Sunday, 1 February 2009

‘The Ears of the Heart … Listening to Prayers from the East’

The Chapel of Christ’s College, Cambridge

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 1 February 2009, The Eve of Candlemas: The Chapel of Christ’s College, Cambridge

Solemn Orchestral Eucharist: Hebrews 2: 14-18; Luke 2: 22-40

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


It is wonderful to be back in Cambridge, in Christ’s College, and in this Chapel once again. Anyone who has loved the poetry of John Milton, who has been challenged by Charles Darwin, or who has delighted in the writings and insights of Rowan Williams, would be delighted to be here.

The Revd Christopher Woods provided wonderful hospitality last year when I was in Cambridge on a course, and I hope many of you will come to realise the wonderful blessing it is when a student becomes a friend, and a very welcoming friend at that too.

It is a particular pleasure to be here for this Eve of Candlemas. The snow today probably reminds us all of Christmas. This feast, also known as the Feast of the Presentation, is a festival in the Church Calendar that bridges the gap between Christmas and Lent; that links the joy of the Christmas candles with the hope of the Pascal candle at Easter; that invites us to move from celebration to reflection and preparation, and to think about the source of our hope, our inspiration, our enlightenment.

The theme of this Lent Term series of sermons is “The ears of the heart …” We are looking at and learning from different styles of prayer and different approaches to prayer, for Candlemas is truly a time of listening and hoping.

Over the years, in my spiritual growth and my pilgrimage through life, I have been shaped and enriched most of all by two traditions in the Church more than any other: Anglicanism and Eastern Orthodoxy.

Both traditions have much in common, and both have much to learn from each other. We share synodical government and an incarnational approach to life; we celebrate diversity in unity; we combine liturgical beauty and relaxed formality; and we appreciate the spiritual richness and value of stillness.

The Eastern Orthodox approaches to prayer can be a rich treasure and can shine a light for the Western Church. So let me share a few of these insights and gifts with you this evening.

In the Orthodox tradition, prayer is not about formulas. It is first and foremost doxology, praise, thanksgiving, confession, supplication, and intercession to God. Prayer is a personal dialogue with God, a spiritual breathing of the soul, a foretaste of the bliss of God’s kingdom.

“When I prayed I was new,” wrote a great Orthodox theologian, “but when I stopped praying I became old.” So prayer is the way to renewal and spiritual life; prayer is being alive to God; prayer is strength, refreshment and joy. Prayer lifts us up into that loving communion with God in which we experience everything in a new light.

There are six aspects of prayer life within the Orthodox tradition that I wish to introduce briefly and share this evening.

1, The Liturgy: The word Orthodoxy means, primarily, not right doctrine but right worship or praise. The beauty of the liturgy is impressive. The story is told that when the ambassadors from Kiev first arrived in the great Church of Aghia Sophia in Byzantium they were so in awe of the beauty and the splendour of the liturgy, they reported:

“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.”

2, Daily and Personal Prayer: Orthodox prayer is not confined to Sundays and the liturgy. How many Anglican churches today continue the cycle of the daily offices? How many of us maintain a regular habit of daily prayer?

For the Orthodox, daily prayer in the church and at home sanctifies the times at which they are celebrated, from early morning to late evening.

3, Icons and iconography: In the west, we still see art, including religious art, in terms of beauty, form and statement. Orthodox icons are not meant to be beautiful – they are meant to provide a window into spiritual reality.

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 separating the congregation in the main body of the church from the sacred mysteries behind the royal doors are there not to make the church look pretty or beautiful, but are central to understanding the worship and life of the Orthodox Church, its teachings, its liturgy and its prayers.

At the present Byzantium exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, the final treasure, appropriately, is the 12th century Icon of the Heavenly Ladder of Saint John Klimakos. This icon is so well-known that visitors to the exhibition are amazed it is so small. Yet this one small icon is a reminder that at the heart of Orthodox spirituality and prayer is the ability to bridge the chasm between earth and heaven.

4, The monastic life: In the Orthodox tradition, the monastery is not a retreat from the “real world,” but is a fountain for nurturing spirituality and the life of prayer of all believers. Although some of the great writers on Mount Athos lived as hermits, they gathered many followers, and were particularly known for their practice of the Jesus Prayer.

5, The Jesus Prayer: The Jesus Prayer is one of the best known traditions within Orthodoxy. Its words say simply: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me the sinner” (Κύριε Ἰησοῦ Χριστέ, Υἱὲ Θεοῦ, ἐλέησόν με τὸν ἁμαρτωλό). This is what some of the Church Fathers knew as the Prayer of the Heart. It is a short, simple prayer, widely used and taught throughout Eastern Christianity.

