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We were talking last night at supper about the Patriarch of Moscow’s concerns to keep the Communist period (1917 to 1988) as an integral part of Russian history, something not to be hidden with shame or disdain.

I found myself, a bit surprisingly, defending the Patriarch. By comparison with what happened in Germany in the years after WW2.

Both countries had had regimes (in Russia communist, in Germany national-socialist), which were widely viewed as harmful to mankind. With the collapse of these regimes there was a call for ‘repentance’ and ‘conversion’ to political and social cultures closer to those of the winners (in particular that of the USA).

I would argue that Germany lost a culture in the process, and a good part of its soul, and is poorer for the process. Yes, it quickly recovered a certain sense of purpose (at least in its western part) pouring its energy in the 1950s and 1960s into reconstruction and from the 1970s onwards into business, in which it knocked its former victors into a corner (typified by the rapid falls of both the dollar and the pound sterling against the German mark). But something had gone. I note this in particular in its language and literature: until the 1950s it was a full language, rich, creative, self-sufficent and could convey culturally refined content. Today neither language (often English with German words) or culture convince.

While the relationship between Christianity and nationalism is a fraught one, with ‘national’ churches to easily press-ganged for regime politics, I would argue that any country which wants to maintain some sort of identity will have to find a religious or quasi-religious structure for this. Supporting nationalism many not be seen by the church as its primary role, but if a church wants to exist within a reasonably stable social structure, it will probably have to provide at least minimal support. 

National histories are also like personal histories. Even when personal histories seem to go horribly off the rails, there rema                ins the original person, whom we have to try and disinter and continue to believe in despite all. And it is the same with cultures. They can go wrong, and get abused, but need to be preserved. Germany’s wasn’t. I rather hope the Russian one will survive. And I rather hope the Russian Church will play its part.

I am far from sure that either Russia or its church always get it right, but I remain grateful for a contrary voice, within the traditional Christian cultural area, that questions the often shallow, unsatisfactory and all-invading culture which Anglo-European economic and political powers-that-be want to impose on us.

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The altar party at Mechelen - basically everyone who was not tied down to their own home parish that day. I am in the back row, between the two mitres

Last Monday for the feast of the Epiphany was part of a full-blown episcopal liturgy in the attractive church late 19th century church the Roman Catholics are letting us use in Mechelen, 30 km from Brussels and the historic centre of Roman Catholicism in Belgium.

Usually I don’t much care for episcopal liturgies, with their complex choreography (I inevitably get dirty looks from the bishop for being in the wrong place), their constant changes of omophore (stole) and the centrality of the figure of the bishop. Fortunately there are young men who seem to love all this and I leave them to get on with it. My preference has always been for small weekday liturgies with one priest, one deacon and perhaps 10 people in church

Yet at the same time, I am beginning to smell something important in these big liturgies. It ties into a primitive need for ritual, going back beyond Christianity into man’s general religious past (religio perennis as some call it – I prefer the German term religiöses Gemeingut). Something you perhaps do not understand very well, but instinctively you know to be important to your humanity. Something which feels right when you have completed it properly. Something that, if the Church does not provide, other will, starting with Freemasons. Also, in a Christian context, linking in to the permanent liturgy going on in heaven (even if I hope that, if and when I get there, the heavenly liturgy will be simpler than the Orthodox episcopal one, or that kindly angels will ensure I am always in the right place with my censer…).

The other thing that was right – and almost for the first time ever in my 20 years in Orthodoxy – was to hear the canon of the liturgy of St Basil (the very long one, now relegated to a few big festivals) read out aloud correctly, without being cut (as Fr X does) or gabbled at breakneck speed (Fr Y’s manner) and done in silence so only God hears (Fr Z). I am rarely laudatory of our bishop, but I thank him for that.

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Murder is murder and there is no excuse.

That being said:

-          I am very far from sure that the freedom to drag other people’s religious beliefs through the dirt, especially those of a sizeable minority community, which was one of Charlie-Hebdo's marks-in-trade, is a mark of real civilization in any country. Of freedom perhaps, but of civilization no. There is, I suspect, in certain quarters, a dangerous tendency to equate the two.

