Pastoral Letter - 20th August
My Dear Friends,
I stayed there overnight for the first time thirty years ago this month, but it had been a place I had been aware of since childhood. Sunday School trips to the seaside, family holidays and day trips to Pembrokeshire had made me aware of this glimmering place of mystery on the horizon where sky met sea off Tenby in West Wales, an island called Caldey.
It was a long, low, line as though right on the edge of my childhood world, separated from where I stood on the sand by a shimmering sea. The only building you could distinguish had a tower, like a finger beckoning to my young imagination. We never did visit it, my parents and I, though they had gone in the early years of their marriage and my father still spoke of the fabulous Madeira Cake he had eaten there. I found it an enigmatic and enthralling presence, tantalisingly just out of reach, only visited in dreams.
There was a board by the harbour wall in Tenby advertising boat trips, some landing on Caldey, others sailing around it. It claimed that there had been monks on the island since the 6th Century, it implied in unbroken continuity, but I believe the monks had abandoned the island in the 10th Century due to Viking raids, only returning in the 12th Century with the influx of the Normans. Then again, from the Dissolution until the early 20th Century the island had remained in private ownership until bought by a community of Anglican Benedictines in 1906, until they converted to Roman Catholicism in 1913. The Cistercians, a branch of the Benedictines who follow a harsher regime, took up residence in 1929 and though dwindling in numbers, the community still offers its prayers to the God who listens to their song, surrounded by the regular rhythm of the waves of the sea.
Though modernised in many ways, it has escaped much of the innovations of generations devoid of aesthetic discernment. I believe that the only shop is that run by the monks themselves to make money from visitors to ensure the financial viability of the enterprise. Visitors can only land by kind permission of the Abbot, and the times for such visits are strictly controlled. Only between certain hours of the morning and afternoon are craft allowed to land and then only from a certain permitted company, and never ever on Sundays.
My first visit was a crossing to remember. I was staying with a priest friend in Pembroke as I was exploring the idea of Ordination and had gone to see him to chat it through. He had links with the monks on the island and knocked on my guest room door just before 6 am so that I could get ready to drive to Tenby to catch the 8 am sailing. It was a wild morning, I didn’t think anyone in their right mind would cross with the sea crashing around in the way it was. You could hardly hear what people were saying on the harbour wall as we were embarking, the wind was whipping away their words as soon as they had been uttered. But not wanting to appear lily livered, I stepped aboard the moving target of a boat and the chugging craft soon took us beyond the cradling arms of the harbour wall onto the broiling sea.
Initially, I clutched the sides of my seat, my fingers white with terror, but as we got further out to sea, either I got used to it or it was a little less dramatic and I saw a nun who had embarked just before us, dressed in deepest black, wobbling her way toward the bow of the boat, eyes focused on our destination, like an arrow in a compass, as though directing us all, assuring our safety through her praying presence. Later that morning, after we had dried off by the fire in the guest sitting room, I wandered off as the sun came out, generous with golden light but alas unaccompanied by any but the mildest warmth. Everyone else was in the Monastery, only I was abroad I thought, as I made my way down to the beach in my soggy trainers. Then all of a sudden I spied the ancient nun, as I had assumed her to be, dancing wildly on the sand, as enthusiastically and unrestrainedly as any teenager I have seen.
We only stayed until late morning, the visit lasted only a few hours yet so concentrated was the experience that time seemed different there, suspended as we were between realities: between the sky and the sea, between the mediaeval and the modern, between Heaven and earth. I remember having a late lunch on the mainland, so our visit must have been just a few hours in length, but the intensity of the experience, the significance, the power, the profundity of it, had made a huge impression upon me, as though I had been there for much longer. I knew that I would return. I longed to be there in the quiet hours when no other tourist was present on the island, just the monks, either being silent in their cells, or else chanting in the choir. I wanted to see the sun set from there and the sun rise from there and to hear the sounds of the midnight hour in a place as though slightly beyond the dictates of time, where, unaffected by light pollution, the stars would surely pierce the sky more brilliantly than I had seen before.
The next occasion I visited was consciously and not accidentally, as in my previous visit. It had become a burning ambition to return as soon as I was Ordained priest and within a couple of weeks of hands being laid on my head, I went. As you too may have found when you have set sail, it is as significant what one is leaving behind as what one hopes to travel towards. Caldey Island had taken on a meaning for me which was not unlike that for the characters in Virginia Woolf’s novel "To The Lighthouse", a book which had had a huge impact on me when I studied it for A Level. The whole business of aspiration, longing, the desire for resolution, the need to know a deeper sense of identity and have a greater awareness of purpose, all spoke to my adolescent spirit and resonated with it. So too was my need to set foot again on Caldey as a way of consolidating and making more real my being a priest in God’s Church. And so I went.
