel at the Eucharist on Monday 30 November 2009.

Saturday, 28 November 2009

Saving a beautiful piece of Victorian stucco art

James Comerford’s stucco art work for the façade of The Irish House is currently on exhibition at the Dublin Civic Trust in 4 Castle Street, Dublin

Patrick Comerford

I have been canon-in-residence in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, this week, preaching at the Sung Eucharist in the cathedral on Sunday morning, and taking part in Evening Prayer or Choral Evensong on a number of evenings during the week.

On Thursday evening, I arrived in a little early, and went for coffee in Toffoli, a charming Italian-style coffee shop and bistro, which I am glad to see has reopened in 34 Castle Street.

On my way back to the cathedral, I was taken aback. The Dublin Civic Trust is based in No 4 Castle Street, the last surviving shop in a once-thriving merchant street. This shop was known to generations of Dubliners as the shop of Thomas Barnwell, shoemakers, and is now an historic monument and the headquarters of the Dublin Civic Trust.

Throughout the year, there are regular exhibitions in the shop, focussing on topics and issues relating to the built and cultural heritage of Dublin City.

But in the dark on Thursday evening, I was breath-taken when I realised that the current exhibition contains some of the great stucco plaster artwork of my great-grandfather, James Comerford (1817-1902).

James Comerford was in partnership with William Burnett when they were commissioned by their client Patrick O’Kelly to design The Irish House, his new pub on the corner of Wood Quay and Winetavern Street, at the end of the hill below Christ Church Cathedral.

O’Kelly was probably familiar with James Comerford’s stucco work at this time for Pugin and Ashlin in the new Augustinian Church nearby in John’s Lane.;

The Irish House was built in 1870, and became one of the most amazing architectural works of art in late Victorian Dublin, reflecting the Romantic Movement that was sweeping across Europe in the latter part of the 19th century.

The Irish House was elaborately decorated by Burnett and Comerford, its façade brought alive by a series of decorative plaques, motifs and flourishes recalling scenes from Irish history. Its allegorical tale of constitutional politics was depicted in flamboyant style through the use of external stuccowork created by the genius of these two artists.

On its upper storey, iconic scenes from Irish history and myth were represented in richly-painted stucco artwork. A maiden stood by a seated harpist representing Éireann about to tour the island. Facing the quays, a 17-figure frieze depicted Henry Grattan’s last appeal to the Irish House of Commons before the passing of the Act of Union in 1800. Above the entrance was the coat-of-arms of Patrick O’Kelly, who commissioned the building. And on the Winetavern Street side, Éireann wept forlorn on her stringless harp, while Daniel O’Connell stood proudly clutching the Repeal document.

Casts from the scene in the Irish House of Commons in James Comerford’s work for the façade of The Irish House (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

The building was pioneering in Dublin in its use of exterior stucco to such elaborate effect and as a dominant facing material. It has been described as “a kind of urban folly,” a “combination of art and nationalist iconography, “a gesamtkuntswerk” … CP Curran wrote over 40 years ago of “its whole frontal all-glowing in colour like a Byzantine casket.”

It was a powerful statement of belief in the claims of Irish identity, a popular tribute to the memory of Henry Grattan and Daniel O’Connell, and a manifesto for constitutional, non-revolutionary nationalism. In Kevin Nowlan’s words, “What gives a particular character to the façade of The Irish House is that it represents the full flowering of romantic nationalism.” The art historian Sean Lynch suggests the building must have caused a stir amongst the Lord Lieutenant and his entourage when passing along the quays from the Vicregal Lodge to Dublin Castle.

However, as part of the unconscionable barbarism that saw the destruction of the Wood Quay site, the Irish House was torn down by Dublin Corporation in 1968. Many of the interior fittings were sold or lost, while plans to find a permanent exhibition place for the stucco artwork from the façade never materialised.

The work of Burnett and Comerford continued to lie on palates in a jigsaw puzzle on a warehouse floor and there were fears that it would be dispersed, sold or lost.

But much of the work has been recued and bought by the Dublin Civic Trust, and for the last few weeks that have been on exhibition in the trust’s shop-front exhibition area at No 4 Castle Street.

A handsomely-illustrated 36-page book, The Irish House, An Teach Gaelach, Public House 1870-1968, has been compiled and edited by Geraldine Walsh, CEO of the Dublin Civic Trust, to coincide with this exhibition. Graham Hickey has contributed to the full colour photographs of The Irish House and the works of William Burnett and James Comerford, as well as an evaluation and analysis of their work and their contribution to Irish art by Séan Lynch, Kevin B. Nowlan, Graham Hickey and Peter Walsh.

I wonder if I had not been in residence in Christ Church Cathedral this week whether I would have stumbled across this splendid exhibition. But my enthusiasm about in the last 48 hours means Geraldine Walsh and the Dublin Civic Trust have invited me as a great-grandson of James Comerford to return to 4 Castle Street in ten days time and at 5 p.m. on Tuesday 8 December to launch the book that goes with this exhibition.

James Comerford died over 100 years ago, in 1902. Over a century later, and over four decades after the demolition of The Irish House, I am overwhelmed to be involved in this exhibition which ensures his work will not be forgotten and his memory will not fade.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Readings in Spirituality: the novelist as a writer in spirituality and theology

Saint Bene’t’s, Cambridge ... provided a name for the church in Susan Howatch’s third trilogy (Photograph: Patrick Comerford

Patrick Comerford

Selected reading:

Margaret Craven, I Heard the Owl Call My Name (1967/1974), pp 125-133.
Catherine Fox, Angels and Men (Penguin, 1995), pp 80-85).
Catherine Fox, The Benefits of Passion (Hamish Hamilton, 1997), pp 117-125.


Professor Guy Martin once offered two courses at Harvard Divinity School on the writer as theologian.

The first course focussed on a few major literary artists and theologians who have confronted theological issues in their writing, and compared the role of creative expression with that of theological expression, and the truths of fiction with the truths of religion. The authors he considered included Tolstoy, Kierkegaard, Karl Barth, Flannery O’Connor and Toni Morrison.

Professor Martin’s second course focussed on the poetry, prose and plays of TS Eliot, examining the way he contributed to the relationship between religion and literature. As part of their final examination, the members of the class produced TS Eliot’s play, The Cocktail Party.

The traditional forms in which the arts meet theology have included music, painting, architecture and sculpture, and to an increasing degree in recent decades, film. Writers who have touched theology at its deeper levels have tended to be poets, while the key narrative mode for theology is autobiography.

But few theologians have earned a reputation as writers of popular fiction, and fewer writers of popular fiction have been acclaimed as theologians.

In America, the Church has provided settings and characters for writers such as Graham Greene. But some writers of fiction have been taken seriously as moral and pastoral theologians too. At the 1996 Glenstal Ecumenical Conference, the American theologian Dr Alexandra Brown used Ruby Turpin in Flannery O’Connor’s Revelation to stress the uniqueness of Christian morality.

Flannery O’Connor, the self-styled “hilly-billy Thomist,” believed that great literature deals with ultimate concerns that are essentially theological. When I was a student, my lecturer in moral theology included Dostoevsky and Iris Murdoch on his reading list.

But what about popular fiction?

In Canada, Margaret Craven’s novel, I Heard the Owl Call My Name, has been long accepted as a sensitive and deeply spiritual work of pastoral theology.

On this side of the Atlantic, Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Chronicles in the 19h century and Joanna Trollope in recent decades have used church in-fighting and cathedral politics as backdrops and settings. But since John Bunyan published his Pilgrim’s Progress, few novelists have emerged as respected theologians and few theologians have been popular novelists, with the possible exception of CS Lewis.

However, a new generation includes serious theologians who have become serious novelists and popular novelists who are being taken seriously by theologians. Novelists being lauded by theologians include two best-selling English writers, Susan Howatch and Catherine Fox.

Margaret Craven and a priest’s death

The first reading we have before us is from Margaret Craven, I Heard the Owl Call My Name (pp 125-133). I had a cousin by marriage who once played a prank by walking down the cinema queues for Love Story in Oxford and telling people: “She dies in the end!”

I hope I haven’t stopped you from reading I Heard the Owl Call My Name by giving you the end of the book to read, but I think this novel is a wonderful exploration of pastoral theology. Like The Night of the Iguana, the 1961 stage-play by Tennessee Williams, we find ourselves asking who is being priest to whom?

The American writer Margaret Craven (1901-1980) was born in Montana and grew up in Sacramento, California. After graduating from Stanford, she worked for a time as a journalist and short-story writer. Her first book looked at about the plight of the Kwakiutl First Nations people of Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada. This experience led to her novel, I Heard the Owl Call My Name, first published in Canada in 1967.

This novel tells the story of Mark Brian, a young Anglican priest who learns about the meaning of life when he is sent to an aboriginal parish in British Columbia. The book was not published in the US until 1973, and soon reached No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list.

Mark Brian is sent to a Native Indian village called Kingcome in British Columbia, where the people speak the language Kwakwala. He is sent by his bishop, who knows that Mark is suffering from an unnamed, fatal disease which he does not know of because the man that sent him on his journey did not tell him … because he wanted Mark to live the rest of his life to the fullest and not to worry about the future he will never have.

Mark struggles to gain acceptance from the people in the village by stressing the unity between their beliefs and his. Meanwhile, the villagers teach him about living in harmony with nature and accepting his fate. Other themes in the book include the economic disadvantages and graft the village is facing, how the national government outlaws the village’s time-honoured festivals of potlatchs on the excuse that they promote larceny.

The village also owns a gigantic colourful mask, for which the villagers refused a museum offer of several thousand dollars on the basis that it was an insufficient offer. A white man manages to buy the mask for $50 by getting one of the Indians drunk, who then proceeds to write a bill of sale on the mask. In order to ingratiate himself to the village to gain access to the mask, the white man also starts dating an attractive young woman and promises to marry her.

When he acquires the mask, he leaves the young Indian woman to fend for herself on the streets of Vancouver. She is taken in at a beer parlour, works as a prostitute, and dies of a heroin overdose.

When a policeman from the Mounties tells Mark of her tragic end, we reach a turning point in the book as Mark ponders the “depth of sadness,” the destitution of the village, and man’s greed and disrespect for women.

Ironically, he does not die from his illness but is killed when a landslide crushes his boat. But his death comes only after he has made an impact on the village and the villagers have had a profound impact on him too.

Above all else, I Heard the Owl Call My Name is about change, time, and the values human beings assign to them. The novel contrasts two cultures: the complex, extroverted white society that meets its needs by manipulating its surroundings, and the secretive, tradition-bound Native American society that lives in harmony with nature and accepts things as they are.

Re-educated by his experience among the Kwakiutl, Mark learns the relative value of time; the peace, happiness, and sense of accomplishment gained from suffering and struggling with others; and, although it is easily overlooked, the unity that exists between his Christian faith and the values of a “primitive” culture.

Catherine Fox’s trilogy

Our two other readings are from novels by the novelist and theologian Dr Catherine Fox (right), who will be a visiting lecturer at the Church of Ireland Theological Institute in February 2010. She lives near the house where I regularly stay in the Cathedral Close in Lichfield, where her husband, Canon Peter Wilcox, is the Canon-Chancellor of Lichfield Cathedral.

She graduated in English literature from Durham University and then studied post-graduate theology, earning a PhD in church history from King’s College, London, with a thesis on women and early Quakerism. She has written short stories for the Mail on Sunday and the Church Times and writes a weekly column for the Church of England Newspaper. A collection of these columns has been published as Scenes from Vicarage Life (Monarch Books).

But Catherine Fox is also the author of three novels – Angels and Men (Penguin, 1995), The Benefits of Passion (Hamish Hamilton, 1997), and Love for the Lost (Penguin 2000) – in which she explores the themes of the spiritual and the physical with insight, humour, pathos and theological engagement.

Angels and Men ... the first novel by Catherine Fox

Angels and Men, her debut novel, was published to critical acclaim in 1995. The heroine and narrator is Mara Johns. The name Mara means and is the name taken by Naomi in the biblical story of Ruth after the death of her husband effectively left her a beggar in a strange land. It may be a strange name to give a child, especially when her father is a priest, but it is an appropriate name for Mara at the time in her life dealt with in Angels and Men.

Mara is an English graduate who has moved to Jesus, a theological college of a northern university, not named by Fox but presumably Saint John’s College in Durham from the descriptions. She is engaged in post-graduate research on women and religious fanaticism in the 17th century, with reference to early Quakerism (the subject of Catherine Fox’s own PhD research) and so we can see how she draws of many of her own personal experiences.

Mara’s father is an Anglican priest. Angels and Men follows Mara through her college life, as she makes friends despite a desire to keep to herself, and earns her the nickname Princess. She has a turbulent background, having rejected the mild Anglicanism of her father for an extreme charismatic cult. She then rejects them, in turn, and is cut off from her twin sister Hester, who remains with the cult.

