Friday, 30 April 2021

‘Rejoicing became mourning,
a great light became a deep darkness’


Patrick Comerford

A stampede claimed the lives of at least 44 people, including small children, at a Lag B’Omer festival in Meron in northern Israel last night, and more than 150 people were injured. This is a deeply saddening and horrific loss of life among worshippers.

‘Rejoicing became mourning, a great light became a deep darkness,’ a pilgrim told television news last night.

The pilgrimage was the first large religious gathering of its kind to be held legally since Israel lifted nearly all coronavirus restrictions. It may be one of the worst peacetime tragedies in Israel’s history, with the death toll similar to the number of people killed in a forest fire in 2010.

Lag BaOmer or Lag B’Omer (לַ״ג בָּעוֹמֶר‎) began last night (29 April 2021) and comes to end at sunset this evening (30 April 2021). This is a Jewish religious holiday celebrated on the 33rd day of the Counting of the Omer, which occurs on the 18th day of the Hebrew month of Iyar.

It is traditional to observe some customs of mourning during the days between Pesach (Passover) and Shavuot – the days of Sefiras haOmer – and to have a festive day on either the 33rd day of the Omer, which began last night, or for Sephardim on the 34th, which begins tonight (30 April).

This minor holiday – known for bonfires, weddings and haircuts – takes place about a month after Passover. This is a break from the semi-mourning of the Omer, and key aspects of Lag B’omer include holding Jewish weddings – it is the one day during the Omer when Jewish law permits them – lighting bonfires, and the pilgrimage to the tomb of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai in Meron, where the bonfire was part of last night’s tragedy, and which is marked by all-night prayer, mystical songs and dance.

According to some traditions, this day marks the hillula or anniversary of the death of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai or ‘the Rashbi,’ a Mishnaic sage and leading disciple of Rabbi Akiva in the 2nd century CE, and the day on which he revealed the deepest secrets of kabbalah in the form of the Zohar (Book of Splendour, literally ‘radiance’), a landmark text of Jewish mysticism.

Historians now suggest, however, that the association of Lag BaOmer with the death of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai may be based on a printer’s error. Another tradition says Lag BaOmer is a day of celebration recalling the end of a plague that killed Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 disciples.

Some authorities attribute the joy of Lag BaOmer to the belief that the manna that fed the people in the wilderness during the Exodus first appeared on the 18th of Iyar.

Although its origins are uncertain, Lag BaOmer has become a minor holiday. While the Counting of the Omer is a semi-mourning period between Pesach and Shavuot, all restrictions of mourning are lifted on this day. As a result, weddings, parties, listening to music, and haircuts are commonly scheduled to coincide with this day among Ashkenazi Jews.

Families go on picnics and outings; children go out to the fields with their teachers with bows and rubber-tipped arrows – a possible reminder of the war battles of Akiva’s students – and plant trees. It is customary to light bonfires, to symbolise the light Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai brought into the world. And many couples arrange their wedding for this day.

Tachanun, the prayer for special God’s mercy on one’s behalf, is not said on days with a festive character, including Lag BaOmer. It is said that when God is showing one a ‘smiling face,’ so to speak, as he does on holidays, there is no need to ask for special mercy.

Unrelated to Rabbi Shimon, the kabbalists also give a mystical interpretation to the Omer period as a time of spiritual cleansing and preparation for receiving the Torah on Shavuot. The days and weeks of counting, they say, represent various combinations of the sefirot, the divine emanations, whose contemplation ultimately leads to purity of mind and soul. The sombreness of this period reflects the seriousness of its spiritual pursuits.

Sephardic Jews call this holiday Lag LaOmer, which means ‘33rd [day] of the Omer,’ as opposed to Lag BaOmer. The Sephardi custom is to continue mourning practices through the 33rd day of the Omer and celebrate on the 34th day of the Omer, or LaD BaOmer (ל״ד בעומר‎), which falls tomorrow (1 May).

There is a tradition that Jewish boys do not get their first haircut until they are three years old, and some parents wait to time this occasions for their boys on the minor holiday of Lag BaOmer. Perhaps this tradition reflects the Biblical teaching that one may not eat the fruit that grows on a tree for the first three years (see Leviticus 19: 23). But the custom is usually traced back to Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534-1572), the 16th-century founder of the Lurianic School of Kabbalah, who assigned special mystical value to the ear-locks.

I have gone without a haircut for many weeks now, due to the pandemic lockdown restrictions. But, in my reflections this Friday evening, rather than dwelling any further on the length of my hair, I am pondering some sayings associated with Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, who has a particular association with this minor holiday:

‘To deceive anyone by words is worse than cheating him out of money.’

‘He who lets arrogance get the better of him is like the heathen worshipping idols.’

In the Ethics of Our Fathers, he says, ‘There are three crowns: the crown of the Torah, the crown of priesthood, and the crown of royalty; but the crown of a good name excels above them all.’

Shabbat Shalom

Praying in Lent and Easter 2021:
73, Stavropoleos Monastery, Bucharest

The courtyard in Stavropoleos Monastery … a quiet and prayerful corner of Bucharest (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

During the Season of Easter this year, I am continuing my theme from Lent, taking some time each morning to reflect in these ways:

1, photographs of a church or place of worship that has been significant in my spiritual life;

2, the day’s Gospel reading;

3, a prayer from the prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel).

This week is Holy Week in the Orthodox Church, and today is Good Friday in the Orthodox Calendar. My photographs this morning (30 April 2021) are from the Monastery of Stavropoleos (Mănăstirea Stavropoleos), or Holy Cross Monastery, in the centre of Bucharest.

Stavropoleos Monastery is on the corner of Stavropoleos Street and Postei Street, is close to the central area of Lipscani, and is one of the oldest buildings in the Romanian capital.

From the street outside, this picturesque monastery and its church capture the imagination with their carvings, frescoes, paintings and atrium, in a harmonious combination of Western influences and Byzantine and Ottoman traditions from the Easter. The richly-decorated church has beautiful stone and wood carvings, and the finest carvings can be seen on the main doors.

Inside, on entering the courtyard, with its candles and cloistered style, there is an atmosphere of prayer and meditation. The small courtyard, with its many columns and gravestones, was built in 1899 by Ion Mincu, one of the most important Romanian architects.

The courtyard is enclosed by three stoas, on the east, west and south sides. Scattered around are plaques and crosses from graves, and surviving pieces from the monastery’s earlier building phases and from churches in Bucharest that have been demolished. Some tombstones, dating from the 18th century, are being restored by skilled craftsmen.

The monastery today is home to a community of six nuns, and their priest confessor, Father Iustin Marchiş. Life in the monastery is divided between prayer, work and study. The work includes restoring old books, icons and vestments, writing and publishing, and major projects on Byzantine and Orthodox church music.

The church is dedicated to the archangels Saint Michael and Saint Gabriel. However, the name Stavropoleos is a Romanian version of the Greek Σταυρούπολις (Stavroúpolis), ‘The City of the Cross.’

