29 September 2023

Daily prayers in Ordinary Time
with USPG: (124) 29 September 2023

Skellig Michael and the Skellig Rocks … both the church and the monastery were dedicated to Saint Michael (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

We are in Ordinary Time in the Church Calendar, and this week began with the Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity (Trinity XVI, 24 September 2023).

Two of us are travelling to York later today. But, before the day gets busy, I am taking some time this morning for prayer and reflection.

The Church celebrates Saint Michael and All Angels today (29 September). So my reflections each morning this week and next are taking this format:

1, A reflection on a church named after Saint Michael or his depiction in Church Art;

2, the Gospel reading of the day in the Church of England lectionary;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

The ruins of Ballinskelligs Priory, Co Kerry … still a place of prayer and peace for pilgrims and tourists alike (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Skellig Michael and Ballinskelligs Priory:

Legend says that the first inhabitants in Ireland arrived in in the Bay of Ballinskelligs. The myths say that Ireland was uninhabited until a woman named Cessair, accompanied by her father, two men and over 40 women, arrived in a ship that landed at Ballinskelligs Bay in the year 2361 BC.

The legend says Cessair was the granddaughter of Noah, who had no room for her in the Ark when he had finished building it. She built her own three ships and set sail for Ireland, believing it was free from sin.

After surviving a voyage that endured for seven years and that suffered the loss of two ships, Cessair landed in Ballinskelligs and decided to stay. Two of the men died, the third fled, leaving Cessair so heart-broken that she too died soon.

I first became enamoured with Ballinskelligs when I spent the summer of 1966 at Dungeagan as part of an Irish summer school programme that my parents hoped would give me adequate Irish to pass the ‘Inter Cert’ (Junior Certificate) in 1967.

It was a beautiful summer, but I learned less Irish than they probably expected, and I have memories of endless, sun-filled afternoons swimming at the long sandy beach, reading Anne Frank’s Diary and Catcher in the Rye in the sand-dunes, watching the 1966 England v Germany World Cup final on the only television my cousins and I could find – a black and white television in a convent – and maturing as a teenage boy.

I have been back in Ballinskelligs three or four times since, enjoying walks along the long sandy beach, watching the Atlantic waves break against the sand, and walking out to the ruins of the old Augustinian priory, the old graveyard and the ruins of the MacCarthy castle that once guarded the entrance to Ballinskelligs Bay.

It is said the monks of Skellig Michael called Ballinskelligs ‘the nearest thing to heaven’ when they settled in the area, and they made this place a spiritual centre in early Christian Ireland. According to legend, the monks had travelled across Ireland to find ‘a paradise on earth.’

These early Irish monks wished to emulate the sacrifice and the pure withdrawal into a life of faith exemplified by Saint Anthony who went out into the Western Desert in Egypt.

Ireland’s remote and deserted offshore islands offered a parallel experience. The monastic ideal was to demonstrate an intense devotion by acts of self-exile: peregrination pro Dei amore or ‘pilgrimage for the love of God.’

The monastic settlement on Great Skellig is said to have been founded in the sixth century by Saint Fionán, a saint from south Kerry who founded Innisfallen Abbey. The site attracted the support of the members of the local Corcu Duibne dynasty in Kerry, and there the love of God was brought to a new level, for no other Irish monastery was built in such a challenging location.

Saint Finian is said to have founded both the monastic settlement on the Skelligs Islands and a church at Killemlagh in the sixth century. The ruins of two early churches can still be seen near the Skelligs Chocolates factory, a major attraction on the Skelligs Ring, and Saint Finian’s Bay, which offers some of the best views of the Skelligs Rock – although they are often shrouded in clouds and mist at this time of the year.

While the monks settled on the rocks of Skellig Michael, they found a winter home on the mainland in Ballinskelligs.

The first definite reference to monks on the Skelligs dates to the eighth century when the death of ‘Suibhni of Scelig’ is recorded. By the ninth century, the continuity and survival of life on the remote monastery was challenged with the arrival of the Vikings. The flights of steps on three sides of the island, which had provided the monks with landing for their boats in different sea conditions, now gave the invading Vikings the opportunity to attack the monastic site from different sides simultaneously.

The annals record: ‘In 824 AD, Scelec was plundered by the heathens and Étgal was carried off into captivity, and he died of hunger on their hands. There came a fleet from Luimnech [Limerick], in the south of Erinn, they plundered Skellig Michael, and Inishfallen and Disert Donnain and Cluain Mor, and they killed Rudgaile, son of Selbach, the anchorite. It was he whom the angel set loose twice, and the foreigners bound him twice each time.’

It is said that in 993 the Viking Olaf Trygvasson, later to become Olaf I, King of Norway, was intent on a raid of the monastery but instead was baptised a Christian by a Skellig hermit. His son, Olaf II, became the patron saint of Norway.

Increasing hardships, Viking raids and changing climatic conditions all contributed to the eventual decision of the monks to move from their monastic settlements on the Skelligs Rocks to the mainland, settling on an outcrop at the edge of Ballinskelligs Bay.