Angels and Men is simply but effectively structured, with each chapter bringing in a new revelation about Mara’s background and character, so that by the end we have a well-drawn study.

Her second novel, The Benefits of Passion, is set in Coverdale, an Anglican theological college in Durham, that could be Cranmer Hall. Although it is now ten years later, little has changed. In this book, Annie Brown (31) is an ordinand who is more interested in the novel she is secretly writing than in her theological studies. At the same time, she is trying to sort out her ambivalent feelings for Will, a friend of one of the other ordinands, and towards her vocation.

Isabella (19) is amorously pursuing Barney Hardstaff (27), an ordinand at Latimer (Ridley) Hall, Cambridge. Annie puts her real feelings into her novel, her characters act in ways she wants to act does not dares to, and her characters are drawn from the people around her.

In her third novel, Love for the Lost, Catherine Fox tells the story of Isobel Knox, who was a minor character in The Benefits of Passion, where she was an ordinand in the same year as Annie Brown. She is now a curate in a small Teeside parish in north-east England.

The narrative follows Isobel through her two years as a curate, as she learns a lot about herself and those around her. Content and confident in her new job, she enjoys her simple, single life, stifles her feelings and buries painful memories. Openness is too painful. Then her calm, yet fragile world faces two threats: Davy and Johnny. Davy is a young policeman who falls in love with Isobel despite her aloofness. But Isobel starts to fall for Johnny, a charming priest with a troubled marriage. Her heart begins to open reminding her of the past and the pain. The experiences of loss that have haunted her psyche since childhood manifest themselves physically when she discovers the washed-up body of a child on the beach. The body vanishes with the next wave – did she imagine it?

This third novel is an engaging story of faith, forgiveness, love and loss. The tone of this book is darker than Catherine Fox’s earlier novels, but she continues to combine humour and drama and in it she is both more dramatic and more theological in her style.

While researching and writing her novels, Catherine Fox closely consulted Tom Wright, who was then the Dean of Lichfield Cathedral. Despite their strong language and graphic sex, these novels wrestle with the deepest theological questions, including the existence of God, the nature of sin, religious obsessions and psychological health, call and vocation, self-sacrifice, passion, death and resurrection.

She makes an insider’s criticism of evangelical dogmatism and charismatic extremes, and is not afraid to tackle topical debates, such as the ordination of women and the Church’s attitude to sexuality.

When Angels and Men first appeared, Catherine Fox’s local paper produced stories about the vicar’s wife who wrote dirty books. Then, in a double-page feature in the Church Times, she spoke frankly about her Baptist childhood and her growing feelings of marginalisation from mainstream evangelicalism with the rise of movements such as Reform, which opposes the ordination of women.

Susan Howatch and the ‘Starbridge’ trilogies

As Anglican ordinands you will also come across – and I hope you will read – the clerical novels by the author Susan Howatch (right), who has won wide acclaim among theologians for her trilogies set in the Church of England.

After experiencing a religious conversion in the 1970s, Susan Howatch came moved to Ireland with her daughter in 1976, and lived in Dalkey, Co Dublin, until 1980. These trilogies were written after she returned to England, where she has lived within sight of both Salisbury Cathedral and Westminster Abbey.

After returning to England in 1980, Susan Howatch found herself “rich, successful, and living exactly where I wanted to live,” but feeling a spiritual emptiness which she ascribed to “trying to hold my divided self together” and questioning her life and what she should do with it.

She had settled in Salisbury out of love for the beauty of the town, but found herself increasingly drawn to Salisbury Cathedral. According to Professor David Ford of Cambridge University, she developed her interest in the connections between theology and natural science through the influence of Dr John Polkinghorne, the Anglican priest and scientist who has been President of Queen’s College, Cambridge.

Eventually, she began to study Anglican theology and spirituality in earnest. She experienced a spiritual epiphany, and concluded that she should continue to write novels, but to “set forth my discoveries in the light of faith, no matter how feeble and inadequate my beginner’s faith was.” This personal turning point culminated in her most successful and popular works, the Starbridge series, followed by the Saint Bene’t’s trilogy, examining the spiritual struggles of the Anglican clergy.

In the Starbridge series of two trilogies in six books, Susan Howatch displays an intimate knowledge of the Church of England, makes deft use of multiple narrators, and ably captures the spiritual dimension of the human endeavour.

These novels set out to describe the history of the Church of England through the 20th century. Each of the six books is self-contained, and each is narrated by a different character. However, the main protagonist of each book also appears in the other books, allowing the author to present the same incidents from different viewpoints.

The narrative in all six books centres around the fictional Diocese of Starbridge, which is supposedly in the west of England, and also features the Fordite monks, a fictional Anglican monastic order. The cathedral and church characters at Starbridge are based on the real-life Salisbury.

The first trilogy

The first three novels – Glittering Images (1987), Glamorous Powers (1988) and Ultimate Prizes (1989) – begin in the 1930s and continue through World War II.

They draw on the theology and writings of Herbert Hensley Henson, Bishop of Durham; William Ralph Inge, Lady Margaret’s Professor of Divinity at Cambridge University and later Dean of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London; Bishop George Bell, and his encounters with Dietrich Bonhoeffer; and Charles Raven, Master of Christ’s College and Regius Professor Divinity at Cambridge.

Glittering Images is narrated by the Revd Dr Charles Ashworth, a Cambridge theologian who undergoes something of a spiritual and nervous breakdown after being sent by the Archbishop of Canterbury to secretly investigate possible sexual transgressions in the household of the Bishop of Starbridge. Ashworth is helped to recovery, and to realise the source of his problems, by Father Jonathan Darrow, the widowed Abbot of Grantchester Abbey of the Fordite Monks.

This fictional monastic community of Anglican monks, which features throughout the novels, is a Benedictine-style order modelled on the Community of the Resurrection, founded by Bishop Charles Gore, editor of the Lux Mundi collection of essays. David Ford of Cambridge has not failed to notice, with humour, that she has changed Gore’s name to Ford to provide a founder for the Fordite Fathers.

Glamorous Powers follows the story of Jonathan Darrow as he leaves the Fordite Order at the age of 60 to follow a powerful vision. He then must deal with his adult children’s problems, address the question of a new intimate relationship, and search for a new ministry. His particular crisis surrounds the use and misuse of his charismatic powers of healing, and his unsettling mystical visions, or “showings.”

Ultimate Prizes, which unfolds during World War II, is narrated by Neville Aysgarth, a young and ambitious Archdeacon of Starbridge from a working class background in the north of England. After being widowed and remarried, he too undergoes something of a breakdown but is rescued by Jonathan Darrow.

The second trilogy

The second set of three novels – Scandalous Risks (1991), Mystical Paths (1992) and Absolute Truths (1995) – takes place in the 1960s. In this trilogy, she draws on the writings and theology of Bishop John Robinson, the Cambridge theologian and author of Honest to God (1963); Christopher Bryant, an Anglican monk and spiritual director; and the great spiritual director, Reginald Somerset Ward.

Scandalous Risks follows Neville Aysgarth to Westminster Abbey when he becomes a canon, and back to Starbridge, where he becomes dean and Ashworth becomes bishop. The story is narrated by Venetia Flaxton, a young aristocrat who risks great scandal by beginning a relationship with the married Aysgarth, her father’s best friend.

Mystical Paths follows Nicholas Darrow, son of Jonathan, as he narrowly avoids going off the rails prior to his ordination while investigating the mysterious disappearance of Christian Aysgarth, eldest son of the Dean Aysgarth.

Absolute Truths comes full circle and is narrated by a much more elderly but still troubled Charles Ashworth, 31 years after we first encountered him in the first of the books.

The Saint Bene’t’s Trilogy

The third set of three novels – the Saint Benet’s Trilogy – is set in Saint Bene’t’s Church, London, in the 1980s and 1990s. There is a well-known church of the same name in Cambridge. Again, this trilogy illustrates the changes that took place in the Church of England in those years and brings back many of the characters in the Starbridge series. However, while the Church is still at the heart of the books, there is an increased emphasis on characters who are not members of the clergy. Like the six earlier books, each book in this trilogy is written in the first person by a different narrator.

A Question of Integrity (1997, The Wonder Worker in the US) picks up the story of Nicholas Darrow 15 years after the last of the Starbridge novels. Nick is now rector of a church in the City of London where he runs a centre for a ministry of healing and deliverance using his psychic powers, and Lewis Hall, his former spiritual director, now lives and works with Nick. Venetia reappears from the Starbridge series also and takes up with Lewis Hall.

Nick’s own life is greatly affected by events taking place at the centre, especially after meeting Alice Fletcher, an insecure new worker there, and he is forced to reassess his beliefs and commitments as a result. The danger for Nick is in the temptation to become a Wonder Worker. This is where he becomes a charismatic Christian healer who works in pursuit of his own fame and glory rather than God’s.

The High Flyer (2000) tells the story of a City lawyer, Carter Graham, who knows she “has it all.” Her outwardly successful life, complete with highly compensated career and suitable marriage, undergoes profound changes after harrowing events smacking of the occult begin to occur and reveal that things are not what they seem.

Finally, The Heartbreaker (2004) follows the life of Gavin Blake, a charismatic male prostitute specialising in powerful, influential male clients, who finds himself at the centre of a criminal empire and must fight to save his life. Meanwhile, both Carter Graham and Nick Darrow must deal with their own weaknesses in trying to help Gavin.

Academic life

Susan Howatch has been a close friend of David Ford at Cambridge. She used some of the profits from her novels to found a post in the Faculty of Divinity at Cambridge University, devoted to linking the fields of science and religion and with the title of Starbridge Lecturer in Natural Science and Theology. The first holder of this post is the Revd Dr Fraser Watts, an Anglican priest, psychologist and theologian.

She has lectured in theology and natural sciences at Cambridge, she is a Fellow of King’s College London, and an Honorary Fellow of both the University of Wales at Lampeter and Sarum College in Salisbury. She now lives close to Westminster Abbey.

She has been compared with Anthony Trollope by Andrew Greeley in the Washington Post and in reviews in the Church of England Newspaper. She has been the subject of analytical profiles in the Church Times and has received serious reviews in journals such as Theology, the Anglican Theological Review, and Search. The Catholic Herald said Mystical Paths was profoundly theological.

Susan Howatch’s standing in the world of theology was further affirmed when she was invited to edit and introduce Mowbray’s four-part Library of Anglican Spirituality, bringing the works of Austin Farrar, Somerset Ward, Dorothy Sayers and HA Williams to the attention of a new generation.

Theology, spirituality and fiction

According to Professor David Ford of Cambridge, “theology that doesn’t face up to the immense issues of truth and practice isn’t doing its duty. It should be a mind-stretching subject that relates to all current issues.”

It may be a healthy reflection on the state of theology in the Church of England that popular novelists such as Catherine Fox and Susan Howatch can work so comfortably and so critically within this field. Fiction helps construct our view of reality, and popular fiction can help the general reader to enter the reality of theological debates, church life, and contemporary thinking about spirituality.

Further reading:

The novels of Margaret Craven, Catherine Fox and Susan Howatch.
Patrick Comerford, ‘An Irishman’s Diary,’ The Irish Times, 19 April 1993.
Patrick Comerford, ‘Two novel ways of approaching God,’ The Irish Times, 25 March 1997.
Paul Handley, ‘Not exactly making it all up,’ The Church Times, pp 14-15, 31 January 1997.
DT Myers, ‘Forgiven Sinners: Susan Howatch’s Church Novels,’ Anglican Theological Review, Winter 1998.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay is based on notes prepared for seminar in the Year III B.Th. course, Spirituality for Today, on Thursday 26 November 2009.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

An introduction to Orthodoxy

An image of Christ from a monastery in Thessaloniki: the beauty and spirituality of Orthodoxy offer many rich insights for our own spirituality (Photograph © Patrick Comerford 2004)

By Patrick Comerford

Opening music:
The Znamenny Choir singing the Magnificat and the Great Doxology, and the bells of the Church of the Trinity in Saint Sergius Larva

1, Introduction

Listening to the Znamenny Choir singing Magnificat and the Great Doxology, and to the bells of the Church of the Trinity in Saint Sergius Larva, it is easy to understand this story in the Orthodox Church: When Vladimir, Prince of Kiev, was still a pagan at the end of the 10th century, he sent envoys out to discover what the true religion was and to advise him on which religion should become the state religion.

The envoys first visited the Muslim Bulgars of the Volga, but found no joy among them “but mournfulness and a great smell.” In Germany and Rome, they found the worship and liturgy was without beauty. But when the Slav envoys reached Byzantium, they were so dazzled by the splendour of the Byzantine liturgy in the great church of Aghia Sophia they instantly decided that Orthodoxy should be the faith of the Slav people. “We knew not whether we were on heaven or on earth, for surely there is no such splendour or beauty anywhere upon earth. We cannot describe it to you: only this we know, that God dwells there among humans, and that their service surpasses the worship of all other places. For we cannot forget that beauty.”

