Sunday, 6 January 2013

Two weeks of study with the Benedictine monks of Ealing Abbey

Ealing Abbey is the first Benedictine abbey in Greater London since the Reformation (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

I spent two weeks at Ealing Abbey a few months ago, following the daily cycle of prayer with the monks in the abbey, with the psalms, canticles, antiphonies, Scripture readings and prayers.

During those two weeks, I was reminded each day of the shared tradition in the Benedictine offices and the Anglican offices of Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer.

Benedictine prayer became more accessible in popular culture in 2005 when the BBC screened the television series, The Monastery, in which the then Abbot of Worth Abbey, Abbot Christopher Jamison, guided five modern men (and three million viewers) into a new approach to life at Worth Abbey in Sussex.

Since then, Dom Christopher’s best-selling books, Finding Sanctuary (2007) and Finding Happiness (2008), offer readers similar opportunities. He points out that no matter how hard we work, being too busy is not inevitable. Silence and contemplation are not just for monks and nuns, they are natural parts of life.

Studying liturgy and Latin

Saint Benedict’s Abbey in Ealing is one of the largest in Britain and the main work of the monks is parochial and pastoral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Ealing Abbey began life as Ealing Priory almost a century ago in 1916. When it became Ealing Abbey in 1955, it was the first Benedictine abbey in Greater London since the Reformation.

The Benedictine Study and Arts Centre at Overton House, in the grounds of Ealing Abbey (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

I was there for two weeks to study Liturgy in the Institutum Liturgicum, based in the Benedictine Study and Arts Centre, under the guidance of Dom Ephrem Carr, President of the Pontifical Liturgical Institute at Sant’Anselmo in Rome and Professor of Eastern Liturgies at the Patristic Institute, the Augustinianum, also in Rome.

I also attend classes in Liturgical Latin with Dom Daniel McCarthy, head of liturgy at the Institutum Liturgicum and a former lecturer in liturgy at the Pontifical Beda College in Rome.

Ealing Abbey … space for reflection and study for two weeks (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

During that time, I studied Eucharistic texts or anaphora from the first four centuries of the Church, paying particular attention to the Apostolic Tradition, the Testamentum Domini, and the Apostolic Constitution, and comparing them with the Eucharistic prayers in The Book of Common Prayer of the Church of Ireland (2004).

Cultural and cricket

There was a warm welcome from the monks of Ealing Abbey (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

I was reminded at Ealing Abbey that Benedictine spirituality approaches life through an ordering by daily prayer that is biblical and reflective. At its base, Benedictine spirituality is grounded in a commitment to “the Benedictine Promise” – an approach to spiritual life that values “Stability, Obedience, and Conversion of Life.”

The Benedictine motto is: “Ora et Labora.” This does not present prayer and work as two distinct things, but holds prayer and work together. For Saint Benedict, the spiritual life and the physical life are inseparable. As he says: “Orare est laborare, laborare est orare, to pray is to work, to work is to pray.”

The Benedictine offices and the Anglican offices of Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer have a shared tradition (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

There was an old cutting from the Daily Telegraph on the desk in my room in Ealing Abbey that says the Benedictine tradition is so rooted in English life and culture that: “Some claim to see the Benedictine spirit in the rules of Cricket.”

Saint Augustine of Canterbury, who became the first Archbishop of Canterbury (597-604) and who is considered the “Apostle to the English” and a founder of the English Church, was a Benedictine monk. At least 16 of the Archbishops of Canterbury between the year 960 and the Reformation were Benedictine monks, including Dunstan (960-978), Lanfranc (1070-1089) and Anselm (1093-1109), and another four were Archbishops of York.

