Celtic Prayer Retreat: Praying with the Cornish Saints at the Kernewek Lowender

It was a significant and special time for me in May contributing to the ‘Praying with the Cornish Saints’ Retreat at the Kernewek Lowender Cornish Festival at Moonta on South Australia’s Yorke Peninsula.

The Retreat had come about through discussions with Cowethas Peran Sans (The Fellowship of St. Piran) in Cornwall and after an initial workshop at the last Kernewek Lowender in 2009 had been well attended.

Personally I had always had a strong desire to present something more ‘ancient & earthy’ in a two day retreat format at the Kernewek Lowender.  For me it has felt like an important, gut response to what I consider the ‘Musty Methodism’ that gets a good run as an identity marker at the festival.

Whilst I strongly value the spiritual tradition of the Methodist movement and its historical, cultural and political significance for Cornish diaspora, its expression can at times seem to me to be ‘idealised & nostalgic,’ and at worst, a ‘defensive’ or ‘escapist’ response to post modern uncertainty.

The ever humble Rev. Robyn Pryor facilitated the core structure of the retreat using a wise balance of academic, social and personal approaches for our prayerful reflection. He led the main input sessions for the retreat which included:

  • An introduction to the terms Celtic, Celtic Christianity and debates that surround them.
  • Distinctive themes from the faith expression of Celtic Saints and Celtic Christianity.
  • Individual reading and sharing about the lives of Cornish Saints using the approach described by Marcus Borg as “critical naivete”
  • An exploration of Celtic Prayers and Poetry including Carmina Gadelica, Cowethas Peran Sans etc.
  • Reflective Time for Personal and Creative Responses
  • A Communion Meal to conclude.

Rev. Ted Curnow started the Retreat with a reflection upon Hebrews 11 and the significance of the ‘Communion of Saints’ and the Celtic idea of ‘Thin Places’.  He connected these ideas with the desire to connect with ones’ heritage and often ‘lost’ family history.  This is a key motivation behind a lot of the Australian Cornish Association’s and people’s engagement with the Festival.

It reminded me of some of the themes from the talk Place and Spirits of the Para Plains that I was honoured to give at my fathers Book Launch at my ancestors graveyard in 2007.

My contribution to this retreat was curating Evening and Morning Prayer.

It felt like a bit of a stretch calling my closing reflection for the first day “Cornish” Night Prayer.  As we were attempting to pray with the Cornish Saints on Australian soil, I felt need to connect in some way with land and place of Cornwall.  I showed some pictures of prayer, ceremony and the landscape of Cornwall as some of our retreat participants had never been there and it is hard to understand some of the detail of the ‘Lives of the Cornish Saints’ without knowing something of the distinctive Cornish landscape and its geographical and spiritual significance.

In this sense it also felt important to pray outside of the old Methodist Church building in the open air in order to acknowledge country and the indigenous traditions of the Yorke Penninsula.

The Cornish mining settlement of the local area and the pastoralist expansion that preceded it has a difficult and problematic history in its relationship with indigenous peoples.  In my experience of celebrating Cornish-ness in Australia, this has rarely been discussed or acknowledged.

Whilst benevolent in intention, the mission established at Point Pearce in 1867 was a mixed blessing.  It definitely played an important role in saving indigenous people from the threat of massacre and preserving life and health in the midst of great change.  However it was also an instrument for cultural and social policies of church and government which systematically damaged the local indigenous culture.

In connecting the earlier ideas of the ‘Communion of Saints’ and ‘Thin Places’ we acknowledged Gardharie as the last full blood leader of the  Adjahdura/ Narungga people. He was named King Tommy by Rev. W. Julius Khun, the Moravian Missionary who established the Mission the ended up at Point Pearce.  In the spirit of reconciliation we acknowledged the significant relationship between these two leaders.

We acknowledge the Adjahdura/ Narungga people as the traditional owners and custodians of Yorke Peninsula.  We recognise their ongoing cultural and spiritual connections with this country. May our worship and service be work for reconciliation between peoples, the Creator Spirit and the land upon which we stand.

I felt it was also meaningful to gather for our prayers around an open fire.

(It was convenient that the dozen or so remaining members of the church were having a working bee and burning off debris in order to clean up the Methodist Church property in preparation for the Festival’s Hertiage Service where people queue for up to two hours to get a seat in the 1250 seat building!)

In my recent travels and work in cricket with indigenous communities I have sometimes had the honour of sitting around the camp fire.  As I have, I have shared in meaningful conversations about the protective and sustaining role of fire in Aboriginal culture.  During these discussion’s I learned that one tend’s, but does not play with the fire and does not to throw rubbish on the fire.  It was explained that to do so would be to ‘pollute’ that which both sustains and protects and reflects a broader indigenous value about how we relate to the land with descriptions of the sicknesses and ‘spiritual’ consequences that come from living beyond its limits.

I saw this as a point of connection.

Fire was also sacred to the ancient Celts who would never allow their hearth fires to die except during the celebration of Samhain, the Celtic New Year and beginning of the long, dark half of the year.  The entire village would extinguish their hearth fire and ceremonially re-light them from a central fire.  In contrast, the fire festival of Beltane was a celebration of Spring, of fertility, new life and the awakening of the earth after a long winter.

In light of these similarities we undertook what Mark Pierson names as ‘Greishog,’ an ancient Celtic ritual for keeping the embers of a fire alive through the night.  It is the process of burying hot coals in ashes or under a layer of peat in order to preserve the fire for the cold morning to come.

