Here is Canon Anthony Charlton’s reflection on Saint Dunstan; Canon Anthony is parish priest of Saint Thomas’, Canterbury. The artist, Mother Concordia, was Abbess at Minster Abbey, home of Sister Johanna.
The small Catholic Church at Hersden a few miles from Canterbury is dedicated to St Dunstan whose feast day we keep today. On the left of the altar is a fine relief of St Dunstan created by Mother Concordia, a Benedictine nun from Minster Abbey on the Isle of Thanet. What strikes you immediately is that he is holding a harp. Geoffrey Handley in his history of Anglo Saxons says that Dunstan “was renowned as a singer and musician and seemed to have exploited the effect of the aeolian harp ( the sounds caused by the wind blowing through the strings of a free-standing instrument). He was a scholar and gifted artist as well.
Dunstan was born in 909 and was made Abbot at Glastonbury by King Edmund. “It was from this moment, probably 940 may be dated the rebirth of Medieval English monasticism which was to last undisturbed until the reformation.”
He reformed Glastonbury Abbey and was made Bishop of Worcester and then London before becoming Archbishop of Canterbury in 960. He reorganised the church by promoting monastic bishops, and took a large part in the creation of a united England
Until Thomas Becket’s fame overshadowed Dunstan’s, he was the favourite saint of the English people. Dunstan had been buried in his cathedral at Canterbury; and when that building was destroyed by a fire in 1174, his relics were translated by Archbishop Lanfranc to a tomb on the south side of the high altar in the rebuilt Canterbury Cathedral.
He was a true shepherd to his people and his interests and skills tended to the crafts of the ordinary as well as the cultured. “The appreciation of these arts shows Dunstan’s passion for the creators work and for the talents he gives to us. Contemplation of the beauty of scared art and music allows us to glimpse and, perhaps, understand a little of God’s creative power.”
Saint Thomas’ Parish, Canterbury invites readers to ‘please share’ items from their website. As we approach Holy Week, here are reflections by Canon Anthony Charlton on the Tree of Life as found in Psalm 1 and the events we remember on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Day.
There is a small stained glass window within the Church of the Good Shepherd, New Addington, created by a Buckfast Abbey monk, Dom Charles Norris. It depicts the image that is presented to us in Psalm 1. “Happy the man who has placed his trust in the Lord. He is like a tree that is planted beside the flowing waters, that yields its fruit in due season and whose leaves shall never fade; and all that he does shall prosper.”
Dom Charles employed a technique known as dalles-de-verre in which ‘tiles’ of coloured glass are chipped into shape and laid, mosaic-fashion, in a matrix of resin. As I sat in the presidential chair during Mass I was able to gaze on it while listening to the readings at Mass. The tree planted near running water reminded me of the only way to live my life fruitfully is to have deep roots that receive nourishment from the living water which is the Holy Spirit given to all of us.
In our life we can either trust in our own position, what others think of us, our status, our wealth, what we own or acquire in order to experience happiness or we listen to the way of Jesus. He shows us an alternative way of happiness. Yet this way will lead to a clash of values that will lead us to suffer for our commitment of bringing about God’s kingdom.
What Jesus is presenting to us is a radical choice that will put us at odds with the society in which we live. The extraordinary thing about the way of Christ is that is will lead to happiness but it will be by means of the Cross. We choose this way every time we come together to celebrate Mass and unite ourselves with the death and resurrection of Jesus. As the poor, the hungry, the sorrowing, the despised and the excluded, we embrace this way of happiness. We do this because we trust in the Lord. We are like a tree that is planted beside flowing water.
who alone can satisfy our deepest hungers,
protect us from the lure of wealth and power;
move our hearts to seek first your kingdom,
that ours may be the security and joy of those
who place their trust in you. AMEN.
If you are just joining this blog today, I hope you will go back to the beginning of these posts (12 March) to find out how we’ve arrived at this point today. We’re looking at Jesus’ message about death. Today I’d like to finish our reflection with the question, What must we do to be fully receptive to Jesus’ reassuring and loving message about eternal life? How can we really and truly make it our own, so that we, too, can say, Be not afraid?