In addition, Benedictine monks who were bishops in Ireland included John Stokes, Bishop of Kilmore, who was a Suffragan Bishop in Lichfield in 1407; John Chourles, who was Bishop of Dromore (1410-1433), but spent most of his time as a Suffragan Bishop in Canterbury (1420-1433); Robert Mulfield, a Cistercian monk of Meaux, who was Bishop of Killaloe but spent all that time as a suffragan in the Diocese of Lichfield (1418-1440); and Robert Blyth, Abbot of Thorney and Bishop of Down and Connor, who was a suffragan bishop in the Diocese of Ely (1520-1541).

A shared spirituality

Ealing Abbey began life as Ealing Priory almost a century ago in 1916 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

At least 18 of the Reformation bishops were Benedictine or Cistercian monks. It is no surprise then to hear again that it is often said that he Anglican Reformation made the essentials of Benedictine spirituality and prayer life immediately accessible through The Book of Common Prayer.

The church historian Peter Anson believed that Archbishop Thomas Cranmer’s great work of genius was in condensing the traditional Benedictine scheme of hours into the two offices of Matins and Evensong. In this way, Anglicanism is a kind of generalised monastic community, with The Book of Common Prayer preserving the foundations of monastic prayer.

The stillness and quietness of the abbey gardens make it easy to forget that Heathrow Airport is only a few miles away (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The basic principles that shape The Book of Common Prayer are Benedictine in spirit. The Book of Common Prayer retains the framework of choral worship but simplified so that ordinary people can share in the daily office and the daily psalms.

Grapes on the vines outside the monks’ dining room (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The spirituality of the Rule of Saint Benedict is built on three key elements that form the substance of the Book of Common Prayer: the community Eucharist, the divine office, and personal prayer with biblical, patristic and liturgical strands woven together.

The Anglican Benedictine monk and theologian, Dom Bede Thomas Mudge, once argued that the Benedictine spirit is at the root of the Anglican way of prayer in a very pronounced way. The example and influence of the Benedictine monastery, with its rhythm of the daily office and the Eucharist; the tradition of learning and lectio divina; and the family relationship among an Abbot and his community, have influenced the pattern of Anglican spirituality.

By the 17th century, John Bramhall, the restoration Archbishop of Armagh, was lamenting the dissolution of the monasteries. Later, many Benedictine houses were founded throughout the Anglican Communion in the 19th century.

Today, there are more than half a dozen Anglican communities and houses in England who also follow the Rule of Saint Benedict, including Edgware Abbey, Malling Abbey, Saint Benedict’s Priory in Salisbury, Costock Convent, Mucknell Abbey, Alton Abbey and Saint Hilda’s Priory, Whitby.

Reviving familial ties

Dom James Leachman, a monk of Ealing Abbey, Director of the Institutum Liturgicam, and Professor of Liturgy at the Pontifical Institute of Liturgy in Sant’Anselmo, Rome, says the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches are “two vigorous traditions” on these islands that “nourish the life of learning and prayer of millions of Christians.”

Writing in the Benedictine Yearbook, he says: “Both traditions find shared and deep root in British and Irish soil and in the history of our islands ... we are constantly present to each other.”

Benedictines have not forgotten their familial and historical ties with many cathedrals throughout the Church of England.

The Benedictine cathedral priories, like all the religious houses in England, were dissolved during the reign of Henry VIII. But before the dissolution, there were nine Benedictine cathedral priories in England: Canterbury, Winchester, Worcester, Durham, Norwich, Rochester, Ely and Coventry and Bath. Others before that had included Sherborne, Bath Abbey and Westminster Abbey.

Many of the cathedral deans and chapters are keen to stress their Benedictine roots, some of them holding “Benedictine weeks” with groups of monks, led by the Roman Catholic Benedictine monk who holds the titular position of cathedral prior, residing in the cathedral for the week to sing the office and give a programme of lectures.

A centre for thinking

Ealing Abbey is just half an hour from Heathrow Airport, and the idea of a monastery close to a busy airport and in heart of suburban London seems a contradiction in terms to many. But Saint Benedict’s Abbey in Ealing is one of the largest in Britain and the main work of the monks is parochial work.

