Thoughts on St Bega’s Day

St Bees head in Cumbria is a quiet costal place tucked away from the heavy tourism of the central Lakes. It’s a lovely stretch of coast, and the starting place of the very popular Wainwright’s Coast to Coast Walk. Any time of year the car park is full and the beach café, offering views out to sea, is busy. From the car park you can walk up the grassy cliffs to see the sea birds who nest in this secluded spot. There’s a campsite here and its access to the northern fells makes it a popular place for holiday makers. 

I suspect that most people visiting have little idea of its spiritual past, but the name St Bees is an obvious clue to an association with an ancient saint. If you explore a little further you will find a local statue of the girl Bega with a small coracle boat or in the parish church a stain glass window showing a royal princess disembarking from a larger boat. This is St Bega, an Irish princess who arrived on these shores sometime in the early medieval period; she is St Bee of the place name.

The sources we have tell us that St Bega, an Irish princess, was fleeing an unwanted marriage and crossed the Irish sea alone, landing at this secluded spot and making it her home. Medieval sources tell us that she lived here as an anchoress, eventually fleeing to escape Viking raids. When she went she left behind a bracelet that was later to become a relic associated with many miracles. We no longer have the bracelet but there is plenty of mention of it in later medieval sources, enough to suggest it was the focus of pilgrimage here.

In the 12th century, several hundred years after Bega first came to Cumbria, a Benedictine abbey was established at St Bees. By this time the place was bearing her name (Kirkby Becok / the church of Bega) and a priest was already established to take care of the shrine where pilgrims came to ask her to pray for them.  The abbey was dissolved in 1593 but the building is now the parish church. You can visit it and see its magnificent Norman doorway and some lovely old stone crosses in the gave yard, but to contemplate St Bega I still prefer to sit on the beach looking out to sea for a sense of who this solitary female saint could have been. 

The Holme Cultram manuscript, now kept in the Bodleian library in Oxford is a twelfth century life of the saints. It is our main source for Bega. I love the language of the story-telling and the atmosphere created around the place and the saint. It gives an account of how she arrived, saying:

Bega found the place covered with a thick forest, admirably adapted for a solitary life. Wishing to dedicate her life to God she built for herself a virgin cell in a grove near the seashore, where she remained for many years in strict seclusion. In the course of time the district began to be frequented by pirates. The good saint however dreaded not death, nor mutilation, nor the loss of temporal goods, of which she was destitute except her bracelet (armilla), but she feared the loss of her virginity, the most precious treasure with which heaven can endow her sex. By divine command Bega hastened her departure from the place, but she was induced to leave her bracelet behind her, that miracles in ages to come might be performed in that neighbourhood in testimony of her holy life.”

Sitting on the pebbles between the groynes that divide the beach, listening to the sea, this is what I imagine; up beyond the cliff and further inland where the fields and moor stretch, thick forest where she hid herself away, living close to the earth and the creatures of the woodland, foraging for food and establishing the habit of a prayerful life in solitude. I look out to where the shore meets the headland and imagine the changing shape of this place formed by time and tide. I consider where she might have built that cell in a grove by the seashore. I even imagine the night she pulled her boat up on to the beach, dragging behind her a few processions, still stunned by the trauma and the loss of the events that cast her out. in all of this she consecrating her life to God as best she could in a place that was beautiful but in so many ways inhospitable. 

This inhospitable world and all the challenges of living in it and all the ways in which we find enough beauty and enough meaning to make our way. 

This is a different kind of relationship to history and a different way of relating to landscape and place. its one that recognises the spiritual without demanding from me more faith than I actually have. As if the softness of the hills and boldness of the sky are inviting to enlarge the places of my heart, to entertain angles and saints and more beauty ways of being human in the world.

Mary – The Unburnt Bush

The Mother of God had no place in the Evangelical world where I spent 30 years as a Christian, but elsewhere across the worldwide Christian Church, spanning two millennium, she was and remains central to theology and prayer. My conversion to this particular theology was painless and has provided me with great healing and a more gentle perspective on prayer.

I first saw the icon of the unburnt bush about a year ago and instantly fell into a deep fascination. It is rich in the type of Biblical imagery I am familiar with from earlier times. I was familiar with preached sermons that would elaborate with wonderful depth on Bible imagery, clearly showing the relationships between the types of the Old Testament and their realisation in the New. Towards the end of my time in the Protestant churches I grew weary of too many words and yet I have not abandoned the deposit those words left. When I see this icon, I see in line and colour the beauty of all I was taught. All the Church holds as true. So, I hang this icon where I can see it at the start and end of the day.