First, I think it is a matter of trust, simple human trust. We must trust in Jesus, believe that what he says is true, be filled with faith.
Second, it’s about how we live. What does Jesus teach us on this point? Jesus wants to show us how to live in this life in order to be happy with him in the next. We are meant to be about Jesus, as Jesus is about the Father. We are to cleave to him now, pondering his teachings and praying to him, living as he teaches us to live, keeping the Commandments, and the Beatitudes.
Third, it’s about full commitment. We are meant to do this wholeheartedly, to embrace everything about Jesus, and whenever we are feeling mortally threatened by anything, we are to recall that he has hold of us. We will die one day, but he teaches us not to fear death because death, as he promises, is not the end of our life – despite all appearances to the contrary.
Fourth, it’s about right-thinking. Let’s unpack this in some detail. In Jesus’ earthly life, he works miracles of healing, and even raises a few people from the dead. But he was anxious that these miracles not be misunderstood. We are not supposed to deduce from them that Jesus is some kind of holy magician. More importantly, we are not supposed to see his power as being directed toward the political machinations of this world; nor does he use his power to reward with prosperity those who are good and punish with suffering those who are wicked. He does not want us to think that as Christians we arrogate his power to ourselves and have it on tap whenever we snap our fingers. Nor, again, does Jesus use his miraculous power to enable us to live forever in this difficult world where human propensities and human principles are so often widely at variance with each other. In answer to prayer, and for reasons known to him alone, he sometimes even now heals the dying and prolongs their life by some years. Perhaps someone reading this reflection has been the blessed recipient of such astonishing grace. But every time Jesus manifests power over the laws of nature this is meant to strengthen our belief in his divinity, and in the truth of every word he uttered. The miracles are meant to assure us that we can believe what Jesus says about eternal life because he is Lord of the living and the dead, the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, all time belongs to him and all the ages, as the priest proclaims over the Easter Fire at the Easter Vigil.
In many ways, Jesus’ message is stunningly simple. Even a child can understand it. He is God. He loves us. He wants us to be with him now, through our life of faith and through our efforts to lead a life that is in accord with his teachings. He wants us to be with him in eternity. He is even now preparing a place for us with him. Am I enough of a child to believe this?
To you, my friends, I say: Do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more (Lk 12:4).
Thank you Sister Johanna! Five reflections to see us well into Lent, Easter and Beyond. I never once mentioned consciousness, our Lenten theme, but you open our eyes and ears to a deeper awareness of who Jesus is, and what life and death are all about. Thank you once again. Will Turnstone.
Sister Johanna concludes her reflection on Zebedee. Thank you Sister!
For two days, we have been considering the call of James and John through the eyes of Zebedee, their father. If you are just joining us today, it’s advisable that you scroll back two days to see how we’ve arrived here. Today we’ll begin our reflection with the silence of Zebedee, as he acquiesces to what Jesus has just done. This is what Mark seems to wonder at, I believe – the text suggests this to me. If the evangelists had gone in for textual emphasis, then maybe the words, LEAVING THEIR FATHER ZEBEDEE WITH THE MEN HE EMPLOYED IN THE BOAT would have looked something like that, with everything else in lower case lettering. And I wonder at this, too: Zebedee himself was not asked by Jesus to follow him. Only his sons were asked. Zebedee, in fact, wasn’t asked anything – he was not even acknowledged by Jesus, and James and John didn’t even say good-bye. They all acted as though Zebedee wasn’t there. What does Zebedee think? How does he feel? He doesn’t say. He is silent.
But maybe this silence itself says something. Maybe Zebedee is silently saying, “I will not interfere with my sons’ relationship to Jesus”. This is remarkable because his non-interference involves the loss of something extremely precious to him – his sons. Their presence. Their help, Their daily expressions of filial love. But Zebedee doesn’t interfere,
either now or later. Whatever in Zebedee’s silence that could have been attributed to shock does not change once Zebedee gets over it. There is no record of Zebedee turning up at Jesus’ camp later and saying, “Hey! I want my sons back!” Zebedee’s acceptance of this strange turn of events is total.
