The beginning of a pilgrimage: cycling the length of Wales

The author en route

The author en route

It’s natural to ask anyone who claims they are on a pilgrimage `where are you going?’. It’s also natural to ask `where do you come from?’ or `where is your home?’. A pilgrimage is, after all, a journey from the everyday world to a special or sacred place and back again. The pilgrim usually hopes to have gained something from the sacred place that will enrich their life when they return to the everyday world. The one important exception to this is ourselves, as members of the Church, on pilgrimage towards the Kingdom of God. When the destination is reached, there is no return in question. But on pilgrimage in this life, return is the norm.

In reflecting on my bicycle pilgrimage to join the Holywell Community, a few possible answers to these questions came to mind. One option is to think of myself as going to a series of sacred sites from one home, Sheffield, and `returning’ to a new home in Abergavenny. This way of thinking has some advantages. For one thing, it means my pilgrimage is completed. For another thing, I can point to obvious places and acts in those places: sitting in various churches, praying offices, lighting candles, reading about and praying for the intercession of the relevant saints for success in the coming year.

The other option is to think of this pilgrimage as only just beginning. Unlike in a traditional community, members of the Holywell Community do not make life commitments. It is designed for people to take time out to explore their next steps. It is itself a kind of sacred place to which people come, leave behind their everyday lives, and then return, hopefully changed. My pilgrimage is then, I prefer to think, to the Holywell Community and to a year of Benedictine work and prayer. The sites I visited on the way were then a preparation for my arrival.

Enough theory. I’d like to share some highlights of my journey through Wales. The initial plan had been to ride all the way from Sheffield. Unfortunately, I had to settle for a train to Bangor for the first leg of the journey. So, at about 5pm on the 3rd of August, I set out from the Bangor train station. I thought I’d begin by going in the wrong direction and visiting Holyhead and the site of St Cybi’s monastery there (at St Cybi’s parish church). By about 8pm, the clouds were descending fast and the light was gone. Worried that I’d be thrown off my bike by oncoming traffic, I knocked on a farmhouse around 20 miles into my ride and asked if I could camp in some woods on their property. After negotiating the placement of my camping hammock with some nearby cows, I heated up a can of beans and veg sausages and climbed into my sleeping bag for my first night outdoors.

Heading to Bangor

Heading to Bangor

I was anxious not to overstay my welcome in the woods, but not so anxious that I skipped the chance to cook myself some porridge and brew some coffee in a small moka pot (a vital camping supply). I set out around 8am and arrived in Holyhead around 9:30. Luckily, St Cybi’s were having a coffee morning and choir practice so I could have a look around and briefly pray in the Lady Chapel. I spent some time chatting with the local congregation, who sent me on my way filled with coffee and biscuits and with their good wishes. I spent some time on the beach and then left at around 1pm.

On my way back to Bangor, I came across the church of St. Peulan (looked after by Friends of Friendless Churches). The font (pictured) was particularly impressive. According to some, it was used as the altar before the Normans. I said sext from the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary. (One reason that I’m attracted to this office is its simplicity. It fits in a small, very portable, volume.) I started to really feel like I was headed for a religious community when I heard the sounds of the psalms bouncing off the walls at St Peulan’s.

For my second night, I set up at a campground a few miles south-west of Bangor. Sunday morning came. After stumbling across a coffee morning at St Cybi’s and finding St Peulan’s open, I thought I wouldn’t have any trouble finding a Eucharist to attend. Unfortunately, I failed! (That said, I spent over an hour on my phone trying to find one. To anyone listening: please, please keep up-to-date service times available online.) I passed through Caernarfon Castle and ended the day in sight of Harlech Castle at a particularly nice and friendly campsite. The view was incredible, but the climb up through Snowdonia was the hardest of the ride (with a few nasty 20% sections). The pressure caused a spoke to break in my rear wheel, which, in turn, caused the wheel to spin in an increasingly eccentric fashion over the next few days.

Sunset at Merthyr Farm

Sunset at Merthyr Farm

The next day I visited Harlech Castle (and St Tanwg’s parish church) in the morning and had another ride down the coast. I had lunch in Barmouth, which was packed due to heatwave temperatures and pushed on through Dolgellau up another few hundred meters and down through sheep, cattle, and forestry to a river-side campsite just before Machynlleth. I only realised it was the Feast of the Transfiguration once I was set up at the campsite (another pilgrimage failure).

