A Forest in the Temple of God: Kentigern for the Days of COP

PDF here, for ease of reading.

Thoughts towards a Mungo COP

Icon of Mungo, by permission of Aidan Hart

(A long draft for a possible video reflection, already consciously omitting quite a few possible themes)

Mungo is  the Book we never read.  Two names, many spellings:  Kentigern: the formal identity in a warrior society; ’Mungo’ is a term of endearment.  We’ll go with Mungo.

You’ll have heard something about a revived robin and that fish on the lamp posts with the ring in their mouth.  A Celtic Salmon of Wisdom, caught in what the Clyde once was.  Trees, birds, fish, bells.  

There’s  other stuff you might not have heard of:  deer harnessed to the plough,  and  how the location of Glasgow Cathedral – in common with Durham Cathedral – was entrusted to the instincts of untamed  cattle; how Mungo relied on the guidance of a wild boar,  to found Llanelwy monastery;  trusting, with significant Biblical precedent, to the gifts of these creatures. 

The landscape of Scotland, written by the Ice Age, reworked by humanity,  tells the story alongside a clutch of fragments and poems, all with their own agenda, from centuries after Mungo lived, and in Glasgow in 614, died.  All agree with Jocelin of Furness that: 

he demonstrated from the beauty of visible creatures that … God was the creator of all things”  

Look at the birds, learn from the trees. The miracle of nature?

There’s also the nature of miracle:  Never mind water to wine: Mungo’s influence turned milk to cheese,  which, when we’ve finished being underwhelmed, might open our eyes to the immersion of God in Creation in the wee things too. 

Inspiration in the small wonders of daily life, enlisting  us in care and responsibility for the  bottle-garden of our Planet;  a habitat gifted and shared simultaneously with so much other life.  And it’s all recycled. Or it dies.

* * * 

Mungo went to Rome,  of course. ( Seven times, to be on the safe side) and received from the Pope, a Bell, curiously identical to those of the Celtic Saints.   

These were Bells to drive out the demons of injustice and to hold power to account.  Mungo’s Bell has been not just recycled and repurposed, but made and remade.   ( 1450, 1651)  Looking in each case curiously like a bell of the age in which it is founded.  

We ring Mungo’s bell anew, to call for climate justice and to drive out the demons of denial.  Hand in hand with  Mungo the Green. One with us, in justice for Creation. One with us in love for God’s creatures,  one with us in in Christ, whom we trust above all.  God willing, there’s truth to be found, without much digging. Truth right now:  for the mega-pilgrimage of COP,  as the great and bad and small and good gather in the city that grew round Mungo’s salmon fishery, which a thousand years later was dredged blasted and channelled into a major waterway.  The stream of  his story may have  undergone similar violence.  And yet, through the preaching of God’s word, that became the city motto, we have the chance to flourish.

The Truth we need today is one where your neighbour is your fellow creature, or indeed the living planet that Pope Francis calls us to cherish as we would a beloved relative on whom we also depend.  This  Truth for me, lurks in the lovely murk of Mungo of the Green Place.

 A Truth, that,  kindled by the breath of love  from damp brushwood, is a wildfire leaving in its wake a fertile ground for change.  For Mungo deserves forthwith to be recognised as patron of sustainable energy.  

As a young monk, he’s charged with guarding  and fuelling a sacred flame “sent down from heaven”  which, when he drops off – by the malice of his young peers, is snuffed out. 

This flame is a practicality. It’s a matter of ‘keeping the lights on” as politicians put it: and through prayer and practicality, an alternative light is brought on stream, for the good of all.  Our ways of life and economics, globally unjust, have burned out.  We’re running on empty, in need of direction,  and hope. 

Facts are part of that: warnings from  scientists of terrifying changes to the balance of the Earth.   With COP upon us, we’re up to our  eyes in facts, with figures coming out of our ears, and there’s a whole lot of change to embrace, to be the church for  today.  For the Glasgow COP to be the Mungo COP

But  cry  ‘Mungo’,  and you trip over the stumbling block of entitled contempt. In many ways and places.   There’s the colourful  contempt of the Cumbrian biographer Jocelin (five and a half centuries later),  for the Scots. Contempt  for the common people who told and loved Mungo’s tales;  contempt for their culture, their way of speech and more.  

“Pouring the life-giving liquid from the original vessel into the new, …… that this work not be obscured by crawling in the filth of debased speech”  

Jocelyn  discovered a tale of  trashing, dissing. Belittling. Denying.  St Mungo is so fittingly the patron of the Bullied….. intimidated and misrepresented.  In his life and beyond. Fleeing from pointless conflict,  facing danger, speaking compassionate truth to power.

I’m reminded of death threats against climate scientist  Michael Mann, whose blessed name is invoked by the iconic hockey-stick graph.  Malice arising from the Gospel of Warning.  Our first entrenched  reaction to Truth is not just defensive, but aggressive. 

