“IF ANYONE desires to come after me,” Christ exhorts, “let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.”
One man who has borne his cross further than most is Cumbria’s only Orthodox priest, Fr John Musther, defying Parkinson’s disease to follow in the footsteps of the saints across the wilds of northern Britain.
As if this were not challenge enough, Fr John Musther, who is 77, has also written a 300-page, lavishly illustrated book, Sacred North, about his pilgrimage.
Fr John’s research for Sacred North has taken him tens of thousands of miles by boat, plane, camper van, and on foot, from the Outer Hebrides to the northernmost part of the Shetland archipelago, as well as to holy sites across Durham, Northumberland, and Cumbria. His gruelling mission took him to some of the most isolated and inhospitable places in Britain.
Despite mobility and balance problems, and constant fatigue and tremors, and spurred onwards by his faith, the former Anglican monk confronted stormy seas and dizzying cliff-top paths to complete his life’s work.
He stumbled over a boulder-strewn beach in poor light on the hunt for St Ciaran’s Cave, on the Achinhoan Headland, in Kintyre. He dragged himself up an Orcadian sea stack (a steep, often vertical column rock in the sea near a coast) using a chain put there to aid the more intrepid pilgrims. He was so determined to see the project through that he completed the last leg recovering from surgery for an aortic aneurism.
Together with his wife, Jenny, and the book’s photographer, Phil Cope, he has visited more than 250 sacred places over the past two years, from well-known centres of early monasticism such as Iona and Lindisfarne, to obscure ruined chapels, secret caves, and lost hermitages.
He struggled over barbed-wire fences and huge ladders straddling high walls, endured a four-hour boat trip to St Kilda on a rough Atlantic swell, and battled head down through wind and rain to reach a ruined chapel known as Tigh a’Bheannaich (House of the Blessed) on the top of the Isle of Lewis.
To get to one far-flung hermitage on the tiny island of Papa Westray, in Orkney, he took the shortest scheduled flight in the world: two minutes in a small plane, in windy conditions. It was worth it, he thinks: “The silence was tangible and the solitude awesome.”
PHIL COPESt Fillan’s Cave, Pittenweem. Most of St Fillan’s life was spent as a hermit in this fishing village, which was named after him (Pittenweem means “place of the cave”). Tradition says that he was able to pray and write thanks to a light that emanated from his arm
THE main contention of Sacred North is that some of the Desert Fathers — early Christian hermits who lived mainly in Egypt — followed trade routes northwards to found early monasteries, spread the gospel, and search for suitable places to practise their rather extreme brand of asceticism here in Britain.
“All my life, I have been fascinated by the question of who these men were, what they were doing, and where did they go?” Fr John explains. “We were familiar with the great sea highway around the coasts of Ireland and Scotland, which was used by the earliest of monks; we followed them, first, up through the west of Scotland, then up the east coast all the way to Shetland. We made a third journey going south into northern Britain.
PHIL COPEThe Dupplin cross, a Pictish carving of the early ninth century, placed for preservation under the 11th/12th century tower of St Serf’s, in Dunning
“We found well over a hundred inspiring and often hidden little-known sacred sites on Arran, Bute, Mull, Skye, Loch Shiel, Raasay, Islay, Colonsay, Eigg, the Outer Hebrides, Barra, St Kilda, Orkney, Shetland, as well as more well-known holy sites such as Iona, Lindisfarne, Jarrow, and Durham. We began our journey in Ardwall and finished in Shetland.
“We discovered the same life, the same solitude, the same prayer, and the same holiness in place after place in between. Their journey and ours became slowly entwined.”
For these early hermits, taking up the cross was not only a solemn instruction to bear life’s burdens with faith in the face of persecution and even death: it was also a call to accept the “new martyrdom” — that of dying to the world and crucifying the flesh through the rigours of the monastic life. They were prepared to go to the ends of the earth to seek a fuller union with Christ, to live on the very edge of what was possible.
“Some of these places were extremely dangerous and exposed, particularly in Shetland,” Fr John observes. “Some were just inaccessible. There were steep and crumbling paths with hundred-foot drops below.