Orthodox Christians do not teach about the symbolism of icons. An icon cannot be read in this way. It is not to be interpreted and commented on as if it were a piece of art. In Orthodoxy an icon must be experienced. It is an ‘icon’ of God; that is, it is an example of the divine. The icon is the God-man face of the Church and every Christian soul; it is me as I was meant to be. In front of the icon one can experience something of God, all of humanity and great Love, if only one would stand and wait.

God placed his image in humans and Christ restored that image when it had been damaged. The face in the icon represents the healing of all humankind. We ask the saint in the image to pray for us because they have come closer to holiness than we have. Christ, Mary – they have come closer to holiness than we have. 

However, the icon of the unburnt bush is different to most of the icons I am familiar with and does seem to invite more interpretation. 

In the writings of the Fathers and in the earliest hymns of the Church, the unburnt bush that Moses saw on Mount Horeb represented the incarnation and Mary. The bush that burnt and was not consumed. It was recognised as a type of Mary, a woman born into a fallen world but not overtaken by sin. No one can see God and live, yet the incarnation changes this, Mary confirms this. She becomes a type of humanity bearing the image of God and opens up the possibility of seeing God and not being consumed.

The icon of the unburnt bush

The eight-pointed star

The images in the icon are arranged around and eight-pointed star, made from two diamonds, one red and one green. The star is a mandorla, an opening on heaven. The number eight is rich in meaning, connected to the eighth day of creation and the renewal and restoration of all things. The red diamond represents fire and heaven. The green diamond represents the bush, our earthly lives and the natural world. 

The petals

In the petals or clouds between the points here are angels. The icon is rich in the imagery of heavenly realities that we cannot see and populated with the beings that we can only imagine. They direct us to a spiritual world beyond our ordinary senses. The way we see an icon is not dependent on sight.  

The corner images

I love the corner images and daily anticipate the rich meaning invested in these Old Testament stories. It keeps my sense of wonder alive whenever I see the icon. 

  • Moses and the Burning Bush (Exodus 3.2) 

The Church from the earliest centuries saw Mary as the flaming bush, burning with the light of God but not consumed. 

  • Isaiah and the Seraphim (Isaiah 6.7)

The Seraphim took the burning coal and purged the mouth of prophet Isaiah. Christ is the one who is without sin; Mary his mother is one who lived in such perfect human obedience, she to is declared as being without sin, even though she has the same nature as us.

  • Ezekiel at the gate (Ezekiel 44.2)

Ezekiel was shown a vision of a gate that was shut, that no one could enter through. Mary is seen as the gate through which Christ come and through him we can enter through. The gate is no longer shut

Ezekiel was shown a vision of a gate that was shut, that no one could enter through. Mary is seen as the gate through which Christ come and through him we can enter through. The gate is no longer shut

  • Jacob and the dream (Genesis 28.12)

Jacob fell asleep and dreamed of a ladder stretching between heaven and earth. The angels on it moved up and down and the ladder are an image of the heaven meeting earth. Mary is and image of the place where heaven meets earth. For this reason we honour her and lok to her as out teacher and guide. 

Mary – the Theotokos

The image of Mary at the centre of the icon is in the style we call hodegetria, she who shows the way. The child Christ sits on Mary’s lap. She raises her hand to point to him, he raises his hand in blessing. She also holds the ladder from the image of Jacob. The ladder representing the dream where he saw an open heaven. This is aimage that informs the prayer we make when we say, ‘thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven’. This is what the incarnation is, God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven. 

Read more about the icon of the unburnt bush

British Saints for September

I’m introducing the first month of a calendar of British saints!

September: An anchoress, an abbess, an Anglo-Saxon princess and two Archbishops of Canterbury.

I have selected five British saints for each month of the year and I will share them here and on my website for you to reference or print off and use.

In addition to this I will continue to use Instagram and my blog (link in profile) to share the stories and historical contexts of these lovely people along with the places that we associate with them.

All the saints are pre-schism. That means they lived before the split that divided the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches, so these saints are recognised by Christians from both Western and Eastern traditions. In addition to this I’ve tried to represent men and women, different eras of Christian history and the nations of England, Scotland and Wales. 

It is a personal choice rooted in the places and people that have helped me navigate some big faith questions and I share them gladly with anyone seeking to make a spiritual connection with the landscape and history of the places where we live. 