-          The causes of immigration are many, but a declining birth rate is a key one. A society (or a part of it) whose values put careers higher than having children will need to import outsiders to keep going. Outsiders entering in this situation enter in a position of strength: to expect them to lap up the values of the host society, and especially the a-religious, consumerist mindset of its elites, is illusory.

Identity as membership of a group is important, especially for those lower down the social ladder. Nationality and religion (or the two fused) remain, whether those higher up the scale like it or not, two very important identity-givers (other than which football club you support) for much of the population. For those of the majority nationality lower down the scale, the local nationalist party (Front National / Ukip etc.) can provide it. For those lower down the scale and not of the majority nationality, religious identity, or the national identity of its parents (as in the case of most of the ‘Frenchmen’ fighting in Syria) are all that remains. Try to suppress its expression, and you are sitting on a powderkeg.

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Two little triumphs from my woodworking class:

First little triumph: We needed to prepare a floorplan of our new classroom: with about ten different wall surfaces all at different angles. The teacher arrives with a laser beam measuring tool. The younger ones grab it, measure every corner to corner that is unencumbered, mark in the measurements on a rough plan, photograph it on their i-phones, send copies to those of us without. It didn’t work.

This is stupid, I said to myself. Before the next lesson, I printed the i-phoned plan, drew a line right down the middle of the room, added intermediate points, and divided the whole room into measurable triangles. I came in with my camera tripod, so we could revolve the laser round the fixed points on my central line. “Never seen that before, but try it”, said our teacher. It involved shifting some heavy furniture and some fast geometry at one point where we could not get the measurement we needed. But it worked, the plan came together  (we missed one critical measurement, but were still at under 1% error). That felt nice.

Second little triumph. Last night we needed to slot a 240 cm strut into an aluminium support. The only wood available was 5 cm x 4 cm, which we had to reduce to 4.5 cm x 4 cm. It’s a 5-minute job with a mechanical thicknesser. Except that chip suction system was not working, and a siren whined every time we tried to set it. Five minutes sitting around became ten. And fifteen. 

Finally I marched to the tool cupboard, took an old-fashioned hand-plane, set it accurately, and to the astonishment of my (much) younger colleagues, took off the offending 5 millimetres in under 10 minutes. It fitted perfectly. “There”, I said “and someone else can sweep up up the shavings”.  My shoulder ached all evening, but so what …


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Прежде всего моим регулярным русским корреспондентам – Николаю, Павлу, Наталье, Ирине, о. Антонию, Владимиру, Игорю и другим,

А также тем многим, с кем я провел незабываемый месяц на Севере России этим летом:  особенно Глебу, кто дал мне такую возможность, и другим, с кем я познакомился в Пиньгише, Цельском и Нюнежской : Илье (ещё раз спасибо за фотографии), Алексею, Даше, Саше, Павлу, Софии, Алёше, Яне, Андрею, Владимиру, Маше, Даниле, Сергею и Вите. Для меня это была уникальная возможность увидеть уголок России, до которого я иначе вряд ли добрался бы. Спасибо вам всем! Жду фильма о нашей работе и приключениях!

Всем вам счастливых Рождественских праздников, и здоровья, успехов и радости в новом 2015 году. Бог даст, мы снова увидимся, в России или в Бельгии.

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I listened to most of a BBC report a few days ago on the Russian volunteer troops fighting in Donetsk. The reporter had managed to get into a volunteer group, both in training in St Petersburg and at the front line itself.

Deep down I can sense where these young men are coming from, their dream to see themselves as saviours of a Christian Orthodox civilization. It is an extreme version of what I hear constantly in more conservative Russian circles: that we have a specifically Russian civilization, that Orthodox Christianity is part of this civilization, it is under threat, and it is our task to save it.

I don’t want to downplay this dream, this vision. It is part of what young men are. Young adult men have been made to be able to fight, ultimately for the means of life, for land, for women, with which to go on and produce and feed families. They also dream dreams. 