Where does this reflection on Zebedee leave me? I suppose it leaves me with the recognition that sometimes Jesus’ actions toward those we love are unfathomable and leave us in a state of incredulity. We see that Jesus is requiring something of someone we love, and we see them responding. Maybe it looks crazy to us – looks contrary to all that they’ve been prepared for and to everything we expected of them. And, worse, maybe we’re required to give them up now, or change our relationship in a way that hurts us. What will we do? How will we manage? Nor do we understand Jesus’ actions – actions which leave us with a lot of very good questions, and no answers. We simply don’t understand what is going on or why.
How would I react if I were Zebedee? How am I reacting now to the unfathomable aspects of Jesus’ actions toward those I love? He’s not asking me for my opinion; he doesn’t seem to be taking me into account at all. Could I, can I be as silent and trusting as Zebedee? Could I do this long-term? Perhaps Zebedee is one of the New Testament’s greatest saints.
Knowing when not to interfere … that’s wisdom!
Here’s another look – or looks – at this story from the Visual Commentary on Scripture, ‘Fishing for People.‘ VCS is a free series of reflections through works of art.
Continuing Sister Johanna’s reflection on Zebedee the fisherman of Galilee.
We are looking at a few words from Mark’s Gospel – 9:19-20. I recommend that you scroll to yesterday’s post to catch up, if you’ve just joined the blog. We’re looking mainly at Zebedee, the father of James and John, and I want to start with Jesus’ boldness. Jesus, in this passage, acts like the God he is. He simply summons James and John. He does not ask Zebedee’s permission to take his sons away from the family business, the family home or the paternal expectations. James and John were God’s before they were Zebedee’s. Jesus takes what belongs to him as the Son of God. It is a moment when Jesus acts with breathtaking divine authority.
Zebedee, presumably, was not a push-over; if he fit the description I offered yesterday, he would not have been hesitant to tell Jesus what he thought. Indeed, something in me wants to speak for Zebedee and say to Jesus, “Wait! Stop! What’s going on? ” But then I think, No: I don’t want to say that and I don’t want Zebedee to say that. I know Jesus. I know that he is the Son of God and as such his call takes precedence over all other obligations – even obligations to family, as Jesus himself makes clear at other times (cf. Luke 9:59-62).
Did Zebedee know Jesus in this way, too? Although, there is reason to believe that James and John were cousins of Jesus, and that Jesus was probably not a stranger to Zebedee or the rest of the family, the fact that Zebedee is completely silent when his two employee-sons are suddenly recruited by Jesus is reason for some amazement. No matter what they already knew of Jesus, they did not know what we know – their immediate and total response to Jesus’ command to follow him cannot be attributed to some miraculous foreknowledge that he was the messiah. This was not grasped rightly by any of Jesus’ followers during his lifetime. This makes the response of James and John, and in a different way of Zebedee, all the more astonishing. Perhaps this astonishment is a good place to pause again for twenty-four hours. I hope you’ll come back tomorrow for the final reflection.
Sister Johanna has been giving her thought to Zebedee, a strong silent man of the Gospels, whose sons and later his wife, left all to follow Jesus.
Jesus saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John: they were in their boats mending the nets. At once he called them and, leaving their father Zebedee in the boat with the men he employed, they went after him (cf. Mark 1:19-20. Translation: New Jerusalem Bible).
It’s not often we find editorial comment or attitude in the Gospels. Usually the evangelists simply tell their story and leave us to do the commentary and feel the emotion. But these few lines from the Gospel of Mark seem full of Saint Mark’s feeling – indeed, his incredulity. I think it comes across in line 20 where he says, ‘leaving their father Zebedee in the boat with the men he employed…’. In these words seem to hear Mark marvelling not only over the response of James and John to Jesus’ call, but also over Zebedee’s reaction to the sudden defection of his sons from everything that Zebedee had prepared them for.
