The Broken Priest

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Such insight and perception of the all too frail human priest from Father Seraphim Aldea!

St. Drostan — Spiritual Fatherhood

Bishops, priests and monastics – male and female – can suffer (God willing, maybe not all of us do) from a type of loneliness that comes from the responsibility of always comforting (without being comforted), always forgiving (without ever being forgiven), always getting everyone back on their feet and spiritually renewed (while hardly ever receiving any spiritual support themselves). Yes, this is the cross we were given; and yes, this is the path we have taken. And yet, we are all human – clergy and monastics included – and like all humans, we need forgiveness, we need light, we need support, we need to be allowed to get up and start again. We need what all humans need – to feel loved.
There is so much I love about St Drostan, yet I suppose it is this particular miracle – the healing of a priest called Symon – that brings him instantly close to my heart. There is something special to me, a priest, about this story. St Drostan’s miracle speaks loudly about a suffering which is rarely talked about in the Church, a kind of suffering that goes mostly unnoticed by all except those who are affected by it – the clergy of the Church.
Because of this perception – that clergy should never need any help – priests and monastics tend not to ask for help when they suffer. And they do suffer, for it can be very lonely as a priest. It can be depressing. Life can get very dark. People forget that our bishops, priests and monastics are the most exposed among us – spiritually, they are on the front line, they are the ones under the greater attacks, they are the ones both God and the devil test most. God does it out of an excess of love; the devil – out of an excess of hatred.
St Drostan’s miracle spoke to me because it envolved the healing of a priest, but also because of the nature of that healing. Symen, the priest, needed light. The priest had lost his sight, had lost his direction, had lost his hope. When darkness engulfs the heart of a priest, that is no ordinary darkness, but the deepest of the deep. Symeon, the priest, goes to St Drostan to ask for light, and St Drostan opens his spiritual eyes to the Light of Christ.
When we were working on the compostion of this icon, there were a number of things I wanted it to convey. Priest Symeon (note his epitrachilion, a symbol of his priesthood) has his eyes closed, as a sign of the spiritual darkness which is fighting him. There is complete abandonment on his face. St Drostan is his last hope, and he places his soul in the hands of this holy man. I know from my own experience how much a priest longs to be blessed himself, to feel a hand over his own head taking away his sins, forgiving him, granting him light and the hope of a new beginning. A priest can hold his hands over hundreds of heads in a week, praying for all, absolving all, while his heart longs for a loving hand above his own head.
St Drostan does precisely that. His expression is loving, but focused and deep in prayer. He does not look at the kneeling priest, but at the Light pouring through his hands over Symeon’s hands, completely aware that this Light (not himself) is the source of all healing and salvation. Like all confessions, this icon depicts the meeting of three Persons, not two: the spiritual father, the son and God Himself. Symeon’s humility (he is kneeling before the saint) comes from his need and despair, but St Drostan’s humility (note his posture) comes from his awareness that he is doing God’s work, in His Maker’s presence (which is why is is slightly bowing, as if standing before Christ). I purposely chose not to depict St Drostan as a priest (although he was ordained), because I wanted to signify that spiritual fatherhood is not an exclusive charisma of the ordained clergy – the Tradition of the Church has kept the memory of simple monks (and, indeed, nuns) whom Christ had blessed for this particular work.
Finally, pay attention to the Light that crosses the icon diagonally, from the upper right corner to the lower left one. This Light, the Uncreated Divine Light, God Himself, descends from Heavens and first rests on the spiritual father. St Drostan’s hallo is ‘fed’ by the divine Light, as a sign that his holiness is God’s holiness – God and Man become one in His Divine Light. The Light then travels from the spiritual father onto his hands, as a sign that holiness is always translated into holy works. In this case, the holy deed is the healing, the restauration of Symeon’s sight, the very gift of the Divine Light from the spiritual father to his spiritual son, who have now become as one. in God’s Light.
… As I prayed for an understanding, for a vision of what this icon should look like, I was reminded once again of how much I owe my own spiritual father. I am totally aware that all I received through him came from Christ; I am aware he is only human. But for me, this ‘only human’ man has kept me spiritually alive (and has spiritually resurrected me many times).  … for one’s spiritual father, the most simple and direct way to tell him that nothing of his sacrifice is forgotten. It lives on through me. I am alive through this sacrifice.
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Are You Afraid?

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Are you Afraid? Yesterday I took a long walk by the promenade. It was dusk, and the tired sun sparkled gold across the ripples of a gentle sea. The sea was basking in an orange sunset. Watching the seagulls’ gliding and soaring was mesmerising. I just stopped and let it sink deep into my heart . It brought such peace, freedom and joy to me! No video can do justice to the Beauty of their flight!

 

I was reminded of Jonathan Livingston Seagull‘s daring before challenges. His Yes to Life:

 

“You have the freedom to be yourself, your true self, here and now, and nothing can stand in your way”.”

Are You Afraid?

How diametrically different to J. Alfred Prufrock‘s neurotic cowardice, futile death-in-life and paralysing procrastination:

“…To lead you to an overwhelming question …
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
And indeed …
There will be time … for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions … which a minute will reverse.
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
 … Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?
… And in short, I was afraid.
Surely “the mermaids” will not sing to him. “… Till human voices wake us, and we drown.” “Let the dead bury their dead” (Luke 9:60)

Are You Afraid?

“But the cowardly … –they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.” (1. Revelation 21:8)
 “And there we saw the giants, the sons of Anak, which come of the giants: and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight. (Numbers 13:13)
“How do you say Yes to everything?”
[Interview with Mother Gabrielia (1897-1992), a 20th century saintly Greek Orthodox]

Three things we need in life: first, Faith; second, Faith; third, Faith. 

“I say yes because I believe that if it is not for my good God will make it so that the No will come from the very one who invited me.

Today I am ninety years old–may you live so long! I read again and again and again in the Gospels, and I see something strange. Jesus Christ comes and says to the Apostles, “Leave now what you have and follow Me.”

Now, if they said, “And who are you? Why should we lose what we have? Why should we lose our profit? Where will you take us? What will you do with us?”—if they had said that, what would have happened? They would have remained in darkness.

They said Yes to the Unknown who came and said, “Throw all that away!” Why? Because they believed in God, and they waited for the One who would say to them, “Come!” And that was the beginning.

Because if we say No, what will happen? . . . One or the other: If you believe, you will walk on the water like St. Peter. If you are scared–Bloop! Nothing else.

… He said to us, “Why do you worry? … Even the hairs of your head are numbered!” Why worry? Faith is lacking. May we have faith.

 

Are You Afraid?

 

Suzana Monastery Retreat I

 

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Part A: How the little city hermit became a bird, a fountain, a tree and a pearl!

 

Deep peace of Christ, silence, hesychia, these are the words that come to my mind when I remember Suzana monastery and my three-day retreat there this summer. Also, self-emptying, kenosis. But above all, silence!

 

Only through poetry can such silence be conveyed, so I will paraphrase a favourite poet of mine, Rumi, to convey to you what I experienced here.

 

I had begged the Wise One to tell me
 the secret of my existence, my calling in this world.
 Gently, gently, He whispered at Suzana monastery “Be quiet,
the secret cannot be spoken,
 It is wrapped in silence.”

 

I ground myself, strip myself down, to this overpowering Silence. I feel spiraling into a void of silence where a hundred voices thundered messages I longed to hear.

 

At its unfathomable bottom I encounter a vast fullness, the Spark of LIFE and LOVE, a secret passage to the WAY which wandering talk blocks, a dimension where HE was waiting for me, for my soul to shake.

 

I was carrying so much baggage while seeking the signs of the Way.

 

But at Suzana* monastery, I am ‘forced’ to stop, open up, surrender to this thundering silence, be invaded by ‘It’, and 
stay there until I Saw, until I looked at this blinding Light 
with infinite eyes.

 

This overpowering Silence kidnaps me to the core of Life. There is a sacredness in it. Silence is indeed the language of God, and all else is poor translation.

 

This is exactly what I experience when I am trying to write a poem, how I feel especially when I finish a poem. A great silence overcomes me and I wonder why I ever thought to use language.

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Silence is indeed the sea, and speech is like the river. The sea is seeking you: don’t seek or walk into the river. Don’t turn your head away from the signs offered by the sea. Listen to the ocean.

 

The sound of Waters and the sound of Silence is a motif in Suzana monastery. At least for me. Everywhere the sound of waters reaches you, so overwhelmingly that I often feel the need to stay in my ‘cell’ and not even venture out.

 

Just listening to that sound was so overwhelming! The very moment I set my foot on this monastery, the sound of Living waters immobilized me, an ocean wave, a mighty river in flood, a cascading waterfall, a fountain of benediction, a Life- Giving spring, welling up to Eternity.

 

Isaiah 43:19

19 Behold, I will do a new thing,
Now it shall spring forth;
Shall you not know it?
I will even make a road in the wilderness
And rivers in the desert.