River-side campsite

River-side campsite

A leisurely morning was spent waiting out the rain in Machynlleth. I spent a few hours in a cafe charging my phone, visited the small museum at the site of Owain Glyndŵr’s parliament during the revolt of 1400-1415, and spoke with some parishioners at St Peter’s (once St Cybi’s) cleaning up after a flower festival. One of Glyndŵr’s aims was the independence of the Church in Wales from the Church in England. So at least some of his aims have be achieved (at least, they have as far as we Anglicans are concerned). Riding out of Machynlleth in the afternoon sent me up to the highest point on National Cycle Route Eight. I then had a nice long downhill to the Llanidloes and the River Severn. Neighbouring campers seemed to take pity on the weird man alone in a hammock and fed me pizza and chips. I hope to be able to pass on this hospitality in some way as part of the Benedictine ethos of the Holywell Community.

I had a slow morning in Llanidloes. I finally found a bike shop which would consider re-tuning my rear wheel (thanks Llani Bikes!). Highlights of my wandering included the parish church of St Idloes (containing a stone arcade from Abbey Cwm Hir, a medieval Cistercian monastery) and a beautiful timber-framed market hall with a stone which Wesley stood on to preach on multiple occasions. One of the least exciting rides then followed, a short ride to Builth Wells (I tried to stop earlier, but an over-officious campsite owner refused to let me use my hammock on his site. No link for them!). Thankfully, the campsite in Builth Wells were much more accommodating. It was here I saw my first road sign for Abergavenny.

Lunch on the Wye

Lunch on the Wye

Another short ride took me to Hay-on-Wye, where I treated myself to a hotel room for the night. I managed to restrict myself to only four books. Unfinished business. The next day, on the way from Hay-on-Wye over the Gospel pass to Abergavenny, I learnt a new title of Our Lady: Our Lady of Capel-y-Ffin. This title comes from a series of apparitions claimed by members of Fr Ignatius’s monastery in Capel-y-Ffin. This title was present on icons in both in St Mary’s in Hay-on-Wye and at the small chapel of the same name in Capel-y-Ffin itself. I’ll be hearing more about this on the Fr Ignatius pilgrimage (pilgrimages within pilgrimages!) this Saturday.

St Mary the Virgin, Capel-y-Ffin

St Mary the Virgin, Capel-y-Ffin

After seven days of riding, I dropped down into Abergavenny. Soon enough, I met Fr Mark at the tithe barn, rushed to the community house for a shower, and joined in at Vespers at 4:30pm.

Were there any advantages to journeying by bike? Pilgrimages can be, and often are, made by coach or car. This is, of course, good! Many are unable to go cycling for a week and are not in any sense lesser pilgrims. One way in which a longer journey, one measured in days or weeks rather than hours, is useful is that it creates a clear psychological break between the everyday world and the destination. I found during my ride that the usual habits of thought and action associated with my life in Sheffield began to fade, being replaced with a different pattern of thoughts concerning campsites, rest stops, bodily strains, and bicycle maintenance. This space between home and destination has, I think, helped to put me in a better mental space to begin my year in Abergavenny.

A further and unnecessary selfie at Harlech Castle.

A further and unnecessary selfie at Harlech Castle.

I’d like to express my gratitude to Bishop Richard (our Episcopal Visitor), Bishop Dominic (who commissioned us in Bishop Richard’s place), Fr Mark (the Prior), Fr Tom (the Sub Prior), Br Seb, previous members of the Holywell Community, and everyone else I’ve met since arriving in Abergavenny. The welcome I have received has been very special to me and I thank you all for it. I’d also like to say how sad I was to leave Sheffield. I’ll miss the many friends I made there in both the university and at St Matthew’s Carver Street. I tended to keep church and non-church spheres quite separate in Sheffield. That will not be possible this year as I wander around Abergavenny wearing the community’s habit.

Finally, a litany of Welsh saints that I came across on my ride:
St Cybi, ora pro nobis
St Peulan, ora pro nobis
St Tanwg, ora pro nobis
St Idloes, ora pro nobis
St Curig, ora pro nobis
St Gwrthwl, ora pro nobis
St Cynog, ora pro nobis

– Br Josh

Community goes on retreat to 1000 year old Benedictine Abbey

The new Community will next week travel to Buckfast Abbey in Devon for its Inaugural Retreat.