The church was built in 1724, during the reign of Nickolaos Mavrocordatos (Nicolae Mavrocordat), the Phanariot or Greek-speaking Prince of Wallachia (1715-1730). Mavrocordatos came from an old Byzantine royal family, and introduced Greek manners, the Greek language and Greek culture to Bucharest, where he set up a splendid court modelled on the Byzantine court.

The founder of the monastery was a Greek monk, Archimandrite Ioannikios Stratonikea, known in Romanian as Ioanichie Stratonikeas, who came from Ostanitsa, in the area of Pogoni – now known as Aedonohori Konitsas – 66 km north of Ioannina, in Epirus.

Father Ioannikios became a monk in the Monastery of the Archangels at Goura near Ostanitsa and was sent to the Epirote monastery in Romania to collect funds for the restoration of his home monastery. By 1722, he was running a han or inn in Bucharest, a lucrative business in a crossroads city in the 18th century. Two years later, in 1724, he founded the monastery that would become known as Stavropoleos. The link between the han and the monastery was designed to provide financial support from the inn for the new monastery.

In 1726, Father Ioannikios was appointed by the Ecumenical Patriarch as Metropolitan of Stavropoleos and Exarch of Caria. This is ancient Aphrodisias (Ἀφροδισιάς) in western Anatolia, east of Kusadasi and north of Fethiye. The classical city was renamed Stavropolis in the early seventh century.

Bishop Ioannikios died on 7 February 1743 at the age of 61, and was buried in the narthex of the church. Ever since, the main church of the monastery he founded in Bucharest has been known as the Stavropoleos.

The monastery church is built in the Brâncovenesc style, also known as Wallachian Renaissance or Romanian Renaissance, a style that evolved in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, during the reign of Prince Constantin Brâncoveanu. One of his best known churches in this style in central Bucharest is Cretulescu Church (Biserica Crețulescu) on Calea Victoriei, on the corner of Revolution Square, beside the former Royal Palace.

The inn and the monastery’s annexes were demolished in the late 19th century, and in the decades that followed the church was damaged further by earthquakes and the dome collapsed.

The dome and its frescoes were restored at the beginning of the 20th century. But all that remains of the original monastery today is the church, alongside an early 20th century building that houses a library, a conference room and a collection of early 18th century icons and liturgical items, as well as pieces of frescoes recovered from churches demolished under the communist regime.

The dome and its frescoes were restored at the beginning of the 20th century. But all that remains of the original monastery today is the church, alongside an early 20th century building that houses a library, a conference room and a collection of early 18th century icons and liturgical items, as well as pieces of frescoes recovered from churches demolished under the communist regime.

The monastery is engaged in a virtual library project, digitalising its old books. The monastery library has over 10,000 books of theology, Byzantine music, arts and history. Some of the books are from the personal library of the Romanian art historian Vasile Drăguț, former rector of the Bucharest University of Arts.

There are patristic, biblical, dogmatic, liturgical, historical, homiletic, catechetical books, dictionaries of classic languages and textbooks, studies on Byzantine art and Orthodox iconography, and works on 18th century Romanian history and culture. There are old books in Romanian, Greek, and Church Slavonic, and the collection of books on Byzantine music, which is the largest in Romania, includes books donated by two Romanian Byzantine scholars, Sebastian Barbu-Bucur, and Titus Moisescu. The monastery is engaged in a virtual library project, digitalising its old books.

Stavropoleos is known throughout the Orthodox world and beyond for its conservation of Byzantine music. The choir has an international reputation, with many recordings, and the monastery also has the largest collection of Byzantine music books in Romania.

The Stavropoleos Byzantine Choir was created in 1994, and is led by Archdeacon Gabriel Constantin Oprea, chants at the Stavropoleos Church and teaches Byzantine music at the National University of Music in Bucharest. The group has performed in Romania and abroad, and is recording on CDs.

The church choir sings Byzantine and neo-Byzantine music, much of it based on the works of 19th century Romanian psalmodists – Macarie the Hieromonk, Nectarie the Hermit, Anton Pann and Dimitrie Suceveanu – and Greek chants translated into Romanian, or modern compositions.

A cross in the courtyard in Stavropoleos with the inscription: ‘Remember Lord your servant Themelis Zaphyris from Ioannina, 2 November 1743’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

John 14: 1-6 (NRSVA):

[Jesus said:] 1 ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. 2 In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. 4 And you know the way to the place where I am going.’ 5 Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ 6 Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’

The church and the monastery of Stavropoleos are richly decorated (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary:

The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (30 April 2021) invites us to pray:

We pray for the work of the Tanzania Nursing and Midwifery Council, which regulates and trains nurses and midwives in Tanzania.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Stavropoleos Monastery in Bucharest is known throughout the Orthodox world for its Byzantine library and music (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

The courtyard in Stavropoleos, with its columns and cloisters, has an atmosphere of prayer (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Thursday, 29 April 2021

Poetry Day Ireland and
a poem that brings me
from Cappoquin to Athens

Melina Mercouri – ‘a singer of genius, a genius of phrases, beautiful and nonchalant’ (Thomas McCarthy) … the statue of Melina Mercouri near the Acropolis (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Today is Poetry Day Ireland 2021 (29 April), and – as with last year – all events are online. This year’s theme is ‘New Directions: Maps and Journeys’.

Individuals, organisations and schools are being invited to join in and celebrate online and virtually for Poetry Day Ireland. This may include organising an online event, reading a poetry book at home, writing a poem or sharing some poetic lines, and people are invited to share details and photos, using the hashtag #PoetryDayIRL .

For my choice of poem today to mark Poetry Day Ireland, I have chose ‘Athens 2005’ by the Cappoquin-born poet Thomas McCarthy, which brings together in one poem memories of my childhood and hopes for the future, and highlights this year’s theme, ‘New Directions: Maps and Journeys’.

During my ‘Road Trip’ last summer, I recalled how some of the happiest days in my childhood were spent in Cappoquin, Co Waterford, and on my grandparents’ former home and farm near Mount Melleray.

I grew up thinking of Cappoquin as a town of writers, poets and journalists, and believing it was the literary centre of West Waterford, if not of the Province of Munster. This was the home of Molly Keane, the poet Michael Cavanagh, and the birthplace of the travel writer Dervla Murphy, and the Victorian clergy in the parish included the future Bishop John Frederick MacNeice (1866-1942), father of poet Louis MacNeice (1907-1963).

We grew up hearing of the exploits of Sir Richard Keane (1909-2010), Diplomatic Correspondent of The Irish Times, who also fought at El Alamein, captured one of Rommel’s senior generals, and helped organise allied support for the resistance and partisans in war-time Yugoslavia.

Early writers associated with Cappoquin include the Irish scholar and poet Padraig Denn (1756-1828), commemorated in a plaque on the Main Street, the poet Michael Cavanagh (1822-1900), whose statue stands in the Square opposite the Market House. Cavanagh wrote:

God guard the hearts that those grey roofs cover,
Whose fervent pulses respond to mine,
When in raptured visions I fondly hover
Leath Sli idir Eochaill is Ceapach Choinn.