 

John 7:38

38 He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.”

 

 

 

Kenosis is also another state I suffered there:

“And they shall build the old wastes,

they shall raise up the former desolations,

and they shall repair the waste cities,

the desolations of many generations.” (Isaiah 61:4)

 

I needed so desperately such ‘Decluttering’ in my life, a Relentless Focus, a Subtraction, Becoming ‘poor’, an Unburdening, a Curtail, a Reduction and Emptying, Until my rebellious bones sore.

 

 

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This silence, this moment, every moment, this silence brought all what I needed. I sat quietly, and listened for a voice which told me ‘Be more silent.’ ‘Die’ and be quiet. Maybe quietness is the surest sign that you’ve ‘died’. My old life was such a frantic running from silence. Suzana monastery moved me, even for a little, outside the tangle of fear-thinking.

 

In the end, I became a pearl!

 

“And since I have wandered in thee, pearl,

I will gather up my mind

And by having contemplated thee,

Would become like thee,

In that thou art all gathered up into thyself;

And as thou in all times art one,

One let me become by thee!” (St Ephraim, The Pearl)

 

This very old, poor, secluded, fairy-tale monastery, surrounded by forests, mountains and springs, and steeped in holiness, is most certainly God’s special Providence for my tired, exhausted self.

 

I feels like coiling in a virginal womb, unwinding time, beholding

 

“The memory of the glory that I had when I was entirely with You and entirely in You, before time and temporal illusions.

 

When I, too, was a harmonious trinity in holy unity, just as You are from eternity to eternity.

 

When the soul within me was also in friendship with consciousness and life.

 

When my soul also was a virginal womb, and my consciousness was wisdom in virginity, and my life was spiritual power and holiness.

 

 

When I, too, was all light, and when there was no darkness within me.

 

When I, too, was bliss and peace, and when there were no torments of imbalance within me.

 

When I also knew You, even as You know me, and when I was not mingled with darkness.

 

When I, too, had no boundaries, no neighbors, no partitions between “me” and “you.” (St. Nikolai Velimirovich, Memories – Prayers By the Lake XXX)

 

Even the very fact that I cannot not speak Romanian, just barely understand it, is an added blessing, an extra ‘precaution’, a ‘just in case’ … Speaking all too often impoverishes, drenches us. As St. Seraphim of Sarov wisely urges us, “Keep away from the spilling of speech”.

 

Hesychia, Deep peace of Christ wrapped me in green leaves like a tree;

I breathed like a tree in the quiet light!

 

* Suzana Monastery is a Romanian monastery about 5.5 to 6 hours away from Rasca monastery in Bucovine, North Moldavia, where Fr. Seraphim Aldea was tonsured as a monk in 2005. After my retreat here I have a slightly better, more ‘intimate’ understanding of ‘Romanian’ Orthodoxy and Fr. Seraphim’s calling to found the first Orthodox monastery, Mull monastery, in the Hebrides in over a millennium. In a sense only a Romanian hieromonk would be really equipped, spiritually, emotionally, as well as intellectually, to undertake such a huge task! Glory to God for everything!

 

 

 

 

 

Continue to Part II

Pebbles and Pilgrimages

 

I’ve been travelling for the last two weeks. It was simply wonderful, but I’m waiting for a few free hours to put together a post about all this, my moving to the UK, the Archdiocesan Conference with our Father and Metropolitan His Eminence Silouan which I attended, and all the new friends I made and the living signposts (newly baptised ‘converts’ with amazing stories to share, clairvoyant priests who would read your thoughts across the room! …) I met in just two weeks!

 

Meanwhile …

 

While unpacking here, I discovered a small box with 4 pebbles and put it in my icon corner (under construction …)

IMG_3033Orthodox Christian Celtic Pilgrimage

It all started with 3 pebbles I was given by my spiritual father back in 2015. (All but the pebble in the middle above) They were from St Patrick’s ChapelSt Herbert’s Island (Celtic Pilgrimages) and Sambata de Sus (Romania).

Heysham — St Patrick’s Chapel, Heysham, Lancashire, UK

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St Herbert’s Island

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st herbert's 3

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Sambata de Sus

arsenie boca1For Fr. Arsenie Boca – the blessed Romanian elder and prophet, who “made Christ transparent to us”, watch the documentary The Man of God.

Little did I know then how those tiny pebbles would affect my life! They were not just a memento of my visit to the UK, but “relics” blessed with extraordinary Grace of most mighty Saints who were to turn my life upside down.

Back in Greece, these 3 pebbles started to exert a magnetic “attraction” in my icon corner and soon “assembled” there dozens of Saints’ relics from all over the world!

This Easter I was offered by my spiritual father yet one more …

 

This pebble was picked by him when he was 10 (!) from Iona Island, another major Celtic pilgrimage.

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I now know better …

St. Porphyrios and a Nightingale

My heart has been very moved by a passage from Wounded by Love, the Life and Wisdom of Saint Porphyrios. It speaks to so much of my own life and the world around me that for this post I would like to invite you in to hear his wonderful story of one lone nightingale. May the Celtic Orthodox spirit of seeing God’s energia in His creation bring peace to you. Please let it sink deep into your heart, I know that I am trying to do the same. Holy Father Porphyrios, pray to God for us!

One morning I was walking alone in the virgin forest. Everything, freshened by the morning dew, was shining in the sunlight. I found myself in a gorge. I walked through it and sat on a rock. Cold water was running peacefully beside me and I was saying the prayer. Complete peace. Nothing could be heard. After a while the silence was broken by a sweet, intoxicating voice singing and praising the Creator. I looked. I couldn’t discern anything. Eventually, on a branch opposite me I saw a tiny bird. It was a nightingale. I listened as the nightingale trilled unstintingly, its throat puffed out to bursting in sustained song. The microscopic little bird was stretching back its wings in order to find power to emit those sweetest of tones, and puffing out its throat to produce that exquisite voice. If only I had a cup of water to give it to drink and quench its thirst!

Tears came to my eyes – the same tears of grace that flowed so effortlessly and that I had acquired from Old Dimas. It was the second time I had experienced them.

I cannot convey to you the things I felt, the things I experienced. I have, however, revealed to you the mystery. And I thought, ‘Why does this tiny nightingale produce these songs? Why does it trill like that? Why is it singing that exquisite thought? Why, why, why…why is it bursting its throat? Why, why, for what reason? Is it waiting for someone to praise it? Certainly not. No one there will do that.’ So I philosophized to myself. This sensitivity I acquired after the experience with Old Dimas. Previously I didn’t have it. What did that nightingale not tell me! And how much did I say to it in silence: ‘Little nightingale, who told you that I would pass by here? No one comes here. It’s such an out-of-the-way place. How marvelously you unceasingly carry on your duty, your prayer to God! How much you tell me, and how much you teach me, little nightingale! My God, how I am moved. With your warbling, dear nightingale, you show me how to hymn God, you teach me a thousand things beyond number…’

My poor health does not allow me to narrate all this to you as I feel it. A whole book could be written about it. I loved that nightingale very much. I loved it and it inspired me. I thought, ‘Why it and not me? Why does it hide from the world and not me?’ And the thought entered into my mind that I must leave, I must lose myself, I must cease to exist. I said to myself, ‘Why? Did it have an audience? Did it know I was there and could hear it? Who heard it as it was bursting its throat in song? Why did it go to such a hidden location? But what about of all these little nightingales in the middle of the thick forest, in the ravines, night and day, at sunset and sunrise? Who heard their throat-bursting song? Why did they go to such secret places? Why did they puff out their throats to bursting?’ The purpose was worship, to sing to their Creator, to worship God. That’s how I explained it.

I regarded all of them as angels of God, little birds that glorified God the Creator of all and no one heard them. Yes, believe me, they hid themselves so that no one would hear them. They weren’t interested in being heard; but there in solitude, in peace, in the wilderness, in silence, they longed to be heard, but by whom? None other than by the Maker of everything, the Creator of all, by Him who gave them life and breath and voice. You will ask, ‘Did they have consciousness? What am I to say?’ I don’t know if they did it consciously or not. I don’t know. These, after all, are birds. It may be, as Holy Scripture says, that today they live and tomorrow exist no more. We mustn’t think differently from what Holy Scripture says. God may present to us that all these were angels of God. We don’t know about these things. At all events they hid themselves that no one would hear their doxology.

So it is also for the monks there on the Holy Mountain; their life is unknown. You live with your elder and you love him. Prostrations and ascetic struggles are all part of daily life, but you don’t remember them, nor does anyone ask about you, ‘Who is he?’ You live in Christ; you belong to Christ. You live with everything and you live God, in whom all things live and move – in whom and through whom…you enter into the uncreated Church and live there unknown. And although you devote yourself in prayer to your fellow men, you remain unknown to all men, and perhaps they will never know you.