As people active in ministry in the Ireland of today, we need to be aware of the Eastern Orthodox churches – not merely because of the beauty of their worship and liturgy, but for a number of practical and pastoral reasons:

1, Enhancing our cultural experiences:

We cannot understand many of the dimensions to modern movies – from Zorba the Greek to My Big Fat Greek Wedding or Captain Corelli’s Mandolin; or modern literature – from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov to the novels of Nikos Kazantzakis, the poems of Yiannis Ritsos, or J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey; or the music of composers such as Rachmaninov or John Taverner, without some understanding of Orthodox piety and practice.

2, The current world situation:

Four member states of the European Union have Orthodox majority populations – Greece, Cyprus, Romania and Bulgaria.

An understanding of Orthodoxy helps us to understand many aspects of modern Europe: why did faith survive with resilience in Soviet Russia and in Ceausescu’s Romania? What was the role of faith in the horrors of ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia? Who are the Christians who have got caught between the extremes of militant Zionism and militant Islam in the Middle East?

Or, on a more practical level: how should I behave when I visit a church when I’m on holidays in Greece, Cyprus or Russia?

3, The current situation in Ireland:

Today, there are five Orthodox churches or parishes in Dublin, Greek, Russian, Romanian, Georgian and Antiochene, with the Romanians and the Russians using former Church of Ireland parish churches in Leeson Park and Harold’s Cross. In addition there are Indian Orthodox and Syrian Orthodox communities using Church of Ireland parish churches in Donnybrook, Tallaght, Swords and inner-city Dublin, a Coptic Orthodox Church in Bray, and various communities in other parts of Ireland.

Five distinct Orthodox Churches are now members of the Irish Council of Churches, and Orthodoxy may be the fastest growing Christian tradition in Ireland today. Orthodox spirituality offers us many rich gifts in recent decades through its insights into worship, liturgy, spirituality and prayer.

Over the past three decades – as a writer and a priest – it has been my privilege to spend much time travelling through many Orthodox countries, experiencing the worship and prayer life of a variety of Orthodox Churches – including churches and monasteries within the Patriarchates of Constantinople, Jerusalem, Alexandria and Moscow, and the Churches of Greece, Romania, Cyprus, Albania and Sinai, as well as the (Coptic) Egyptian Orthodox Church – and visiting monasteries throughout Greece, Romania and Egypt, especially on Mount Athos, Mount Sinai, Patmos, Samos, Corfu, Crete, Athens, Thessaloniki, the Ionian islands, and in the Western Desert in Egypt.

2, Orthodox understandings of prayer

The life of an Orthodox Christian is one of prayer. In the Orthodox tradition, it is the person who truly prays who is a theologian and a God-seer. The purpose of all life is to be filled with the Holy Spirit and to become one with Christ; or, as the Apostle Peter says, so that we may “become participants in the Divine Nature” (II Peter 1: 4). In the Orthodox tradition, this is known as theosis or in English it might be deification. Everything an Orthodox person does should be to further that goal – the goal of living a life of active love for all people. The result of a life of prayer is to be filled with mercy and forgiveness, to bind up wounds and to love.

In Orthodox understanding, prayer is doxology, praise, thanksgiving, confession, supplication and intercession to God. “When I prayed I was new,” wrote a great Orthodox theologian, “but when I stopped praying I became old.” For the Orthodox, prayer is the way to renewal and spiritual life, prayer is being alive to God, prayer is strength, refreshment and joy. Through the grace of God and our disciplined efforts, prayer lifts us up from our isolation to a conscious, loving communion with God in which everything is experienced in a new light. Prayer becomes a personal dialogue with God, a spiritual breathing of the soul, a foretaste of the bliss of God’s kingdom.

The Orthodox teach that God does not ask that we converse with him using beautiful words, but that what we say emanates from a beautiful soul. Prayer does not need mediators, formalities, or appointments at prescribed hours. God’s door is always open and he waits for us. God is always near, and we need no particular eloquence. He hears us no matter how softly we speak, he understands us completely even if we say little. All hours are appropriate and all places good, and prolonged instruction in the art of prayer in unnecessary. It is sufficient that we want to pray; then learning becomes rapid and effortless.

However, there are six specific aspects of prayer life and spirituality within the Orthodox tradition that I want to share: the Liturgy; Daily and Personal Prayer; Icons and Prayer; the Jesus Prayer; the Hesychast tradition; and the monastic life.

3, The Liturgy:

Blue-domed, white-washed churches on Greek holiday islands may the first contact many have with the Orthodox Church

The first experience many of us have of Orthodox prayer, worship and spirituality is as visitors to Orthodox churches on holidays, or with an invitation to one of the many new Orthodox churches on this island.

The first experience of the Orthodox liturgy can be so overpowering that many people will agree with the envoys from Kiev when they said: “This we know, that God dwells there among humans.” But Orthodox liturgy has had an immense influence on the western liturgical movement in late 20th century that reformed and transformed much of our liturgical practice: our understanding of the separate Liturgy of the Word and Liturgy of the Sacrament, the Gospel procession, the epiklesis in the Eucharist, even the fact that we stand far more often during the liturgy.

The word Orthodoxy means, primarily, not right doctrine but right worship or praise. The Orthodox approach to religion is fundamentally a religious approach, which understands doctrine in the context and setting of divine worship. As the Russian theologian, Father Georges Florovsky (1893-1979), writes: “Christianity is a liturgical religion. The Church is first of all a worshipping community. Worship comes first, doctrine and discipline second.” Or as Bishop Kallistos Ware says: “Orthodoxy sees human beings as liturgical creatures who are most truly themselves when they glorify God, and who find their perfection and self-fulfilment in worship.”

We use the word liturgy loosely to refer to all the public offices of the church. But for the Orthodox, the Divine Liturgy is only the celebration of the Eucharist. Although it may be celebrated on most days, there has never been a tradition of its daily celebration in parish churches, and the Divine Liturgy is not celebrated on weekdays in the penitential season of Great Lent.

The beauty of the worship is obvious to the non-Orthodox through the singing and through the decoration of churches, with their frescoes and icons. Orthodox churches are often simple in shape, with a square plan and topped by a central dome. The singing is often a capella, and generally there is a noticeable lack of seating or pews (Canon 20 of the first Ecumenical Council of Nicaea in the year 325 forbids all kneeling on Sundays).

In addition, there is a mixture of formality and familiarity that is peculiar to Orthodox participation in worship, which leaves visitors assured that the worshipper knows he/she is in the house of their true Father. The Church and the Liturgy are truly meeting points between heaven and earth.

4, Daily services and daily prayer:

Apart from the Divine Liturgy, on a daily basis the Divine Offices of the Orthodox Church, the daily services, are conducted each day, in the church, by the clergy, and must have at least one other person present. Traditionally, the services follow this schedule each day:

Hesperinos (Vespers): at sundown, the traditional beginning of the day;

Apodipnon (Compline, “after supper”): after the evening meal, prior to bedtime;

Orthros (Matins): the first service of the morning, usually starts before sunrise;

The Hours (1st, 3rd, 6th and 9th), immediately following Orthros and before the Liturgy.

These services are regarded as sanctifying the times at which they are celebrated. They consist to a large degree of readings from the Psalms, with introductory prayers, troparia, and other prayers surrounding them. The Psalms are arranged so that when all the services are celebrated the entire Psalter is read through once a week, and twice a week during Great Lent.

The daily prayers that every Orthodox Christian should pray each day include Morning, Midday and Evening prayers. For those who want to expand the cycle of daily prayer, there are “the Hours,” which include the 1st, 3rd, 6th and 9th hours of the daily liturgical cycle, modified for personal use at home, and meal-time prayers. Alongside the public prayer of the daily offices and the liturgy, personal prayer in the home is important for every devout, practising Orthodox. These include morning and evening prayer, usually before the family icons, involving both the whole family and individuals praying on their own.

Many Orthodox in their prayers will use prayer books and manuals, but most of the material in these books is taken from the public liturgy and worship of the church – when individuals are praying on their own they are still praying with the Church.

As Georges Florovsky writes: “Personal prayer is only possible in the context of the community. Even in solitude, ‘in the chamber,’ a Christian prays as a member of the redeemed community, of the Church.”

Orthodox prayer, both public and private, is also marked by the use of icons, and, in a very developed way, by the use of the Jesus Prayer.

5, Icons and prayer:

A modern interpretation of The Visitation of Abraham, the Old Testament Trinity, by Andrei Rublev

Through the traditional use of icons, the Orthodox Church has had a remarkable influence, not just on aesthetic considerations, but on our theological journey too. Our understanding of the Trinity, for example, has been transformed by the way in which many influential, contemporary theologians have come to a fresh way of talking about the Trinity because of insights they have received through Andrei Rublev’s icon of the Visitation of Abraham.

Saint Catherine of Alexandria ... patron of the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, Cambridge

Apart from a Romanian Orthodox cross, there are five other icons on the wall in my study: an icon of Christ from a monastery in Corfu, which is a copy of an icon written on Patmos; a copy of Rublev’s Visitation of Abraham; from Mount Athos, a copy of an icon of Christ as the Great High Priest; an icon of Peter and Paul embracing as a sign of ecumenism and the unity of the Church; and an icon of saint Catherine of Alexandria, whose feast day is today and who is the patron saint of an institute I have studied with in Cambridge.

The icon of Christ Pantocrator in Monastery of Saint Catherine on Mount Sinai is, perhaps, the oldest icon in Orthodoxy

The icon of Christ in the chapel in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute is an image of perhaps the earliest surviving icon of Christ’s face, now in Saint Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai. There are three smaller icons in the our sacristy: Christ the Pantocrator; Saint John the Theologian in the cave on Patmos, dictating the opening verses of the Book of Revelation to Prochorus; and the Church at Pentecost, symbolically embracing the world.

For the Orthodox, the church building, the whole edifice, is one great icon of the Kingdom of God. The frescoes, the icons and the icon screen (Greek: εικονοστάσι, iconostasis) separating the congregation in main body of the church from the sacred mysteries behind the royal doors are not there to make the church look more pretty or beautiful, but are central to understanding the worship and life of the Orthodox Church, its liturgy and its prayers.

The dispute over the doctrinal orthodoxy of icons and their place in the church was settled finally at the seventh Ecumenical Council in the year 843. Icons are part of the heritage of the undivided church, before the Great Schism of 1054. The use of icons has increased in the Western traditions of the Church in recent decades, although for some they are often decorative religious items rather than the aids to prayer as they are understood in Orthodoxy, while for others they raise questions about idolatry or, at the least, about an emphasis on things seen rather than faith.

The word “icon” comes from the Greek word εἰκών (eikon) which simply means a depiction or pictorial representation. However, the theological foundation for the use of icons rests in Scripture: the New Testament describes Jesus as the εἰκών or the image and exact representation of God (Hebrews 1: 3). The Ecumenical Councils of the Church declared the incarnation had made it permissible to represent God in visual form. If Jesus had himself made God visible, then visual theology was as authentic as verbal theology. This is why the Orthodox say that an icon is written rather than painted, and speak of icon writers rather than icon painters.

Carved or graven images still remain almost totally unacceptable in the Orthodox world, but written icons used in the liturgy and prayer life of the Orthodox are no more worshipped than the pages, ink and typeface of a prayer book are worshipped. In prayer, the Orthodox believer prays through but not to an icon, and the reverence given to an icon is not worship but the reverence that should be given to the sacred person depicted or represented in the icon.

Icons are designed to capture the spiritual aspects of Christ and the saints, not just the material human form. Icons are not considered by the Orthodox to be objects of worship. Their usage is justified by the following logic: when the immaterial God was all that we had, no material depiction was possible and therefore blasphemous even to contemplate; however, biblical prohibitions against material depictions have been altered by Christ (as God) taking on material form, thus allowing a material depiction. Also, it is not the wood or paint that is venerated but rather the individual shown, just as with a portrait or photograph of a loved one.

Icons are imbued with symbolism that conveys far more meaning than simply the identity of the person depicted, and it is for this reason that Orthodox iconography has become an exacting science of copying older icons rather than an opportunity for artistic expression. The personal, idiosyncratic and creative traditions of Western European religious art are largely unknown in Orthodox iconography before the 17th century, when Russian icon writing was strongly influenced by religious art from both Protestant and Catholic Europe. Greek icon writing also began to take on a strong romantic western influence for a period.

More recently, there has been a return to more traditional and symbolic representations; statues or three-dimensional depictions remain almost non-existent within the Orthodox Church.