No 6 Mill Street is the ancestral home of the Browne family, including Monsignor Pádraig de Brún (1899-1960), poet, classical scholar and president of UCG; and Monsignor Maurice Browne (1892-1979), for whom the family story provided the basis of The Big Sycamore (1958), under the pen name Joseph Brady. They were uncles of the poet Máire Mac an tSaoi, who married Conor Cruise O’Brien.

Belleville House was the early home of poet John Walsh and the early childhood home of the director from the era of silent movies, William Desmond Taylor. Belleville Park was the home of Molly Keane (1904-1996), author of Good Behaviour. She was married to Bobby Keane from Cappoquin House, and it is said she took her pseudonym, MJ Farrell, from the name above a shop near the Square in Cappoquin.

The poet Thomas McCarthy was born in Cappoquin in 1954. The Cappoquin he recalls in his poetry is the small town I remember from the 1950s and 1960s: the Glenshelane woodland walk; the boathouse – used for dances and plays as well as rowing; summer cricket; the railway station that closed in 1967; and the Desmond Cinema, which closed in 2005.

His novel Asya and Christine (1992), set in the Cappoquin of 1943, includes an account of a boat race on a bracing March day, involving the local rowing club and Irish Army officers who were stationed in the town.

Dennis O’Driscoll regards Thomas McCarthy and Paul Muldoon as the most important Irish poets of this generation. Eavan Boland says he is the first poet born in the Republic of Ireland to write about it critically. Politics, family, love, history and memory are the main themes of his poetry.

For Poetry Day Ireland today, I have a chosen Thomas McCarthy’s poem ‘Athens 2005.’ This poem resonates, in oh so many ways, with my wistful thoughts of being able to return to Greece later this year, following today’s decision on easing on easing some of the pandemic lockdown restrictions.

‘Melina Mercouri’s dream, her idealised place / Where a child might grow tall with European-ness’ … the Odeon or Theatre of Herodes Atticus on the southern slopes of the Acropolis (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

ATHENS, 2005
(for Joe Gavin)


Emblems of the Hellenic world of trade, Ionian, Olympic, a Byronic BA,
Cruise past the waiting windows; touch down, gate or disengage.

Each European driven to Ithaca, each creaking console turning to complain
Of its burden of suitcases, each with a Mediterranean assignment;

Each bag falls like an exhausted marathon runner at the gate of Athens:
The flight attendants in smart uniforms tell us to be alert and wait.

This is the Europe our fathers could never have imagined as they fled
Westward, across the ocean, leaving Queenstown and Geneva tear-stained.

Behind them as they fled entire civilisations were waking from a sleep,
An exhausted sleep of wars, a long nightmare of occupations. Europe was

Never as alert as this, not in our lifetimes nor in the lives of our fathers,
Alert with untaken journeys of pleasure, as full of its own trade

As the quaysides of Boston or the blue furnaces of Philadelphia.
I think of those journeys out of something. A flight out of Europe:

The spars creak and the sea folds and unfolds to remonstrate with time,
To show its wrists to the wind; to show its broken chains to the sky

As now the young Europeans show their passports and IDs with such
Nonchalance, and lack of interest. The whole of Europe’s on the move

Again, but this time into itself: the idle moves to the working part,
The cold North seeks the hot islands as if Greece could hold enough light

To satisfy our darkness. I’ve just said farewell to the companionship
Of the great, to Dora Bakoyannis in Athens Town Hall,

To a beloved Spyros Mercouris speaking at the Pnyx, making a promise
To support the work of poets, Spyros who brought Greek sunlight

To the Big Screen, who watched Melina become a singer of genius,
A genius of phrases, beautiful and nonchalant as a Greek cigarette –

So that we wonder what it is we are looking for
And we wonder what the fuss was about, and the budgets that wounded cities,

And wonder too as we sink into the grace and ease of an Hellenic life
Where it was our plane journeys began, what politics and foul weather

Made us board our plane of exile, this sun charter called Capital of Culture,
And I think of the Hellenic canvas of James Barry, and how it all began;

Not to mention, in passing, the Hellenic ideal of Europe in our scholars,
WB Stanford's book, the songs of Father Prout, etc., etc.,

Or whether our plane took flight much later than that; in our father’s time:
The Berlin Airlift, the harrowing films of the Holocaust and the vileness

Europe is capable of; or Melina Mercouri’s dream, her idealised place
Where a child might grow tall with European-ness, at home and in love

From the Shannon river to the Danube Volga, or Vistula; consoled
By culture for all the horrors of war and exile … Until quite suddenly

I see, clear as a glass of water from the Nagle Mountains, a ragged
Child, a little gypsy boy or a child coming home from a Talmudic lesson,

I see that child grab his one precious suitcase, a cardboard case marked ‘Europe’,
And all my hopes go with him, all the cut-stones and the sunken treasure.

The Cappoquin Thomas McCarthy recalls in his poetry is the town I remember from the 1950s and 1960s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Praying in Lent and Easter 2021:
72, Vlatádon Monastery, Thessaloniki

The katholikon or main church of the Monastery of Vlatádon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

During the Season of Easter this year, I am continuing my theme from Lent, taking some time each morning to reflect in these ways:

1, photographs of a church or place of worship that has been significant in my spiritual life;

2, the day’s Gospel reading;

3, a prayer from the prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel).

This week is Holy Week in the Orthodox Church. My photographs this morning (29 April) are from the Monastery of Vlatádon in Thessaloniki.

In the hills above the city, the Royal and Patriarchal Monastery of Vlatádon is in a leafy, secluded location. As you make your way up the hill, you keep seeing the over-hanging walls of the monastery, founded in the 14th century, perhaps by two monks from Crete.

In recent years, Vlatádon has been renovated and expanded, and has lost much of its old feeling. But the charming, inner, tree-shaded courtyard is a cool and refreshing place to rest and contemplate. This is one of my favourite places in Thessaloniki, and I visit it each time I am in the city. I spent Easter Day there three years ago (2018), and I once met the actress Irene Papas in this courtyard in the late 1990s.

From Vlatádon, the panorama looks out over the whole city and as far as the peaks of Mount Olympus. The resident peacocks are usually in good voice. They are here because peacocks are an early Christian symbol of faith in the resurrection, perhaps because it was believed that their flesh did not decay after death.

The Turks badly damaged the original frescoes in the church and they have not been restored. Today, the monastery of Vlatádon is the only active monastery among about 20 monasteries in Thessaloniki.

Traditionally, the abbots and monks of Vlatádon have close links with the University of Thessaloniki and the Theological School in Chalki. The Patriarchal Institute for Patristic Studies was founded here in 1965, and it has a library and publishes the journal Klironomia.

By tradition, the little chapel of Saint Peter and Saint Paul at Vlatádon stands on the very spot where the Apostle Paul preached when he visited Thessaloniki in the year 50.