That said, I cannot help sense that with a lot of these voluntary fighters, and especially the older ones (30+)  – as well as that whole bank of mercenaries that seem to weave in and out of the official military and police – that ‘civilization’ is a bit of a cover-up for an emptiness and ill-adaptedness, for an inability to make proper male-female relations, and settle down in society.

Put another way a ploughshare and an AK74 are both (phallic) symbols of a maleness which has to find its place in society. When it cannot in family and farming or other soul-meaningful industry, it will seek a gun (or alcohol or anti-depressants).

‘Civilization’ is where this all comes together, in family, in industry, in sense of common purpose. Having then large number of young men on the edges of society, fighting for ‘civilization’ by destroying other people’s homes and livelihoods, is a contradiction in terms. In terms of Christian pastoral work – somehow getting people who have taken up guns in the name of Christian ‘civilization’ to ‘beat these into ploughshares’, talking into their emptiness in order to get them out of this life-destroying mode – is a very difficult but very necessary pastoral task (and let’s be honest, beyond the capacity of most run-of-the-mill priests).

An aside: I cannot help but think of the IRA fighters in Northern Ireland. They were somehow part of the Irish story, the Irish myth (and both Irish and the Russians can be good myth-makers), but I suspect that a lot of them were a load of misfits, and that the Irish government was very glad to have them wreaking havoc outside its borders rather than inside. I suspect it is the same with Putin’s government: they cannot stop these young men, they know it is part of their own myth, but they would rather have them act it out on the fringes, in Donetsk for example.



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At the last class before the Christmas break our woodwork teacher expressed his concern about falling standards at the school.

I strongly sympathize. He came into the profession the old way, about 25 years ago: as a 14 year-old youth under a strict teacher of the old school. The kept their tools sharp, their benches repaired and learned to do everything by hand before moving onto machines. This has gone: on the day courses a lot of pupils are there under protest – they have to train in order to qualify for unemployment benefit, and the results, which you see lying round the workshop, are not brilliant. The evening courses are really too short, with not enough workshop practice really to get a feel for wood and the machinery.

All this chimes into the second reason why I took the course and am still on it (70% attrition so far): it is the experience of ‘apprenticeship’ in the good sense: that of slowly learning a skill over a time from a master. And if you start at 14, like our teacher did, it is a whole structured reference framework which you grow up in. Cutting and planing wood accurately and getting furniture to fit snug produces an attitude towards life which goes well beyond the workshop, including in particular the spiritual life.


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This little speculative meditation owes much to American spiritual writer John Eldredge’s book ‘Desire’. While Eldredge and I come from very different parts of the Christian world, I like a lot of what he writes.

For Eldredge (and I agree with him)

  • The purpose of the Christian quest is to move into the deep heart, past the barriers of sinfulness, where we can enter into serious communication with God, and in so doing, find ourselves as God has intended us to be, and be in relation with Him at this level.
  • The world after death is not sitting on a cloud with a harp, or a permanent worship service, but a ‘new heaven and a new earth’, where life continues as before, as initially intended by God before the fall, and without sin.

Let me try and take this a couple of steps further. Some of this may sound fanciful, or even a bit stupid and irrelevant, but I suspect we may learn something:

-          I ask whether finding ourselves as this deep level does not include a finding already our true vocation in the sense of specific task, as part of the larger whole, one which starts on this side of the new earth and continues on the other.  And perhaps, even if we cannot yet live out these vocations, we can prepare for them.

-          It is an interesting exercise to try and work out which professions will survive in God’s new earth, which will disappear and which will survive only in a very transformed way:


o   Banking: gone, except perhaps in a transformed form of ensuring the correct exchange of goods in an economy of equality.

o   Gone also the whole defence industry: lawyers, security personnel, armed forces, except eventually for lawyers understanding how everything fits together.

o   Medicine and psychiatry: largely gone, except for maintaining a deep understanding of how man works, and especially how the physical and spiritual inter-relate, and maintaining the balance

o   Teaching profession: largely gone

o   Priesthood: leaders/organizers of the worship that will continue, but no longer as comfort-givers and no longer as organizers of power structures.

o   Translators/interpreters (my main profession for the past 30 years). Gone.

o   Artists, craftsman: in greater demand, providing their work is really to the glory of God.