Large icons can be found on the walls of churches and icon-style frescoes usually cover the inside walls. They begin with more worldly scenes at ground level, and work their way up through the Gospel stories and the stories of salvation, so that as we are distracted by worldly thoughts during the liturgy, we are called back to the purpose of worship, until our eyes are drawn ever upwards, so that at the height of dome we see the evangelists and angels surrounding the highest and holiest of all in the dome, Christ the Pantocrator, the one through whom all things are made.

Orthodox homes also have icons on the wall, usually on an east-facing wall in a place where the family can pray together. Every Orthodox believer also has an icon of the saint whose name they share, usually beside their bed or in a private place at home. Icons are often illuminated by a candle or an oil lamp. Beeswax candles and olive oil lamps are preferred because they are natural and burn cleanly. Besides the practical purpose of making icons visible in an otherwise dark church, both candles and oil lamps symbolise that Christ is the Light of the World.

6, The Jesus Prayer

The Jesus Prayer ... at the heart of Orthodox spirituality

The Jesus Prayer is one of the best known traditions within Orthodoxy. Its words say simply: Κύριε Ἰησοῦ Χριστέ, Υἱὲ τοῦ Θεοῦ, ἐλέησόν με [τὸν ἁμαρτωλό] (Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me [the sinner]). The Jesus Prayer, also known to some Church Fathers as the Prayer of the Heart, is a short, simple prayer that has been widely used and taught throughout the history of Eastern Christianity. The exact words of the prayer vary from the most simple use of the name “Jesus” to “Lord have mercy,” to the more common form: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

The Jesus Prayer is, for the Eastern Orthodox, one of the most profound and mystical prayers and is often repeated continually as a part of personal ascetic practice. The Eastern Orthodox theology of the Jesus Prayer was most clearly set out by Saint Gregory Palamas (1296-1359). Its practice is an integral part of Hesychasm, the subject of the Philokalia, a collection of texts on prayer compiled in the late 18th century.

The practice of repeating the prayer continually dates back to at least the 5th century. It is first referred to in the writings of Saint Diadochos of Photiki (400-486), a work found in the first volume of the Philokalia. The Jesus Prayer is described in the description by Saint John Cassian (died 435) of the repetitive use of a passage of the Psalms. Saint Diadochos ties the practice of the Jesus Prayer to the purification of the soul. He also teaches that repetition of the prayer produces inner peace. The use of the Jesus Prayer is recommended in The Ladder of Divine Ascent of Saint John of Sinai (523-603) and in the work of Saint Hesychios (?8th century), Pros Theodoulon, found in the first volume of the Philokalia. Today, Mount Athos is a centre of the practice of the Jesus Prayer.

The use of the Jesus Prayer, according to the tradition of the Philokalia, is the subject of the Russian classic, The Way of a Pilgrim, which became familiar to many in the west in the 1960s through J.D. Salinger’s novel, Franney and Zooey. The Russian pilgrim in The Way of the Pilgrim discovers the Jesus Prayer and the answers to many of his questions in the Philokalia, a key compendium of Orthodox spirituality and prayer. With the Scriptures and the Philokalia in his hand, he placed himself under the guidance of an experienced elder and engaged in a struggle to develop inner prayer that would occupy the whole of his life.

But what are the Scriptural and theological foundations of the Jesus Prayer?

The Apostle Paul urges the Christians of Thessaloniki to “pray without ceasing” (I Thessalonians 5: 1), and those in Rome to “be constant in prayer” (Romans 12: 12), and he practices unceasing prayer himself (e.g., I Thessalonians 2: 13, and II Timothy 1: 3). Whenever he speaks of prayer in his letters, two Greek words repeatedly appear: pantote, which means always; and adialeptos, meaning without interruption or unceasingly. But how can we be expected to pray all the time? How can we fit more time for prayer into our already overcrowded lives?

However, to pray does not mean to think about God in contrast to thinking about other things or to spend time with God in contrast to spending time with our family and friends. To pray means to think and live our entire life in the Presence of God. The Russian theologian, Paul Evdokimov, remarks: “Our whole life, every act and gesture, even a smile must become a hymn or adoration, an offering, a prayer. We must become prayer - prayer incarnate.”

In order to enter more deeply into the life of prayer and to come to grips with Saint Paul’s challenge to pray unceasingly, the Orthodox tradition offers the Jesus Prayer. In its simplicity and clarity, the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner,” is rooted in the Scriptures. Its words echo the cry of the blind man at the side of the road near Jericho, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me” (Luke 18: 38), of the ten lepers who called to him, “Jesus, Master, take pity on us” (Luke 17: 13), the cry for mercy of the publican, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner” (Luke 18: 14); and on the cry of the penitent thief on the cross (Luke 23: 42).

That plaintive cry is echoed poignantly in the Cry of the Thief Crucified by Chesnokov and sung by the Russian tenor Eugnei Akimov from the Soglasie Male Voice Choir of Saint Petersburg.

Musical interlude: The Cry of the Thief Crucified by Chesnokov and sung by the Russian tenor Eugnei Akimov from the Soglasie Male Voice Choir of Saint Petersburg.

The Jesus Prayer is a way of taking one of the most important first steps on the spiritual journey: the recognition of our own sinfulness, our essential estrangement from God and the people around us. The Jesus Prayer is a prayer in which we admit our desperate need of a Saviour. For “if we say we have no sin in us, we are deceiving ourselves and refusing to admit the truth” (I John 1: 8).

Theophan the Recluse, a 19th century Russian spiritual writer, distinguishes three levels in the saying of the Jesus Prayer:

It begins as oral prayer or prayer of the lips, a simple recitation which Theophan defines as prayers’ “verbal expression and shape.” Although very important, this level of prayer is still external to us and thus only the first step, for “the essence or soul of prayer is within a man’s mind and heart.”

As we enter more deeply into prayer, we reach a level at which we begin to pray without distraction. Theophan remarks that at this point, “the mind is focused upon the words” of the Jesus Prayer, “speaking them as if they were our own.”

The third and final level is prayer of the heart. At this stage, prayer is no longer something we do but who we are. Such prayer, which is a gift of the Spirit, is to return to the Father as did the Prodigal Son (Luke 15: 32). The prayer of the heart is the prayer of adoption, when “God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit that cries ‘Abba, Father!’” (Galatians 4: 6).

This return to the Father through Christ in the Holy Spirit is the goal of all Christian spirituality. It is to be open to the presence of the Kingdom in our midst. The anonymous author of The Way of the Pilgrim reports that the Jesus Prayer has two very concrete effects upon his vision of the world.

First, it transfigures his relationship with the material creation around him. The world becomes transparent, a sign, a means of communicating God’s presence. He writes: “When I prayed in my heart, everything around me seemed delightful and marvellous. The trees, the grass, the birds, the air, the light seemed to be telling me that they existed for man’s sake, that they witnessed to the love of God for man, that all things prayed to God and sang his praise.”

Second, the Jesus Prayer transfigures his relationship to his fellow human beings. His relationships are given form within their proper context: the forgiveness and compassion of the crucified and risen Lord. “Again I started off on my wanderings. But now I did not walk along as before, filled with care. The invocation of the Name of Jesus gladdened my way. Everybody was kind to me. If anyone harms me I have only to think, ‘How sweet is the Prayer of Jesus!’ and the injury and the anger alike pass away and I forget it all.”

There is a great emphasis on humility in the practice of the Jesus Prayer, with many warnings about the disaster that will befall those who would use it in pride, arrogance or conceit. In many texts is said that those who use the Jesus Prayer must only be members of the Orthodox Church in good standing.

When it is practised on a continuing basis, the Jesus Prayer becomes automatic. In the Eastern tradition the prayer is said or prayed repeatedly, often with the aid of a prayer rope (Russian chotki; Greek komvoschini). It may be accompanied by prostrations and the sign of the cross.

7, The Hesychast tradition

The practice of the Jesus Prayer is integrated into the mental ascesis undertaken by the Orthodox monk in the practice of Hesychasm. This mental ascesis is the subject of the Philokalia. Monks often pray this prayer many hundreds of times each night in private in their cells. Under the guidance of an Elder (Russian Starets; Greek Gerontas), the monk aims to internalise the prayer, so that he is praying unceasingly, thereby accomplishing the Apostle Paul’s exhortation to “pray without ceasing.”

And so, perhaps, I should say a little about the Hesychast tradition.

Hesychasm (Greek ἡσυχασμός hesychasmos, from ἡσυχία hesychia, “stillness, rest, quiet”) is an eremitic tradition of prayer in Eastern Orthodoxy, practised (Greek: ἡσυχάζω, hesychazo, “to keep stillness”) by the Hesychast (Greek: Ἡσυχαστής, hesychastes).

A 12th century icon of the Ladder of Divine Ascent from Saint Catherine’s Monastery, Mount Sinai

The tradition dates back to both the Cappadocian Fathers and the Egyptian anchorites in the western desert, although the tradition’s strongest roots can be traced from the 6th to 8th centuries and The Ladder of Divine Ascent written by Saint John of Sinai (523–603). The term Hesychast is particularly associated with the integration of the continual repetition of the Jesus Prayer into the practices of mental ascesis by hermits in Egypt. By the 14th century on Mount Athos, Hesychasm refer to the practices associated with the Jesus Prayer. The books used by the Hesychasts include the Philokalia; the Ladder of Divine Ascent; the collected works of Saint Symeon the New Theologian (949–1022); and the works of Saint Isaac the Syrian (7th century or 8th century).

Hesychastic practice may involve specific body postures and be accompanied by very deliberate breathing patterns. However, these bodily postures and breathing patterns are treated as secondary both by modern Athonite practitioners on Mount Athos and by the more ancient texts in the Philokalia, the emphasis being on the primary role of Grace.

The Hesychast practices acquiring an inner stillness, ignoring the physical senses and rejecting tempting thoughts. In solitude and retirement he repeats the Jesus Prayer, praying the Jesus Prayer “with the heart” – with meaning, with intent, “for real.” He never treats the Jesus Prayer as a string of syllables whose “surface” or overt verbal meaning is secondary or unimportant. He considers bare repetition of the Jesus Prayer as a mere string of syllables, perhaps with a “mystical” inner meaning beyond the overt verbal meaning, to be worthless or even dangerous.

While he maintains his practice of the Jesus Prayer, which becomes automatic and continues 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the Hesychast rejects all tempting thoughts, paying extreme attention to the consciousness of his inner world and to the words of the Jesus Prayer. The practice of the Jesus Prayer is in the mind in the heart, free of images.

The Hesychast usually experiences the contemplation of God as light, the Uncreated Light of the theology of Saint Gregory Palamas. The Hesychast, when he has by the mercy of God been granted such an experience, does not remain in that experience for a very long time, but he returns “to earth” and continues to practise the guard of the mind. The Uncreated Light that the Hesychast experiences is identified with the Holy Spirit. Experiences of the Uncreated Light are allied to the “acquisition of the Holy Spirit.” The highest goal of the Hesychast is the experiential knowledge of God.

But there are many warnings that seeking after unusual “spiritual” experiences can itself cause great harm, ruining the soul and the mind of the seeker. Such seeking after “spiritual” experiences can lead to spiritual delusion in which a person believes himself or herself to be a saint, has hallucinations in which he or she “sees” angels, Christ, etc. This state of spiritual delusion is in a superficial, egotistical way pleasurable, but can lead to madness and suicide, and, according to the Hesychast fathers, makes salvation impossible.

8, The monastic tradition today

The Monastery of Vatopedi on Mount Athos ... the monastic tradition is alive and vibrant today (Photograph © Patrick Comerford, 2004)

Mount Athos is a centre of the practice of Hesychasm, and the most important centre of monastic life in the Orthodox world today. There has been a recent revival in the fortunes of many of the monasteries on the Holy Mountain, with new monks arriving from Cyprus, Romania, Russia and Australia. The mountain is loved among the Orthodox for nurturing great writers in spirituality and on the life of prayer. Three of the best known of these writers in the 20th century were Saint Silouan (1866-1938), his disciple Archimandrite Sophrony (1896-1993), and Father Joseph (died 1959).

Although some of these great writers also lived as hermits, they gathered many followers, and were particularly known for their practice of the Jesus Prayer.

9, Conclusions

Evgarius is quoted in the Philokalia as having written: “If you are a theologian, you will pray truly. And if you pray truly, you are a theologian.”

The Orthodox insights into and traditions about prayer have influenced many Anglicans, including Archbishop Michael Ramsey and Archbishop Rowan Williams. Many in the Western world have been helped to pray through the books of Metropolitan Anthony Bloom.

To pray truly, we can learn from the traditions of others. There are rich treasures in each and every Christian tradition that we can draw on without compromising our own Christian tradition, experience and spirituality. The beauty of Orthodox liturgy, the insights provided by Orthodox use of icons, the practice of the Jesus Prayer, and the rich treasurers in the writings of Orthodox monks can help each of us to develop our own practice of prayer.

