31 December 2022

A year of war and peace,
an end to old certainties
and of new beginnings

The Lichfield Peace Walk outside Lichfield Cathedral in August (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

So this is Christmas
And what have you done?
Another year over
And a new one just begun

John Lennon was the first Beatle to release a Christmas song after the breakup of the Beatles. After two years of activism by John Lennon and Yoko Ono, this song became a powerful protest song against the Vietnam War. The backing vocals come from the Harlem Community Choir, and was a powerful choice of children’s voices to deliver an anti-war message.

The release of the single ‘Happy Xmas (War Is Over)’ was delayed in Britain until November 1972, and it peaked at No 4 50 years ago. In a poll by ITV ten years ago in December 2012, it was voted ‘The Nation’s Favourite Christmas Song.’

Despite John Lennon’s yearning half a century ago, war is not over. Another year is over and a new one is about to begin. But the past year has been dominated by the war that began with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and it looks like continuing for the coming year, if not for years to come.

During the past year, I attended demonstrations against the war in both Wexford and Dublin, spoke at anti-war protest in Milton Keynes, and continued to be involved in CND and the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship.

The war is affecting every aspect of life. Russia banned entry to the Taoiseach Micheál Martin and more than 50 other senior officials in response to Western sanctions over Ukraine. Governments throughout Europe are seeking to shift the blame for the rising costs of food and fuel onto the war. Every town and parish on these islands has been challenged to respond to the needs of Ukrainian refugees, and I hope to visit Budapest and Helsinki in the coming weeks to see the response to Ukrainian refugees by the Anglican mission agency USPG and other church agencies.

The past year in Britain saw the collapse of Boris Johnson’s political career – and perhaps even the collapse of the Tory vote and the implosion of the Conservative party – after private parties in Downing Street that ignored Covid lockdown restrictions. This has been the year of three Prime Ministers: Boris Johnson, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak. In Ireland, it has been the year of two Taoisigh: Leo Varadkar took over as Taoiseach from Micheál Martin on 17 December.

The platinum jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II was soon followed by her death and the accession of King Charles III. It is interesting that the values he chose to emphasise in his first broadcast Christmas address include cultural diversity, inter-religious co-operation, the value of the NHS and the role of volunteers in food banks, homeless shelters and care homes.

This was also the year when everyone became aware of the imminent and looming threats posed by climate change. In Britain, this was a summer with record-breaking 40°C heatwave, while winter is chilly, windy, wet and sometimes snowy.

The cost of living crisis, marked by high inflation and rising energy bills and food prices, and the problems of households needing more air conditioning in summer and heating in winter, create a toxic cocktail that exacerbates both poverty and climate change.

It was a year too for taking the knee because Black Lives Matter. The statue of Edward Colston was toppled in Bristol, and it was good to observe personally how the statue of Cecil Rhodes has become an embarrassment in Oxford and the bust of Sir John Cass has been removed from an alcove in Saint Botolph without Aldgate Church in London.

Covid-19 is a continuing presence globally, and I fell a victim to the pandemic in March.

This was also the year of the World Cup. Yet despite the promises from all media outlets that this would provide them with an opportunity to expose Qatar and its abuse of human rights, including the rights of women, migrant workers and political dissenters, those promises were not delivered.

Nor should the World Cup overshadow other exciting sporting moments this year: on 5 November, the Irish rugby team had a 19-16 win over the reigning world champions South Africa in the Aviva Stadium in Dublin.

This year saw the death of Vicky Phelan, who died at the age of 48 on 14 November after a long and brave public campaign on cervical cancer checks.

Listening to John Lennon’s song from 50 years ago I am reminded that this was a year of anniversaries too: the centenary of the birth of the modern Irish state as the Irish Free State on 6 December 1922; the centenary of the publication of both James Joyce’s Ulysses and TS Eliot’s The Waste Land in 1922, and of the birth of the poet Philip Larkin that year; and the 50th anniversary of the death of Thomas Merton.

This year also brought an announcement of plans to reopen the Limerick to Foynes railway line for 2025. During my five years in West Limerick, I was vocal in advocating for this. It is a pity the line never reopened in time for me to enjoy its benefits while I was living in West Limerick.