It is a holy process –  the preservation of purpose, of warmth and light in darkness.

We lit four candles from the hearth which I framed as representative of the four themes coined by the founder of Cowethas Peran Sans, Andy Philips as the ‘rhythm’ of spiritual life for the fellowship relating to the land of Cornwall and the traditional Celtic seasons.  I invited people to light tapers and place them next to the theme or rhythm they most identified with through the days reflection.

At prayers the following morning I asked the following questions:

As we light the candle from the greishog coals I invite you to make your personal response.

What do you need from God to take you through this day?

What spiritual embers in your life need fanning into flame?

What ashes need to be left behind in the past?

What new beginnings would you like today to bring?

In making connections I also explained that it is important to acknowledge our different Australian context in terms of seasons.

The Northern hemisphere Church Year or Celtic seasons based on agricultural cycles do not work for us in connecting our spirituality with the land upon which we stand.

The Wurundjeri people for example, whose traditional lands are found where I live in Melbourne, Victoria, have an understanding of six seasons connected with their traditional economy of hunting and gatherering .  I indicated that this ‘improvisation of traditions’ represents different but important cultural and spiritual ‘work’ for us as Australian Christians seeking to learn from Celtic Christianity.

A good example of this can be found at my colleague Christop Booth’s blog connecting the season of Waring, Buln Buln and Pentecost.

This retreat was a small and modest commencement of such work and in our evaluation we considered where this journey might take us and how we could do it better.

Rev. Ted Curnow, Rev. Matthew Curnow, Rev. Ian Giles (attired for the Kernewek Lowender ‘Dressing of the Graves’ Ceremony) & Pastor Marcus Curnow

The final image I wish to share became apparent to many of us as we stood around the fire in the backyard of the old church.  The fire was located between an old dead tree stump which stood on one side of the yard, whilst a beautiful gum tree in full blossom stood on the other.

The hollow of the dead ringbarked tree stump had been ‘boarded up’ by the locals in order to prevent animals from inhabiting it.  Nevertheless a swarm of bees had found its way in and were using the old stump as the foundation for a thriving home, using the rich nectar from the tree across the yard.

The post – Christendom and post- modern parallels for me were striking as we undertook a prayer retreat ‘on the edge’ of a cultural festival exploring the nectar of ancient Celtic and indigenous imagery.  The blossoming tree was at once both the newest and most fertile image in a desolate and degraded landscape but also the most ancient.  An enduring image of the fruitfulness of appropriate connection with the land.

As Cornish ‘newcomers’ to this place we were conducting this ‘prayer work’ out of a building whose glory had long past and (like the mining economy that created it), is in many ways a spent and hollow shell.  Nevertheless it remains imposing and significant with the power to draw us to it.

My hope is that despite the attempts to protect and preserve it from change or ‘infestation,’ it’s structure and history can perhaps still be a womb for a new life that comes from deeper connection with the land, the Creator Spirit and the traditions of place that have sustained it.

Rev. Ted Curnow wrote the following response:

The Chapel Miracle

Behind the old Miners Chapel

built on stories of Cornish Saints and past revivals

I encountered another miracle true.

The long, slender arched leaf of the eucalypt,

beautiful in proportion, diminished to a point.

The yellow vein followed the curl in the leaf

to merge with a bold red stalk,

a junction of four leaves and a nutty green fruit.

From the top of the fruit five separate explosions.

Five bushy yellow flowers moist with nectar,

tipped with pollen specks

and clustered together to make one bloom.

The sprawling tree bursting, weighed down with blossom.

and a smattering of red fleck made a blanket of splendour.

The creation yielding a beautiful gift, a glorious sweet life.

The sound of the harvest,

bees gently invading, caressing and coxing

every bloom to yield its all.

Then heavily laden, reconnaissance scanning,

they navigate a tree stump haven.

A scraggy stump, an old dead carcase,

the remains of life once lived, a splendour now gone.

The hard old trunk, intent on excluding

like the patched walls of a castle,

yet one tiny crack, a rampart breached.
An amazing intervention,

into the dark hollow, a hidden treasure of life being stored.

Beyond sight of the world it quietly takes hold.

The Father, The Giver of life and beauty.

The stubborn stump,

a humanity ringbarked for ever.

The Spirit, bees, penetrating the citadel castle,

transferring the very life of the Son.

A resurrection of splendour, a sweet flow of the harvest,

an accumulated treasure bringing a wonderful balm,

a restoration, healing, preserving,

empowering. life everlasting.

A new sort of tree

bursting with beauty and life

Rev. Ted Curnow

The Curnow Family March in the Kernewek Lowender Parade at Moonta.


5 Replies to “Celtic Prayer Retreat: Praying with the Cornish Saints at the Kernewek Lowender”

  1. Marcus, thanks for this excellent post. It highlights the moving connection that you made with the many elements of the retreat experience; it’s good to have the record of your intentions and actual words. I’ve googled ‘greishog’ and only come up with yourself, and a very brief reference by Joan Chittister —I’mm familiary with the idea [especially from Carmina Gadelica], but not the etymology of the word. Anyway, well done, and may the conversation and creative exploreation long continue ! Robin

  2. The only problem I have with this excellent reflection is that the hive of European honey bees is actually a sign of feral introduced creatures invading a landscape. Conservationists battle against feral honey bee hives in native hollows because they eject native occupants (bats, possums, birds – nothing can resist a bee invasion) and they harvest too much of the scarce nectar reserves, reducing food for birds, native insects, gliders, etc.
    Still, the poem by Rev Ted was very good.

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