Preached by The Revd Canon Professor Graham Ward, Regius Professor of Divinity, on Sunday 28th April 2024.

On the most northerly island of the British Isles, the isle of Unst in the Shetlands, a nun walks on the beach. The sky is blue, the sand is white, and the sea is turquoise. She is speaking to an interviewer and, presumably, a filming crew, who are the only people on that beach on this fine summer’s day. The interviewer has asked her about the spirituality that has made the islands around Scotland, west and north, an attraction for religious pilgrims for millennia. The list of saints, monasteries, nunneries, chapels, and kirks, associated with these islands, are built upon and around ancient rings of standing stones and Celtic barrows. All bear witness to a sacredness found here since neolithic times. Why? the interviewer asks, as he has asked several times of other people he has met on his journeys through them. Earlier in the documentary there has been talk of ‘thin places’ where the earthly and the heavenly seem to touch; where the boundary between the finite and the infinite, the temporal and the eternal, is porous; more a veil than a wall. People experience the power and presence of something utterly beyond them, external to them, the nun says, and that “is the beginning of faith.”

Ben Fogle walks on a beautiful beach in the Shetland islands next to Mother Mary, an orthodox nun dressed in black.

Ben Fogle and Mother Mary walk across the beach in Unst as part of the BBC Series 'Scotland's Sacred Islands'

Her answer resonates with me, as I am about to become an islander in my retirement – though not in the Shetlands. It resonates too with a very unusual description found in the Introduction to the British Geological Survey of southern Mull and the island of Iona. As you cross the Sound of Mull, it records, you seem to transit to and experience a spiritual crossing. It says nothing more. The rest of the Survey is a very technical piece of writing on moving from the old red granites of the southern tip of Mull to the oldest metamorphic rock on earth on Iona, second only to an area in Newfoundland. 

Let’s be clear, I am not talking ley-lines here, but I am drawing attention to what has been experienced in the islands, repeatedly and over countless generations: a joy, a freedom, a tranquillity, a solitude in the silences that stirs deep reflection. Why do I want to speak of this today? It comes to mind when reading on from our gospel reading this morning. This is the famous, "I am the vine and you are the branches" proclamation by Jesus, only recorded in the Gospel of John, and the message to the disciples is to abide in him that fruit may be borne in plenty. But where the passage we had read stops, the gospel continues with a further explanation: “I have spoken this to you,” Jesus tells the disciples, “so that my joy may be in you, and your joy complete.” Your joy complete, plērōthē. It’s a very important word in Paul’s Letters and associated with the fullness of God’s presence; with being filled to the brim and overflowing with the spirit of God. But what is equally important in John’s Gospel is that the joy is ours only in its first being Christ’s: “that my joy may be in you, and your joy complete.” This is the experience of eastering the ordinary or, as Gerard Manley Hopkins writes: “let your souls always/ Make each morn an Easter Day.”

But now we have to return to the passage in our reading this morning. For the completeness of this joy follows from not being the vine but a branch of the vine. Only in being incorporated into the main cord of life can the branch grow, flourish, flower and bear fruit. “Dwell in me, as I in you.” This is a curious phrase: we are in Christ and Christ is in us. I always think this co-inhabiting, this co-abiding, is like one of those Celtic love-knot figures you find on ancient crosses: one oval link caught up with another oval link and creating a chain. You find the same design on Celtic knitwear and, I imagine, early Celtic woven baskets. It’s certainly on the Celtic pottery that has survived: a weaving of I in you as you in me, which is not just a symbol and reminder, because the very weaving or knitting enacts the design. Living in a creation that is God-bearing, because emerging in and through Christ, we enact that love-knot figuration. 

I don’t know whether you have ever seen the growth of a vine up close. There’s a large one, trained, along the back of the Masters’ Garden here in Christ Church. The branches begin as tiny buds that then become little tendrils which curl and twist around the wiring training them before coming into feathered leaves. These then blossom, and when the blossom dies small clusters of green sprouts are formed that feed on water and sunlight until they swell and darken into grapes. The analogy Jesus is drawing upon follows this living and creative growth: living in a way that interweaves our life with Christ’s and swells with fruitfulness that others can enjoy. For the completion of our joy is not just our growing up into Christ, it is providing for the growth of others. The flowering and fruiting fulfil what we are, but there is also a continually generous and liberal giving of the life of Christ within us to others; a giving of life to others indiscriminately. For who can police and hinder whoever comes and plucks the grapes to taste their sweetness?

And this returns us to the nun walking the beach on the isle of Unst, her black robes billowing around her in the wind. For there is nearly always a wind on these Scottish islands, even in summer. She tells the interviewer that living continually in the overwhelming presence of God which the landscape opens around her and for her, people are exposed to what is outside themselves, what exceeds them and makes them aware of being a filament of life in a vast planetary and inter-planetary orchestration. This she says is “the beginning of faith”. Yes, it’s a beginning. What must be learnt is that the joy that can be experienced in such an exposure to that God-bearing creation is only ever sustainable and brought to its completion when fed into an acknowledgement of Christ’s joy. “I have spoken this to you, so that my joy may be in you, and your joy complete.” What the film-crew do not record, for the scenes and the interviews were all done in summer, is that learning the joy that is in Christ, the joy of faith, often takes place over what are called the ‘black months’: those times from late September to April when there is more darkness than light, very little evidence of growth, storm-named winds and pelting rains that scour the landscape. Weather then can be so violent, the beach the nun walks upon may be stripped entirely of sand and return to the splintered basalt beneath. That’s when the journey into yourself begins, uncovering your need for Christ, and his joy. That’s when faith is carved out of solitude and resilience is formed. Only because of that resilience, rooted in faith and co-abiding in Christ, will there be any budding, blossoming, leafing and fruiting for others to enjoy when summer comes.