With Canon John Bartlett in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin

I retired from parish ministry on 31 March after more than five years as Priest-in-Charge of the Rathkeale and Kilnaughtin Group of Parishes, which includes Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Castletown Church, Kilcornan, and Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale, Co Limerick, and Saint Brendan’s Church, Kilnaughtin (Tarbert), Co Kerry.

At the same time, I retired as Precentor of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, Saint Flannan’s Cathedral, Killaloe, Co Clare, and Saint Brendan’s Cathedral, Clonfert, Co Galway, as Diocesan Director of Ministerial Education, and as a member of the General Synod of the Church of Ireland and the Interfaith Working Group. Compassionate leave in March forced me to cancel a commitment to preaching in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, on Saint Patrick’s Day.

My parish ministry included being chaplain to hospitals in Newcastle West, Co Limerick, and Listowel, Co Kerry, chairing the board of Church Street School in Rathkeale, and membership of the secondary school boards in Coláiste Mhuire (Saint Mary’s College), Askeaton, Coláiste na Trócaire, Rathkeale, and Hazelwood College, Dromcolliher.

Before retiring, I was a member of the Episcopal Electoral College that elected Bishop Michael Burrows as Bishop of the newly-united diocese of Tuak, Limerick and Killaloe.

I celebrated my 70th birthday in Birmingham in January. But my health took a turn for the worse in March when I suffered a stroke in Milton Keynes. It was the gravest health scare I have experienced since I was diagnosed with pulmonary sarcoidosis. I was also diagnosed Covid positive in hospital in Milton Keynes. From Milton Keynes University Hospital I was transferred to John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford, and later had a post-stroke procedure in hospital in Sheffield following an earlier consultation there.

These experiences through the year enhanced my appreciation of the NHS, but also intensified my feelings about how the NHS is not being properly funded and resourced by a government that prefers to give tax breaks to the rich and the corrupt.

I have settled into life in Stony Stratford, on the edges of Milton Keynes, since April. I am now up-to-date with my Covid-19 vaccinations, and am recovering well from my stroke thanks to loving attention and care.

I have travelled back and forth between England and Ireland throughout the year, with my last visit to Dublin shortly before Christmas to see family members.

Circumstances mean planned visits to Crete in April and Croatia ind May wer cancelled, and this is one of the few years – apart from the years of travel restrictions introduced by Covid – that I have not been in Greece since the late 1980s.

However, there was a mid-week break in Malta in January ahead of my birthday, and two days in Venice with Charlotte in July.

In Ireland, I have stayed in Askeaton, Dublin and – due to missed flights in Dublin – in Belfast. There were a few return visits to Wexford, and visits too to Galway, Co Clare and Co Kerry.

A return visit to the chapel of Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield, this year (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

There were two return visits to Lichfield and Tamworth, when Charlotte and I stayed in the Hedgehog Vintage Inn in Lichfield and in the Castle Hotel in Tamworth, and I stayed with a friend in Lichfield.

In Lichfield, I visited Lichfield Cathedral and the Chapel in Saint John’s Hospital, which have been my ‘spiritual homes’ since my teens, and Saint Chad’s Church and Saint Bartholomew’s Church, Farewell. In Tamworth, Charlotte and I were given a personalised guided tour of the Moat House, the former Comberford family home on Lichfield Street, and we visited the Comberford Chapel in Saint Editha’s Church.

Throughout the year there have been about half a dozen visits to Birmingham, more than a dozen visits to London, and visits to Oxford, Sheffield and York, with visits to the cathedrals in Oxford, Southwark, Birmingham, Lichfield and Sheffield and to York Minster.

Stony Stratford and Milton Keynes, with their public transport connections, have provided opportunities to explore neighbouring villages, towns and cities, and to travel through the surrounding countryside. Apart from my stay in the John Radcliffe Hospital in March and April, I have been in Oxford to visit Christ Church, Pusey House, Oxford Synagogue, the Ashmolean Museum, a number of Oxford colleges and college chapels and for lunch with a visiting friend from Pakistan.

