Sunday, 21 May 2017

Notes for a visit to the church
and glebehouse in Castletown

Castletown Church was built in 1831 by James Pain and the Waller family for Kilcornan Parish, Co Limerick, in (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Castletown Church, which is being visited this afternoon [21 May 2017] by members of the Thomond Archaeological and Historical Society, is one of the many churches designed by the Limerick-based architect James Pain (1779-1877). The church was commissioned by the Board of First Fruits, which gave grants and loans for building churches and glebe houses and offered financial aid to needy clergy.

The work of the Board of First Fruits led to a period of intensive church building in the Church of Ireland in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Between 1779 and 1829, the Board of First Fruits built, rebuilt or enlarged 697 churches and 829 glebe houses. Among these are Castletown Church.

However, the most significant benefactor in the building of Castletown Church was John Waller (1763-1836), the owner of Castetown Manor.

John Waller was the son of John T Waller and Elizabeth Maunsell, and he later became an MP for Limerick. He married Isabella Oliver of Castle Oliver and was a captain in the Kerry Cavalry, one of regiments raised during the era of Grattan’s Parliament.

Waller was an MP for Co Limerick in the Irish House of Commons from 1790, and was MP for Kilmallock when he voted against the Act of Union. After the Union, he was elected MP for Co Limerick in 1801, but he had not taken his seat at Westminster by 25 March 1801, there is no evidence that he engaged in post-Union parliamentary activity, and he stood down in 1802.

He was one of Napoleon’s détenus at Verdun, and in 1805 he declined an unexpected offer of liberation instigated by his former fellow scholar, Arthur O’Connor, informing Napoleon that although private and family considerations made him extremely anxious to return to Ireland, he would rather die a prisoner than owe his liberty to a man who had proved himself a traitor to his King and an enemy to his country.

When John Waller died on 14 November 1836, he was buried in the Waller Vault in Castletown cemetery, and was succeeded by his brother, Bolton Waller.

Castletown Church, which was built for the Parish of Kilcornan, cost a total of £1,500. Of this, £700, together with the site, was an outright gift from John Waller. Moreover, Waller undertook to pay off the balance of £800, which had been obtained as a loan from the Board of First Fruits.

James Pain (1779-1877), the architect of Castletown Church, was a son of James Pain, a surveyor and builder. He was born in Isleworth, Middlesex, in 1779, and he and his younger brother, George Pain (1792-1838), were apprenticed to John Nash (1752-1835), the architect responsible for much of the layout of Regency London under the patronage of the Prince Regent.

The Pain brothers came to Ireland in 1811 to supervise building Lough Cultra Castle in Gort, Co Limerick, which John Nash had designed for Charles Vereker. Both brothers settled in Ireland and they built up a considerable practice. James Pain settled in Limerick, while George lived in Cork.

The buildings they designed or worked on include Dromoland Castle, Co Clare; Saint Columba’s Church, Drumcliffe, Ennis, Co Clare; Saint Mary’s Church, Shandon, Cork; Saint Patrick’s Church, Cork; Holy Trinity Church, Cork; Blackrock Castle, Cork; Baal’s Bridge, Thomond Bridge, and Athlunkard Bridge, all in Limerick City; Limerick Gaol; and part of Adare Manor, where James Pain was replaced as architect by AWN Pugin.

In 1824, James Pain was appointed architect for the Board of First Fruits in Munster. He designed and built a great number of the Church of Ireland churches and glebehouses in Co Limerick, including the glebehouse or old rectory in Askeaton, which stands beside the Rectory where I am now living, and perhaps Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale, one of the churches in this group of parishes.

Inside Castletown Church, near Pallaskenry, Co Limerick, which was built in 1831 for Kilcornan Parish (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Castletown Church has an unusual orientation: must churches are built on an east-west axis, but this church is on a north-side axis. It has a three-bay, gable-fronted nave, with a square-profile three-stage tower to the south elevation (the liturgical west end), with square-profile, multiple-gabled, single-storey vestries to the geographical east and west elevations of the tower.

There is a pitched slate roof, with cast-iron rainwater goods, cut limestone eaves course and limestone copings to the gables.

