Flame in The Mountains: Williams Pantycelyn, Ann Griffiths and the Welsh Hymn
Y Lolfa, Ceredigion, 2017
One of the mysteries of moving house is the loss of, sometimes even quite precious, possessions. For my sixteenth birthday I had been given a shoe box of cassette tapes containing recordings of conferences given by Thomas Merton to the novices at Gethsemane. Ten years or so ago I noticed that I no longer had them, I still grieve their loss. Merton’s voice, his friendly, occasionally teasing, manner still remains with me and I loved listening to him speak on St Bernard, the monastic tradition, Lao Tsu, and most beloved of all Rilke. In the lectures on Rilke, Merton memorably reads the poem Der Panther in German. There is nothing quite like reading a poem in its original language. I had done German O’level and although could barely order a meal in German now, still read Rilke in the unforgettable original. Der Panther still makes me think of Merton’s soft American twang.
It was Merton who introduced me, in his writings, to A. M. Allchin, Anglican priest, contemplative and poetic voice (I think in the collection of letters The Road to Joy). I read everything I could of Allchin, and eventually heard him speak and then met him at Fairacres, the Anglican convent in Oxford. When I visited Gethsemane and met Chryosgonus Waddell, monk and musician, we talked about Allchin as well as plainsong and the Daily Office.
From Allchin I discovered the Welsh poetic tradition and the hymns of Ann Griffiths (1776 – 1805). Allchin described himself as a ‘fortunate foreigner’ in his discovery of this Welsh literary tradition and learnt Welsh in order to access the tradition. In 2005 I led a retreat at Llangasty retreat house on the Welsh poets Gwennallt, Herbert and Henry Vaughan. A Welsh speaking priest read the Welsh version of Gwenallt’s The Lord’s Supper – one of the greatest Eucharistic poems – to me and I was captivated. I determined then to read, at least to pronounce, the Welsh originals. Well, it has taken a long time and a move to Liverpool but I began the process earlier this year and the recent publication of Flame in The Mountains: Williams Pantycelyn, Ann Griffiths and the Welsh Hymn, to mark the 300th anniversary of Pantycelyn’s (1717 – 1791) birth, have made me very glad that I did so.
I love these overlapping connections in life, the way in which, like surfing the internet or browsing a library one thing leads to another. There is a lovely Welsh phrase heol myfyrdod in Flame In the Mountains which well describes this sort of journey. Heol is a road or a way, myfyrdod is thought, study, meditation. This is a book to be studied and meditated on for a long time.
Flame in the Mountains is the result of a collaboration between A.M. Allchin and H.A. Hodges, both were ‘fortunate foreigners’ who learnt Welsh later in life. They had intended to publish their work for the bi-centenary of Ann Griffith’s birth in 1976, unfortunately Hodges died, later the hymn scholar E Wyn James, editor of the book, intended to publish for the bi-centenary of Griffiths death in 2005 and worked with Allchin to this end. Happily, the work has come to fruition at last.
After introductory material including a life of Hodges written by his granddaughter and a bibliography of his published work, Flame is in two parts. The first, on Pantycelyn has three previously published papers by Hodges followed by a small selection of Hodges translations. The second on Griffiths also contains three previously published essays, the third a translation by Hodges of a paper by Saunders Lewis. These are followed by the complete hymns and letters of Ann Griffiths. The hymns appear in Welsh alongside metrical translations by Hodges (edited by James) and are followed by extremely helpful notes which include more literal, prose translations of the hymns prepared by Hodges and Allchin. There is also a useful section containing the multiple Scriptural references and allusions identified in the hymns and letters.
For anyone familiar with Allchin’s previous work on Griffiths (see further references below) or for someone new to her, Flame is an invaluable resource for study and reflection. Allchin’s great gift was the ability to synthesise elements of the Christian tradition, to see in them that great stream of the work of the Spirit which is the One Tradition. His links with Fairacres and Gilbert Shaw stand him in a strong thread of Anglican ecumenism that encompasses the Christian East and West and is about the underlying unity of spiritual experience rather than institutional agreements. An ‘ecumenism of holiness’.
Griffiths and Pantycelyn represent the same spring of Christian tradition: Welsh Methodism which, unlike its English counterpart, was strongly Calvinist. Both had started life as Anglicans and Pantycelyn was even ordained deacon. He lived a public life as a preacher and teacher; Griffith’s all too short life was private, lived in a farmhouse and ending in child birth.
I cannot recommend reading this book highly enough. It is an important work that opens up a source of spirituality that is profoundly Christian and genuinely expressing the geography of the country in which the two hymn writers lived. This is no synthetic, new-age faux Celtic spirituality, but the lived experience of Christians.
A few themes stood out for me from my first reading of Flame. Having just re-read Milton’s Paradise Lost and finding it a deeply mystical, even erotic text, I was struck by how the Puritanism of Welsh Calvinism is also really deeply mystical. Over and over again there are references and allusions to the Song of Songs, even the phrase heol myfyrdod has its origin in the Welsh Bible’s version of Song of Solomon 3:1-4. The mysticism is, of course, deeply focussed on Jesus. There is none of the didacticism of so many of the hymns of the Wesleys, the theology that is being taught here is a personal relationship with the Saviour.
A strong theme through both writers is the concept of the ‘eternal covenant’ a significant element in Calvinist theology. Having its roots in the letter to the Hebrews this is the covenant made within the Trinity, before time or creation began, by which the Father and the Son agree to the history of salvation which is to follow:
Cyn llunio’r byd, cyn lledu’r nefoedd wen,
Cyn gosod haul, na lloer, na ser uwchben,
Fe drefnwyd ford yng nghyngor Tri yn Un
I achub gwael golledig euog ddyn.