In the cloisters of the Monastery of Vlatádon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

John 13: 16-20 (NRSVA):

[Jesus said:] 16 ‘Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. 17 If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them. 18 I am not speaking of all of you; I know whom I have chosen. But it is to fulfil the scripture, “The one who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me.” 19 I tell you this now, before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe that I am he. 20 Very truly, I tell you, whoever receives one whom I send receives me; and whoever receives me receives him who sent me.’

A cross in a corner of the church in the Monastery of Vlatádon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary:

The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (29 April 2021) invites us to pray:

Let us remember that certain parts of the world are struggling with other diseases during the Covid-19 pandemic, such as malaria. We pray for USPG partners running healthcare initiatives in Myanmar and Tanzania.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Icons and religious goods and books in the shop in the Monastery of Vlatádon (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

Looking across the churches, the city and the bay of Thessaloniki from the Monastery of Vlatádon, the ‘Balcony of Thessaloniki,’ on Easter Day in 2018 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Wednesday, 28 April 2021

Counting possible chess moves,
atoms in the universe, grains of
sand and the number of stars

How many grains of sand are there by the sea … the sandy beach at Ballinskelligs, Co Kerry (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

In the Biblical story of Abraham in the Book of Genesis, Abraham is worried about his survival, his future, and what is going to happen after he dies, for he has no children and so has no heirs.

God brings Abraham outside and says to him, ‘Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be’ (Genesis 15: 1-5)

In the Psalms, we are told that God’s counsels are ‘more in number than the sand’ (Psalm 139: 17-18), and if were to count them all we would still be in God’s presence. It is a majestic image of the scope of God’s presence.

But, how many stars are in the sky?

And, how many grains of sand cover the earth’s beaches?

Did you ever look up on a clear, moonless night and ask how many stars can I see above?

When you look up into the night sky it stretches a pitch-black canvas washed with streaks and studs of brightness. We are surrounded by light that has travelled the expanse of the universe to reach our eyes. And it makes me feel tiny and enormous at one and the same time.

But how many stars do I actually see?

There is really no definitive answer to this question. No one has counted all the stars in the night sky, and astronomers use different numbers as theoretical estimates.

Considering all the stars visible in all directions around Earth, some estimates say there are between 5,000 and 10,000 visible stars. But that’s just the stars visible to the naked eye tonight.

But why limit my calculations and my imagination to my own failing, short-sighted pair of eyes?

Why should I simply marvel at the majesty and mystery of it all when I can do some calculations and think of how many stars are visible to God?

Let me start with the galaxies. Astronomers estimate there are around 170 billion galaxies in the observable universe, stretching out over a radius of some 45.7 billion light years.

Those galaxies vary in terms of the numbers of stars they contain. Some galaxies have more than a trillion stars. Some giant elliptical galaxies have 100 trillion stars. There are also tiny dwarf galaxies – tiny, of course, is a relative term here – some tiny dwarf galaxies that have significantly fewer stars.

On the other hand, the Milky Way, our little corner of the observable universe, has 400 billion stars alone.

So, if we multiply the estimated average number of stars in each galaxy by the number of galaxies in the observable universe – and carry the billion, &c – I get a rough estimate of all the stars I am capable of observing. And what I find is there are roughly a septillion stars in the observable universe. That brings us to 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars (1024, or 1 followed by 24 zeros). Which is, well, put simply, an awesome lot of stars.

Other astronomers calculate that there are 10 stars for every grain of sand, 11 times the number of cups of water in all the Earth’s oceans, ten thousand times the number of wheat kernels that have ever been produced on Earth, and 10 billion times the number of cells in a human being.

This is a staggering number: 70 sextillion (or 7 followed by 22 zeros or 70 thousand million million million) stars in the observable universe.

This too is probably a very, very low estimate because the number of galaxies filling the Universe is thought to be much larger than those the Hubble can see.

In his 1980 bestseller, Cosmos, the astronomer Carl Sagan wrote that there are more stars in the heavens than all the grains of sands covering the world’s beaches. He calculated that a handful of sand contains about 10,000 separate grains.

So, how many grains of sand cover the earth’s beaches?

Some years ago, researchers at the University of Hawaii tried to calculate this number by dividing the volume of an average sand grain by the volume of sand covering the Earth’s shorelines.

The volume of sand was obtained by multiplying the length of the world’s beaches by their average width and depth. The number they calculated was seven quintillion five quadrillion (that is 7.5 followed by 17 zeros or 7.5 billion billion) grains of sand.

Mrs Elm, a character in Matt Haig’s novel, The Midnight Library, provides a commentary on a game of chess. She says points out that at the beginning of a game, ‘there are no variations. There is only one way to set up a board.’ There are 9 million variations after the first six moves. After eight moves, there are 288 billion different positions.

‘And those possibilities keep growing,’ she says.

‘There are more possible ways to play a game of chess than the amount of atoms in the observable universe,’ she tells Nora as she lets her win the game.

This value, known as the Shannon Number, represents all of the possible move variations in the game of chess. It is estimated to be between 10111 and 10123. By comparison, there are 1081 atoms that make up the known universe.

The Shannon Number, named after the US mathematician Claude Shannon (1916-2001), is a conservative lower bound of the game-tree complexity of chess of 10120, based on an average of about 103 possibilities for a pair of moves consisting of a move for White followed by a move for Black, and a typical game lasting about 40 such pairs of moves.

Considering chess is a human invention, and that it allows us to imagine something greater than the number of atoms in the observable universe, how much more majestic, divine and sublime is it to consider the number of stars and the grains of sand?

The ‘Shannon Number’ calculates there are more possible ways to play a game of chess than the amount of atoms in the observable universe … an exhibit on the chess grandmaster Richard Réti in the Museum of Jewish Culture, Bratislava (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Praying in Lent and Easter 2021:
71, Glenstal Abbey, Co Limerick

The Church of Saint Columba and Saint Joseph in Glenstal Abbey … blessed and opened in 1956 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

During the Season of Easter this year, I am continuing my theme from Lent, taking some time each morning to reflect in these ways:

1, photographs of a church or place of worship that has been significant in my spiritual life;

2, the day’s Gospel reading;

3, a prayer from the prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel).

This week is Holy Week in the Orthodox Church. My photographs this morning (28 April) are from Glenstal Abbey. I have been here for personal retreats and for meetings of clergy, and I was the keynote speaker at the Glenstal Ecumenical Conference 25 years ago in June 1996.

The Church of Saint Columba and Saint Joseph in Glenstal Abbey is dedicated to the patron saints of the abbey: Saint Joseph, the husband of the Virgin Mary, and Saint Columba (or Colmcille), one of the three patrons of Ireland, alongside Saint Patrick and Saint Bridget.

Joseph and Columba are also the baptismal and monastic names of Blessed Columba Marmion, in whose memory Glenstal Abbey was founded in 1927.