For the Eastern Orthodox, this prayer is one of the most deep, profound and mystical prayers. It is often repeated, continually and throughout the day, as a part of personal ascetic practice. For all of us, 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 from the people around us. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me the sinner.

6, The Hesychast tradition: The practice of the Jesus Prayer is an integral part of Hesychasm (ἡσυχασμός), a tradition that values stillness and the quiet, not for their own sake, as some sort of comfort zone, but as leading to the contemplation and experience of God as light, what Saint Gregory Palamas was referring to when he spoke of experiencing the Uncreated Light.

The Hesychast, who by the mercy of God has such an experience, does not remain in that state for too long a time, but returns “to earth” and continues to practise the full Christian life.

To summarise: 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 goal of a life of prayer is living a life of active love for all people. And the result of a life of prayer is to be filled with mercy and forgiveness, to bind up wounds and to love.

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

To pray truly, we can learn from the traditions of others. The beauty of Orthodox liturgy, the insights provided by the Orthodox use of icons, the practice of the Jesus Prayer, and the rich treasures in the Orthodox monastic writings can help each of us to develop our own practice of prayer.

As you pray, may you learn from the insights of others. And may the light of Christ continue to shine in your hearts, in your souls, and in your eyes.

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

Canon Patrick Comerford is the Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin. This sermon was preached in the Chapel of Christ’s College, Cambridge, on Sunday 1 February 2009, at the Solemn Orchestral Mass for the Eve, with Ceremony of Light and Blessing of Candles.


The sermon was part of the Lent Term series, ‘The ears of the heart …’

The other preachers in the series include: the College Chaplain, the Revd Christopher Woods (18 January); Dr Katherine Dell, Lecturer in Old Testament, the University of Cambridge, and Fellow of Saint Catharine’s College (25 January); Father Alexander Lucie-Smith, Cambridge Theological Federation (8 February); Priscilla Slusar, Student Priest, Christ’s College Chapel (15 February); the Revd Anna Macham, Succentor of Southwark Cathedral and Chaplain of Guy’s Campus, King’s College, London (22 February); the Revd Canon Andrew Freany, Vicar of Little Saint Mary’s, Cambridge (1 March).

The Chapel of Christ’s College, Cambridge is at: http://www.christs.cam.ac.uk/college-life/chapel-and-choir/

Back in Cambridge once again

The Great Gate Tower at Christ’s College, Cambridge, looks as though it has been chopped off at the lower end (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

The celebrations to mark the foundation of Cambridge University 800 years ago began in earnest two weeks ago when 7,000 people watched a light show that also celebrated the achievements of Cambridge alumni such as Charles Darwin and Isaac Newton, and the contribution of Cambridge to scientific discoveries in computing and genetics.

I’m back in Cambridge this weekend, having spent a wonderful time there last year at the course in patristic theology and spirituality at Sidney Sussex College, organised by the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies.

During last year’s visit, I was also a guest at dinner in Darwin’s old college, Christ’s College, where the chaplain is my friend, the Revd Christopher Woods, a former student at the Church of Ireland Theological College.

Now I’m back in Cambridge once again, to preach at Christopher’s invitation, in the chapel of Christ’s College at the Solemn Orchestral Eucharist for the Eve of Candlemas.

The college of Milton and Darwin

Christ’s College has a reputation for its high academic standards, consistently finishing in the top 10 colleges in the Tompkins Table – a good achievement for Darwin’s old college. Having celebrated the 300th anniversary of Milton’s birth last year, Christ’s College is marking this year the 200th anniversary of the birth in 1809 of Darwin, a grandson of Lichfield, my favourite place in England.

Christ’s also has its own Nobel laureates in Sir Martin Evans (1941). It is also the college of South Africa’s Jan Smuts, of South Africa, of Lord Mountbatten, of the novelist and philosopher C.P. Snow, of the jurist Lord Devlin (1905-1992), who was active in the campaigns to re-open the cases of the Guildford Four and the Maguire Seven, of the British historian and author Simon Schama, and of the comedian Sacha Baron Cohen.

Distinguished theologians

But with a name like that, I’m not surprised to learn that Christ’s has a strong reputation in theology too. Among its great theologians are William Paley and Charles Raven.

William Paley (1743-1805), the English theologian and philosopher, was also an undergraduate at Christ’s College. His great works included his Evidences of Christianity, while his Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy was one of the most influential philosophical texts in late enlightenment Britain. It was cited in several Parliamentary debates, and remained a set textbook at Cambridge well into the Victorian era. Even Charles Darwin was required to read Paley’s Principles when he was an undergraduate at Christ’s College.