There are pitched slate roofs to the porches, with cut limestone eaves courses and copings and finials to the gables.

There is a terracotta chimney-pot to the west-facing gable of the west porch. There are cut limestone eaves course and crenellations to the top of tower, and the square-profile cut limestone finials have pointed caps.

The walls are of random coursed rubble limestone with cut limestone quoins. There is a cut limestone plinth course to the south elevation of the tower and the side porches. There is a square-headed plaque recess to the south elevation of the tower, with cut limestone surround.

The pointed arch openings to the north, east and west elevations of the nave have cut tooled limestone surrounds, sill and hood-moulding, with a timber-traceried window. The pointed arch openings to the south elevation of the porches have cut and tooled limestone surrounds and sills, cut limestone hood moulding and timber sliding sash windows.

The pointed arch opening to second stage of the tower on the south elevation has a cut tooled limestone surround, sill, hood moulding and timber-framed window.

There are paired lancet openings to each elevation of third stage of tower, with cut tooled limestone surrounds, sills, cut limestone hood-moulding and timber louvered vents. There are four-centred arch openings to south elevation of tower and east and west elevations of east and west porches, with tooled cut limestone surrounds and double-leaf timber battened doors, with cut limestone hood-moulding to those to the east and west porches and cut limestone label moulding to the south elevation of tower. The entrances have limestone steps.

This church displays a high level of architectural design and detailing, most notably in its imposing square-profile crenellated tower and flanking porches. Its cut limestone finials, crenellations and eaves courses, as well as the hood-mouldings to the doors and window openings, add an element of contrast to the rubble stone walls, while the variety of timber tracery to the windows add artistic interest.

The setting of Castletown Church within a graveyard adds context to the site, and the church makes a notable addition to the surrounding landscape.

The former glebe house in Castletown is the second on the site … was James Pain the architect (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The former glebehouse in Castletown, which was the traditional residence of the Rectors of Kilcornan, was built in 1810. However, there is no information about the architect of the building. This was the second glebehouse on the site, replacing a house that was burned down in 1735, when the Revd Roger Throp was the rector.

Throp blamed Colonel John Waller for the fire and for shooting dead his ‘valuable’ saddle horse, describing Waller as his ‘bitter and vindictive enemy.’ Throp died a year after the fire in 1736. Later, Dean Jonathan Swift lampooned Waller in a well-known balled, ‘The Legion Club’, including the lines:

See the scowling visage drop,
just as when he murdered Throp.


Captain John Waller, a son of the man lampooned by Dean Swift, gave the site and paid for building Castletown Church.

The main part of the glebe house consists of a three-bay, two-storey house, with a recessed four-bay, two-storey addition on the east side. There is a hipped slate roof with rendered chimney stacks and terra cotta ridge tiles.

Before recent renovations, there were large nine-over-six pane windows to the south and six-over-six pane windows to the north. However, this arrangement was changed in recent times.

There is a round-headed opening to the south elevation, flanked by timber pilasters, with fluted consoles. There is a fanlight over the front door. To the south of the house are the remains of a walled garden. The restraint in ornamentation adds symmetry to the building and focuses on the front entrance.

Originally, 60 acres of land were attached to the glebe house. In 1850, Griffith’s Valuation lists only 57 acres, and this was gradually reduced over the years. The Church of Ireland sold the glebe house some years ago and it is now in private ownership.

Meanwhile, James Pain lived on in Limerick to the great age of 98. Although he continued in practice, he appears to have received very few substantial commissions after the early 1840s. His last large commission appears to have been the addition of a west wing and other alterations to Knoppogue Castle, Co Clare, begun in 1856, while he continued as architect to the Board of Superintendence of Co Limerick Gaol until 1863.

Pain died on 13 December 1877, at the age of 97, and was buried in the Vereker family vault in the churchyard of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, on 17 December 1877.

The monument to Bolton Waller in Castletown Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

John Waller (1763-1836) of Castletown Manor and estate, who initiated the building of Castletown Church, was the son of John T Waller and Elizabeth Maunsell, and he later became an MP for Limerick. He married Isabella Oliver of Castle Oliver and was buried in the Waller vault in Castletown cemetery.