There is much which I could write about of the extraordinary 24 hours I spent there in 1991, exploring as I did the perimeters of the island and perhaps also of myself. Seeing the sun set and then rise again more gloriously than I have seen it from any other vantage point; visiting the stark chapel with a few shuffling monks. Sleeping seemed to be an unnecessary indulgence when my time on the island was so short so I stayed up after the orange glory of the sun setting into the crimson of the sea, to witness the whiteness of the moon shining on the waves. I heard the stilling of the birdsong as they settled for sleep and their chirruping which was tentative at first, as though doubting the dawn. Long before any visitor had awoken to prepare for their crossing to the island and while the monks were still in their chapel or their cells, l roamed the island, as though alone in the silent, waiting world. It could have been at any point in several centuries, there was nothing to disturb the peace or decide the year.
Then it was I happened upon it, the disused church of St David, bravely facing the winds, though the walls had been compromised by the centuries. Cobbled floors, its sharp, slightly lopsided spire pointing toward the eternity to which prayers had been aimed by previous occupants of the benches crumbling with exhaustion. Sounds stilled and silence intensified as I entered its hushed interior, the morning light slowly spreading its fingers across the stubbled floor. Here monks had gathered centuries before. Here prayers had been offered, bread had been broken, wine had shimmered in the candle flame brightness around the altar. Here confessions, perhaps heavy with guilt, had been heard and a lightness of heart had then been visited upon the absolved. Here doubts may have been agonised over and dared to be voiced in the silent darkness, as men had listened with all that was aching within them for the whispered "I am" of God.
And there it was I too prayed. There it was I also sought the spiritual affirmation of God. There I too joined my prayers with thousands of other men and women who craved the presence of the Christ who would allow me to live as though from a different place within myself, aware that an attentive God understood, accepted, forgave, believed in me, in spite of my shortcomings. There, stripped of all possessions save the clothes in which I stood, I knew what riches were. There, separated from others, I felt that I was in the company of companions of the soul. There in a silence broken only by soft wind and sharp birdsong, the rhythmic waves and the gulls cry, I overheard sounds I cannot describe save to suggest that they were the sounds resonant with the essence of life itself.
And as I knelt in that ancient space, on an obscure island off the west coast of Wales, a place I had visited so frequently in my imagination, but only once for real before, I grew aware of the Other Place for which we all long as we travel through this world, the place for which we will all set sail at some point in our soul`s pilgrimage. A place we will also need to leave all else aside in order to journey towards, for nothing will we take with us then except the truth of who we are and the quality of our capacity to be open to what lays beyond and to trust, entrust ourselves, to the hand which will reach out to us in the darkness.
It is my hope that Heaven will be in some ways similar to Caldey, with such peace, such beauty, such intense and glistening reality, and with the companionship of those who similarly aspired to experience the essence beyond and within it all, that primary impetus which caused God to create light and life and to share those things with those He loves.
With deepest blessings.
ZOOM AND MORE
I hope you will have received and read the Pastoral Letter which was sent out explaining the pattern of worship for the next month or so, until we see that there has been a sustained drop in the sharp rise in the Covid infection rate. For the time being we will be continuing with Zoom at 9.30am and the Celebration of the Eucharist at 6pm in church. I hope you will join us for at least one of these services and will continue to remember the rest of the church family in your prayers. You can join us this Sunday for our ZOOM SERVICE at 9.30am by clicking on the following link: https://us02web.zoom.us/j/85685339742 or in person in church at 6pm. You no longer need to book for the 6pm service You can also join us for Private Prayer in the church 10am-11am on Wednesdays. The readings this Sunday are: Ephesians Chapter 6 verses 10-20 and John Chapter 6 verses 56-69. The Collect: Almighty and eternal God, You are always more ready to hear than we to pray, And to give more than either we desire or deserve: Pour down upon us the abundance of your mercy, Forgiving us those things of which Our conscience is afraid and Giving us those good things For which we are not worthy to ask Save through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ Our Lord, Who lives and reigns with you, In the unity of the Holy Spirit, One God, now and for ever. AMEN.