Steffan is no stranger to St Mary’s. When I lived in the house above the vicarage I’d often see him below with his two brothers kicking a ball around in the long vicarage garden, dreaming of Swansea City!
His grandfather or Taid was Fr Graham, my predecessor here at St Mary’s, and the congregation soon got to know the whole of his family. The three children were all born during his time here as Vicar, and it was here that they were baptised. Along with his brothers, Osian and Caian, and his parents Illtyd and Nia they attended Mass here throughout the year but also joined the South Wales Pilgrimage to Walsingham each year.
The Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham was important to Fr Graham and the whole family and, for so many years, he was the organiser of the Welsh pilgrimage, responsible for hundreds of pilgrims.
Despite being diagnosed with cancer, Fr Graham managed to make two more of those pilgrimages. He died just over a year ago in January 2020 and his funeral was celebrated at St Mary’s, standing room only, every part of the funeral pre-planned by Fr Graham.
The journey to Walsingham is quite a trek across country to Norfolk, a long five to six hour coach journey. Steffan discovered the Shrine was 250 miles away.
With lovely memories of his Taid, he decided upon a fundraiser. Throughout March he would walk, run or cross train for 250 miles.
“I am trying to raise money for Marie Curie after everything they have done for my Taid,” says Steffan, aged 10 years. “I want to show how much I appreciate everything Marie Curie did to make him feel safe and comfortable at the end of his days. And I want to thank them for lots of things.”
“My Taid’s favourite place was Walsingham and we would visit every year. I found out that Walsingham is 250 miles away from their home so I hope to run, walk and cross trainer that distance in March.”
Steffan has set up a JustGiving page. “If you have any spare pennies to sponsor me I would be very grateful for your donation,” he says.
It costs £400 a day for 24 hours of care in the hospice. “My Taid was there for four days and I would really like to be able to cover the cost of the last two days of his life.” His target of £800 has already been smashed, doubled at the time of writing!
So, well done so far, Steffan! Keep walking, keep running, keep raising funds. We’re all behind you!
If you would like to support Stef on his challenge then you can visit his fundraising page here and where you can also track his progress each day!
Rejoice! It’s time for our weekly bulletin with gossip from the gardens, going for a Green Future with Christian Aid – our Lenten Charity – news of Mothering Sunday, and we’re going through the keyhole for our Sunday reflection https://sway.office.com/uZjGWEWK0wKdncis?ref=Link
St Mary’s has a bit of a Wild Side! As Spring approaches we look at Lent through Nature’s lens, and look outdoors to the beauty of God’s Creation!
The daffodils have bloomed well and, before the calendar calls for Spring, the golden flower heads are already revelling in themselves, rejoicing in their own beauty, each turned away from the other, perhaps in case they glimpse a bloom of equal loveliness, the narcissus of nature.
The bulbs were planted along the south of the church in our Wild Side last Autumn, along with crocus and snowdrops and other plants, a small gesture to help bring life to our gardens, and one aspect of many hours of work carried out by a few of us between lockdowns.
Whilst the gardens at the south side of the church have been given the main attention lately (‘Quite right,” thought the daffodils), now that some of the trees have been pollarded and the wood used to create habitats, line paths, and provide a few makeshift seats, we’re now moving forwards to the front of the church, extending our Wild Side to the face of Bute Street with a Butterfly Garden planned.
We know the importance of caring for the world – we’ve been bombarded enough by so many messages that if they haven’t yet made their impact on humanity one wonders if they ever will, and we ignore the destructive effects that humans have had and are having on nature to our peril. We know, too, that getting closer to nature can nurture and improve our physical health and mental well-being.
Soon, there will be opportunities for volunteering and activity, discovering nature, exploring the world, planting and growing, engaging with one another as we engage with the gardens, creating a community environment that is green and pleasant, and providing opportunities for people of all ages, abilities and backgrounds – the possibilities are profound!