When Glenstal became an independent Benedictine house in 1946, Father Bernard O’Dea was appointed the first Conventual Prior. With the monastic community, he initiated the plans for building the church in 1948, and a fundraising campaign began in America.

The first sod for the new church was turned on 28 May 1951, the foundation stone was laid on 14 October 1951, and the church was blessed and opened by Archbishop Jeremiah Kinnane of Cashel on 24 June 1956.

Father Sébastien Braun OSB, a monk of Maredsous in Belgium, conceived the initial design for the Romanesque-style church. John Thompson of Limerick was the executive architect, P Cullen & Co were the building contractors, and the project was overseen by Father Placid Murray.

The Connemara marble columns were installed in 1957-1958. The Stations of the Cross were designed by Brother Benedict Tutty OSB (1924-1996) and were erected in 1976. The distinctive coloured ceiling in the church dates from reordering carried out in 1979-1981, when Jeremy Williams was the architect.

The most recent reordering of the church was carried out in 2016, under the direction of the architect Seán Ó Laoire. A new confessional was installed in 2017.

Walking into the monastery church, the visitor is first struck by the High Altar and the raised choir and sanctuary area.

The High Altar was built in 2016 during the most recent reordering. The copper repoussé panel on the front of the altar was designed by Benedict Tutty and depicts the Lamb of the Apocalypse surrounded by the symbols of the Four Evangelists. A copper panel on the back depicts the Transfiguration.

The enamel-on-copper Cross, with a bronze Corpus, was designed by Benedict Tutty for the first reordering of the church. The front depicts Christ surrounded by thrones, while on the back there is a rising sun surrounded by angels.

The choir stalls and ministerial chairs were designed by Jeremy Williams and made by Al O’Dea. The choir lectern and stools are the work of Pat Daly. The organ was built in 1981 by Kenneth Jones.

The High Altar and the raised choir and sanctuary area in the Church in Glenstal Abbey (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

John 12: 44-50 (NRSVA):

44 Then Jesus cried aloud: ‘Whoever believes in me believes not in me but in him who sent me. 45 And whoever sees me sees him who sent me. 46 I have come as light into the world, so that everyone who believes in me should not remain in the darkness. 47 I do not judge anyone who hears my words and does not keep them, for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world. 48 The one who rejects me and does not receive my word has a judge; on the last day the word that I have spoken will serve as judge, 49 for I have not spoken on my own, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment about what to say and what to speak. 50 And I know that his commandment is eternal life. What I speak, therefore, I speak just as the Father has told me.’

The panel on High Altar designed by Benedict Tutty depicts the Lamb of the Apocalypse (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary:

The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (28 April 2021) invites us to pray:

Let us pray for nurses and midwives in Tanzania. May more midwives join the profession and may those working in the profession be provided with the necessary equipment.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

The sculpted inscription of Saint Patrick’s Breastplate was designed by Cornelius O’Doherty (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

Father Sébastien Braun, a monk of Maredsous, designed the Romanesque-style church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Tuesday, 27 April 2021

Beeves Rock, a ‘stark’ lighthouse
in the Shannon Estuary since 1855

The lighthouse on Beeves Rock, directly north of Askeaton, was built in 1847-1855 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Patrick Comerford

During our visit to Canon Island and Canon Island Abbey in the Shannon Estuary on Sunday afternoon, we stopped to visit Beeves Rock, a stark and austere-looking lighthouse in the middle of the Shannon. Here the invisible boundary between Co Clare and Co Limerick cuts through the powerful and highly tidal estuary.

The lighthouse on Beeves Rock was built in 1847-1855, directly north of Askeaton, at the mouths of the River Deel and the River Fergus in the Shannon Estuary. The lighthouse replaced an earlier, 40-year-old beacon. While it was being built, the work was slowed by adverse tidal conditions that covered the rock with 8 feet of water at high tide.

But, by the time the lighthouse began operating in 1855, its designer, George Halpin, had already died. The lighthouse on Beeves Rock was designed by George Halpin (1779-1854), Inspector of Works and Lighthouses for the Ballast Board from 1810 until his death in 1854.

Halpin was brought up as a builder, and in 1800 he was appointed Inspector of Works to the Ballast Board, following the death of Francis Tunstall. He was admitted a freeman of the City of Dublin in 1804 as a member of the Guild of Masons.

Halpin’s responsibilities increased substantially in 1810 when the Board was placed in charge of all the lighthouses in Ireland. As a result, his post was designated Inspector of Works and Lighthouses. In this capacity, he designed a number of lighthouses around the entire coastline of Ireland.

Halpin’s other lighthouses include Baily (Howth), Balbriggan, Cape Clear Island, Fastnet, Haulbowline, Old Head of Kinsale, Poolbeg, Skellig Michael, Tarbert, Tuskar Rock, Valentia Island, Wicklow Head and Youghal.

His son, George Halpin, was appointed his assistant in 1830. His other assistants included John Swan Sloane.

In addition, Halpin was appointed to inspect and survey the state of the Bank of Ireland’s branches throughout Ireland in 1829, and he was designated the bank architect in 1831. However, he seems to have designed only two branch banks – Dundalk (1845) and Portlaoise (1850).

Halpin collapsed and died on 10 July 1854 while he was on one of his lighthouse inspections for the Ballast Board, and he was buried at Mount Jerome Cemetery in Harold’s Cross, Dublin. He was succeeded as the Board’s Inspector by his son George Halpin.

The lighthouse on Beeves Rock was designed by George Halpin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Beeves Rock Lighthouse has been described as ‘bizarre’ not only for its architecture but also for the story of one of its keepers.

The lighthouse is basically a house with a lighthouse coming up through the roof, according to Roger O’Reilly, the Drogheda-based historian of Irish lighthouses. ‘It’s built on a rock that’s only exposed at low tide,’ he told the Journal in an interview. ‘So they only had a certain amount of time to build.’

James McGinley, who the keeper in the early 20th century, was the maternal grandfather of the former Taoiseach Enda Kenny, who us currently presenting the programme Iarnród Enda on RTÉ.

As Beeves Rock was only accessible by boat, life was difficult for newly-married James McGinley and his wife Margaret Heekin. While her husband was stationed on the rock, Margaret lived in a Commissioners of Irish Lights’ cottage near Askeaton.

Communication between the couple each day was only possible by semaphore. ‘They would wave flags at each other. It was the early 20th-century version of texting, and that’s how they communicated until he had shore leave, so that was certainly not a romantic start to the marriage,’ author and illustrator Roger O’Reilly told TheJournal.ie.

The records show that James McGinley was 25 when he entered the lighthouse service in 1905. He spent six months training at the Baily Lighthouse in Howth before becoming assistant keeper on Rathlin O’Birne in Co Donegal.

He was stationed on Beeves Rock in the Shannon in 1910, and sometime later, during World War I, on Tuskar Rock off the Wexford coast. McGinley took up service as keeper at Loop Head, Co Clare, in 1922 before returning to Rathlin O’Birne for his final five-year posting in 1935.