The monastery was founded in 1897 from Downside Abbey as a parish, at the invitation of the then Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Vaughan. Building work on the church began two years later, and the school was started by Dom Sebastian Cave in 1902.

Saint Benedict’s School was started in 1902 … old boys include the former Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Patten (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

As well as running courses on liturgy and Benedictine prayer and spirituality at the liturgy institute and the Benedictine Study and Arts Centre, the monks of Ealing also run a school, with about 600 pupils in the senior school and 230 in the junior school.

Working in the book-lined Scriptorium … once the research workplace of the Biblical scholar Dom Bernard Orchard (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Scriptorium, where I attended my Liturgy seminars, was once the research workplace of the Biblical scholar, Dom Bernard Orchard (1910-2006). The extensive gardens at the side and behind the house have a variety of trees, including a banana tree and an olive tree.

The gardens of Ealing Abbey are friendly to the bees and the birds and the wildlife (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The gardens are friendly to wildlife, and no insecticides are used on the plants and trees, and there is labyrinth on the north lawn, which in quiet moments provides space for prayer and meditation.

Ealing Abbey has been the home at times for many notable monks, including Dom David Knowles, the monastic historian and later Regius Professor of Modern History at the University of Cambridge, who lived there from 1933 to 1939 while he was working on his magnum opus, The Monastic Order in England.

Dom Cuthbert Butler (1858-1934) also lived at Ealing following his retirement as Abbot of Downside from 1922. His books included critical editions of the Lausiac History of Palladius and The Rule of Saint Benedict, and he was the author of Western Mysticism, Life of Archbishop Ullathorne, and History of the Vatican Council.

The labyrinth on the north lawn at Overton House provides space for prayer and meditation in quiet moments (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Dom John Main (1926-1982), who wrote and lectured widely on Christian meditation, was a monk at Ealing in 1959-1970 and 1974-1977. He graduated from Trinity College Dublin in 1954, and taught law there from 1956 to 1959 before joining Ealing Abbey, and he was ordained priest here in 1963. He was strongly influenced by the writings of the Desert Father John Cassian, and he began his Christian meditation group at Ealing Abbey in 1975.

John Main’s teaching methods are now used throughout the world, and those who have acknowledged his influence include the former President, Mary McAleese, Archbishop Rowan Williams and Metropolitan Kallistos Ware.

Influencing a new archbishop

The new Archbishop of Canterbury, Bishop Justin Welby, told a recent news conference at Lambeth Palace that he has been influenced by Benedictine spirituality, and has said that the Benedictine and Franciscan orders within Anglicanism, along with Roman Catholic social teaching have influenced his spiritual formation.

He has been a Benedictine Oblate for 15 years and his spiritual director is a Benedictine monk. He is expected to be enthroned as the 105th Archbishop of Canterbury in Canterbury Cathedral and the successor of Saint Augustine the Benedictine on 21 March next.

The Benedictine link with Anglicanism continues.

The gardens at Overton House have a variety of trees, including a banana tree and an olive tree (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

A prayer of Saint Benedict:

Gracious and Holy Father,
Give us wisdom to perceive you,
Intelligence to understand you,
Diligence to seek you,
Patience to wait for you,
Vision to behold you,
A heart to meditate on you,
A life to proclaim you,
Through the power of the Holy Spirit of Jesus Christ, Our Lord.
Amen.


Canon Patrick Comerford is lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This essay was first published in the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough) and the Diocesan Magazine (Cashel and Ossory) in January 2013.

Patrick Comerford receives certificates from Dom Ephrem Carr and Dom James Leachman (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

‘I am no longer my own but yours …’

The Adoration by the Magi ... an Ethiopian artist’s impression (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 6 January 2013

The Epiphany

11.30 a.m., Covenant Service with Holy Communion,

Brighton Road Methodist Church, Rathgar, Dublin 6.

Jeremiah 31: 31-34; Mark 14: 22-25.