10, Readings and resources

Reading and finding the way ... a signpost on Mount Athos (Photograph © Patrick Comerford, 2004)

(Bishop) Hilarion Alfeyev, The Mystery of Faith (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 2002, ISBN: 0-232-52472-6) ... written as an introduction for English-readers to Orthodox theology.

(Archbishop) Anthony Bloom, Living Prayer (London Libra, various editions 1966-1971) … may be out of print now, but worth looking for in libraries.

(Archbishop) Anthony Bloom, School for Prayer (London Libra, various editions 1970-1972) … again, may be out of print now, but worth looking for in libraries.

(Archbishop) Anthony Bloom and Georges LeFebvre, Courage to Pray (London: Darton Longman & Todd Libra, various editions 1973-1974) … once again, may be out of print now, but once again worth looking for in libraries.

The Divine Liturgy of our father among the saints, John Chrysostom (Oxford: University Press, 1995, ISBN: 0-19-110012-9) ... a simple bilingual (Greek-English) presentation of the main Orthodox liturgical texts and prayers.

E Kadloubovsky and GEH Palmer, Writings from the Philokalia on Prayer of the Heart (London: Fabber and Faber, 1992, ISBN: 0-571-16393-9) ... access through the English language to selections from the major Orthodox work on spirituality.

Charles Miller, The Gift of the World, an introduction to the theology of Dumitru Staniloae (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2000, ISBN: 0-567-08732-8) ... an English-language introduction to the Romanian Orthodox theologian whose stature has been compared to Barth, Rahner and Schillebeeckx.

Solrunn Nes, The Mystical Language of Icons (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2004, ISBN 1-85311-657-2) … lavishly illustrated, beautiful thoughts as well as images.

Deborah Sheldon, Gospel Icons (Cambridge: Grove Books, 1999, ISBN 1-85174-401-0) … Grove Spirituality Series S 69, addresses many evangelical questions about the “orthodoxy” of icons.

(Bishop) Kallistos Ware (Timothy Ware), The Orthodox Church (London: Penguin, 1997, new ed, ISBN: 0-14-014656-3) ... the standard introduction in plain English to the Orthodox Church ... covers history, liturgy, spirituality, church calendar, theology, &c.

(Bishop) Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2002, ISBN 0-913836-58-3) ... a good general introduction to Orthodox doctrine, worship and life.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director or Spiritual Formation at the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay is based on a paper delivered in an ecumenical study group in Saint Andrew’s (Church of Ireland) Church, Malahide, Co Dublin, on the evening of Saint Catherine’s Day, 25 November 2009.

Saint John’s Gospel (5): John 3: 1-21

Nicodemus visiting Christ in the dark ... where did the light shine through?

Patrick Comerford

1 ην δὲ ἄνθρωπος ἐκ τῶν Φαρισαίων, Νικόδημος ὄνομα αὐτῷ, ἄρχων τῶν Ἰουδαίων: 2 οὗτος ἦλθεν πρὸς αὐτὸν νυκτὸς καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῷ, Ῥαββί, οἴδαμεν ὅτι ἀπὸ θεοῦ ἐλήλυθας διδάσκαλος: οὐδεὶς γὰρ δύναται ταῦτα τὰ σημεῖα ποιεῖν ἃ σὺ ποιεῖς, ἐὰν μὴ ᾖ ὁ θεὸς μετ' αὐτοῦ. 3 ἀπεκρίθη Ἰησοῦς καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῷ, Ἀμὴν ἀμὴν λέγω σοι, ἐὰν μή τις γεννηθῇ ἄνωθεν, οὐ δύναται ἰδεῖν τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ θεοῦ. 4 λέγει πρὸς αὐτὸν [ὁ] Νικόδημος, Πῶς δύναται ἄνθρωπος γεννηθῆναι γέρων ὤν; μὴ δύναται εἰς τὴν κοιλίαν τῆς μητρὸς αὐτοῦ δεύτερον εἰσελθεῖν καὶ γεννηθῆναι; 5 ἀπεκρίθη Ἰησοῦς, Ἀμὴν ἀμὴν λέγω σοι, ἐὰν μή τις γεννηθῇ ἐξ ὕδατος καὶ πνεύματος, οὐ δύναται εἰσελθεῖν εἰς τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ θεοῦ. 6 τὸ γεγεννημένον ἐκ τῆς σαρκὸς σάρξ ἐστιν, καὶ τὸ γεγεννημένον ἐκ τοῦ πνεύματος πνεῦμά ἐστιν. 7 μὴ θαυμάσῃς ὅτι εἶπόν σοι, Δεῖ ὑμᾶς γεννηθῆναι ἄνωθεν. 8 τὸ πνεῦμα ὅπου θέλει πνεῖ, καὶ τὴν φωνὴν αὐτοῦ ἀκούεις, ἀλλ' οὐκ οἶδας πόθεν ἔρχεται καὶ ποῦ ὑπάγει: οὕτως ἐστὶν πᾶς ὁ γεγεννημένος ἐκ τοῦ πνεύματος. 9 ἀπεκρίθη Νικόδημος καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῷ, Πῶς δύναται ταῦτα γενέσθαι; 10 ἀπεκρίθη Ἰησοῦς καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῷ, Σὺ εἶ ὁ διδάσκαλος τοῦ Ἰσραὴλ καὶ ταῦτα οὐ γινώσκεις;

11 ἀμὴν ἀμὴν λέγω σοι ὅτι ὃ οἴδαμεν λαλοῦμεν καὶ ὃ ἑωράκαμεν μαρτυροῦμεν, καὶ τὴν μαρτυρίαν ἡμῶν οὐ λαμβάνετε. 12 εἰ τὰ ἐπίγεια εἶπον ὑμῖν καὶ οὐ πιστεύετε, πῶς ἐὰν εἴπω ὑμῖν τὰ ἐπουράνια πιστεύσετε; 13 καὶ οὐδεὶς ἀναβέβηκεν εἰς τὸν οὐρανὸν εἰ μὴ ὁ ἐκ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ καταβάς, ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου. 14 καὶ καθὼς Μωϋσῆς ὕψωσεν τὸν ὄφιν ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ, οὕτως ὑψωθῆναι δεῖ τὸν υἱὸν τοῦ ἀνθρώπου, 15 ἵνα πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων ἐν αὐτῷ ἔχῃ ζωὴν αἰώνιον.

16 Οὕτως γὰρ ἠγάπησεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν κόσμον, ὥστε τὸν υἱὸν τὸν μονογενῆ ἔδωκεν, ἵνα πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων εἰς αὐτὸν μὴ ἀπόληται ἀλλ' ἔχῃ ζωὴν αἰώνιον.

17 οὐ γὰρ ἀπέστειλεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν υἱὸν εἰς τὸν κόσμον ἵνα κρίνῃ τὸν κόσμον, ἀλλ' ἵνα σωθῇ ὁ κόσμος δι' αὐτοῦ. 18 ὁ πιστεύων εἰς αὐτὸν οὐ κρίνεται: ὁ δὲ μὴ πιστεύων ἤδη κέκριται, ὅτι μὴ πεπίστευκεν εἰς τὸ ὄνομα τοῦ μονογενοῦς υἱοῦ τοῦ θεοῦ. 19 αὕτη δέ ἐστιν ἡ κρίσις, ὅτι τὸ φῶς ἐλήλυθεν εἰς τὸν κόσμον καὶ ἠγάπησαν οἱ ἄνθρωποι μᾶλλον τὸ σκότος ἢ τὸ φῶς, ἦν γὰρ αὐτῶν πονηρὰ τὰ ἔργα. 20 πᾶς γὰρ ὁ φαῦλα πράσσων μισεῖ τὸ φῶς καὶ οὐκ ἔρχεται πρὸς τὸ φῶς, ἵνα μὴ ἐλεγχθῇ τὰ ἔργα αὐτοῦ: 21 ὁ δὲ ποιῶν τὴν ἀλήθειαν ἔρχεται πρὸς τὸ φῶς, ἵνα φανερωθῇ αὐτοῦ τὰ ἔργα ὅτι ἐν θεῷ ἐστιν εἰργασμένα.

3 Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2 He came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ 3 Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ 4 Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ 5 Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.” 8 The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ 9 Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ 10 Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?

11 ‘Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

16 ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

17 ‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21 But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.’


This story contains two of the most oft-quoted passages in Saint John’s Gospel: Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above (or born again) (verse 5); and For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life (verse 16).

The placing of this story in Saint John’s Gospel is one of the keys to understanding it.

We have heard about the incarnation and the Word made flesh; John has borne witness to him as the Lamb of God; Christ has begun to gather disciples as witnesses to him as the Messiah; the first sign, at the wedding in Cana, presupposes the transcendence of all the established religion of the day in the self-offering of the Lamb of God, symbolised in the Eucharist; an the cleansing of the Temple shows that the sacrificial system is being replaced by the one true sacrifice in Christ’s death and resurrection.

Now we have an encounter with someone whose immediate concern is with the interpretation and the application of the law, for Nicodemus is both a Pharisee and a member of the ruling Sanhedrin.

This is the only Gospel to tell the story of Nicodemus, although some commentators have tried to identify him also with the rich young ruler in Saint Mark’s Gospel (see Mark 10: 17 ff) or with other figures in the synoptic Gospels.

Verse 1:

Nicodemus, ἄρχων τῶν Ἰουδαίων, is a leader of the Jews, in other words a member of the Sanhedrin, the official Jewish court made up of seventy priests, scribes and elders, presided over by the High Priest.

Verse 2:

Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night. Perhaps, as a leading member of society, a very worldly figure perhaps, he didn’t want to be seen consulting this newly-arrived rabbi who has already caused a stir in Jerusalem. But remember the poetic and dramatic way in which John draws on contrasting images: heaven and earth, water and wine, seeing and believing, faith and understanding, truth and falseness. Here we have the contrast between darkness and light. The world that is in darkness is being brought into the light of Christ.

Nicodemus opens the conversation by referring to the signs, an important theme and key to understanding the Fourth Gospel. And he confesses a simple faith in Jesus as a teacher sent by God. But John the Baptist has already been described as a man sent by God (John 1: 6). So that is not enough – that is simply an understanding of Christ without the crucifixion and the Resurrection. At this point, Nicodemus has seen but does not believe, he has insight but does not have faith.

Verse 3:

The reply of Jesus puts the emphasis back on faith rather than understanding, on believing more than seeing.

The Kingdom of God is not entered because of moral achievement, but because of transformation brought about by God.

There is a contrast between what Nicodemus sees and what those of faith may see. To “see” the Kingdom of God is not possible literally at that moment in time. For Christ, in this saying, to see is to experience. To experience the world in the light of the insights of the New Testament is so radically different an experience that it is like being born anew, being born once again.

The key word here is ἄνωθεν which as the double meaning of “from above” and “again.” The words translated as “being born from above” in NRSV (γεννηθῇ ἄνωθεν) could also be translated as “born anew” (RSV). Or it may mean “from the upper country” (physically or geographically) or “from above,” “from heaven.”

A new birth, a second birth, getting a whole new take on life, a new beginning, a fresh, refreshing start … what do you think is meant here? What has been your experience?

Verse 4:

As we go on in the story, we see how difficult it was for Nicodemus to understand what Jesus was saying.

Verse 5:

Entry into the kingdom experience, birth into the new order, is through water, or baptism (see John 1: 33; Ephesians 5: 26), through the Spirit (see Ezekiel 36: 25-27), and through water and the Spirit (Titus 3: 5-7). These are not separate actions – remember how the Spirit descended and remained on Christ at his Baptism by John (see John 1: 32-34).

Verse 6:

Like begets like.

Verse 7:

You: the Greek pronoun here (ὑμᾶς) is in the plural, or as it might be written in Dublin slang, “yous.”

Verse 8:

The wind (πνεῦμα): the Greek word here means both spirit and wind, while the word “sound” can also be translated as “voice.”

See Ezekiel 36: 25-27, where it says: “I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleanliness, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances.”

Verse 9:

Nicodemus has floundered around, he really fails to grasp what Jesus is saying and its implications. His question is phrased “How can this be?” (RSV) or “How can these things be?” (NRSV). Others suggest his question should be translated as: “How can these things happen?” or even more literally: “How is it possible for these things to happen?”

Verse 10:

A teacher ought to be aware of the truth. But Nicodemus is behaving like a weak pupil.

Verse 11:

In this verse, the first use of the word “you” is singular … “you yourself” as opposed to “yous,” but the second use is plural. Notice how Jesus moves from the second person singular to the first personal plural, from you to we, then you (plural) and our. How is the we here, who owns what is “our”?