The Abbey which is well known to the Holywell Community is this year celebrating its Millennium, founded as it was in 1018 by King Canute. Our Prior joined the Buckfast Community for their special celebrations last month on the Feast of St Benedict.

The Community will stay in Avila Cottage in the Abbey grounds and join the monks for their offices.

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Avila

From Monday, August 20 to the Thursday no offices will be said at the Priory Church in Abergavenny.

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Abbey’s West end

New Lay Members Commissioned, as Holywell Community enters its Fifth Year.

Bishop Dominic’s Address

Speaking at the Commissioning of Br. Seb  and Br. Josh  today, Bishop Dominic Walker OGS said: “We are not here to build our own kingdom but the kingdom of God”.

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Bishop Dominic (2nd right) with the Community and the Archdeacon of Monmouth (right)

“St Benedict knows what builds and what destroys communities and that applies to parishes as well as monasteries and I would hope that with its historic Benedictine roots and the presence of the Holywell Community, that the congregation as well as the Community will be Benedictine in spirit. Benedict taught that learning to listen – to listen to God and one another is at the heart of Christian life and the longest Chapter in the Rule is about following the path that leads to humility”.

Sermon in Full here.

Who are the new members?

Br Josh  comes to us from Sheffield. A native of Christchurch New Zealand, Josh has just completed his PhD in Philosophy. Whilst in Sheffield Josh was baptised and worshipped at St Matthew’s Carver Street. He arrived by bicycle having travelled as a pilgrim through Wales to engage with the Welsh saints before undertaking his commission with the Holywell Community.

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Dr Josh Black enroute to Abergavenny

Br Sebastian comes to us from Colchester where he worships at St Michael’s Church in Thorpe-le- Soken. Sebastian recently featured in a Church of England campaign to raise awareness of living with autism and exploring vocation.

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Sebastian Sands before her left Colchester

The Prior and Sub Prior have welcomed the new lay members:

“We look forward to our Community life together and we hope that you will join us in affording them a warm welcome along with your support, encouragement, and prayers as they journey with us in their process of discernment and seek to serve Christ amongst us.”

 

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Prior(left) and Sub Prior(right) put the finishing touches to the Induction programme

Bedrooms in the Community House named after Benedictine Saints

All four bedrooms in the Community House have now been named after four Benedictine Saints

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St Scholastica

The Sister of St Benedict, may be his twin sister.

The most commonly told story about her is that she would, once a year, go and visit her brother at a place near his abbey, and they would spend the day worshiping together and discussing sacred texts and issues.

One day they had supper and continued their conversation. When Benedict indicated it was time for him to leave, perhaps sensing the time of her death was drawing near, Scholastica asked him to stay with her for the evening so they could continue their discussions. Not wishing to break his own Rule, Benedict refused, insisting that he needed to return to his cell. At that point, Scholastica closed her hands in prayer, and after a moment, a wild storm started outside of the guest house in which they were housed. Benedict asked, “What have you done?”, to which she replied, “I asked you and you would not listen; so I asked my God and he did listen. So now go off, if you can, leave me and return to your monastery.” Benedict was unable to return to his monastery, and they spent the night in discussion.

Three days later, from his cell, he saw his sister’s soul leaving the earth and ascending to heaven in the form of a shining white dove.Benedict had her body brought to his monastery, where he caused it to be laid in the tomb which he had prepared for himself.

St Gregory

St Benedict’s Biographer.

St. Gregory the Great was the first monk to be elected pope (Gregory I, 590 to 604 AD) and a great proponent of St. Benedict’s monastic vision and avid promoter ofThe Rule. He was himself touched and moved by St. Benedict’s words and by his followers and monks who resided in Rome following the first destruction of Montecassino. St. Gregory the Great was an extremely active and influential man himself during his lifetime, having been born right around the time that St. Benedict gave birth to The Rule.

He instigated the first recorded large-scale mission from Rome to England.

St Dunstan

Abbot of the Benedictine Abbey at Glastonbury

He also served as Archbishop of Canterbury and Bishop of both London and Winchester.