My country walks in England this year have included walks by the River Ouse, the Balancing Lakes and Willen Lake, and exploring the neighbouring towns, villages and churches of Buckinghamshire, Northamptonshire and Oxfordshire, including Cosgrove, Passenham, Winslow – where I visited Comerford Way – Old Stratford, Calverton, Wolverton, Bletchley, Newport Pagnell, Aylesbury, Buckingham, Banbury and Bloxham, where I visited Cumberford. During one visit to Lichfield, I also walked along Cross in Hand Lane through the countryside of south Staffordshire, to Farewell.

In Ireland, there were walks on the beach in Bray and Wicklow town in Co Wikclow; Courtown, Kilmuckridge and Morriscastle, Co Wexford; Loughshinny and Skerries, Co Dublin; Lahinch, Fintramore, Drumcreehy, and the Cliffs of Moher in Co Clare. There were walks along the quays in Wexford and Galway, by the River Dodder in Firhouse and Rathfarnham and the Liffey in Dublin, by the River Slaney in Ferrycarrig and Wexford, by the Shannon in Limerick, the Deel in Askeaton and Rathkeale, and the River Arra in Newcastle West, Co Limerick, by the Corrib in Galway, by the Falls and Cascades in Ennistymon, Co Clare, and by the shoreline in Kinvara, Co Galway.

With Metropolitan Kallistos Ware at an IOCS summer school in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, a few years ago

The world paid attention to the deaths of Queen Elizabeth II, Pele and former Pope Benedict this year. For me, a number of friends and colleagues died this year. Friends from CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) who died this year included Bruce Kent, who I have known since 1976, Bill McSweeney, who also supervised my post-graduate research at the Irish School of Ecumenics, Rhoda MacManus, who I have known since she lived in Wexford in the 1970s, and who was an early supporter of CND.

Academic friends and colleagues who died this year include Canon John Bartlett, who was the Principal of the Church of Ireland Theological College when I was training for ordination in 1999-2000 and later a colleague on the chapter of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin; Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) of Oxford, who was one of my lecturers in Cambridge at the Institute of Orthodox Studies; and Dr Christine Mangala Frost, who taught on several seminars at IOCS.

Friends from Wexford who died this year include Gerry Breen, Nicky Furlong, Hilary Murphy – I worked with all three in the Wexford People and all three were colleagues too as Wexford historians. Dr Jane Lyons, the Co Laois genealogist, also died this year.

Norman Watson, Hugh O’Shaughnessy, Dervla Murphy and Peter Byrne who died this year all worked for and wrote for The Irish Times during my many years there.

Tom McNamara of the Boley House, Keel, was a generous and genial friend for many years on Achill Island.

Along with Canon John Bartlett and Metropolitan Kallistos, other clerical friends and colleagues who died this year include Canon Cecil Wilson, who worked with during my four years at CMS; the Revd Trevor Kelly, one of my former students; the Very Revd George Chambers, former Dean of Limerick (1981-1986); the Ven Malcolm Shannon, former Archdeacon of Limerick (2001-2009); the Very Revd Alistair Grimason, Dean of Tuam and a member of the Episcopal Electoral College with me this year; and Bishop Brian Hannon, who once conducted a wedding in Tallaght when I was reader there.

Other deaths this year included the journalists Colm Keane, Jim Fahy, Paddy Murray, John Kelly, the broadcaster historian and journalist Eamon Phoenix, and the artist Pauline Bewick.

Recording my Hiroshima Day address for Irish CND at the Japanese Peace Pagoda at Willen Lake in Milton Keynes (Photograph: Charlotte Hunter, 2022)

Regrettably, after more than two decades, the editor has called time on my monthly column in the Church Review, the monthly magazine in the Diocese of Dublin and Glendalough. However, I continue to write, and my publications this year include:

1, ‘Barbara Heck and Philip Embury: Founders of American Methodism’, pp 109-111, in David Bracken, ed, Of Limerick Saints and Sinners (Dublin: Veritas, 2022, ISBN: 9781800970311), 266 pp.