Verse 12:

We have here a contrast between earthly things, such as the parable of the wind (see verse 8), and heavenly things, as in supreme spiritual realities. And Nicodemus is offered choice. Which choice does he make?

Verse 13:

Christ descended from heaven to bring eternal life, participation in God’s life.

This is the first of John’s three sayings about the Son of Man being lifted up, comparable to three passages in Saint Mark’s Gospel on the Son of Man’s passion (see Mark 8: 31; Mark 9: 31; Mark 10: 33).

Verse 14:

The word “lift up” refers to both Christ being lifted up on the Cross and Christ being lifted up into heaven … the cross is the first step on the ladder of the ascension. For the imagery being drawn on here see also Numbers 21: 4-9. The writer of the Book of Wisdom calls the serpent a symbol of salvation (Wisdom 16: 6). But this verse also recalls the earlier remark to Nathanael that he would see the heavens opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man (see John 1: 51).

Verse 16:

For many this verse is a summary of the whole Gospel. Martin Luther called this much-quoted verse “the Gospel in miniature.”

God so loved humanity ... Guizhou Theological Training Centre in Guiyang Province in central China (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2005)

This passage is a favourite inscription to place on the outside walls of churches in China. But it is often translated in Chinese as “God so loved man (humanity) …” It is not that God so loved the saved, or even all of humanity, or even the world, but that God so loved the cosmos (κόσμος), the whole created order, that he gave, or rather sent (ἔδωκεν, from δίδωμι) his only-begotten Son.

A modern monument to Pythagoras on the Greek island of Samos (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2004)

In Pythagorean thinking – and remember that John was in exile on Patmos, the neighbouring island of Samos, where Pythagoras was born – the cosmos (κόσμος) includes the arrangement of the stars, “the heavenly hosts,” as the ornament of the heavens (see I Peter 3: 3); it is not just the whole world, but the whole universe, the whole created order; it is earth and all that encircles the earth like its skin.

And this love is the beginning of missio Dei, God’s mission – he sent (ἔδωκεν, from δίδωμι) his only-begotten Son.

To perish and to have eternal life are absolute alternatives.

By now the dialogue has become a monologue.

Verse 17:

The same Greek word means both condemnation and judgment. God’s purpose is not to condemn but to save.

Verse 18-19:

Individuals judge themselves by hiding their evil deeds from the light of Christ’s holiness.


So what happened to Nicodemus?

This is his first of three appearances in this Gospel. We shall meet him again when he states the law concerning the arrest of Jesus during the Feast of Tabernacles (John 7:45-51).

Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea claim the Body of Christ before dark falls

The third time follows the Crucifixion, when he helps Joseph of Arimathea in taking the body of Christ down from the cross before dark, and preparing the body for burial (John 19: 39-42).

So birth is linked with death, new birth is linked with new life, in the story of Nicodemus, and before darkness falls he really comes to possess the Body of Christ, to hold the Body of Christ in his hands.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay is based on notes prepared for a Bible Study with B.Th. and M.Th. students on Wednesday 25 November 2009.

Monday, 23 November 2009

An Introduction to Celtic Spirituality

Glendalough ... the monastic “Valley of the Two Lakes” (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

Patrick Comerford

Opening Hymn:

Be thou my vision (Church Hymnal, No 643).


A few weeks ago, I spent a Saturday afternoon in Glendalough, looking for what I thought would be the remains of a great Celtic monastery.

Imagine my surprise when I found that the most prominent Celtic High Cross I was taking photographs of – one that stands beneath the Great Round Tower of Glendalough – was a gravestone erected in the late 19th century.

A few more Celtic myths were shattered that afternoon: the Great Round Tower was capped in the late 19th century too, so as we see it today is not as it once stood; even Saint Kevin’s Church is an 18th century church, built according to plans derived from an earlier sketch by a French or Swiss artist.

Our images of Celtic spirituality are often shaped either by Victorian romanticism. Saint Patrick’s Breastplate, as we know it, is based on a manuscript from the late 11th century now in the Library of Trinity College Dublin. It was first published in 1897 by JH Bernard, later Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin.

The hymn Be Thou My Vision (Church HYmnal 643) refers to Christ as “my high tower” ... the Round Tower at Glendalough (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

Or our images of Celtic Spirituality are intricately linked with the nation-state-building myths created by an Irish nationalism that was often narrow in its vision. Be thou my vision, Hymn 643 in the Church Hymnal, was versified by a member of the Church of Ireland, Dr Eleanor Henrietta Hull, using another translation of an earlier poem or prayer.

But often the vision of the nation myth-makers was of an Ireland in which the concept of anything “Celtic” was wrapped up with a narrow, exclusive concept of what it was to be green, Gaelic, Catholic, nationalist and Irish.

The popular images of Saint Patrick at that time in stained-glass windows, road-side statues and popular postcards show him standing on a bed of shamrocks decked out in the robes and mitre of a truly Tridentine bishop. Of course, I would point out that green is the wrong liturgical colour both for Lent and for a saint’s day. But why was he never seen in those popular portrayals in convocation robes or in a simple alb and stole? Because the message was clear: Celtic Christianity was for Roman Catholics only, and at that for a particular type of Catholicism.

And yet we did something similar in the Church of Ireland in the 19th century. Antiquarians posing as historians claimed Patrick and every other Celtic saint they could dig up, for the Protestant strand of Christianity, positing it in opposition to Roman Christianity … as if Christianity in Ireland before the 12th or 13th century was pure from heresy, undefiled by superstition and out of touch with the Continental European Church. Far from it.

Nor was Celtic Christianity the only formative influence on the Church in Ireland as it moved from the mediaeval period towards the Reformations. The Preamble and Declaration of 1870 describe the Church of Ireland as “the Ancient Catholic and Apostolic Church of Ireland” – what a title. But that ancient and catholic church is not just Celtic; it was influenced and shaped by other cultural forces too, including Vikings, Anglo-Normans, and many others. Hopefully this will continue in generations to come with the Romanians, Nigerians, Chinese, and others who come to our shores.

It may be that the economic woes of the past year or two have made us despise the Celtic Tiger. But Celtic Spirituality is still a fashionable commodity when you look at the shops around Christ Church Cathedral or go shopping for small presents in Dublin Airport before a flight.

Much of what passes as “Celtic” and as “Celtic Spirituality” is tatty and second-rate. But there are compelling reasons to have a sound grasp of Celtic spirituality in the context of ministry in Ireland.

The Cathedral ... The largest and most imposing of the buildings at Glendalough, Co Wicklow (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

Firstly, many of the cathedrals and churches of the Church of Ireland stand on ancient Celtic monastic sites. If you have ever wondered why so many Church of Ireland cathedrals – Achonry, Ardagh, Clogher, Clonfert, Elphin, Emly, Ferns, Kilfenora, Kilmacduagh, Kilmore, Leighlin, Raphoe, Rosscarbery – are in small villages or remote locations, why it took so long to build cathedrals in Belfast, Enniskillen, or Sligo, or why still we have no cathedral in Galway, then you begin to realise the lasting influences of the Celtic monasteries.

You may be ordained in one of these cathedrals, or be a curate or rector at some stage in a church with the tongue-twisting name of an otherwise-forgotten Celtic saint. So we should know its place and part in the story of our church.

Secondly, Celtic Christianity is popular and marketable – it’s a lifestyle choice. [The Revd Patrick] Paddy [McGlinchey] told us a few weeks ago how many books on Buddhism are on sale even in ordinary bookshops. In fact, the three most popular categories of books on religion or on “Mind and Body” shelves of Irish bookshops are on Buddhism, new age-type books on angels, and new age-style books on “Celtic Spirituality.”

It is important to know the minds of people, to know what engages them spiritually, what passes as religion for many people, if we are going to be incarnational in ministry and mission in Ireland today.

Much of the writing about Celtic spirituality today is superficial, amateur, new age material, making spurious claims for the writers and against Christianity. For example: “Perhaps it is this mixture of pagan and Christian that makes Celtic Spirituality so interesting and so accessible today ... It is easier to find spiritual truth in a sacred grove than a dusty half empty church hall.”

Or what do you make of this claim: “Celtic Spirituality … is not a religion, it is a series of beliefs and practices to help you become aware of the spiritual world around you and your place in it. Whether you find it suitable to work with Jesus, his apostles and the Celtic Saints, or Brigid, Mannán Mac Lir and the Celtic gods, it matters little. What matters is that your life is enriched; you are at peace with your inner-being and that you become aware of the magic and incredible world that surrounds us all.”

Patrick Wormald describes this as “... ‘new-age’ paganism,” based on notions of some sort of “Celtic spirituality” allegedly distinguished by a unique “closeness to nature.”

And thirdly, modern spirituality has in a dynamic way drawn on and been enriched by many resources associated with Celtic spirituality, enriching the life of the Church of Ireland at every level.

There are at least 20 hymns from the Irish language in the Church Hymnal, and many more tunes with a Celtic air to them. We have all been enriched by the prayers of the Iona Community, the hymns of John Bell, Graham Maule and the Wild Goose Worship Group, the active and engaged spirituality of the Corrymeela community, or the resouces of the Northumbria Community near Lindisfarne in northern England.

The global reception of the hymns of John Bell and Graham Maule show how today there is a fresh and new interest in Celtic Spirituality that is not confined to Ireland.

At an academic level, this interest has been stimulated by scholars such as James Mackey, Ian Bradley in the Church of Scotland, the Jesuit Diarmud Ó Laoghaire, the Carmelite Peter O’Dwyer and the Redemptorist John Ó Ríordáin, and writers such as the late John O’Donohue, poet and author of Anam Cara (1997) who died early last year.

The Celts: who were they?

If we are going to talk about Celtic spirituality, I should begin with a word of caution: it is difficult to say if there is such a group of people as Celts. The name for Celts comes from terms used by the Greeks and Romans to describe the people who lived in Gaul (France). But scholars differ when they answer the question: Who were the Celts?

Did they originate in southern Europe, or in what is now southern Germany and Austria? Or did they come from the Pontic-Caspian region? Strabo suggests that the Celtic heartland was in southern France. Pliny the Elder says the Celts originated in southern Portugal and Spain. And how did they reach the remote Atlantic coasts and islands of Western Europe we now know as the “Celtic fringe”?

But Celt is a modern English word. There are few written records of ancient Celtic languages and most of the evidence for personal names and place names is found in Greek and Roman authors. The different names used by Greek writers (Κελτοί or Γαλᾶται) and Latin writers (Galli) refer to speakers of similar languages, not a people. The one group of Biblical Celts is the Galatians, and Saint Jerome (AD 342-419), in his commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians, notes the language of the Anatolian Galatians at his time.

Romantic antiquarian interest from the 17th century on led to the use of the term “Celt” being extended. The rise of nationalism brought Celtic revivals from the 19th century on in areas where the use of Celtic languages had continued. “Celtic” is now used to identify the languages and cultures of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, the Isle of Man and Brittany. But the term “Celtic” also applies to Continental European regions with a Celtic heritage but no Celtic language, such as northern Iberia, and to a lesser degree France.

“Celticity” refers to the shared cultural indicators of a group of peoples, such as language, myths, artefacts and social organisation. But recent theories emphasise their shared culture and language rather than seeking any common ethnicity.

There is little archaeological evidence in Ireland for large intrusive groups of Celtic immigrants. European Celtic influences and language may have been absorbed gradually. But did the Celts arrive in Ireland by invasion? Or did their culture and language spread gradually to other peoples already here? As one writer in The Irish Times argued, just because we all eat pasta and pizza, drink Chianti, holiday in Tuscany and are familiar with Versace and Gucci, doesn’t make us Italian, even in culture. Nor does it indicate there was ever an Italian invasion of Ireland. Were the Celtic languages and culture adopted as some sort of early fashion statement?

Can we talk about a Celtic Christianity?

Saint Kevin’s Church ... named after the founder of the monastic settlement, has a steep roof supported internally by a semi-circular vault (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

Can we talk about a “Celtic Christianity” with distinguishing, unique traditions, especially in spirituality, liturgies and rituals that mark it out from other traditions in the Church in the neighbouring sub-Roman world?

“Celtic Christianity” broadly refers to early mediaeval Christian practice that developed around the Irish Sea in the 5th and 6th centuries, among many people on these islands. By extension, the term can refer to the monastic networks founded from Scotland and Ireland on Continental Europe, especially in Gaul (France).

The term “Celtic Christianity” is sometimes extended beyond the 7th century to describe later Christian practice in these areas. But the history of Irish, Welsh, Scots, Breton, Cornish, and Manx churches diverges significantly after the 8th century, with great differences developing between even rival Irish traditions.

It is easy to exaggerate the cohesiveness of the Celtic Christian communities, and the term “Celtic Church” is inappropriate to describe Christianity among Celtic-speaking peoples. Celtic-speaking areas were part of Latin or Western Christendom as a whole. But we can talk about certain traditions in Celtic-speaking lands, and the development and spread of these traditions, especially in the 6th and 7th centuries.

