Archive for November, 2014

Monasticism and Modernity

Posted in Uncategorized on November 29, 2014 by citydesert

“For [Thomas] Merton, the monastic life was not an escape or refuge but a modern choice, a spiritual vocation which grew from the depths of secularism toward the heights of sanctification. He notes: “[a]s long as I imagine that the world is something to be ‘escaped’ in the monastery — that wearing that quaint costume and following a quaint observance takes me ‘out of the world,’ I am dedicating my life to an illusion.” The monastic choice was simultaneously traditional and counter-cultural. “The monk,” he says, “is someone who takes up a critical attitude toward the contemporary world and its structures.” He does not reject the world — he criticizes it from within.
Merton 3
On this Brother Patrick Hart, who was Merton’s secretary, comments, “The monk in this context is in protest against modern society like the Egyptian desert dweller of the fourth century who fled the Roman culture of his day.” Brother Hart has brought the truth to the surface. Physically, Merton lived in the monastery, but his heart lived in the desert, before the time when Christianity was confined by the opaque walls of the “religious institution.” “The monastic horizon is clearly the horizon of the desert. The monastic Church is the church of the wilderness, the woman who has fled into the desert from the dragon that seeks to devour the infant Word.”
From the nakedness of the desert Merton taught us how to reverse the trajectory of modernity without abandoning its goals. We seek the certain; Merton, like the desert Fathers, tells us to seek the void. We seek God’s voice; Merton tells us to seek God’s silence. We pray for mercy; Merton teaches us how to pray for love. We seek meaning in the world; Merton taught us that meaning in the world can only be found in the abyss, the very place of its absence….
“It is true that when I came to the monastery where I am I came in revolt against the meaningless confusion of a life in which there was so much activity, so much movement, so much useless talk. . . that I could not remember who I was. But the fact remains that my flight from the world is not a reproach to you who remain in the world, and I have no right to repudiate the world in a purely negative fashion, because if I do that my flight will have not taken me to truth and to God but to a private, though doubtless, pious illusion.”
The monastic journey is one of penitence — not in the formal sense of repentance from sin, but in the spiritual sense that one’s growth allows one to see the superficiality of that which brought her to that place… Monastic critique is always only perpetual self-critique, for the monk knows that the turmoil of the world is no more than a reflection of the turmoil in his own heart. If he envisions the monastic choice as a choice to retreat from the world then he has failed. The monastic choice for Merton is one of protest. It is not protest against the world, only against the world’s limitations. It is the choice to be liberated from the confines of human potentiality that the world wants us to believe in.
We normally do not think of monasticism as protest; we think of it as escape or at best retreat.
conjectures merton
“Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander”, Merton’s contribution to political activism, taught us the ways in which monasticism is a politico/spiritual protest — the protest of the humble and the guilty as opposed to the protest of the sanctimonious and the righteous. It is a deeper and more treacherous kind of protest than we normally practice. It does not dwell on the evils of the world but on the failure of the self. “[The monastic] flight is not an evasion. If the monk were able to understand what goes on inside him, he would be able to say how well he knows that the battle [of the world] is being fought in his own heart.” This leads us back to the early Christian critique of the institution of the Church, to those fourth-century desert dwellers who left the Church to find God, cognizant of the fact that religion + politics = politics. For these seekers, the success of the Church in the world was the failure of its essence as critique. Retreat is not always abandonment; it is sometimes deep critique, especially when we retreat more deeply into and not away from the center of the storm. Merton did not want to abandon the world for the desert; he wanted us to make the world the desert.
merton 4
Although the Desert Fathers were deeply influential for him, he was acutely aware of the dangers of reviving their asceticism in our modern society, knowing that God had to become more and not less a part of our world. He also knew that the model of retreat, which was the conventional way in which we moderns viewed monasticism, was not a productive one for the twentieth century…”

An extract from Shaul Magid “Monastic Liberation as Counter-cutural Critique in the Life and Thought of Thomas Merton” “Cross Currents”, Winter 1999/2000, Vol. 49 Issue 4.

