Joy of All Who Sorrow

Homily on the Sunday of All the Saints of the British Isles

[Romans 5:1-10 / Matthew 6:22-33]

Dear Fathers, brothers and sisters: Spraznecom! Happy Feast!

Today is an especially joyful feast for us here today as on this Sunday we celebrate all the saints who have shone forth in our land, here in England and the whole archipelago of islands that make up collectively the British Isles. Although the Orthodox Church seems a relatively new addition to the religious landscape of this country, and may come to us in a variety of colourful, exotic and foreign forms be it Russian, Greek, Serbian or Romanian – we must never forget that our Orthodox Faith far from being new was brought by the Apostles themselves and flourished here for more than a thousand years. Go back far enough into the religious roots, the spiritual psyche of our land and you will find holy Orthodoxy. Thus, in the Greek Menaion we know that St Aristobulus came to Britain as its first bishop and was martyred here. There is also an ancient and entirely plausible tradition that after honourably burying the Lord and witnessing His holy resurrection, St Joseph of Arimathea came to Britain and founded the first and ancient Church at Glastonbury. After the Apostles, throughout the time of Roman Britain, we know that there were small Romano-British churches throughout the land and it was during the Diocletian persecution of the late 3rd and early 4th century that St Alban was martyred becoming our Protomartyr. The drops of blood of the martyrs has always been – in Tertulian’s famous phrase – the seed of the Church, and from their sacrifice the Church in these islands grew and grew. Two beautiful and complimentary Orthodox Spiritual Traditions were added to the rich tapestry of the Church, first in the Western and Northern parts of these isles, in the emerald green bogs of Ireland, the majestic hills of Wales and the rocky coasts of Scotland was born the Celtic tradition of sanctity which saw such luminaries as Sts Ninian, David, Patrick, Bridget, Columba, Aidan and for us in East Anglia – St Fursey. Complimentary with this in the South, Midlands, North and East of England we saw the birth of the Anglo-Saxon Tradition of sanctity and such luminaries as Sts Augustine, Cuthbert, Bede, Botolph, Edmund, Etheldreda. Together these two complimentary spiritual families filled up our lands with such a great host of saints, that as we see in our Ikon of the Feast, there is barely an inch of ground that has not been sanctified by the blood, sweat or tears of one or other of our beloved British saints.

Reflecting on our commemoration last week of All the Saints of the Ancient Russian Land, the land of Rus, there is something deeply mysterious about the fact that at just the point that Orthodoxy was forced out of this land by the Roman Catholic Norman invaders – carrying the Papal standard with them into Battle with the Orthodox Anglo Saxons at Hastings – the flame of the holy Orthodoxy was passed from Orthodox England to Orthodox Rus. The flame of Orthodoxy passed to Rus at the time of our persecution under the Norman yoke and it was then under the Bolshevik persecution in the twentieth century that the light of Orthodoxy was again returned back to these Isles with added momentum and zeal through the hundreds of thousands of Russian emigres who fled their homeland.

As our beloved Vladyka St John the Wonderworker said in his homily on the ‘The Russian Diaspora’

… in chastising, the Lord at the same time also shows the Russian people the way to salvation by making it a preacher of Orthodoxy in the whole world. The Russian Diaspora has made all the ends of the world familiar with Orthodoxy, for the mass of Russia, exiles for the most part, is unconsciously a preacher of Orthodox). Everywhere that Russians live there are built small exile churches, or even magnificent churches and often there are services in buildings which have been adapted for this purpose.

Indeed, it was particularly through our Russian Church Abroad under the influence of St John (Maximovic), that these Russian Emigres not only transmitted back to these isles the authentic, Apostolic Christian faith, but also, came with an interest in venerating the ancient saints of these lands. With the blessing of St John and later, Archbishop Nikodim, an openness and encouragement to research the lives of the ancient saints of the First Milennium was given, and it was in this period that Father Mark Meyrick together with Brother Leon Liddament established the St Seraphim Brotherhood and the ikon studio in Walsingham. Through their labours, together with the wider St Seraphim Brotherhood, as well of course as Dcn Andrew and the St George Information Service in this country as well as Reader Isaac / Father Joseph (Lambertson) in America, that hundreds of ikons to the British saints were written together with troparia, canons, services and akathists. This enabled the divine services to be conducted incorporating for the first time in over a thousand years hymns to the British saints.   

