Scilly Celtic Saints

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Aerial photo of the Isles of Scilly

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To continue our pilgrimage to the Celtic sacred sites and pilgrim routes of England, our next stop is Scilly –pronounced “silly”–Islands! Yet another look at Christian faith from a Celtic perspective. Have you been there? The Isles of Scilly (/ˈsɪli/CornishSyllan or Enesek Syllan) (Introduction of the “c” may be to prevent references to “silly” men or saints!) are an archipelago off the southwestern tip of the Cornish peninsula of Great Britain, comprising  5 Major, inhabited islands,St Mary’sTrescoSt Martin’sBryherSt Agnes and 140 others. 

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The Isles of Scilly (bottom left corner) are a part of the ceremonial county of Cornwall (white)

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Scilly Saints

Holiday Reflections on these Holy Isles

By Father Jonathan Hemmings

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“For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.” (1 Corinthians 1:21)

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Forty miles south west off the Cornish coast are the beautiful Scilly Islands. Bathed by clear water, graced by an equitable and temperate climate, surrounded by wildlife in sea and air, seals, puffins and dolphins, they have a flora unique to the British Isles. The very names of some of these Islands, St.Mary, St.Agnes, St.Martin, St.Helen, suggest a link between faith and culture. Look a little deeper and one finds an important vein of Celtic Orthodox spirituality etched, sometimes quite literally into the very granite of the rocks that form the base of life in these offshore outposts of faith and spiritual powerhouses of prayer.

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St. Mary’s

The largest of the Islands, it was known at first as Ennor, the origin of which is obscure, it seems that the name of the island was taken from the dedication of the Church in the Old Town to Our Lady in mediaeval times. As “Star of the Sea” (Steren an Mor) the intercessions of the Mother of God are still sought for those who sail in these shipwreck strewn islands where the hazards of shallow tides and hazardous rocks still persist and catch the unwary voyager. [ For a list of shipwrecks of the Isles of Scilly go to http://list of shipwrecks of the Isles of ScillyThere is a little valley in the middle of the island known as Holy Vale.

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Bants Carn, St Mary’s

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Scilly St Mary’s Bant burial chamber entrance

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St. Agnes

The southernmost Island is that of St. Agnes. Named after the Roman Saint we find during Norman times the replacing of celtic saints with popular western saints. However, to the south east of the Island is the crescent- shaped St. Warna’s Cove which marks the spot where this Irish celtic nun landed and made her dwelling-place after sailing single handed from Ireland. It is remarkable to ponder on the courage and fearless spiritual enterprise of the Celtic Christians who used the Irish Sea much as we today would use the M6 motorway. St. Warna is the patron saint of the Scilly Island of St Agnes and prays for the salvation of those subject to wrecks. It may be noted that it is said that some of the more pagan element wanted shipwrecks in order to plunder the cargo in past times. At St. Warna’s Cove there is a holy well near to the shore where the saint lived in her hermitage and prayed. Nearby there is a large standing granite stone with an impressive and distinctive Cross emblazoned on its face made by the weathering of the wind!

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Porth Conger, St Agnes

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St Agnes, isles of Scilly and The Bar of sand which connects it to Gugh

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Views taken on or on the way to St Agnes

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Summer Sky – St Agnes, Scilly Isles

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Troy Town Maze, St. Agnes, Isles of Scilly

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Gugh. Gugh, St. Agnes, Isles of Scilly

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On the island of St Agnes, St Warna is the patron saint of shipwrecks

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St. Martin’s

The Island was originally called Mauded which is similar to the Breton name for the Cornish St. Mawes who has a small town named after him near Falmouth where he lived for a time after sailing from south Wales. In the Roman Calendar his feast day is November 18th. According to tradition he was a 6th Century Welsh hermit and Abbot, also called Maudetus or Maudez. He lived as a solitary and then went to an island off the coast of Brittany, France, where he is revered as St.Maudez. He is believed to have founded other monasteries and churches in Cornwall and Brittany. There is a tradition that Saint Mawgan ( a place near Newquay, Cornwall which has a holy well), if he is to be identified as the same, was at one time Bishop of the Scilly Islands. The transition to a completely different saint, St. Martin seems to be a “latinization” of the name, again from the time of Norman occupation.

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Offshore and inshore islands, St Martin’s, The Isles of Scilly

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Bryher Isles

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Bryher is the smallest inhabited island in the Isles of Scilly. It’s famous for the spectacular Hell Bay with it’s pounding waves crashing over the rocks on.

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The name of the Island was at one time St. Nicholas the patron saint of sea farers which seems most appropriate. This beautiful island boasts a Benedictine Priory established in 1114, the remains of which can still be seen today within the gardens of Tresco. It was probably established from the Abbey at Tavistock in Devon which was also dedicated to St. Nicholas.