2, ‘Mother Mary Whitty: Sign of the Cross in Korea’, pp 213-215, in David Bracken, ed, Of Limerick Saints and Sinners (Dublin: Veritas, 2022, ISBN: 9781800970311), 266 pp.

3, ‘For the Life of the World: Toward a Social Ethos of the Orthodox Church’ Studies in Christian Ethics, 35 (2), May 2022 (SAGE: Los Angeles, London, New Delhi, Singapore, Washington DC, Melbourne, ISBN 0953-9468), pp 342-359.

4, ‘Saint Patrick: the myths, the legends and his relevance to Ireland today,’ Reality (Redemptorist Communications), March 2022 (Vol 88 No 2 ISSN 0034-0960), pp 12-16.

5, ‘Study 4: Celtic Spirituality: A View from the Church of Ireland’, Living Stones, Living Hope, USPG Lent Study Course 2022 (London: USPG, 2022), pp 29-34.

6, Book Review: Fifty Catholic Churches to See Before You Die. By Elena Curti. Leominster: Gracewing, 2000. Pp 280. Price £14.99 (pbk). ISBN 978-0-85244-962-2, in The Irish Theological Quarterly (Maynooth), Vol 87 No 1 (February 2022), pp 78-80.

It was good to write once again for the Wexford People group of newspapers this year, almost half a century after I worked there, with features and a news report in the Wexford People, the Enniscorthy Guardian, the Gorey Guardian and the New Ross Standard on the Wexford family roots of Penny Mordaunt at the time she was making a bid for the leadership of the Tory Party.

I have continued to contribute occasional seasonal pieces to The Irish Times, 20 years after I took early retirement there in 2002. In addition, three photographs of mine appeared in the Clare Echo this year: one of the railway bridge in Ennistymon in September, and photographs of Corpus Christi Church in Lisdoonvarna and a shopfront in Ennistymon earlier this month.

I have been invited to contribute to a book next year on Christmas and the Irish edited by my friend and colleague, Professor Salvador Ryan of Maynooth, to a book on life in the Church of Ireland during the War of Independence for a planned book in Limerick, and to the Old Limerick Journal on the Sephardic and Limerick roots of the Irish-born scientist JD Bernal.

I have worked on liturgical and preaching resources for USPG for Advent and Christmas, and I have been involved in USPG in planning and editing a course for Lent 2023.

My blog has reached almost 6.5 million people by today, and on YouTube one video clip alone from the Lichfield Peace Walk four months ago has had about 33,000 views.

I remain involved in USPG, recording a Lenten reflection on Celtic Spirituality for USPG in the Franciscan Abbey in Askeaton, and taking part in the annual conference in High Leigh in July and in the USPG reunion in London in September.

I continue to be involved involved in interfaith issues, now in Milton Keynes and the Diocese of Oxford, and have visited synagogues in Dublin, Milton Keynes, Oxford, London, and Oxford.

I recorded my annual address for Irish CND’s Hiroshima Day commemorations in Dublin at the Japanese Peace Pagoda at Willen Lake. I visited th pagoda a few times this year, and I took part in the Hiroshima Day commemorations there on 6 August. I recorded a reflection for the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship on Saint Patrick’s Day. I also took part in the first stage of the Lichfield Peace Walk from Saint Chad’s Church and Lichfield Cathedral in August, accompanying the Thai Buddhist monks from King’s Bromley along Cross in Hand Lane as far as Farewell.

Sadly, both distance and health considerations mean I have decided to stand down as President of Irish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

My change in life circumstances means that I have also lost many of my friends among my clerical colleagues in Ireland.

But, of course, I am looking forward to 2023 and to the future. Despite my stroke last March, my first attack of Covid-19, and living with Sarcoidosis and regular B12 injections, I am fully vaccinated, I feel healthy and I am well looked after with tender and loving care.

My immediate plans include visits Hungary and Finland in the New Year to see work in the Diocese of Europe with refugees from Ukraine, supported by USPG, and Charlotte and I are planning to visit Kuching some time in 2023, when I look forward to learning about life in Sarawak and Malaysia.

