Sunday, 2 October 2016

A summer retreat in
a unique monastery in
the Essex countryside

A stroll through the Essex countryside in late summer … or was it early autumn (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

Over the past decade, I have spent a day almost each summer on a retreat in the Monastery of Saint John the Evangelist in Tolleshunt Knights in Essex.

The monastery is about 75 km south-east of Cambridge, and these annual visits have been organised by the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies as part of the patristics summer school held each year in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge.

Enjoying the footpaths and country lanes of Essex in the summer sunshine (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The journey from Cambridge brings us through the East Anglian countryside and through pretty towns and villages with names such as Saffron Walden and Bishop’s Stortford Braintree, Coggeshall and Tiptree. The area is well-known for fruit farming and jam making, and Tolleshunt Knights is close to Tiptree, which grew up around the Wilkins Jam Factory, built in 1885.

Tiptree is known today because of the jam factory established in 1885 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Three neighbouring villages with the name Tolleshunt emerged in early Norman England – Tolleshunt D’Arcy was acquired by the D’Arcy family, Tolleshunt Major came to the Le Majeur family, and Tolleshunt Knights belonged to the Le Chevallier family, although it may once have belonged to the Knights Templar, who had considerable holdings in Essex.

Mediaeval parish church

All Saints’ Church, the former parish church of Tolleshunt Knights, is a mile or two from the present village (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The old Church of England parish church, All Saints’ Church stands a mile or two from the heart of the present village of Tolleshunt Knights, which suggests the village shifted with changing farming practices over the centuries, or moved to escape the shifting coastal marshes to the south.

There is no evidence of an earlier Saxon church, and All Saints’ Church dates back to the 1140s. One of the tombs in the church is reputedly that of Sir John atte Lee, dated from 1380, and has connections with the legends of Robin Hood.

The south porch of the church dates from the 15th or early 16th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

With increasing affluence brought to the area by the wool trade, the church was enlarged in the 14th and 15th centuries. Inside the church there is a 13th century piscina and a 15th century chancel arch. The 15th century south doorway, with partly restored moulded jambs and a two-centred arch, has a moulded label with head-stops of two bishops, one of which is defaced. The south porch dates from the 15th or early 16th century.

In 1768, the church had a timber belfry with two bells and a shingled spire. However, the bell dated 1575 has been stolen, and the other bell has been removed to safe-keeping in the monastery, which also keeps the now-broken font.

All Saints’ Church was altered and repaired in the 19th century. But by the 1920s, it had fallen into disrepair, and by the 1930s it was no longer in use as the parishioners attended the newly-built Saint Luke’s Church in neighbouring Tiptree. The closure of the village school followed in 1935. Tolleshunt Knights gradually lost its other services too, including the railway station, the post office, the village shop and its own local garage. Even the number of pubs has been reduced from five or four to one.

Although funds were raised to repair the church in the late 1930s, with the outbreak of World War II this money was donated to the Spitfire Fund in 1940. By the early 1950s, All Saints’ Church was almost derelict. The final blow came with the great gale in 1953, which brought down a section of the roof. It was clear the restoration of the church was beyond the means of the local community.

Founding a monastery

The Old Rectory and monastic buildings at the Monastery of Saint John the Baptist in Tolleshunt Knights (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

In 1958, the Church of England agreed to sell All Saints’ Church and the rectory to the Orthodox Church. Since then the church has been carefully restored and is now attached to the Monastery of Saint John the Baptist, which is built around the former rectory in Tolleshunt Knights.

The mixed community of monks and nuns and is the oldest Orthodox religious community in Britain. It was founded by Elder Sophrony (Sakharov) with an initial membership of six drawn from a number of countries.

The monastery at Tolleshunt Knights was built around the old rectory (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Father Sophrony (1896-1993) was originally a painter who developed a longing to devote his art to exploring the nature of Divine reality. He was born Sergei Symeonovich Sakharov in Moscow 120 years ago on 23 September 1896, the son of Russian Orthodox parents.

As a child, he prayed daily, later recalling that he would pray for 45 minutes without stress. Even as a child, he claimed to have experienced the Uncreated Light, but thought casually that every other child had similar experiences.

He studied first at the Academy of Arts, and then at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture. But as he came to see the Christian focus on personal love as finite, he fell away from the faith of his childhood and began to explore Eastern mysticism.

