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Hallo again to all.

We've never talked about Iceland before. In the last week, though, Volcanic fissure at Kirbubaejarklaustur we've been captivated by the autobiography of an Icelandic Lutheran priest named Jón Steingrímsson, whose life story is too good to keep from sharing.* He strikes us as a kind of wonderful combination between George Herbert and Indiana Jones — and we like to think that his attitudes of local pastoral commitment and intentional Christian response are characteristically Anglican in their own way.

Jón was pastor of the southern Icelandic parish of Kirkjubæjarklaustur in 1783 during what turned out to be one of the most powerful volcanic eruptions in history. (Ashes from the Whitsunday eruption of Mount Laki were mentioned by Benjamin Franklin during his diplomatic tenure in France.) In the midst of the eruption occurred one of the most famous events of Icelandic history, the Eldmessa or Fire Mass. On July 20th, 1783, Jón gathered all those he could find into a church on the bank of the Skaftá River, expecting that this would be their last opportunity to worship on a Sunday before the building itself was consumed. The following words from his autobiography can be confirmed in every detail by the geological record today:

The molten lava now began to flow down the riverbed; and it seemed inevitable that it would destroy the church. It was in full course down the slope of the riverbed, heading for the monastic farm and the church. […] the Fourth Sunday after Trinity, I was holding a service in the church, which was shaking and quaking from the cataclysm that threatened it from upstream. But I was so unafraid—and so, I think, were all the rest of the congregation—that we were contented and prepared to accept whatever God might send. We called fervently and earnestly upon God, who so ordained it that the lava did not advance a single foot […], but piled itself up in a heap, layer upon layer. In addition, all the local lakes and rivers came flooding down upon the heaped-up lava and violently quenched it. To God alone be the glory!

Jón and much of his flock survived the eruption, facing it with unflinching and sometimes shocking faith. He became an immediate source of stability and strength for local people, burying the dead, distributing food and money, taking communion to the dying throughout his parish, and tending to the wounds of the injured. Jón is still known in Icelandic history as the brave eldklerkur or 'fire priest'. His wife Þórunn died not long after the eruption, however, and her death, coupled with malnutrition and continued environmental hardships, forced the priest of Kirkjubæjarklaustur into a deep depression. It was then that he began his literary labours, recording all the events of his life that he could remember, and producing what is still probably Iceland’s most famous autobiography. It has seldom been so difficult for us to put down any book, fiction or non-fiction. Jón's writing was born from natural disaster, personal loss and the pure chemicals of faith, strength, love and hard-wrought character; it reads as well today as any autobiography we've ever read.

Iceland's reformation was similar in many ways to our own: it was a top-down affair that left the church year and liturgical customs intact, along with diocesan and parochial structures, the orders of bishop and priest, and a thorough system of parochial care and catechesis. On some days of the week, we would be tempted to chalk up Jón Steingrímsson's astonishing pastoral daring to his place in a national church with good structures and oversight, a lack of internal controversy, or plain clarity of mission. But tonight a priest's willingness to go with his flock in prayer through fissures in the very earth looks more like a fine and stark example of human love — the 'love that asks no question, the love that stands the test' — the kind of love that is willing to be wrong in the face of molten lava, but which stays and prays and doesn't run.

Many of us live and worship in our own volcanically active parishes; most AO readers watch the tectonic plates of our communion rub and scrape up against each other rather volubly each week. We need not go to strangely-named places abroad in order to find rumblings beneath our feet, before our eyes or in our breasts. But Jón Steingrímsson's staying in place, his loving in place, is surely a powerful inspiration to all of us to plough through and to keep on together in hope of that place whose 'ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace'.

See you next week.

All of us here at Anglicans Online

Last updated: 6 November 2005

*A Very Present Help in Trouble: The Autobiography of the Fire-Priest. Translated by Michael Fell. American University Studies, Series VII: Theology and Religion, volume 215. Peter Lang Publishing, 2002. ISBN 0820452068.


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