06 April 2020

‘It is good to be last not first,
Pending the present distress’

Christina Rossetti, by her brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Patrick Comerford

Monday 6 April 2020

8 p.m.: Evening Prayer, Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton.

Readings: Psalm 36: 5-11; Hebrews 9: 11-15; John 12: 1-11.

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

I was planning that during Holy Week this year, like last year, instead of preaching each evening, I would read a poem to help our reflections.

In the Gospel reading this evening (John 12: 1-11), it is the day before Palm Sunday, and the crowds come to Bethany to see Jesus. But do they come to see him for the right reasons? And how would we respond if, instead of going to Bethany or Jerusalem, Jesus came to where we live this week?

These are the sort of questions that may have inspired my choice of Lenten poem this evening.

My choice of a poem for Holy Week this evening is ‘Lent,’ a short poem written about 1886 by the English poet Christina Georgina Rossetti (1830-1894).

We are more likely to associate Christina Rossetti with Christmas rather than Lent because two of her poems, ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ and ‘Love came down at Christmas,’ are among the best-loved and most popular Christmas carols.

Christina Rossetti was born in London, the daughter of Gabriele Rossetti, an exiled Italian poet, and she was a sister of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the Pre-Raphaelite artist and poet, and of William Michael Rossetti and Maria Rossetti, who were writers too.

When she was 14, Christina Rossetti suffered a nervous breakdown and left school. Bouts of depression and related illness followed. During this period she, her mother and her sister became absorbed in the Anglo-Catholic movement that developed in the Church of England, and religious devotion came to play a major role in Christian Rossetti’s life.

Her time spent alone, in prayer, in a single life, devoted to Christ and to working with the marginalised, might be compared with Mary in our Gospel reading, who devotes her wealth to Christ but is criticised by Judas.

She is honoured in the liturgical calendar of the Church of England and other Anglican churches on 27 April. Her writings have strongly influenced writers such as Ford Madox Ford, Virginia Woolf, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Elizabeth Jennings and Philip Larkin.

Christian Rossetti wrote many poems on the theme of Lent, including ‘Lent,’ ‘Ash Wednesday,’ ‘Mid-Lent’ and ‘Good Friday.’

I suppose she understood the difficulties we face throughout Lent when she wrote in another poem, ‘The Convent Threshold’:

O weary life, O weary Lent,
O weary time whose stars are few.

But she found strength in Lent, too, as reflected in one of the many prayers she wrote: ‘Lord God, whose strength is sufficient for all who lay hold on it, grant us in your mercy to comfort our hearts and be strong. Humility, temperance, purity, large-heartedness, sympathy, zeal – grant us these evidences of faith, servants of hope, fruits of love; for the sake of Jesus Christ, our strength, our righteousness, and our hope of glory. Amen.’

Her poem ‘Lent,’ in which she talks about ‘the present distress’ and the need ‘to watch and to pray,’ seems so appropriate as many of us continue to face isolation during the present circumstances surrounding the Corona-19 pandemic.

This poem also seems to echo the themes and thoughts in the Collect of the Day, the Monday in Holy Week.

Lent, by Christina Rossetti

It is good to be last not first,
Pending the present distress;
It is good to hunger and thirst,
So it be for righteousness.

It is good to spend and be spent,
It is good to watch and to pray:
Life and Death make a goodly Lent
So it leads us to Easter Day.

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

John 12: 1-11 (NRSVA):

1 Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2 There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3 Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5 ‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?’ 6 (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) 7 Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8 You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’

9 When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 10 So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, 11 since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.

Liturgical Colour: Red or Violet

Penitential Kyries:

Lord God,
you sent your Son to reconcile us to yourself and to one another.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Lord Jesus,
you heal the wounds of sin and division.
Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.