Dunstan served as an important minister of state to several English kings. He was the most popular saint in England for nearly two centuries, having gained fame for the many stories of his greatness, not least among which were those concerning his famed cunning in defeating the devil.

St Placidus

A disciple of St Benedict.

Placidus was the eldest son of the patrician Tertullus. When he was about eight years old, his father placed him under the care of St. Benedict at Subiaco, to be educated.

Saint Gregory relates an account of Placidus being rescued from drowning by his fellow monk,  Saint Maurus who, at Saint Benedict’s order ran across the surface of the lake below the monastery and drew Placidus safely to shore. It appears certain that he accompanied Saint Benedict when, about 529, he removed to Monte Cassino, which was said to have been made over to him by the father of Placidus.

New Lay member set to arrive in Abergavenny ahead of their Commissioning on Sunday.

Josh Black has spotted  his first road sign for Abergavenny as he cycles through Wales to Abergavenny, while Seb arrives by a more traditional route.

The two new Lay Members will be Commissioned at a Service at 11.15am on Sunday morning. In the absence of our Episcopal Visitor the Service will be Conducted by Bishop Dominic Walker OGS, in the prescence of Sisters from the Convenat at Ty Mawr and the Archdeacon of MONMOUTH. Founder Lay Memeber, Samuel Patterson will act as Sub deacon for the Mass and the Parish NSM Curate Fr Jeff as Deacon.

The Prior, Canon Mark Soady said

“ I am very much looking forward to welcoming Seb and Josh to the Community, both have had an interesting journey – physically and metaphorically- to get to this point. It will be good to journey alongside them in the coming months. “

Sub Prior reflects on the last year

Fr Tom  reflects on his first year as Sub Prior:

Martha and Mary as Ora et Labora in the Rule of St Benedict.

St Bernard reflects on the monastic life as containing a balance of vocations which we find modelled in the Gospels by Christ’s companions at Bethany. Martha the active, and Mary the contemplative. A balance of which Thomas Merton suggests is representative of monastic perfection, and it is easy to see the character of these disciples as we seek each year to build community together.

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Mary:

In the account of Jesus teaching in Bethany in Luke 10.38-42 he tells an indignant Martha that it is Mary who has chosen the better part, ‘and it will not be taken away from her’.. Mary who takes time to sit at his feet, to rejoice in his presence and to contemplate his teachings.

One of the highlights of my first year serving the Holywell Community has been our weekly Holy Hour on a Friday evening. The words carved upon the altar in the St Benedict chapel taken from the local boy and metaphysical poet Henry Vaughan, read: ‘Thy God, thy life, Thy cure.’ Like Mary of Bethany sitting at his feet ‘God works in us while we rest in him’: the words of the 12th Century Benedictine Peter of Celles.

Sometimes we pray on our own as a Community. Sometimes we are joined by friends and strangers. Recently we were blessed to find that during adoration the Priory had been visited with a coach load of tourists who had all joined us in quiet prayer.

Our visitors over the period of the ‘Thy Kingdom Come’ initiative, were able to follow a specially devised prayer trail leading people to engage at their own pace over the ten days between Ascension and Pentecost with a journey of Christian initiation around the church from the font to the tabernacle.

 

Martha:

 

Whilst the contemplation Mary embodies is a vocation within monasticism in and of itself, the Rule, like the home of Bethany, ensures balance between Ora et Labora: Prayer and Work. Martha must accompany her sister Mary.

When we think of Martha, the first thing that springs to mind is probably that great Benedictine principal of hospitality. It is after all Martha who keeps the house, opens her home to Jesus and is busily ‘distracted by all the preparations that are to be made’.

Hospitality is central to our mission as a Community, whether it is the way we practice hospitality to one another at our weekly ‘family’ meal, or welcoming new families to our toddler group and All age Eucharist. It could be welcoming those who come to use our church buildings or conference centre, reaching out to the Syrian refugee families living amongst us, or welcoming those who come as individuals to discern where God might be calling them. We have also been greatly enriched in our teaching by welcoming a wide variety of guest preachers for an Advent series on the Sacraments, and a Lenten series on the Benedictine Life.

Recently we were able to host members of other churches who joined us on a discipleship course to nurture new Christians, and we are looking at ways to take that forward. Currently we are planning redecoration and maintenance work on the Community house as we look forward to welcoming our new members in a few weeks’ time.