A six-winged seraph in a fresco on a ceiling in the Monastery of Saint John the Baptist in Tolleshunt Knights (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

In 1921, he left Russia and moved first to Italy, then to Berlin, before arriving in Paris in 1922, where his exhibitions attracted much attention from the French media.

In Paris, he realised that ‘I’ in God’s call to Moses (‘I am who I am’) and the Gospel command to love God, were a call to personal relationship. One cannot love a concept, and he found that love is relational. He came to realise that Christ’s precept to love God totally is not psychological but ontological, and that the only way to relate to God is personal, and that the necessity of love is personal.

Following this experience, he returned to the Christianity and the Orthodoxy of his childhood at Easter 1924. He began studying at Saint Sergius Orthodox Theological Institute in Paris, where his lecturers included the theologians Sergius Bulgakov and Nicholas Berdyaev. In 1925, he left Paris for Mount Athos, where he entered the mainly Russian Monastery of Saint Panteleimon.

Father Sophrony was ordained a deacon in 1930, and soon became a disciple of Saint Silouan the Athonite, although the saint had no formal theological education and was never ordained a priest. When Saint Silouan died in 1938, he entrusted his papers to Father Sophrony. On his instructions, Father Sophrony left the monastery to live first at Karoulia, then at a cave near Saint Paul’s Monastery on Mount Athos. There he came to realise the interdependence of all humanity. In 1941, he was ordained priest, and he soon became a spiritual father to many monks on Mount Athos.

The end of World War II and the catastrophe of the Greek Civil War left Father Sophrony in a difficult position as a non-Greek on Mount Athos. In 1947, he returned to Paris, where he moved into a Russian old people’s home in St Genevieve-des-Bois as the assistant chaplain and a father confessor. There his work led to the formation of a small community that centred its prayer life on the Jesus Prayer.

In 1948, he produced his first edition of Staretz Silouan outlining Saint Silouan’s principles, including prayer for the whole world, God-forsakenness and the idea of all humanity being connected. In Paris, he also worked from 1950 to 1957 with Vladimir Lossky who influenced his thinking on many contemporary issues, and his Trinitarian thought and its application to the Church and humanity.

Inside the original monastic chapel in the former Rectory in Tolleshunt Knights (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In 1952, Father Sophrony produced a second edition of Staretz Silouan, which brought Saint Silouan to the attention of a wider public. Meanwhile, the small community he had gathered around wanted to explore the monastic life. With the help of Rosemary Edmunds, they bought the Old Rectory at Tolleshunt Knights in 1958, and the Community of Saint John the Baptist was formed within a year.

From the beginning, this was a mixed community, and the first six members were both monks and nuns. Father Sophrony continued to publish extensively and his books included a translation of Monk of Mount Athos (1973), Wisdom of Mount Athos (1975), His Life is Mine (1977), and We Shall See Him As He Is (1985).

The tomb of Father Sophrony in the crypt in Saint John’s Monastery in Tolleshunt Knights (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Meanwhile, a problem emerged for the community when the monastery was told that it could only bury its members there if an underground crypt was built. Father Sophrony said he would not die until the crypt was ready. When he died on 11 July 1993, he was buried in the crypt.

Icons in the monastery

The iconstasis and doors in the original chapel in Tolleshunt Knights are the work of Leonid Ouspensky and Father Gregory Ivanovich Krug (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The original chapel was laid out in the Old Rectory by Father Sophrony. The iconostasis or icon screen in this chapel is the work of two of the most important Russian émigré icon writers of the last century, Leonid Alexandrovich Ouspensky (1902-1987) and his friend and colleague, Father Gregory Ivanovich Krug (1908-1969).

The doors of the iconstasis are the work of Leonid Ouspensky (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Ouspensky, who painted the royal doors in the iconostasis, is known as an important artist and iconographer of the 20th century, and for his seminal books on the theology of icons, written with Vladimir Lossky, including The Meaning of Icons and The Theology of the Icon. These books introduced Western readers to the spiritual and theological understanding of icons.

The monastery refectory has frescoes in the style of Ouspensky (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The influence of Ouspensky and Father Gregory is also seen on the walls of the refectory in the monastery. These are decorated with frescoes and murals using oil and turpentine on plaster, to look like Byzantine frescoes, under the direction of Sister Maria, who had studied iconography in Paris with Ouspensky.

