I was happy that my husband could visit Mount Athos. In a series of ecstatic phone calls he described the landscape as he walked between the monasteries. “The land is covered in flowers. The birds and animals move in slow motion, they’re not scared. I’m stroking a huge bumblebee…” He spent hours, not only in prayer in the offices, but praying as he walked the mountain paths.
Although I regularly stay in monasteries, at the same time I felt a longing to seek out my own place of prayer amid a wild expanse of God’s creation. However, I live in London. I do not feel comfortable sitting alone in silent contemplation in the local woods. I could take a train out to some wilderness and then walk, yet I still have a sense of unease, of vulnerability. But I have been visiting the Channel Island of Sark for many years, and there the crime rate is so low no one locks their doors. So last July I booked a week by myself in self-catering accommodation on a headland near the spot where the Saint Magloire founded a monastery in 565, on the instruction of an angel.
Welsh-born Saint Magloire and his 62 monks are believed to have lived in Skellig Michael type stone beehive huts looking out over this wild coastline towards the dramatic Les Autelets (altar) stacks, homes to guillemots, puffins and gulls. The saint was venerated for healing and working miracles. When some children got into difficulty in a boat below the cliffs he flew down from his place of prayer and guided them safely to the French coast. He spent the last few months of his life in his cell continually reciting Psalm 27. I am thrilled to discover that I was born on Saint Magloire’s feast day – October 24th.
Like Mount Athos, the past 1500 years have seen relatively little human-wrought change. Sark was inhabited by monks for a few hundred years after St Magloire, before an increase in piracy in the Channel drove them out. In 1565 Queen Elizabeth I encouraged settlers to move in from the neighbouring island of Jersey; their descendants still live on the island today. Despite some erosion and cliff fall, Sark’s coastline would be much the same as it was in the saint’s time. The Sarkees do not use pesticides; as a result, the slopes that run down to the sheer cliffs are covered in wild flowers, very like the Mount Athos my husband described.
I set off each day to the more remote bays that tourists rarely visit, reciting the Jesus prayer as I go. Ferns, pink campion and sea thrift line the twisting path down to the beach. The air is pervaded by the scent of honeysuckle. I sit for hours watching the sea, swimming now and again. Prayer flows, enhanced by the miracles beneath the surface of the water, the sea gardens, the sun silvering the backs of mullet, the spotted voile tail of a wrasse flickering beneath a rock. At dusk I watch the sun set behind the smaller island of Herm where Saint Magloire’s disciple Saint Tugual, who was rumoured to have been a woman, lived. A pod of dolphins scythes through the crimson water below. There are neither cars nor street lights on Sark; I see the stars as Saint Magloire would once have seen them, in a sky so dark that the Andromeda galaxy is visible to the naked eye.
I scarcely read during the week and keep away from the news and the internet. I speak and eat very little. The effects are a heightening of the senses, an inner expansion into that vast web connecting all creatures living and dead.
There may be no more living monks on Sark, and very few traces left of a physical monastery apart from a mediaeval wall, a pond where they used to keep carp and the place name: ‘la Moinerie,’ but centuries of prayer have infused the island with a spirit of sacredness. I sense the presence Saint Magloire everywhere. This is a liminal place, where the apparent solidity of this world dissolves, as it must do in Mount Athos.
This year I have been praying to St Magloire for his intercession that Covid-19 may pass over Sark. So far, there have been no cases on the island.
Monastere de Chevetogne (Belgium)