Friday, 3 July 2015

Is Holy Island "holy"? If so - why?

Holy Island (Lindisfarne) as the tide comes in and the island is cut off.  

One of the questions I wanted to reflect upon as I travelled around some of the most renowned "holy" sites in Britain was, "what makes a place holy?"  Can a place be holy?  What does that even mean?

It seems to me that Holy Island is as good a place to ask the question as any!

Is Holy Island "holy" because saints lived here?  They had two biggies - Aidan and Cuthbert.  I love the stories of Aidan and Cuthbert - I blogged about a couple of them a few weeks ago.  But does the fact of their (undisputed) historical presence make the actual island "holy"?

They are both reputed to have performed miracles here - people came to be healed...  does that make the island "holy"?

It is said that Cuthbert's relics were kept here - nobody knows exactly which spot... does that make the very soil "holy"?

However hard I try, I cannot conceive a theology or a world view that would allow there to be something like a property of "holiness" that applies in perpetuity to land or ground or an island or a mountain or a well or a stream or a building, a property of "holiness" that sets that particular land or ground or island or mountain or well or stream or building on some kind of a different spiritual plane than any other land or ground or island or mountain or well or stream or building.

So, for me, it's a no.  Holy Island is not "holy" - or, at least, it is no more "holy" than Canvey Island or Barry Island or indeed any island you care to mention.

I get the idea, but I don't buy into it.  These feet once trod here...  It's seductive, but ultimately as much a pile of poppycock as homeopathy - the presence of a saint - ever so faint after centuries have past - like the homeopathic water that merely contains a memory of the healing substance no longer present.

It sounds like a big thing to say - especially as I have only ever visited the island once and stayed only two nights - but it isn't the only thing I have to say.

If Holy Island is not "holy" - then why is it that so many countless people describe it as such a place because they have experienced it as such a place?

I think the answer is crushingly simple...

It seems "holy" because the island is called Holy Island.
This might seem trite - but bear with me.  People come intentionally to Holy Island in order to experience "holiness" or embrace "spirituality".  God invites us to seek and promises we will find - and we do.  When we seek, we find.  It is no surprise that people feel a closeness to God on Holy Island - they come with that intention, and God honours his promises.
And it is well suited to the act of seeking.  We are pre-conditioned in so many ways to find such places to be good places to seek God and nurture spirituality:
  1. Type the word "spirituality" into Google images - or any image search tool of your choice - and you will find a vast preponderance of images of young women - often silhouetted - sitting by the sea in bendy yogic poses gazing out at the horizon.  It is an image we have all grown up with.  Islands are great for sea-views - especially small ones!

  2. Even a casual knowledge of Jesus' life will have us remembering that he went out into the wilderness after his baptism to wrestle with his soul and we will remember mountain-top epiphanies and stories of him fleeing to the moutains to pray...  alone...

    Of course - he will have been conditioned too.  Mountain tops were almost always where God showed up in the bible stories Jesus grew up with - and at margins/borders - between land and sky (mountains), between land and and sea (seaside) and between dwellable land and hostile land (wilderness).  God shows up in these edgey, untamed places.  Holy Island can be fairly wild and untamed on a windy winter's day!

  3. We have been conditioned to think of spirituality as a lonesome task - something deeply personal that you do on your own.  We have the idea that you need to get away from your every day life to an extraordinary place where you can find solitude and relief from the noise and bustle of your everyday life.  Holy Island gets cut off every day.  There are long periods where unless you have a boat or a helicopter, you are stuck there, and you are safe from mainland invasion.  Holy Island also has rubbish wifi and poor phone reception - so you are also isolated from the digital storm that normally assails you.  The fact that it gets cut off is, I think, a big part of the deal.  It feels vaguely the same to be on Iona when the last ferry leaves.

    Many of the locals - the people who live there - are irritated by the holiness conection, they don't feel it or recognise it, and they resent the hordes of people mooning about the island trying to be "spiritual".  Maybe that's because to find their ideal place to seek, Holy Island is the very place they need to escape from.

  4. The saints are not irrelevant.  Of course they are not.  The island echoes with story and myth celebrating their lives.  Putting our lives alongside the life of a saint can be a humbling experience.  Where better to do it than in the place where they lived and worked?
 So, is Holy Island "holy"?

  1. No, absolutely not, don't be daft!
  2. Yes, absolutely (unless you happen to live there!)

Holy Thorn

This is the Holy Thorn on Wearyall Hill, just on the edge of Glastonbury.  In the background you can see Glastonbury Tor.

Legend has it that Joseph of Arimathea visited Glastonbury with the vials of Jesus' blood and sweat (and possibly the chalice from the last Supper) and thrust his staff into Wearyall Hill.  The planted staff grew into a thorn tree that "miraculously" flowers twice a year - at Easter and at Christmas.

As you can see it is in a sorry state.  This is what it used to look like before it was vandalised in on 9th December 2010 - all of its branches being brutally hacked off during the night...  It still seems to me to have been an unspeakably violent and anger-fuelled thing to do.  It feels (to me) like more of a desecration than all of the smashing of stained glass and toppling of statues that Henry VIII unleashed.

It's not the first time the tree has been attacked - it was uprooted and burned by Cromwell's religious purifiers during the English Civil war, the one there now was grown from a cutting - as were several more dotted around the town.