The monastic community today

The Visitation of Abraham ... a fresco on a wall in the Monastery of Saint John the Baptist in Tolleshunt Knights (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The Monastery of Saint John the Baptist has been under the authority of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople since 1965. The main spiritual practices are the repetition of the Jesus Prayer for about four hours a day and the serving of the Divine Liturgy three or four times a week, practices that were inspired by Father Sophrony’s experiences on Mount Athos.

The Hegumen or Abbot, Archimandrite Kyrill, is originally from Australia. The community consists of about 40 men and women – the majority are nuns, with a smaller number of monks, and they come from about 14 nations. In the words of one nun, it is ‘a melting pot.’

Patrick Comerford with Father Nikolai Sakharov, a monk of the monastery

Father Nikolai Sakharov, who was a student of Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, has a doctorate from Oxford for his thesis, which was published as I Love Therefore I am: The Theological Legacy of Archimandrite Sophrony (2003).

Sister Magdalen, a member of the community, is known throughout the Orthodox world for her work with children and for her books, including Conversations with Children: Communicating our Faith and Children in the Church Today.

During each visit, there has been time for walks in the monastery orchards and gardens, which look out onto the sea and across to Bradwell, or through some of the beautiful countryside surrounding the monastery.

August was turning to September when I went for a walk during this year’s visit, from the monastery to All Saints’ Church and through the green and golden Essex countryside. As I walked back to the monastery, the blackberries were already ripening in the brambles along the side of the road. It was a taste of summer, and it was a taste of autumn, a memory or summer and a promise of autumn.

Memories of summer and promises of autumn in the Essex countryside (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Canon Patrick Comerford lectures in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This feature was first published in the ‘Church Review’ (Dublin and Glendalough) and the ‘Diocesan Magazine’ (Cashel, Ferns and Ossory) in October 2016.

‘You crown the year with your goodness
and give us the fruits of the earth in their season’

Harvest fields in Pollerton, Co Carlow (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

2 October 2016,

The Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity,

Harvest Thanksgiving Eucharist,


11.30 a.m.: Saint Brigid’s Church, Stillorgan, Co Dublin.

Readings: Deuteronomy 26: 1-11; Psalm 100; Philippians 4: 4-9; John 6: 25-35.

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

I am grateful to your Rector, the Revd Ian Gallagher, for inviting to preach at your Harvest Thanksgiving Service here in Stillorgan this morning.

We were both in Christ Church Cathedral last Sunday for the ordination of the Revd Kevin Conroy, who spent his two years as a deacon in this parish. Kevin was one the students whose dissertation I supervised, and I know how much he appreciated his time in this parish.

It involved commuting through rural Co Wicklow to be in suburban Dublin, and I was often reminded of how living in a city separates us from rural life in so many ways: from the times and seasons, from rural isolation, from the problems created by the closure of village pubs and village post offices, from springtime and harvest.

And no number of successive attendances at ‘Electric Picnic’ is going to count up for one day at ‘The Ploughing.’

I spent a lot of the important growing-up times in my childhood on my grandmother’s farm in West Waterford. Perhaps that alone helps explain why I often need to get out of cities and go for walks, long walks, in the countryside.

But sometimes I worry that in idealising the countryside, we often forget that in cities and suburbs we too have the harvests of our gardens and the harvests of our hearts and of our faith.

The green and gold of the harvest fields in Comberford, Staffordshire, a few weeks ago (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

In recent weeks, I have had long walks in the countryside, in rural Ireland and in rural England. One summer Sunday afternoon, I walked through the fields in a part of rural Staffordshire that I knew intimately.

The harvest was just beginning, and the fields were that beautiful mixture of green and gold that are so much a part of summer on these islands.

So often, clergy feel guilty about doing nothing. We have to be on the go, filling empty time with planning our next sermon, our next study group, our next vestry or committee meeting.

But on that Sunday afternoon, thinking of how Christ emptied himself, I emptied myself, and allowed my mind and my body to wander aimlessly, enjoying God’s blessing of allowing me to be in a place I like being in so much. I had a busy week ahead of me, and in those few hours of almost absent-minded bless, I enjoyed being in God’s company in God’s creation.

Like Saint Paul in our epistle reading this morning, I could call out that afternoon, ‘Rejoice in the Lord always’ (Philippians 4: 4).

In the few weeks that have passed since then, the countryside has changed in its colours. The blackberries have ripened on the brambles in the lanes, most of the harvest is now complete, and the stubble gives the countryside different shades and balances of green and gold beneath the blue skies and white clouds.

