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22 November: On Glastonbury Tor

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.”

Eddie Gilmore

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21 December: Zechariah.

 

ossyrianfire

 

On glowing coals your incense plumed and rose,

and tendrils, wisps of smoke, entwining vines

of perfume circled round the holy throne,

round holy presence, round what faith enshrines.

O Zechariah, priest of God and seer,

in God’s eyes good, so good and true, yet you

were unprepared for Gabriel’s appearing:

you balked. But some, condemning, misconstrue.

Before the angel’s majesty and mien,

before unfathomed worlds spirits behold,

to me, your doubts, your dread – how right they seem:

before your silence gained what he foretold.

O Zechariah, made mute, but little flawed,

you shall live to see, to see your God.

(Luke 1:5-25)

SJC

Sister Johanna sent us this sonnet that distills the essence of her reflections on Zechariah. Thank you Johanna!

Will.

 

 

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December 15. Zechariah: an Unlikely Advent Star: III.

angel.incense.york

Then there appeared to Zechariah the angel of the Lord, standing on the right of the altar of incense. The sight disturbed Zechariah and he was overcome with fear. But the angel said to him, “Zechariah, do not be afraid, for your prayer has been heard” (1:11-12).

The gospels are sometimes discreet about their characters’ emotional reactions. The Holy Spirit must fill in such details. I imagine Zechariah suddenly feeling, with scalp-tingling certainty, that he is not alone in the Lord’s sanctuary. He looks up from the incense and gasps, his heart hammers in his chest, he trembles, he feels frozen to the spot. I imagine him telling this story long afterwards, every detail held fast in his memory. A magnificently beautiful angelic being is standing there on the right side of the altar of incense, radiant, solemn, and looking straight at him – looking straight into his eyes, and seemingly into his very soul. Zechariah stares back, shaking and wide-eyed. The splendour of the angel overwhelms him. He is frightened, feels he should cover his eyes or lower them, but he cannot stop looking at the angel’s majestic beauty. The angel tries to reassure him, calling him by name, “Zechariah, do not be afraid.”

How does Zechariah respond? Does his fear evaporate? I rather doubt that the fear disappears completely, but perhaps some aspects of it diminish a bit as the angel continues his message. “…your prayer has been heard.”

What prayer? Can it be the one so dear to his heart, yet so long unanswered? The prayer that was by now past praying for? That Elizabeth should conceive? And bear a son? Indeed, yes! Zechariah’s prayer had been heard: Your wife Elizabeth is to bear you a son and you shall name him John. (1:13)

But, Zechariah – even though he is a holy man, and upright in the sight of God – might not have been prepared for the fact that when we ask God for something in prayer, God hears not only the request of which we are conscious, but also that request’s most profound ramifications, of which we are not fully conscious when we first made our prayer. Perhaps, then, we need to be ready when we ask God for something – ready for the fact that God does nothing by halves. Our prayer will be answered, yes, but it will be answered so deeply, so completely that it will require of us a new level of surrender to the divine will, and a greater degree of courage than we had needed hitherto. This much is certain: when God answers a prayer, some mind-stretching is required in order to take it in.

SJC

 

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December 14 : Zechariah, unlikely Advent Star II.

angel.incense.york

Zechariah quickly becomes the focus of St. Luke’s narrative:

Now it happened that it was the turn of Zechariah’s section to serve, and he was exercising his priestly office before God when it fell to him by lot, as the priestly custom was, to enter the Lord’s sanctuary and burn incense there. At the hour of incense all the people were outside praying (1:8-10).

Here is Zechariah, an older man, exercising his priestly duties once again. I see him wearing the priestly robes, silently entering the sanctuary and carrying out the rituals prayerfully and in the prescribed manner. He does this, perhaps rather slowly due to his age, but also beautifully, with innate grace of movement and dignity of bearing. This has happened many times and Zechariah knows all the prayers and actions by heart. Everything flows smoothly. He reverently lights the coals; the incense fills the holy place with its fragrance. He loves this religious duty and never tires of it. He is alone with his God and prays fervently for his people.

There are never any surprises here for Zechariah. Ever. Perhaps this is another clue to Zechariah’s character. He knows what should happen next. Maybe he knows this a bit too well. Ordinarily, for frail human beings, our greatest strengths have a flip side, when our greatest weaknesses take over. We usually have a hard time being balanced. Zechariah is like all of us here. His great religious devotion, and his familiarity with what was prescribed by the Law in exercising his priestly office, might not have prepared him for what would happen this time. New ideas are never easy to absorb, especially new ideas about religion. And what would happen this time to Zechariah, as we know, was not merely a new idea, but an entirely new experience of the numinous, and a new revelation of God’s will.

ZMaybe this is a good place to stop and pray. Is this a time in my life when God is asking something new of me – for which I do not feel prepared? Advent is always such a time. The Incarnation is something so new that it cannot be imagined: God’s very Son is born. The Eternal Word of the Father becomes an infant. Have I lost my sense of how astonishing this is? Am I somewhat entrenched in a religious mind-set that I have acquired and maintained for years now? Can I imagine letting go of this so that God can lead me to something I have never experienced before?

SJC

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27 March: “Is Christianity Dead?”- Our Response to BBB: II, Look up!

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Dear BBB,

Will continues our reply to your lament.

Today I’ll start with your question: I couldn’t help but ask myself, as I looked around and saw several dozen teenage boys counting the ceiling tiles, looking as though they wanted to die…is our faith on life support?

My faith is on life support all the time. It’s called Grace. God’s breath within me. As Doug was describing yesterday, Grace cannot be defeated.

But as for the lads looking at the ceiling: I too sometimes switch off, especially from ‘cut and paste’ sermons, and compose my own thoughts. Not that that’s needed with Franciscan sermons!

I feel it’s a shame if all there is on the ceiling is tiles. Our ancestors decorated churches in more or less good taste, but there was always something to look at! I read this morning that one of the gifts the Church has given the world is colour. Maybe our ceilings should be colourful so that drifting eyes have something to look upon; the one above is from Zakopane in Poland.

Christopher M. Graney, professor of physics and astronomy  in Louisville Kentucky reminds us: It is funny how we learn about our surroundings when we start looking carefully for something.  Scientists have this experience a lot. He’s right, of course, but he would agree that Christians should look and learn about the beauty that surrounds us.

Seeing, noticing, beauty is part of Laudato Si’ – Pope Francis’s letter named after Saint Francis’s hymn of praise – bringing Creation into our prayer. Pictures are concrete prayer. Better to have something good to look at than bare ceilings and walls. We are body and soul: the body is called to worship by standing, kneeling, signing with the Cross, but also by receiving God’s gifts.

We should have something for each sense. A sermon and hymns for the ears, but please go easy on piped music when the Church is quiet; some of us like quiet. A handshake of welcome as well as the sign of peace for touch; an open and a warm building if it can possibly be afforded. Eye-to-eye contact at the welcome; the readers, Eucharistic ministers and priest looking at the people they are addressing. For taste: a genuine welcome to approach the altar, and communion under both kinds; then refreshments after Mass – we have a tradition of English mince pies and mulled wine after Midnight Mass. Maybe even some incense for the nose, but flowers make a difference too – and so does their absence in Lent.

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All this is part of the welcome. But I have been in Catholic churches where I would hesitate to bring any non-churched friend to what I know would be a less than joyful and welcoming gathering. As Catholic Christians we are not called to worship in an 18th Century Lecture theatre, and not with our minds only.

Zakopane Ceiling by MMB; flowers by Karin.

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