Saturday, 30 January 2010
Friday, 29 January 2010
Another Saint whose story begins with a battle.
In 616 King Æthelfrith of Bernicia (roughly south eastern Scotland and north eastern England – but you can look it up on wikipedia for yourself) was defeated by King Rædwald of the East Angles. The sons of King Æthelfrith (Eanfrith, Oswald and Oswiu) fled to Dál Riata and ended up being educated at the monastery on Iona.
Oswald returned from exile and regained the throne in 634, at the battle of Heavenfield. The night before the battle he is said to have had a vision of that redoubtable warrior-saint, Columba, urging him on to victory.
Oswald’s experiences on Iona had clearly made a deep impression on him, because one of the first things he did on regaining the throne, was to request that the Abbot send some brothers to found a monastery near his stronghold at Bamburgh. The first mission to Northumbria was not a rip-roaring success; the brother who had been sent, returned with the report that the people were ‘intractable, obstinate and uncivilized’.
As the monks of Iona absorbed this gloomy news of failure, St Aidan stepped out of history’s shadows. He responded to the unsuccessful evangelist, with the words: 'It seems to me, brother, that you have been unreasonably harsh upon your ignorant hearers: you did not first offer them the milk of simpler teaching, as the apostle recommends, until little by little, as they grew strong on the food of God's word, they were capable of receiving more elaborate instruction and of carrying out the more transcendent commandments of God.'
To speak up in a committee meeting when volunteers are being looked for is to commit a schoolboy error: naturally, the rest of the monks welcomed St Aidan’s insights, and packed him off to King Oswald. Although he didn’t even speak the language of the people he was going to, and the King often acted as his interpreter, Aidan’s mission was a great success, and he founded a monastery on Lindisfarne, another holy island on a far coast.
I find it sad that we know so little about Aidan, because the journey which I’ll be making from Iona to Lindisfarne was his journey. Both Columba and Cuthbert had their biographies written by near contemporaries, and a wealth of stories and traditions have grown up around them, but about St Aidan we know so very little.
Personally, I find him the most likeable of our triumvirate of Celtic Saints – the fierceness of Columba’s anger, and the stringency of Cuthbert’s asceticism, make them both the sort of characters that you would only want to emulate up to a point. In the glimpses we have of St Aidan I see something of that simple human warmth and unhurried kindness which we call ‘holiness’, and I think to myself, ‘That would be a good way to live’.
‘St Aidan used to travel everywhere, in town and country, not on horseback but on foot… in order that, as he walked along, whenever he saw people whether rich or poor, he might at once approach them and… invite them to accept the mystery of faith…’
Bede, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People.
Thursday, 28 January 2010
‘…there came from Ireland to Britain a priest and abbot named Columba, a true monk in life not less than habit; he came to Britain to preach the word of God to the kingdoms of the northern Picts.’
Bede, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People.
St Columba came to Britain as an exile, not as a missionary, and preaching the word of God to the northern Picts was almost certainly not one of his chief aims.
Following the departure of the Roman army from Scotland around the beginning of the fifth century, there had been a steady emigration from the north of Ireland to the west of Scotland. The kingdom these people created was called Dál Riata, and as their kingdom expanded so it encroached ever further on the territories of the northern Picts. Just a couple of years before Columba was exiled from Ireland, the Pictish King Bruide, fought and killed King Gabhran of Dál Riata, and reclaimed much of the territory that had been lost to the Irish colonists.
Iona, where Columba and his followers founded their monastery, was more or less on the border between the territories of Dál Riata and the Northern Picts. Furthermore, as a member of the Northern Uí Néill ‘royal family’, St Columba was related to the Kings of Dál Riata. These two facts are crucial in understanding a central part of Columba’s mission; in terms of his relationship to the Picts, and to the other powers in the region, it seems likely that Columba is best understood as a diplomat, an ambassador even, seeking to bring reconciliation where there were conflicts and at the same time trying to protect the interests of his kinsfolk. Given that he himself was exiled for his violent refusal to be reconciled with St Finnian and King Diarmait, it seems fitting that he was to give so much of his life striving to reconcile others and foster peace.
Reconciliation was also a significant part of the spiritual service that St Columba and the monks of Iona sought to offer. Many of those who came to the island came as penitents seeking absolution, and the path to absolution could be hard one on Iona. Some of the penitents were sent to the Columban monastery on the island of Tiree as a penance for their sins, and sometimes they were sent there for many years. Yet however ‘tough’ the remedy with which St Columba treated sick souls, there is also something of the ‘gentle Columba’ to be seen in many of his encounters with those who sought his counsel; we see someone with a real insight into the sufferings of the human heart, and with a deep compassion for those sufferings.
One of the monks of Iona told St Columba of a dream he had had, in which he saw three thrones, one of gold, one of silver, and one of glass. The Saint replied, ‘The throne of glass is mine, for though my devotion is fair, I am often frail…’
Wednesday, 27 January 2010
In 561 a battle was fought between the army of King Diarmait, High King of Ireland, and the Northern Uí Néill clan; around 3,000 people were killed in the fighting. Two years later the man who was widely held to be responsible for the battle and its bloodshed sailed from Ireland into exile, and so began Columba’s journey to Iona.
In many old Hebridean blessings and prayers, St Columba is invoked as the ‘tender’, the ‘kindly’, the ‘gentle’; it’s probably fair to say that his true character was slightly more complex than that.
St Columba was born into an Irish royal family, and had he not entered into the monastic life, it’s likely that he would have become King of the Northern Uí Néill, and perhaps even High King of Ireland. What part Columba played in inciting the Battle of Cúl Dreimhe is uncertain, but one of the best known stories involves a Bible. It’s said that during a visit to Rome, Pope Pelagius had given one of Columba’s teachers, St Finnian of Moville, a copy of St Jerome’s translation of the Bible. On a visit to his teacher, Columba secretly set about making himself a copy of this rare and precious translation. When Finnian discovered what his former pupil was up to a huge dispute erupted, which they both agreed to take to King Diarmait to be resolved. The High King’s judgement went against Columba, and angrily determined that justice had not been done, he stirred his clan to battle. It’s possible that Columba himself took part in the conflict, as he was marked with a livid scar throughout his life.
Although St Columba’s people won the battle, the clans and clergy of Ireland clearly felt that they had transgressed and were responsible for the great suffering that had been caused. A synod was called at which Columba was excommunicated, but the judgement was overturned on the understanding that he would leave Ireland and go into exile.
An illuminating tradition regarding this great Saint, tells that although he went on to take the name Columba (‘Dove’), he was first known as Crimthann (‘The Fox’).
'Yellow was the favourite colour of the Celts: a fine day would be described as a yellow day, and contentment was expressed in the same way, a man was yellow, that is, satisfied.'
Lucy Menzies, 'St Columba of Iona'.
... and I was feeling very 'yellow' when the final whistle blew last night.
Tuesday, 26 January 2010
Monday, 25 January 2010
The orders of prayer I was putting together on Friday have been given a ‘run out’ over the weekend and seem alright to me. However, to avoid the excoriating criticisms of those who would recognise how far removed from the prayers of prime, terce, sext, nones and compline, my productions actually are, I’ve renamed them ‘Prayers with breakfast/lunch/afternoon tea/supper/cognac (cocoa during Lent)’.
Three Saints are at the heart of the pilgrimage that I’m beginning next week. St Columba founded a monastic community on Iona; St Aidan travelled from Iona to Lindisfarne to found a Columban community there; St Cuthbert was the great Bishop and hermit of Lindisfarne. So this week you can look forward to me sharing all the things I’ve learned about them. Clear your diaries.
And I must start getting my notes typed up and collated. I want to head North with a great set of crib cards, so that I can send you posts along the lines of, ‘Today I passed beneath the shadow of Ben Gunn, where tradition has it that the bloodthirsty Dugal of the Silver Finger was finally defeated in a battle which raged bloodily for three blood-sodden days and nights. Locals whisper that when the moon is full, the cries of phantom warriors still drift across the silvery heather’; instead of what you’re likely to get, ‘Walked past a big hill today. It’s still raining.’
Best of all, at some point this week you’ll get the answer to the question which all nine of you have been asking, ‘Why walk in February?’.
Friday, 22 January 2010
I’m beginning to feel a bit fidgety about all the things I still have to do.
There is still accommodation to sort out for four or five of the places we’re staying in. There are still several books to read, and several more to type up my notes on. I need to go over the route with a fine toothcomb, one last time, just to make absolutely sure that all the coordinates going in to my GPS are spot on – you wouldn’t want to lose me now, would you?
Today’s job involves producing five brief orders of prayer. During the pilgrimage we’re going to ‘pray the hours’ as St Columba's monks would have done (prime, terce, sext, nones, vespers); wherever we are on our journey, we will stop at fixed times during the day to offer those prayers. Unfortunately we don’t have any copies of the prayer books that St Columba and his followers used, so I’m going to have to pillage the references to prayer that I’ve found in my reading thus far, and cobble something together out of those. This will be a bit of an ordeal for someone who was once described at theological college as being ‘liturgically sub-normal’.
The sets of prayer I produce will be rigorously vetted by my friend, The Archdeacon (himself not noted for his liturgical gifts and insights), to make sure that they conform to our chief requirements – no more than A5 in size and five minutes in length.
Once we’re both satisfied that my creations are broadly in the spirit of our Celtic forebears, I’ll print them off and laminate them; laminated prayers are not common, but you never know, there’s always the possibility that from time to time when we stop to say our prayers, it might just be raining.
Thursday, 21 January 2010
When I first became a Christian, about twenty years ago, I approached my fledgling faith like I approach most things in life that are new to me – I tried to get some books on the subject. Back then (and still now to some extent) the bookshelves were groaning with publications about Celtic Christianity. I learned that these people from the misty past were gentle, hospitable, simple but learned Christians, free spirits who had a strong love and care for Creation; they were hand-woven, eco-friendly, cuddly characters – they were probably low fat and kind to your skin too.
Or perhaps not.
For a start, there’s a whole debate about whether or not there ever was such a thing as ‘Celtic Christianity’, but we’re not going to get in to that here. For the purposes of simplicity, if not of absolute accuracy, we’re going to slap the label ‘Celtic Christianity’ on the faith of Christians in Ireland and Western Britain between around 400 and 700AD. This is slightly arbitrary, but I can be like that.
The Celtic Christians I’ve been learning about over the past few months were not exactly as I’d come to imagine them. The natural world was something they battled against as well as rejoiced in; they were involved in high politics as well as deep prayer; there was something of the warrior about them at times, and they also were some of the finest scholars of their age; their prayers of blessing are well remembered, but you wouldn’t have forgotten if you’d been on the receiving end of one of their curses; and they were, as we would have said in my schooldays, ‘well hard’.
If you’d like to know more about this era, and the many romantic veils its been shrouded in, the best book I’ve read by a long chalk is Donald Meek’s, ‘The Quest for Celtic Christianity’, and so for today, I’ll leave the last word to him:
‘Dissatisfaction or disillusionment with the present is a potent general factor in the contemporary quest, but perhaps the chief motivation in the remaking of the spiritual past - a motivation which transcends all the centuries from Columba's time to our own - is loss: loss of key saints, loss of spiritual ideals, loss of innocence, loss of language, loss of connection with the flow of history, loss of identity and perhaps ultimately the loss of faith itself. To compensate for that loss, and to escape the chill winds of harsh reality, we search for a refuge in the warm shelter of retrospective spiritual romanticism.’
Wednesday, 20 January 2010
Many moons ago, I promised some sort of explanation as to why I’m making a pilgrimage from Iona to Lindisfarne.
As many of you will know, the monastery at Lindisfarne was founded by monks sent from Iona in around 635AD. Not unreasonably, I assumed that there would have been a fair degree of traffic between those two great Christian centres. It was my intention to try to re-trace and then walk the pilgrim path between the two. So far, so stupid.
My advice to anybody trying to create a walk in the footsteps of historical figures, is don’t pick a group of people who were great seafarers. To ‘walk’ the route that those Celtic monks travelled between the ancient Kingdoms of Dál Riata and Northumbria, would require that singular gift which Our Lord demonstrated on the Sea of Galilee, and which St Peter so woefully failed to emulate.
The monks of the age of Columba, Aidan and Cuthbert were much attached to their coracles, and only walked for as far as they absolutely had to in order to haul their vessels from one body of water to the next.
Whatever else I’ll be doing in February, historical re-enactment it will not be.
Tuesday, 19 January 2010
Monday, 18 January 2010
Cornwall came up trumps and gave me everything I was hoping for – a wide selection of weathers, a broad selection of terrains, and a fine selection of real ales. Unfortunately I did manage to pick up a nasty large blister on my right heel, but I guess if I keep you informed about every blister I pick up over the next couple of months, this blog could become extraordinarily repetitive, so we’ll just stick a Compeed on it and limp away from the subject.
Susie came to meet me at Paddington Station on Saturday afternoon, and brought me home to a gin and tonic and the most wonderful homemade lasagne; this greatly helped to ease my return to the busy city, and prevent a bad case of the spiritual ‘bends’.
Never mind seeking to emulate the Celtic Saints during this Sabbatical, I could do worse than just trying to become a little bit more like my wife (except when it comes to hats).
Thursday, 14 January 2010
The weatherman on the Today programme that morning forecast that a warm front was going to collide with a cold front, more or less on top of St Agnes. He was wrong. I was there. What happened was that a wet front hooked up with a windy front, and together they started making weather whoopee. With the rain coming at me more or less horizontally, I enjoyed an eighteen mile round trip to Porth-somewhere or other. Everywhere here is Porth-something, and the rain made it hard to read the 'Welcome to... Please drive carefully' sign outside the village.
Thanks to the rain, I also made a great discovery. If you put your gaiters (yes, them again) on the right way round, and hook them over your laces, then your feet will stay nice and dry, even in the foulest weather. If you're not bright enough to figure that out for yourself, and put them on back to front, then instead they channel the water more or less straight into your footware, and you will be unhappy. We won't talk about gaiters anymore.
Today and tomorrow I'm walking with my full pack, so it's slightly slower going than before, but not as slow as it was when Susie was here at the weekend. She has developed a deeply odd obsession with the memorial dedications on benches, and there are a lot of benches in Cornwall. Of course, before too long this led to her reflecting on her other favourite obsession - my mortality. She wanted to know where I'd like a bench placed in memory of me, as and when, of course... any suggestions?
And lastly, my big toenails are preparing to say farewell to my big toes, again. When I first walked the West Highland Way, I managed to bash my big toes up quite a bit on the leg from Balmaha to The Drovers Inn, and the toenails have never quite recovered from the shock of being so violently uprooted: every now and then they start to change a rather pleasant plum colour, before going on to toenail glory - it doesn't feel very pleasant though. There's a lot of 'up and downage' on the coastal path, and with each step down, as my foot moves forward marginally in my boot, my bruised toes complain.
Better let them start complaining again - fifteen miles today, twenty miles tomorrow, and back to London on Saturday, but I won't be walking that bit.
Monday, 11 January 2010
On the bright side, it did take two visits to the Driftwood Spars, and several pints of their own brew, to establish that my efforts were futile.
Everything works. Today I took a ten mile walk to Perranporth and back and everything worked. My waterproofs kept me dry in a couple of downpours, including a brief snow flurry. My thermal base layer was, if anything, a little too effective. My GPS knew where I was and where I had to go, and was reasonably good at guessing how long it would take me. My waterproof camera survived a modest soaking.
The only problem I had was with my gaiters. I’ve never worn gaiters before, nor been entirely clear about what they actually do. Although gaiters don’t look like complicated things, watching me trying to put mine on would have been like watching a monkey in boxing gloves trying to peel a banana - in fact make that a drunk monkey in boxing gloves trying to peel a banana that had been smothered in lard. At one point I nearly phoned the Archdeacon for advice, but decided that his hilarity was more than I could bear.
My pride took a further dent about a mile out of St Agnes, on the coastal path, when I slipped on some ice and fell flat on my back. It wouldn’t have been too bad, but there was a dog walker about fifty yards away, coming towards me; although I scrambled to my feet pretty niftily, and strode on purposively, he neglected to do the ‘British thing’ and instead felt moved to make mention of my misfortune. It was a cruel blow coming so close on the heels of the gaiter fiasco.
It grieves me to report that in St Agnes, if you want to get wi fi access you have to go to a pub. Not only that, but they expect you to make purchases while you’re there. So later this evening, with solemn step, I’ll drag myself down to the hostelry, just so that I can put these witterings on-line.
For now, it’s bath time with Athanasius’s ‘The Life of Antony’ – ironic really, as I don’t suppose Antony of Egypt, or any of the other Desert Fathers, were great fans of bath time.
Leaving took longer than it should have done. I managed to keep finding ‘one more thing’ I needed to do, one more e-mail to send, one more bit of paper to put in a folder, one more phone call to make. Over the past few months I’d tried to make sure that I was ‘preparing the parish’ for my sabbatical, and kind of assumed that planning for my pilgrimage was all the preparation I needed; so, it surprised me to catch myself delaying my own departure. It felt odd on Sunday morning too, to realise that I probably wouldn’t be presiding at the Eucharist until Holy Week. I didn’t anticipate finding it difficult to go away, which is probably why it’s such a good idea to go away from time to time.
The rucksack is going to be an issue. I packed it pretty much as I plan to pack it for Scotland. It’s heavy. And bulky. Heavier and bulkier than I think I can manage for over 300 miles. Dad is driving back-up for the first half of the walk, and I know he would be happy to take my rucksack in the car, but for me that would mean demotion from the Championship to League One of the walking world.
It’s sad, it’s silly, but I do have a league structure for walkers. In the Premiership are those walkers who hike and camp – they walk long distances, carrying huge packs with sleeping bags, tents, food, stoves, everything. That’s not me – when it comes to camping, I’m more Alan Carr than Bear Grylls. In the Championship, my favoured league, are those walkers who are going from B&B to B&B, but at least they’re carrying all their stuff with them. League One – walking with your sandwiches, while a taxi takes your bags between overnight stops. It’s a stupid way of looking at the world, but I’m a man, so that’s only to be expected.