John Waller was succeeded by his brother, Bolton Waller. Bolton Waller died in 1854 and his son and heir, the Revd William Waller, held a large estate in the early 1850s, mainly in the parish of Kilcornan. His son, the Revd John Thomas Waller of Castletown, was Rector of Kilcornan and still owned 6,636 acres in Co Limerick in the 1870s. He died in 1911.

His grandson, John Thomas Waller, sold the Waller family’s Castletown estate in 1936.

The monument to the Revd William Waller in Castletown Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

The last Rector of Kilcornan to live in Castletown Rectory was the Revd George McCann (1899-1974). George McCann was born in Lurgan, Co Armagh, the son of James McCann, Principal of Queen’s Place School, Lurgan. He moved to Dublin and was educated at Marlborough Street School and Trinity College Dublin (BA 1930, MA 1935), where he was Bedell Scholar (1928) and winner of the Kyle Irish Prize in 1929. He was ordained deacon in 1930 and priest in 1931.

His was as a curate in Saint Peter’s, Dublin (1930-1934), curate in Oldcastle, Co Meath (1934-1938), and curate-in-charge at Kilmacshalgan, Co Sligo (1938-1944), before coming to this diocese as Rector of Dingle (1944-1954) and then Rector of Askeaton and Kilcornan (1954-1973). He married Sarah Maude, daughter of Robert Stephens, and they had a daughter, Gráinne. He died in February 1974, just as he was retiring as rector. He is buried in the churchyard, where is gravestone has an inscription in the Irish languahe.

Some years ago, the Church of Ireland sold the glebe house, and it is now in private ownership. But this former glebehouse retains much of its original form and is characteristic of glebe houses of that period.

The monument to the Revd John Thomas Waller in Castletown Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Priest-in-Charge of the Rathkeale and Kilnaughtin Group of Parishes. These notes were prepared for a visit to Castletown Church by members of the Thomond Archaeological and Historical Society on 21 May 2017.

‘Whoever saves a life
has saved the entire world’

‘Whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world’ … the Oskar Schindler factory in Kraków (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 24 May 2017: The Sixth Sunday of Easter

Saint Brendan’s Church, Kilnaughtin, Tarbert, Co Kerry,


11.30 a.m.: The Eucharist.

Readings: Acts 17: 22-31; Psalm 66: 7-18; 1 Peter 3: 13-22; John 14: 15-21.

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

If the truth were to be told, many Christians find it difficult to live a life that is truly Trinitarian.

We may think we understand our relationship with God the Father, the Creator of Heaven and Earth.

We may think we have an even clearer understanding of our relationship with God the Son … after all, we know every last detail of his biography; his CV has been the subject of every Sunday School and Confirmation class we attended; his CV fills and shapes our Church Calendar and the stained glass windows in many of our parish churches.

But what about the Holy Spirit?

If we were to ask most people, they probably think of the Holy Spirit as some invisible appendix of God the Father and God the Son, ‘something’ or ‘someone’ that comes down at Pentecost. Perhaps, ‘something’ or ‘someone’ that gave us gifts at Confirmation. But that ‘something’ or ‘someone’ is best not talked about too much in case someone thinks we are too enthusiastic about Christianity, too enthusiastic about religion.

We become uncomfortable about the Holy Spirit when we think about enthusiastic and uncontrolled expressions of charismatic Pentecostalism.

Our access to thinking about God the Holy Spirit is made more difficult when we think about the images of the Holy Spirit provided in the traditions of Christian art: a dove that is shown in paintings and stained-glass windows that looks a lot like a homing pigeon; or tongues of fire dancing around the meekly-bowed heads of people cowering together as they hide in an upstairs room.

We think, perhaps, that it is best to leave sermons about the Holy Spirit to the Day of Pentecost – which is two weeks from today [4 June 2017] – or to a once-a-year Confirmation service, and we are having three confirmations in Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale, two weeks after Pentecost [18 June 2017], four weeks from today.

But we might be in danger of slipping into the idea that it is best to let the rest of us get on for the rest of the year with God being God the Father or God the Son.

However, the Holy Spirit is not something added on as an extra course, as an after-thought after the Resurrection and Ascension.