As stewards of God’s creation, we have a duty and a privilege to care for it, to work in harmony with it. Pope Francis in his book, ‘Let us Dream,’ writes, “In the Genesis account God commands Adam and Eve to be fruitful. Humankind has a mandate to change, to build, to master creation in the positive sense of creating from it and with it. So what is to come doesn’t depend on some unseen mechanism, a future in which humanity is a passive spectacle. No: we’re protagonists, we’re – if I can stretch the world – co-creators.”
Lent is called the springtime of the Church. It is a time for growth, reflected in the re-awakening and gentle growth of the natural world. The birds of St Mary’s have been particularly vocal at the moment, and many are fleeting and flying around looking for good nesting places, or returning to the places they populated last year. Meanwhile, the bats have belted early from hibernation, skipping around the garden around their bell tower home.
In a Lenten hymn for Morning prayer, we read “Jesus the sun of ransomed earth | shed in our inmost souls thy light, as in spring days a fairer birth | heralds each morn the doom of night.”
The hymn continues, “The day is come, the accepted day | when grace, like nature, flowers anew; | trained by thy hand the surer way | rejoice we in our spring time too.”
Gardening is a slow process, requires patience and steady attention but each day brings new surprises and something different to discover. The natural world provides an image of our own life with God.
“I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth,” wrote St Paul, “So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are equal, and each shall receive his wages according to his labour. For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building.” (1 Corinthians 3:5-9)
As we await a new liberation, when restrictions are lifted we can, wherever we are – in the garden, during our daily exercise, from our window – witness the liberating power of God’s Creation, and maybe use it as an accompaniment to all that we are trying to do during Lent, the springtime of the Church.
If you’d like to find out more, or would like to be involved in the future of our Wild Side then please get in touch!
Mina giggled. She looked through the book. It was about a boy who tells magical tales that turn out to be true.‘Yeh, looks good,’ she said. ‘But what’s the red sticker for?’‘It’s for confident readers,’ I said. ‘It’s to do with reading age.’‘And what if other readers want to read it?’‘Mina,’ said her mum.‘And where would William Blake fit in?’ said Mina ‘“Tyger! Tyger! Burning bright/In the forests of the night”. Is that for the best readers or the worst readers? Does that need a good reading age?’I stared back at her. I didn’t know what to say. I wanted to get back over the wall and go home again.‘And if it was for the worst readers would the best readers not bother with it because it would be too stupid for them?’ she said.
(from Skellig by David Almond 1988, Hodder Children's Books)
And so a line from one of my favourite children’s books gives me permission to read any book I like! When I was Diocesan Youth Chaplain some years ago, I delved into young people’s literature and discovered a world of beauty and profundity.
‘After years of writing for adults,’ said David Almond, the author, ‘I found myself writing a children’s book, Skellig. It was very exciting to be suddenly writing for readers who have such flexible minds and who can consider all kinds of possibilities. I felt that I’d come home as a writer.’
Filthy and pale and dried out
When it was first published Skellig was greeted as a classic, highly acclaimed and award winning and it is a book that seems to have coloured every book he has written ever since. It is the story of Michael whose life is disturbed by a sick baby sister and a strange being he discovers in the derelict garage in the garden next to his new house.
The figure is ‘filthy and pale and dried out,’ covered in cobwebs and bluebottles, surrounded by bones and old things. ‘I thought he was dead. I couldn’t have been more wrong,’ said Michael. Skellig is an angel.
Michael’s questioning and wide eyed perplexity receives only vague and evasive answers from the strange angel he discovers lying behind the tea chest in the dirt and the dust. But as Michael wrestles with the mystery he has discovered, wondering if it is just a dream, the question of ‘Who are you?’ and ‘What are you?’ are turned on Michael and the other characters in the book – and, yes, on us too.
