Glory be to God for dappled things

When growing up, our garden consisted of a hybrid combination of grass and concrete which, in the most simplistic of ways provided an all-weather pitch for me and my brothers to play football, irritating the neighbours when our ball ended up in their lettuce patch or among their roses.  Most of the time, we’d sneak across the fence without them knowing, although sometimes we got caught.

For some weeks, the concrete was chalked with lines and marks for starting practice for sprinting.  Left toes to chalk line, right toes, half a measured foot in, against the arch of my left foot. Left knee lowered to right heel, resting on the concrete, clenched fist apart. Thumbs extended, stretched from each hand, resting on the line, like stilts to support my body.

Time and time again, I shot from the imaginary blocks, stopped a few yards away, with no finishing line, and then returned again and again to the starting line

On another occasion, we decided, on our own merits, to paint one of the garden walls with some white paint we’d found in the garden shed only later to discover that it was a large vat of sun tan cream my father had acquired. We waited for the wall to glow.

Our gardens are slowly taking shape – the art of patience!

St Mary’s Gardens

Considering that St Mary’s is a church building in the heart of the city, we are blessed with a fairly large footprint and outdoor space.  A large car park to the west of the building, and a garden which wraps itself around the east end to the south.  I suppose in recent years, apart from some grass cutting, it hasn’t received its due attention, and was badly in need of some work, particularly since it’s the main public façade for the community and all who pass by.

Cost and time are often the obstacles to such a feat.  A few years ago, we began carving out some shape to create a Wild Side.  We had a few volunteer sessions, the RSPB helped out, and we took advantage of Good Gym who helped to lop back overgrowth and pack a skip.

Lockdown, and the few the summer months of relaxation of restrictions provided an opportunity for a few people to move in, with no great master plan, no wonderfully worked out idea of what we were doing.  In one sense, the gardens seemed to be telling us what it wanted, and what was possible.

Tackling the turf as we begun to clear an overgrown garden

Taking shape

During Lockdown, people have responded and been affected in so many different ways.  There has been the anxiety associated with waiting for restrictions to be lifted so that some parts of life can return, recognising that the way we have to live now isn’t normal at all, and shouldn’t become ‘the new normal’ a phrase that unsettles me.

A sense of impatience has gripped some and, with the impatience, a restlessness and dissatisfaction as worries set in, stress takes root.  The absence of human contact and the usual momentum of life, of sharing the same physical space and engaging with others means that, sometimes, loneliness and isolation can take their toll.

As a fairly impatient person, the gardens, for me, have taught me the need and virtue of patience, allowing nature to take its course.  Panting bulbs in the Autumn and waiting those long winter months for life to emerge.  But even more than that, there is a reminder of how just a few hours work, every now and then, can create results which begin to have a life of their own.  A project that was once in the mind and in our hands begins not only to shape itself but to shape us too.  “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth,” wrote St Paul in terms of his ministry among the Church at Corinth.

The gardens here are for the community, and whilst we have ideas of how they can benefit the wider community – with opportunities for volunteering and work, learning and exploring, meeting others, enabling people to grow close to nature and engage in a little eco therapy, helping to raise moral, improve mental health and well-being, lifting the spirits, contributing to a green and safe community, caring for the natural world of which we are a part – there is something in the gardening that also wants me to allow things to, well, take their natural course.

Glory be to God for dappled things

In the beautiful poetry of Genesis we see a paradise place, a garden in Eden, beautiful, perfect, with human beings given responsibility as stewards of the whole of Creation, a responsibility we have ruined at time.  They, too, have been given authority to name the creatures with which they share the world.  My childhood days of fascination with nature, remerges.  I can spot some of the birds that I knew as a boy, and have learned to identify others, seeing them only because I choose to look.  “Glory be to God for dappled things,” wrote Gerard Manley Hopkins in his poem, Pied Beauty, “For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow |  For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim; | Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wing”

Sometimes, we may feel as if we are only ever starting, and we never get close to the finishing line which seems too far away.  We go back, again and again, to begin again, or at least to try to begin.  Lockdown has, in so many ways, been unable to show us a finishing line, or make it easy to plan too much for the future.

In some ways, for some, life has slowed down.  There is a void waiting to be filled.  For some, this lull has allowed other things to be appreciated, valued, loved, like  being alert to the wonder around us, the power of the natural world, of God’s Creation.  Before, maybe, we were just too busy, too brash.

My childhood gardens where we once kicked a ball, are now awash with colour as my father in his retirement has taken to gardening and transformed the back garden of the sometime Council house with flowers and shrubs and a lawn that does not have the scuffed marks of free kicks and tackles. The sun-tan lotioned wall has long been dismantled.  Every environment changes over time, and we all have a part to play in the shaping of our community, to realise the dreams which sometimes lie in the mind or in our hands, and if let go, can have a life of their own.

“Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)” continues Gerard Many Hopkins, “With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim; | He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change: | Praise him.”

