During his sabbatical Fr Ian continues his quest for liminal places – places where the everyday world and God’s kingdom seem very close. He writes:
At the far south of the British Isles, and outside the United Kingdom, Hermitage Rock, St Helier, Jersey stands as a reminder of the life of St Helier, who, it is said, lived the life of a hermit on the rock in the sixth century.
The legend of this holy man, venerated in north France and Belgium as well as Jersey, tells how he spent long periods of secluded prayer. At the same time he was pastorally caring for the local people. Hellier guided his companion, St Romard, to provide for the needy among the small population. He also served as a watchman, looking out for danger coming from the sea. The stories tell how he would signal danger, allowing time for the people to hide. While protecting his parishioners in 555 he was discovered on his rock by pirates who then beheaded him.
Like many stories of saints it is easy to find flaws in the story, yet the legends instruct all Christians in the values of prayer, pastoral care, and protection for the vulnerable, key Christian virtues.
It is possible to walk the promontory to climb the rock on which the hermitage chapel was built, over, it is said, St Helier’s bed. An annual local pilgrimage is held on the Sunday close to St Helier’s Day.
We walked to the hermitage on a hot July day. The location takes one apart from the bustle of the town of St Helier and the views from the rock over the seas and bays are wonderful. It is a place to pause and contemplate.
However, for me at least, this special site lacked spiritual atmosphere. There was no plaque to mark the holy place (only a plain cross over the door), or to assist the pilgrim. The gate for access is kept locked although one can look in. There was nowhere to mark the visit with devotion – by lighting a candle, say, or leaving a prayer. I couldn’t help feeling this was an opportunity missed. Even at a very remote place in Finnmark I had come across helpful notices to enrich the experience of the visit.
We decided to say a prayer holding two pebbles from the beach and placed them on the rock the hermitage stands on.
I was reminded that in simple ways it is possible to help visitors to holy places, and indeed to churches such as ours, appreciate the holiness of a place, and help them be enriched spiritually.
The hermitage is managed by the Jersey Heritage Trust, and the only access to the hermitage is through Elizabeth Castle where one has to pay for access. Hopefully sensitive attention and care in the future could help this special and historic place develop, and help it grow as a spiritual place of pilgrimage, a liminal place.