Michael shares his discovery with his new friend and neighbour, Mina. ‘I’ll see whatever’s there,’ is her response to Michael’s over-concern as he draws her closer to the angel he has found. Mina is used to seeing the world differently. She has a rather unconventional upbringing and education: ‘The chicks in the nest don’t need classrooms to make them fly’ she states. And as Michael questions her about her constant sketching, she responds with ‘Drawing makes you look at the world more closely.’
It is through Mina that William Blake makes an appearance in the story. ‘He painted pictures and wrote poems. Much of the time he wore no clothes. He saw angels in his garden.’ Of Skelling she says, he’s ‘the kind of thing William Blake saw. He said we were surrounded by angels and spirits. We must just open our eyes a little wider, a little harder…maybe we could all see such beings, if only we knew how to.’
And so our eyes are opened: not just to the identity of Michael’s mystery but to the presence of angels throughout the story and throughout our lives. ‘Shoulder blades are the place where our wings once were’ so the children wonder, and Michael’s nest like dreaming of his sick baby sister sees her as a young bird, an angel, willing herself to fly.
Names, too, are important in the book. Skellig, at first, is reluctant and refuses to give his name away. Michael’s parents have yet to decide on a name for his baby sister and we have to wait until the very last word of the book until it is revealed. Names are exchanged. ‘I’m Mona…you are…?’ And descriptive nicknames are given by Michael to other characters such as ‘Doctor Death’. But perhaps the biggest secret unfolds in Michael’s name. Is Almond trying to tell us something? Perhaps it is a discreet nod to the more obvious allusions that Almond makes throughout his story.
‘Pair of angels. That’s what you are,’ says Skellig to Michael and Mina as he shows gratitude for their kindness, and Mina’s mother, watching the two children sat at the table waiting anxiously for news from the hospital about his nameless baby sister, sees rather two angels sat the table.
The book is dreamlike and lyrical, beautifully written, as we see the world through the eyes of two children who are alert to the possibilities of life and its extraordinariness.
In fact, ‘extraordinary’ is Mina’s favourite word and it is woven through the story. Skellig is described as an ‘extraordinary creature’ and the word is turned on humans too. ‘We’re extraordinary,’ says Mina. Her friendship enables Michael to see the extraordinary and the heavenly and, most importantly, to be able to express and explain it. ‘Maybe this is not how we are meant to be forever,’ she says’ or perhaps we could use far more familiar language: ”What we are to be in the future has not yet been revealed’(1 John 3:2).
This story, of course, is not some theological piece about angels. It is, after all, a children’s story but the symbolism of angels enables us to look at who we are and what we are. The Christian narrative firmly places angels as heavenly beings and not something that either we once were or one day will become. However, the book enables us to see the beauty in everything around us, the extraordinariness of life and its fragility too. ‘Can love help a person to get better?’ asks Michael innocently. His searching questions express our fears and our longings too. ‘We’re still like little chicks. Happy half the time, half the time dead scared.’
As a child, Almond was nurtured as a Roman Catholic and his books abound with religious imagery and allusions. As an adult he has found himself ‘writing for readers who have such flexible minds and who can consider all kinds of possibilities.’
The presence of angels in the story of our salvation (and the way that they are colourfully portrayed in Scripture and Tradition) is often untenable and beyond our experience but surely, as Christians, we should be considering all kinds of possibilities.
We live in a realm that is both down to earth (and grounded in the realities of life) and spiritual, with our eyes set on heaven, open to the possibilities of spiritual encounters that reveal themselves in the most ordinary and unbelievable of ways. ‘We,’ says St Paul in his letter to the Philippians, ‘are citizens of heaven’ (3:20) and the writer of the letter to the Hebrews says, ‘Do not neglect to show hospitality; by doing this, some have entertained angels unawares’ (13:2). After all, angels are often interpreted as messengers.
The message of Skellig, I think, is the extraordinariness of life or, to use Mina’s own insightful words, the message may really be that ‘We are extraordinary.’ That, of course, takes some working out but there are always angels there to help us on our way. Happy reading!