The Shrine of St Cedd

Posted in Uncategorized on November 29, 2014 by citydesert

A particularly valuable gift amongst the books given to The Heritage this morning was: Francis Hewitt “The Ancient Crypt Church of St Mary Lastingham: The Shrine of St Cedd” (1982). The Hermitage houses relics of St Cedd and is named in his honour.
“St. Cedd, the eldest of four brothers, was born in 620 into a noble Northumbrian family at the beginning of the 7th century. With his siblings, Cynebil, Caelin & (St.) Chad, he entered the school at Lindisfarne Priory at an early age and learned the ways of the Irish monks under Bishop Aidan. They were eventually sent to Ireland for further study, and all four subsequently became priests.
Bishop Finan of Lindisfarne subsequently sent Cedd out to evangelize the people of Essex, who were sorely in need of spiritual guidance. He baptised many of the locals and built several churches. He is particularly noted for the foundation of monasteries at Bradwell-on-Sea and East Tilbury.
Having been consecrated Bishop of Essex by Bishop Finan, Cedd re-instated St. Paul’s in London as the main seat of his diocese. He ordained priests and deacons to assist him in his work and gathered together a large flock of servants of Christ in his two monastic foundations.
Bishop Cedd always remained fond of his northern homeland and made regular visits there. On one such occasion in 658, Cedd was approached by King Aethelwald of Deira. Finding Cedd to be a good and wise man, he pressed upon him to accept a parcel of land at Lastingham in Yorkshire on which to build a monastery. Cedd eventually agreed, but would not lay the foundation stones until the place had first been cleansed through prayer and fasting. Cedd was the first Abbot of Lastingham and remained so while still administering to his flock in Essex.
In 664 Cedd was at Lastingham at a time that a great plague was raging through the area. Both he and his brother, Cynebil, fell sick and, after placing Lastingham in the charge of their youngest brother, Chad, they died. Cedd was first buried in the open air, and his funeral was attended by some thirty monks from Bradwell who, sadly, also contracted the plague and died. Eventually, a little stone church was built at Lastingham in honour the Virgin Mary, and Cedd’s body was interred there, to the right of the altar. The latter remains intact in the Norman crypt that was later built on the site, though St. Cedd’s bones were removed around the same time to the cathedral founded by his brother, Chad, at Lichfield.”
Crypt of St Cedd 1
“During his episcopate among the east Saxons, God’s Servant Cedd often visited his own province of Northumbria to preach. Ethelwald, son of king Oswald, who ruled the province of Deira, knowing Cedd to be a wise, holy and honourable man, asked him to accept a grant of land to found a monastery, to which he himself might often come to pray and hear the word of God, and where he might be buried: for he firmly believed that the daily prayers of those who would serve God there would be great help to him. The King’s previous chaplain had been Cedd’s brother, a priest named Caelin, a man equally devoted to God, who had ministered the word and sacraments to himself and his family, and it was thought of him that the King came to know and love the bishop. In accordance with the King’s wishes, Cedd chose a site for the monastery among some high and remote hills, which seemed more suitable for the dens of robbers and haunts of wild beasts than for human habitation. His purpose in this was to fulfil the prophecy of Isaiah: “in the haunts where dragons once dwelt shall be pasture, with reeds and rushes”, and he wished the fruits of good works to spring up where formerly lived only wild beasts, or men who lived like beasts.
The Man of God wished first of all to purify the site of the monastery from the taint of earlier crimes by prayer and fasting, and make it acceptable to God before laying the foundations. He therefore asked the King’s permission to remain there throughout the approaching season of Lent, and during this time he fasted until evening every day except Sunday according to custom. Even then he took no food but a morsel of bread, an egg and a little watered milk. He explained that it was the custom of those who had trained him in the rule of regular discipline to dedicate the site of any monastery to God with prayer and fasting. But then days before the end of Lent a messenger arrived to summon him to the king, so that the king’s business should not interrupt the work of dedication, Cedd asked his brother Cynebil to complete this holy task. The latter readily consented, and when the period of prayer and fasting came to an end, he built the monastery now called Lastingham, and established there the observances of the usage of Lindisfarne where he had been trained.
When Cedd had been bishop of the province and administered the affairs of the monastery for many years through his chosen representatives, he happened to visit the monastery at the time of plague, and there he fell sick and died. He was first buried in the open, but in the course of time a stone church was built, dedicated to the blessed mother of God, and his body was re-interred in it on the right side of the altar.
Crypt of St Cedd 2
The bishop bequeathed the abbacy of the monastery to his brother Chad, who subsequently became a bishop. The four brothers I have mentioned – Cedd, Cynebil, Caelin and Chad – all became famous priests of our Lord, and two became bishops, which is a rare occurrence in one family. When the brethren of Cedd’s monastery in the province of the East Saxons heard that their founder had died in the province of Northumbria, about thirty of them came wishing, God willing, either to live near the body of their Father, or to die and be laid to rest at his side. They were welcomed by their brothers and fellow-soldiers of Christ, and all of them died there of the plague with the exception of one little boy who was preserved from death by the prayers of his father Chad.”

