An Interview With Fr. John Musther of Cumbria
Fr. John Musther, an Orthodox Englishman, serves in the Orthodox missionary parish of Sts. Bega, Mungo and Herbert in Keswick, Cumbria, North West England. His community, which is under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, is part of the ancient tradition of the Orthodox Church. The congregation is a living witness of the truth of Holy Orthodoxy to the people living nearby.
In the first millennium, before the Norman Conquest, Church in Britain and in Ireland was in full communion with the universal Orthodox Church, both East and West. Then the differences between Eastern and Western Church were relatively minor, most of them limited to local traditions. Yet striving for holiness was the same.
During that time the peoples of Britain and Ireland gave the world thousands of saints, men and women, kings and queens, martyrs, bishops and abbots, hermits and missionaries. The whole land of Britain retains the memory of the ancient saints of these islands. A great number of early shrines and holy sites are scattered all over Britain and Ireland.
Cumbria, where Fr. John lives, is one of the largest and least densely populated counties in England. The Lake District, part of Cumbria, is one of the most picturesque regions in England, with breath-taking views from the hills. The Lake District is justly famous for many beautiful lakes, hills and forests, and for centuries was inspiring poets and writers, musicians and painters.
In the first millennium Cumbria developed rather separately from the rest of England, and had more links with Wales than with the seven historic Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Christian life of its inhabitants had been influenced by many traditions – Roman, Celtic (Welsh, Irish and Scottish), Saxon and even Norse. Material traces of all of these can be found today.
The Church tradition holds that St. Patrick, Apostle of the Irish, was born here. This region draws people by its magic beauty and tranquillity—and by its very rich early Christian heritage. Thanks be to God, that the revival of Orthodox Faith and rediscovering of nearly forgotten local saints and shrines is becoming a reality because of people like Fr. John Musther.
Fr. John, how did you become Orthodox?
I met Fr. Sophrony (Sakharov). I was a student at University College London reading for a law degree. It was early 1961 if I remember correctly. At any rate Fr. Sophrony had only recently arrived at the Old Rectory at Tolleshunt Knights, Essex. I knew just a little about Christianity through the Church of England but nothing about Orthodoxy. On Sunday afternoon after the Ninth Hour he invited me into his study while the tea was being made and asked me: what was the purpose of the Christian life? He spoke so gently and when I said that I didn’t know, he simply said, ‘the purpose of the Christian life is to ask the Lord Jesus to send the Holy Spirit into our hearts that he may cleanse us and make us more like Christ’.
I sat there dumbfounded. My hair stood on end. I had never heard of such a thing. I had no questions. I knew that what he had told me was the truth of his own heart. The only response was to be still and receive the precious gift he was giving me.
His statement was a complete summary of the Scriptures. It was the Word of God to me. It changed the direction of my life. The power of that word still urges me on.
He told me to read, “The Undistorted Image.” Again I felt completely poleaxed. It was like death. How could a man live like this?
I struggled with the Greek culture of the churches at that time. It was also many years before I could overcome the Protestant spirit that I found in me. Then one day I woke up and felt all my objections had fallen away. Christ had won the battle and had made my heart Orthodox. I discovered I was living near the late Fr. Sergei Hackel’s parish in Lewes in Sussex. He prepared myself and my wife Jenny for Chrismation in 2003.
Please, tell us about your parish.
The two of us moved to Cumbria in 2007 but not before I had been made a deacon with the mandate to see if there were any Orthodox in the area. We had bought a small cottage in Keswick which needed a lot of refurbishment. As the daily offices had already become part of our life we had the attic made into a chapel frescoed from top to bottom by (prominent English Orthodox icon painter) Aidan Hart. The painting was finished before we could move in: it was as though the Saints had moved in before us. (www.orthodoxcumbria.org/ the One Way of Holiness in Christ/ The Living Tradition in the British Isles)
We hadn’t far to go before we met our first Orthodox, just 80 yards to the nearest chip shop. We discovered that Orthodox families ran fish and chip shops throughout the top of the county. We had an instant congregation. But the chapel was no longer big enough. Happily for us the local Methodist church had just closed their chapel in the village Braithwaite just two miles down the road. It was perfect for our needs. We were allowed to make it into an Orthodox church for Sunday liturgies while still using the first chapel for Vespers and Matins.
The Orthodox who first came to us were from Cyprus but soon we had English people also asking to be Chrismated. From the very beginning there was a demand to have a liturgy every Sunday celebrated in English. We have a good number of visitors from round the county but a good number more from those who come on holiday to this very popular location. The buildings include a social and kitchen area so after the liturgy we can all sit down and eat and talk. People are often reluctant to leave!
We are very fortunate in having people who are willing to do things. The ladies took in hand the refurbishing the bedrooms from what had been a youth center. So now we can have people to stay. We have been blessed by having a number of families and their children. It is so wonderful that they ask for baptism. Our numbers are 30-50 most of the year round.