The flowering of Celtic Christianity

Britain was the most remote province in the Roman Empire. Christianity reached England in the first few centuries AD, and the first recorded martyr in England was Saint Alban, during the reign of Diocletian.

The Roman legions were withdrawn from England in 407 to defend Italy during the attacks by the Visigoths. Rome was sacked in 410, the legions did not return to England, and Roman influence came to an end. In the aftermath, these islands developed distinctively from the rest of Western Europe, and the Irish Sea acted as a centre from which a new culture developed among the “Celtic” peoples.

Ireland had never been part of the Roman Empire. But Christianity came here from the former Roman outposts, and a unique Church organisation emerged, focussed on the monasteries, rather than on episcopal sees, with their own traditions and practices.

Saint Patrick’s Window in Saint Edan’s Cathedral, Ferns, Co Wexford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

Important figures in this process included Saint Ninian, Palladius, and Saint Patrick, the “Apostle of Ireland.” Ireland was converted through the work of missionaries from Britain such as Patrick.

Celtic missions

Early Celtic saints and founding figures of the Church included Saint Martin in France, Saint Ninian in Scotland, Saint Patrick and Saint Brigid in Ireland, Saint Samson and Saint David in Wales and Brittany.

In the 6th and 7th centuries, monks from Ireland established monastic settlements in parts of Scotland. They included Saint Columba or Saint Colmcille, who settled on Iona. Ireland became “a land of saints and scholars” and missionaries from Ireland became a major source of missionary work in Scotland, Saxon parts of Britain and central Europe.

As the Anglo-Saxons colonised what is now England, Celtic missionaries from Scotland and Ireland set out to evangelise them. In the year 631, Saint Aidan was sent from Iona to evangelise them from the island of Lindisfarne, on England’s north-east coast. Celtic practice heavily influenced northern England, and the missionaries from Lindisfarne reached as far south as London.

Irish monks were also settling in Continental Europe, particularly in Gaul (France), including Saint Columbanus, exerting a profound influence greater than that of many Continental centres with more ancient traditions.

Meanwhile, in 597, Pope Gregory had sent a mission to the English, led by Augustine. These renewed links with the greater Latin West brought the Celtic-speaking peoples into close contact with other expressions of Christianity.

Distinctive traditions

Some of the customs and traditions that had developed in Celtic Christianity were distinctive or gave rise to disputes with the rest of the Western Church. These included the monastic tradition, fixing the date of Easter, differences on the use of tonsure, and penitential rites.

1, The monastic tradition

The achievements of Christianity in the Celtic-speaking world are significant. Irish society had no pre-Christian history of literacy. Yet within a few generations of the arrival of Christianity, the monks and priests had become fully integrated with Latin culture. Apart from their Latin texts, these Irish monks also developed a written form of Old Irish.

A late Celtic high cross at Saint Edan’s Cathedral, Ferns, Co Wexford (Photograph: Patrrick Comerford

Some of the greatest achievements of the Celtic tradition were during this period, such as the Book of Kells, and intricately carved high crosses.

The episcopal structures were adapted to an environment wholly different from the one prevailing in the sub-Roman world. Apart from parts of Wales, Devon, and Cornwall, the Celtic world was without developed cities, and so different ecclesiastical structures were needed, especially in Ireland. This ecclesiastical structure developed around monastic communities and their abbots.

2, Calculating the date of Easter

Celtic Christianity was often marked by its conservatism, even archaism. One example is the method used to calculate Easter, using a calculation similar to one approved by Saint Jerome.

Eventually, most groups, including the southern Irish, accepted the new methods for calculating Easter, but not the monastery of Iona and the houses linked to it.

At the Synod of Whitby in 664, the rules of the Roman mission were accepted by the Church in England, and were extended later throughout Britain and Ireland. But the decrees of Whitby did not immediately change the face of Christianity on these islands. There were pockets of resistance to the Roman mission, especially in Devon, Cornwall and Scotland, and the monks of Iona did not accept the decisions reached at Whitby until 716.

3, Monastic tonsure

Irish monks kept a distinct tonsure, or method of cutting their hair, to distinguish their identity as monks. The “Celtic” tonsure involved cutting away the hair above one’s forehead. This differed from the prevailing custom, which was to shave the top of the head, leaving a halo of hair – in imitation of Christ’s crown of thorns.

4, Penitentials

In Ireland, a distinctive form of penance developed, where confession was made privately to a priest, under the seal of secrecy, and where penance was given privately and performed privately as well. Handbooks, called “penitentials,” were designed as a guide for confessors and to regularise the penance given for each particular sin.

In the past, penance had been a public ritual. But the Irish penitential practice spread throughout continental Europe, where the form of public penance had fallen into disuse. Saint Columbanus is said to have introduced the “medicines of penance” to Gaul at a time when they had come to be neglected.

By 1215, the Celtic practice had become the European norm, with the Fourth Lateran Council issuing a canonical requirment for confession at least once per year.

Renewed interest in ‘Celtic Spirituality’

A replica high cross from the 19th century beneath the Round Tower of Glendalough (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

In the 19th century, there was a revival of interest in Celtic spirituality in these islands, with renewed interest in the poetry, customs or household prayers of the western Celtic fringes.

In Scotland, many of the poems and prayers were gathered in a collection edited by Alexander Carmichael as the Carmina Gadelica (1900) and in Ireland by Douglas Hyde in the Religious Songs of Connacht (1906).

In 1938, George McCleod, a Church of Scotland minister, rebuilt Iona’s ancient Abbey, and founded the modern Iona Community.

Since the 1980s, Celtic-style books of prayers by the Revd David Adam, Vicar of Lindisfarne, have became widely popular, as have a wave of books about Celtic Christianity, study courses, and Celtic interest networks.

Themes in Celtic Spirituality

For centuries, the riches of Celtic spirituality were transmitted orally. These included prayers sung or chanted at the rising and setting of the sun, in the midst of daily work and routine, at a child’s birth, or a loved one’s deathbed. There were prayers of daily life celebrating God as Life within all life, with creation as his dwelling place. God was always overwhelmingly present all around.

1, Creation:

David Adam says: “Celtic Christians saw a universe ablaze with God’s glory, suffused with a presence that calls, nods and beckons – a creation personally united with its Creator in every atom and fibre.”

There’s no plant in the ground
But is full of his blessing.
There’s no thing in the sea
But is full of his life...
There is nought in the sky
But proclaims his goodness.
Jesu! O Jesu! it’s good to praise thee!
– (Carmina Gadelica)

Saint Patrick called Jesus the True Sun. Ray Simpson writes in Celtic Blessings: “A good way to experience Jesus is to use what I call the Sun Bathing Exercise. Imagine Jesus as the smiling sunshine of God pouring rays of light upon you. Just soak these up, relax and feel better! Celtic Christians see Jesus as the divine light that permeates all creation. So by spending time in nature we can also be spending time with Jesus.”

2, Humanity

O Son of God … dear child of Mary, you are the refined molten metal of our forge. – Tadhg Óg Ó Huiginn

Christ is the supreme example of a complete human life. By being united to him, we can learn how to be fully human by finding a body-mind-intuition balance, and by growing in wisdom and, above all, love.

3,Worship and community

Early Celtic Christians shared their food, money, work, play and worship in little communities which were always open to the people who lived around them. Wherever they lived they saw Christ in their neighbour and made community with them.

Celtic writers talked about worshipping God with the “five-stringed harp” ... the North Cross in Castledermot, Co Kildare, depicts King David with his harp – one of the few images on a Celtic high cross from this time of an Irish harp (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

Celtic writers talked about worshipping God with the “five-stringed harp” – meaning all five senses. The Celtic churches punctuated each day and night with periods of prayer.

4, The Trinity

Celtic Christians had a strong emphasis on the Holy Trinity. They followed the one God who embraces the world with his two arms of love: the right arm is Christ, the left arm is the Spirit.

I lie down this night with God
And God will lie down with me
I lie down this night with Christ
And Christ will lie down with me
I lie down this night with the Spirit
And the Spirit will lie down with me
. – (Carmina Gadelica)

5, Everyday prayers

The Celts prayed about anything and everything in a natural way. Prayers for frequent activities were learned by heart and handed down by word of mouth or later in writing.

Some of the Celtic prayers are blessings:

Bless to me, O God
Each thing my eye sees,
Each sound my ear hears,
Each person I meet.

Some Celtic prayers were “circling prayers”:

Circle me, Lord.
Keep peace within, keep harm without.
Circle me, Lord.
Keep love within, keep hate without.

6, Prayer and imagination

Celtic prayer is also marked by the use of imagination, for example, by imagining that Jesus, his mother or friends were in the kitchen, in the house, in the workplace, or even in the bedroom. Here are some examples:

I will do my household chores as would Mary, mother of Jesus.

I will travel to my next place in the presence of the angels of protection.

Who is that near me when I am sad and alone?
It is Jesus, the King of the sun

7, Armour (“Breastplate”) prayers

The most famous of the armour or breastplate prayers for protection is known as Saint Patrick’s Breastplate. This invites God’s force-field to strengthen us for life’s struggles.

The armour consists of:

1. God – the three in one
2. Human valour as lived by Christ
3. Angels and great souls
4. Powers of creation
5. Spiritual gifts

The praying person then confronts negative forces one by one, invites Christ into each situation, and repeats the opening invocation.

In the prayer we call Saint Patrick’s Breastplate (see Hymns 322 and 611 in the Church Hymnal) the writer imagines that he is Patrick, putting on the different items of God’s armour: God, good spirits, saints, powers of creation, spiritual gifts – just like a suit of armour. The eighth verse of this prayer (Hymn 322) has these words:

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

8, Blessing prayers

The Celtic way blessed everything in life (except evil), however earthy or everyday, all around the clock. Animals, food, gifts, jobs, lovemaking, meals, travel. Here are examples of an anniversary and a sleep blessing:

On this your anniversary
God give you the best of memories,
Christ give you pardon for failings,
Spirit give you the fruits of friendship.

Sleep in peace,
Sleep soundly,
Sleep in love.
Weaver of dreams
Weave well in you as you sleep
. – Ray Simpson, Celtic Blessings.

9, Miracles and Celtic saints

In Celtic Christianity, saints were regarded as holy spiritual overlords who were close to God, provided assistance in times of need, had special influence in the court of heaven, and were able to plead with God for favours.

Many miracles were associated with them, including visions, healings, favours granted, mystical appearances and more. Places where miracles had been performed became pilgrimage sites.

10, The Anamchara

Celtic Christians recognised the importance of shared spiritual journeys, and their Anamchara or Soul Friend, was their spiritual director. Anamchara were sought out as men and women of wisdom, great spirituality and insight, who were willing to share their understanding of the faith with others. Saint Brigid said that “the person without an Anamchara is like a body without a head.”

Some Celtic saints:

Apart from Saint Patrick, we ought to be familiar with some other Celtic and Irish saints from this period and tradition.

1, Saint Brigid of Kildare

Saint Brigid is second only to Saint Patrick as the patron of Ireland. She is also known as Mary of the Gael. A passage in the Book of Lismore testifies to her importance: “It is she who helpeth everyone who is in danger; it is she that abateth the pestilences; it is she that quelleth the rage and the storm of the sea. She is the prophetess of Christ; she is the Queen of the South; she is the Mary of the Gael.”

Saint Brigid is said to offer protection to poets, blacksmiths, healers, cattle, dairymaids, midwives, newborn babies and fugitives. The numerous stories of miracles performed by her even in childhood convey the impression that she was really a person of compassion, charity and strength. To fetch well water which tasted more like ale for a sick servant or to pick up rushes from the floor to twist into a cross to explain the message of salvation to a dying man show her practicality and resourcefulness. Her generosity was legendary and frequently necessitated resort to prayer to make good the deficit.

Her father Dubtach was a pagan nobleman in Leinster, and her mother his Christian bondwoman, Brotseach, whom he sold to a Druid who lived at Faughart near Dundalk. There the child was born in the mid-5th century, ca 451 or 453, and given Christian baptism with the name of Brid or Brigid. It is said that as a child she was taken to hear Saint Patrick preach, and as she listened to him she fell into an ecstasy.

At marriageable age, perhaps 14, she decided to enter the religious life. She left home with seven other young girls and travelled to Co Meath where Saint Macaille was bishop.

Brigid founded the first convent in Ireland. She went to Ardagh to make their final vows before Saint Mel, a nephew of Saint Patrick. Here Brigid founded another convent and she remained there for 12 years.