My hopes for the New Year include returning to ordained ministry and to continue to enjoy life in Stony Stratford and Milton Keynes.

A very merry Christmas
And a happy new year,
Let’s hope it’s a good one
Without any fear

Happy New Year

A post-stroke hospital procedure in Sheffield (Photograph: Charlotte Hunter, 2022)

The day of a brief handshake
with Pope Benedict XVI and
a missed ‘selfie’ in the Vatican

A brief introduction to Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican … almost missed by the cameras in the days before ‘selfies’ became acceptable and sophisticated

Patrick Comerford

Soon after Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected Pope Benedict XVI, Michael McGough recalled a joke in the Los Angeles Times about three German-speaking theologians who all died on the same day.

Karl Rahner, Hans Küng and Joseph Ratzinger all arrived at the pearly gates at the same time and are sent together to Saint Peter’s office to find out their fates.

Saint Peter points at Rahner and says ‘Karl! In my office.’

Four hours later, the office door opens, and Karl Rahner comes out. He is distraught, mumbling, ‘Oh my, that was the hardest thing I’ve ever done! How could I have been so wrong! So sorry.’ He stumbles off into heaven, a testament to the mercy of God.

Hans Küng goes in next. After eight hours, the door opens, and Küng is near collapse. He too is mumbling, ‘How could I have been so wrong!’ as he lurches into heaven, another testament to God’s mercy.

Saint Peter finally calls in Joseph Ratzinger. Twelve hours later, the door opens and Saint Peter stumbles out, mumbling, ‘How could I have been so wrong?’

Many years ago, when I was chair of the Dublin University Far Eastern Mission, an old mission agency founded in TCD to work in Chinam I was taking part in a conference in Rome in September 2005 on the Church in China. I was part of a small group who were invited to sit in the front row at the top steps of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, and I was introduced – unexpectedly and albeit very briefly – by Cardinal Desmond Connell to Pope Benedict XVI.

It was an opportunity to bring greetings from Archbishop John Neill of Dublin, and this short message was conveyed graciously to the Pope by Cardinal Connell.

It is with humour that I can still recall how it was almost a missed photo opportunity too. It was the day when ‘selfies’ were still seen as selfish and were not as sophisticated and as acceptable as they are today, and another Irish priest who had a camera that day captured the moment only after we had shaken hands, as I pulled my hand back and the Pope moved on to greet some Chinese delegates to the conference.

The photograph and reports of the meeting were later carried in a number of Church publications in Ireland, including the Church of Ireland Gazette and the Church Review.

It is more than 17 years since that conference in Rome and that brief papal handshake in the Vatican that was never properly caught by the cameras. But it came to mind this morning (31 December 2022) when I heard the news that the former Pope Benedict XVI has died.

Another figure in Michael McGough’s joke, the celebrated but controversial Swiss theologian and priest Hans Küng also died recently (6 April 2021) at his home in Tübingen at the age of 93. He has lived with Parkinson’s disease for the past eight years and who lived, taught and lectured for more than 40 years in Germany.

He engaged in dialogue with Buddhism, Chinese religions, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism, became the most prominent Catholic theologian to speak in China and the first theologian to address a group of astrophysicists. His popularity was directly related to his readability, clarity, erudition, honesty, fearlessness. He was profound yet popular, intellectual yet understandable, said and wrote what he thought needed to be expressed and was passionate in his search for truth.

After seven years studying philosophy and theology in Latin at the Gregorian University in Rome, Küng was ordained a priest in Rome in 1954 and celebrated his first Mass in Saint Peter’s Basilica. He completed a further three years of study in French for his doctorate at the Sorbonne and the Institut Catholique in Paris, where he wrote his thesis on Justification.

In his doctoral dissertation on Justification, Küng concluded an agreement in principle was possible between Catholic theology as set down at the Council of Trent in the 16th century and 20th century Reformation theology found in the work of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics was possible.

At 34, he was the youngest expert at Vatican II, soon joined by the Dominicans Edward Schillebeeckx of Belgium and Yves Congar of France; the German priests Joseph Ratzinger and Karl Rahner, and John Courtney Murray, George Higgins, John Quinn, Gustave Weigel and Vincent Yzermans from the US.