We find it difficult to think of the pre-existence of Christ. What was he doing before the Annunciation? Sunday after Sunday, we confess in the Nicene Creed that ‘Through him all things were made.’ But we still find it difficult in our prayer and inner spirituality to think of the Eternal Christ.

And when it comes to saying, ‘We believe in the Holy Spirit,’ do we really believe in the Holy Spirit as ‘the Lord, the giver of life,’ in the Holy Spirit as the way in which God ‘has spoken through the prophets’?

I am a regular blogger. My sons worry that my friends may think I’m a bit of a ‘Geek.’

I post on the internet almost every day. But I really am not a geek. All I post is my lecture notes, my sermons, and some rambling thoughts about walking on the beach, or about travelling and local history, or about my love of music and poetry.

It takes very little extra work. I still need to write up my notes for these sermons or for those lectures. And I have very little way of knowing whether these notes and ramblings have any impact once they go out into cyberspace.

Some years ago, when I faced up to some personal difficulties and wrestled with them, I posted on my blog some reflections on how my mind kept returning to those reassuring words from Dame Julian of Norwich: ‘All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.’

I wrote how Julian’s positive outlook does not come from ignoring suffering or being blind to it, but arises from the clarity she attained as she struggled with her own questions. This struggle gave her the ability to see beyond her own pain and suffering, and to look into the compassionate face of God. Only this gazing could reassure her that – despite pain, and sorrow – in God’s own time, ‘all shall be well.’

Almost immediately, a former work colleague rang to know if I was all right. He offered a friendly ear, and his response was comforting and consoling.

Over the years, there have been some other responses to this posting. Then, some years after it was first posted, an anonymous reader posted, saying: ‘Thank you for this gift. [I r]eceived very difficult news this past week and kept looking for a silver lining – some way to give thanks to God for what has happened in my life …

‘In reading the words “All shall be well . . .” was a great reminder of the hope that Christ gives us and as well, that Christ is with us each second of the day. Thank you again for the reminder of “God with us” no matter what.’

It was a response out of the blue, and it put my own difficulties then in perspective. Years later, someone else had found comfort in my own reflections on my own sorrows.

I do not know who this person is, or where she lives. All I know is that she is a chaplain.

But if this was the only blog-post that I had a response to, if this was the only reader I had all these years, then all the other blog-posts have been worth it. We cannot control, quantify or restrict the way in which the Holy Spirit uses or values our work, or uses us to work with others. And for most of the time, we are better off not knowing.

‘He himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things’ (Acts 17: 25) ... the steps up the Areopgaus in Athens (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

I was sharing this experience with some colleagues some time ago. And I was reminded of a saying in the Talmud – one of the most sacred texts of ancient Judaism: ‘Whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world’ [Jerusalem Talmud, Sanhedrin 4: 1 (22a); Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 37a.]

It is a saying found throughout Rabbinic literature, that is repeated in the Quran, and, as I was reminded when I was in Kraków and Auschwitz six months ago, a saying that inspired Oskar Schindler, the hero of the movie Schindler’s List.

I was sharing this story over dinner one evening with some clerical colleagues and friends.

One colleague told me of a man who had turned up in his church for a quiet mid-day service. The man is now in his mid-40s, and was visiting Ireland on a business trip. He had often visited churches and cathedrals, but had never before been so moved as he was by this mid-day Eucharist. He approached my friend afterwards and asked for a quiet moment.

He wanted to be baptised ... there and then.

My colleague asked him to wait, to come back in an hour or two. And he did. Two parishioners stood as sponsors or godparents. The whole thing was over in 10 or 15 minutes. The man rang his wife full of joy. He felt he had arrived where he ought to be. Outwardly, he was full of joy. Inwardly, he had arrived, he was at home, he had found his peace with God.

What had happened? The Holy Spirit had moved, and he had responded.

‘Whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.’

Acts 17: 22-31 ... the Apostle Paul’s sermon at the Areopagus in Athens (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

God never leaves us alone.

This is what the Apostle Paul is saying at the Areopagus in Athens in our reading from the Acts of the Apostles this morning (Acts 17: 22-31). The people who worshipped the unknown God on the slopes beneath the shadow of the Acropolis could be assured that God had heard their prayers, and they were now being invited to join in communion with this God through Saint Paul’s proclamation.