However, dear fathers, brothers and sisters, it is important that we do not get the impression that all the work in reviving the Orthodox veneration and devotion to the ancient saints of these lands has been completed, is finished and done. Undoing the damage and desecration of the godless “reformers” and five hundred years of neglect is not going to be completed so easily and so quickly. We need now to build upon the foundations that have been laid for us by the previous generation of Orthodox Christian here in this country. So, what can we do to increase the veneration of our local saints who have shone forth in the British Isles?

First, we need to do all we can to learn about their lives. This too is not simple. Again, due to the ravages of the Reformation, so many of the lives of the saints, particularly the most ancient ones have been lost or destroyed. We need to take time and effort to read different sources and authoritative guides on the subject.

Second, we need to go to the places associated with the saints, find the places where they laboured for Christ, where they shed their blood for Christ. With the summer now suddenly upon us, and the holidays approaching, this is a great time, not only to think of different resorts, themeparks and attractions to visit with your children, but also, to search out the churches, shrines, ruins, caves and wells associated with the saints. But here you must also be prepared. If you go to Canterbury, Iona, Lindisfarne, Whithorn or Glastonbury you won’t find everything prepared, signposted and set up for Orthodox veneration of the saints. You may find a statue of the saint, or maybe an information board, but in many of these places you will not find the “normal” things that Orthodox Christians would expect to find in the Shrine of saints – candlestands, ikons and relics. Sadly, you may also see strange and even blasphemous things now in these places. It is thus vital that you come to these holy places prepared, having taken time and effort to learn the life of the saint, having found a troparion of the saint to read and, if possible, found an ikon of the saint that we can take and pray in front of with our families. Making this kind of preparation will then make our experience of these holy places, deeper and more spiritually fulfilling and crucially will enable us to form a prayerful relationship with the saint. It is after going on pilgrimage to these holy places, having blessed our ikons on the saints relics or the place where they laboured that enables us to build spiritual friendship with the ancient British saints and for us to come close to them. Despite the time that separates us, and the apostasy and sacrilege of the intervening years, we can then feel the warmth of their prayers and presence in our lives as we turn to them as our spiritual ancestors through all the struggles and difficulties of our lives.

So, dear ones, there is much to do: many of the local saints are still without worthy Orthodox ikons, authentic lives, many are still without troparia, canons and services. We should not imagine that this work will happen somehow magically. We should ask ourselves: what have I done to honour the saints of this land and to spread their veneration?

All this holy work, should though proceed from us trying to live a more holy, a more conscious and more integrated Orthodox life, emulating the lives of the saints of these lands. What was it that enabled these holy ones to become saints? Perhaps part of the answer is contained in our Sunday Gospel reading today in which, as St Nikolai (Velimivirovic) says in his homily, ‘the Lord Jesus reveals clear and simple truths that many of us unwittingly tread underfoot every day’. To take just three of these truths in turn: 

The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light.

The saints of these Isles saw that to purify their hearts and their minds, to keep them in Christ, they had to detach and draw themselves away from impurity, from filthy, corrupting and bad examples, images and things. Let us follow their example and separate ourselves from the sight of things which defile and damage our hearts, so that we might keep our hearts, our souls and our minds in the light of Christ.

Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment?

The saints of these isles, saw that the true meaning of their life was not to be found in material acquisition, in fixating on buying and consuming more and more things, be it clothes, home decorations or possessions or eating in expensive restaurants. Rather the meaning of our life is to live a life in Christ, to live in His Kingdom with the simple trust and loyalty of a child.

But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.

It was this that all of the saints of these Isles manifested in so many different and varied ways. Unlike me, and maybe some of you, they didn’t become distracted but they had a simple and resolute gaze towards Christ and His Kingdom.

My dear fathers, brothers and sisters, let us then follow the example of our British saints and seek to put these simple truths of the Gospel that we perhaps hear or read so regularly into action. Let us seek and yearn for God’s Kingdom above all else. Despite the destruction of their relics and their shrines, the Orthodox saints of these Isles have never left it and will never leave it. They are here and with us now and await us getting to know them better, learning about how they lived their lives and turning to them in friendship and in prayer. May we make a firm resolve to take up the work that has been given to us by those pioneering generations of Orthodox Christians and take up those prophetic words of Saint Arsenios of Paros:

“The Church in The British Isles will only begin to grow when She begins to again venerate Her own Saints”.