Put simply: an awful lot of people are going to be without a job (including me). While no one will deeply mourn the absence of bankers, lawyers and soldiers, professions whose raison d’être is intimately related to human sinfulness, this raises a couple of interesting points, which also ‘kick back’ into the present world:

o   One ‘loser’ is the ‘people’ or ‘caring’ professions, traditionally seen as very vocational and also good options for Christians who want to avoid contaminating themselves with mammon.  Perhaps their absence in the new world forces us to distinguish between fundamental vocation (what we can continue into the new world, and which is rightly part of our identity) and temporary calling, that is jobs which need to be done in today’s present world, with both reproduction (children to be educated) and disease and death. This distinction could be more important than we think at first sight. In fact, the vocations that give fundamental identity and meaning are God-ward, and the humanity-wardness, essentially bringing Godward activity from an individual to a group level

o   There is going to be an awful lot of spare capacity. This suggests that a lot more time is going to be spent on creative (and in the present world non-remunerative or badly remunerative work) what we loosely call art, that is the praise of God through singing, painting, gardening, creating beautiful landscapes, creating beautiful buildings and the like. If you like, a lot of things that many of us would deep-down like to do, but cannot, or can do only to a limited extent, because of the need to pay the bills. With an outbursting of creativity. And, as with good artists today, out of an inner necessity, an expressing back towards God of what he has put in our deepest hearts.

What am I going to be in the new world? Right now, if God will allow me, I think a woodworker, possibly with some sort of photography as back-up.

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Something is telling me louder and louder that we have got it wrong, or that it is going wrong. I mean the system we generally sell as ‘European values’.

It is like over recent months I have been constantly catching snatches of another song, with a beat that penetrates deeper than the daily musical diet of the last sixty odd years:

- From reading various German authors up to about 1960 (Jünger, Wiechert, Andres), all born before WWI, I get strains of another, older value system, that has been nearly smothered out of existence. Essentially ‘aristocratic’, at times unashamedly elitist, with a deep sense of honour and loyalty, and its moral code closely linked into the established church.

- I pick it up also in the traditional Spanish system, for example from the accounts of the family of the late Belgian Queen Fabiola. Historically it was monarchist and anti-Republican and welcomed Franco’s putsch of 1936, even if it and the Franquist regime kept each other at a cautious distance.

- I pick it up in the traditionalist Catholics of the Society of Pius X (Lefevrists), which seems to have made particular inroads into the French aristocracy, many of whose more Catholic members may be more in favour of Le Pen (the French far right leader) than they would want to say publicly.

- I am getting it from Russia, whose propaganda machine is making a pretty good job of making European values look spineless and unfocused, a society in which a basic human right is to have no values.

Against this what we seem to have in Western Europe right now is a system that, while it works well in terms of economic goods , general law and order and bureaucratic efficiency, fails to meet a deeper hunger. You can talk about a missing religious element if you want. Yes, the Christian church has been talking for the past 40 years of the need to reevangelize, as church congregations wither. But it has preached a distinctly individual Christianity, missing out on a basic human need for religion at a group and identity-giving level.

I am beginning to think that this need for a ‘religious’ foundation to society is something fundamental to the way we are and are meant to function, and we neglect this at our peril. This is something the European political establishment is really scared about: with memories of Hitler, Mussolini and Degrelle, it does not want mass movements which get out of its control (demagogy is a top ‘fear word’ for this class), is unhappy at certain of the moral dictates that such a mass movement will call far (stronger emphasis on family, stricter abortion laws, keeping LGBT activity off the streets) and has the problem of avoiding such a movement turning into immigrant or gay-bashing. Modern Christian theology too has a problem with religion at this level, as it means concentrating much of the energy of one’s elite on maintaining a broad-based religion, inevitably in some sort of inter-action with the powers-that-be, that keeps religion on a very ‘low’ level, with a constant danger of being used for political ends. For these theologians, Christianity becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire in 380 AD was a major wrong turn.