Before the world was formed, before the bright heavens were spread out, before sun or moon or stars above were set in place, a way was planned in the council of Three in One to save wretched, lost guilty man.
(In a hymn by Peter Jones, 1775-1845 Flame p.53)
For Hodges there is a real link here to the famous icon of the Trinity by Andrei Rublev. The sacrificial aspect of that icon is often overlooked but in the biblical text it is obvious, the three angels come to announce the birth of Isaac; Abraham’s response is to slaughter a calf which he will do again when he has been tested to the point of sacrificing Isaac himself. Hodges draws attention to the dynamic of the Rublev icon – also often ignored. The sacrificial meal at the centre of the table; the Father and the Spirit pointing towards that sacrifice, the Son, his face to the Father, accepting the Passion at the instigation of the Father and the Spirit: “Rublev has here given us the Trinity not in being but in action” (Hodges, p. 54).
This concept of the eternal covenant is one I am not altogether familiar with and is something I need longer to dwell on and study, but explained in the context of the icon it speaks strongly to me. This dynamic element in the Rublev icon immediately makes sense and gives it new energy and meaning.
Two other themes need drawing attention to. The frequent, almost constant presence of references in Griffiths’ hymns to water and the depths of the ocean. I am immediately reminded of the famous prayer of Catherine of Siena:
You, O Eternal Trinity, are a deep sea,
Into which the deeper I enter the more I find
And the more I find the more I seek.
Allchin has written about Elizabeth of the Trinity in relation to the spirituality of Ann Griffiths. Elizabeth’s famous prayer in which she asks to be immersed in the Trinity also finds many parallels here. But in some ways there is a more mature element to Griffiths who seeks to swim in the vast ocean that is the Trinity but not to be consumed by it. The letters we possess from her are mainly to John Hughes, a Christian friend who lived in the farmhouse and eventually married the maid servant. This mature friendship between a man and woman at this time is striking and seems to characterise this profound understanding of the integrity of personhood, an integrity which the Calvinist concept of the eternal Covenant locates within the Trinity, with its need for such a covenant between authentic persons.
There are only thirty hymns by Griffiths but the theme of water occurs in 14 of them, sometimes on multiple occasions:
O! ddyfnderoedd iechydwriaeth,
Dirgelwch mawr duwioldeb yw,
O the deeps of our salvation!
Mystery of godliness!
Ynghanol mor o ryfeddodau
Heb weled terfyn Blyth, na glan;
Mynediad helaeth byth i bara
I fewn trigfannau Tri yn Un;
Dwr i’w nofio heb find trywddo,
Dyn yn Dduw, a Duw yn ddyn.
Sea of wonders never sounded,
Sea where none can find a shore;
Access free to dwell for ever
Yonder with the One in Three
Deeps no foot of man can traverse
God and man in unity.
This sense of participation in the Trinity, so close to the theosis of Eastern Christian spirituality clearly demonstrates the presence of the One Tradition and the deep experience of Ann Griffiths in the life of prayer.
The final element of the hymns I will draw attention to here is the sense of wonder, already present in the verse quoted above. For Griffiths the human response, her response, to the eternal Covenant is simply wonder (rhyfeddu):
Fford a’i henw yn ‘Rhyfeddol’,
Hen, a heb heneiddio, yw.
A way whose name is wonderful, it is old and yet it grows not old.
And even more powerfully a phrase worthy of John of the Cross:
Mewn mor o ryfeddodau
O! Am gael treulio f’oes.
O to spend my life in a sea of wonders.
Ann Griffith’s letters are the real delight of this book for me. She reminds me most of Therese of Lisieux, that sense of wonder, total love for Jesus and unselfconscious writing about her inner life. Most of all the deep friendship she has with John Hughes – to get a glimpse of that intimate sharing of gospel living across the two centuries since her death is a great gift.
There is so much more in these hymns and letters. I sincerely hope this volume brings them to the attention of more people and leads readers to an ever closer love of Jesus, a depth of wonder in the eternal Covenant of sacrifice that is the work of redemption, and which draws us to lives of holiness:
O! Am fywyd o sancteiddo
Sanctaidd enw pur fly Nuw.
O for a life of sanctifying the holy pure name of my God.
The Gift of Theology: The Trinitarian Vision of Ann Griffiths and Elizabeth of Dijon
AM Allchin, SLG Press
Praise Above All: Discovering the Welsh Tradition
A.M. Allchin, Cardiff 1991
The World Is A Wedding: Explorations in Christian Spirituality
A.M. Allchin, DLT 1978
Boundless Grandeur: The Christian Vision of A.M. Donald Allchin,
Ed. David G.R. Keller
The Kingdom of Love and Knowledge: The Encounter Between Orthodoxy and the West,
A.M. Allchin, DLT 1979
For the poetry of Gwenallt referred to see:
Sensuous Glory: the Poetic Vision of D. Gwenallt Jones,
ed Donald Allchin, D. Dentil Morgan, Patrick Thomas
Canterbury Press 2000
The Welsh complete edition of Gwenallt’s poetry:
Cerddi Gwenallt: Y Casgliad Cyflawn
Gomez, Llandysul, 2000
See also the Rowan Williams poem “I see him standing” a poetic version of the Griffiths hymn “Wele’n sefyll rhwng y myrtwydd” (There he stands among the myrtles).
Additional reading (added 24/9/17)
Pursued by God: Theomemphus by William Williams of Pantycelyn
Evangelical Press of Wales, 1996
Bread of Heaven: The Life and Work of William Williams, Pantycelyn
Brintirion Press, 2010
Ann Griffiths: The Furnace and the Fountain
A M Allchin
University of Wales Press, 1987
Apologies to real Welsh speakers and readers for any errors in my transcriptions here, I am only just beginning. All corrections gratefully received.