03 May 2023

A photograph to illustrate
a new book by a priest-poet

‘A Doorway into Thanks: Further Reflections on Scripture’ … Tim Vivian’s new collection of poetry includes my photograph of the royal doors in the iconostasis in Saint John’s Monastery, Tolleshunt Knights, the work of Leonid Ouspensky

Patrick Comerford

It is always a pleasure and a delight to see how one of my photographs is used in a new book, a magazine or a newspaper.

In recent days I have received Professor Tim Vivian’s new collection of poetry, A Doorway into Thanks: Further Reflections on Scripture, with its cover illustrated with one of my photographs on the front cover. To my delight, my name is also included on the front cover.

Tim Vivian is a professor emeritus of Religious Studies at California State University, Bakersfield, and a priest in the Episcopal Church living in retirement. He has an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree from the Church Divinity School of the Pacific (Episcopal).

A scholar of early Christian monasticism, he has published numerous books, including The Sayings and Stories of the Desert Fathers and Mothers (volume 1), and he has co-authored The Life of Antony and The Life of Bishoi. He has previously published two books of poems, Other Voices, Other Rooms and Poems Written in a Time of Plague.

My cover photographs shows the royal doors in the iconostasis or icon screen in the original chapel in Saint John’s Monastery, Tolleshunt Knights. When I was studying at the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies and Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, I regularly had a one-day retreat in this Orthodox monastery in Essex.

The iconostasis in the 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).

Leonid 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 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 title of this new book, ‘A Doorway Into Thanks,’ comes not from my photograph but from Mary Oliver’s poem ‘Prayer.’ Tim Vivian also refers in his introductory reflections to the Greek poet Yiannis Ritsos and his poem ‘The Meaning of Simplicity’:

Every word is a doorway
to a meeting, one often cancelled,
but that’s when a word is true:
when it insists on the meeting.

Tim Vivian believes poetry ‘should be transitive, and deal with something other. Thus, a doorway offers transition, liminal space, an invitation, a going across, into possibly numerous somethings other. We can’t assume, however, that the door is always open; if closed, we need to open it. A doorway can confront us: Have we the courage to reach for the handle?’

He writes: ‘Given the horrors of 2020 and 2021, we must open the door both to grieving and thanksgiving. The poems here are midrashim. Midrash is a reflection on scripture. These poems first imagine passages and stories from the Bible and then reimagine them: they build stages, create, and breathe life into characters, and landscape biblical passages with new, often challenging, backgrounds.’

Many of the poems in this new book have religio-political subtexts, and in prticular this collection stands as a condemnation of the violence, corruption, deceit and racism of the Trump years. The poems speak of darkness, the things that darken the US and American hearts, but they also speak of the life-giving lights of mystery, wonder, and thanksgiving, the things that give people hope.

As the writer and poet Louise Erdrich tells us:

This is how our lives complete themselves,
as effortless as weather, circles blaze
in ordinary days, and through our waking selves
they reach, to touch our true and sleeping speech.

Tim and I are of an age, and so I am not surprised that among the many influences he acknowledges, along with the Greek poets Yiannis Ritsos and CP Cavafy, are singer-songwriters ‘who have inspired delighted, gladdened, comforted, and challenged’ him over the years such as Joan Baez and Leonard Cohen. He also draws inspiration from George Herbert,John Donne, Thomas Merton and Rowan Williams, and also Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day and Ruth Ginsberg.

Tim Vivian writes that he was first made aware of my photograph by Father Michael Plekon, an Orthodox priest, professor, author, sociologist and theologian who has written extensively writing about people of faith struggling for social justice and for ways of rediscovering holiness in ordinary life. He is especially interested in the encounter with God in the everyday.

In his inscription on the title page of this book, the author writes: ‘To Patrick, with thanks for your wonderful picture, Tim.’

He concludes his introductory reflections, saying: ‘Deep thanks to Patrick Comerford … for use of his photograph on the cover, and thanks to Michael Plekon for alerting me to it.’

• Tim Vivian, A Doorway into Thanks: Further Reflections on Scripture (New York: Austin Macauley Publishers), 210 pp, $14.95, ISBN: 9781685620004

Morning prayers in Easter
with USPG: (25) 3 May 2023

The Klausen Synagogue is the largest surviving synagogue in the former Jewish Old Town in Prague (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

This is the Fourth Week of Easter, and we are half-way through the 50-day season of Easter today.

Before this day gets busy, I am taking some time this morning for prayer and reflection. Following our visit to Prague earlier this month, I am reflecting each morning this week in these ways:

1, Short reflections on a synagogue in Prague;

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

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

Inside the Klausen Synagogue in Prague (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The Klausen Synagogue, Prague:

During our visit to Prague last month, I visited about half-a-dozen or so of the surviving synagogues in Josefov, the Jewish Quarter in the Old Town in the Czech capital.

Despite World War II, most of the significant historical Jewish buildings in Prague were saved from destruction, and they form the best-preserved complex of historical Jewish monuments in the whole of Europe.

The Jewish Quarter has six synagogues, as well as the Jewish Ceremonial Hall and the Old Jewish Cemetery.

The Klausen Synagogue is a 16th-century baroque synagogue and the largest surviving synagogue in the former Jewish ghetto, and it is also a single example of an early Baroque synagogue in the area.

