Some phrases from the Apostle James in the New Testament and Jesus in Mark’s Gospel, and the experience of a very recent crossing to Bardsey Island, at the end of the Lleyn Peninsula in North Wales, have been very much in my mind and on my heart as September comes to a close. “Draw near to God and he will draw near to you” and “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all...........Whoever welcomes a little child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me” (James Chapter 3 and Mark Chapter 9).
Simple, straightforward and very clear – no beating about the bush but.......as is so often the case, easier said than done! Over the course of the Church’s year and calendar we remember and celebrate countless people – saints – who have all tried, over the centuries and in their own individual and particular (and sometime peculiar) ways to draw near to God, to be last of all and servant of all and who had welcomed all in Jesus’ name. In one week in September the Church’s calendar included a 5<sup>th</sup> Century teacher of the faith John Chrysostom, a 3<sup>rd</sup> Century bishop and martyr Cyprian of Carthage, a 5<sup>th</sup> Century Bishop, missionary and evangelist of the Picts, Ninian, a 19<sup>th</sup> Century Anglican reformer and teacher Edward Pusey and the celebrated German abbess and music maker from the 12<sup>th</sup> Century Hildegard of Bingen. Quite an array, and of course we need to add to them the millions of “ordinary” Christian women, men and children who were also practising and witnessing to their faith in their own different ways and times and places.
Thinking about the “company of saints and the great cloud of witnesses” I finally finished the North Wales Pilgrims’ Way on 16<sup>th</sup> September, just over 6 years after I had started it at Basingwerk Abbey in Flintshire. I prayed at the ruins of the 13<sup>th</sup> Century Augustinian Abbey, and remembered the 6<sup>th</sup> Century Breton missionary Cadfan, who had come from Brittany to Wales and Bardsey to establish a monastery on the island. What Cadfan’s journey must have been like doesn’t bear thinking about – ours was relatively simple and straightforward (thankfully the sound between the island and the mainland was calm-ish and the waves light and the sky clear and blue) but the overall experience of boat trip and the day on the island was incredible and very profound. I will certainly be returning to Bardsey in the future - trying to draw nearer to God and reflecting on the many thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of people who over the centuries have been making the sometimes perilous crossing to the island in search of holiness and peace.
Drawing near to God isn’t just about solitude and peacefulness and holiness in a particular place however, no matter how spiritual the place happens to be – and Bardsey Island is an exceptionally holy and spiritual place. It is of course about engagement in and witness to the world, as the Apostle James makes very clear early on in his epistle, and that is the challenge for all of us, as individual Christians and as members of churches. Welcoming the stranger in our midst, welcoming the asylum seeker, welcoming the Afghan refugee family – these are all part of that engagement in and with our world, which is so broken in so many parts, and there are many different ways of doing this, including this month’s sponsored sleep out (and in) to raise funds for Afghan refugee families. As Christians, as Churches, we just have to continue praying, reflecting on and discussing the best and most effective ways for us of drawing nearer to God and to each other. And in so doing God will draw nearer to us......
May God bless each one of us in this coming month.
The Revd Alec Brown.