Near or far away

‘Giving Up’ and ‘Giving Out’ are two important parts of Lent as we take up self-denial and works of charity. Along our Lenten journey at St Mary’s, we support women like Faith who is on the frontline of Climate Change and, through Christian Aid, has green fields and a hopeful future.

Each year at St Mary’s we pledge to give away at least 5% of our direct income to charitable causes at home and abroad.  We often excel this pledge by a substantial amount.  In 2019, for example, we gave away 15.5 % and even in the difficulties of the last year we still fulfilled our pledge.

Some of these charities are very close to home – for example, we recently set aside some charitable donations for the benefit of the Community in our home grown Wild Side project, and we hope that, once restrictions are lifted, we’ll be able to provide many opportunities and activities.

We have donated to the likes of Huggard, working with those who are homeless in our city, and Tiger Bay Boxing Club who do some amazing work with young people  We also give in other ways by donating food items each week to  Cardiff Foodbank and toiletry and other items for refugees, and for those who are homeless.

Looking further afield is also so important to us, and we have support a number of International Aid agencies including USPG and Christian Aid, which is our Lenten Charity this year.

Our Lenten ‘for the journey’ boxes contained many resources for Lent, including information about our Lenten Charity, and a Christian Aid offering envelope.

Despite separated by distance, we are all interconnected. The things we do and the way we live here can and does have an affect on people thousands of miles away.  Poorer communities in the world are often the ones most impacted by Climate Change, and the work that Christian Aid is doing in certain communities, is about helping people to support those on the frontline of the climate crisis – like Faith, for example.  Here’s her story which you can read more about on the Christian Aid Website:

Faith’s fields used to be dirt and dust. Ongoing drought in Kenya meant next to nothing grew. Water was scarce. Droughts are now more frequent and more intense there due to the climate crisis.  Without water Faith and her husband Steven couldn’t grow crops. Without crops they didn’t have enough to eat or sell. Hunger was a reality. Sending their children to school an impossibility.

People living in poverty are on the frontline of this climate crisis. They are losing food, water, homes and family. Every day, they walk further, dig deeper and build stronger to survive. They battle the worst of a crisis they did not create. This is unjust. But a better way is possible. This Lent and Easter we stand together with those on the frontline, like Faith, to fight for justice. Together we can stop this climate crisis.

But now Faith grows crops that are lush and green thanks to a nearby dam. 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.

The dam gives Faith’s community resilience in times of drought. 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.

Faith said: ‘The sand dam has made me and my family happy because when it was not there, I was not able to plant anything. Now we can plant vegetables and water our trees. I hope that by the time my children grow I will have done a lot of things. I’ll do my best to educate my children and my children will be what they want to be when they grow up.’

“The weather has changed because when I was young, there was a lot of rain and food was plenty. Today the rains are very poor. There was also a lot of     livestock and today there are very few.”


Drought still remains a threat to Faith as the climate remains uncertain and unpredictable. It is unjust that people like Faith are battling the worst of a climate crisis they did not create. But for now, she at least has the tools she needs to adapt. With the dam, her fields stay green and her family has a hopeful future.” (Check out the full story here)

And so, towards the end of Lent, we will gather up the fruits of self deinal and charitable giving, and present them at the Mass on Maundy Thursday as we respond to Jesus’ Mandatum, to love one another as he has loved us.

Whilst COVID restrictions means that we cant include the ritual Washing of Feet at the Maundy Thursday Mass, our call to loving service remains

In the Diocese of Llandaff, Bishop June has also been encouraging people to partner with Christian Aid, giving thanks for their COVID vaccination. She says, “My hope is that people will give generously to the work of Christian Aid from a place of thanksgiving and a desire to see all people being able to live safely. Whether people can give just a few pounds or a much larger sum, it will be an opportunity to share hope and love with our brothers and sisters across the world who do not have the benefits we have.” You can read more here

We’re a few weeks into Lent and, by now, many of us may have been tempted to give up on ‘Giving Up.’ Whilst life may be difficult for us, we know we can make a real difference to people living, however near or far away.

Super Steff

Steffan is raising funds for Marie Curie in memory of his Taid, Fr Graham Francis

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.

Fr Graham in Walsingham just a few years ago

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 with his dad, Illtyd, on one of his runs

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 Steff on his challenge then you can visit his fundraising page here and where you can also track his progress each day!

Ransomed Earth

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.

The wood chippings and logs from our pollarded trees cover the area next to be developed in our gardens

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.

The snowdrops of St Mary’s push their way through the earth

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!

Entertaining Angels

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.

The apse at St Mary’s Church where angels abound

Whatever’s there

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.

Photo by Lisa Fotios on


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. 

The angel of the Lord brought tidings to Mary. The Tabernacle at St Mary’s Church

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

Beginning with beads

The Holy House of the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham where the rosary is prayed each day

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.

We’ve included a rosary and a book of Meditations on the Mysteries in our Lenten Resource box, ‘for the journey’

The 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 Cross we 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.