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The arch from the wall of the mediaeval monastery in Tresco Abbey Gardens

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Abbey Gardens Tresco

Tresco Abbey Gardens, Scilly Isles, UK Looking at the plants in this garden it is difficult to believe that Tresco Abbey Gardens is situated in the British Isles. Containing sub-tropical plants from Australia, South Africa and South America – including Echiums, Agaves, Aloes, Proteas, Aeoniums, Strelitzias and palm trees, this garden looks as though it should be situated in the Mediterranean! However, it is located in England, on the small island of Tresco in the Scilly Isles (approximately 28 miles from the south west tip of Cornwall in the United Kingdom). The photographs in this set where taken in late August when a lot of the color had already left the gardens. However, the varied planting provides a superb example of the value of a clear garden structure filled with diverse and contrasting foliage – creating a wonderful green tapestry of architectural plants throughout the year. Details: With a stunning background of white sandy beaches and vivid turquoise sea, Tresco Abbey Gardens is an outstanding historic garden set amid the romantic ruins of a 16th century priory. The gardens were started by Augustus Smith, who moved to the island in 1834. The garden has subsequently been developed by four succeeding generations of the family from Augustus Smith. The gardens have many delightful features, often seen at their best in the warmth of the afternoon sun, ranging from the Abbey arch, the Neptune steps, the shell house and a number of tastefully placed sculptures (including one to the earth goddess Gaia), all bordered by fantastic foliage of varying shapes, textures, sizes and hues. Surrounded by sea and in the warmth of the Gulf Stream the climate is exceptionally mild and totally frost free in most years. With south facing terraces, these gardens have often been referred to as ‘Kew gardens without the roof’, because in mainland UK, you would only find these plants in a botanical garden glass house. Location: Tresco Abbey Gardens, Tr

Tresco Abbey Gardens, Scilly Isles, UK
Looking at the plants in this garden it is difficult to believe that Tresco Abbey Gardens is situated in the British Isles. Containing sub-tropical plants from Australia, South Africa and South America – including Echiums, Agaves, Aloes, Proteas, Aeoniums, Strelitzias and palm trees, this garden looks as though it should be situated in the Mediterranean! However, it is located in England, on the small island of Tresco in the Scilly Isles … With a stunning background of white sandy beaches and vivid turquoise sea, Tresco Abbey Gardens is an outstanding historic garden set amid the romantic ruins of a 16th century priory. The gardens were started by Augustus Smith, who moved to the island in 1834. The garden has subsequently been developed by four succeeding generations of the family from Augustus Smith. The gardens have many delightful features, often seen at their best in the warmth of the afternoon sun, ranging from the Abbey arch, the Neptune steps, the shell house and a number of tastefully placed sculptures (including one to the earth goddess Gaia), all bordered by fantastic foliage of varying shapes, textures, sizes and hues. Surrounded by sea and in the warmth of the Gulf Stream the climate is exceptionally mild and totally frost free in most years. With south facing terraces, these gardens have often been referred to as ‘Kew gardens without the roof’, because in mainland UK, you would only find these plants in a botanical garden glass house.

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Tresco Abbey Gardens

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King Charles’ Castle is a ruined coastal artillery fort near the north extremity of the island that dates back to the sixteenth century

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Samson

The island is connected with the welsh saint St. Samson of Dol who travelled to Cornwall, Brittany and the Channel Isles. Samson was educated by St. Illtud at the Abbey of Llanilltud Fawr (Llantwit Major) in Glamorganshire; where he was ordained a deacon and then a priest. Samson of Dol found it necessary by the Will of God to remove himself to the monastery on Ynys Byr (Caldey Island). He eventually became Abbot there and considerably established a strong community. Later in his life he chose the life of a hermit near the River Severn but, being made a Bishop, he turned to missionary work in Cernow (Cornwall) and came to the Scillies where one of the islands is named after him. He died on 28th July AD 565 and was buried in Dol Cathedral in Brittany. His ‘Life’ which survives, was written the following century. In the AD 930s, King Aethelstan acquired a number of his relics – including an arm and his crozier – which were proudly displayed in Milton Abbey (Dorset) until the time of the Reformation. The Island of Samson was inhabited until quite recently.

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Old Cottage on South Hill, Samson

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Tean

This little northern island was also inhabited until recently. The name Tean derives from the name Theona. There are ruins of her dwelling place still where once as a hermit she prayed and gave glory to the Holy and Life Giving Trinity and also remains of some celtic graves of the 6th century nearby. Recent excavations have unearthed some interesting Romano-British finds. These include an older ‘toothless’ woman whose head lies under the altar of the later built chapel, she may in fact be St.Theona, after whom the island is named.

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Tean, Isles of Scilly. View from the Great Hill – geograph.org

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Hedge Rock and Tean, Isles of Scilly

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Old Man, Tean, Isles of Scilly

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St. Helen’s

We know that this island was called St. Helen, the Blessed mother of Holy Constantine the Great, from 16th century maps but it is associated with another ancient saint, that of Elidius or St. Lide as he is also known. On the uninhabited island of St. Helen’s are the remains of St. Elidius’ Hermitage which contains an 8th century Christian monastic chapel which was active until the 11th. century. This holy place is still honoured today with local people making a Pilgrimage to the site on 1st August. There is an interesting connection between the Scilly Islands and the Christian mission to Norway. In 980 Olaf Tryggvason came to the Scilly Islands. Snori Sturluson recounts in his “Saga” that this notorious marauding Viking met Saint Elidius and heard of “the God of the Christians.” He was converted to Christianity and agreed to be baptized and all those with him. He took the faith with him returning to Norway and Iceland with “three priests and other learned men.” As King of Norway he began the process of evangelism which was continued by his successor Saint Olaf.