I know something about fishermen. My own father was one, not by profession but by preference: he loved nothing more than to be on a boat with a line in the water, hauling in fish by the dozen. His fishermen friends all tended to be like him: no nonsense men, hard working, a bit earthy, rather outspoken in their opinions, tough-spirited tough-guys with soft hearts. I imagine Zebedee was like that – only perhaps more care-worn than my dad and his cronies, who all fished for recreation, and earned their livelihood elsewhere. For Zebedee, fishing was his way of supporting his family. It was important and it was work, with all the strains and stress work involves. Surely Zebedee expected his sons to do their share, and probably take over the business one day when he was no longer able. He must have been doing pretty well: he had a few employees. But, as we know, to do well in any business takes a lot of hard work, combined with a lot of shrewdness.
Zebedee. For the first time as I reread the passage today, I had a sense of the man. Now, I see him on a specific day, the day his sons leave. This had probably been an ordinary day. Now they were doing their routine net-mending and stowing things away; it was time to stop work; they were weary and ready for a good meal. And suddenly, with no warning whatsoever, Jesus turns up, calls to James and John, and without uttering a syllable, they go off after him. Zebedee, meanwhile, sits in the boat, torn net in his hands, staring after them open-mouthed. The employees all stop their banter, look up from their nets, exchange surprised glances with each other and quickly attend to their net-mending again with a degree of intensity not usually needed for this particular task. Zebedee says not a word about what has just happened. Not now. Not ever, it seems.
I’d like to leave us with that picture of Zebedee for a day and return to our reflection tomorrow.
#newsletter n.02 – 01/2022 – Available also in FR – PT – ES – ITHello, it’s good to see you again! In this week’s newsletter, the protagonists are our brothers and sisters with special needs and how to involve them more in the synodal process. We are happy to be able to share stories and narratives from around the world as we continue to journey together. Sinodality and disabilities Young people and disability Cristina Santiago Lizcano, a hospitaller religious sister, talks about how moved young people are when they come into contact with young people with mental illness.For more information…
Special resources for special people The departments of pastoral care with persons with disabilities of the Archdioceses of Newark and Washington, in the United States, are preparing various materials intended for persons with disabilities, so that all those who wish to contribute to the ecclesial discernment to which they are called, can participate in the synod. The different proposals are available in the space dedicated to the Synod of Bishops on the web pages of each archdiocese, with materials in English and Spanish. Evanize Andrade stressed the importance of the person with a disability walking towards God to accept and overcome his or her condition. For more information…
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The continuation of Sister Johanna’s reflection on his own people’s rejection of the Jesus whom they thought they knew.
They said, “Where did this man get this wisdom and these miraculous powers? This is the carpenter’s son, surely?” …And they would not accept him. (Matthew 13:54,57; New Jerusalem Bible).
We’ve been meditating on Matthew 13: 54, 57, and on the fact that no one much in Nazareth seems to recognise the fact that Jesus is a prodigy. They claim to know his relatives, and imply that the family is nothing special, and that Jesus has no reason to be giving himself airs and preaching in the synagogue.
As I ponder this message from Matthew and try to grasp what Jesus’ personality might have been like, I am mindful of the fact that there are some people who, even as children, have a propensity to be ‘out there’ in the public eye. They are always the centre of attention; in any group they are the ones who are doing the most talking, telling the jokes and voicing their thoughts. They are smart and able to manage situations so that people notice them. They’re natural politicians, good at influencing public opinion. But judging from today’s text, this ego-driven behaviour would not be an accurate way to imagine Jesus. Here was a man who had never been a show-off. Jesus was simply ‘the carpenter’s son.’ He was a carpenter himself, and fulfilled the obligations of his profession without calling attention to himself. His workmanship, surely, was of an excellence that resulted in plenty of work for himself and Joseph; it was self-supporting but not self-aggrandising.
Then, suddenly, the one who built the cupboards was teaching in the synagogue? This text from Matthew’s gospel seems to expose an undercurrent of resentment that the people of the town directed toward Jesus. He was stepping outside the role they had given him. How dare he! A carpenter’s son, in their opinion, wasn’t supposed to do this.