The Skelligs Rocks and the Abbey at Ballinskelligs shared one abbot, and the move was completed some time between the 11th and 13th century.

The dedication of the monastery to Saint Michael the Archangel appears to have happened some time before 1044, when the death of ‘Aedh of Scelic-Mhichíl’ is recorded. It is probable that this dedication to Saint Michael was celebrated by the building of Saint Michael’s church in the monastery.

The church of Saint Michael is mentioned by Giraldus Cambrensis in the late 12th century. His account of the miraculous supply of Communion wine for daily Mass in Saint Michael’s Church implies that the monastery had a large community at the time.

The Church was being reorganised along diocesan patterns in Ireland in the 12th and 13th centuries. These changes, and harsher winter storms, forced the monks to abandon the island.

By then, the monks on Skellig Michael had adopted the rule of Saint Augustine. Eventually, they left the island and settled on the mainland at Ballinskelligs, where they founded a new abbey. In the early 14th century, the Prior of the Augustinian Abbey at Ballinskelligs was referred to as the Prior de Rupe Michaelis, indicating that the island still formed an important part of the monastery at the time.

The ruins of the later Augustinian Priory date from ca 1210, and include a church, the prior’s house, cloisters and a refectory. A number of buildings, mainly from the 15th century, constitute the priory, including a rectangular church. The church and the other buildings were arranged around a central cloister, which had covered walkways for working and praying. Parts of the cloister and a large domestic hall still survive.

The abbey is one of a number of important spiritual sites dedicated to Saint Michael in this area. For visitors who come to Ballinskelligs as pilgrims or tourists, this remains a place of peace and prayer.

The names of the vicars and rectors of Killemlough are known only from the early or mid-15th century. Eugene O’Sullivan was appointed to the parish ca 1447 even though he had not been ordained. He was eventually forced out of the parish in 1459 because he had still not been ordained.

His successor, Florence O’Sullivan, also had to leave the parish after he was ‘said to have committed simony and to be guilty of fornication.’ Cornelius O’Mulchonere had to obtain a dispensation to be ordained for the parish because he was the illegitimate son of an Augustinian Canon Regular – perhaps a friar from the priory at Ballinskelligs.

In the Church of Ireland, the parish was known as Killemlough and sometimes as Killemlagh or Kyllemleac, and the parish included the offshore island of Puffin Island and the Skelligs Islands.

The Parish of Killemlough was held by the Treasurers of Ardfert from 1615 to 1839. They included William Steere, who became Bishop of Ardfert in 1628, James Bland, who became Dean of Ardfert in 1728, and William Cecil Pery, who became Bishop of Limerick. The Church of Ireland parish was united with Valentia in the 1870s.

Meanwhile, the connection between the monastic settlement on the Skelligs Rocks and the people of Ballinskelligs remained part of romantic memory and folklore.

In the late 1930s, JB Leslie recalled a custom from 60 years earlier known as the ‘Skelligs Lists.’ Doggerel poetry was issued early in Lent naming and pillorying couples who were supposed to be courting but who had not married before Shrove Tuesday.

‘Sometimes those lists were distinctively libellous and perhaps malicious, but were anonymous,’ Leslie notes.

Leslie quotes the phrase ‘send them to Skelligs,’ and suggests ‘that on the island (Skelligs) marriages might be celebrated, perhaps as in Gretna Green.’

‘Or could it have been,’ he asks, ‘that the keeping of Easter and Lent was different in Skelligs and on the mainland, so that marriage could be celebrated there after Shrove Tuesday?’

The monks from Skellig Michael settled at the priory in Ballinskelligs in the 13th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

John 1: 47-51 (NRSVA):

47 When Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him, he said of him, ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’ 48 Nathanael asked him, ‘Where did you come to know me?’ Jesus answered, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.’ 49 Nathanael replied, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’ 50 Jesus answered, ‘Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.’ 51 And he said to him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.’

The ruins of the Augustinian priory, behind the beach at Ballinskelligs (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Today’s Prayer:

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), is ‘Flinging open the doors.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday by the Revd Anthony Gyu-Yong Shim, Diocese of Daejeon, Korea.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (29 September 2023, Saint Michael and All Angels) invites us to pray:

Almighty God, renew your spirit within us and your churches across the globe.

A lancet window in the old priory buildings in Ballinskelligs (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Collect:

Everlasting God,
you have ordained and constituted
the ministries of angels and mortals in a wonderful order:
grant that as your holy angels always serve you in heaven,
so, at your command,
they may help and defend us on earth;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Post Communion Prayer:

Lord of heaven,
in this eucharist you have brought us near
to an innumerable company of angels
and to the spirits of the saints made perfect:
as in this food of our earthly pilgrimage
we have shared their fellowship,
so may we come to share their joy in heaven;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The monk’s beehive at Saint Michael’s Well, behind the house where I stayed in my teens in Dungeagan in Ballinkselligs (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Yesterday’s Reflection

Continued Tomorrow

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

The beach at Ballinkskelligs, close to the monastic settlement founded by the monks from Great Skellig (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

No comments: