Monthly Archives: June 2015

No, not really…

 The Shrine of St David

I reached forward and touched the stone – the small slab now set into a wooden altar – the very stone that St David was given in Rome (along with some other kit) when he was made Bishop.  He used it as a portable altar throughout his ministry. (I mused that it didn’t look that portable, what with it being a fairly big slab of stone – but was interested nonetheless that I was touching the very stone that St David laid out the bread and wine on some 1500 years ago.

I stood and gazed at the casket proudly displayed at the base of St David’s shrine.  In that casket – right there – are fragments of St David’s bones, bones that have dawn pilgrims to this very spot for over a thousand years.  I lit a candle as the very first pilgrims would have done, and said a prayer.

Then I visited the cathedral exhibition in the old gatehouse.

The stone: recent tests have shown the the stone is most likely local stone and not from Rome.

The bones: recent tests have shown that the bones are probably 12th or 13th century and at least some of them are from a woman.


I ask myself – does it matter?  Does it matter that an untruth has inspired countless thousands to devotion?  I want to say no – but I can’t – because it makes me angry – it DOES matter.  If we allow people to build faith on what we know to be a lie – then what happens to that faith when the lie is exposed?

Cathedral jobs explained…

As I sat waiting to be admitted for Choral Evensong at St David’s Cathedral, I figured out what some of the people do…

As I watched and waited a man dressed in black gowns was buzzing around looking hassled and carrying candles and other assorted nick-nacks from place to place.  Whilst engaged in a flustere3d bout of nick-nack transportation he suddenly spotted something out of the corner of his eye and doubled back sharply on himself walkng back half the length of the nave in order to tell an elderly man to remove his hat.

We were then ushered into Evensong (hatless) and the same man reappeared – though this time he had made a very quick change and was now dressed as a very large angry wasp.  He was carrying a silver stick and leading in the choir, the priest and three (shall we say cuddly?) gentlemen who had ingeniously assembled various bits of old curtains, cushion covers and drapes to fashion some very fetching bee costumes – all three identical!

The bees settled themselves in the uppermost stalls so that they could look down on the assembled congregation – two of them did readings and one did some very good prayers, though he did spoil it slightly at the end by lapsing into doggerel hymn verses.  However, their main job was to look disapproving throughout the entiore proceedings.  They did this with a combination of stern looks, folded arms, shakes of the head and deep sighs, nothing appeared to be to their liking.

At the end, the large angry wasp reappeared with his silver stick and led the same procession off to eherever they were supposed to go, and the bees assembled themselves down the side aisle as the congregation was funnelled their way – and had transformed themselves into chatty,avuncular, kindly uncles who (now we were leaving) were desperately keen to get to know us!

I looked on the cathedral board.  The angry wasp is a Verger; the bees are Canons of varying rank.

Verger’s job:  maintain a strict no-hat dress code for men; make sure the choir and the priest and the canons know where they are going and don’t get lost; carry the silver stick (despite it appearing not to have been used otherwise in the service); buzz around busily carrying stuff from place to place, looking harassed.

Canon’s Job: assemble bee costume (years of being a parent for world book day would be an ideal qualification); look disapproving as if engaged in a competitive disapproval tourmanent during services; do a reading or a prayer if the priest asks/tells you to; surprise everyone by pressing the flesh in an avuncular and disarmingly jocular fashion.

I reckon I coulddo either of those jobs!  Where do I apply?

Cathedral Face!

I have sat in a lot of cathedrals over the last few weeks and have realised that men have a special cathedral face. It’s a mildly bemused look blended with the sense that there is something here that they are supposed to respond to in some way – but it is out of their reach, beyond their recognition. They stare numbly at things they wouldn’t normally glance at and frown slightly in concentration as if to mystically suck meaning out of this incomprehensible object before them.

The guide drones on about history but they are acutely aware that there school history is not adequate for the job, but they feel they somehow SHOULD know and be able to piece it all together, and they cover their sense of inadequacy with a sage nod.

To this blend they try to add what they think is a benign goodwill-to-all smile because this is a church isn’t it – and you have to look pleasant and kind in church.

All of this sets their faces into that generic “cathedral face”.

A little overwhelmed in Wexford

Twenty days have passed since I started this jaunt, and I really had no idea what, if anything, it would lead to.  I have covered over 2000 miles and have seen lots of things.

I am beginning to feel a little overwhelmed by it all, and I am glad I have kept notes and thoughts so that I can reflect on it at length later…  but where are my thoughts leading me?

First, something that is no great surprise to me – these places are not “Holy” in the sense that they are any holier than any other place.  “Holy” Island is no holier than Canvey Island or Barry Island; Iona is no more a “thin place” than Basildon or Newton Abbot; Holywell is no more holy a pool of water than a big puddle in Gloucester or Horwich baths.

They are not made “holy” by the presence – real or pretend – of the relics of a saint or an apostle;
they are not made “holy” because a miracle – real or fictional – once happened on this spot;
they are not made “holy” because the prayers of the faithful have “seeped” into the very walls.

God has not granted a special holiness charter to any of these places (neither has Mary.)

verses have come to mind – unbidden – that I want to reflect on some more…

Moses and the Burning Bush

Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. So Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up.”

When the Lord saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, “Moses! Moses!”
And Moses said, “Here I am.”
“Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.”

 We don’t hear of Moses erecting a shrine here (though the Israelites do set up altars or memorials of events from time to time) – there is no sense that this is now ALWAYS to be holy ground – it is only “holy” ground in this moment of encounter.  The “Holy of holies” as they wander in the wilderness is in a tent – it moves with them.

The Transfiguration

17 After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.

Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”

 Jesus doesn’t go along with Peter’s suggestion – though (ironically) there is now a church on where that is alleged to have happened.  There is no suggestion that this particular mountain top is any more “holy” than any other – it is (again) the encounter that is the thing…

So – what am I saying?  As it happens, nothing that new!  The places are not intrinsically “holy” and God has not made granted them a holiness charter in perpetuity – these places are only “holy” in as much as people have encounters with God there.

It is YOU or ME that make these places holy – not by our being there – but in our being open to such an encounter.

God is ready for such an encounter anywhere, anytime – but God is not a performing seal – we cannot force an encounter with God at the holy place of our choosing simply by showing up – we have to be open to it – and MAYBE it is true that places we intentionally designate as “holy” can be part of what we need to help us open up.

At Holywell they are very careful to say that there is nothing magic in the water – it is your “intention” that counts.

this is where my thinking crashes into a second idea – one that surprises me, because it is not something I expected to discover or find important – and that is the idea of RITUAL.

I am beginning to wonder whether these places release something in us – because we have gone there intentionally – to engage in ritual.  In days gone by, all of these places had complex rituals that the pilgrims performed in order to win their indulgence or their healing.

  • crawling painfully on bloodied knees
  • kissing relics or touching tombs
  • lighting candles
  • following set routes and patterns
  • immersing yourself a set number of times and in a particular way

I found myself imitating some of them, probably getting thm wrong – but trying nonetheless – and surprising myself in finding them to be a powerful experience of devotion.

If Henry VIII ridded us of what we see so hideously recreated in Walsingham – then I say “Good on you Henry VIII!” – but in our eagerness to appear rational and sane – not least in the URC – it seems to me that we have created a very cerebral expression of faith and worship which has no real place or room for what can be very powerful physical expressions of worship and faith.  We are body and mind together – it seems to me that we have suppressed the body in favour of the mind too often.

Of course there are hideous dangers in these places that they become “magic” – but I suspect it is something we will never quite suppress in our desire to become wholly rational shunners of the supersticious.

I have taken the opportunity to watch people at these places – and it is remarkable how – in the absence of priests to tell them what to do – people invent their own rituals.  They cross themselves, they build piles of stones by the sea, they make labyrinths out of pebbles, they throw coins in wells, they bottle the water and take it home, they stand barefoot in the places where saints have been, they get up at sunrise to sit in “holy” places – or linger there until sunset, they light candles.  I watched a woman today who came into the church of the Immaculate Conception in Wexford.  She put her money in the box and lit four candles in the stand by the statue of the Holy Family, crossed herself and said a prayer.  She then wandered down the aisle and put money in another box and lit four candles in the stand by the statue of Jesus, crossed herself and knelt to pray.  To me – one candle would have done the job.  I wondered if the prayers before the holy family were different than the ones before Jesus on his own – and if so, how to choose which ones to say where?  It was incomprehensible to me – BUT, to her, this is a ritual that means something and that feeds her faith and her prayer life.

When Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his robes, he sent him this message: “Why have you torn your robes? Have the man come to me and he will know that there is a prophet in Israel.” So Naaman went with his horses and chariots and stopped at the door of Elisha’s house. 10 Elisha sent a messenger to say to him, “Go, wash yourself seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will be restored and you will be cleansed.”

Seemingly irrational and pointless ritual seems important to Elisha – Naaman thinks it’s daft…  but we all know what happened…

So – that’s where I am – a bit of a jumbleof thoughts, not well thought-through yet, and unresolved, but I wanted to at least start the process of writing about it as that helps organise and clarify my thoughts.

I am feeling in my head for something that is not really taking shape yet…  some way of creatively engaging what ritual and “holy” places do for us in the regular worshipping life of an average URC.

Can you invent ritual (it seems they did in the middle ages – wholesale!) – or must it emerge naturally? (the Celtic Saints often merely appropriated the rituals that were already happening and “christianised” them.) If rituals can be appropriated – then what 21st century rituals can the church appropriate and “christianise”?


Roads and churches…

Motorway Church…

You bludgeon your way through the world
simple, direct,
no room for u-turns or dead-ends
no patience for roundabouts and no intention of giving way.
speed is the thing
quickest way to get from A to B
a three-lane superhighway to salvation
you don’t go where people live
there are other roads that lead to front doors
what’s behind them is not your concern
service-station community – fast food, move on quick
nobody lingers here
there are no lifers
they’ve all passed through and moved on
and others have taken their places
you’re not the church for me…

A-road Church

You’re not that direct
your path has been disrupted and moved and changed
you have allowed diversions
yet you plunge yourself right into the heart of town
you don’t shirk the messiness of it all
it’s not simple
you are a mess of roundabouts and merging lanes
a complex web of one-way, flyover and dual carriageway
you throw yourself into the mix of a busy city
and you are changed by it – you merge and you split
you have an option to avoid low bridges
sensitive to the needs of those who travel with you
you’re my kind of church…

B-road church

you wind and meander
avoiding things that no longer exist
serving communities that long since moved on
archaic vestiges of a time that is long gone
cattle grids, fords
you hedge me in I cannot see from side to side
you wind and twist – I cannot see ahead or behind
you were once a superhighway
you were once the road everyone travelled
don’t pretend you were always supposed to be this slow and backward
don’t make a virtue of getting left behind
you were once cutting edge
the fastest way from A to B
nobody lives like this anymore
you serve a community long since gone
you’re not the church for me…

Stocking up with Holy supplies at Winnie’s Well

Next to the outer pool there is a tap that you can pump to dispense Well Water.  You can take this home with you to sick relatives and apply a few drops to the skin – or drink some with an accompanying prayer…

Another Irish family arrives, mum, dad and six kids.  These kids are more restrained – they sit on the edge and dangle their feet, Dad stoops low and washes his head and face from the pool – then crosses himself.  They throw coins into the pool – healing-pool cum wishing-well! Is there much of a difference between the two ideas?

While they do this, mum has come prepared – she has six four-pint milk cartons and a 2 litre coke bottle.  She proceeds to rinse them all out at the pump and then crank them all fullof well water – stashing them in a bag she has brought for the purpose.

I sit and watch all this activity and wonder what on earth these huge stocks of spring water are to be used for…  I really have no idea what might be intended for sucha  large volume of the stuff.

People are still drawn to these places, they won’t follow rules about how you are supposed to treat them or use them – they will invest them with their own rules and ideas of spirituality.

When she has filled her bottles, the woman produces a paper bag.  In the bag is a necklace or medallion – presumably of a saint, bought from the gift shop.  She instructs one of the children to go and dip it in the pool and bring it back.  She replaces the now damp medallion in the bag, and they are on their way.

Disturbing the water at Winnie’s Well

I was the only one there – it was calm and quiet and peaceful – I could hear the sound of the spring bubbling up from the stones and rippling the pool.  Apart from a handyman varnishing a bench (whose presence, I have to admit, I mildly resented) I was alone with my thoughts and my contemplation.

I moved outside to sit by the pool in a patch of sunlight.  I dipped in my fingers to test how cold it was – it was cold!  Bathing – according to the leaflet – is “strictly at the following times: 9:00am-10:00am and 4:00pm-4:45pm.”

There was a chain across the steps into the outer pool and the gate to the inner pool was padlocked.
I already knew this as I had read the website before I even set off from Torquay and had planned to make two visits to the well.

As I sat, some kids were running down the pavement shouting and laughing.  One of them threw a towel over the railings and climbed over, punching the air victoriously as the others looked on. They continued on and he climbed back over to join them.

A few minutes past and I was aware of a noisy throng – among them, the lad who had climbed the fence!
Two young children appeared yelling back to the others: “IT’S HERE!!!! IT’S HERE!!!  OVER HERE! COME AND SEE!!”  They were SO excited to find a pool of water.  Soon there was a very loud and excited gaggle of people – 16 children (I counted) four dads and three mums and a new-born baby.  The kids could not constrain themselves and were stripping off – some had trunks – some were just down to their pants – and they were teetering on the edge – having felt how cold it was – they were SO excited.
I had given one of my inner curmudgeonly sighs at my little oasis of peace and tranquillity having been so violently and loudly shattered – but I found myself smiling as their joy and excitement was infectious.
It was a group of Irish families – they knew where they were – they had come for the water and the well.  The dads (not the mums) were all keen to go in and being more bashful than the kids were looking for somewhere to change into their trunks.  One followed the example of the older kids and retreated into the inner well complex – the other two sloped off to the toilets…

Two kids had tentatively inched down the steps before running back screaming at the coldness of the water – but then one of the older kids had jumped straight in – and soon they were all in – splashing, screaming, gasping.

By now I was really enjoying the spectacle – the sheer abandonment of the joy!  One of the dads had found his way around the gate into the inner pool and the others were just arriving back poolside trying to overcome their fear of the cold…

The place seemed alive where before it had been quiet, but dead.  It seemed to me that if this was a healing spring – a pool of living water for God to bless his people – then this is exactly how it should be – it should be loaud and noisy and splashy and water should be everywhere – it is not to be rationed – this spring really gushes – it fills three pools and overflows – it dosn’t stop…  water was now splashed all over the sides…  it was a joy to watch.

And then a woman’s voice on the tannoy..

And then a man appears to reinforce the tannoy woman – he looks very cross and stern and orders the dad out of the inner pool telling him that he mustn’t disrespect this place. The dad insists he was not disrespecting the place.  He is told that they can go in the outer pool – but no swimming or splashing – they must walk around the edge prayerfully and immerse themselves praying their intentions to God.
He leaves.

I still can’t really believe what I have heard.  “IF YOU DISRESPECT HER PLACE SHE WILL CURSE YOU!”

The family stays for a while – the kid are still excitable – I’m not sure they heard tannoy woman.
The dads walk around the inner pool, wading through the inner water – immerse themselves and cross themselves…

eventually they leave – and it is quiet again – the man continues varnishing the bench, the water in the outside stills until once again you can see clearly to the bottom.  Now there is a plaster there.  Maybe, despite the well custodians, someone was healed today?

Some words for St Andrew

Called from your nets with your brother Peter
washed up on the shore at the feet of Jesus

I bet you never expected to get washed up here…

One of the inner circle
you were the one who told Jesus about the boy with the loaves and fishes

I bet you never expected to get washed up here…

Going out to the ends of the earth
Scythia, along the Black Sea and the Dnipper river as far as Kiev and Novograd

I bet you never expected to get washed up here…

On to Byzantium and Thrace and ending in Patras – crucified
bound, not nailed, on an X not a +, you didn’t want your death compared to His

I bet you never expected to get washed up here…

your bones kept safe in Patras (so the story goes)
treasured relics – handed from guardian to guardian, revered and honoured

I bet you never expected to get washed up here…

three of your fingers, your upper arm bone, one of your kneecaps and a tooth
packed into Regulus’s trunk and settng sail for the western ends of the earth

I bet you never expected to get washed up here…

shipwrecked, washed ashore at Kilrymont, welcomed by Pictish king Oengus
your bones destined to spawn a pilgrim hotspot and inspire the scots to wave your flag

I bet you never expected to get washed up here…

are you here?
The inner-circle disciple, so close to Jesus – you touched Christ
The missionary who took that touch of Christ to the ends of the earth
The dead crumbling bones – what was left of them- shipped to Scotland
The dust of your bones scattered to the four winds by Henry VIII
Are you still here in any real sense?
Were you ever here?
Is this place changed by the touch of your remains that once in turn touched Christ?

if you are here – how watered down is that original touch of Christ?
A handshake with history? Is this the homeopathic saint effect –
so diluted as to be less than negligible?  As if the air holds a mere memory of a passing touch?
it certainly feels so…

you are now the property of the nationalists
who cut and paste the image of your cross all across the land

is this who you are?

I bet you never expected to get washed up here…

the home of golf
proud wrapping paper for electoral success
curiosity for tourists who half-heartedly try to guess the spot your bones might once have lain

I bet you never expected to get washed up here…

but you did – get washed up here – and so did I

May God grant me a measure of that closeness to Jesus that so changed and inspired your life
that you were willing to get washed up wherever God and man might take you in service of the Gospel.

Rest in Peace, Andrew.

Phil and the seals

Cuthbert was in the habit of foregoing sleep for prayer.

Phil was in the habit of foregoing prayer for sleep.

One night, a monk followed Cuthbert to see where he was going. Cuthbert waded out into the sea – raised his arms – and prayed all night.

As day broke, Cuthbert returned to shore and was followed by otters who warmed and dried his feet with their fishy breath.

(Note: if you think it is unlikely that an otter’s breath could dry your hands and feet, then you’d better be prepared for the pathetic wisp of a puff of air that wafts feebly out of the hand-drier in the gents at Kinross services. An otter would do a much quicker job – believe me!)


Cuthbert sent the otters back into the sea with his blessing and the monk who had spied on him was ashamed, and fessed up.

Cuthbert forgave him and asked him to tell nobody what he had seen while Cuthbert was still alive. The monk wasted no time telling the tale after Cuthbert’s death, which is how I know it.

Phil went for a walk across to the mainland at low tide along the “poles” – then walked back again – it’s further than it looks!

Phil is easily distracted and likes to go off the beaten track and is able to when the missus isn’t there to stop him! (To be fair, she is usually right to stop him!)

Phil is easily distracted by what looks like a huge flock of geese – Phil is curious as it is a bit late in the year for huge flocks of geese – so he sets off at 90degrees to the pilgrim path to have a look – they are across the sand and on the other side of a small channel of water.

As he gets closer he realises they are either VERY large geese or they are not geese at all.

In fact it is a huge colony of seals – grey seals.

He walks to the water’s edge and looks across at them, then he lies face down in the sand to watch them.

As he watches, a dozen or so are curious and they swim out to look at him – daring one another to get closer to the strange beast on the other shore – maybe they thought he was a big goose?

It is a magical half hour – and Phil thinks of Cuthbert and the otters – and half expects a couple of seals to heave themselves onto the sand and breathe on his feet… But they don’t!

Perhaps Phil should have waded into the water to pray? Maybe that’s what they were waiting for?

Or maybe Phil should make more if a habit of foregoing sleep for prayer than foregoing prayer for sleep?

As Phil walks back to the village along the shore, the seals follow him, still curious.

Then he discovers why there are poles – mud up to his knee – thick, black, stinking mud – he is sure that seal is laughing – and he is sure he can hear the missus’s voice…

“Told you so!” :0)

Holy Island wind

It is always with you – even when you get out of it you are conscious of its absence and that shelter is only temporary.

It is at your back and in your face.

Lord, where can I go to escape your presence?

And it resists being easily sermonised into a trite metaphor for the breath of God’s Spirit. As days pass there is nothing refreshing about it, it is brutal and harsh and unceasing – it batters you and screams at you – it drives you to seek shelter – it always wins.

Cuthbert saw some monks in trouble at sea – a crowd of amused peasants were enjoying the spectacle. Cuthbert knelt and prayed. The wind abated, the monks were safe.

Aidan saw king Penda besieging Bamburgh – setting a fire to burn out king Oswin. Aidan prayed and the wind changed and smoked Penda away, tail between his legs.

It is surely no coincidence that controlling the wind should be part of Aidan and Cuthbert’s prayer life.

After all, Jesus did it and was amazed that the disciples had so little faith as not to be able to.

Holy Island castle has a magnificent wind-indicator attached by elaborate mechanisms to a weather vane.

It can tell you which way the wind is blowing before you go outside – it is a marvel of human ingenuity.

But it cannot change the wind…

Cuthbert was in touch with a higher, untamed and uncontrollable power – and as he prayed – amazing things happened.

O God, Who calms the sea and tames the wind, may I not be tempted to offer a tame and controllable version of you – but to embrace wind and wave – sign of your immovable power and glory.