Moving back now from this train of thought, it seems to be time to ask myself what this short gospel passage tells me. My first answer can only be that it tells me that this is what people are like. It tells me that this is probably (though I’m loath to admit it) what I’m like. We don’t want anyone disrupting the order to which we’ve become accustomed, even if the disrupter is a prodigiously gifted preacher who thinks outside all the boxes, and who would open my mind to an exciting new spiritual world. To this, the Nazarenes said, ‘No thank you.’ As I ponder again the recognition that Elizabeth gives to the young Mary when Mary visited her, though, I realise that this story of Jesus preaching in the synagogue of his home town could have been very different if there had been enough people of true prayer living in Nazareth. It is Elizabeth’s communion with God that gave her the ability to recognise Mary as the great woman she was whose faith would change the world. This scares me and throws me back on myself, and on the responsibility I have to cultivate an attitude of prayerful openness to the surprising acts of God – and if I don’t? The consequences could be disastrous, as the gospel text points out.
The text says in verse 58 that Jesus ‘did not work many miracles there because of their lack of faith.’ What a horrible indictment. But, yes, I see that this must be the inevitable conclusion to this tale. The Nazarenes’ faith extended only to what they were used to. It did not extend to what was truly revelatory and unforeseen – present in Jesus. This made it impossible for Jesus to be fully Jesus there. He could not do what he so longed to do: heal; lead his own people closer to the Father. They lacked faith on a profound level. This kind of lack of faith involves a determination to stay the same, a refusal to allow the unexpected to be a sign of God’s work, a deliberate closing of the mind, a turning away from something new without considering that it may be an offering from God. And when we say No in this ultimate sense, even God will not push. These few lines from Matthew’s gospel expose a tragedy.
Our third and – for the present – final borrowing from Eddie’s blog at the London Irish Chaplaincy. Thank you Eddie! Readers may like to visit the chaplaincy’s Prayer Room, see the invitation at the end of the post.
We’re blessed in the UK and Ireland to have four distinct seasons, even occasionally being able to see all of them in a single day, and the transition from Summer to Autumn can be especially evocative.
Each year at the end of August I go through a little period of mourning for the Summer. The holidays have been and gone, the flowers are fading, the long trousers and long sleeves need to be got out, and our Wednesday evening cycling group has to cease due to the rapidly encroaching dark. And yet there are precious treats in store. I always await with eager anticipation the re-appearance of Orion, the constellation visible in the Northern hemisphere only over the winter months. I was at the monastery when the big day came. I happened to have a room on the East side of the Guest Wing and I’d initially been disappointed to be so placed. The West Wing, where I’d been before, overlooks the woods and the lovely old monastery buildings and is especially peaceful. The East side contains a school and a road and consequently a bit of noise. However, waking up in the dark on the first morning of my retreat at 5.40 a.m. to attend the 6 a.m. Vigils service I drew back the curtains to reveal the incredible sight in the sky of Orion and the Winter Triangle. It was like the return of an old and faithful friend. There was also a bright, full Harvest moon in all its glory, and a little later the deepest of red skies as the sun began to rise. Had I been in a room on the West side I would have missed it all!
Autumn is often a time of new beginnings. Another academic year commences, and many people might be embarking on a new course or hobby. The next level of my Korean class has got going and I’ve been enjoying both the study, the interaction with a very nice and very international group of people, and practising some of my new expressions on Yim Soon! The lessons have been quite fun so far and that’s how I like my language learning to be. And then at the start of September there was a much-anticipated event: the meeting of my choir for the first time in over a year and a half. There were fewer people than there used to be. Mansel, who I often sit next to, remarked to me at the start, “You do realise, don’t you, that the reason some people haven’t returned is because they’ve died!” It was a sobering reflection. Nonetheless it has been a great joy to drive off to Whitstable again on a Tuesday evening for rehearsals, a fixed point in my life for many years and much missed during COVID, and it will no doubt be a great joy to perform again.
I relish the first hints of coolness in the air in the early morning or late evening, and being able to give proper observance to those key transition periods in the day, dawn and dusk. I gather and prepare the wood for the winter fires. The garden as well needs to be got ready for its winter slumber and regeneration. There will be a final mowing of the grass; the remains of the summer flowers will be added to the compost heap; the soil will be dug over, taking care not to disturb the Spring bulbs. Perhaps new daffodils or tulips will be planted. Then the garden will be left; the worms will be allowed to do their hidden work of restoration; and the spiders will weave their beautiful webs that glisten so radiantly in the fresh dew of the morning.