“If you walk down the stairs to the crypt, you are stepping back in time. In this holy place the spirits of Cedd and Chad move on the stones of the floor and in the air that you breathe. Stephen’s first act was to build a crypt where the little stone church stood as a shrine to St. Cedd. So as you look towards the altar in the crypt, you may well be looking at the very place where St Chad celebrated Mass, and beside which his brother Cedd is buried.
An entrance from the outside on the north side enabled pilgrims to come directly to the shrine to pray at the place of burial of St. Cedd.
St Cedd crypt
The Arches are typically early Norman; the pillars show a gradual growth in ornamentation, but most have a simple ram’s horn capital as in the work of the same period in the upper Church. The crypt is a little church in itself, with side aisles and apse. This is unique in a crypt in England. But the glory of Lastingham lies not in its architectural features, but in the atmosphere of Christianity which speaks to us across the centauries. The Crypt has remained virtually unchanged since the time of William the Conqueror.”

“There has been a church on this site since the mid-7th Century (c.654 A.D.) when St. Cedd, formerly a student of St. Aidan at Lindisfarne, and his brother Caelin founded a monastery here.
St. Cedd became its first Abbot and ruled until his death in 664 A.D. Another brother, St. Chad, who also was a student of St. Aidan at Lindisfarne, became abbot of the monastery after St. Cedd’s death.
The original wooden church was replaced by a stone structure ca.725 A.D. Some of the original stones may still be found in the crypt of the present-day church. The monastery was destroyed by Viking invasions in the 9th and 10th Centuries. In 1078, Abbot Stephen of Whitby and several Benedictine monks went to Lastingham to rebuild the ruined church. They built a crypt as a shrine to St. Cedd over the place where it was thought that he was buried. A new abbey church was also started but abandoned in 1088 when the monks moved to York.
A parish church was established in 1228 A.D. Through the years, different sections of the present church were built. The Norman tower was added in the 15th Century.”
For St Mary’s Church, Lastingham, see further:

A Commentary on The Psalms

Posted in Uncategorized on November 28, 2014 by citydesert

The Psalms were at the heart of the Prayer life of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. Although there are now some excellent Patristic guides to reading and studying the Psalms, a long out-of-print and rarely available (and then only at great expense) commentary using a range of ancient sources is that by the 19th century Anglican scholars, Neale and Littledale.
Coptic Psalms
J. M. (John Mason) Neale (1818-1866) and Richard Frederick Littledale (1833-1890) “A Commentary on the Psalms: From Primitive and Mediaeval Writers; and from the various office-books and hymns of the Roman, Mazarabic, Ambrosian, Gallican, Greek, Coptic, Armenian, and Syrian Rites” [Joseph Masters, London, 1868, pp.2191] – Vol. 1. Psalm I to Psalm XXXVIII – Vol. 2. Psalm XXXIX to Psalm LXXX.- Vol. 3. Psalm LXXXI to Psalm CXVIII – Vol. 4. Psalm CXIX to Psalm CL, with index of Scripture references.
Neale Psalms
In “Commentary on the Psalms from Primitive and Mediæval Writers”, editors J. M. Neale and R. F. Littledale have condensed the writings of the Church Fathers and other important writers from the Middle Ages into a verse-by-verse commentary of all 150 Psalms. This unique four-volume collection weaves together commentary on the Psalms from the Venerable Bede, Dionysius the Carthusian, Cyril of Alexandria, Gregory the Great, Thomas Aquinas, Saint Augustine, and many more. Additionally, Neale and Littledale reference various office-books and hymns from the Roman, Mozarabic, Ambrosian, Gallican, Greek, Coptic, Armenian, and Syriac Rites.
Volume one of the “Commentary on the Psalms from Primitive and Mediæval Writers” covers Psalms 1–38. In addition to verse-by-verse commentary, each Psalm includes an introduction and various thoughts from the writings of the Church Fathers. Volume one also includes an in-depth introduction to the series, which includes two dissertations: “The Psalms as Employed in the Offices of the Church” and “Primitive and Mediæval Commentators on the Psalms,” which provides concise biographical notices of the principal commentators referenced in all four volumes. A third dissertation, “The Mystical and Literal Interpretation of the Psalms,” will be found after the thirtieth Psalm.
Neale psalm page
Volume two of the “Commentary on the Psalms from Primitive and Mediæval Writers” covers Psalms 39–80. In addition to verse-by-verse commentary, each Psalm includes an introduction and various thoughts from the writings of the Church Fathers. A dissertation, “Chronology and Authorship of the Psalms,” explores the “original” order of the Psalms and discusses the many problems of trying to discern their “true” chronological sequence.
Volume three of the “Commentary on the Psalms from Primitive and Mediæval Writers” covers Psalms 81–118. In addition to verse-by-verse commentary, each Psalm includes an introduction and various thoughts from the writings of the Church Fathers.
Volume four of the “Commentary on the Psalms from Primitive and Mediæval Writers” covers Psalms 119–150. In addition to verse-by-verse commentary, each Psalm includes an introduction and various thoughts from the writings of the Church Fathers. This volume also includes the dissertation “The Psalms as Used in the Sacraments and Rites of the Church” and provides an index of Scripture references for the entire collection.

Available on-line at: [PDF] and [text]

The work is available in electronic searchable format:

The Ancient Desert Prayer

Posted in Uncategorized on November 28, 2014 by citydesert

Frederica Mathewes-Green “The Jesus Prayer: The Ancient Desert Prayer that Tunes the Heart to God” [Paraclete Press, 2009]
Jesus prayer matthews
“In the earliest centuries of faith, Christians in the deserts of Palestine and Africa sought a short prayer that could be easily repeated, in order to acquire the habit of “prayer without ceasing.” The result was The Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.”

This jewel of Eastern Christianity aims at enabling a person to be in God’s presence, rather than to focus on feelings or thoughts about God.
Jesus prayer 3
The first section of “The Jesus Prayer” offers a concise overview of the history, theology, and spirituality of Orthodoxy, so that the Prayer can be understood in its native context. Following, is a conversational question-and-answer format that takes the reader through practical steps for adopting this profound practice in everyday life.”

“About fifteen years ago I started to use the Jesus Prayer during these mid-night hours; “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.” This very simple prayer was developed in the deserts of Egypt and Palestine during the early centuries of Christian faith, and has been practiced in the Eastern Orthodox Church ever since. It is a prayer inspired by St. Paul’s exhortation to “pray constantly”, and its purpose is to tune one’s inner attention to the presence of the Lord.

. . . How fast should I say the prayer? As you pray, you must turn away from focusing on other thoughts, and that may influence how rapidly you say it. Most times a “walking pace,” andante, is about right. Sometimes, though, you might need to say it very quickly, trying to end one prayer to the beginning of the next, in order to keep a crack from opening up where other thoughts could push their way in. When I’m agitated or worried, I have to think the words of the silent prayer firmly and “mind the gap” (as the announcement goes in the London subway) so that unwanted thoughts don’t sneak through.

On the other hand, sometimes you may feel so absorbed in the Prayer that you are savoring every word and want to pray it very slowly. You may repeat it a single time, and then coast for awhile — like the blissful feeling in childhood of cranking up a bicycle to a good speed, then standing on the pedals and flying. And I sometimes feel as though I can’t repeat the Prayer at all — his glory is so momentous and powerful. I just keep looking at the Prayer in my mind, with wonder. The Prayer is a medium of communication, very likely two-way communication, so the texture of it can vary as earthly converstions do.