A Gaelic Blessing

Deep peace of the running wave to you.
Deep peace of the flowing air to you.
Deep peace of the quiet earth to you.
Deep peace of the shining stars to you.
Deep peace of the gentle night to you.
Moon and stars pour their healing light on you.
Deep peace of Christ,
of Christ the light of the world to you.
Deep peace of Christ to you

 

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Bede’s World

Yesterday, I met Fr. John Nankivell at my hometownduring a pilgrimage in Greece! He spoke in fluent Greek! What a kind, gentle, most erudite Father, with such a fine sense of humour! May we have his blessing! Below follows a most interesting (and subversive) interview of his on Early Christianity in the British Isles.

BEDE’S WORLD: EARLY CHRISTIANITY IN THE BRITISH ISLES

Fr. John Nankivell, pastor of the Greek Orthodox Church of the Nativity of the Mother of God in Walsall, West Midlands, spent over thirty years teaching chemistry and religious studies before retiring as principal of Joseph Chamberlain College in Central Birmingham to take on a full-time ministry. His first book, Saint Wilfrid, on Wilfrid of York was published in 2002, and he has served as chaplain on a number of occasions to the annual Friends of Orthodoxy on Iona pilgrimage. In co-operation with other West Midlands parishes, the Church of the Nativity of the Mother of God houses the St. Theodore of Canterbury Study Centre, running theology courses that lead to University of Wales [Lampeter] qualifications.

RTE: Fr. John, you’ve written a fascinating book on St. Wilfrid and the world he lived in. While Venerable Bede portrays him as an able advocate of the seventh-century universal Church, modern accounts of “Celtic” versus “Roman” Christianity seem far more ready to cast him as a villain. Wouldn’t we be right, though, in saying that Wilfrid, in the eye of the storm, and Bede, our chief observer, are two pivotal figures in any discussion of early Christian Britain?

FR. JOHN: There are so many exceptional figures from the sixth and seventh centuries on these islands that it is difficult to isolate one or two of them. Without Bede, ‘the first scientific genius of the Germanic people,’ as R.W. Southern calls him, we would, of course, know very little about any of them.

His homilies on the Gospels stand beside those of St. Gregory the Great as a monument of patristic writing. He was a monk and a scholar. But his scholarship was the servant of his love for the truth and the Gospel. This is why his writings were of such value to the missionaries from these lands to Germany. And it is why they endure as devotional reading to this day.

St. Wilfrid left no writings. Like Bede, he was a devout monk, whose greatest joy was to pray continuously in his cell, singing the psalms. But his abilities and his times required of him a life of ceaseless activity as a bishop, an abbot, a missionary, and someone at the forefront in dealing with matters of Church order and organization. One physical monument he has left to our day is the crypt at Hexham. It gives us some idea of his great buildings at York and Ripon, which would have inspired generations of Christians. His foundation work as a missionary in Sussex and Frisia inspired his successors and lives on in their continuing Christianity. The great monasteries he founded in central and northern England were centres of the Christian life for generations. His Vita, the first Anglo-Saxon ‘biography,’ remains an inspiration to those modern Orthodox Christians who seek to establish and nurture the faith in our multi-ethnic, multi-faith and often hostile world. But there are so many gigantic figures from these times: Columba, Aidan, Theodore, Finan, Cuthbert….

RTE: Before we delve into the world of Venerable Bede and St. Wilfrid, perhaps we should begin at an earlier point. The notion of an Orthodox Celtic Christianity co-existing in pre-schism England alongside a more “continental” model has been embraced by quite a number of Orthodox believers over the past decades. Who were the original peoples we think of as Celts, and where did they live?FR. JOHN: As I understand it, the term “Celtic” was first used in the eighteenth century to refer to language groups. In this linguistic sense, both the inhabitants of Ireland and the inhabitants of Britannia (the “British”) were people whom we now speak of as “Celtic” folk. They were bound together by similarities in language, in which there were two distinct strands: the Gaelic Goedelic branch, and the Brythonic. The Irish and the Scots (who are Irish in origin) use the Gaelic, and the Welsh, Cornish and Bretons (of Brittany in France) use the Brythonic form.

Many people know that it was the Celts of Asia Minor, the Galatians, for whom St. Paul wrote his Epistle. There were also Celts in Galicia in northwest Spain, which had connections with the British Church. There are still many place names referring to Celts in central and western Europe: Gaul itself, Gallia, and the Pays de Galles, the French name for Wales. The name Gall (Celtic) turns up all through Europe – even today the Turkish football team Galatasaray owes its name to the Galatians.

Dates are complicated though, as there were large movements of Celtic peoples before the Romanization of Britain. No one knows when they arrived on these islands, but it was a long time before the Christian period of Venerable Bede and St. Wilfrid. Here in England we had the native British, the Irish (the Scotti) both in Ireland (Hibernia) and in northern Britain, and the Picts further north. The term Scotti came eventually to refer only to the Irish settled in north Britain. When these Scots were eventually united with the Picts, the whole area became known as Scotland.

The Picts may or may not have been Celtic. We don’t know what their language was. About the Picts themselves, very little is known, and nearly every assertion made about them is open to challenge. Their lands were never part of the Roman Empire, and the great walls of Antoninus and Hadrian were built to keep them at bay.

So, when the Romans came here to Northumbria where Bede later lived, the peoples they found were these British peoples. Although the Romans obviously structured the local government around their own cities, they also accommodated these tribal areas and some of the British names were kept by the incoming Anglo-Saxons, such as Bernicia and Deira, the two parts of Northumbria.

Roman Britain

RTE: Many of us have an idea of Roman and post-Roman Britain as being cut off from the rest of Europe, and rather wild.FR. JOHN: This is a common idea, but it’s not true. From 63 BC to 410 AD the Roman roads were open and well-traveled, and Britain was solidly a part of the Empire. A couple of hundred years ago there was a view that once the Romans withdrew, society fell into shambles and chaos under Pictish invasions. In fact, there’s evidence for marauding Picts, and also marauding Germans. There is good evidence that the British invited the Germanic tribes to help them fight the Picts in the north, and that is one way in which they came. But, there is a lot of debate about this, and some speculation that Germanic peoples came not only as military mercenaries, but also as agricultural settlers, motivated by rising sea levels which forced them to look for new land.

Of course, the Roman troops themselves were multi-ethnic, and many of them would have retired here. They would have been pensioned off with land, and married local British women. Along Hadrian’s wall you have evidence of all the religious life that was current in Rome at that time, quite substantial Mithraic temple remains, as well as Christian elements.

RTE: When the Romans withdrew in 410, did Christianity leave with them, or was there a recognizable tradition left?

FR. JOHN: Not only were things left, but Christianity was well-established.

The Romans had been in Britain about 500 years. We don’t know when Christianity arrived here, but it was certainly aided by the fact that this was part of the Roman Empire, and there is no reason to believe that it was very different from any other part of the Roman Empire, or much further behind in its Church development. We simply don’t have the names of those very early Christians and missionaries; we can’t say that a certain person is the “Apostle to Britain.” Of course, by Orthodox tradition, Aristobulus, one of the seventy disciples of the Lord, is given that title in the Orthodox Menaion, but we don’t have British sources for this, nor does Bede refer to it. It is a Greek Orthodox tradition.

RTE: Then St. Alban, the first martyr of Britain, would be one of our earliest known Christians?FR. JOHN: Yes. Some date St. Alban as early third century, some as mid-third century, some as a victim of the early fourth-century Diocletian persecutions.

A case can be made for each of the three dates, as there was an early Christian persecution in the 220’s, then the 251 Decian persecutions centered in northern Africa, followed by Diocletian’s. The weight of scholarly opinion shifts back and forth over the most likely date of Alban’s martyrdom. Presently, the later date seems to be favoured.

We also have Julian and Aaron, the martyrs of Caerleon, in what is now south Wales, who are mentioned by Bede as being martyred in the same persecution as St. Alban. Some people take the fact of the name Aaron to suggest a Jewish presence here, saying that Christianity may have come through the Jewish communities, as it did in much of the rest of the Roman Empire, but the only evidence for this is the name.

The real archaeological and historical evidence for early Christianity begins in the third century, and there are important fourth-century finds. The archaeological work that has been done in the past fifty years has very much increased our knowledge.

What is certain is that by the time of the Council of Arles in 314 there were three British bishops. We don’t know where these bishops came from, although it is possible that one came from York. We can say, though, that by the early fourth century, shortly after Constantine embraced Christianity, there was probably a full ecclesiastical and diocesan structure here, most probably based on the twelve Roman provinces.

In Ireland things were more complex and unclear. In the fifth century Pope Celestine sent Palladius to be bishop of the Irish. He appears to have been active in the South. At the same time, the Briton, St. Patrick, carried out his work in the North. By the sixth century there was an extensive and vigorous series of monasteries, around which the Church was largely organized. According to Bede, the bishops were under the authority of the abbots, and this has led some to assert that Ireland had no diocesan structure.

There were probably differences across the country, and a full traditional structure came into being only over a long period.

Evidence of Early Christianity in Britain

St. Bede
St. Bede

RTE: When you speak of archaeological evidence for early Christianity, what has been found?FR. JOHN: There are some very important things in the British Museum. From Lullingstone, a village south of London, the museum now has Christian frescoes from a house church. These excavations show an active and growing Christian community; the frescoes portray figures standing in prayer, and the Chi-Rho in plaster. It’s in an amazing state of preservation and has been moved to the British Museum.