I am beginning to think, that if we are ever to have a credible shared value system in Europe, we are going to have to go back and reevaluate our history. We will need first to look again at society as it existed before the 1914-1918 cataclysm, the last period of relatively stable values, for the most part couched in religious language, and see what we can learn. But in particular, we will have to look very hard indeed at the period 1918 to 1945, a period of strong clashes of values, and ask whether the post-war solution settlement we had in Western Europe, and which now extends to most of the rest of Europe, was and remains, the best one.  The big problem is that one of the strongest movements in the interbellum period with a sense of value, in particular with both a society-wide and religious aspect to it, was fascism. This was essentially proscribed in the post-war settlement (Spain and Portugal, where it continued were too off-centre and poor to matter). My own personal reading of the Third Reich is that Hitler and (perhaps more Goebels) smelled the spiritual vacuum that existed with the fall of the German Imperial system. Anyone who has read Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf or Ernst Wiechert’s Ein einfaches Leben will sense what I mean. Read or watch the film newsreels of Hitler’s or Goebels’ speeches and you realize that they are speaking straight into this vacuum. Today I fear this vacuum is being filled by consumerism and easy sex.

This blanket proscription of fascism may, in my view, have been a mistake.

There are, I believe, two spiritual principles involved here. The first is that the spiritually very right and the spiritually very wrong are often very close: when something is spiritually good the Evil One will make serious attempts to pervert it (as someone said: ‘The devil never pays his own taxi’), second that when fighting and defeating something spiritually wrong, one must take great care not to throw out the good with the bad. My hypothesis is that there was potentially something deeply right in the movement that brought the Nazis, the Fascists and the Falange into power, that the Evil one went hard for it, and perverted it, causing enormous bloodshed, but that in rebuilding society after 1945, a lot of good got thrown out with the bad. Now, nearly seventy years on, it may be time to ask again in Europe what was both good and bad in these movements, and then whether there is any way of keeping this good with solid safeguards against the bad. If you like, a form of social being that combines a sense of pride in being, a sense of duty to society and social purposefulness, minus concentration camps, gas ovens and master-race language. Something with a sense of the ‘aristocratic’ in the best sense of the term, without being limited to inherited title or wealth.

I suspect also that this is the question that, in a different language, the Russian church and the power structures close to it are asking.





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In the Christian search, is it really ‘love’ that draws one on towards God, or is it not rather an urge for absolute truth, coupled possibly with a sense of the ‘glory’ attached to the end of this quest?

Yes, we are loved by God and it is with this love that God allows and indeed wants us to come close to Him. Love is also the first of the ‘gifts of the Spirit’ (Gal. 5.22). We are also commanded to ‘love the Lord your God’, a command that it is much easier to obey – as is the command to love our brother ­­­– once love as gift of the spirit has kicked in.

But I am far from convinced that a search for love has to be the primary motor for the Christian quest, or that evangelistic discourse should be baited with the promise of it. Too quickly the love of God is defined by the human love one senses was one’s due but one did not get, and the quest for God sidetracked by the psychological desire to make good this lack.

I think this is the balance I find between love, truth and glory in Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians (2 Th 2:17-18) “But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters loved by the Lord, because God chose you as firstfruits to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. 14 He called you to this through our gospel, that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.

( Ἡμεῖς δὲ ὀφείλομεν εὐχαριστεῖν τῷ θεῷ πάντοτε περὶ ὑμῶν, ἀδελφοὶ ἠγαπημένοι ὑπὸ κυρίου, ὅτι εἵλατο ὑμᾶς ὁ θεὸς [l]ἀπαρχὴν εἰς σωτηρίαν ἐν ἁγιασμῷ πνεύματος καὶ πίστει ἀληθείας, 14 εἰς [m]ὃ ἐκάλεσεν ὑμᾶς διὰ τοῦ εὐαγγελίου ἡμῶν, εἰς περιποίησιν δόξης τοῦ κυρίου ἡμῶν Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ.)

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Today was the funeral in Brussels of Queen Fabiola, who died last Friday at the age of 86. A deeply Christian ceremony for a very deeply Christian woman, whom many would like to see canonized sooner or later with her husband, the late King Baudouin.

