18 January 2007

A Welsh Mystic

“Ann Griffiths (née Thomas, 1776 - August 1805) was a Welsh poet and writer of Methodist hymns. A tenant farmer's daughter from village of Llanfihangel-yng-Ngwynfa, near Llanfyllin in Powys, mid-Wales, she was brought up in the Anglican Church, but joined the Methodist movement after hearing the preaching of Rev. Benjamin Jones of Pwllheli, in 1796. Following the deaths of both her parents, she married Thomas Griffiths, a farmer from the parish of Meifod and an elder of the Methodist church. She died following childbirth aged 29, and was buried on 12 August 1805 at Llanfihangel-yng-Ngwynfa. She left behind a handful of stanzas in the Welsh language. These were preserved and published by her mentor, the Calvinistic Methodist minister, John Hughes of Pontrobert, and his wife, Ruth, who had been maid at Ann Griffith's farm and was a close confidante. Ann's poems are an expression of her fervent evangelical Christian faith, and reflect her incisive intellect and thorough scriptural knowledge. She is the most prominent female hymn-writer in Welsh. Her work is regarded as a highlight of Welsh literature, and her longest poem was described by the dramatist and literary critic, Saunders Lewis, as 'one of the majestic songs in the religious poetry of Europe'. From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ann_Griffiths

In fact she left behind her some seventy stanzas of verse and eight letters. It is important to remember that she did not write hymns, however well she is known nowadays as a hymnologist; nor were her verses written for publication, or even for retention: she tried to hide them, and said about them that she did not wish anyone to have them after her as they were written for her own comfort. She had considered writing a religious journal, but these poems of praise seem to have taken its place, the verses being written after periods of deep contemplation, periods when she would ‘completely fail to perform my duty with regard to temporal things’ as she said in a letter. There is a clue, here, to Ann Griffiths’ having been granted a great Grace by God.

A brief digression into the theology of the Calvinistic Methodism she learned is necessary here: its emphasis lies on the efficacy of the Atonement as accomplished by the mediatorship and sacrifice of the God-Man Christ. The efficacy of Christ’s Blood is such that man is reconciled to God while God’s majesty and dignity are upheld. The separation between fallen man and God had to be remedied by a covenant or contract which would bring the two together. This was effected in a unique manner through the Incarnation.

Ann Griffiths longed for a faith which would enable her to look into, not merely at, the plan of Salvation. She asks for supernatural appreciative love which will lead her to the worship of God for His own sake:

O to have the faith to look
With angel hosts above
Into salvation’s scheme
Great mystery of love.

Oh for a life of sanctifying
The pure and holy name of God.

Her realisation of the sanctity of God imbues her with respect and a sense of her own unworthiness:

To come to the King’s table
Who bids me to sit higher
When in the dust to love him
Was this weakling’s sole desire.

The Incarnation is a source of wonder:

Two natures in one person
Inseparable henceforth
Yet one ‘spite their distinction
I marvel ever more.

Yet even this sense of wonder is subordinated to an ardent desire for longing for union with the Godhead:

There to share with him the secret
Revealed to us within these wounds
To kiss the Son eternally
And turn my back on Him no more.

According to Dom Augustine Baker:

“The most sublime exercises of contemplation may as purely and perfectly be performed by persons the most ignorant and unlearned (so they be sufficiently instructed in the Catholic faith) as by the learnedest doctors, inasmuch as not any abilities in the brain are requisite thereto, but only a courageous affection of the heart.”

Many people who set out to lead a spiritual life will reach the initial stages of contemplation; the conditions and opportunities which are the ordinary means of reaching the higher states of contemplation are simply not available to most people. But even to those who reach them, “mystical experience”, the experimental direct perception of God’s being and presence is not necessarily available, because it is a free gift of God which cannot be obtained through one’s own efforts.

There are several instances where Ann Griffiths seems to have been granted such a mystical experience. Here is just one:

“When returning from a Communion service at Bala … her mind was so absorbed in meditation on the mystery of the Trinity and the mystery of Christ’s Person and the happiness of seeing Him as He is and of being like Him and being with Him for ever that she had travelled about five miles over the Berwyn Mountains on a usually obstreperous beast in a state of complete unconsciousness … it was on that occasion that she composed the hymn:

O happy hour of rest eternal
From all the labours that I bore
Steeped in a sea of glorious wonders
Endless without bound or shore;
Entrance free to dwell for aye
In the courts of Three-in-One
A shoreless sea to swim for ever
Man a God and God a Man.

There is one conclusion I have never seen drawn from any study of Ann Griffiths. In the Allocution Singulari Quadam, given the day after the definition of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, Pius IX, after affirming that nobody can be saved outside the Church, allows that those invincibly ignorant are not subject to any guilt in this matter. Pius XII also spoke of “those who are ordained to the Mystical Body of the Redeemer by some kind of unconscious desire or longing”, and their not being excluded from eternal salvation. The life of Ann Griffiths (whom we can assume to have been completely ignorant of the Church) gives us the opportunity to see that these are not mere words. Those who do not have the Church and who are open to God’s Love can be blessed as we who are members of the Church can be blessed.

I have drawn heavily on "The Hymns of Ann Griffiths" by Fr John Ryan OMI, with translations by Robert O F Wynne and John Ryan (Tŷ ar y Graig 1980). A website devoted to Ann Griffiths is maintained by Cardiff University at http://www.anngriffiths.cardiff.ac.uk.

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