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Olaf Tryggvason, who visited the islands in 986. It is said an encounter with a cleric here, at St. Helen’s, led him to Christianise Norway

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St. Helen

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St. Helen’s Viewed From The Block House. Tresco

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On the uninhabited island of St. Helen’s are the remains of St. Elidius’ Hermitage which contains an 8th century Christian chapel

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St. Helen’s Pool

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Early mediaeval chapel on St Helen’s

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Well known for its pest house, in which sailors infected with plague would be quarantined, St Helen’s is a prominent landmark on the Scilly coastline

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Church of St Elid on the island of St Helen’s

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Sailing into history

What strikes me about these saints is their adventurous and persistent spirit in Christ-their sheer delight and desire to bring Christ to every part of these Islands however small, blessing this part of God’s vineyard by their work, prayers and holiness of life. Whilst on St.Mary’s I learned from the curator of the Museum, that in August 2000, on June 28th a Breton vessel named Saint Efflam (founder of a monastery in Brittany, France. He was the son of a British prince) from an enterprise called Odysee Celtique (Celtic Odyssey) sailed into St. Mary’s harbour re-enacting ancient celtic monastic voyages-it was a Breton vessel and a reconstruction of a traditional curragh.

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Curragh

The boat was constructed from a frame of hazel poles over which was stretched tar-covered canvas imitating the ox skins which would have been used originally. Whilst at sea the crew slept on the open boat and had few concessions to modern facilities during the voyage. As Amanda Martin says in her article in Scilly 2000 in “The Voyage of the Sant Efflam” such an experience was not for the faint hearted. “The whole feat requires a tremendous physical effort not to be undertaken lightly.”

These living saints give inspiration to us today by their energy and boldness for the gospel’s sake. In Christ we should imitate their humility, simplicity and calling.

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A prayer

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My boat is small

The ocean vast

Lord fill my sail

Maintain my mast

Christ my captain

Spirit’s power

Save me Lord

In danger’s hour.

Amen

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These “fools for Christ” saved many because they preached Christ crucified and many believed and so they put the Christ in Scilly. Perhaps we, in this our time of God’s good grace need to make a similar Scilly Pilgrimage!

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Thin Places

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  • Thin Places: “Thin Places,” comes from a Celtic Christian concept. The Celts believed that physical locations existed in which God’s presence was more accessible than elsewhere, places where heaven and earth seemed to touch, where the line between holy and human met for a moment, “the places in the world where the walls are weak”, “those rare locales where the distance between heaven and Earth collapses”, as Eric Weiner puts it in his spirituality travelogue, Man Seeks GodFor such a ‘thin place’ for me visit my blog post on the Holy and Life-Givng Cross Orthodox parish at Lancaster.

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“This is a difficult post for me to write … I have always believed that Art and Nature are two vital ways to make our  prayer come to life, two ways to lead us ‘into’ knowing God.  And yet, I feel God has offered me such a rare gift at the end of a very tough year that I need to give myself time to allow it to sink in before I fully understand what I was given. … I was on a day-tour of the Grand Canyon.

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The sense of unmanageable Beauty one has before the wilderness of the Grand Canyon is just that: a true revelation of God, a true revelation of the correct relationship we are to have with Him. When I was there, facing this extraordinary demonstration of what authentic creativity is, all I felt was silence: a thick blanket of silence that covered my heart, my brain, my body… Before God’s presence, one goes numb, afraid to even breathe, afraid to approach it or draw near in any way. My eye-sight is not worthy to touch such beauty, my voice is not real, authentic enough to even whisper a prayer; all of one’s senses go silent, paralysed before such overwhelming power.

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And yet, my heart continued to pray in a different way. Deep down, my being seems to hide a different kind of worship, a different kind of relating to Christ. I don’t know when and how I learnt it; it just exists, the way instincts simply exist. Before such beauty, one discovers how different we are from what we’ve learnt to think we are – we are so much deeper, so much more beautiful, so much more able to worship and truly pray. It’s as if we were created with a set of spiritual senses and abilities, which we later – for some painful reason – fail to recognise in ourselves and fail to develop. We waste so much of our own being, we are so removed, so distant from our real selves… We learn to adapt to this world, and we end up replacing our spiritual senses with material ones.

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Then, in moments like these, we find ourselves face to face with His presence, and a sort of engine just starts working again in our hearts – all by itself, with no input, no doing of our own.

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I was simply present; I was in awe at the presence of my true self as much as I rejoiced in God’s presence. There was nothing but silence in me; yet, this silence was as alive, as ‘eloquent’ in its worship as the most grace-filled moments I’ve been blessed with the Holy Altar.”

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