October will bring the first frost, and how I marvel on my early morning walk to see the intricate patterns it makes on the car windscreens. That might coincide with another seasonal treat, the first fire. It will be the first of many and how I love to listen to the crackling of the logs and to watch the flames leap and dance. It will be time for the cooking apples to be harvested from the old tree by the shed. There will be the ceremonial first baking of apple crumble; and with a bumper crop, which seems to be every other year, the bulk will be made into chutney. Meanwhile the leaves on that and on the other trees will give their annual display of golden beauty, before they fall and wither.
The cycles of the seasons, the cycles of our lives. And, to paraphrase Keats as the days shorten on another year, may all our fruit be filled with ripeness to the core.
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More inspired curiosity from Eddie Gilmore at The Irish Chaplaincy.
There are always interesting characters to be found on Glastonbury Tor and my latest visit was no exception.
I was having a few days of retreat at Downside Abbey, the Benedictine monastery in Somerset not far from Glastonbury. On my previous stay at Downside I’d also climbed the Tor, on which occasion there was a large group of women performing some kind of ritual which included a circle dance and various incantations, as well as them laughing a lot and breaking out into the singing of old pop songs in the tower. There had been a nice energy about the group and I’d wished I could be part of it.
On this occasion I’d seized the opportunity of a sunny day on which to drive over and make the steep ascent. The Tor stands at about 180m and commands spectacular views in every direction, even, on such a clear day, all the way across the Bristol Channel to a point on the Welsh coast forty-five miles away. St Michael’s Tower is perched right on the top and I especially love to look through the archways on each side. They provide a pleasant framing of the view beyond. It has been a site of pilgrimage for centuries and the following day, it was explained to me later, it would be especially busy because of the Autumn equinox. The site is said to be on a certain ‘ley line’, believed to be routes of particular sacred energy going in a straight line across the country and linking particular holy places.
On my previous visit to the Tor I’d been reminded of a place on the Camino to Santiago with similarly vast and commanding views from a high point over the surrounding flat countryside and a sense that it was somewhere the ancient Celts might have described as being a ‘thin place’ i.e. there being a thin veil between earth and heaven. This time I was mainly relishing the uncommonly warm day and, like many of those who had made the climb, lying down in the sun. I was also, as I like to do, observing those around me! Of particular interest was a woman who appeared through the archway of the tower with an ivy chain around her head. She was closely followed by a second and then a third woman who were each of them similarly adorned, also carrying armfuls of ivy and other bits and pieces. ‘What’s going on here, then?’ I wondered. They proceeded to set up shop on the grass, creating a circle of ivy and other things and with a vase of flowers at the centre. And one of them was lighting some kind of incense. One or two similarly curious onlookers asked what they were doing and one of the three explained that they were performing a little ceremony for Mother Earth and getting rid of bad things from their lives and welcoming the new. A woman who until then had been sunbathing asked to join them and she was welcomed and crowned with an ivy chain. And then the ritual began, which included the ringing of a bell, the beating of a drum and one of the women moving round the circle spreading the sweet-melling incense. It was a little bit wacky but I suppose to many people these days the liturgies I’d been attending in the Abbey church might seem equally wacky. At any rate, seeing a ritual performed by women was a nice counterpoint to the exclusive maleness of that morning’s monastic Mass. I reflected as well that some of what the women were doing wasn’t too far from what the monks had been doing on the Sunday in their High Mass, at least in terms of the incense, with a deacon having gone round the altar with the thurible; except that the men didn’t have a bunch of pretty flowers in the middle!
