Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Michaelmas; the Prince of the High Places

The disappearance of a sense of the sacred is an unavoidable aspect of modern (in the sense of post-medieval) British history. Standing amongst the ruins of holy sites, such as Tintern Abbey, just up the road from the parish here, always induces in me an almost tangible sense of loss. The disappearance of such obvious and living reminders of both the immanence and transcendence of God goes some way to explain our headlong rush into secularism and the abject spiritual poverty of our age.
These were among the thoughts going through my head on St Michael’s Day as in the warm sunshine I climbed up the Skirrid, Monmouthshire’s “holy mountain”, on the summit of which are the barely recognisable ruins of a medieval chapel of St Michael. The foundations of the ancient chapel can still be made out, and in what was the entrance, facing south back down the ridge, are two upright stones about two feet high, all that remains of the doorway.

To stand on what feels like the top of the world, with the countryside spread out beneath and with border country views stretching to Flat Holm in the Bristol Channel on one side, the Brecon Beacons and Black Mountains on another, and in the distance to the north east, the Malvern Hills, is to be immediately struck by the beauty and order of the created world.
Sitting and saying the midday office in the small, almost circular depression in which once stood the Chapel of the Archangel, it is difficult to refute the claim that whatever their motives may have been in seeking a purer, more primitive, and in the Anglican case, more patristic faith, the Reformers got it badly wrong, particularly in the dissolution of the religious communities and in the suppression of devotion to the saints. So much which was irreplaceable in our cultural and spiritual history was lost not only because of ignorance of what the Fathers of the Church actually believed but also due to naked greed and worldly ambition.
So, a few prayers were said also for a restoration of unity (in whichever way God wills it) and for a sense of common cause among Catholic Christians which is so necessary if the Gospel in all its fullness is to be proclaimed once again in our country.

In fact, though, devotion to St Michael continued among the large recusant Catholic community of north Monmouthshire even in the face of persecution and martyrdom long after the sixteenth century:

"Pope Clement X grants a Pienary Indulgence to those who devoutly visit the Chapel of St. Michael on the Skirrid Fawr on 29'" September -Michaelmas Day. Anyone making this Pilgrimage and wishing to gain the Indulgence is required, first, to go to Confession and Holy Communion; then, on the Holy Mountain itself, to pray for peace among Christian Princes, for the rooting out of heresies, and for the exaltation of Holy Mother Church. Given at St. Mary Major, Rome, under the Seal of the Fisherman, on 20th July 1676, and valid for seven years "

A virulently hostile protestant witness of these pilgrimages wrote these comments in the 1680s:

'He hath seen a hundred papists meet on the top of an high Hill, called St Michael's Mount, here is frequent meetings eight or ten times in the year, as he is informed. Mass is said, and sometimes Sermons are preached there. Mr John Scudamore of Kentchurch also deposed that: - He saw very great numbers of people at their Devotion on the top of a high hill in Monmouthshire called St Michael's Mount, where there is a ruinous Chappel and a stone with crosses on it, which he took to be an Alter and that he hath seen people with Beads in their Hands kneeling towards the said stone, both within and without the Chappel and he has been informed that Mass is often said there.'
The altar referred to has gone and the most conspicuous monument on the summit of the mountain is now an Ordnance Survey trig point.

Legends about the Skirrid abound, but one in particular made the claim that the conspicuous cleft in the mountain on the North west side appeared when a bolt of lightning marked Christ's crucifixion.
Interestingly enough, and to their shame, the “official” National Trust sign board at the base of the hill makes no mention of this legend, the ruins of the chapel, or of the historical fact that this was for many centuries a place of Christian pilgrimage. We are being airbrushed out of history slowly but surely.

Saint Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle,
be our protection against the malice and snares of the devil.
May God rebuke him we humbly pray;
and do thou, O Prince of the Heavenly host,
by the power of God, thrust into hell Satan and all evil spirits
who wander through the world for the ruin of souls. Amen.

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