16 January 2022

With the Saints through Christmas (22):
16 January 2022, Saint Fursey

Saint Fursey’s Church in Banteer, Co Cork, dates from 1828 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Today is the Second Sunday after the Epiphany (22 January 2022). This looks like being a busy Sunday, and later this morning I am preaching at Morning Prayer in Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick, and preaching and presiding at the Parish Eucharist in Saint Brendan’s Church, Tarbert, Co Kerry.

But, before this day gets busy, I am taking some time early this morning for prayer, reflection and reading.

I have been continuing my Prayer Diary on my blog each morning, reflecting in these ways:

1, Reflections on a saint remembered in the calendars of the Church during the Season of Christmas, which continues until Candlemas or the Feast of the Presentation (2 February);

2, the day’s Gospel reading;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

This morning (16 January 2022), I am reflecting on the life of Saint Fursey, a seventh century Irish monk who was involved in establishing Christianity throughout these islands, particularly in East Anglia, and later in France. Saint Fursey is known as one of the ‘Four Comely Saints,’ and he reportedly experienced angelic visions of the afterlife.

James Joyce mentions Saint Fursa in Ulysses in a list of mostly Irish heroes and heroines. The Unfortunate Fursey, a popular comic novel by Mervyn Wall describes the saint as a hapless poor soul tormented by visions of buxom women and bargaining with demons to escape the torments of religion.

Saint Fursey was born in present-day Connacht supposedly the son of Fintan and grandson of Finlog, pagan kings of the area. His mother was Gelges, the Christian daughter of Aed-Finn, king of Connacht. He was born probably amongst the Hy-Bruin, and was baptised by Saint Brendan the Traveller, his father’s uncle, who was then the abbot of a monastery in the Island of Oirbsen, now called Inisquin in Lough Corrib.

He was educated by Saint Brendan’s monks, and joined the monastery at Inisquin, near Galway, under the Abbot, Saint Meldan, his soul-friend or anam chara.

He became known for his great sanctity, and legend says that through his prayers, twin children of a chieftain related to King Brendinus were raised from the dead. He built his own monastery at Killursa outside the town of Headford in modern Co Galway and he became the patron saint of the Parish of Headford.

He was an ascetic who wearing thin clothing year round. He set out with some monks for Munster, but when he came near his father’s home he became ill, fell into a trance and had the first of the ecstatic visions that have made him famous in mediaeval literature.

This was a vision of the state of sin and the beauty of virtue. He heard the angelic choirs singing ‘the saints shall go from virtue to virtue, the God of Gods will appear in Sion.’ It is said he was taken to the heavens by three angels who contended six times with demons for his soul. He saw the fires of hell, the strife of demons, and then heard the angel hosts sing in four choirs ‘Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of hosts.’ Among the spirits of those just made perfect he recognized Saints Meldan and Beoan.

From that day, the saint’s body was marked by fire.

Then, 12 months later, he had a third vision. This time, the angel remained with him a whole day, instructed him for his preaching, and prescribed for him 12 years of apostolic labour. He moved for some years to a small island in the ocean, and later founded a monastery at Rathmat on the shore of Lough Corrib. His brothers Foillan and Ultan joined the community at Rathmat, but Saint Fursey seems to have renounced the administration of the monastery and to have devoted himself to preaching throughout Ireland.

Saint Fursey is the first recorded Irish missionary to Anglo-Saxon England. He arrived in East Anglia with his brothers, Foillan and Ultan, during the 630s, shortly before Saint Aidan founded his monastery on Holy Island.

The conversion of the Kingdom of East Anglia to Christianity began under Raedwald, but halted with the martyrdom of Raedwald’s successor, his son Eorpwald. Sigeberht of East Anglia was already a Christian when he took the throne around 630. By 633, Sigeberht of East Anglia had established the first East Anglian bishopric at Dommoc and appointed a Burgundian Bishop named Felix.

When Saint Fursey arrived with his brothers Foillan and Ultan, with other monks, carrying the relics of Saint Meldan and Saint Beoan, the king gave him land to establish an abbey at Cnobheresburg, where there was an abandoned Roman fort, traditionally identified with Burgh Castle in Norfolk.

When Sigeberht was slain by an army led by Penda of Mercia, his successor, King Anna of East Anglia, further endowed the monastery at Cnobheresburg. Saint Fursey retired for a year to live the life of an anchorite. However, as great numbers continued to visit him, and as war threatened in East Anglia, he moved to Lagny in France in 648.

After a long journey, he founded a new monastery at Latiniacum (Lagny), near Chelles, outside Paris, on the banks of the River Marne. There he built a monastery and three chapels, one dedicated to Christ the Saviour, one to Saint Peter, and a third later dedicated to Saint Fursey himself.

His journeys continued and many churches in Picardy are dedicated to him. He died ca 650 at Mézerolles while on a journey. The village was for some time called Forsheim, which translated as the house of Fursey. He was buried in a church in Péronne, after 30 days.

John 2: 1-11 (NRSVA):

1 On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. 2 Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. 3 When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine.’ 4 And Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.’ 5 His mother said to the servants, ‘Do whatever he tells you.’ 6 Now standing there were six stone water-jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. 7 Jesus said to them, ‘Fill the jars with water.’ And they filled them up to the brim. 8 He said to them, ‘Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.’ So they took it. 9 When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom 10 and said to him, ‘Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.’ 11 Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (16 January 2022, the Second Sunday after the Epiphany) invites us to pray:

God of all things,
help us to discern our gifts
and to use them for the common good.
Let us rejoice in the diversity of creation.

Yesterday: Saint Macarius of Egypt

Tomorrow: Saint Anthony of the Desert

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

Saint Fursey’s Church, Banteer, Co Cork, facing the liturgical east (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

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