I’m talking about the dedicated prayer time, when I’m doing nothing else but praying. The rest of the time, I get the Prayer going whenever I think of it. But if the test is repeating the Jesus Prayer all the time, I am nowhere near that. Over and over, every day, I notice that I’m not praying.
jesus prayer 4
So I was encouraged to read this passage, taken from a letter that St. Theophan the Recluse (AD 1815-1894) wrote to one of his spiritual children: “You regret that the Jesus Prayer is not unceasing, that you do not recite it constantly. But constant repetition is not required. What is required is a constant aliveness to God — an aliveness present when you talk, read, watch, or examine something.” Constant repetition of the Prayer can lead you to remaining in God’s presence, but if you do that without repeating the Prayer, it is all right.

The main thing is to cultivate profound gratitude to God, which comes naturally the more you see your own sin. Without a fresh, strong, authentic yearning for God, St. Theophan says, “the Prayer is dry food.””
Jesus Prayer 5
For suggestions for further reading and links to articles on the Jesus Prayer, see:

Prayer in the Desert

Posted in Uncategorized on November 28, 2014 by citydesert

“What distinguishes the Christian exercise of silence in prayer is the “naked intent” of the person who, while empty of thoughts, nonetheless reaches blindly for the God who cannot be seen or even named. What keeps contemplative prayer from being privatized, disembodied, and free-floating is its anchorage in the repetition of the psalms, lectio divina, the sacramentality of the Mass, and the stabilizing influence of community.
desert prayer
What the desert teaches is a radical letting-go of the thinking-experiencing-managing self, so as to be content with God alone, a God without adjectives, without comforting signs of presence, so that at last one learns truly to delight in nothing. This nothing may be disclosed by the Christian habitus as “Something,” as the Holy Trinity hidden in light inaccessible from every effort to grasp its mystery. But the naming of the mystery is no longer an anxious concern to those who’ve been to the desert. Naming implies a control the wilderness no longer allows.”
Belden C. Lane “The Solace of Fierce Landscapes” [Oxford University Press, 2007]
solace landscapes
“In the tradition of Kathleen Norris, Terry Tempest Williams, and Thomas Merton, “The Solace of Fierce Landscapes” explores the impulse that has drawn seekers into the wilderness for centuries and offers eloquent testimony to the healing power of mountain silence and desert indifference.
Interweaving a memoir of his mother’s long struggle with Alzheimer’s and cancer, meditations on his own wilderness experience, and illuminating commentary on the Christian via negativa–a mystical tradition that seeks God in the silence beyond language–Lane rejects the easy affirmations of pop spirituality for the harsher but more profound truths that wilderness can teach us. “There is an unaccountable solace that fierce landscapes offer to the soul. They heal, as well as mirror, the brokeness we find within.” It is this apparent paradox that lies at the heart of this remarkable book: that inhuman landscapes should be the source of spiritual comfort. Lane shows that the very indifference of the wilderness can release us from the demands of the endlessly anxious ego, teach us to ignore the inessential in our own lives, and enable us to transcend the “false self” that is ever-obsessed with managing impressions. Drawing upon the wisdom of St. John of the Cross, Meister Eckhardt, Simone Weil, Edward Abbey, and many other Christian and non-Christian writers, Lane also demonstrates how those of us cut off from the wilderness might “make some desert” in our lives.
Written with vivid intelligence, narrative ease, and a gracefulness that is itself a comfort, “The Solace of Fierce Landscapes” gives us not only a description but a “performance” of an ancient and increasingly relevant spiritual tradition.”

Saint Æthelwine, Hermit of Athelney

Posted in Uncategorized on November 27, 2014 by citydesert

November 29 is the Commemoration of Saint Æthelwine (Egelwine), Hermit of Athelney
Saint Æthelwine of Athelney (Egelwine, Aylwine) was a prince of the house of Wessex who lived as a hermit at Athelney in Somerset, England in the 7th century.

