At last, on 6th October Saturday through God’s mercy we went on a pilgrimage to the sites of preaching and repose of St Birinus St Birinus (page 39). The long-awaited companion the sun, after a night of heavy rain, made our journey all the more enjoyable. This was the first pilgrimage for our spontaneously assembled team, with some of us were getting to know each other as we travelled.
Although this pilgrimage was a little impromptu, the seeds of a plan began to emerge after our previous pilgrimage to the Holy Hierarch Augustine, Archbishop of Canterbury, and Saint Mildred, the Abbess of Minster last August. Also, in August my relatives and I visited Winchester Cathedral, where some of the Holy relics of St Birinus were translated from Dorchester, and where I prayed in front of this rather unique deisis (see photo below) with the icon of St Birinus (first from the left). Soon after, I came across this map of a 12 mile pilgrimage route through many sites related to the Saint’s earthly life.
Icon of Saint Birinus (first on left) written by Sergei Fedorov in 1996 as part of this nine-figure deisis in St Swithun’s shrine of Winchester Cathedral. Photo of 13/08/2012.
The translation of St Birinus’ Holy relics to Winchester is celebrated by the Russian Orthodox Church on 17th September (4th September by the old style). This was the very day I happened to return from Voronezh to London via Moscow. This is the same day we also celebrate Synaxis of the Voronezh Saints, whose intercessions have been frequently felt by myself, a native of Voronezh. Back in London, our intention to visit the sites of preaching and repose of St Birinus was blessed by our dear priests; however, it was decided to complete the 12 mile pilgrimage route on foot later in the future.
The main part of the pilgrimage (at least as far as the physical efforts were concerned), was walking up the Churn Knob tumulus which is on top of Churn Hill. It is commonly accepted that this is exactly the site where St Birinus first met King Cynegils of Wessex in the first half of 7th century, and possibly also preached to the local people. On top of Churn Hill near the tumulus lies a wooden Cross, which was erected in 2000 but removed in 2006 allegedly for bureaucratic (!) reasons. As soon as we arrived there, some of us decorated the Cross with freshly picked flowers. Father Vitalij, who was leading our pilgrimage, served a Moleben (a short service) beside the Cross. The service to our Holy Father Birinus, Bishop of Dorchester-on-Thames can be found by following the link (in English). The feast day of his repose is celebrated on 16th December (3rd December by the old style).
Remarkably, it is the kingdom of Wessex that may also be regarded as the nucleus of what eventually became the unified kingdom of England. In particular, the Royal English family can trace their lineage back to those times and places, hence also a connection with the Holy Royal martyrs and passion-bearers of Russia. Thus, it was these same lands which 13 centuries ago saw St Birinus at the age of 35 arriving with his irrepressible zeal to serve the Lord. Who are they, or Lord, Your Saints? A form of life completely detached from ours? Well, not really, as from what we read it seems that Saint Birinus was not immune to forgetfulness and possibly to distraction, which affects some of us especially at the time of preparing for a journey. And so with St Birinus, when after boarding a ship in Genoa bound to England, he suddenly realised that he had forgotten his antimins on the seashore, and without it , a Liturgy cannot be served. But… putting all his hope onto God and having prayed, the Saint left the ship and reached the shore walking on the waters as if on the ground. Having recovered the antimins, in the very same way he returned to the ship and sat down on board. The astonished sailors witnessed that all the vestments of the bishop remained perfectly dry. These lines are my own back-translation from Russian of Saint Birinus Apostle of Wessex, which itself must have been translated from an English source. The particular usage of the Russian verb “sat” (as if having crouched) in “sat on the board” might be simply a free variant of “got on board”, but the way it appears in Russian actually suggests that the seat was taken for a brief time, as if in a state of fatigue that caused the Saint to sit down on the board just to catch his breath… Regardless of the accuracy of this particular account, there are many others suggesting that in their earthly lives Saints just like ordinary human beings can indeed get tired… well, after all, their bodies also experience physical dying. Let everyone draw their own conclusion, but for me personally the main distinction hides in the goal of the journey.
These photos give a glimpse of how much we all, just like little children, enjoyed the whole event… embracing every single beam of sunshine, an infrequent guest on Perfidious Albion. But did we catch a glimpse of the one who shone forth here in the middle of 7th centuary?
After a small picnic we moved to Dorchester Abbey (Dorchester-on-Thames, the Abbey Church of St Peter and St Paul), where St Birinus, who remains largely unknown to Orthodox Christians outside England, was buried after his 15 years of apostolic service.
What to ask of the Lord through the intercession of St Birinus, especially now on the eve of the feast of his repose? Hmm… Perhaps, to help us see better how much we have already been given and to forgive our ingratitude?
15th December, 2012