Another important find was from Hinton St. Mary, in Dorset, a fourthcentury mosaic: the Lord with the Chi-Rho, also now in the British Museum. Other work has been done, for example, at the site of one of the main Roman cities, Uriconium in Shropshire near the Wrekin. Wrekin itself is a British pre-Roman name. It was one of the four or five largest cities in Britain and, although there is not much left above ground, recent surveys seem to show major building having been undertaken in the fourth century – either a large basilica or a Roman building turned into a basilica, which suggests the presence of an important British bishop in the fourth century.

The written evidence is actually later, in the fifth to sixth centuries. One of our earliest sources is Gildas (+c. 570), called the Wise by the Church, who is commemorated in several western Orthodox calendars. As an historical source Gildas is very frustrating because his chief concern is to berate the Christians of his time. He was a British author writing for a British audience – in Latin, of course, which was the written language of communication. Most of his work consists of Old Testament quotations, including quite a lot from the Prophet Jeremiah, that Gildas freely applies to the kings of his time, saying what terrible people they are and how destruction will come upon them. He also attacks the bishops, and the impression you get from Gildas is of a wellestablished, middle-aged, flabby church that needs sorting out. So it seems to have been a long established church by the fifth or sixth century.

St. Aidan.
St. Aidan.

Bede says that his History of the English Church and People is an attempt to give good examples of good men to improve us, so there is much there to admire, but in a private letter to Egbert, the Bishop at York, two or three years before Bede’s death, Bede, like Gildas, speaks of a similar sort of corruption and lack of interest on the part of some of the clergy for their people. This was a major source of concern for Bede, and when he writes to the bishop all these things come out. He doesn’t wash his own era’s dirty linen in public, but he makes use of Gildas’ in his history.So there was an established British Church rather early, but when we talk about what it “was like,” we are talking about a church that was the same in fundamentals as the Gallic Church or the Spanish Church, the Italian Church, or the Church in Asia Minor… What was the difference between them? What was the difference, for example, between Irenaus of Lyons and anyone else in the Christian world? Obviously there were distinctive characteristics about Irenaean theology and his link with Asia Minor, but it was all part of the universal Church.

Another thing about the British Church that shows the extent to which things had developed, was the response to the Pelagian[1] heresy. Pelagius (the only British person to turn up in early patristic literature) spent much of his time in Rome, and in fact I think it’s Jerome that talks about him being “stuffed with Irish porridge,” which has misled some into thinking that he was Irish. Bishop Germanus of Auxerre in Burgundy (+448) was sent to Britain twice to help sort out the heresy. British representatives had participated in earlier councils, as well as in the reaction to the heresy, so Britain was obviously part of the main-stream Christian world.

RTE: You have said that Bede’s History of the English Church and People is so rich that it can be read over and over again, and is our basic text for the period. By Bede’s lifetime, were the original British inhabitants still there, had they been pushed out, or did they simply intermarry with the new Angle and Saxon settlers?

FR. JOHN: The Germanic peoples settled in Britain in the fourth, fifth and sixth centuries, from tribal groups that had settled along the coasts of Scandinavia, North Germany, and the Netherlands. They came first as mercenaries and economic migrants, but increasingly as adversaries and invaders. The Welsh, Scots and Irish called them Saxons or “Sassenachs”.

The rest of the world now knows their descendants as the English. Angles and Saxons formed the major groups and “Anglo-Saxon” is the term generally used to refer to them.

In the mid-nineteenth century there was a view, sparked by a quote of Gildas about the “ferocious Saxon,” of militarily superior Germanic peoples coming in and driving the local people (the British) west into Cornwall and Wales, leaving the Angles and Saxons (the “English”). There was bitter warfare between the Anglo-Saxons and the British, and many of the British who fled before the Northumbrian sword would have seen their churches taken over by the newly converted English. Even when both the British and the Anglo-Saxon (“English”) kingdoms were Christian, there are late seventh-, early eighth-century letters showing that they so distrusted each other that they wouldn’t eat off of the same plates.

There was also a general British move westwards to the mountain fastnesses to live separately, but the situation was more complex than this. There was probably a much stronger British presence left in Northumbria than is usually assumed, and Bede himself may be partly responsible for this under-representation of the British in the development of the Church. Although he consistently attacks them for failing to evangelize the English, there is every evidence to show that the Anglo-Saxon tribes were steadily being Christianized, but we don’t know by whom. All that Bede tells us about the Hwicce people of the Severn valley, for example, is that Wilfrid consecrated Oftfor as their bishop at Worcester. So, if they weren’t yet Christian, why did they need a bishop? This is one area where the silent evidence is very strong for a British Christian presence, strong enough to lead to the conversion of the incoming Angles.

Bede leaves us with the impression that the British were pretty much gone, and that the British churches had been taken over by the English Anglo-Saxons, as they were baptized. My guess is that there were British still around and that there had been a lot of intermingling. There is also some evidence that some of the British, including a bishop, were going to Galicia. This may have been on pilgrimage, but there were also people emigrating because of the Anglo-Saxon presence.

Formative Missions and Early Liturgies

RTE: So, in the sixth to seventh centuries in which Bede is writing, it seems we have a few very visible missionaries: St. Augustine of Canterbury sent by Pope Gregory the Great from Rome to southern Britain, and St. Paulinus who, as part of that same mission, baptized in Northumbia as well; St. Columba who left Ireland to found his monastery on Iona off the west coast of Scotland, and whose disciple, St. Aidan of Iona, in turn founded the great monastery at Lindisfarne on the east coast; and St. Wilfrid, who having received his monastic formation under Aidan, went to Rome and brought back more of the practices of the world-wide Church, founding influential monasteries in Northumbria and later becoming a bishop himself.

St. Cuthbert
St. Cuthbert

FR. JOHN: Yes, and it’s important to remember that these were all strands of one intermingled Church culture. The Irish Aidan, for example, arrived in Northumbria without a knowledge of Anglo-Saxon, and in the early days the Anglo-Saxon King Oswald (who had been exiled on Iona) would interpret for him. In time, the Irish became bilingual and some of the English monks became fluent in Irish. Many Angles, including St. Chad of Mercia and his brother, St. Cedd, who brought Christianity to Essex, retained a great love for Irish ways and carried Ionan Christianity well beyond the boundaries of Northumbria. Wilfrid, who is often portrayed as an opponent of the Irish, is a more complex example of the same tradition.There is really almost nothing in the first 700 years that we can point out now that is specifically Irish or British, other than individuals. If you pick any passage from one of Bede’s sermons, for example, without knowing who had written it, you could be reading any of the Greek or Latin fathers.

Another remarkable Northumbrian Angle was St. Benedict Biscop, who was a great traveler to the Mediterranean world, where he collected books, icons, and relics for his monasteries at Wearmouth and Jarrow, Bede’s own monastery. He persuaded both cantors and icon painters to come to Northumbria and teach his monks, and Biscop created one of the West’s great libraries at Jarrow, where Bede, among others, gained encyclopedic knowledge. St. Wilfrid not only went to Rome, but was also the first missionary to Frisia (northern Holland), and his disciple St. Willibrord came after him to establish Christianity there. A century later the well-known St. Boniface of Crediton was active in Germany. There would be a huge demand for manuscripts from Bede’s Jarrow monastery by the Germans, and Boniface himself wrote saying, “Please send these, I need them.” They used Bede’s History quite extensively, and there is speculation about what its importance would have been in the Christianization of the Germanic peoples. Some of these manuscripts still exist and seem to have been done in haste, with mistakes in spelling, etc.

RTE: It’s quite common for Orthodox to speak of missionaries having consistently translated the gospels and service books into local languages, but, that wasn’t the tradition in the West, was it? There wasn’t a written British, Welsh, Breton, or Irish ecclesiastical language. The liturgy and services would have all been in Latin.

FR. JOHN: Yes, always in Latin. The many small scraps of British liturgical manuscripts that we have from those early centuries are all in Latin, and probably all follow the Roman usage. They are very recognizable: “Let us lift up our hearts,” “And with thy spirit,” “Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus…” There is nothing here that is different or distinctive. They were part of the family of early western liturgies. The earliest fairly complete liturgical manuscript we have is from the eighth century.

In studying these fragments, liturgiologists may find small differences, but it is the same with our English Orthodox liturgies now. From place to place in the English-speaking world, we have small divergences of usage or expression, but there is nothing that shows a distinctive theology. We have no records of liturgical differences or of discussions about local usages, which indicates that, liturgically, everything was settled.

The earliest bit of non-Latin writing that we have is from the eighthcentury Lichfield Gospels. It is in Welsh. There is speculation that this manuscript originated in South Wales at Llandeilo Fawr, which means “the great holy place of St. Teilo,” and was probably a church. It is called Llantwit Major in English. St. Teilo had a big school there; he was contemporary with St. David of Wales, late fifth-early sixth centuries. The book is called the Lichfield Gospels because it is presently in Lichfield, England.