And, because the Resurrection breaks through all the barriers of time and space, the Apostle Peter tells us this morning that even in death Christ brought the good news to those who died before the Incarnation: ‘also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison’ (I Peter 3: 19).

God leaves no-one without the opportunity to be drawn into his infinite love, no-one, despite the barriers of time and space, the barriers of history or geography, the barriers of social or religious distinction.

And as a sign or a token of this, as a promise of this, Christ says in our Gospel reading this morning that he is asking ‘the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you’ (John 14: 16-17).

If you know the Spirit, and the Spirit abides in you, how would you let others know?

If the Holy Spirit is the Advocate and is living in you, then who are you an advocate for?

Who do you speak up for when there is no-one else to speak up for them?

Who are you, in your own small, quiet, undramatic way, a voice for, like Oskar Schindler?

I have no doubt that the Holy Spirit works in so many ways that we cannot understand. And that the Holy Spirit works best and works most often in the quiet small ways rather than in the big dramatic ways.

Let us never put down or dismiss the small efforts to make this a better world. ‘Whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.’

Gandhi once said: ‘Be the change you want to see in the world.’ And he also said: ‘Only he who is foolish enough to believe that he can change the world, really changes it.’

And sometimes, even when it seems foolish, sometimes, even when it seems extravagant, it is worth being led by the Holy Spirit. Because the Holy Spirit may be leading us to surprising places, and leading others to be there too.

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 Holy Spirit descending as a dove ... part of a triptych in the Chapel of Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Collect:

God our redeemer,
you have delivered us from the power of darkness
and brought us into the kingdom of your Son:
Grant, that as by his death he has recalled us to life,
so by his continual presence in us he may raise us to eternal joy;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Post Communion Prayer:

God our Father,
whose Son Jesus Christ gives the water of eternal life:
May we also thirst for you,
the spring of life and source of goodness,
through him who is alive and reigns with you
and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.

John 16: 5-16

<Ο Ιησούς είπε> 5 νῦν δὲ ὑπάγω πρὸς τὸν πέμψαντά με, καὶ οὐδεὶς ἐξ ὑμῶν ἐρωτᾷ με, Ποῦ ὑπάγεις; 6 ἀλλ' ὅτι ταῦτα λελάληκα ὑμῖν ἡ λύπη πεπλήρωκεν ὑμῶν τὴν καρδίαν. 7 ἀλλ' ἐγὼ τὴν ἀλήθειαν λέγω ὑμῖν, συμφέρει ὑμῖν ἵνα ἐγὼ ἀπέλθω. ἐὰν γὰρ μὴ ἀπέλθω, ὁ παράκλητος οὐκ ἐλεύσεται πρὸς ὑμᾶς: ἐὰν δὲ πορευθῶ, πέμψω αὐτὸν πρὸς ὑμᾶς. 8 καὶ ἐλθὼν ἐκεῖνος ἐλέγξει τὸν κόσμον περὶ ἁμαρτίας καὶ περὶ δικαιοσύνης καὶ περὶ κρίσεως: 9 περὶ ἁμαρτίας μέν, ὅτι οὐ πιστεύουσιν εἰς ἐμέ: 10 περὶ δικαιοσύνης δέ, ὅτι πρὸς τὸν πατέρα ὑπάγω καὶ οὐκέτι θεωρεῖτέ με: 11 περὶ δὲ κρίσεως, ὅτι ὁ ἄρχων τοῦ κόσμου τούτου κέκριται.

12 Ἔτι πολλὰ ἔχω ὑμῖν λέγειν, ἀλλ' οὐ δύνασθε βαστάζειν ἄρτι: 13 ὅταν δὲ ἔλθῃ ἐκεῖνος, τὸ πνεῦμα τῆς ἀληθείας, ὁδηγήσει ὑμᾶς ἐν τῇ ἀληθείᾳ πάσῃ: οὐ γὰρ λαλήσει ἀφ' ἑαυτοῦ, ἀλλ' ὅσα ἀκούσει λαλήσει, καὶ τὰ ἐρχόμενα ἀναγγελεῖ ὑμῖν. 14 ἐκεῖνος ἐμὲ δοξάσει, ὅτι ἐκ τοῦ ἐμοῦ λήμψεται καὶ ἀναγγελεῖ ὑμῖν. 15 πάντα ὅσα ἔχει ὁ πατὴρ ἐμά ἐστιν: διὰ τοῦτο εἶπον ὅτι ἐκ τοῦ ἐμοῦ λαμβάνει καὶ ἀναγγελεῖ ὑμῖν.