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

Already the Christmas decorations are coming down, the summer sun holiday brochures have been well-thumbed through, the crème eggs are on sale on the sweet counters, the sales are exhausted and everything is telling us that Christmas is over.

But it’s not.

I hear someone on a radio show – oh less than two weeks before Christmas – saying the countdown had begun, that he was counting down the 12 Days of Christmas.

But today is the Twelfth Day of Christmas – not the Twelfth Day after Christmas.

In some parts of Ireland this day is known as Little Christmas, or Women’s Christmas. Twelfth Night was an occasion for partying and merry-making in many parts of Ireland.

This is the day that ought to bring to a climax our celebration of the Feast of the Epiphany. This is the day my true love sent to me “12 Drummers Drumming,” and all the other gifts too. This is the day for placing the figures of the three Magi, the three Wise Men, or the three Kings, with all their gifts, in the Crib.

The Adoration of the Magi, by Peter Paul Rubens ... the Altarpiece in the Chapel of King’s College, Cambridge

TS Eliot’s poem The Journey of the Magi recalls the journey of the Magi to Bethlehem from the point of view of one of the Wise Men, now elderly, world-weary, reflective and sad. Instead of celebrating the wonders of the journey, the wise man recalls a journey that was painful, tedious, and seemingly pointless.

The speaker says that a voice was always whispering in their ears as they went that “this was all folly.” The magus may have been unimpressed by the new-born infant, but he realises that the incarnation changes everything, and he asks:

... were we led all that way for
Birth or Death?


The birth of the Christ Child was the death of the old religions. Now in his in old age, he realises that with this birth his world had died, and he has little left to do but to wait for his own death.

Our Christmas celebrations over these 12 days of Christmas are robbed of meaning and significance unless we too are brought to the sorrows of the Cross and the joys of the Resurrection.

The Visit of the Magi ... from the altarpiece in the Lady Chapel in Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

The Gospel story in the lectionary this morning (Matthew 2: 1-12) tells us that when the Wise Men from the East entered in the house in Bethlehem and saw the Christ Child with his mother, “they knelt down in homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh” (Matthew 2: 12).

It is a story that is unique to Saint Matthew’s Gospel. And it prepares us for Saint Matthew’s emphasis on the kingdom throughout his Gospel: he mentions the “kingdom of God” four times, he mentions the “kingdom of heaven” 33 times, and the term “kingdom” is used in 17 other times.

In the story of the visit of the Wise Men at the beginning of Saint Matthew’s Gospel, we are reminded that the Kingdom of God is not just a promise for a few, but a promise offered to the whole world, to the all the kingdoms of the world.

Why did these wise men present these gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the Christ Child? Why give a small child gifts that are of no practical use at the time? Why not give the child a toy, or food, or a new clothes? Why, of all things, did they give gold, frankincense and myrrh?

These were rare, precious and expensive gifts. Not the sort of gifts I would buy every day, and not the sort of gifts I would risk taking with me on a long and dangerous journey.

But for these wise men, their gifts represent their best efforts to honour the new-born king. They represent that they are willing to give all to the new-born king.

The three gifts represented the future roles of the Christ Child.

Gold was the usual offering from by subjects to their kings. When the wise men present gold, they are honouring Christ with the very best they possess, and recognising him as king.

Frankincense represents Christ’s divinity. It is a very costly and fragrant gum distilled from a tree. It was used in worship, when it was burned as a pleasant offering to God. But it also had uses as a medicine and a perfume.

While frankincense represents sweetness, myrrh represents bitterness. Myrrh is an aromatic gum, used for embalming the dead (see John 19: 39). The wise men bring myrrh as a gift to acknowledging the suffering the Christ Child is going to suffer as an adult.

So, gold is a gift for a king; frankincense is a gift recognising Christ’s divinity, and myrrh is a spice for his burial, symbolising his future roles.