The Chapel is on the village green and in summer people sit out in the open air; the children run around and enjoy the village swing. Just higher up is a splendid mountain pool. The water is cold and at Theophany there are only a few who jump in. But in summer it is a glorious spot for adult baptisms.
You wrote a unique book: The Living Tradition of the Saints and Significance of their Teaching for Us. It contains over 350 pages that reflect the wisdom of saints who lived in the Orthodox East as well as in the Orthodox West in the first centuries of Christianity. This is a fruit of labours, prayers and research of some forty-five years. Could you please tell us how this book was created?
Fr. Sophrony gave me a letter of Introduction to visit Mount Athos. I stayed eleven days, which was no mean feat when the monastic life was at such a low ebb in 1963. But I had a big gap in my knowledge of what I call the Living Tradition. I had grasped that the Desert Fathers were the bedrock of this tradition. I knew two people like them, St. Silouan and Father Sophrony. But what about the 1500 years in between? In those days (1962) there was virtually nothing in print in English about Orthodoxy. But I had regular access to the great library of Chevetogne and read everything I could, often in French. I started filling the gap. It took something like forty years to complete.
When people found out about what I was doing they were keen to hear, especially about what the Fathers taught about prayer. Then they asked me to write things down. This is how the book came about. It has proved very helpful for people to get an overview of the one way of holiness in Christ. It has to be read again and again. It has never been advertised. I prefer it that way. It is also the story of our conversion to Orthodoxy.
Another view of The Lake District
You have also initiated two very important projects online. One is a British Saints Synaxarion, for which you selected various kinds of information on great many saints of Britain and Ireland: lives of saints, holy sites associated with them, iconography, hymnography, with many photographs and illustrations. One can search the Synaxarion website (www.synaxarion.org.uk) using different criteria: rank, feast-day, icons, troparia and kontakia, holy places, miracles, pilgrimage sites. It is an enormous piece of work. The second project is Early Christian Ireland: here you provide information and photographs of all early Christian sites in Ireland up to 1100, including holy wells, trees and mountains linked to the memory of a saint, Celtic high crosses, round towers, tombs etc. How have you been collecting information on the saints of the British Isles?
One year we found ourselves in Ireland. We visited some of the holy sites there. I was astounded how many and how rich these places are. But it had been difficult to get information about many of them. So I started making a database so others could find their way also. (www.earlychristianireland.org). People have been very appreciative. Sometimes people ask me to plot for them a two week visitation of holy sites for their vacation!
We have been round Ireland ourselves twice—but there are still gaps in our knowledge. But by now we had became fervent hunters of remote islands, beehive huts and the tombs of the saints. I cannot tell you how excited we got. How close we seemed to these Desert Fathers.
People asked us to “do” Wales, Cornwall, Scotland and the rest of England. But I wouldn’t have missed the experience for anything. We feel we have so many friends who surround us, pray for us and encourage us every day.
When we had our chapel frescoed we had our local Cumbrian saints in large size under the central deisis, namely St. Mungo, St. Cuthbert, St. Bega and St. Herbert. We dedicated our Community to Saints Bega, Mungo and Herbert. Around the other three sides of the walls we have St. Anthony, St. Poemen, St. Macarius, St. Barsanuphius, St. John Climacus, St. Isaac the Syrian; St. Maximus, St. Hesychius, St. Gregory of Sinai, St. Simeon the New Theologian, St. Gregory Palamas and St. Silouan.
These are our “clouds of witnesses.” We sing Vespers and Matins every day. We are so happy tacked on to the “end.” Knowing where we are, we know we are truly being saved every day.
In the illustrated articles on these saints and shrines that you put on the parish website(http://www.orthodoxcumbria.org/) you mention that you and your matushka did visit most of these places yourselves. It must have brought great inspiration and comfort to your soul. Looking at these photographs alone, one can say these are truly “holy landscapes” which transform the soul of nearly each traveller… Who are your favourite saints? What are your favourite holy places?
We have already mentioned the Saints. Choosing favourite places is hard but some things stand out: the cave of St. Colman Mac Duach (Colman of Kilmacduagh) on the Burren Co Clare, the cave of St. Ninian in Galloway, and the cave of St. Columba at Ellary in Argyll; the island of Illauntannig off the north side of the Dingle Peninsula (county Kerry), the monastic island of Illaunlochan in Portmagee (Co Kerry), Church Island off Waterville (Co Kerry), St. Macdara’s Island off Galway; the seastacks of the Orkneys, the shrine of St. Issui in the Black mountains (near Abergavenny, Wales), St. Moluag’s church in remote Eynort on the Isle of Skye, St. Triduana’s chapel on Papa Westray, Orkneys. All these are an unsurpassable testimony to serious solitude and prayer. We have made 17 booklets of 40 or so pages covering the entire British Isles detailing holy sites wherever we went.