His Infallible?: An Inquiry caused an uproar across the Catholic world in 1971, and made him l’enfant terrible of the Catholic Church. He questioned his Church’s teachings on infallibility, celibacy, contraception and the ordination of women as well as men.

His most popular book, On Being a Christian (Christ sein) was a best-seller when it was published in 1974, an unusual achievement for a work of scholarly theology. I bought – and I still have – the first edition in English that year.

At the end of 1979, the Vatican revoked his missio canonical or license to teach as a Catholic theologian at the University of Tübingen, where he had been Professor of Dogmatic Theology from 1963. In the end, he retained his professorship in the university's secular Institute for Ecumenical Research, which he had founded and directed since the early 1960s.

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was involved in removing his teaching license. As dean of theology at Tübingen in the early 1960s, Küng had offered – and Ratzinger accepted – a professorship at Tübingen. But the future Pope left academia, and later headed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the successor to the Inquisition, for 25 years under Pope John Paul II.

By the time I became a post-graduate student at the Irish School of Ecumenics (1982-1984), Hans Küng was seen as one the most influential theologians in the world. I was doubly blessed, because one of my lecturers, the late Revd Dr Robin Boyd, had been a doctoral student under yet another great German-speaking Swiss theologian, Karl Barth.

Many of my colleague priests remember Hans Küng’s visit to Dublin in 1985, and still regard his lecture in Trinity College Dublin during that visit as one of the seminal moments in their theological lives.

In the 1990s, Küng took on the task of preparing a ‘Declaration Toward a Global Ethic’ for the Parliament of the World Religions in Chicago in 1993. The most referenced part of the declaration was the proposition that there can be no peace among the nations without peace among the religions.

Little did I realise when I met Küng at that lecture in TCD almost 30 years ago that I would later share the distinction of contributing to a book with him.

In 2000, to mark the millennium in a particularly Christian way, The Irish Times ran a monthly series of features, commissioned by Patsy McGarry. The series opened with a contribution from Hans Küng, and continued each month with distinguished contributors who followed in his wake, including Jerome Murphy O’Connor, Mary Robinson, Desmond Tutu, Sean Freyne and Andrew Greely. Each month, I completed the features with a series that built up into ‘A brief history of Christianity.’

The features were collected and edited by Patsy McGarry in a book, Christianity, published by Veritas in 2001. The opening chapter was Hans Küng’s opening feature, and the second half of the book was my ‘Brief History of Christianity.’ The cover illustration was an icon I had bought in Rethymnon in Crete in 1989.

To the surprise of many, Küng requested a meeting with Ratzinger shortly after his election as Pope Benedict XVI in 2005. The two had retained a distant respect for one another and maintained a limited correspondence over 45 years.

In On Being a Christian, Küng quoted the German physicist and philosopher Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker, who said: ‘There is one thing I would like to tell the theologians: something which they know and others should know. They hold the sole truth which goes deeper than the truth of science, on which the atomic age rests. They hold a knowledge of the nature of man that is more deeply rooted than the rationality of modern times. The moment always comes inevitably when our planning breaks down and we ask and will ask about the truth.’

With the Revd Dr Alan McCormack (then Dean of Residence, Trinity College Dublin), and Archbishop Nikitas (Lulias) of Thyateira and Great Britain (then Archbishop of Hong Kong) at the conference on the Churches and China in Rome in September 2005

Praying at Christmas through poems
and with USPG: 31 December 2022

’What we call the beginning is often the end …’ – TS Eliot. A lakeside winter scene on the Farnham Estate in Co Cavan (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Christmas is not a season of 12 days, despite the popular Christmas song. Christmas is a 40-day season that lasts from Christmas Day (25 December) to Candlemas or the Feast of the Presentation (2 February).

Throughout the 40 days of this Christmas Season, I am reflecting in these ways:

1, Reflecting on a seasonal or appropriate poem;

2, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary, ‘Pray with the World Church.’