The radical theologian, Charles Raven (1939-1950), was a controversial but committed pacifist throughout World War II and a friend of Teilhard de Chardin. He was the Master of Christ’s College from 1939 to 1950, and I remember during an interview for The Irish Times, how the late Archbishop George Simm recalled how Raven had been a strong influence on his ministry and how he had invited him to preach in Cork when he was Dean of Saint Fin Barre’s Cathedral. In more recent decades, Raven has also had a strong influence on Susan Howatch as she was writing her Starbridge triologies..

With a theological reputation like that, I was interested to find out also that Christ’s College has given the Church of England at least five Archbishops of Canterbury: Edmund Grindal (1519-1583), Richard Bancroft (1544-1610), who organised the King James Version translation of the Bible, Matthew Hutton (1693-1758), Frederick Cornwallis (1713-1783), and – more recently – Rowan Williams (born 1950).

The Revd Christopher Woods is chaplain of Christ’s College, Cambridge

The past as God’s House

I suppose this is the least we could expect this from a college that first began life as God’s House.

God’s House was founded in 1437 on land now occupied by the Chapel of King’s College. God’s House received its first royal licence in 1446, and moved to its present site, which faces onto Saint Andrew’s Street and backing onto the open piece of land now known as Christ’s Pieces, in 1448 when it received its second royal licence.

God’s House was renamed Christ’s College in 1505 when it was endowed and expanded by Henry VII’s mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort, and received its present charter. Lady Margaret had her own rooms in Christ’s College, which still opens onto the chapel.

The original college buildings date from those early days in the 15th and 16th centuries and now form part of First Court, including the chapel, where I am preaching this evening, along with the Master’s Lodge and the Great Gate Tower.

The gate facing onto Saint Andrew’s Street where it meets Hobson Street is a curious sight in itself. Looking at it from the street, the Great Gate Tower looks as though it is disproportionate, with its bottom part has been cut off to allow for a rise in street level. The same impression is given by the steps leading down to the foot of L staircase in the gate tower.

The college hall, designed by George Gilbert Scott the younger, was added in 1875-1879.

The lawn of First Court is famously round in shape, and there is an impressive wisteria that sprawls up the front of the Master’s Lodge.

Second Court is fully built up on just three sides, one of which is formed by the Fellows’ Building, dating from the 1640s, while the fourth side backs onto the Master’s Garden.

The Stevenson Building in Third Court was designed by J.J. Stevenson in the 1880s and was extended in 1905 as part of the college’s 400th anniversary celebrations. In 1935, Professor Richardson designed the second building, the neo-Georgian Chancellor’s Building (W staircase), completed in 1950. Third Court’s Memorial Building (Y staircase), was completed in 1953 and matches the Chancellor’s Building. Third Court is also noted for its display of irises in May and June.

New Court, which forms part of the northern boundary of Christ’s College, is a controversial tiered concrete building and is popularly known in Cambridge as “the Typewriter.” It was designed in the modernist style by Sir Denys Lasdun in 1966-1970, and in Lasdun’s obituary in the Guardian it was described as “superb”. The design critic Hugh Pearman once wrote: “Lasdun had big trouble relating to the street at the overhanging rear.”

Neighbouring buildings have been absorbed into Christ’s College, including the Todd Building, which once served as the Cambridge County Hall.

The Fellows’ Garden has two well-loved mulberry tress: the older mulberry tree was planted 400 years ago in 1608, the same year as the poet John Milton was born. Both trees have since toppled sideways and are now earthed up round the trunks, but they continue to fruit every year.

The Proctors of God’s House from 1439 to 1505 were succeeded by the Masters of Christ’s, among them Charles Darwin’s grandson, the physicist Sir Charles Galton Darwin (1936-1939). Professor Frank Kelly has been the Master of Christ’s College since 2006. But this Frank Kelly should not be confused with Father Jack … he’s a highly-acclaimed scientist.

A welcome in Chapel

The chapel of Christ’s College, where Christopher Woods has invited me to preach this evening, is a beautiful and ancient chapel, dating from the 16th century and offers members of the college community a space set aside for quiet reflection, prayer, meditation or worship. The chapel is inclusive in ethos where everyone is welcome, and it is used every day for chapel services, by members of college for private prayer, for stillness and also for music practice. The chapel is also a venue for many musical recitals and concerts during term.

The choir of Christ’s College Chapel is one of the finest mixed-voice choirs in Cambridge and there are three choral services per week coupled with many occasional services and events which demand a choral presence. The choir’s repertoire spans many centuries and it often performs, liturgically, works which have not yet been performed in England, and those involved say the quality of music allows the heart and mind to be open to the promise of the presence of God.

And in this heady mixture of science and theology, music and stillness, liturgy and reflection, it is wonderful to be back in Cambridge again.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological College, and is a contributor to the Cambridge Review of International Affairs.