16 Μικρὸν καὶ οὐκέτι θεωρεῖτέ με, καὶ πάλιν μικρὸν καὶ ὄψεσθέ με.

Translation (NRSV):

[Jesus said:] ‘5 But now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, “Where are you going?” 6 But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts. 7 Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. 8 And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgement: 9 about sin, because they do not believe in me; 10 about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; 11 about judgement, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.

12 ‘I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. 13 When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. 14 He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you.15 All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

16 ‘A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while, and you will see me.’

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is the Priest-in-Charge, the Rathkeale and Kilnaughtin Group of Parishes. This sermon was preapared for Sunday 21 May 2017.

‘He himself gives to all mortals
life and breath and all things’

‘He himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things’ (Acts 17: 25) ... the steps up the Areopgaus in Athens (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 24 May 2017: The Sixth Sunday of Easter

Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick,


9.45 a.m.: Morning Prayer.

Readings: Acts 17: 22-31; Psalm 66: 7-18; 1 Peter 3: 13-22; John 14: 15-21.

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

If the truth were to be told, many Christians find it difficult to live a life that is truly Trinitarian.

We may think we understand our relationship with God the Father, the Creator of Heaven and Earth.

We may think we have an even clearer understanding of our relationship with God the Son … after all, we know every last detail of his biography; his CV has been the subject of every Sunday School and Confirmation class we attended; his CV fills and shapes our Church Calendar and the stained glass windows in many of our parish churches.

But what about the Holy Spirit?

If we were to ask most people, they probably think of the Holy Spirit as some invisible appendix of God the Father and God the Son, ‘something’ or ‘someone’ that comes down at Pentecost. Perhaps, ‘something’ or ‘someone’ that gave us gifts at Confirmation. But that ‘something’ or ‘someone’ is best not talked about too much in case someone thinks we are too enthusiastic about Christianity, too enthusiastic about religion.

We become uncomfortable about the Holy Spirit when we think about enthusiastic and uncontrolled expressions of charismatic Pentecostalism.

Our access to thinking about God the Holy Spirit is made more difficult when we think about the images of the Holy Spirit provided in the traditions of Christian art: a dove that is shown in paintings and stained-glass windows that looks a lot like a homing pigeon; or tongues of fire dancing around the meekly-bowed heads of people cowering together as they hide in an upstairs room.

We think, perhaps, that it is best to leave sermons about the Holy Spirit to the Day of Pentecost – which is two weeks from today [4 June 2017] – or to a once-a-year Confirmation service, and we are having three confirmations in Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale, two weeks after Pentecost [18 June 2017], four weeks from today.

But we might be in danger of slipping into the idea that it is best to let the rest of us get on for the rest of the year with God being God the Father or God the Son.

However, the Holy Spirit is not something added on as an extra course, as an after-thought after the Resurrection and Ascension.

We find it difficult to think of the pre-existence of Christ. What was he doing before the Annunciation? Sunday after Sunday, we confess in the Nicene Creed that ‘Through him all things were made.’ But we still find it difficult in our prayer and inner spirituality to think of the Eternal Christ.

And when it comes to saying, ‘We believe in the Holy Spirit,’ do we really believe in the Holy Spirit as ‘the Lord, the giver of life,’ in the Holy Spirit as the way in which God ‘has spoken through the prophets’?

I am a regular blogger. My sons worry that my friends may think I’m a bit of a ‘Geek.’

I post on the internet almost every day. But I really am not a geek. All I post is my lecture notes, my sermons, and some rambling thoughts about walking on the beach, or about travelling and local history, or about my love of music and poetry.

It takes very little extra work. I still need to write up my notes for these sermons or for those lectures. And I have very little way of knowing whether these notes and ramblings have any impact once they go out into cyberspace.