Seventh-Century Ireland

RTE: And what was the relationship of the Irish to the British, Anglo- Saxons, and the Picts at this time?FR. JOHN: The Irish influence in seventh-century Northumbria was profound. The relations between Ireland and Britain go back to the earliest use of the seaways between Ulster and Argyll, between Wexford and southwest Wales, but this influence went both ways and we know that the early British (and this includes the area that is now Wales) were quite significant as missionaries, particularly along the coast of Ireland in the fourth and fifth centuries. We don’t have many details about their actual activity, but we do have names from the dedication of churches. The best-known British missionary is St. Patrick, the deacon’s son snatched by pirates from Britain and sold into slavery in fifth-century Ireland, who later returned as a free man intent on winning his pagan masters for Christ. The evidence of early churches named after certain saints links St. Patrick with Ulster and northeast Ireland. We also know of St. Patrick’s connection with Gaul, and interestingly, near St. Germanus’ relics in Auxerre, France, is an early fresco that the local people like to believe is Bishop Germanus blessing St. Patrick. In fact, there are some textual links between the two.

There were also Christians in the south of Ireland from early times. In 431 the Pope sent Bishop Palladius from Gaul to Ireland to organize an already existing church. Church dedications link this mission with Wicklow and with southwest Wales; it’s from Britain that the southern Irish had received their Christianity and learned their Latin.

Having received their faith from Britain, the Irish church became the most flourishing part of western Christendom in the sixth century. People came to Ireland from all over Europe to pray and study in the numerous monasteries, and Irish missionaries carried the faith across Europe, particularly to the Germanic kingdoms that had come into being after the collapse of Roman rule.

The great missionary movement from Ireland began in the sixth century.

The most famous examples of this are the two saints Columbanus and Columba, both named after the dove and noted for their ascetic life, but both men of authority and deep learning. Columbanus’ mission was to the Franks of Gaul and the Lombards of north Italy; Columba’s to the Picts.

St. Wilfrid
St. Wilfrid

One of the reasons St. Columba left Ireland in 563 and founded his monastery on the tiny island of Iona, off Mull, was to be a missionary to the Picts, whom St. Ninian, working from Whithorn (now southwest Scotland) had first preached to in the fourth century. In fact, Columba was going to an existing Irish kingdom, Dalriata, of which Iona was a part. Next to it was a British kingdom, Strathclyde, and north of that was the Pictish Kingdom, both southern and northern Picts. By the mid-seventh century, the Picts were Christian, and as southern Pictland was part of Northumbria for a time, St. Wilfrid served as bishop for Picts in the north of his diocese.Columba’s Iona became the centre of a major monastic commonwealth stretching from north Ireland, where daughter monasteries were founded at Derry, Durrow, Tiree in the Hebrides, Pictland and Northumbria. In 616, half a century after its foundation, the Northumbrian Prince Oswald came to live at Iona, and by Wilfrid’s time, there was no need to travel to Ireland, as Oswald had invited the Irish Aidan to Northumbria and it was at Aidan’s monastery at Lindisfarne that Wilfrid was first instructed in monasticism.

Besides the followers of Columba, such as Aidan and Cuthbert in Lindisfarne and Northumbria, there were already south Irish missionaries in Britain, such as St. Fursey in East Anglia, who were independent of Iona.

But, East Anglia was also influenced by clergy from Gaul, Northumbria, and Mercia and of course, the British, who are overlooked in all of the literature.

RTE: Authors who support the idea of very distinct differences between Celtic Christianity and that of the rest of England and the continent, often cite Egyptian and Coptic influences on art and monasticism in Christian Ireland. What do you think of this?

FR. JOHN: I think the evidence for artistic influence from the eastern Mediterranean is clear, and to be expected from the importance of the searoutes we discussed earlier on. The swirls on the cover of St. Cuthbert’s pocket Gospel book, buried with him in his coffin, are often linked with Coptic design. Monasticism had its origins in the wilderness of Palestine and the deserts of Egypt, and spread out from there. The influence of St. Athanasius’ life of St. Antony in its Latin translation was crucial in the spread of the monastic ideal to the West. Doubtless there were direct connections between the monastics of the East and the Irish, as there were with southern Gaul, for example. This is rather a point of similarity between Irish traditions and those of the Continent, than of distinctiveness.

RTE: In your book on St. Wilfrid, you mention several very influential Northumbrian women. Did the role of women in Northumbria and Ireland differ from the rest of the Church?

FR. JOHN: Women were of the utmost importance in the Church of seventhcentury Britain. I tried to bring this out in the book on St. Wilfrid. Queen Eanfled was very much St. Wilfrid’s spiritual mother in his formative years, and continued to influence him throughout her life. Queen Bertha probably did as much to bring the Gospel to the Germanic people of Kent as did Augustine. The role of these powerful queens in the policy of the newlyformed Anglo-Saxon kingdoms was substantial. Better known, of course, is St. Hilda, whose monastery at Whitby was a training ground for future clergy, including bishops; she was very much a teacher of the teachers. There are other examples of such ‘double’ monasteries, that is both a monastery for women and one for men, under the joint direction of an abbess. And it was always an abbess, not an abbot. These occurred in the Frankish areas of the continent. Other examples of such important women leaders were St. Mildred on the isle of Thanet in Kent, and St. Milburgha in Shropshire. This leadership role of women seems to have been a particular feature of the Anglo-Saxon and other Germanic Christians. They also played an important part in the Anglo-Saxon missions to Germany.

RTE: What can we say about the early Church in the area that is now Wales?

FR. JOHN: We know of St. Samson, St. Beuno, St. David, St. Illtyd and St. Petroc, and others who were active in Wales, Cornwall and Brittany (northern France) in the sixth to seventh centuries. When the Anglo-Saxon pagans arrived in Britain, they found a well-established British church with its bishops, martyrs, monastics, missionaries, its hermitages, monasteries, parish churches, liturgical traditions, relics and iconography.

This we discussed earlier. Increasingly, the centre of gravity of the ancient British church shifted towards the West. There was little Anglo-Saxon influence on Wales and Cornwall. But, as I said before, the British presence in ‘England’ continued.

Orthodox Rome

Lastingham Crypt
Lastingham Crypt

RTE: In your writing and talks you identify seventh- and eighth-century Rome as part of the Byzantine world, and have remarked that Rome was actually holding Orthodoxy in a purer form than in the East, where iconoclasm was steadily taking root. This is something to ponder, that Rome was guarding the Orthodox tradition…FR. JOHN: …as Rome always had to. Most of the heresies were eastern inventions, weren’t they? Rome might not have been as inventive as eastern Christendom, but it held a clear Orthodox traditional position.

Going back for a moment to the previous century, St. Augustine of Canterbury had come in 597, sent by St. Gregory the Great (+603). Gregory was an important and major figure, who reformed the whole of northern Italy after the Lombard invasions. Virtually all of Europe was under Germanic influence: the Lombards in north Italy, the Anglo-Saxons and Jutes in Britain, the Franks in France, and the Visigoths in Spain. Following the Lombard invasions came famine and plague; everything fell apart. It was St. Gregory, as pope of Rome and of patrician background, who was able to bring about the revival of Italy – through the movement of grain, the feeding of the people, the rebuilding of cities and churches. He not only gave all of his family wealth for this physical revival, but he took a very active interest in the liturgical and monastic life of Rome and the development of the Church’s mission.

The Persian invasions of the Holy Land (they took Jerusalem in 614) led to a large number of Syrian, Palestinian and Greek exiles seeking refuge in Rome, where they established monasteries and other institutions. Rome became a place of great ethnic and linguistic diversity, with a variety of liturgical and ecclesiastical traditions.

Also, 621 marked the flight of Mohammed from Mecca to Medina, which was the beginning of Muslim influence. Within a decade of his death, Muslims had moved through the Middle East and North Africa. This is when many Christians, including Theodore of Tarsus, the Syrian monk whom the pope named the first archbishop of Canterbury, fled to Italy. In 641 a Greek from Jerusalem became pope, and many of the popes of the following century were also Greek or Syrian. There were quite important Greek and Syrian monasteries in Rome at this time, and Greek elements were introduced into the Roman liturgy.

There were also theological exiles in Rome from the East. In his attempts to reconcile the Monophysite Christians of Egypt and gain their support in his conflicts with the Persians and Arabs, Emperor Heraclius involved himself in theology by attempting to impose an unorthodox, compromise doctrine known as Monothelitism[2] on the Church. He persecuted the doctrine’s opponents, such as the great theologian of the seventh century, Maximus the Confessor, and many of them also made their way to Rome. The Lateran Council of 649 in Rome dealt with the question of Monothelitism, which was condemned in 681 in Constantinople by the Sixth Ecumenical Council.

Many of the seventh-century popes used their position to create impressive churches, such as St. Pancras. St. Peter’s was refurbished and great secular buildings like the Senate house were converted into churches. Much of the architecture and iconography of these new buildings was the work of Byzantine artists, and the city took on an appearance not unlike Ravenna and Constantinople.