PHIL COPESt Moluagh’s, Raasay, Isle of Skye. It is believed that there has been a place of Christian worship on this site since the latter half of the 500s. The chapel was built in the 1200s
“These hermits had gone to expose themselves to the worst the weather could throw at them, to hardships, winds, and huge seas rolling in. At times, we really were risking life and limb following in their footsteps. But the sense of discovery is enormous. We found some of these places only after years of research.”
A path close to an ancient former sea-stack monastery in northern Scotland has crumbled away since Fr John’s last visit; another site, on one of the North Isles of Shetland, Yell, is so dangerous that it is impossible to get insurance to go there.
Mrs Musther admits to “a few misgivings, a few wobbly moments when we questioned our sanity. . . But they were only moments.”
And the excitement of each trip “never abated, and the thrill of approaching a new site always gave us a spring to our steps,” Mrs Musther says. “Typically, the church ruin, monastic site, cave, grave, or cross was almost always that bit further on than we expected. But John’s motivation spurred me on across one more field of cows, one more bog, round yet another headland.”
The diagnosis of Parkinson’s five years ago brought on “a touch of urgency”, Mrs Musther thinks. Her husband’s motivation was one of the first things that she noticed about him, she recalls. “In our 24 years of marriage, we have always taken holidays which are more like pilgrimages. I have found it impossible to resist catching the fire.
“The monks and saints we follow are as real to him as his closest friends. In fact, they are his close friends.”
PHIL COPEFr John in his attic chapel
FR JOHN’s journey to Orthodoxy began in 1962 when he met a charismatic Russian monk, Fr Sophrony, a disciple and biographer of St Silouan the Athonite, compiler of St Silouan’s works, and the founder of the Patriarchal Stavropegic Monastery of St John the Baptist in Tolleshunt Knights, Essex.
The encounter was “the turning point of my life”, Fr John recalls. “He told me that the purpose of the Christian life is to ask Christ to send the Holy Spirit into our hearts so that he might cleanse us and make us like Christ.
“It summed up the whole of scripture in just one sentence. I was stunned. What made such an impression on me is that I knew this man lived what he talked about. He knew it from direct experience.”
Fr Sophrony had lived for many years on Mount Athos, the peninsula in northern Greece which is a famous centre of Eastern Orthodox monasticism. Armed with letters of introduction from the Athonite, Fr John visited the holy mountain, but was not ready to embrace Orthodoxy.
Impressed by the monastic communities he encountered there, including their ancient tradition of continuous devotion centred on the Jesus Prayer, he spent almost two decades in an Anglican monastery before making the leap of faith to Orthodoxy.
Once ordained priest in the Exarchate of Orthodox Parishes in Western Europe, and in the Deanery of Great Britain and Ireland under the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Fr John founded the Parish of St Bega, St Mungo and St Herbert in Keswick.
Cumbria may seem an unlikely outpost for an Orthodox parish, far as it is from the faith’s ancient Byzantine heartlands. But what Fr John has shown through his book is that these places remain connected through a shared history and a living tradition that transcends both time and space, celebrated every Sunday in the liturgy.
“People are often surprised to discover that the living tradition of the saints has been followed in the British Isles and Ireland since the second century after Christ,” he says. “This book gives a view of the spiritual landscape they would have known. It ran for hundreds of years. Then it was steadily pushed aside. Now we live in another world, an almost totally different one.
“But not quite. There are still Desert Fathers living today.”
Sacred North, published by Culture & Democracy Press, complements Fr John’s previous works, including The Living Tradition of the Saints in the East and West, representing almost half a century of research, study and prayer, and Springs of Living Water, about Cumbria’s holy wells.
The hardback first edition of Sacred North was released last month. It is more than 300 pages long, and contains 450 colour images by Phil Cope of their spiritual odyssey. For a copy (signed and dedicated if you wish) send a cheque for £25 (+£5 p+p) made payable to Fr John Musther, 16 Greta Villas, Keswick, Cumbria CA12 5LJ. For bank transfers or more details email Jenny Musther at firstname.lastname@example.org