But the presents they bring also symbolise the kingdoms of the world coming to recognise the Christ Child as their true king, and being prepared to lay everything they have at its feet, for his use for the sake of the kingdom that truly matters.

This is one of the wonderful insights Methodists have at the start of every year, at Epiphany time, with this service for renewing our Covenant with God in the Covenant Prayer, laying everything before God, all our treasures and all our sufferings, all our hopes and all our for the future, before the Christ.

The Covenant Service and the Covenant Prayer are a sober end to the celebrations of Christmas and a realistic looking forward to Good Friday and Easter Day.

They encapsulate and summarise our necessary reliance on the grace of God and our trust in his promises. It is a patient, humble and tender expression of dependence on God’s grace, acknowledging all our weaknesses yet willing to wait and to endure all for the God-come-among-us-in-Christ:

I am no longer my own but yours.
Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing, put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you or laid aside for you,
exalted for you or brought low for you;
let me be full, let me be empty,
let me have all things, let me have nothing; I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things to your pleasure and disposal.
Glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours.
So be it.
And this covenant now made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.


Covenant and Kingdom are concepts that are woven together so closely so tightly in the Old and New Testament that one American writer has called them the “DNA of the Bible.”

These great Biblical themes of Covenant and Kingdom are brought together in our Gospel reading this morning (Mark 14: 22-25) when Christ’s meal with his disciples becomes the meal of the covenant and the kingdom. Covenant relationship calls for Kingdom living.

These great Biblical themes of Covenant and Kingdom find their fullest expression in the life of Christ, from Incarnation, through teaching and healing, to passion, death and Resurrection. The theme or concept of Covenant goes all the way back to the beginning, when God builds a bridge with us in Covenant after Covenant, covenants that find their fulfilment in Christ, inviting us into the Kingdom.

We lay everything we have and hope for before the Christ Child, before the Cross, at the feet of the Risen Christ, because we know that relationships more valuable than possessions, that that hope is greater than fear, love calls us into the kingdom.

Speaking of God’s covenant with us in Christ, and the Methodist Covenant Prayer, there is a third covenant that I am conscious of too. And that is the covenant between the Church of Ireland and the Methodist Church, signed over 10 years ago on 26 September 2002.

In that covenant, we make many promises to one another, including sharing pulpit and altar, and sharing with and strengthening each other in ministry and in mission.

But this is not just good neighbours agreeing to be good neighbours. Covenant is about relationship and kingdom. And at the end of that covenant we spoke of our hope “to achieve a fuller sharing of ministries at a later stage of our relationship.”

Ten years later, we must surely be close to that “later stage of our relationship” … Yes? … No?

In the words we heard from the Prophet Jeremiah this morning, “The days are surely coming …” (Jeremiah 31: 31).

If we want to realise that covenant dream for the sake of the kingdom, then I think we must be willing to lay down some of the things that are so precious to us that we are hindering that covenantal relationship so that together we can be a new, fresh and inspiring sign of the kingdom.

Words must be transferred into action if they are to have meaning, and if the covenant between our Churches is going to become part of God’s plan for the kingdom.

And that’s a New Year resolution I think we can all share.

Meanwhile, what covenant presents do we bring to the Christ Child this morning, this Epiphany morning, this Covenant morning. In her poem In the bleak midwinter, which has become one of the most popular hymns in the English-speaking world, Christina Rossetti asks the same question:

What can I give him,
poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd,
I would bring a lamb;
if I were a wise man
I would do my part;
yet what I can I give him —
give my heart.


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

The Adoration of the Magi ... a window by Meyers of Munich in the south transept of Saint George’s Church, Balbriggan (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Journey of the Magi, by TS Eliot

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times when we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities dirty and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wineskins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

The Adoration of the Magi ... a stained glass window in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This sermon was preached in Brighton Road Methodist Church, Rathgar, Dublin, on Sunday 6 January, the Epiphany, 2013.