Beeves Rock was converted to an unwatched lighthouse in 1933 and was automated. It has been under the authority of the Limerick Harbour Commissioners since 1981.

The history of Beeves Rock is included with the history of 80 other lighthouses in Roger O’Reilly’s book, Lighthouses of Ireland – An Illustrated Guide to the Sentinels that Guard our Coastline.

According to O’Reilly, the success of Beeves Rock Lighthouse is measured by the fact that few vessels have sunk in the stretch of river since it was built. One of the few wreckages in the estuary was a Dutch aircraft carrying diamonds that crashed with its cargo in 1957.

Since the final lighthouse was automated in 1997 – the Baily in Howth – all the work of keeping Ireland’s lighthouses functioning is done remotely. But, despite advancing technology, lighthouses still serve as crucial navigational aids for the maritime traffic around Ireland.

When he was Taoiseach in 2012, Enda Kenny visited Beeves Rock lighthouse where his grandfather had been the keeper in the early 20th century. He also visited the Loop Head Lighthouse – dating back to the 1670s – on the most westerly tip of Co Clare.

Enda Kenny’s grandfather James McGinley was the keeper on Beeves Rock in the early 20th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Praying in Lent and Easter 2021:
70, Saint Benedict’s Abbey, Ealing

Ealing Abbey is the first Benedictine abbey in Greater London since the Reformation (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

During the Season of Easter this year, I am continuing my theme from Lent, taking some time each morning to reflect in these ways:

1, photographs of a church or place of worship that has been significant in my spiritual life;

2, the day’s Gospel reading;

3, a prayer from the prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel).

This week is Holy Week in the Orthodox Church. My photographs this morning (27 April) are from Ealing Abbey, where I spent two weeks studying some years ago, following the daily cycle of prayer with the monks in the abbey, with the psalms, canticles, antiphonies, Scripture readings and prayers.

During those two weeks, I was reminded each day of the shared tradition in the Benedictine offices and the Anglican offices of Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer.

Ealing Abbey began life as Ealing Priory over a century ago in 1916. When it became Ealing Abbey in 1955, it was the first Benedictine abbey in Greater London since the Reformation. I was there to study Liturgy in the Institutum Liturgicum, based in the Benedictine Study and Arts Centre.

I was reminded too that Benedictine spirituality approaches life through an ordering by daily prayer that is biblical and reflective. At its base, Benedictine spirituality is grounded in a commitment to ‘the Benedictine Promise’ – an approach to spiritual life that values ‘Stability, Obedience, and Conversion of Life.’

The Benedictine motto is: ‘Ora et Labora.’ This does not present prayer and work as two distinct things, but holds prayer and work together. For Saint Benedict, the spiritual life and the physical life are inseparable. As he says: ‘Orare est laborare, laborare est orare, to pray is to work, to work is to pray.’

There was an old cutting from the Daily Telegraph on the desk in my room that says the Benedictine tradition is so rooted in English life and culture that: ‘Some claim to see the Benedictine spirit in the rules of Cricket.’

Dom James Leachman, a monk of Ealing Abbey, Director of the Institutum Liturgicam, and Professor of Liturgy at the Pontifical Institute of Liturgy in Sant’Anselmo, Rome, says the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches are ‘two vigorous traditions’ on these islands that ‘nourish the life of learning and prayer of millions of Christians.’ Writing in the Benedictine Yearbook, he said, ‘Both traditions find shared and deep root in British and Irish soil and in the history of our islands … we are constantly present to each other.’

Ealing Abbey is just half an hour from Heathrow Airport, and the idea of a monastery close to a busy airport and in heart of suburban London seems a contradiction in terms to many. But Saint Benedict’s Abbey in Ealing is one of the largest in Britain and the main work of the monks is parochial work.

The monastery was founded in 1897 from Downside Abbey as a parish, at the invitation of the then Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Vaughan. Building work on the church began two years later, and the school was started by Dom Sebastian Cave in 1902.

Ealing Abbey has been the home at times for many notable monks, including Dom David Knowles, the monastic historian and later Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge, who lived there in 1933-1939 while he was working on his magnum opus, The Monastic Order in England.

Dom Cuthbert Butler (1858-1934) also lived at Ealing following his retirement as Abbot of Downside from 1922. His books included critical editions of the Lausiac History of Palladius and The Rule of Saint Benedict, and he was the author of Western Mysticism, Life of Archbishop Ullathorne, and History of the Vatican Council.

Dom John Main (1926-1982), who wrote and lectured widely on Christian meditation, was a monk at Ealing in 1959-1970 and 1974-1977. He graduated from Trinity College Dublin in 1954, and taught law there from 1956 to 1959 before joining Ealing Abbey, and he was ordained priest here in 1963. He was strongly influenced by the writings of the Desert Father John Cassian, and he began his Christian meditation group at Ealing Abbey in 1975.

John Main’s teaching methods are now used throughout the world, and those who have acknowledged his influence include the former President, Mary McAleese, Archbishop Rowan Williams and Metropolitan Kallistos Ware.

Ealing Abbey began life as Ealing Priory over a century ago in 1916 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

John 10: 22-30 (NRSVA):

22 At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, 23 and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. 24 So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, ‘How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.’ 25 Jesus answered, ‘I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; 26 but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. 2 7My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. 29 What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. 30 The Father and I are one.’

The stillness and quietness of the abbey gardens make it easy to forget that Heathrow Airport is only a few miles away (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary:

The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (27 April 2021, South Africa Freedom Day) invites us to pray:

Let us pray for continued peace and reconciliation in South Africa.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Working in the book-lined Scriptorium … once the research workplace of the Biblical scholar Dom Bernard Orchard (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

There was a warm welcome from the monks of Ealing Abbey (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Monday, 26 April 2021

Canon Island: a monastic
retreat among 29 islands
in the Shannon estuary

Inside the abbey church on Canon Island … an Augustinian foundation dating from 1189 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Patrick Comerford

It was a warm, balmy weekend, and it felt as though summer had broken through too early in these closing days of April.

On Sunday afternoon (25 April 2021), some of us went out on a boat from the Deel Boat Club on the banks of the River Deel, north of Askeaton, and followed the course of the River Deel north into the estuary of the River Shannon, with the afternoon sun sparkling on the waters and on the islands.

At times, it seems there are as many islands in Askeaton parish as there are townlands, including the islands and islets of White Island, Holly Island, Greenish Island, Aughinish Island and Lisilaun.

Three of us rowed from the boat in the Shannon estuary onto Canon Island (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

The Anglo-Normans approaching from Limerick along these waters imagined the shore of Co Clare on the north side of the Shannon as an archipelago. They picturesquely named it ‘the cantred of the isles of Thomond,’ a name still preserved in that of the barony of Islands.

As the boat rested in the waters between Inishmacowney and Canon Island, three of us rowed out to Canon Island, a 270-acre island in the estuary, about 2.5 km east of Kildysart, Co Clare, and about 1.5 km from the shore on the mainland.