I climbed up Wearyall Hill and sat by the tree, what is left of it, looking across to the Tor and over the town.  As you can seem, countless people have made the same journey and have started leaving ribbons around the tree.  Reading some of the messages with the ribbons, it soon becomes clear that this place has been a focus for the hopes and dreams and prayers and wishes of people of a whole multitude of faiths and what are now referred to as "spiritualities".

It felt to me like an incredibly moving place - perhaps the "violence" done here now adds to that sense of hope and healing peace - that even now, even after the darkness has done its worst - ribbons turn and move in the breeze - broadcasting pilgrims' hopes to the world.

There are descendants of the original thorn in the grounds of the abbey - as if the Church wanted to wall in the experience, bottle it, guard it, keep it close, control it.  But nobody leaves ribbons there - only here.

There are no instructions.  Nobody has codified what happens here.  People simply invest this place with their various and diverse hopes and dreams.  Some might be called christian prayer, others might not, it doesn't seem to matter - they all coexist quite happily and naturally in this place.  The tying of a ribbon around a Holy Tree - a simple, yet powerful ritual that speaks to people of wide-ranging and differing faith traditions - speaking more powerfully, maybe, than all our sunday words put together.

Why is it that a place, a symbol of simple human hope, attracts such extreme destructive vandalism?

Nobody knows who vandalised the tree in 2010.  Another thorn was planted in the town next to a peace pole by the town hall in April 2012 - a sapling.  But that was snapped in half and destroyed by vandals only 16 days later.

Supposition at the time was that it was some kind of anti-Christian act.  But I can't shake my original surprise when I read that - for I had assumed that this was done by Christians - it "feels" like the kind of thing Christians might do in the name of purifying religion and fighting their petty war against errant expressions of spirituality.  Maybe I'm wrong, but my sadness remains.  Alongside it, a very real experience of the importance and power of ritual in peoples' lives.

I don't want the church to "capture" that - but I do think the church should respond to that and take it seriously, not least the URC, which for all its strengths can feel like a very sterile place spiritually, to me, anyway - and I'm about as far from being a touchy-feely bloke as you could imagine being!


Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Frank - the disapproving regular

Whilst on my travels I went to a few cathedral services.  At all of them there was a small core of obvious regulars boosted numerically by us know-nothing tourists.

My favourite was Frank at Llandaff Cathedral 11am Eucharist.  I don't actually know he is called Frank - but I suspect they are all called Frank, or if they aren't, they should be!

Frank was there before me.  I arrived in my full waterproof rig-out - so was a little bit rustly as I sat down and shed a couple of layers.  I sat just behind Frank, which might have been a mistake, as he turned to look at me disapprovingly.  However, it seems it wasn't my waterproofs rustling that irked him, merely my tourist presence, as another woman (clearly a non-regular) arrived shortly after me - quiet as a mouse - and he also looked at her disapprovingly!

The priest was visiting - he had done part of his training at the cathedral, and he had requested to return this day as it was the 10th anniversary of his ordination.  He had the most fabulously sonorous voice with a soft welsh accent.  I could have listened to him all day!

My attention was soon taken, however, by Frank.  His way of letting everyone else know that he was a regular - not a soon-to-be-forgotten tourist - was a carefully crafted two-fold strategy.
1. To ostentatiously NOT read the responses from the booklet - thus exposing us noobs completely!  Frank knows them all off by heart as he is a REGULAR!

2. (and here's his masterstroke) To pronounce every single one of the responses so immediately and promptly that he is almost finished before anyone else (even the other regulars who also know them by heart) has begun!  This is very distracting - as it does tempt you into some kind of competition!
We all have our Franks to bear, don't we?  Yet in the long winter months when the tourists fade away, it is the Franks of this world that keep Cathedral worship alive.  I imagine that the priests and canons and choirs and vergers would carry on even if there was nobody else there - but it would feel a little lacking, wouldn't it?

I think they must be a special breed - the cathedral Franks.  Why would you choose the cathedral as your regular place of worship?  Isn't it better to get involved in the life of your local parish church?  (maybe some of them do - but I'm sure that some don't.)  If cathedral worship is your only diet, is it not too rich a diet?

Yet the Franks of this world in all our churches DO make life uncomfortable for others - new people  The Franks all seem to carry a sense of grievance that newcomers have not put in the hours as he has, this place doesn't really belong to them as it does to him, this isn't FOR them...  it's a small-scale re-enactment of the parable of the workers in the vineyard - "but Master, we've been working all day in the hot sun, and they have only worked an hour - yet you pay us the same?"

But then honesty comes along and points my finger back at me.  More than once - on my travels - in cathedrals and "holy places" I have found myself becoming Frank.  More than once I have had to stop myself from looking at others (taking photos during choral evensong on their mobile phones; lighting up a fag alongside St Winifrede's Holy Well; having photos taken of themselves pulling faces whilst standing in the lectern at St Albans; using St David's shrine as a handy place to leave bags, coats and coffee cups whilst taking photos of themselves next to a statue and making rabbit-ears behind the statue's head...) and sighing deeply, thinking in such a Frank way that this place isn't for them - that it's for people like me who come honestly seeking...

but it IS for them, isn't it God - it is totally for them just as much as it is for me.

I am Frank!  Forgive me...

Wednesday, 24 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".

Monday, 22 June 2015

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"?