A Homily for Holy Communion on
Monday , 1st of December 2014, 11.30 a.m.
being also the Feast of Saint Andrew (translated)
for the Sisters of the Love of God (in general) and for Sister Helen Columba (in particular) on the occasion of her birthday (translated)
Fairacres Priory, Oxford
Romans 10:12-18 & Matthew 4:18-22
“How are they to hear, without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him, unless they are sent?”
+ May I speak in the name of the Divine Trinity, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, Amen.
Over quarter of a century ago, when I first came on retreat here, I noticed a book in the library of the hermitage I had been allotted. It was called “Only Connect”, by Robin Green, of whom I hadn’t heard, and with a foreword by Harry Williams, of whom I had. It was the motto of the novelist E. M. Forster, and I believe it is printed at the beginning of all his books. I was never a great fan of them, to be honest, although I returned to them with a frisson when I learnt that a new friend of mine had met him when she was an undergraduate at Cambridge. I suppose you could say, now there was a connexion (although she did say he was a dry old stick, and clearly didn’t like girls much; no real surprises there).
Back then I was young and foolish – kindly folk would say these days “younger, but otherwise unchanged” – and thought the whole point of life was to live it with a bang, too young to know that you’ve got away with it, if it goes with a quiet splosh, so “only connect” seemed a rather tame little motto to me. I have learnt better.
Saint Andrew’s story in the Scriptures is rather scant. We know he was Simon Peter’s brother, a fellow fisherman, and according to Saint John’s Gospel, he was the one to bring Jesus to Simon Peter’s attention, who assisted at the feeding of the multitude, and conveyed the curiosity of the Gentiles. Andrew was something of a sidekick. The theme returns in his legend, too. His remains were taken from Patras in Greece to Constantinople to fortify the claims of that great patriarchate against those of Rome – “you’ve got Peter, but we’ve got his big brother!” - and then when the Crusades failed, they were dismembered and his body was taken to Amalfi, south of Naples in Italy, and his head to Rome. My great-grannie came from the next town but three to Amalfi, and Rome is the only place in Italy I have ever visited. Only connect. In 1964, the head was finally returned by Pope Paul VI to Patras, from which it had originally been nicked. I suppose you might say that was a sort of re-connect.
In the 8th century, his relics had a northern European tour, including a stay at the city now named after him in Scotland. It’s a place of which I am very fond, not for the usual reasons, which seem to be either the university, the Duchess of Cambridge, or golf, but because it’s where I saw a dipper. This might not be something you’ve heard of, except in the fairground, but a dipper is a small bird which does what it says on the tin – as it flies, it dips. It’s a humdrum little thing, really, about the size of a robin, that frequents coastal areas. I’d seen the dipping diagram in a book years before, so when I saw it, I knew, and rather thrilling it was, too. Only connect. It was partly by virtue of that reliquary visit, and his later hoisting to the Celtic flag at the Synod of Whitby, because they felt they needed a bigger saint than Columba to wave against Saint Peter of Rome, that Andrew became Scotland’s patron. In a similar way, he became Russia’s too – and also the patron of Ukraine, Romania and Barbados, and cities in Italy, Malta, Greece, and the Philippines. With Scotland, Russia, and Ukraine, What a busy year Saint Andrew must have had.
In the late 19th century a Scottish missionary went out to the Holy Land and built a hospital and a chapel. I chanced on this unexpected place during my only visit to Palestine, in 1996. We were in Tiberias, on the Sea of Galilee, and soaking up the sheer wonder of it – “and did those feet, in ancient time?” asked William Blake. Well, no, not in Somerset they didn't, but in Galilee, they jolly well did. And so, in 1996, did we, from Romford. The others were off doing something worthy, or in a bar, and I came across this little Church of Scotland chapel of Saint Andrew. Compared to all the other religious nonsense I’d seen so far, it was a breath of fresh air – Spartan, clean, unpretentious, holy in its simplicity. The only colour in the place was a few paintings which a student had given for his lodging, when he had no money. What galleries might the church have now, if the five thousand had repaid Saint Andrew in kind for the small boy’s loaves and fishes! Perhaps the church has always been repaid in kind, somehow or other, and we, poor chumps, haven’t noticed, haven’t made the connexion.
It was on a journey back from St Andrew’s and Edinburgh that I met a woman on a train with whom I got talking. “Oh, if you live in Oxford you MUST visit Fairacres” she said. She seemed to know what she was talking about, so I sent a rather peculiar letter to the convent, and was invited to come to meet one of the sisters, and here we are today. Only connect.
Saint Andrew is remembered principally as Peter’s brother. But if Saint John’s account is to be believed, Peter only came to meet Jesus through him. He was the point of connexion. And he is remembered for his cross – which flies from the steeple at my neighbourhood church in Old Headington – a cross which is also a point of connexion. The details of his own martyrdom may owe more to legend than history, but at their root they link him to that other cross, which I learnt in this place, is the point of connexion between between God and man, between heaven and earth, between time and eternity.
“Only connect” turns out to be a rather more powerful motto than I had thought, those long years ago.
For Saint Andrew, and for all those who have been our connexions to heaven, through love and wonder, thank you, God.