Canon Island is east of Inishtubbrid Island, south of Inishmacowney, and east of Inishloe or Loe Island. It is the largest of 29 small islands that span the crossing of the Shannon and Fergus estuaries, and the abbey ruins stand on the north-east corner of the island.

Canon Island Abbey on Canon Island … Canon Island was granted to the monks of Clare Abbey by the O’Briens of Thomond (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Canon Island is home to Canon Island Abbey, a ruined Augustinian monastery built in the late 12th century at the north-east corner of the island. Canon Island, or Innisgad, sometimes referred to as Canons’ Island, was once known as Elanagranoch.

The island was granted to the Augustinian Canons of Clare Abbey in 1189 by Domnall Mór Ua Briain (Donald O’Brien), King of Thomond . The abbey was founded in the late 12th century, but it was a separate community and was not dependent on the larger Clare Abbey.

The Canons Regular of Saint Augustine originated in a reform movement instigated by Pope Leo IX (1049-1054) and aimed at restoring religious discipline among parish clergy in Italy by grouping them into regular communities. Although they lived collegially, the canons were not monks but secular clergy whose primary function was parish ministry and pastoral care.

The East End of the abbey church … Canon Island may have been a key part of the diocesan reorganisation in the late 12th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

The Augustinian canons were introduced to Ireland in first half of the 12th century after Saint Malachy, Archbishop of Armagh, visited the Augustinian canons in Guisborough, Yorkshire, ca 1126-1127, and visited the abbey of Arrouaise, in north-west France, in 1137-1138.

After Saint Malachy’s death in 1148, the Augustinian order continued to spread, and many new houses were sponsored after 1176 both by the Irish and by the Anglo-Normans. By the end of the 12th century, the canons regular had become the predominant order in Ireland.

Clare Abbey was founded in 1189, when the short-lived diocesan status of Saint Senan’s island monastery of Iniscathaigh (Scattery) and its attached churches was under review. Scattery was too small a territory to survive as a viable diocese. When the death of Bishop Aodh Ó Beacháin in 1188 provided an opportunity to revise the diocesan boundaries, Scattery became a rural deanery, and its ‘termons’ or outlying churches were subsumed into the Dioceses of Killaloe and the Diocese of Limerick on either side of the Shannon Estuary.

The West End of the abbey church … there are no written references to the abbey until the late 14th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

The foundation for Canons Regular at Clare Abbey in 1189 may have been part of redrawing and reforming diocesan boundaries, and many parishes attached to Clare Abbey had previously been linked with Scattery.

The island is one of the endowments included in the charter granted by Domhnall Mór to Clare Abbey, but a date for building the abbey on Canon Island is uncertain. Thomas Westropp, the Limerick historian and antiquarian, described the abbey ruins in the late 19th century. He places some portions of the buildings in the late 12th century. There are no written references to the church, however, until the end of the 14th century. By then, it had already fallen into disrepair.

A papal document in 1393 describes the abbey as ‘so destroyed alike in respect of its buildings as of its books, chalices, and likewise of its temporal goods as to be threatened with ruin.’ The papal letter offered indulgences to any who helped repair the abbey.

An ogee-shaped tomb niche in the abbey church … the monastery is called ‘Monasterium Beatae Virginis’ in Papal letters (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

In the papal letters, it is invariably called Monasterium Beatae Virginis. Later papal mandates to the abbots indicate Canon Island was one of the major religious houses in the Diocese of Killaloe.

The Mac Giolla Pádraig (Fitzpatrick) family and the Mac Mahon family, the ruling family of Clonderlaw frequently contested the control of the abbey in the 15th century.

Dermot Mac Giolla Pádraig was abbot from 1426-1478. Serious charges were brought against him in 1452 by Thomas Mac Mahon who is described as ‘a deacon of Killaloe.’ Thomas Mac Mahon accused the abbot of wilful murder or of having aided or abetted murder as well as breaches of the vow of celibacy and of simony.

A papal mandate was issued to the Precentor of the Diocese of Emly to look into the case and, if he found the complaints true, to remove Mac Giolla Pádraig, and install Thomas as abbot instead. The complainant, Thomas Mac Mahon, had received a dispensation from a ‘defect of birth’ or canonical illegitimacy as ‘a child of unmarried noble parents.’

Eleven years later, in 1463, another Dermot Mac Giolla Pádraig, perhaps the abbot’s son, was also a dispensation from ‘defect of birth’ as the son ‘of an Augustinian abbot and an unmarried woman.’ Indeed, the position of abbot remained in the Fitzpatrick family for virtually the whole of the 15th century.

Vaults in the refrectory area of the abbey … the canons served as the working clergy of the neighbouring parishes (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

For the greater part of the 15th century, the canons served as the working clergy of the surrounding parishes, including Kilmaleery on the opposite side of the Fergus estuary.

The Augustinian canons of Canon Island were involved in the parochial life of the hinterland along the estuary to Killofin and as far north as Kilmurry and Kilfarboy in Ibrickane. A number of earlier churches once stood on Canon Island and on some of the other islands nearby.

Westropp mentions a local tradition that five churches on the neighbouring islands, including Saint Senan’s oratory at Inishloe, were demolished, and the material used for the new foundation.

A mediaeval grave in the abbey church … Bishop Mahon O Griobtha of Killaloe, who died in 1482, is buried in the abbey but his tomb has not been identified (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

The neighbouring island of Inisdadrum (Coney Island) had two early churches, one of which was a parish church united in cure to Inisgad in the 15th century. There was also a church on Inisloe – penitentiaries de Inis-Luaidhe – which tradition ascribed to Saint Senan, but all traces of this have disappeared. Another church on Feenish island was ascribed to Saint Brigid, ‘daughter of Conchraidh of the family of Mactail,’ a contemporary of Saint Senan.

Bishop Mahon O Griobtha of Killaloe, who died on the island in 1482, is buried in the abbey, but his tomb has not been identified.

Westropp failed to find any trace of an older building on Inisgad itself, but an aerial survey by the late Leo Swan in the 1980s shows that the abbey was built on the site of what seemed to be an extensive monastic enclosure.

In the sacristy and chapter house … the monastery prospered until it the dissolution in 1540 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

The remaining abbey buildings include a church with Romanesque windows, two adjoining chapels, a belfry, a cloister and a large square tower. Roofs are missing from all of the standing buildings. Buildings to the east would have had a sacristy, chapter house and dormitory for the monks. The south range had a kitchen and refectory.

The side chapels, tower and cloisters were added ca 1450. An early cashel wall partly surrounds the abbey. The abbey’s cemetery has several graves.

The monastery prospered until it was dissolved during the reign of Henry VIII in 1540. At its dissolution, the abbey consisted of four acres of arable land, 14 acres mountain and pasture, together with some islands nearby and the tithes of Kildysart and the vicarage or vicar’s share of the tithes of Kilchreest (Ballynacally).