This article, slightly edited, was written some years ago for a publication of Credo Cymru
My first rosary beads came from Walsingham. I wasn’t a pilgrim myself then but my mother had joined the parish pilgrimage with my older brother whilst the rest of us stayed at home. On her return she was armed with gifts which included a rosary of light blue beads for each of us along with a wood-mounted print of the Sacred Heart. It was the following year, probably towards the end of my time in primary school, that I made my first pilgrimage there.
I still have that first set of beads from my childhood days, although I’ve also owned several others since, many of which are broken now. Perhaps in prayer I’m heavy handed.
At the time, it was, for me, an unfamiliar form of prayer but there was now something new to discover!
There are many ways in which we can pray, of course. Silence and stillness is important but so too are physical forms of prayer and devotion. In a way, the rosary is both – words and imagination, stillness and gentle movement.
Threading the beads through our fingers, our bodies, hearts and minds are turned to Mary’s son and Saviour as we meditate on the mysteries of our faith, drawn deeper into Holy Scripture, drawn closer to Christ.
The rosary has a rhythm of its own, the repetitive litany of prayer provides a means of stilling our minds. There is a momentum through which we meditate on the mysteries of our faith, those moments in the life of Jesus and Mary – from the angels’ greeting to Christ’s glorious resurrection, and onto Mary’s Assumption as she shares in the first fruits of Christ’s redemptive work.
Through the rosary, we meditate upon mysteries that are joyful and sorrowful, illuminating and glorious. The concluding prayer sums up the rosary’s meaning – that ‘we may imitate what they contain and obtain what they promise.’
I began to discover this forty years ago, on that day I received my first rosary beads.
At the beginning of the rosary is a short string of five beads beginning with a cross or crucifix. These represent our preparatory prayers.
Beginning with the Sign of the Crosswe make a physical gesture, placing our trust in Christ who through his saving death and resurrection has given us life and a new future with God.
The Rosary continues with 5 groups of 10 beads arranged in a circle. Each group is divided by a larger bead. Each group of beads is called a ‘decade.’
Each particular decade represents a Mystery which inclines us to an incident in the life of Jesus.
Accompanied by Mary’s prayers, we are drawn closer to Christ, for Mary is the one through whom he comes into the world. She points us to the one who comes that we may have life in all its fullness.
At St Mary’s, we pray the rosary each Saturday morning, between Morning Prayer and Mass. We usually begin a little before 11.10am.
Some years ago, I was privileged to make pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The first six days were spent at Galilee, in a lovely hotel with tranquil grounds on the shores of the lake. The second part of pilgrimage took us to the heights of Jerusalem, a city bustling with life.
We visited so many holy places, churches and basilicas, gathered at dawn in the church of the Holy Sepulchre, the quietest time of the day, and so very different from just a few hours later when crowds gathered and queued, pushing their way to the places made sacred by Jesus.
When we made the Stations of the Cross, though, we were outdoors, walking the Via Dolorosa, a street which winds through the city and outside of the old city walls. We squeezed by busy shops, passed other pilgrim groups who projected their prayers above the noise of the crowds. We watched our steps on the cobbled paving, every now and then made wrong turns as we sought out the next Station stop, looked out for pickpockets, dealt with street traders who tried to place their wares in our hands. “If you touch, you buy,” we had been warned by the pilgrimage guide!
It’s a very different experience from the Stations of the Cross experienced in the silence and serenity of our churches, void of hustle and bustle.
The Stations of the Cross
The Stations of the Cross are fourteen or fifteen stops along a journey, each stop focussing on an incident that happened on the Via Dolorosa, from the moment Jesus is condemned to death in Pilate’s palace to the moment his body is laid in a borrowed grave.
Many churches, our own included, have various images – carvings, paintings, or sometimes a simple cross, which mark out for us the stops along the way. Some Stations have a 15th Station of the Resurrection. It completes the journey.