“Why should I…..?”

Mungo “absteyned fro flesshe and wyne and fro all that myght distempre hym” .

.. But why should I eat less meat? 

Ultimately, when we know the score, it’s for our own good, rather than some pointless regulation.

We sympathise with  Jocelin’s  gritted teeth,  over  the commission to fashion the miraculous life which regulations required for Mungo to take his place as a proper cathedral saint.  

For even writing  “new” material, we cling on to the Enlightenment heritage of domination of all other life and matter,  content with “stewardship”,  keeping partnership and accountability at arm’s length. 

Like Jocelyn, when we  eat our words… we find it’s a nourishing meal. For like Jocelin’s patron, and namesake Bishop Jocelyn of Glasgow, climate crisis calls our bluff.  What is the church for, but the good of Creation?  Creation in unity, heaven and earth, sky soil and sea, not split apart like a science fiction universe. Not split into people and all the other stuff.

When Jocelin swallows pride and sticks his neck out  for the wonder of God at work in Creation… this, too,  is our urgent need as we open our eyes hearts  and minds to the Truth of our kinship and partnership with God’s other creatures, supported so powerfully by the kingdom of biological and natural sciences.  Enriched beyond measure  by personal sharing with land and sea …and Jesus, the friend of wildlife, in the mainstream of our faith.  

It turns out all right,  when we overcome that  human-centred entitlement which looks to God for excuse for the futile enterprise of world control,  but rules out Christ’s Truth that those who would be great must be servant of all.   For “all” is a Creation-inclusive word.  And it turns out that service is more fun than domination. 

* * *

In our churches, we still have to confront the eagerness of modern scholars to trash our defining legends, though mythology remains a vital vehicle of truth. Stories shift us like statistics seldom do.

There’s also those  fundamentalist liberals who  insist that ‘you must not  even flirt with belief ‘ – driving out what they see as the demon of naïveté, to leave in the void a desirable residence for fake science, despair, and worse: prohibiting our access to these  rich resources for spiritual resilience in times of threat and turmoil, and privileging  denial, because, just  like the Truth of the  tales told by genuine refugees  to professionally incredulous border guards,  “they’re only a story” . 

When the circus of COP  overwhelms Mungo’s Dear Green Place, we need stories – of refugees; of people flooded out of their homes; of those unjustly punished for the suffering already inflicted upon them and habitats denied to those God gave them – as never before.  

Allow the rich and powerful a monopoly of hearing and we dig our own grave.  Better prefer stories of refugees like Mungo, their nourishment, their refuge, and how they transform the world for good.   We need to trust God within them, even through a glass, darkly.

Jocelin’s misgivings grew ironically  into a lovely green image: he feared that, engaging with the untamed  folklore of Mungo, he would be accused of planting not just a tree, but a whole “forest in the Temple of God”.  

That’s Deuteronomy 16:  that terror of ritual abuse of the holiness of  nature by the vicious cults of Asherah.   But Trees remain holy.  Trees are where God meets God’s people and not just Sarah and Abram.  And through human  violence, the tree abused for crucifixion reasserts their unity with the Tree of Life.  In ancient Glasgow, Oak trees over a grave marked the holiness of those buried beneath.

As for  the ‘tree that never grew’ then in the age of Climate Crisis it is time for the saplings of courage, faith and cheerfulness to grow into exactly what Jocelin feared: that forest in God’s Temple, breathing in the air the forest breathes out, sheltering under their leaves, enjoying their fruit, 

Even (here, )where Mungo’s embraced by the Earth. That’s truth.

* * *

Which Truth was the question over the pregnancy of Mungo’s mother Thenew, or Enoch vulnerable  daughter of the dynastically ambitious king Lot, seduced by the preaching of passing Christians into refusal to be married off expediently, finding herself pregnant through intimidation, deception and shocking abuse which shines out  grimly  through the awkwardness of medieval writers about women.  As does a feisty determination which sits oddly with a pure noble virgin.  Thenew’s not a victim, but  a survivor.  

We need the abused Earth -which for Pope  Francis is our mother – to be a survivor, rather than a victim. Christian writers are gleeful about  the barbarism of her warrior father King Loth, whose stone though relocated, is still at the base of the Holy Hill Traprain Law, one of those prominences of the Scottish landscape which connect one place to another as surely as any telecommunications might.   Not the highest, but the best-connected hill is the holiest in such a landscape.

Long before the quarry gobbled a cliff into the east side, there were cliffs from which Mungo’s mother-to-be was propelled to hell in a hand-cart.

Yet  it seemed to her, she descended “in the fashion of a bird falling gently to earth lest by chance she would strike her foot against a rock.”