Later, a unique community of monks and nuns developed at Kildare, with Brigid as Abbess of the nuns and Conleth, the first Bishop of Kildare, as Abbot of the monks, but with the reins of authority firmly in Brigid’s hands. Kildare became a centre for spirituality and learning, healing, faith-sharing and evangelism.

Brigid died on 1 February ca 521-528. She is depicted in art as an abbess holding a lamp or candle, often with a cow in the background, and sometimes even wearing a mitre. This poem is ascribed to her:

I long for a great lake of ale
I long for the meats of belief and pure piety
I long for the flails of penance at my house
I long for them to have barrels full of peace
I long to give away jars full of love
I long for them to have cellars full of mercy
I long for cheerfulness to be in their drinking
I long for Jesus too to be there among them

For a sermon on the occasion of Saint Brigid’s Day, 1 February 2008, visit:

2, Saint Columba

Saint Columba is intimately associated with Iona, a tiny island off the west coast of Scotland - and is credited with bringing Christianity to Scotland. But he was born in Ireland and lived here until his 40s, and is linked to a number of Irish monastic foundations, including Kells and Derry.

He was born in Co Donegal in December 520 into a wealthy royal family and was given the name Colum (“the dove”). He became a priest at a monastery founded by Saint Finian and spent many years in his home region establishing literally hundreds of churches and monasteries.

It is said that during a visit to see Saint Finnian, Columba secretly copied a beautifully inscribed Psalter that Finnian had brought back from Rome, and in doing this devalued the original book. Columba refused to give back the copy and Finnian challenged him in court. The king ruled in favour of Finnian, saying famously: “To every cow belongs her calf; to every book belongs its copy.”

However, when Columba still refused to give back his copy a clan war broke out between the king’s followers and Columba’s supporters. Many people were killed in the fighting, and Columba was ashamed. He decided to make restitution by bringing to Christ, as many people in another land as had lost their life in his own land in the war. He had chosen the way of “white martyrdom” – exiling himself from his homeland as a penance.

In 563, at the age of 42, Columba and 12 companion monks sailed in a currach to the island of Iona, where he settled in Iona and founded a monastery.

The monks on Iona lived in separate cells and spent many hours in worship and contemplation, and in producing beautiful copies of the Gospels. They worked hard on the land to support themselves and to provide hospitality to visitors. Iona became the largest Christian centre in northern Britain, attracting thousands of monks.

Iona later became a centre for missionary outreach. Much of the highlands of Scotland were evangelised from Iona.

It is said that Saint Columba raised from the dead a child of one of the Pictish kings in Inverness, who was then converted to Christianity and encouraged his subjects also to convert. Columba wrote many poems and songs.

In 597, at the age of 76, a week before he died, Columba climbed the hill overlooking the monastery in Iona, blessed the monks, and said: “In Iona of my heart, Iona of my love, Instead of monks’ voices shall be lowing of cattle, But ere the world come to an end Iona shall be as it was.” During his last days he dictated a prayer to his monks:

See that you are at peace among yourselves,
my children, and love one another.
Take the example of the good men of ancient
times and God will comfort and aid you,
both in this world and in the world to come.

His feast day is 9 June.

Iona continued to be an important Christian centre after Columba’s death, and there was a Benedictine monastery and convent there from the Middle Ages. The monasteries and convent on Iona were closed by the Scottish reformers in the 1560s. They fell into ruin and the island returned to a grazing place.

Iona Abbey, and the Iona Community founded in the 1930s by George Macleod, continue to inspire Christians today throughout the world.

Saint Cuthbert (636-687)

Saint Cuthbert was born in the Scottish border country near Melrose. Later, he worked there a shepherd. One night, by the River Leader, he had a vision of a great light, stretching from earth to heaven. The light faded and Cuthbert was left to wonder about the meaning of the vision. He learned later that on that same night, 31 August 651, Saint Aidan, Bishop of Lindisfarne, had died. To the young shepherd, the vision seemed to be a challenge and a call to serve God. He entered the Monastery of Old Melrose – one of the parent seats of the Church in Scotland and founded by Aidan – and there he spent 13 years as a monk.

Eata, Abbot of Melrose, took Cuthbert with him to Ripon where they entered the monastery together. Cuthbert later returned to Melrose as Prior in 661. As prior, he took part in the Synod of Whitby in 664, when accepted the synod decisions on the date of Easter and the tonsure.

Cuthbert returned to Lindisfarne as Prior but then travelled the length and breadth of Northumbria, from the River Tees to the Firth of Forth. He preached in Galloway, giving his name to the largest county, Kirk-Cuthbert, now known as Kirkcudbright. He was a missionary as well as a monk and won many for Christ through his conversations rather than by preaching.

Cuthbert was reputed to have the gift of healing and so, wherever he went, people would flock to him in scenes reminiscent of the ministry of Christ. Bede says that no one took home with them the burden that they came with.

Tradition has it that, on his journeys, Cuthbert stopped by the shores of the Nor’ Loch just below Edinburgh Castle and built a little hut there on the site of the present Saint Cuthbert’s Church.

In search of a solitary life, Cuthbert and some of his monks built a round cell and chapel of stones and turf six miles south of Lindisfarne. He lived there for eight years, devoting his time to prayer.

In York on Easter Day, 26 March 685, he was consecrated Bishop of Lindisfarne, following in Aidan's footsteps. He died in 687.

Saint Cuthbert was known for his miracles during his life, and also after his death. During the Danish raids in Northumbria in 698, Cuthbert’s followers moved his body and carried it from place to place for safety. In 883, he was buried in Chester-le-Street and in 996 he was reburied in Durham Cathedral, where his shrine remains to this day.

Some key centres for Celtic spirituality:


Glencolubkille and Garton, Co Donegal: Garton is the birthplace of Saint Columba, and he described Glencolumbkille as “Glen of the psalms and the prayers, glen of Heaven.”

Glendalough, Co Wicklow: Glendalough in the Wicklow Mountains, 25 miles from Dublin, is the best preserved “monastic city” in Ireland, with its round tower, seven churches and visitor centre, which tells the story of its founder, Saint Kevin.

Skerries: a monastery associated with Saint Patrick was first located on the islands off the shoire, before moving to the site of the present Church of Ireland Parish Church, Holmpatrick.


Iona: Saint Columba established his monastery on Iona in the 6th century. The modern Iona Community was founded in 1938 as an ecumenical community committed to seeking new ways of living the Christian faith in today’s world.

Whithorn: Saint Ninian founded the first large Christian community here in the 5th century. The Whithorn Dig is excavating the site, and provides a focus for visitors. Half a mile away on the shore hundreds of pilgrims have inscribed prayers on the rocks at Saint Ninian’s Cave.


Saint David’s and Saint Non’s: Saint David’s Cathedral is near the site of the great monastic community founded by the patron saint of Wales. At nearby Saint Non’s, a well and retreat house mark the traditional site where David’s mother, Non, gave birth, and is the start of a coastal pilgrim trail.


Lindisfarne, Northumberland: Lindisfarne has sometimes been described as the “cradle of English Christianity.” Alcuin, adviser to the Emperor Charlemagne, described Lindisfarne as “the holiest place in England.” It was from Lindisfarne that Saint Aidan and Saint Cuthbert spread the Christian faith north and south.

Whitby, Yorkshire: The ruins of Saint Hilda’s Abbey and the magnificent Caedmon Cross in the churchyard opposite stand out like sentinels on this cliff top site. This was once the largest English monastic community for men and women. Today, the Order of The Holy Paraclete offers retreat accommodation at Saint Hilda’s Priory.

Durham: The shrine of Saint Cuthbert is at Durham Cathedral

The Lichfield Gospels show clearly the combination of Irish and Saxon culture in the eighth century ... Saint Chad was trained in an Irish monastery

Lichfield: The shrine of Saint Chad, who was educated at an Irish monastery and established the church in Mercia, the pre-Norman Kingdom of the English Midlands.

Bradwell, Essex: The 9th century chapel in Bradwell was founded by Saint Cedd of Lindisfarne.

For contemplation:

In the time we have for meditation and contemplation, I suggest you take the Church Hymnal and meditate on the words of Hymn 611 (Christ be beside me) or Hymn 322 (I bind unto myself), both adapted from The Breastplate of Saint Patrick.

Concluding prayer:

The hymn Christ be beside me (611) speaks of Christ as King of my heart, while Be thou my vision (643) refers twice to the High King of heaven. Yesterday, the Sunday before Advent, is also the Sunday on which we mark the Kingship of Christ. And so we conclude with the Collect of the Day and the Lord’s Prayer:

Eternal Father,
whose Son Jesus Christ ascended to the throne of heaven
that he might rule over all things as Lord and King:
Keep the Church in the unity of the Spirit
and in the bond of peace,
and bring the whole created order to worship at his feet,
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Our Father ...

Resources and links:

Web resources:

The Centre for the Study of Religion in Celtic Societies at the University of Wales has an e-library: click here
The Iona Community:
The Island of Lindisfarne:
Saint Hilda’s Priory, the Order of the Holy Paraclete, Whitby:
Wild Goose Resource Group:


David Adam, Border Lands (Sheed & Ward). The Best of David Adam’s Celtic vision. This is a compilation of four of his most popular books and includes prayers, meditations and Celtic art.

David Adam, The Eye of the Eagle (Triangle). The Celtic hymn, Be Thou My Vision, is still popular after 12 centuries. David Adam takes the reader through this hymn, seeking to discover the spiritual riches that are hidden in all our lives.

Ian Bradley, The Celtic Way (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1993). Ian Bradley is a Presbyterian minister from the Church of Scotland and lectured in the Department of Theology in the University of Aberdeen. This is a good, sound introduction to Celtic spirituality.

Celtic Daily Prayer from the Northumbria Community (London: Harper Collins, 2000). An introduction to daily prayer drawing on resources from the “Celtic Church” throughout these islands, with good notes and introductions to further resources.

Elizabeth Culling, What is Celtic Christianity? (Nottingham: Grove Books, Grove Series No 45).

The Iona Community Worship Book (Glasgow: Wild Goose, 1994 ed).

Mary Keaney, Celtic Heritage Saints (Dublin: Veritas, 1998) … introduces us to scholars, adventurous sailors, saints who get their heads chopped off, friends and enemies of kings. Good for using in schools, Sunday schools, and with confirmation classes.

Diana Leatham, They Built on Rock (Hodder & Stoughton). This book tells the stories of the Celtic saints who maintained their faith during the Dark Ages. The people profiled include Saint Cuthbert, Saint Ninian, Saint David and Saint Columba.

James P. Mackey, An introduction to Celtic Christianity (Edinburgh T&T Clark, 1995 ed). A well-edited collection of essays by 14 of the best experts on Celtic Christianity, including mission, liturgy, prayers, hymns and the arts.

Caitlín Matthews, Celtic Devotional: daily prayers and blessings (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 1996/2004).

Patrick Murray, The Deer’s Cry (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1986). A useful anthology of poetry and verse.

Peter O’Dwyer, Céilí Dé: Spiritual reform in Ireland 750-900 (Dublin: Editions Tailliura, 1981). The story of the movement within Celtic monasticism that gave us Saint Maelruain’s Monastery in Tallaght and the Derrynaflann Chalice.

Pat Robson, The Celtic Heart (London: Fount, 1998). A collection of Celtic writings celebrating the seasons of life by an Anglican priest living in Cornwall. It includes short biographies of saints and influential figures.

Michael Rodgers and Marcus Losack, Glendalough: A Celtic Pilgrimage (Dublin: Columba Press, 1996). A useful guidebook to our nearest Celtic monastic foundation.

GO Simms, Commemorating Saints & Others of the Irish Church (Dublin: Columba Press, 1999) … biographical notes and suggestions for intercessions

Ray Simpson, Celtic Blessings (Loyola Press). How many of us have whispered an impromptu prayer to our computer, begging it not to crash? Celtic Blessings reveals that such actions are part of an ancient and sacred ritual.

Ray Simpson, The Celtic Prayer Book (Kevin Mayhew). The Celtic Prayer Book is published in four volumes: 1, Prayer Rhythms: fourfold patterns for each day; 2, Saints of the Isles: a year of feasts; 3, Healing the Land: natural seasons, sacraments and special service; 4, Greater Celtic Christians: alternative worship.

Ray Simpson, Exploring Celtic Spirituality (Hodder & Stoughton). The chapters of this book feature different aspects of Celtic spirituality, including cherishing the earth, contemplative prayer and the healing of society. There are prayers and responses at the end of each chapter.

Martin Wallace, The Celtic Resource Book (London: Church House Publishing). The whole breadth of Celtic Christianity is spanned here – from liturgies and prayers and the stories of Celtic saints, through to Celtic art. The book includes liturgies for different times of the day, for use at home or in larger groups.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, Church of Ireland Theological College. This essay is based on notes prepared for a seminar on Celtic Spirituality with B.Th. and M.Th. students on 23 November 2009.