A golden harvest stubble near Tolleshunt Knights in Essex (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Just a month ago, while I was on a one-day retreat in a monastery in the countryside in Essex, I heard a story of a monk from Cyprus who was the gardener in his monastery. He was happy at his work, growing vegetables, tending the vines and orchards, bringing the flowers to bloom, and looking after the soil, in season and out of season.

He enjoyed his work, and never sought to do anything more in the monastery.

One day, the Abbot called him aside and told him he wanted this monk to be ordained a priest.

The monk was perplexed. He was from a simple farming background, he was a brother among the monks, and he had never thought about being ordained a priest.

But Father Abbot, he protested, I do not know how to serve the liturgy.

But the garden is your liturgy, the Abbot insisted. And the garden shall continue to be your liturgy.

Despite this monk’s protests, he was ordained a priest.

He continued to work in the garden. The flowers bloomed and the vegetable grew in such vast quantities that the monks had to give them away freely to the local villagers.

Often, while the other monks were praying the offices or hours in the monastery chapel, Father John was still out on his tractor, looking after the garden, the flowers, the vegetables, the vines and the orchards. They needed constant attention, Father John understood nature, and there he prayed with them.

There are three degrees in Orthodox monasticism:

When the novice becomes a monk, he is clothed in monk’s clothing and receives the tonsure.

Some years later, when the abbot feels the monk has reached an appropriate level of discipline, dedication, and humility, he moves on to the second degree known as the Little Schema.

Many monks remain at this level. But sometimes, monks whose abbots feel they have reached a high level of spiritual excellence reach the final stage, known as the Great Schema.

In his dying days, Father John received the Great Schema from his Abbot. He died a few days later, but his gardens continue to bloom and to blossom, and both he and his generosity are still remembered by the villagers many years later.

The fruit and the flowers, the vine and vegetables, may have been Father John’s liturgy. But the people he blessed with the produce of the fields and the gardens are themselves the harvest of the monastery.

Shortly after hearing this story that day, I found myself face to face with a fresco in one of the monastery chapels depicting the Resurrection scene where Mary Magdalene is in the garden and mistakes the Risen Christ for the gardener.

It seemed to me that day that there is something spiritually beautiful and appropriate about the monk-gardener becoming a priest, and that the Risen Christ might at first sight be confused with the gardener.

It was the Gospel reading at last Sunday’s ordination of priests in Christ Church Cathedral.

How do we best celebrate the harvest do we have to offer today?

There is a harvest lunch here after this service. But like the people who follow Christ to the other side of the lake in our Gospel reading, are we there because we are being fed (see John 6: 26), or because of who Christ is for us?

What harvest do we have to offer as individuals, as a parish, as a diocese, as the Church of Ireland?

What did we mean when we prayed those words in this morning’s Collect that say: ‘Grant that we may use them to your glory, for the relief of those in need’?

I am just back from a meeting in London of the trustees of the Anglican mission agency USPG at which we heard harrowing accounts of the suffering of Syrian refugees who are fleeing places like Aleppo and Damascus and fleeing to Greece, only to find themselves treated with uncivilised inhumanity in holding facilities on the islands, in Athens and on the borders.

When Saint Paul tells us this morning to ‘keep on doing the things we have learned and received and heard and seen,’ then it must be in loving God and loving our neighbour. And it must involve too remembering, as our Old Testament reading reminds us, that we must ‘celebrate … all the bounty that the Lord God given us’ (Deuteronomy 26: 11) in the harvest ‘with the aliens who reside among us.’

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

Collect:

Eternal God,
you crown the year with your goodness
and give us the fruits of the earth in their season:
Grant that we may use them to your glory,
for the relief of those in need
and for our own well-being;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post-Communion Prayer:

Lord of the harvest, with joy we have offered thanksgiving for your love in creation
and have shared in the bread and wine of the kingdom.
By your grace plant within us such reverence
for all that you give us
that will make us wise stewards of the good things we enjoy;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This sermon was preached at the Harvest Thanksgiving Eucharist in Saint Brigid’s Church, Stillorgan, Co Dublin, on 2 October 2016.

Harvest time in Alvecote near Tamworth (Photograph: Ken Robinson, 2016)

‘Grant that we may use them to your glory,
for the relief of those in need’

Harvest time in Julianstown, Co Meath (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

2 October 2016,

The Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity,

Harvest Thanksgiving Eucharist,


10 a.m.: All Saints’ Church, Blackrock, Co Dublin.

Readings: Deuteronomy 26: 1-11; Psalm 100; Philippians 4: 4-9; John 6: 25-35.