By the grace of God she survived, only to be set adrift on a charge of witchcraft  (here )at Aberlady  – today a gorgeous  nature reserve and a great place for a swim, but  back then stinking to high heaven  with rotting fish gutted on the seashore.  

The single mother set adrift, is cast ashore, giving birth where the altar of the chapel remains at Culross… 

And  in the refuge that she found,  the modern twisted narrative of a vindictive church, determined to blame victims and add rejection to abuse, has no part. 

Thrown off a cliff by their own family and people, Enoch and her unborn child Mungo are  carried in safety by waves entrusted with their demise.  Victims, survivors, refugees, welcomed then  alone by those who served God.  Womens’s Aid  (here) at Culross.  Where coal would soon be mined and where gas flares on the far bank of the Forth. St Serf was summoned either by the cry of a baby or of angels.  Is there any difference in urgency? Was that Christ… or Mungo?  The  saintly local hero came bundled with  extreme and embarrassing parallels to the life of Jesus, which Jocelin struggled to massage into orthodoxy.   Our  Gospels make that easy in a way Jocelin  strangely  struggles with. 

When you saw them homeless hungry, persecuted, outside the law – and act – you do so for Christ.  

Is Christ’s authority threatened by obedience to his commands? Is our love of Christ endangered when we really do  meet Christ face to face in fellow creatures  in need, or suffering from injustice?

Jocelyn had a balancing act on his hands: 

…. because the foolish and unwise people living in the diocese of Saint Kentigern still do not fear to say that he himself was conceived and born of a virgin.

He couldn’t beat ‘em, though. He joined ‘em

And there were shepherds keeping watch nearby, having care over the protection of their flocks. They were going out in the early morning when they saw a fire kindled near at hand. with an infant wrapped up in swaddling clothes”.

I became more fond of Jocelyn reading that.

* * *

Mungo’s insistence on covering ground on foot looks like ostentatious humility,  but presents  a different type of travel from  the instantaneous  teleportation which seems to be our ideal.  Mungo was what we’d call an ‘active traveller’ walking accessibly, rather than riding like an overlord.   Ready to spring into action every step of the way

“Alway he had a Manuell in his hande redy to do his offyce when ne­de requyred “

The ways Mungo’s people keep in touch – through prayer,  and  word of mouth – are incredible only because we rely on modern technology to do that ancient job.  Celtic saints were thoroughly networked. Before Scotland England Ireland and Wales had their current meaning, they taught and travelled, though like Mungo, often on foot.   

Enduring wonders in the tales of Mungo and his mother Theney,  though,  are of forgiveness, the renunciation of violence,  the refusal to collude with laws which protect only the powerful.   The Gospel of seeking wellbeing rather than punishment; of leaving vengeance to God, of acknowledging in other creatures a valid parallel of what makes human life worth living; blurring that respectable  razor-wire boundary between rational human and brute beast.

A hidden gem is Mungo’s encounter with the wild man Lailoken,  who merges easily into the wider legends of European Christendom:  the  Green/wild/wood man, the personal, spiritual aspect of nature, suffering from its abuses, embodying its goodness.  Beloved of God and those who serve God.  ( Baptised by Mungo (here) in Stobo) But perhaps he’s also a veteran with post-traumatic stress.  That’s what war does. Puts people where we’ve put animals. Othering is deadly.

“Lord Jesus Christ, in whose hand is the breath of all your creatures,… restore to this little bird the breath of life so that your blessed name will be praised forever.

That’s the valuing of a small life, in  the robin who fell victim to the boisterous jealously of Mungo’s peers in Culross, and for whose death Mungo was unjustly blamed;   the realisation that our own sternly exclusive way of thought and speech and life does not scratch the surface of the independence, the interwoven-ness of the flesh that the Word of God became;  the life of the Rainbow Covenant with God in their entirety.

In Mungo, we come closer to God when we abandon our objectification,  our othering, of fellow creatures … Like  [St Serf ] , with cheerfulness, admiring in the robin the great power of the Creator, by whom the mute speak and irrational things are known to experience reason. …by the command of the heavenly Father, without whom not even one sparrow falls toward the earth.

The predations of a wolf were no cause for the death of the predator, who serves a probation  by ploughing nine acres before he’s allowed to return to the forest.

We won’t leave Mungo without noting how, since we are part of Creation and we need management, intervention and guidance, the same is true of nature without us.  

Mungo’s interventions in nature to cure disease and heal the sick, even the resuscitation of the grumpy cook who died before his time – all these  are in the same category as speaking out against injustice. The human calling,  to the flourishing of life.

Jocelin leaves us with this assurance, that in Glasgow, sight is restored to the blind, hearing to the deaf, steps to the lame, speech to the mute, cleanliness to the leper’s skin, strength to paralysed limbs, 

and

 as a prayer for COP

sense to the insane……

AMEN.

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