Exploring England’s oldest Anglo-Saxon church

One of England’s most alluring traits is the way its historical ages pile atop one another. This is a nation where farmers discover Roman coin hordes in their fields, where people drink in 400 year-old pubs, where people worship in churches that have been around as long as England has been Christian.

If you’re ever visiting Durham in northern England be sure to take a brief drive or bus trip to the nearby village of Escomb. In the center of town stands this church, built sometime around 670-690 AD. England was not England back then, but rather a patchwork of warring Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. In many regions, people had converted to Christianity within living memory, and there were still some who clung to the Old Religion. The crumbling remains of Roman cities, forts, and shrines could still be seen, remnants of a greater civilization that was already taking on the character of legend.

At this time some unknown individuals built this church. It has been in use almost continually ever since and is the oldest intact Anglo-Saxon church in the country. Its sturdy walls have borne the centuries well. If you look carefully you can see much of England’s history marked in its stone.

The Anglo-Saxons were actually three distinct tribes–the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes–who came from what is now Denmark and northern Germany to fill the power vacuum left by the departing Romans in the early fifth century. The Angles settled in this part of the country. They were still pagan then, and would remain so for a century. Eventually churches started to appear. The stone for this church mainly came from an abandoned Roman fort nearby. A couple of the stones even have old Roman inscriptions, one saying “Legion VI”, which had been garrisoned at the fort.

%Gallery-101095%The Angles added their own elements. A seventh century sundial sits high on the wall, decorated with a serpent and a monster’s head. The serpent symbolized the Teutonic creator god of the pagan Angles, and the serpent may be a symbol of the god of chaos and creativity. It’s interesting that the newly converted Angles kept a lot of their pagan symbolism! The sundial has only three marks, to show the times for mass. A more modern sundial with proper hours was added in the seventeenth century.

Inside the church are some early medieval crosses and a baptismal font that once had a locking cover to keep the locals from stealing the holy water to use for spells and folk medicine. Paganism died hard in this part of the country!

What’s most remarkable about this church is that it’s still being used. It was abandoned for a time and was in danger of falling into ruin in the nineteenth century, but the local parish decided to save it. Services are held here regularly, and during my visit I got to speak to the organist, who told me that priests vie with one another to be assigned to such an historic house of worship. The congregation uses a special old Gaelic prayer rooted in the Celtic tradition that fits nicely with the atmosphere of the place:

As the rain hides the stars,
As the Autumn mist hides the hills,
As the clouds veil the blue of the sky,
So the dark happenings of my lot
Hide the shining of thy face from me.
Yet, if I may hold thy hand in darkness,
It is enough,
Since I know, that though I may stumble in my going
Thou dost not fall.

Italian answer to swine flu–automatic holy water dispensers

Visitors to many Italian churches will see a new addition next to the door–automatic holy water dispensers.

Priests have been noticing that worshipers are reluctant to put their hands in the font containing holy water for fear of catching swine flu. About thirty people have died in Italy from the disease and people are a bit jittery about sharing the same water as hundreds of strangers, however holy it might be.

Some churches have even closed their communal fonts, like Milan’s cathedral, pictured here.

When inventor Luciano Marabese saw what was happening, he got to work. He invented an automatic dispenser that works along the same lines as a soap dispenser in a public bathroom, but has the look of a traditional font. The faithful put their hands under the dispenser where an infrared detector senses them and squirts out some holy water. There’s a video of the dispenser in action here.

Now if we can only get people to wash their hands after going to the bathroom. . .

Holy water may be blessed, but don’t carry it on the pope’s plane: The pope says so

A friend of mine told me this summer about how his small jar of apple butter was confiscated at the TSA security check. He was hoping to bring it from Minnesota back to Montana..

Another person recently told me that the snow globe she was bringing back as a souvenir from her vacation to California this summer was also confiscated by TSA. Unfortunately, she read the post about snow globes not being okay in a carry on after she lost her treasure.

Turns out, there is something else to think about when you pack. If you have holy water on you, even if it is blessed by the pope, better be safe and tuck it into your checked bag–particularly if you are traveling with the pope on his plane. Put it in your carry on and it might be confiscated.

Pope Benedict XVI, recognizing the hazards of holy water in a carry-on, is warning people that even the smallest amount could be a problem reports this Reuters article. Pope Benedict was specifically referring to people traveling with him to Lourdes, France from September 12-15.

People travel to Lourdes on a pilgrimage to see the spot where the Virgin Mary appeared to a peasant girl in 1858. Picking up holy water as a souvenir is part of the occasion.

Like the pope, Air France has warned against bringing holy water onto the papal plane as well.

As for other airlines, other planes, and other occasions where you may be bringing holy water home with you, I’d pack it in a checked bag, or take your chances with a bottle if it’s no more than 3-ounces.

But, remember the apple butter and the snow globe and those half empty bottles of bottled water dumped into the trash by TSA. There’s no telling what might happen when you hoist that carry-on onto the conveyor belt that passes through an X-Ray machine.

10 tips for smarter flying

Holy Water Seized by Airport Security

Even holy water must be in a 3-ounce container sealed in a 1-quart plastic bag. Catholic pilgrims on the recently inaugurated Mistral Air found this rule out the hard way, when vials of holy water collected at Lourdes were taken by airport security. The company’s president admitted that international regulations have to be respected.

However, unlike other airlines we’ve written about recently, Mistral Air took care of their passengers. The airline left small Madonna-shaped bottles full of holy water on every seat for when the 145 pilgrims came back on board.

Read the full article here.