The modern bell at Canon Island Abbey … the Cromwellians are said to have returned to the island when the monks rang the bell (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

The island, monastery and its assets and income were granted to Donogh O’Brien, 4th Earl of Thomond. In Elizabethan documents, it is referred to as ‘Desertmorehely’ or Diséart mór-thuille (‘Monastery of the swollen tide’).

The Augustinians continued to live on the island until it was attacked by Cromewellian forces in 1651. Local folklore says Cromwell came up the River Shannon by boat in 1651. He decided there was nothing of importance on Canon Island. The Cromwellians were on their way back down the river, it is said, when the monks rang the bell. The Cromwellians returned and killed 27 monks, only three escaped.

Tradition says the three fleeing monks buried chalices, holy books and manuscripts but they have never been found. The monastery ceased the function after that time.

Canon Island remained part of the Thomond estate until the late 17th century, when Henry O’Brien, 7th Earl of Thomond (1620-1691) granted the property to Richard Henn of Paradise, Ballynacally, and the island eventually passed to local families.

The walls around the monastic site … the last families left the island in the early 1970s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

The island population was at its height in 1841 with 54 residents. Canon Island was uninhabited by the time of the 1966 census. However, the last families did not leave the island until the early 1970s.

Canon Island is part of the parish of Kildysart. It has continued to serve as a place of burial and it remains a traditional pilgrim site for people on both sides of the estuary. An annual pilgrimage of island descendants and nearby villagers have travelled to Canon Island since 1990 to celebrate Mass at the abbey.

The pilgrimage was revived by the late Father Michael Hillery, Parish Priest of Kildysart. The journey from Kildysart to Canon Island takes about three-quarters of an hour. Pilgrims gather in Kildysart, Bunratty, Foynes and Askeaton and travel by currach and boat to the island.

In the cloisters of Canon Island Abbey … the pilgrimage to Canon Island was revived in the 21st century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

During the pilgrimage in 2013, Seán Óg Cleary was baptised on Canon Island on 17 August 2013. During the Baptism, Father Albert McDonnell, parish priest, said there are more islands than townlands in Kildysart parish.

Canon Island was put up for sale by private treaty through John Casey of Lisdoonvarna at the end of 2010, with an asking price of €485,000. The island includes old dwellings and about 112 acres of good-quality land.

The boat anchored between Canon Island and Inishmacowney (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Praying in Lent and Easter 2021:
69, Saint John’s Monastery, Tolleshunt Knights

The monastery at Tolleshunt Knights was built around the old rectory (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

During the Season of Easter this year, I am continuing my theme from Lent, taking some time each morning to reflect in these ways:

1, photographs of a church or place of worship that has been significant in my spiritual life;

2, the day’s Gospel reading;

3, a prayer from the prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel).

This week is Holy Week in the Orthodox Church. My photographs this morning (26 April) are from the Monastery of Saint John the Evangelist, Tolleshunt Knights, Essex.

For many years, I spent a day almost each summer on a retreat in the Monastery of Saint John the Evangelist in Tolleshunt Knights, Essex. The monastery is about 75 km south-east of Cambridge, and these annual visits were organised by the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies as part of the patristics summer school held each year in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge.

The Church of England agreed to sell All Saints’ Church and the rectory to the Orthodox Church in 1958. Since then, the church has been carefully restored and is now attached to the Monastery of Saint John the Baptist, which is built around the former rectory in Tolleshunt Knights.

The mixed community of monks and nuns is the oldest Orthodox religious community in Britain. It was founded by Elder Sophrony (Sakharov) with an initial membership of six drawn from a number of countries.

Father Sophrony (1896-1993) was originally a painter who developed a longing to devote his art to exploring the nature of Divine reality. He was born Sergei Symeonovich Sakharov in Moscow 120 years ago on 23 September 1896, the son of Russian Orthodox parents.

As a child, he prayed daily, later recalling that he would pray for 45 minutes without stress. Even as a child, he claimed to have experienced the Uncreated Light, but thought casually that every other child had similar experiences.

The end of World War II and the catastrophe of the Greek Civil War left Father Sophrony in a difficult position as a non-Greek on Mount Athos. In 1947, he returned to Paris, where he moved into a Russian old people’s home in St Genevieve-des-Bois as the assistant chaplain and a father confessor. There his work led to the formation of a small community that centred its prayer life on the Jesus Prayer.

In 1948, he produced his first edition of Staretz Silouan outlining Saint Silouan’s principles, including prayer for the whole world, God-forsakenness and the idea of all humanity being connected. In Paris, he also worked from 1950 to 1957 with Vladimir Lossky who influenced his thinking on many contemporary issues, and his Trinitarian thought and its application to the Church and humanity.

In 1952, Father Sophrony produced a second edition of Staretz Silouan, which brought Saint Silouan to the attention of a wider public. Meanwhile, the small community he had gathered around wanted to explore the monastic life. With the help of Rosemary Edmunds, they bought the Old Rectory at Tolleshunt Knights in 1958, and the Community of Saint John the Baptist was formed within a year.

From the beginning, this was a mixed community, and the first six members were both monks and nuns. The original chapel was laid out in the Old Rectory by Father Sophrony. The iconostasis or icon screen in this 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).

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 Monastery has been under the authority of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople since 1965. The main spiritual practices are the repetition of the Jesus Prayer for about four hours a day and the serving of the Divine Liturgy three or four times a week, practices that were inspired by Father Sophrony’s experiences on Mount Athos.

The Hegumen or Abbot is Archimandrite Peter (Vryzas), who was elected after the death of Archimandrite Kyrillos in 2019. Father Peter was born in Greece in 1977, and he was a disciple of Elder Zacharias (Zacharou), who was a close disciple of Elder Sophrony.

Father Peter joined the monastery in 2002 at the age of 25. His PhD, on the mystery of receiving and transmitting the word of God in the teachings of Father Sophrony, was recently published as his first book.

The community includes about 40 men and women – the majority are nuns, with a smaller number of monks, and they come from about 14 nations. In the words of one nun, it is ‘a melting pot.’

The Old Rectory and monastic buildings at the Monastery of Saint John the Baptist in Tolleshunt Knights (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Mark 13: 5-13 (NRSVA):

5 Then Jesus began to say to them, ‘Beware that no one leads you astray. 6 Many will come in my name and say, “I am he!” and they will lead many astray. 7 When you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. 8 For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.

9 ‘As for yourselves, beware; for they will hand you over to councils; and you will be beaten in synagogues; and you will stand before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them. 10 And the good news must first be proclaimed to all nations. 11 When they bring you to trial and hand you over, do not worry beforehand about what you are to say; but say whatever is given you at that time, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit. 12 Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; 13 and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.

Inside the original monastic chapel in the former Rectory in Tolleshunt Knights (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary:

The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (26 April 2021, Saint Mark the Evangelist) invites us to pray:

Let us give thanks for the life and ministry of Saint Mark the Evangelist.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

The doors of the iconstasis are the work of Leonid Ouspensky (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

The tomb of Father Sophrony in the crypt in Saint John’s Monastery in Tolleshunt Knights (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)