Most of the Stations are taken directly from the Bible, so that the Stations of the Cross are a meditation on Scripture. Through our devotions we grow closer to Jesus , enter into a deeper understanding of his sacrifice on the cross.
A personal way of the Cross
Many years ago, a parishioner of mine at the time was talking about her time on a holiday cruise when the group stopped off at Jerusalem, and her tourist trail turned into a pilgrimage one. She spoke of how moving it was to walk the Via Dolorosa, to walk those sorrowful steps of Jesus. Moments later, she was talking about her husband’s ill-health, and asked why God let it happen. “He’s a good man,” she said. “Why him?” Although she couldn’t see it, she and her husband were walking the Way of the Cross on her own life.
To make the devotional Stations of the Cross is not an activity separate from our lives. The devotion is rooted in our lives and living, in our struggles and suffering, in our sacrifice and service.
Within the peacefulness of our church buildings we make the journey in spirit, and through the journey, are able to see how The Stations of the Cross is something we often experience in our own lives. Sometimes, certain stations speak most clearly to us: perhaps because, through our own circumstances, we can relate to the particular experience of Jesus and those who feature with him on this difficult journey.
A mother of a sick or dying child may be drawn deeper into the sorrow of Mary. Someone who has a burden thrust upon them may associate with Simon of Cyrene. Someone who has lost a job, their home, their family may be drawn close to the Station when Jesus is stripped of his clothing.
We may be a far cry from the busy streets of Jerusalem but in our own hustle and bustle or when life has slowed down, we can be drawn deeper into the saving love of Christ, bring our sorrows to his sorrows, our pain to his pain, our love to his love.
Throughout Lent, we make the Stations of the Cross at St Mary’s on Tuesdays at 6.30pm. However, the Stations can be made anywhere, and we’ve produced a number of resources to help you do this.
Giving up meat during Lent has been a long held Lenten tradition because it meant giving up a luxury item. Perhaps, with cheap meat and factory farming, we have rather lost the sense that meat is a luxury. And yet it is still a good tradition to have, particularly considering the environmental impact of consuming too much meat!
In Medieval Times there were all kinds of strange ways in which some people tried to ‘pull a fast one’ on the Lenten Fast.
Gerald of Wales, in the 12th century, reported that in Germany and the Arctic regions ‘great and religious persons’ eat the tails of beavers because of its superficial resemblance to fish.
A similar thing occurred among some catholics at the time when they discovered puffins – believing they were ‘half fish!’
Some people also sought to pay a dispensation to eat such things as eggs, butter and dairy products which were forbidden during Lent.
Many churches have been built from these funds, perhaps the most famous being the ‘Butter Tower’ of Rouen Cathedral.
Activities like fasting and eating frugally through Lent and on Fridays may have receded somewhat in years gone by but they are now beginning to be adopted again by the faithful.
Such ‘external markers’ and ‘expressions’ of our faith are important. They subtly distinguish us from others and can even serve as discreet witness in the workplace or among friends and family, and provide a good talking point!
Today, of course, we aren’t encouraged to ‘pull a fast one’ when it comes to fasting, and neither do we need to pay a dispensation to build our own Butter Towers! However, our Lenten Fast can make a difference to other people’s lives.
The fasts of the rich are the feast of the poor
If we are making sacrifices during Lent, the money we would have spent can be given to others in need. This year, our Lenten Charity is Christian Aid who are working with those who feel the impact of the Climate Crisis and experiencing drought which impacts their ability to grow food, people like Faith and her husband Steven who live in Kenya.
“But now Faith grows crops that are lush and green thanks to a nearby dam,” says the Christian Aid website. “Her local community got together to build the sand dam with the support of Christian Aid’s partner ADSE. The dam gives Faith’s community resilience in times of drought. A water source like this gives people like Faith a chance to not just survive, but thrive.”