What was then needed was a Synaxarion of saints in the British Isles so that many of them could return to liturgical remembrance in our services. Of course there was already in existence the extremely important Calendar of Saints published by the Fellowship of St. John the Baptist. But the names need to be backed up by information about the saints in easy accessible form. What better to have it all together on a website devoted to this purpose. So we selected all the saints who played an important part in the history of the church in each area. The saints instead of just appearing on a list are placed in a proper historical and geographical context. Indeed by having a “next” button the whole Synaxarion can be read from beginning to end in this way. This makes not only for a beautiful read but supplies abundant information. The final coup has been to include on each entry of the saint not only an icon where available but photographs of all holy sites relevant to each saint. This in turn will stimulate more visits to more holy sites and more pilgrimages. People can download what they want or be sent a printable version of the Calendar. We realize this is not quite the same as the older Synaxarion but technology has made it possible to do something which fits the bill getting to know and appreciate saints in a way we could never do before.
Could you please talk a little about Cumbria, and offer a brief outline of the history of Orthodoxy in the county? Would you suggest pilgrimage sites the Orthodox faithful would benefit from visiting?
The church came to Cumbria early. At least two chapels have been found on Hadrian’s Wall, Vindolanda and Birdoswald, and Vindolanda may date even back into the fourth century. Just round the corner is Ardwall Island in Galloway where early Irish monks settled in the fifth century. St. Ninian worked out of Carlisle and could have founded the hermit caves of Ninekirks. St. Kentigern (St. Mungo) is said to have preached at Crosthwaite in Keswick. St. Cuthbert was a regular visitor to these western parts. St. Herbert his friend lived on his island in Derwentwater (situated on the territory of Keswick). St. Bega made her cell on the shores of Lake Bassenthwaite very near to Keswick. This is rich stuff for such a small area as Cumbria; and Keswick shows itself to have four saints! What more could we want?
Is there a growing awareness of the ancient saints and shrines of these isles among the native residents of Cumbria and all Britain? What is your heroic parish currently undertaking in order to contribute to the restoration of the rich Orthodox heritage of your country?
In 2007 we did an eight-day pilgrimage to the holy sites of Cumbria using the accommodation at Braithwaite. We hunted down holy wells and to our astonishment found seventy—a figure far higher than previous estimates though some are now lost. Astonishingly such density of wells in the northern area of Cumbria is a new revelation and makes it not far off the density of Wales or Cornwall. In 2014, we began a work of restoration and blessing of the wells. We hope to continue this in 2015 and beyond. At the moment we are writing up what is turning out be a lovely book on all the wells.
In the background here is a deeper question: if Orthodoxy is recently returning to this ancient area of Britain and reclaiming its saints and holy places, how can it be meaningful to reclaim the wells also? People can connect with saints, with (British) monastic sites (of which there are several in Cumbria), and with the great crosses (such as Bewcastle and Gosforth) But with wells? Are they not a cultural embarrassment? We have to answer that. Otherwise we are just making a romantic selection of the past which has little to do with reality. Cultural heritage in Cumbria is the county’s only remaining economic asset and here the Orthodox Church is seen to be preserving a very overlooked part of that heritage. We believe that awareness of the spiritual landscape of Cumbria will dramatically increase through pilgrimages, annual blessings of the wells, and of course through what we publish.
How do you see the future of Orthodoxy here? Do the various Orthodox jurisdictions (Greek, Russian, Romanian, Antiochian and others) work together in this country?
Did you know Cumbria was not part of England to the tenth and eleventh centuries? It was then swallowed up by the Western church just like the rest of the country. The voice of Orthodoxy has been submerged that long. People are deeply ignorant of it because they have no experience of it. It comes as something of a real shock when we came here.
The first thing has been to establish the liturgy every Sunday; the second thing is to have it in English. We must speak about our Fathers: the Greek speakers that we have saints they know nothing about; the English that they have saints they have all but forgotten about. The kingdom “works” through the prayers of the saints, the Gospel is liveable, and sanctity is possible. This is the core of Orthodoxy and it cannot ever change.
But the religious culture of England (and elsewhere) was turned away from the Mother of God, and all the Saints and the Angels. The communion of earth with heaven was met with denial as was the liturgy as a transforming reality. It lost the one way of holiness at the heart of the Living Tradition. People do not know what they have lost.
Orthodoxy must not add to this tragedy. Generations of young Orthodox have already been lost by lack of vision. Multiple jurisdictions wreak havoc with our witness. Where will we be in fifteen or twenty years time? Perhaps even slimmer than we are now, but hopefully more wise and aware.
Pray for us.
It was a real pleasure to talk to you, Fr. John! Thank you for the wonderful interview! We wish you abundant blessings from God in all your labors! May He grant you strength for many years!