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

Living in a city separates us from rural life in oh so many ways: from the times and seasons, from rural isolation, from the problems created by the closure of village pubs and village post offices, from springtime and harvest.

And no number of successive attendances at ‘Electric Picnic’ is going to count up for one day at ‘The Ploughing.’

I spent a lot of the important growing-up times in my childhood on my grandmother’s farm in West Waterford. Perhaps that alone helps explain why I often need to get out of cities and go for walks, long walks, in the countryside.

But sometimes I worry that in idealising the countryside, we often forget that in cities and suburbs we too have the harvests of our gardens and the harvests of our hearts and of our faith.

The green and gold of the harvest fields in Comberford, Staffordshire, a few weeks ago (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

In recent weeks, I have had long walks in the countryside, in rural Ireland and in rural England. One summer Sunday afternoon, I walked through the fields in a part of rural Staffordshire that I knew intimately.

The harvest was just beginning, and the fields were that beautiful mixture of green and gold that are so much a part of summer on these islands.

So often, clergy feel guilty about doing nothing. We have to be on the go, filling empty time with planning our next sermon, our next study group, our next vestry or committee meeting.

But on that Sunday afternoon, thinking of how Christ emptied himself, I emptied myself, and allowed my mind and my body to wander aimlessly, enjoying God’s blessing of allowing me to be in a place I like being in so much. I had a busy week ahead of me, and in those few hours of almost absent-minded bless, I enjoyed being in God’s company in God’s creation.

Like Saint Paul in our epistle reading this morning, I could call out that afternoon, ‘Rejoice in the Lord always’ (Philippians 4: 4).

In the few weeks that have passed since then, the countryside has changed in its colours. The blackberries have ripened on the brambles in the lanes, most of the harvest is now complete, and the stubble gives the countryside different shades and balances of green and gold beneath the blue skies and white clouds.

A golden harvest stubble near Tolleshunt Knights in Essex (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Just a month ago, while I was on a one-day retreat in a monastery in the countryside in Essex, I heard a story of a monk from Cyprus who was the gardener in his monastery. He was happy at his work, growing vegetables, tending the vines and orchards, bringing the flowers to bloom, and looking after the soil, in season and out of season.

He enjoyed his work, and never sought to do anything more in the monastery.

One day, the Abbot called him aside and told him he wanted this monk to be ordained a priest.

The monk was perplexed. He was from a simple farming background, he was a brother among the monks, and he had never thought about being ordained a priest.

But Father Abbot, he protested, I do not know how to serve the liturgy.

But the garden is your liturgy, the Abbot insisted. And the garden shall continue to be your liturgy.

Despite this monk’s protests, he was ordained a priest.

He continued to work in the garden. The flowers bloomed and the vegetable grew in such vast quantities that the monks had to give them away freely to the local villagers.

Often, while the other monks were praying the offices or hours in the monastery chapel, Father John was still out on his tractor, looking after the garden, the flowers, the vegetables, the vines and the orchards. They needed constant attention, Father John understood nature, and there he prayed with them.

There are three degrees in Orthodox monasticism:

When the novice becomes a monk, he is clothed in monk’s clothing and receives the tonsure.

Some years later, when the abbot feels the monk has reached an appropriate level of discipline, dedication, and humility, he moves on to the second degree known as the Little Schema.

Many monks remain at this level. But sometimes, monks whose abbots feel they have reached a high level of spiritual excellence reach the final stage, known as the Great Schema.

In his dying days, Father John received the Great Schema from his Abbot. He died a few days later, but his gardens continue to bloom and to blossom, and both he and his generosity are still remembered by the villagers many years later.

The fruit and the flowers, the vine and vegetables, may have been Father John’s liturgy. But the people he blessed with the produce of the fields and the gardens are themselves the harvest of the monastery.

Shortly after hearing this story that day, I found myself face to face with a fresco in one of the monastery chapels depicting the Resurrection scene where Mary Magdalene is in the garden and mistakes the Risen Christ for the gardener.

It seemed to me that day that there is something spiritually beautiful and appropriate about the monk-gardener becoming a priest, and that the Risen Christ might at first sight be confused with the gardener.

It was the Gospel reading at last Sunday’s ordination of priests in Christ Church Cathedral.

How do we best celebrate the harvest do we have to offer today?

