The story of Joseph Leycester Lyne, better known as Fr Ignatius of Jesus (1837-1908), and his quixotic attempts to revive Benedictine monasticism in the nineteenth century Church of England as reasonably well known. The story is too complicated to go into here, and those who would wish to know more, and read an enjoyable and at times tragi-comic story I would refer to Hugh Allen’s recent book New Llanthony Abbey: Father Ignatius’s Monastery at Capel-y-ffin (Tiverton: Peterscourt Press, 2016). The community was no more stable than its founder, and it was marked by a regular turnover of members. It did not survive Ignatius’s death. After various temporary homes the community arrived in Capel-y-finn, about three and a half miles from the ruins of the Augustinian priory of Llanthony Prima, and St David’s Church, which stands on the site of the cell occupied by St David in the sixth century.
Llanthony and Capel-y-finn are located in the Black Mountains, and area of incomparable natural beauty. It also feels very remote, cut off from the rest of the world. In the 1870s and 1880s it must have felt like the ends of the earth. Due to its exotic nature Fr Ignatius and his community also became cut off from the mainstream of the Church of England. Given the physical and ecclesiastical isolation, it is not surprising that quite odd things happened. The oddest of these began on 30th August 1880 and continued until 15th September. It began with the monstrance, complete with host, kept locked in the tabernacle, appearing on the altar outside the tabernacle. Then followed a series of visions, identified as being of Our Lady. As nothing concerning Llanthony is without an element of farce she was seen hovering over the rhubarb patch.
It is impossible to know what really went on in the summer of 1880. But it resulted in an annual pilgrimage, the first Marian pilgrimage in the Church of England (this was, of course, before the disestablishment of the Welsh church). Of course this ended with Ignatius’s death. His Abbey Church fell into ruin, and the monastery became a private house, occupied initially by Eric Gill and his family and followers. Attempts were made to revive the pilgrimage in the 1930s and 60s, but it was not until the establishment of the Fr Ignatius Memorial Trust in 1967 the matters were put on firm foundations.
The pilgrimage is now, once more, an annual event, held on the Saturday following the Feast of the Assumption. I have attended twice, the first time in 2013, and again this year. In 2013 I was a Benedictine monk, and naturally wore my habit. I therefore decided this time to go habited as Probationer in the Oratory of the Good Shepherd, and was thus the object of much admiration! I was slightly surprised how many people recognised the habit, but OGS is better known in Monmouth Diocese than maybe elsewhere, as Dominic, OGS was Bishop of Monmouth 2003-2013.
The day started with Mass in St David’s Church, celebrated by Canon Mark Soady, Vicar of Abergavenny and Prior of the Holywell Community. This is a group of young people who live under a modified version of the Rule of St Benedict for between 12 and 24 months, a sort of ‘gap year for God’, engaged in outreach to the local community.
After this we had a bring and share picnic lunch in the shadow of the ruins of Llanthony Prima. This was a convivial event and I got to meet pilgrims who had come from far and wide. I think those who had come furthest were from the well known Anglo-Catholic shrine of St Chrysostom’s, Manchester. The intrepid, or foolhardy, then walked to Capel-y-finn. Feeling that a mud covered habit would reduce the level of admiration, I accepted a lift from Fr Richard Williams, Vicar of Hay on Wye (whose parish includes Capel-y-finn). In St Mary’s Church there we sang Evensong, the tiny church packed with around 50 pilgrims. Dom Cuthbert Brogan, Abbot of Farnborough, preached a very witty sermon about Ignatius and some of his many eccentricities. The Litany of Our Lady was then sung in procession up to Ignatius’s monastery, with devotions at the site of the apparition and the statue of Our Lady. A very welcome tea, provided by the current owners of the monastery, Mr and Mrs Knill, then followed.
Fr Ignatius was undoubtedly and eccentric. He was also clearly temperamentally unsuited to be a religious superior. Attempting to create a monastic community without any actual experience of monastic life is always going to be fraught with dangers, but Ignatius was a poor judge of character and a superior who imposed impossible rigours on his monks whilst avoiding them himself because of his ‘delicate’ constitution. But he fascinated people during his lifetime and continues to fascinate people today, in a way say Richard Meux Benson, founder of the rather more successful and stable Cowley Fathers, does not. Is it because we love an heroic failure? I do not think so. There is a certain something about Fr Ignatius. But just as I would not like to pass judgement concerning the events of August and September 1880, so I would not like to pass final judgement on Ignatius.