As we prepare to say farewell to 2022 and to welcome 2023, once again I am reminded of TS Eliot’s words in ‘Little Gidding’:

For last year’s words belong to last year’s language
And next year’s words await another voice …
And to make an end is to make a beginning.

‘… last year’s words belong to last year’s language/ And next year’s words await another voice’ – TS Eliot ... tangled bicycles abandoned in the snow in Dublin’s Temple Bar, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

And so, for my Christmas poem this morning, I have chosen the last part of Eliot’s ‘Little Gidding,’ the fourth and final poem in his Four Quartets. The Four Quartets – ‘Burnt Norton’ (1936), ‘East Coker’ (1940), ‘The Dry Salvages’ (1941) and ‘Little Gidding’ (1942) – are best understood within the framework of Christian thinking, theology, tradition and history. In these four poems, Eliot draws on the theology, art, symbolism and language of such figures as Dante, and mystics, such as Saint John of the Cross and Julian of Norwich.

The ‘deeper communion’ sought in ‘East Coker,’ the ‘hints and whispers of children, the sickness that must grow worse in order to find healing,’ and the exploration that inevitably leads us home all point to the pilgrim’s path along the road to sanctification.

Nicholas Ferrar of Little Gidding and Bishop Hugh Latimer (right) in the north window of the Chapel in Clare College (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Eliot visited the village of Little Gidding in Cambridgeshire only once, in May 1936. Three centuries earlier, it had been the home of a religious community established in 1626 by Nicholas Ferrar, and the Ferrar household lived there according to High Church principles and the Book of Common Prayer. Charles I visited the community in 1633, and he returned in 1646, fleeing Parliamentary troops.

The community at Little Gidding maintained 24 hours of prayer, including long hours of night vigils. Little Gidding was a place ‘where prayer has been valid’ and where ‘prayer is more/Than an order of words’:

… You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.

Eliot started writing ‘Little Gidding’ after completing ‘The Dry Salvages.’ However, his work on ‘Little Gidding’ was delayed because of his declining health and his dissatisfaction with earlier drafts. ‘Little Gidding’ was not finished until September 1942, and was published the following month in the New English Weekly.

In ‘Little Gidding,’ Eliot relies on ideas also found in ‘In Memoriam,’ written by Alfred Lord Tennyson in 1850. But he also imagines at the beginning a meeting with meets Dante; and there are hints throughout the poem too of Shakespeare, Swift, Shelley, Mallarmé, Ezra Pound and WB Yeats.

As he imagines meeting Dante in the fires of war-time London, Eliot also recalls Brunetto Latini in the depths of Hades who had cried out to Dante in Canto XV of the Inferno. The dead master warns Eliot of the fate of his poetry:

and pray they [your words] be forgiven
By others, as I pray you to forgive
Both Bad and good. Last season’s fruit is eaten
And the fullfed beast shall kick the empty pail.

The tomb of Lancelot Andrewes in Southwark Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

In ‘Little Gidding,’ Eliot draws deeply on the Catholic faith as set out by the Caroline Divines, particularly by Bishop Lancelot Andrewes (1555-1626), who also influenced his Ariel poem, ‘Journey of the Magi’ (1930). Andrewes was also one of the key translators of the Authorised Version of the Bible.

He echoes Lancelot Andrewes in his Christmas Sermon of 1618 – which Eliot constantly draws on in his work – in paradoxical lines that crystallise the significance of the Incarnation:

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.

… A people without history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments.

Set in mid-winter, which is like a ‘spring is its own season,’ when ‘the short day is brightest, with frost and fire,’ ‘Little Gidding’ speaks of this ‘dark time of the year,’ with its ‘windless cold,’ hedgerows that are white from snow rather than the May bloom.

But, while Eliot’s one and only visit to Little Gidding was in May 1936, the poem has hints of being set in these days shortly after Christmas:

‘Last season’s fruit is eaten
And the fullfed beast shall kick the empty pail.
For last year’s words belong to last year’s language
And next year’s words await another voice

It is possible too read back into these lines hints of the later London Blitz, for Eliot was an air raid warden when the most devastating strike his London on the evening of 29 December 1940. German aircraft attacked the City of London that night with incendiary and high explosive bombs, causing a firestorm that has been called the ‘Second Great Fire of London.’