When Wilfrid went to Rome in 702-3 to plead his case over his uncanonical deposition, he appeared in front of Pope John, a Greek. The Greek fathers of the council discussed the charges in Greek, in proceedings lasting over seventy sessions and four months. His appeal to Rome was fitting.

If Wilfrid had been in Asia Minor, he would have appealed to Constantinople; a bishop in his position in Syria would have appealed to Antioch. Protestant historians who posit an early British church independent of Rome and castigate Wilfrid for seeking to bring Britain into subservience to the pope are as far from the mark as those Roman Catholics who use Wilfrid’s appeal to Rome as evidence for a full-blown doctrine of papal primacy in the seventh century.

There was a unity of practice and understanding in the seventh century that’s difficult for us to appreciate now. It was possible for someone holding the office of bishop to be an Irishman in Gaul, a Syrian in Rome, or a Greek in Britain. For instance, Bishop Agilbert, a Frank who became a bishop in Gaul, then went to Ireland to study the Scriptures. From Ireland he went to England as bishop to the kingdom of the West Saxons, and later returned to Gaul to accept the bishopric of Paris, which he held from 664 until his death. His life is an example of the rich diversity of Christian influence on Britain – Irish, Gallic, Frankish, and Roman.

Agilbert was also the bishop who ordained Wilfrid to the priesthood in his own monastery at Ripon and brought him to the fore at the meeting often called the Synod of Whitby in 664.

The Synod of Whitby

Escomb Church
Escomb Church

RTE: That brings us to the Synod itself, which seems to be what most contemporary writings about a Celtic church call its “death knell.” What were the real differences between the Irish-British-Welsh churches and the Roman or Anglo-Saxon usage that were settled at the Council?FR. JOHN: They were two of the three things that Augustine of Canterbury had brought up at his meeting with the British bishops: the dating of Easter and the form of the monastic tonsure – that is, the way in which monks cut their hair after taking their vows. The completion of baptism by the bishop, probably meaning chrismation, was the third thing, but that was not raised at Whitby. The dating of Easter was by far the most serious issue.

In regards to chrismation, what is fairly clear from the texts we do have from the West, and in the Byzantine rite for baptism, is that virtually all of the churches allowed the priest to administer chrismation, in fact they expected it to be so. But Rome was distinct in saying that the sacrament should be given by the bishop.

RTE: As it remains today. A Catholic bishop administers confirmation parish by parish, to groups of young people around age 12-14.

FR. JOHN: Yes. The Anglicans follow this as well, and it’s quite easy to see how this came about. No bishop could attend every baptism, so they had to split the sacrament and put the chrismation off until he came around. Over the centuries, it was pushed further and further back.

That was the third point and interestingly, at the Synod of Whitby where the first two practices were decided, this third question was not even mentioned. Yet, we find Cuthbert, who is often claimed as an honorary Celt, going around and completing baptisms following the Roman practice. Ireland itself didn’t change to the Roman confirmation practice until the eleventh or twelfth centuries. This is another instance where the divisions between the “Celtic” and “Roman” contingents were not so clear-cut.

The main purpose of the Synod of Whitby was to resolve the question of the date of Easter. It was important that the unity of the Church should be particularly clear on the most important festival of the year. As it was, those who followed the “Irish” calendar – and they included King Oswy of Northumbria and the monastics of Lindisfarne and Whitby, whom his father King Oswald had brought from Iona – could be celebrating the Resurrection, while those who followed the “Roman” date, including Oswy’s queen, Eanfled, were still keeping the Lenten fast. This was bad for the unity of the Church, but it also caused political disunity in Northumbria.

Oswy summoned both political and religious leaders to the Synod, as Constantine and other Christian rulers had before him.

Bede gives us a rather full account of the proceedings, with St. Wilfrid acting as spokesman for the universal “Roman” date kept by the Church throughout the world, and St. Colman, Bishop of Northumbria, for the “Irish” date, which traditionally had the authority of the Apostle and Evangelist John, and was used by the northern Irish, St. Columba, and the Iona monastics. (Although, even within the “Irish” usage, there were a variety of observances.) Interestingly, this was not the practice of all of the Irish. The southern Irish had already changed to the universal Church dating of Easter. St. Wilfrid did not deny the sanctity of Columba, nor did he think that the Ionan way of keeping Easter was seriously harmful if they were unaware of the rest of the Church’s unanimity in observing the universal date. Once they were aware, however, that they alone were keeping another date, they should acquiesce.

Whitby Abbey
Whitby Abbey

Most of those on the “Irish” side agreed to use the universal date of Easter, including St. Cuthbert, St. Hilda, St. Bosa, Sts. Cedd and Chad. Only Bishop Colman and his monks (both English and Irish), out of loyalty to St. Columba and their tradition, could not submit to the decision and left for Ireland. This wasn’t a matter of ethnicity, but of where people stood on the calendar question.It wasn’t an issue after that. Even the northern Irish, to whom Colman and his monks went after leaving Northumbria, voluntarily changed their practice within fifty years. Iona itself adopted the universal dating of Easter in 716 and Whitby was only resurrected as an issue by Protestant reformers at the time of the Reformation.

It’s extraordinary how people now get so worked up about the Synod of Whitby. It would be understandable if it were about something fundamental, like the sermons that have gone on in Durham in recent years, with an Anglican bishop speaking of the Resurrection as “a conjuring trick with bones.” This is an important divergence from the fundamentals of the Faith, but how a monk cuts his hair is not.

RTE: Orthodox Christians who see the Council of Whitby as an Armageddon that stifled a great spiritual tradition often don’t know that after the Russian Revolution in 1917, one of the conditions set by the newly independent state of Finland to recognize Orthodoxy as one of its national churches, was that the Finnish Orthodox would exclusively use the Gregorian calendar.

FR. JOHN: Which is a radical change because the Gregorian calendar is now in conflict with Nicea, although that wasn’t done deliberately. Still, once or twice a decade, Pascha celebrated according to the Gregorian calendar falls either on or before the Jewish Passover, not after, as the Nicean Council decreed it must. Pascha must follow the Old Passover. It cannot coincide or precede it. Moving Pascha to the Gregorian calendar was a fundamental change, it broke the ancient practice of the Church, whereas Whitby brought all into unity.

The Idea of a Celtic Church

RTE: Why do you think people are so drawn to this idea of a Celtic church that had a separate, almost otherworldly, existence? Is it because we live in a technological age that we long for a more wholesome and natural way of life?FR. JOHN: I think there is a lot in that, and if you read the Frenchman Ernest Renan and the Englishman Matthew Arnold, they make a radical distinction between the Celts and the Anglo-Saxons – the Celt being nature-loving, mystical, spiritual and the Anglo-Saxon being organized, efficient and technocratic.

They even talk about industrialization, but from the standpoint of their own nineteenth-century anti-industrialization movement, which they project back onto these two peoples. What’s even more bizarre, of course, is that St. Cuthbert is always presented as a great representative of the Celtic tradition, but in fact, he was an Englishman, an Anglo-Saxon…

RTE: …who was quite in agreement with the Synod of Whitby.

FR. JOHN: Yes. And Aidan, on the other hand, who was one of the “real Celts” from Iona, was running around the peninsula organizing: converting kings, baptizing people, setting up churches, like any good “Anglo-Saxon.”

If you adhere to this notion of “Anglo-Saxon” versus “Celtic” Christianity, then you also have to decide what to think about Irish and British Christianity. Are they, or are they not the same thing? There was a definite relationship between Britain and Ireland but the Irish practices weren’t always the same as the British, but they were both Celts…. So what is this “Celtic Christianity?” It’s a confusing and not very helpful term. Neither the Irish/Scotti, nor the British/Welsh/Bretons would have ever thought of themselves as belonging to a “Celtic church” that was somehow separate from the rest of the Church.

So this is partly unclear thinking, and partly a creation of Anglican reformers in the sixteenth century who had to demonstrate a pre-Roman Church in Britain of which they were the continuation, in order to show that the medieval Catholic period had been a disruption of that. So Wilfrid, who was the spokesman for the Orthodox Easter at Whitby, was seen as “Roman” and demonized. The Celtic overlay came later.

RTE: A strong affinity with nature, and a less austere, more “warm-hearted” approach often glosses our modern view of the Celtic-speaking monks, but when one reads the early penitentials and monastic rules, there was also a rigorous asceticism – monks standing in prayer through the night up to their necks in ice-cold water, arduous fasting and strict penance for sin.

And, their prayers and poetry often seem to be a request for protection against the forces of nature. It wasn’t an endless summer.

FR. JOHN: Yes. Some of the earliest poetry we have is British, from the eighth, ninth, tenth centuries, although it could be based on something earlier.