Some years ago, when I faced up to some personal difficulties and wrestled with them, I posted on my blog some reflections on how my mind kept returning to those reassuring words from Dame Julian of Norwich: ‘All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.’

I wrote how Julian’s positive outlook does not come from ignoring suffering or being blind to it, but arises from the clarity she attained as she struggled with her own questions. This struggle gave her the ability to see beyond her own pain and suffering, and to look into the compassionate face of God. Only this gazing could reassure her that – despite pain, and sorrow – in God’s own time, ‘all shall be well.’

Almost immediately, a former work colleague rang to know if I was all right. He offered a friendly ear, and his response was comforting and consoling.

Over the years, there have been some other responses to this posting. Then, some years after it was first posted, an anonymous reader posted, saying: ‘Thank you for this gift. [I r]eceived very difficult news this past week and kept looking for a silver lining – some way to give thanks to God for what has happened in my life …

‘In reading the words “All shall be well . . .” was a great reminder of the hope that Christ gives us and as well, that Christ is with us each second of the day. Thank you again for the reminder of “God with us” no matter what.’

It was a response out of the blue, and it put my own difficulties then in perspective. Years later, someone else had found comfort in my own reflections on my own sorrows.

I do not know who this person is, or where she lives. All I know is that she is a chaplain.

But if this was the only blog-post that I had a response to, if this was the only reader I had all these years, then all the other blog-posts have been worth it. We cannot control, quantify or restrict the way in which the Holy Spirit uses or values our work, or uses us to work with others. And for most of the time, we are better off not knowing.

‘Whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world’ … the Oskar Schindler factory in Kraków (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

I was sharing this experience with some colleagues some time ago. And I was reminded of a saying in the Talmud – one of the most sacred texts of ancient Judaism: ‘Whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world’ [Jerusalem Talmud, Sanhedrin 4: 1 (22a); Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 37a.]

It is a saying found throughout Rabbinic literature, that is repeated in the Quran, and, as I was reminded when I was in Kraków and Auschwitz six months ago, a saying that inspired Oskar Schindler, the hero of the movie Schindler’s List.

I was sharing this story over dinner one evening with some clerical colleagues and friends.

One colleague told me of a man who had turned up in his church for a quiet mid-day service. The man is now in his mid-40s, and was visiting Ireland on a business trip. He had often visited churches and cathedrals, but had never before been so moved as he was by this mid-day Eucharist. He approached my friend afterwards and asked for a quiet moment.

He wanted to be baptised ... there and then.

My colleague asked him to wait, to come back in an hour or two. And he did. Two parishioners stood as sponsors or godparents. The whole thing was over in 10 or 15 minutes. The man rang his wife full of joy. He felt he had arrived where he ought to be. Outwardly, he was full of joy. Inwardly, he had arrived, he was at home, he had found his peace with God.

What had happened? The Holy Spirit had moved, and he had responded.

‘Whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.’

Acts 17: 22-31 ... the Apostle Paul’s sermon at the Areopagus in Athens (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

God never leaves us alone.

This is what the Apostle Paul is saying at the Areopagus in Athens in our reading from the Acts of the Apostles this morning (Acts 17: 22-31). The people who worshipped the unknown God on the slopes beneath the shadow of the Acropolis could be assured that God had heard their prayers, and they were now being invited to join in communion with this God through Saint Paul’s proclamation.

And, because the Resurrection breaks through all the barriers of time and space, the Apostle Peter tells us this morning that even in death Christ brought the good news to those who died before the Incarnation: ‘also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison’ (I Peter 3: 19).

God leaves no-one without the opportunity to be drawn into his infinite love, no-one, despite the barriers of time and space, the barriers of history or geography, the barriers of social or religious distinction.

And as a sign or a token of this, as a promise of this, Christ says in our Gospel reading this morning that he is asking ‘the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you’ (John 14: 16-17).

If you know the Spirit, and the Spirit abides in you, how would you let others know?

If the Holy Spirit is the Advocate and is living in you, then who are you an advocate for?

Who do you speak up for when there is no-one else to speak up for them?

Who are you, in your own small, quiet, undramatic way, a voice for, like Oskar Schindler?