“Æthelwine of Athelney was a seventh century saint. He lived as a Hermit on the Island of Athelney in the marsh country of Somerset, and is known to us through being recorded in the Hagiography of the Secgan Manuscript. He was venerated as a saint after his death.
Aethelwine was a son of Cynegils, king of the West Saxons from 611-42 AD and the brother of Cenwealh, king of the West Saxons from 642-672AD. William of Malmesbury says that he had a chronic disease.
His name is two Anglo Saxon words, Aethel (prince) and Wine (friend protector). He takes his suffix from Athelney, the island he lived on. Athelney was made falmous as the island fort, in the somerset marshes from where Alfred the Great launched his conquest of the Danes, two centuries after Æthelwine lived there. Translated from Anglo-Saxon the name of Athelney isle is “Æthelinga íeg”, thought to mean the “Island of Princes”(æðeling) and as it had this name prior to Alfred it is possible that it derived from Æthelwine, or that it was an established royal residence, fort or refuge of some type. To give thanks for his victory, Alfred founded on the Isle in 888 AD, a monastery, Athelney Abbey.”
Atheney abbey
“Originally Athelney was a small island in swampland, in what is now the parish of East Lyng, covered with alders and infested by wild animals. It was inaccessible except by boat, according to William of Malmesbury. Here Alfred found a refuge from the Danes; here he built the abbey. The dedication to St. Egelwine suggests that it may have been an enlargement of a hermitage or monastery already in existence.
He peopled it with foreign monks, drawn chiefly from France, with John the Old Saxon (known as Scotus) as their abbot. The original church was a small structure, consisting of four piers supporting the main fabric and surrounded by four circular chancels.”
After the Legions Left: The Fighter from the Fens
The Isle of Athelney, a swampy marshland in Somerset, was Alfred’s last outpost of English resistance to the Vikings.
See further:

Saint Sadwen, Hermit of Wales

Posted in Uncategorized on November 27, 2014 by citydesert

November 29 is the Commemoration of Saint Sadwen, Hermit of Wales
St Sadwen
Saint Sadwen, also known as Sadwrn Farchog of Llansadwrn, was a sixth century hermit, the brother of Saint Illtyd, and a disciple of Saint Cadfan.. Several Welsh churches are dedicated to him.
Troparion (tone 8):
The remoteness of the Welsh mountains was thy desert, O Father Sadwen,/ where thou didst serve God in fasting and humility./ May thy continual intercession avail for us sinners that our souls may be saved.
Sadwen church
Eglwys Sadwrn Sant – St Sadwrn’s Church Llansadwrn
“Sadwrn Farchog (Saturnus or Saturninus the Knight) was the brother of St Illtud. He married his cousin (later St Canna) and had a child who became St Crallo. Their gravestone is inscribed (reconstructed) HIC BEATUS (-) SATURNINUS SE(PULTUS) (I)ACIT ET SUA SA[NCTA] CONIU(N)X PA(X) (VOBISCUM SIT) (Here lies buried St Sadwrn with his blessed wife Peace be unto you).:

“Son of a prince, Bicanus Farchog of Llydaw; brother of Saint Illtyd. Educated by Saint Garmon of Manaw. Soldier. Married to Saint Canna Lang Anna. Father of Crallo. Disciple of Saint Cadfan. Missionary to the British Isles. Hermit on Anglesey Island. Several Welsh churches are dedicated to him.”
Anglesea Island
Anglesea Island

“St. Sadwrn Farchog of Llansadwrn
(Born c.AD 485)
(Latin: Saturnus; English: Saturn)
Like his brother, Illtud, St. Sadwrn Farchog – the Knight – was probably, sent to school under his great-uncle, St. Garmon (later Bishop of Manaw), in his native Brittany. As a young man, he soon followed in his father, Bican’s footsteps and entered the military. Hence his epithet. He married his cousin, St. Canna and together they became the parents of St. Crallo.
Upon retiring from his soldiery, Sadwrn crossed the Channel, with St. Cadfan, and moved his family to South Wales, where his brother was living. He founded the church of Llansadwrn in Caermarthenshire and may have taken leave of his young wife to become a hermit on Anglesey, where he died. The church of Llansadwrn there stands on the site of his little cell and also his grave. As demonstrated by the magnificent 6th century stone, inscribed with his name, which was discovered there in 1742. It now reposes in the internal church wall.
St Sadwens
Sadwrn’s feast day is 29th November, though this is probably due to being confounded with St. Saturninus of Toulouse. He should not be confused with St. Sadwrn of Henllan who appears in the Life of St. Winifred. In art, Sadwrn of Llansadwrn appears on a tomb in Beaumaris Church as a bearded knight in armour holding a pilgrim’s staff and raising his hand in benediction.”
St Sadwen's well
St Sadwrn’s Well (Ffynnon Sadwrn) lies on a grass verge within a small housing estate in Craigside, below the Little Orme at the eastern extremity of Llandudno, Wales