This complex was known as Klausen, a German term derived from the Latin claustrum, meaning a closed space.

Mordechai Maisel, a renowned businessman who had found favour in the Habsburg court and who was the great benefactor of the ghetto, acquired the site from its Christian owners in the late 16th century. He used part of the site to extend the Jewish Cemetery, and in 1570, he set about building a complex in the area of the present synagogue that included synagogues and a private Talmudic school.

Prague’s famous rabbi and scholar, Judah Loew ben Bezalel, known affectionately to this day as Maharal, taught at this school.

During the great fire that devastated the Prague ghetto in 1689, all the buildings in the Klausen were destroyed, and the new synagogue built on the site is named after them.

Shelomo Khalish Cohen, a rabbi of the burned-down synagogue in the Klausen complex, initiated the building of a new synagogue in early baroque style at the site.

The building was finished in 1694, and two years later the monumental three-tiered Aron haKodesh or holy ark for the Torah scrolls was added, thanks to the generosity of Samuel Oppenheimer, then an affluent and influential person in the Hapsburg Empire. It is in the style of an early baroque altar.

The two-storey extensions at the north and west sides of the synagogue were built at the same time or a little later and are a little lower than the main building.

Many important rabbis are associated with the synagogue, including Elazar Fleckeles (1754-1826), a prolific author.

The synagogue was rebuilt in 1883-1884 by the architects Bedřich Münzberger and Antonín Baum, who were also involved in decorating the Spanish Synagogue in Prague. During this work, the western women’s gallery was elevated to the level of the main building.

The massive urban renewal of the ghetto at the turn of the 20th century left the Klausen Synagogue intact, while other baroque synagogues, including the Zigeuner, Great Court and New Synagogue, were demolished. Today, the Klausen Synagogue is the only surviving example of a baroque synagogue in the former ghetto.

During World War II, the Nazis used the Klausen Synagogue for storage. After the war, an exhibition on the theme of Jewish festivals and customs opened there.

The synagogue was rebuilt in 1960 and 1979-1981, and the Aron haKodesh was restored in 1983. A year later, a new exhibition of Hebrew manuscripts and early prints opened in the Klausen Synagogue.

The synagogue was restored again in 1995-1996 and the exhibition on Jewish festivals and customs reopened. Today the synagogue is administered by the Jewish Museum in Prague.

The exhibition introduces visitors to the foundational texts of Judaism, the Torah and the Talmud, sacred space in Judaism, the traditional components of the synagogue interior, the order of synagogue prayer services and texts and objects used in worship in synagogues. Other displays introduce Jewish Festivals and daily Jewish family life, as well as important milestones in Jewish life, including birth, circumcision, and marriage.

The theme of this exhibition continues in the neighbouring Ceremonial Hall which looks at the topic of the end of life.

The Jewish Ceremonial Hall was built in the neo-Romanesque style in 1906-1908, designed by the architect J Gerstl for the Jewish Burial Society, Hevrah Kaddishah.

The ceremonial hall is at the entrance to the Old Jewish Cemetery, founded in the early 15th century and one of the oldest and best-preserved Jewish cemeteries in Europe. There are about 12,000 tombstones in the cemetery, but the number of burials is far higher. Burials there ended in 1787.

The Aron haKodesh or Holy Ark in the Klausen Synagogue in Prague (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

John 10: 20-36 (NRSVA):

20 Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. 21 They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus.’ 22 Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. 23 Jesus answered them, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25 Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honour.

27 ‘Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say – “Father, save me from this hour”? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. 28 Father, glorify your name.’ Then a voice came from heaven, ‘I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.’ 29 The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, ‘An angel has spoken to him.’ 30 Jesus answered, ‘This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. 31 Now is the judgement of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. 32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ 33 He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die. 34 The crowd answered him, ‘We have heard from the law that the Messiah remains for ever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?’ 35 Jesus said to them, ‘The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going. 36 While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.’

After Jesus had said this, he departed and hid from them.

Gravestones in the Old Jewish Cemetery date back to the 15th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Today’s Prayer:

The theme this week in the prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) is ‘The Work of Bollobhpur Mission Hospital.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday by USPG’s Regional Manager for Asia and the Middle East, Davidson Solanki, who reflected on the work of Bollobhpur Mission Hospital, Bangladesh, for International Midwives’ Day this week.

The USPG Prayer invites us to pray this morning (Wednesday 3 May 2023):

Let us pray for the protestant churches of the Church of Bangladesh. May they work together to support their ministries amongst poor and marginalised communities.


Almighty and everlasting God,
who in your tender love towards the human race
sent your Son our Saviour Jesus Christ
to take upon him our flesh
and to suffer death upon the cross:
grant that we may follow the example of his patience and humility,
and also be made partakers of his resurrection;
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.

Post Communion:

Lord Jesus Christ,
you humbled yourself in taking the form of a servant,
and in obedience died on the cross for our salvation:
give us the mind to follow you
and to proclaim you as Lord and King,
to the glory of God the Father.

The grave of Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, known as Maharal, beside the Klausen Synagogue in Prague (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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 name ‘Klausen’ is a German term derived from the Latin ‘claustrum’, meaning a closed space (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)