I have no doubt that the Holy Spirit works in so many ways that we cannot understand. And that the Holy Spirit works best and works most often in the quiet small ways rather than in the big dramatic ways.

Let us never put down or dismiss the small efforts to make this a better world. ‘Whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.’

Gandhi once said: ‘Be the change you want to see in the world.’ And he also said: ‘Only he who is foolish enough to believe that he can change the world, really changes it.’

And sometimes, even when it seems foolish, sometimes, even when it seems extravagant, it is worth being led by the Holy Spirit. Because the Holy Spirit may be leading us to surprising places, and leading others to be there too.

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 Holy Spirit descending as a dove ... part of a triptych in the Chapel of Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Collect:

God our redeemer,
you have delivered us from the power of darkness
and brought us into the kingdom of your Son:
Grant, that as by his death he has recalled us to life,
so by his continual presence in us he may raise us to eternal joy;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

John 16: 5-16

<Ο Ιησούς είπε> 5 νῦν δὲ ὑπάγω πρὸς τὸν πέμψαντά με, καὶ οὐδεὶς ἐξ ὑμῶν ἐρωτᾷ με, Ποῦ ὑπάγεις; 6 ἀλλ' ὅτι ταῦτα λελάληκα ὑμῖν ἡ λύπη πεπλήρωκεν ὑμῶν τὴν καρδίαν. 7 ἀλλ' ἐγὼ τὴν ἀλήθειαν λέγω ὑμῖν, συμφέρει ὑμῖν ἵνα ἐγὼ ἀπέλθω. ἐὰν γὰρ μὴ ἀπέλθω, ὁ παράκλητος οὐκ ἐλεύσεται πρὸς ὑμᾶς: ἐὰν δὲ πορευθῶ, πέμψω αὐτὸν πρὸς ὑμᾶς. 8 καὶ ἐλθὼν ἐκεῖνος ἐλέγξει τὸν κόσμον περὶ ἁμαρτίας καὶ περὶ δικαιοσύνης καὶ περὶ κρίσεως: 9 περὶ ἁμαρτίας μέν, ὅτι οὐ πιστεύουσιν εἰς ἐμέ: 10 περὶ δικαιοσύνης δέ, ὅτι πρὸς τὸν πατέρα ὑπάγω καὶ οὐκέτι θεωρεῖτέ με: 11 περὶ δὲ κρίσεως, ὅτι ὁ ἄρχων τοῦ κόσμου τούτου κέκριται.

12 Ἔτι πολλὰ ἔχω ὑμῖν λέγειν, ἀλλ' οὐ δύνασθε βαστάζειν ἄρτι: 13 ὅταν δὲ ἔλθῃ ἐκεῖνος, τὸ πνεῦμα τῆς ἀληθείας, ὁδηγήσει ὑμᾶς ἐν τῇ ἀληθείᾳ πάσῃ: οὐ γὰρ λαλήσει ἀφ' ἑαυτοῦ, ἀλλ' ὅσα ἀκούσει λαλήσει, καὶ τὰ ἐρχόμενα ἀναγγελεῖ ὑμῖν. 14 ἐκεῖνος ἐμὲ δοξάσει, ὅτι ἐκ τοῦ ἐμοῦ λήμψεται καὶ ἀναγγελεῖ ὑμῖν. 15 πάντα ὅσα ἔχει ὁ πατὴρ ἐμά ἐστιν: διὰ τοῦτο εἶπον ὅτι ἐκ τοῦ ἐμοῦ λαμβάνει καὶ ἀναγγελεῖ ὑμῖν.

16 Μικρὸν καὶ οὐκέτι θεωρεῖτέ με, καὶ πάλιν μικρὸν καὶ ὄψεσθέ με.

Translation (NRSV):

[Jesus said:] ‘5 But now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, “Where are you going?” 6 But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts. 7 Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. 8 And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgement: 9 about sin, because they do not believe in me; 10 about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; 11 about judgement, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.

12 ‘I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. 13 When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. 14 He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you.15 All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

16 ‘A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while, and you will see me.’

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is the Priest-in-Charge, the Rathkeale and Kilnaughtin Group of Parishes. This sermon was prepared for Sunday 21 May 2017.