Psalm 23

The Spirit of God is my mother

She makes me lie down in freshly laundered sheets

She leads me through the rooms of our house

We call it home and feel at peace

The shadow part of me holds less fear

For she has been my comfort and is teaching me to comfort myself

At the end of the day we meet at the table to eat

We shut the door on our enemies

Leaving them out in the cold

We raise a full glass and quietly toast

The days of our lives

And the places where we live

The beauty of our souls

For ever

The Name of Flowers

Yesterday we went in search of the sea. Lucy wanted real waves and we drove into Wales. Just a few miles over the border we realised that travel restrictions in Wales are still quite strict and so we turned around and headed home. We spent the day exploring the Wirral; views of the Welsh mountains, river estuary, unspoilt saltmarsh, sand and waves. We watched rain clouds roll in off the sea following the path of the river. We spent an hour watching the tide come in very slowly, then in a few short minutes we watched waters pour onto the beach swallowing up the sand banks like a flood.

There is a moment when the landscape you are in meets the fall of the day and a certain shift in the light meets the longing of your heart. In that moment beauty comes as a gift. You can’t plan for these times. Nature is her own master. All you can do is get out as much as possible and be in the places where gifted moments might (or might not) come.  

Of late I’ve been overwhelmed with decisions. I don’t mean big, well-defined decisions with concrete and time specific outcomes. I mean the simple human decisions like; how do I make a life? There’s no shortage of information and it’s being fired at me all day long. If more information was what I needed I’d already have the answers. Computer turned off and phone in airplane mode I make the radical decision to listen to my own heart and trust the things she has to say. I don’t need another guru. Turns out I need less information not more.

This is why I keep on walking the paths of my own little patch. When I get to the end of my road the shrubs that the builders planted, thin out and the wild things begin. There’s a margin of trees between the hedge and the road and blackbirds have been nesting there. This morning there was a fledgling on the path. Wing feathers perfectly formed but around the heads and the breast still fluffy like something from the nest. She had no fear of me and I stood close enough to touch her, close enough for her to look me in the eye.  I wasn’t expected and it came as a gift. There’s a fox who hunt these meadows and a hare that fast-runs the edges of the fields. Some evening a barn owl will quietly quarter the long grass looking for prey. Some days you get to see these things but other days you don’t. Some days you’re left to keep company with the wind in the grass and the flowers that grow between. 

Last night I walked the path at the end of the day. I paused in the shelter of the oak tree to watch the birds and again by the ditch, swallows overhead. There was no owl hunting over the meadow but spikes of flowers rose magnificent from the bank and tiny blooms in yellow and white huddled at my feet. No one teaches you what to do when such beauty comes. There are no rules, no set words, no liturgical actions just the raising up of the heart in response to the moment that will be gone before a word is said. 

On an evening like this the names are a prayer; rosebay willow herb, viper’s bugloss, thistle, stitchwort, hog weed and rose. 

Thin Places

The Celts said that heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in thin places the gap is even smaller.

Holy places and pilgrimages are a form of embodied spirituality that was once an ordinary part of what it meant to be a Christian. The British landscape is full of clues to where these places once stood. Ancient churches and abbeys are easy to find from books and maps but there are also, rock features, freshwater springs, ancient trees and woodland clearings that were hallowed as thin places, often long before Christianity came to these isles. Many early Christians lived in the wildest of places, like hermits in the desert. They were often drawn to places in the landscape that were already deemed holy. Pilgrims would travel to seek the prayers and advice of the holy men and women who lived in these places. I don’t know if the place becomes thin because people prayed there, or whether the places were already thin and so people came and prayed, but I do think we can benefit from making the connection between the act of being present in a place and the spiritual gift of receiving from God.

In late January of this year, I drove down to Wales in search of Melangell, an ancient Welsh saint, and a shrine church that bore her name deep in the Berwyn mountains.

Melangell was a sixth century hermit, who lived at the time of Columba and Aiden. The story tells of how a Welsh prince came upon her in a dense thicket whist out hunting hares. She had allowed the hunted animals to hide beneath her skirts and was fiercely defending them against the men and dogs. The Prince was so impressed with her bravery and her holiness that he bequeathed her a piece of land where she established a monastic community. At some time after her death this site became a place of pilgrimage and a shrine was built. 

Long before you reach the hamlet of Pennant Melangell the road becomes a track and the wild countryside on either side threatens to swallow her up. The rise and fall of the track eventually levels along a valley bottom and the mountains seem to have opened up to let you through. Here, the trees grow crouched to the ground, their solace against bad weather and quiet sheep graze on long uncut grass.

When I pull up in front of the church the clouds are rolling in behind me and it has started to rain. The slate sign for the church is carved with a hare and the path under the lychgate is strewn with snowdrops. This place is very remote and the distance it puts between me and my everyday life is part of the peace that it brings. The singular act of leaving home and coming here is almost enough to bring the stillness which I seek. 