‘... You are here to kneel/ Where prayer has been valid’ – TS Eliot … the Church of Saint John the Evangelist in Little Gidding

Stepping through the devastation, Eliot imagines revisiting the chapel where Nicholas Ferrar and his community had lived and prayed in the past:

… You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.

Here, the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere. Never and always.

The destruction of the Little Gidding Community 300 years earlier did not bring an end to either prayer or hope. Just as he is caught between two years, Eliot sees himself caught between war and peace, between devastation and the promise of new life, between two worlds, between two periods of time, but with the promise of renewal and transfiguration:

… History may be servitude,
History may be freedom. See, now they vanish,
The faces and places, with the self which, as it could, loved them,
To become renewed, transfigured, in another pattern.

Despite the destruction all around him, Eliot is reassured by the words of Julian of Norwich:

All shall be well, and
All manner of thing shall be well.

He links the end of the year, with the end of Christ’s life on the Cross, imagining ‘three men ... on the scaffold.’

In ‘Little Gidding’, Eliot emphasises, time and again, time and our place within it. He focuses on the unity of the past, the present, and the future, and sees how the eternal is found in the present and how history exists in a pattern.

He concludes that in sacrifice an individual may die into new life. But out of the frost and fire come life, the fire of destruction and the rose of perfection are united, and the rose of the soul can blossom, for then ‘the fire and the rose are one.’

Remembering Little Gidding

‘And all shall be well and/ All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire /And the fire and the rose are one’ … a candle and a rose on a dinner table in Minares restaurant on Vernardou Street in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Eliot was buried in East Coker, but in 1967, on the second anniversary of his death, he was commemorated in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey with the installation in the floor of a large stone inscribed with words from ‘Little Gidding’:

... the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond
the language of the living.

The Society of the Friends of Little Gidding was founded in 1946 by Alan Maycock, with TS Eliot as one of the members, to celebrate the life of Nicholas Ferrar and his community in Little Gidding, to help maintain the church there, and to arrange pilgrimages, visits and hospitality.

A trust was founded in the 1970s to buy the farmhouse for a new community and as a place of retreat. This community became the Society of Christ the Sower, but was dissolved in 1998. The Society of the Friends of Little Gidding was re-established in 2003. Ferrar House is owned by the Little Gidding Trust, while the church is the responsibility of the Parochial Church Council. The friends also work closely with the TS Eliot Society.

Little Gidding V, by TS Eliot

‘And all shall be well and/ All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire /And the fire and the rose are one’ ... sunset on the beach at Paltanias in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)


What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make and end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from. And every phrase
And sentence that is right (where every word is at home,
Taking its place to support the others,
The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,
An easy commerce of the old and the new,
The common word exact without vulgarity,
The formal word precise but not pedantic,
The complete consort dancing together)
Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
Every poem an epitaph. And any action
Is a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea’s throat
Or to an illegible stone: and that is where we start.
We die with the dying:
See, they depart, and we go with them.
We are born with the dead:
See, they return, and bring us with them.
The moment of the rose and the moment of the yew-tree
Are of equal duration. A people without history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments. So, while the light fails
On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel
History is now and England.

With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

‘… all shall be well and / All manner of thing shall be well’ … sunset in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

USPG Prayer Diary:

The theme in the USPG Prayer Diary this week is the USPG Christmas Appeal: Journey to Freedom. The Journey to Freedom campaign supports the anti-human trafficking programme of the Diocese of Durgapur in North India.

The USPG Prayer Diary invites us to pray today in these words:

Let us give thanks for the ‘Anti-Human Trafficking’ programme run by the Diocese of Durgapur. May we give generously to the Journey to Freedom campaign and make a difference.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

‘Through the unknown, unremembered gate / When the last of earth left to discover / Is that which was the beginning’ (TS Eliot, ‘Little Gidding’) … there is only one, unnumbered house on Cavafy Street in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)