Review of 'Ann Griffiths and her Writings' by Llewellyn Cumings

Published on 24 May 2018
bust of ann griffiths

by Paul Collins

Sr Anne Morris once reminded retreatants that St Beuno’s was in Wales, the land of my father(s) in fact, with its rich heritage. We are reminded of this in the building itself by Hopkins’ poems on display in both English and Welsh - enriched by his learning of the latter to perfect his poetic technique. In this spirit, I bring to the attention of the Friends this book about her by Llewellyn Cumings from an Ignatian perspective, entitled Ann Griffiths and her writings (Fairacres Publications, 2015).

Ann Griffiths (1776-1805) is regarded as the greatest female poet and hymnist in the Welsh language. This publication is by an Anglican priest living in Wales. Ann died young following childbirth and is buried with her baby in Llanfihangel-yng-Ngwynfa parish churchyard, Powys, still a place reverenced by pilgrims today. She was born, lived and worked on a Montgomeryshire farm in the Berwyn Hills and as such her spiritual writings are most remarkable. Her spiritual awakening compares with that of great women mystics such as Therese de Lisieux.

The booklet covers her life, hymns and letters. The spirituality expressed throughout her hymns was grounded in love of God through Christ. This was a love she reciprocated and was the constant source of wonder and humble gratitude that pervaded her brief life. It was about the relationship with her Maker (and with her fellows) and the key role of the Holy Spirit therein. It was also grounded in meditation, the word of God and sharings with fellow believers and spiritual mentors.

Fundamental in her writings is the Cross, its redemptive role and the prospect of heaven. Whilst there is no hiding place, there is also no resting place on earth. God’s self-sacrifice makes peace. To paraphrase one of the hymns, how can the Peace on Christ’s face, in life and after his death, be reflected in our faces?

The hymns also stress praise and thanks. Both are connected with God’s remarkable forgiving nature: we meet there “the favoured sinner”. It is indeed the Ignatian God of Surprises that we encounter in these verses, who, if we are open, we can find in all things. For Griffiths, God is to be found in quietness but equally and importantly in contemporary contexts, on the street and not just in churches, chapels and beautiful settings.

Ann also had her “desolations”. She struggled at times with a sense of her own inconstancy and sinfulness. In her writings, faith can sometimes waiver: “(I) now grow cold toward my God”. Yet she also was keenly aware of the supremacy of God: we can only wait on him to speak, to give the sign. She had the conviction that we are nothing on our own. In her work, Griffiths displayed a powerful recognition of the role of God’s gifts (for her, waters that flow from “Bethesda’s lake”), God’s healing and ultimately the “mystery” of it all.

Her letters reflect a kind of “Examen”, done at various stages in her journey, into her own spiritual state. They feature absolute honesty but are tempered with reassurance from the Bible, especially the book of Isaiah. She refers to her trials, misery, pain, conceit and shame. She even doubts the authenticity of her inspiration. Yet she recognises the mercy and grace of God’s interventions in her life, the “flame of fire”. She also looks forward: “I saw what little time is left to me in placing myself daily and continually body and soul into the care of him who is able to keep me what is given to him until that day… but I wait for the time to be freed and be with Christ for that is far better”. She accepts tests and trials as sent from God to purge her. What seems critical is that this is founded in a view of our Maker as non-judgemental: a God who waits patiently for us to be restored and renewed as we turn back wholeheartedly to Christ. The Psalms also provide her with hope: “the Lord thy God is strong in the midst of thee.”

The conclusion of Cumings’ book stands back, in equal wonder. It is stated that Griffiths grew up in a “rural backwater” in a very different world and times – with inbuilt tranquillity and neighbourly intimacy for sharing. Ignatius of Loyola was likewise from a very different world to ours yet his pilgrimage and teachings have profound relevance, as do Ann Griffiths’ hymns, still sung in Welsh with reverence and fervour today.

For those interested, Cumings’ book has been translated into Welsh by Nia Rhosier under the title: ANN GRIFFITHS A’I HAWEN and is available on sale at the John Hughes Memorial Chapel, the Centre for Christian Unity and Renewal, Powys, of which she is the Custodian.