Holy Spirit,
through you we put to death the sins of the body – and live.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

The Collect of the Day:

O God,
who by the passion of your blessed Son made
an instrument of shameful death
to be for us the means of life:
Grant us so to glory in the cross of Christ,
that we may gladly suffer pain and loss
for the sake of your Son our Saviour Jesus Christ;
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Lenten Collect:

Almighty and everlasting God,
you hate nothing that you have made
and forgive the sins of all those who are penitent:
Create and make in us new and contrite hearts
that we, worthily lamenting our sins
and acknowledging our wretchedness,
may receive from you, the God of all mercy,
perfect remission and forgiveness;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Introduction to the Peace:

Now in union with Christ Jesus you who were once far off have been brought near through the shedding of Christ’s blood; for he is our peace. (Ephesians 2: 17)


Christ draw you to himself
and grant that you find in his cross a sure ground for faith,
a firm support for hope,
and the assurance of sins forgiven:


217, All glory, laud and honour (CD 14).

‘It is good to spend and be spent, / It is good to watch and to pray’ … a lone prayer in the church in Torcello (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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

Material from the Book of Common Prayer is copyright © 2004, Representative Body of the Church of Ireland.

How Philip Larkin found
‘an air of great friendliness’
on the streets of Dublin

‘Afternoon mist / Brings lights on in shops’ … afternoon lights on the River Liffey in Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

I was writing over the past few days about two poems by Philip Larkin: ‘The Trees,’ written in 1967 to mark the birthday of Thomas Hardy and included in his book High Windows in 1974; and ‘Church Going,’ which was published in The Less Deceived (1955), and which I argued was inspired not by a visit to a church outside Belfast, as has been stated by many critics, but by a visit in 1954 with his mother to the grave of his father, Sydney Larkin, in Saint Michael’s Churchyard, Lichfield, and visits that same day to Saint Michael’s Church and Lichfield Cathedral.

The Less Deceived, which includes the poem ‘Church Going,’ is Larkin’s first mature collection of poetry and was published in 1955. However, a year earlier, in 1954, this collection was rejected by the Dolmen Press in Dublin for being ‘too self pitying’ and ‘too sexy.’

Larkin was then working at the Queen’s University of Belfast, and the English poet Donald Davie (1922-1995), then a lecturer in English at Trinity College Dublin, had urged Larkin to submit his work to Dolmen Press, founded in 1951 by Liam and Josephine Miller to provide a publishing outlet for Irish poetry.

Zachary Leader later identified two members of the selection board at Dolmen Press who rejected his work: the Dublin poet and translator Thomas Kinsella, translator of The Tain, and Sean White (1927-1977), editor of the literary magazine Irish Writing.

Instead, the collection was published in Hull in 1955 by Jean and George Hartley under the imprint of the Marvell Press; at the same time they were publishing the literary review Listen, whose contributors included Kingsley Amis, Robert Conquest, Donald Davie, John Wain, and also, in almost every issue, Larkin.

High Windows, which includes the poem ‘The Trees,’ was published in 1974. Other poems in this collection include ‘Dublinesque’ written 50 years ago in June 1970, following Larkin’s visit to Dublin with Monica Jones in 1969, after he had received an honorary doctorate in Belfast.

In Dublin, Philip and Monica returned to locations they had known in the early 1950s, including tea in the Shelbourne Hotel and visits to the National Gallery of Ireland and Trinity College Dublin.

Noticing that Ireland was now a changing country, Larkin reflected 50 years ago that Ireland was no longer ‘(a) remote … (b) censor ridden – News of the World and Ulysses available … (c) poverty stricken – all houses seem freshly done up and there are no barefoot children etc (mostly riding bicycles anyway).’

But, unlike the citizens of the older Dublin, those of the modern capital were no longer ‘courteous’, he recorded in his Holiday Diaries (1969), ‘as I’m sure M[onica] would add … having been bunted to and fro on Dublin pavements.’

Ireland had changed – in the Republic at least, though not in Northern Ireland. it seemed to him more like Britain – but he was unable or unwilling to voice his feelings about this, at least until June 1970 when he wrote ‘Dublinesque.’

He sent the draft to Monica Jones, claiming it originated from ‘an odd dream – I just woke up and wrote it.’ But she would have known that it was distilled from what they had felt nine months earlier in Ireland.

However, the ‘ankle-length dresses’ of the street women were from a by-gone era rather than the 1970s, the street scenes were more Victorian than modern, the funeral evoked James Joyce’s descriptions of Dublin, and the time of day seems to be autumnal rather than high summer. Was this not Molly Bloom? Was this not Paddy Dignam’s funeral in Glasnevin in Chapter 6 of Ulysses, where Bloom decides to reject morbid thoughts and embrace ‘warm full-blooded life’?