I approach. The old wooden door is heavy and the air inside the church is thick, drawing just a little light from small windows cut into the deep stone walls. There’s an ancient carved rood screen and a floor of cobbled flags, more carved hares and some icons showing scenes from the life of Melangell. At the centre of the church behind a tiny altar set with fresh flowers is the shrine, the place where medieval and more recent pilgrims come to make their prayers. Maybe they ask Saint Melangell to pray for them or maybe they just breath in the sense of God and hope he hears.  I stay a while and read some of the prayers that visitors have left.

I love it inside that small church but the sense of thinness that I’m looking for is more palpable outside under that stormy sky. Later, walking round the bronze age circle of a  graveyard, I make my prayers. There are five ancient yews and each time I stop by a tree I pray. I walk, I listen, I pray. Up on the hillside the wind moves amongst the trees and a flock of geese graze amongst the bracken. I won’t come here again for a long time, but I will hold within me something of what is happening in me as I walk.  

Travelling home I think of how some people experience the whole of their life as if it were a thin place, but most of us have to try a little harder. A pilgrimage like the one I made to Pennant Melangell is a privilege, a once in a lifetime occasion.  Back at home I walk the lanes, woodland paths and a small stretch of local beach. I notice how these places speak to my soul. I’m listing to the ancient wisdom and I’m listening to the moments that are present to me now. I’m hearing how each generation and each person has a call to make the most of the places that they love, always watching and listening for the possibility of something thin; the ever-present hope of finding God a little less than three feet from where I walk.  

The Peace of Wild Things

At the half-way point is a place in the trees, cathedral-quiet and paved with ferns. Two hundred foxglove spires announce its presence and the slow bees move from flower to flower.

If silence had a face this is what she would look like: these patches of dark, these stripes of silver birch holding the light in their spindle branch hands. A little birdsong and some stirring on the breeze, what stops me on the path now, stops me, heart and mind.

Long before Christianity arrived in Ireland the Celtic people had a name for places where this world and the next merged into one. They called them thin places. The belief in thin places was embraced by the first Christians who understood how God meets us in the created world.  In a thin place heaven is very close and the light by which we see is not beyond our reach. 

I put on my shoes, grab my coat and take the binoculars from the hook by the door. I used to find the place I lived too tame for such encounters, but I’ve been making my lockdown walk a stone’s throw from my own front door and I’ve changed my mind. The place where I live is not as mild as I thought. I only need to attend more carefully, more regularly; to walk more intentionally. 

All good naturalists have something they call “my patch” and most of us learn about this from reading their books. But there’s no reason why we shouldn’t try a little bit of the work of a naturalist for ourselves. The naturalist’s patch is a short walk from the front door, and she makes it her own by tramping its byways everyday of her life for years and then decades. Through four seasons of the year, through storms that fell trees and cold snaps that close roads, through rainstorms that fill the rivers until they burst, and all the fields are awash with floods. 

The work is not to farm the land, or police the land or manage the land. Her relationship to the land is not primarily scientist, though some science may be involved. The work is simply to observe and to do it over time. The work is to pay attention. It’s something we can all learn to do.

I walk my new patch: one short mile, a circular route along a field bordered with trees. Plants come into bud. They flower. They seed. Their foliage falls back to the ground. The black bird sings high in a tree, but I do not know if the brood she feeds will fledge and survive, to inhabit these trees with more lyrical song. I stand very still in the cover of a tree and simply wait. I sit very still on the edge of a ditch and watch for ripple on the surface of the darkening water and count the flies. 

The Psalmists used images of place to create a picture of the human heart: green pastures for rest, still waters for peace and the valley of the shadow of death. I am taking myself to the places that the Psalmist made with his words. I am learning stillness from the stillness I find in the small glade of trees beyond the ditch. I realise how I didn’t even know what stillness was until I’d spend more than a moment staring at the water in the ditch, letting my eyes rest on every texture and tone. I am learning the blessing of green things amongst the flowering grasses in the roadside verge. I didn’t even know that green could calm the nerves until I’d watched the changing hues on poplar, beech and ash, throwing back such verdant light as the wind moved through the leaves. 

I am making a landscape and a soulscape as I walk.  

Later I will light a candle and sit down to pray and maybe my mind will be running with thoughts. Broken to pieces by the pain of the day and all her surfaces messy with strife, I will wait like the guardian of a deep-water pool. Scattered and restless, wearied by anxious thoughts I will count the flowers of the meadow and remember the bees. I will imagine my soul as an acre of English landscape, I will visualise the circuit I walk, and in the quietness, I’ll walk it again to see what words it has to gift to me, what lessons to lighten the day. I will let it take me to the peace of the place and I will ponder these things in my heart.

*The title of this piece is taken from the Wendell Berry poem of the same name.