In this, there is a strong emphasis on nature, on the Incarnation and the Resurrection, all of which makes them particularly close to the Fathers of the East. But, there is nothing in the documents up to the time of Bede that tells us much about them. As you say, we have these monastic rules which are very austere, and say traditional sorts of things about humility and so on, just as you would find in the sayings of the Egyptian desert fathers. Also, you had the centrality of the office, and above all, the psalms.

In many monasteries and hermitages the entire psalter was said twice a day, often from memory.

All of these things differ from this modern view that they were rather relaxed about rules. Nor, of course, was St. Cuthbert, who is often held up as a prototype Celtic monk. In Bede’s life of Cuthbert, Bede describes his very firm treatment of the monks when he becomes abbot of Lindisfarne.

He expected the monks to follow a much stricter rule than they had up to that time and there was a great deal of animosity towards him because of the changes he was demanding. When things got very fierce in the chapter meeting, he just got up and walked out. And he did that every day – walked out of the meeting – until they capitulated. Although there is a great emphasis on his hermit life, he was quite an attentive abbot.It’s a little upsetting to find our own Orthodox people taking these passionate and one-sided views. It doesn’t really matter if a saint is Celtic, British, Anglo-Saxon, Roman, Greek or Syrian, if there is something in his life we can learn from. There’s a new book out, The Lost Saints of Britain by Ian Thompson, about the “Celtic” saints who have been lost because of the nasty Anglo-Saxons and a horrible Greek named Theodore who tried to destroy the Celtic tradition!

And why was it so important in this new book to vilify St. Wilfrid, for example, to the extent of putting a special appendix, a psychoanalysis saying he suffered from sexual repression as evidenced by his cold baths? Even if it were true, does this mean that everyone who takes a cold bath is repressed? The greatest cold bather was Cuthbert, standing up to his neck in freezing water. So did many of the Irish ascetics and one of the Jarrow monks who stood in the Tyne with ice floating around him.

RTE: Could you say a bit more about this horrible Greek? We often miss the point that possibly the greatest archbishop of Canterbury was neither British nor Roman, but a Syriac-speaking monk from Antioch – a highly educated and saintly eastern Church Father.

FR. JOHN: Theodore was born in Tarsus, educated in Antioch, probably studied in Constantinople and later emigrated to Rome after the Persian invasions. He was sixty-six or sixty-seven when he was sent by the pope to be the archbishop of Britain, and he died twenty-one years later. He was the expert in the west on Monothelitism.

The Lateran Council that dealt with the Monothelite heresy, had been called in 649, and the Pope assembled evidence from all over the western world. He asked Theodore to draw up a statement of faith for the council. He set up a famous school in Canterbury that Bede is very complimentary about, where he taught Greek and Latin.

We have fragments of some of his learned biblical commentaries and analysis. We are sure they are his because they were written by someone writing in Latin as a second language, who knew Syriac and the eastern Christian world. His geographical and horticultural notes about the Near East are unmistakable.

He had great authority with the Anglo-Saxon kings, and he created a diocesan structure here, to properly attend to people’s spiritual needs. In his twenty- one years as archbishop, he created a diocesan structure so well-tuned to the diverse cultural and geographical realities of the country that many of the dioceses he created remain in place to this day. He was the first primate of England to hold councils of the whole church to establish an ordered and common pattern of life in all the disparate kingdoms of the land.

RTE: And taking into account what Gildas, and later Bede in his letter to the bishop, said about the state of the Church, perhaps this was necessary.

FR. JOHN: Yes. Of course, you can also find evidence for some for the things people sometimes criticize, because Archbishop Theodore was trying to bring about a uniform ecclesiastical practice among these small kingdoms and diverse peoples, and there were quite strong rules and canons.

RTE: Going back to claims for a distinctly separate Celtic church, I remember Dr. Tarek Mitri, an Orthodox professor from Lebanon, saying that while we seem to be growing more alike in our tastes and preferences on a global level, we are actually breaking down into smaller and smaller groups as a way to locate ourselves, and this often results in a search for ambiguous “roots” or identities. For instance, now in the Balkans, there are ethnic groups which are trying to reconstruct their histories to reflect what they would like to believe about themselves.

FR. JOHN: And, of course, the internet makes it possible to create a substantial community of one or two thousand people without actually meeting them. Some people inhabit that world.

RTE: Also, after Protestant reformers minimized prayer to the Mother of God and the saints and prohibited the veneration of relics and prayers for the dead, it is understandable that some contemporary Protestants feel the need to compensate for this lost spiritual contact by emphasizing the “warm-hearted” and “green” aspects of early British and Irish Christianity.

We often don’t realize that early texts such as Bede’s History of the English Church and People, or the Life of St. Columba by Adamnan, are richer and more satisfying than what has been written about as “Celtic” in the past fifty years. Going back to these contemporary writings is a tonic, like refreshing oneself with the Gospel after a spell of cloudy theology.

FR. JOHN: I think you have touched on another very important source for these romantic views of the ‘Celtic church.’

RTE: Yet it is difficult to completely renounce this sense of “differentness” that many of us have felt in what we’ve thought of as the Celtic church.

Although the romantic view has been overstated, can you sum up the truly distinctive characteristics of Christianity in Celticspeaking lands?

FR. JOHN: I think most of them have arisen in our discussions: a love of the monastic life with all its rigours, its discipline, and its harmony with the created world; the centrality of a life of prayer, based on the psalms; a commitment to the spreading of the faith; an emphasis on the Incarnation and the Resurrection of our Lord; a devotion to learning; and a creative and open artistic imagination that was able to develop a rich harmony of its own traditions with those of the wider Christian world.

But I think that if one dips into those great illuminated manuscripts, they show the unity and harmony of the northern Christian world in Bede’s time. For instance, some of the wellknown “Celtic” pages in the Lindisfarne Gospel are not Irish, but Anglo- Saxon, and the monks producing these illuminated manuscripts in monastery workshops would have known and included earlier Christian styles, such as in the Roman mosaics along Hadrian’s Wall.

There was also a strong seventh-century Mediterranean influence on the texts that I mentioned earlier; some of this influence was from Rome and Gaul, and some from Middle Eastern and North African exiles who had gathered in Rome. Also, you’ve got the strange depictions of animals, elongated dogs and other creatures that are quite distinctly Germanic, and the threelegged, so-called, triskeles that are Irish. There was mutual influence here. There is uncertainty about where many of these manuscripts actually originated.

The Book of Kells could have come from a Northumbrian workshop via Iona. It contains an icon of the Mother of God that is pure Byzantine. So, in all these illuminated manuscripts you have the Romano-Greek Mediterranean influence, the Germanic influence, and the Irish influence, all beautifully synthesized. That is the reality and the beauty of the Church in this country – it had all of these elements.

30 / 03 / 2009

[1]Pelagianism: A heresy constructed by Pelagius, a fifth -century British lay ascetic, and Celestius, a priest, who denied the inheritance of the sin of Adam by his descendants, considering that each man is born innocent, and only thanks to moral freedom does he fall into sin. Pelagianism was condemned at the Third Ecumenical Council, along with Nestorianism.
 
[2]Monothelitism: Monothelitism was a softened form of Monophysitism. While acknowledging two natures in Christ, the Monothelites taught that in Christ there was only one will – namely the Divine will. Adherents of the doctrine included several patriarchs of Constantinople who were later excommunicated (Pyrrhus, Paul, Theodore) and Honorius, Pope of Rome. The teaching was rejected as false at the Sixth Ecumenical Council.

Holy and Life-Giving Cross, Orthodox Parish, Lancaster, UK

 

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The First Holy Liturgy in the new Temple of the Orthodox Christian Parish of the Holy and Life-Giving Cross at Lancaster (United Kingdom)

 

During my last visit at the UK I had the blessing to witness the opening of a new Temple at the St Martin of Tours’ Church, Braddon Close, Westgate, Lancashire for the Holy Cross Parish. Before my arrival on 9th March, the faithful had already set up the Church of St Martin , installed the Iconostasis, and it was beginning to look very much like an Orthodox Church already.

Have a look at more photos of the making of the iconostasis (a combined effort of an Englishman’s carpentry and Antiochian iconography!) 😃

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Glory to Thee o Lord, Glory to Thee! I have come to intimately know this warm Stavronian community with faithful from more than half a dozen nationalities (!) for two years and they have ever since become a part of my heart. They helped me so much during a time in need then, in Lancaster that I feel there is no way I can ever repay their prayerful support and practical help at that time.