It was then that I heard a guitar and singing coming from inside the tower and went to explore. A man was there and he had a lovely, gentle voice which was pleasantly amplified by the acoustics of the tower, and when he finished I clapped in appreciation, along with a couple who were listening as well. He was explaining to the couple in answer to them asking where he came from that he lived in Spain, although I could hear the unmistakable sound of a Dublin accent. After the couple made their leave I got chatting with him and he was interested to hear about my background and about the work of the Irish Chaplaincy. I asked him his name. He replied that he’d been born Denis (and a Roman Catholic) but had changed his name twenty years ago to Ananda. When I later checked the spelling with him he said, “It’s like Amanda but you just change the ‘m’ to an ‘n’!” He told me that the word in Hinduism, as in Buddhism and Jainism, denotes extreme happiness and is one of the highest states of being. He believed in the unity in all religions and as if to demonstrate that he sang to me a self-composed mantra which began, conventionally enough, with the words that had been sung that morning in the monastic Mass, ‘Kyrie eleison’, Lord have mercy. Ananda’s version continued, ‘Maria eleison, Mama eleison, Allah eleison, Buddha eleison’ before ending with another verse of ‘Kyrie eleison’.
He went on to tell me that he’d lived in Glastonbury for four year and had walked up the Tor every single day, rain or shine, with his guitar and it was his personal ministry to sing in the tower and chat to people. He also pointed out to me the Celtic connections with the area. An old legend has it that Patrick came back to Britain as an old man and gathered together some hermits in Glastonbury and became the first Abbot. What’s more, the carved figure of Brigid, patron saint of the Irish Chaplaincy as I explained to Ananda, is carved right there in St Michael’s Tower where we were speaking. Legend has it that she spent two years in Glastonbury in prayer before founding in Kildare her dual monastery, one for women and one for and men and over both of which she ruled as abbess.
Ananda was summoned to go and meet his wife, his ring tone being a nice bit of violin music! As he invited me to “go well” I decided it was time to be brave and engage with the ivy-clad women. I went over and asked if I could take a photo of their circle and one of them said with a smile, “Do you want the models in the picture?” I asked what the incense had been and was told it had been sage and myrrh. “Oh” I said, “sage was used by the native Americans to purify the atmosphere of bad vibes.” I happened to know that because when I’d been in a role at L’Arche that seemed to involve having a lot of tricky 1 to 1 meetings, my counterpart in L’Arche London, an American called Keith, used to tell me about the sprig of sage he kept hanging in his office for such meetings. We’d call one another sometimes and say, “So how much sage did you need to burn today?”
Later I went for a stroll in the town which is a truly fascinating place. On the residential street leading to the centre almost every other house has a statue of the Buddha in the window. Then there is the main street, which is a veritable hot-potch of what used to be called ‘New age mysticism’: tarot card reading, crystals, hypnotherapy, ‘Saturday morning yoga with Andrew’, the ‘Zen Music Shop’. Outside the C of E parish church a wizard had set up a stall, next to a man playing reggae music, and was waving cheerfully to passers-by. Ananda had told me that Glastonbury is home to seventy-three different religions and beliefs, the highest such concentration anywhere on the planet. There was even an RC church. How, I wondered, did they get on in the midst of the seventy-three?
I was kind of relieved to get back to the peace, and monotheism, of the monastery. Interestingly, the book being read that evening in the monastic refectory was by a Benedictine who made the observation that the professed religious life as we know it in the West is in terminal decline. The Downside community is typical in that most of the eight members are in their seventies or older and they are currently planning to leave their home of the last 150 years and move in with another, similarly diminishing, community. I agree with the prognosis of terminal decline and think we, the ever dwindling faithful in the Church need to be honest about that rather than hold our heads in the sand. I think there might not be more than a couple of decades left, in the West at any rate, of a tradition that goes back over 1600 years and which has had such a profoundly positive impact on civilisation, in such areas as healthcare and education, even in the development of champagne, thanks to Dom Pérignon, a French Benedictine monk.
What will take its place? The innate human yearning for meaning will still be there, and a need for ritual. Many of us will continue to seek places of stillness; and a sense of the sacred will be as strong as ever, however that finds its expression. My guess is that things could get even more eclectic and a whole lot more wacky! But I take comfort in the words of one of the spiritual greats (I’m afraid I can’t remember which one): “The good will out.”