“While the rains remain irregular, a dam means that when the rain does fall the community can collect every last drop. Because there is now water in Faith’s community, there is life. Faith’s hard work and determination has transformed this resource into a future for her family.” You can find out more here
Our Lenten offerings are presented at the Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Maundy Thursday. During that celebration we receive the command by Jesus to love one another as he has loved us, a command he illustrated by washing his disciples’ feet. And so it’s appropriate, on that night, to bring our offerings for the poor and needy.
Whatever you’re giving up for Lent, or however you’ll be sharing charity, just imagine what figurative ‘butter towers’ will be built from the sacrifices you make, as we seek through the likes of Christian Aid and others to rebuild lives and whole communities, supporting others in their need, and enabling them to stand tall!
Rejoice, it’s our weekly bulletin for the first full week of Lent, with news and happenings from the parish, including our weekly programme of prayer and worship, a few articles and reflections, and congratulations to a friend and neighbour! Check it out here
Whether you look above you or around you, there are lots of things to discover about our faith in the walls of St Mary’s
Five days before his death, Jesus descends from the Mount of Olives to Jerusalem. People lay their cloaks on the ground. They cry out ‘Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!’ Some of the Pharisees call on Jesus to rebuke his disciples. “If these become silent,” he tells them, “the stones will cry out!” (Luke 19:36ff)
Closer to home, and look closer still, and you’ll discover much in the stones of St Mary’s Church, things that often get missed or overlooked but which express what we believe. They offer a colourful expression of our faith. Even if we become silent, these stones will cry out!
As we contemplate the sufferings of Jesus through Lent and Holy Week, it’s a good opportunity to explore some of these local features. In addition to the obvious symbolism of crosses and crucifixes and the Stations of the Cross, the Passion abounds in the stones of St Mary’s.
The reordering of the sanctuary at St Mary’s was completed in 1884. Look closer, and you’ll see the embossed symbols of Jesus’ Passion at the High Altar, including the pillar and the stripes, a hammer and pincers, three nails and the crown of thorns, the hyssop soaked sponge and a spear, a ladder and the soldier’s dice as they gambled for the garment worn by Jesus.
But then look higher to the curved ceiling of the apse where a scene abounds in angels, five of which lovingly hold further symbols of Jesus’ suffering.
The central figure holds the cross, whilst the other four hold Veronica’s cloth, Jesus’ garment, a spear and the crown of thorns. Even if we become silent, the stones will cry out!
Below the angels are five tondos (circular paintings) in the spaces within the arches where formerly were windows giving a borrowed light from the east windows beyond.
In these medallions are pictures representing Old Testament scenes which are used to interpret and understand the Holy Eucharist. Three of these represent the sacrificial character of the Mass: Abel offering up a lamb, Melchizedek bringing forth bread and wine, and Abraham about to slay his son. There are two other scenes: the Manna in the desert and the Paschal Lamb.
The fourteen Stations of the Cross were painted by local artist Kenneth Smitham and placed in position from 1962. The fifteenth station of the Resurrection was added later, painted by Tony Goble (b1943), just before his death in 2007. the painting was carried in front of his coffin as it was processed into Llandaff Cathedral. Although it completes the whole series of Stations, it has an integrity of its own, and is characteristically identifiable as Goble’s work, some of which can be viewed at the National Museum of Wales.
This painting is perhaps more simple than many of his others, where you’ll find a Chagall like quality to much of his work. Religious symbolism was present in much of his work which was often autobiographical in some way, as he’d paint his own character onto his canvas. Here the theme of the painting is obviously straightforward: the Resurrection of Christ.
There are dark purples and tones of light , pink hues like the rising sun, the dawning brightness. And then there’s that bird, perched, present, puzzling.
There is lots more to discover at St Mary’s, and many hidden gems which unfold the story of our faith, offering a solid witness to what we believe. Whilst we are open each day for Mass and other devotions, we are looking forward to the time when we’ll be able to welcome other visitors, and share the riches of our history, our heritage and our faith with others.
This article is featured in our Lenten Resource Box, for the journey. During Lent, we’d love to hear if the contents have proved useful in any way.