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Fr. Jonathan Hemmings and Server Trevor Wearing

This Parish serves the liturgical and pastoral needs of Orthodox Christians studying and teaching at Lancaster University, from Greece and Cyprus and in more recent years from Romania and Russia. Yet far from it, this parish is not ‘too ethnic’ at all, but inter-national and ecumenical in the correct sense of the world; one may also encounter British people who have converted to Orthodoxy. A genuine “one holy, catholic and apostolic Church”, dedicated to the Life-Giving Cross, and from what I have witnessed there during my brief stay and from all subsequent long visits, I have come to the conclusion that this dedication, like all dedications or patron, has an intimate relationship with the Community and those belonging to it. Their dedication and service to the Holy and Life Giving Cross is hard, narrow and steep but it is a glorious path

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Back in 2014, this was the nearest church I could go during my stay at Lancaster University, so I began attending church services there. Everything was so different from our ordinary churches in Greece! To begin with, for each and every Holy Liturgy we have had to “build”, furnish and dismantle the “Church” (!) to give it some semblance of Orthodox character and creedal symbolism.” For 20 (!) years!!!  Quite an extraordinary experience for a Greek who can choose which parish to go every Sunday, since there are plenty in every neighbourhood. And yet, somehow, this ‘fragile’, “weak thing of the world to confound the things which are mighty”; this base thing of the world, and thing which is despised’ , yet God hath chosen, yea, and this ‘thing which is not’, to bring to nought things that are” (cf. 1 Cor. 1:27-28), this church which could be ‘contained’ in just three pieces of luggage, was more powerful, holy and alive than all others I have been to here in Greece!

I vividly remember the awe I have repeatedly experienced there during the Sacraments of the Holy Unction and Baptisms where plain olive oil acquired through prayers a heavenly fragrance and was literally transformed! Or, icons during services began streaming myrrh (ie. a sweet-smelling oily substance). Or, the icons and secondary relics that I was offered as a present started to produce a sweet-smelling fragrance in my hotel room. But this was not the only surprise that the Lord had at store for me.

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St. Nicholas Planas by Dimitrios Hakim

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St. Joachim of Ithaca by Dimitrios Hakim

For the whole autumn semester, I regularly attended Services there, read their newsletter each month with their news and spiritual food for thought, studied their translations such as St. Lioba’s or St. Joachim’s life and enjoyed their book publications, most notably Fountains in the Desert, based on the sayings of St Antony. I also got acquainted to Celtic Saints and Celtic Orthodoxy— so Constantine the Great  was not (only) a Greek Saint but was acclaimed as emperor by the army at Eboracum (Modern-day York) 😃?! — and venerated the icons and holy relics of St. Nicholas Planas and St. Joachim of Ithaca that this parish is blessed to have. Can you imagine this? Venerating for the first time Greek Saints’ relics in Great Britain ?!

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Fr. Jonathan (left) embracing the aer with Fr. Theodosios (right) during the Holy Liturgy 
in the Church of St. Nicholas in Ithaka, Greece.

Most importantly, these months I  and enjoyed their fellowship, having meals together and taking part in pilgrimages to Orthodox monasteries, churches, ancient Christian sites and other worship places (photos). To get a taste of their fellowship, listen to the Holy Cross choir chant the Orthodox Psalm (135) “O Give thanks unto the Lord”, while looking at their photos, most of which come from our pilgrimage to St. Herbert’s Island, Derwentwater, UK. St. Herbert is an important Orthodox Saint in the area.

To my immense surprise my brief stay there served as the catalyst for the re-discovery of the Orthodox faith, a mystical Baptism for which I am infinitely grateful to them. While there, I have been most impressed by the spirit of prayer and the presence of God at the celebration of the Divine Liturgy at the University chapel and the spirit of ecumenical fellowship. Isn’t it an irony that the Holy Spirit chose to lead me ‘back’ to my cradle faith through a convert spiritual father ?! By the end of my stay there I knew my heart had chosen ‘them’ as my spiritual family, and everything had changed from ‘their’ to ‘our’. Thanks be to God I had discovered my spiritual oasis-retreat- fountain in the desert-home-pearl of great value! The Holy and Life-Giving Cross parish has become a ‘thin’ place for me! I had become a Stavronian myself!  😊

Last Easter, I felt that I had to celebrate Easter at Lancaster and what a Holy week we all had then! Our pilgrimage too during Bright Week to meet Fr. John Musther Of Cumbria at his church-home was an unforgettable experience!

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“The Church in The British Isles will only begin to grow when she begins to again venerate her own Saints”  (Saint Arsenios of Paros †1877)

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 And now, at long last, after 20 ‘crucified’ years, of using borrowed premises and enduring numerous hardships and trials, the Orthodox Community of the Holy and Life Giving Cross , has finally found a building for a Temple that will serve the needs of the Orthodox Christians in the Lancaster area.

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Sunday of the Orthodoxy and St. Cuthbert’s Day’,  one of England’s most beloved Wonderworking saints once greatly venerated here — Sancte Cutbertus ora pro nobis!

This new Temple seems to be a blessing from Father Jonathan’s spiritual grandfather, Blessed Seraphim Rose, who had a special love for the Celtic Saints, and St. Martin of Tours in particular.

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Cf. The prologue to Vita Patrum written by him:

“And then, even as the news of the phenomenon of Egyptian monasticism was still spreading through the West, the West produced its own ascetic miracle: St. Martin of Tours.  Even before his death in 397, his manuscript Life was being circulated in Gaul, Spain, Italy, and elsewhere in the West, revealing him as a monastic Father and wonderworker in no way inferior to the desert Fathers in the East.”

 

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Another spiritual ‘coincidence’ seems to be at stake. While reading St. Martin’s vita a certain incident attracts our attention,

“CHAPTER III.   Christ appears to St. Martin.

ACCORDINGLY, at a certain period, when he had nothing except his arms and his simple military dress, in the middle of winter, a winter which had shown itself more severe than ordinary, so that the extreme cold was proving fatal to many, he happened to meet at the gate of the city of Amiens[8] a poor man destitute of clothing. He was entreating those that passed by to have compassion upon him, but all passed the wretched man without notice, when Martin, that man full of God, recognized that a being to whom others showed no pity, was, in that respect, left to him. Yet, what should he do? He had nothing except the cloak in which he was clad, for he had already parted with the rest of his garments for similar purposes. Taking, therefore, his sword with which he was girt, he divided his cloak into two equal parts, and gave one part to the poor man, while he again clothed himself with the remainder. Upon this, some of the by-standers laughed, because he was now an unsightly object, and stood out as but partly dressed. Many, however, who were of sounder understanding, groaned deeply because they themselves had done nothing similar. They especially felt this, because, being possessed of more than Martin, they could have clothed the poor man without reducing themselves to nakedness. In the following night, when Martin had resigned himself to sleep, he had a vision of Christ arrayed in that part of his cloak with which he had clothed the poor man. He contemplated the Lord with the greatest attention, and was told to own as his the robe which he had given. Ere long, he heard Jesus saying with a clear voice to the multitude of angels standing round — “Martin, who is still but a catechumen, clothed[9] me with this robe.” The Lord, truly mindful of his own words (who had said when on earth — “Inasmuch[10] as ye have done these things to one of the least of these, ye have done them unto me”), declared that he himself had been clothed in that poor man; and to confirm the testimony he bore to so good a deed, he condescended to show him himself in that very dress which the poor man had received.

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Your mercy toward the poor man without clothes gained you, O Martin,

The vision of Christ, who said to the angels

‘Martin has clothed Me with this garment.

Have mercy on us who are poor

And who have no good works to clothe ourselves,

And pray to the Lord of the Universe

That He have mercy on our souls. (St. Martin of Tours Troparion, Tone 4)

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“The Charity of St. Martin” 

Likewise, this Holy Cross community have been given the use of the residence for half week, for Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays! 😃

In a sense, Divine Providence and the Communion of Saints is brought into our (sic!) acquisition of the Church!

On St. Patrick’s Day, Father Jonathan Hemmings and five Stavronians made a pilgrimage to Heysham to St Patrick’s Chapel and Monastery at Heysham. Have a look at this lovely photo with the Faithful. Not only five though! Plus a host of angels and some onlookers- a group of five young people totally unrelated to the Stavronian community or the Orthodox Church asked if they could have a photo taken with the Icon of St Patrick!

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Heysham is where the great Saint Patrick crossed to Ireland to spread Christianity there. Father Jonathan is chanting St. Patrick’s Lorica (The Breastplate) ! Events like this are really important so that we reconnect with Britian’s Orthodox past. This pilgrimage brings tears to my eyes as I remember a pilgrimage, together with Father Jonathan, which took place 2 years ago. Such fond memories to treasure!

 

The Easter news of the Holy Cross parish are:

  • “We are doubly blessed to receive at Great and Holy Week a hand crafted Icon, a comb and a prayer rope that belonged to St Paisios and Reliquary for containing these holy relics. We will also have on loan  for Holy Week a piece of his clothing from another Monastery in Greece. Those from other Orthodox Parishes who wish to come to venerate these secondary holy relics of St Paisios should contact Jonathan so that we may offer appropriate hospitality.”
  • “We are blessed to welcome again the Byzantine St Anysia Choir from Thessalonika for Pascha who came last year to embellish our worship with their beautiful singing.

For more information about the Orthodox Christian Parish of the Holy and Life ­Giving Cross at Lancaster   visit their website http://www.orthodox-lancaster.org.uk and their Facebook group https://www.facebook.com/groups/126074338184/?fref=ts

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“The Church in The British Isles will only begin to grow when she begins to again venerate her own Saints”  (Saint Arsenios of Paros †1877)