There is a harvest lunch in Stillorgan later in the day [2 October 2016]. But like the people who follow Christ to the other side of the lake in our Gospel reading, are we there because we are being fed (see John 6: 26), or because of who Christ is for us?

What harvest do we have to offer as individuals, as a parish, as a diocese, as the Church of Ireland?

What did we mean when we prayed those words in this morning’s Collect that say: ‘Grant that we may use them to your glory, for the relief of those in need’?

I am just back from a meeting in London of the trustees of the Anglican mission agency USPG at which we heard harrowing accounts of the suffering of Syrian refugees who are fleeing places like Aleppo and Damascus and fleeing to Greece, only to find themselves treated with uncivilised inhumanity in holding facilities on the islands, in Athens and on the borders.

When Saint Paul tells us this morning to ‘keep on doing the things we have learned and received and heard and seen,’ then it must be in loving God and loving our neighbour. And it must involve too remembering, as our Old Testament reading reminds us, that we must ‘celebrate … all the bounty that the Lord God given us’ (Deuteronomy 26: 11) in the harvest ‘with the aliens who reside among us.’

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

Collect:

Eternal God,
you crown the year with your goodness
and give us the fruits of the earth in their season:
Grant that we may use them to your glory,
for the relief of those in need
and for our own well-being;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post-Communion Prayer:

Lord of the harvest, with joy we have offered thanksgiving for your love in creation
and have shared in the bread and wine of the kingdom.
By your grace plant within us such reverence
for all that you give us
that will make us wise stewards of the good things we enjoy;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This sermon was preached at the Harvest Thanksgiving Eucharist in All Saints’ Church, Blackrock, Co Dublin, on 2 October 2016.

Harvest time in Alvecote, near Tamworth (Photograph: Ken Robinson, 2016)

The sun sets on the presence of friars
in Gormanston Castle and in Orlagh

A rainbow at Bettystown Beach on Saturday afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016; click on image to view full-size)

Patrick Comerford

I spent much of Saturday [1 October2016] at my old school in Gormanston, Co Meath, where we were heard an interesting lecture by the local historian Brendan Matthews on the history of Gormanston Castle before we were brought on a guided tour of the castle by the Rector of Gormanston, Father Ulic Troy, entertained to a reception and lunch in the Refectory or dining room, and heard of the latest developments in the school from the Principal, Dermot Lavin, and the Deputy Principal, Vincent Dunne.

There was time too to reminisce about old friends and old teachers, sporting and academic achievements, and dramatic and musical escapades.

On a sad note, the Franciscan friars are moving out of Gormanston Castle after more than 60 years there. On a positive note, Gormanston College is the current reigning Leinster Rugby senior development shield champion, having defeated Tullamore College 22-20 in Donnybrook earlier this year [16 May 2016].

There will be time later in the week to write more about the history of Gormanston Castle and the Preston family. But earlier in the day and later in the afternoon there was time to stroll through the castle and college grounds, including Cromwell’s Avenue, the Yew Tree Walk, and by the river that runs through the grounds of the old castle.

In the Yew Tree Walk at Gormanston (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

I found time too for a walk through the neighbouring fields and countryside, where the surviving stubble from the harvest is leaving a mixture of autumn colours of yellow, green and brown, beneath the skies of blue, white and grey.

Later two us drove a little further north to Bettystown for a meal in Relish, where we were offered a table for two by the window near the terrace, looking across the long sandy beach and out across the Irish Sea to the east.

There had been occasional short showers of rain through the autumn sunshine throughout the day. But as we were finishing our meal in Relish, a rainbow opened up in the sky to the east and soon became a double rainbow.

Walking on the beach at Bettystown, Co Meath (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

We went for a long stroll on the beach afterwards, and although the weather is still warm for this time of the year there were few people on the wide expanse of sandy beach.

Later, when were closer to home, and as the sun was setting, we realised that the Augustinian retreat house in Orlagh at the top of Ballycullen Road is about to close.

The house and the lands have been sold, the friars are moving to other Augutinian houses around Dublin. The Augustinians celebrate their last Mass in the chapel at Orlagh this morning [2 October 2016].

As the sun was setting behind us in the mountains it cast its beams across Dublin Bay below us.

Life is bringing changes to the Franciscan friars who are moving out of Gormanston Castle after more than 60 years, and to the Augustinian friars who are moving out of Orlagh. But their legacy is far beyond my imagination, and their influence and values shall continue among generations not yet born.

Sunset on Dublin Bay seen from the Orlagh Rretreat Centre last night (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)