If ‘The Trees’ is Larkin’s tribute to Hardy and ‘Church Going’ is his Betjeman poem, with echoes of TS Eliot, then surely ‘Dublinesque’ is his tribute to Joyce, with echoes of Ulysses and Dubliners.

I just wondered for a moment, as I engaged with his description of ‘stucco sidestreets,’ whether he had ever visited the now long-lost Irish House on the Quays, with its stucco work by my great-grandfather, James Comerford (1817-1902) and William Burnett.

The Irish House was built on the corner of Winetavern Street and Wood Quay in 1870. The pub was demolished in 1968, a year before Larkin’s return visit, to make way for the new Dublin Corporation Civic Offices. Before its demolition, the majority of the stucco friezes by Comerford and Burnett were removed and put into storage. They are now in the possession of Dublin Civic Trust.

Dublinesque, by Philip Larkin

Down stucco sidestreets,
Where light is pewter
And afternoon mist
Brings lights on in shops
Above race-guides and rosaries,
A funeral passes.

The hearse is ahead,
But after there follows
A troop of streetwalkers
In wide flowered hats,
Leg-of-mutton sleeves,
And ankle-length dresses.

There is an air of great friendliness,
As if they were honouring
One they were fond of;
Some caper a few steps,
Skirts held skilfully
(Someone claps time),

And of great sadness also.
As they wend away
A voice is heard singing
Of Kitty, or Katy,
As if the name meant once
All love, all beauty.

Erin and her stringless harp … a surviving portion of James Comerford’s stucco frieze on the Irish House (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Praying through Lent with
USPG (41): 6 April 2020

A monument to Jewish victims of the Holocaust outside the Jewish cemetery in Mitte, Berlin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

This is Holy Week. This evening, in the planned Holy Week services in this group of parishes, I should have been leading and preaching at Evening Prayer in Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick.

However, these are not normal times. On the advice of the Bishop, all services have been cancelled for the past few weeks in these dioceses on the advice of the Bishop, because of the Covic-19 or Corona Virus pandemic. This situation continues to be reviewed and monitored with the bishop and the archdeacons.

Meanwhile, during Lent this year, I am continuing to use the USPG Prayer Diary, Pray with the World Church, for my morning prayers and reflections. This year marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and the end of the Holocaust, so I am illustrating my reflections each morning with images that emphasise this theme.

USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) is the Anglican mission agency that partners churches and communities worldwide in God’s mission to enliven faith, strengthen relationships, unlock potential, and champion justice. It was founded in 1701.

This week (5 to 11 April 2020) is Holy Week, is the last week in Lent. The USPG Prayer Diary takes as its theme this week, ‘The Right Time,’ which was introduced yesterday by the Revd Rana Khan, Rector of Crickhowell, Cwmdu and Tretower in the Diocese of Swansea and Brecon, Wales.

In his introduction, he wrote, ‘Sometimes certain patches of our personal experiences or communal history create fears and concerns and we don’t welcome Christ in our lives and societies. Christ is always looking for the right time but sometimes instead of allowing God to execute his plans, we react according to our human fears. Let us pray … that God gives us a fresh understanding of the restoration and change he wants to bring – both in and through us.’

Monday 6 April 2020 (International Day of Sport for Development and Peace):

Pray for all those who use sport as a means of fostering good relationships between people and communities.

Readings: Isaiah 42: 1-9; Psalm 36: 5-11; Hebrews 9: 11-15; John 12: 1-11.

The Collect of the Day (Monday in Holy Week):

Almighty God,
whose most dear Son went not up to joy,
but first he suffered pain,
and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of his cross,
may find it none other than the way of life and peace;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Lenten Collect:

Almighty and everlasting God,
you hate nothing that you have made
and forgive the sins of all those who are penitent:
Create and make in us new and contrite hearts
that we, worthily lamenting our sins
and acknowledging our wretchedness,
may receive from you, the God of all mercy,
perfect remission and forgiveness;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The Post Communion Prayer:

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.

Continued tomorrow

Yesterday’s reflection