We are a small country, and in the Christian community you know people: I met the Queen myself only once, no more than a shake hands, but through a mutual Christian friend knew discreetly how ill she had been. The queen knew of our icon-painting studio and had spoken of visiting, the icon on display at her lying in state was painted by my wife. The dean of the Cathedral where the funeral took place is a friend, and I have spoken at one time or another to many of the clergy involved in the ceremony.

Three memories: the quality of the sermon by Cardinal Danneels, the former Archbishop of Malines and Brussels, who spoke very openly of the Christian faith of the former King and Queen and how they lived it out. Then during the Gospel (the Beatitudes) when at ‘Blessed are those that mourn’ the cameraman caught the face of the King’s younger daughter 6-year old Princess Eleonore, with her mother’s hands round it, comforting her. And last, at near the end, after a minutes’ silence, the solo ‘Amazing Grace’: from a totally different Christian tradition, but opening up to a wider Christianity.

Adieu - à Dieu

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Left: Marie-Eugène de l'Enfant-Jesus (whom I am translating): 1894-1967)
Right: An Orthodox contemporary: Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov): 1896-1993

I am again in Catholic-Orthodox border country, with a new (test) translation project  plunging me into the area of what our Roman Catholic friends call contemplative or interior prayer (in French = oraison).

Right now I have three questions in this area, which I hope the full project will help me to clarify:

1)     1) Should we see any difference in religious experience depending on whether the contemplative is male or female?  

Traditional Roman Catholic literature here seems to make no difference: both sexes are grouped together under the common denominator of ‘souls’. I am less than convinced. As a male of the species, I feel uneasy with the strong sponsal approach of the likes of St Teresa of Avila, with its apex in ‘mystical marriage’, and a language of spiritual ravishment with strong (female) sexual overtones. As a man I feel much safer as a ‘brother of Christ’ or a ‘friend of Christ’ or someone who ‘puts on Christ’ (all Biblically acceptable terms) than as a ‘bride of Christ’.

2)      2) While Roman Catholic mystical theology seems to me to demarcate the individual stages of ascent a little too rigidly, I am wondering whether in the Orthodox world, we are not remiss in the other direction, by providing almost no spiritual signposting.

I ask whether we Orthodox do not need to develop a more sophisticated language of spiritual progress for intelligent lay people. What I see, at least in diaspora Orthodoxy is little further than “say your prayers, observe the fasts, go to confession, do what batushka says”. By modern-day western standards, this is miserably low.

3)     3) Modern Catholic practice works from the tenet that one has to have one’s basic humanity right before one can get very far in the spiritual world. Yet neither Orthodox or traditional Catholic mystical theology seem to mention the principle. Today you will not be accepted as a novice in a RC monastery without a pretty detailed psychological testing, fifty years ago they kept you if you survived the discomfort of the first (largely unheated) winter. Were they all that much more balanced two hundred years ago, or have we got something wrong here? Certainly I remember my first abbot, Dom Paul Grammont, referring to St. Thérèse of Lisieux as ‘neurotic’, despite her becoming for Roman Catholics a saint and a doctor of the church.

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I have watched about four times today the DVD ‘Orthodox Christianity in the British Islands’, introduced by Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, originally produced last year in Russian and now to be reedited with English subtitles (my job to check them).

I have not yet quite worked who is the real target audience for the film, nor why the Russian Federal Agency for Press and Mass Communication helped pay. But leaving that aside, the DVD is tastefully done, the historical information given is accurate (bar one howler), and the subtitles sensitively written in British (as distinct from Russian) English. I had to look hard to find bits to correct.

A good half of the film is devoted to the three ‘giants’ that, to quote the blurb: ‘England gave to Orthodoxy’, the late Metropolitan Antony of Sourozh , the late Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov) and Metropolitan Kallistos Ware of Diokleia. And indeed the best bits are precisely little snippets of the Metropolitan’s personal experience of all three men when still a humble student, including his tactful handling of the fact that Antony and Sophrony were very far from friends….


Where I did feel short-sold was when the film jacket promises: “The film features bishops, parish priests and simple parishioners, native Britons who are taking the challenging path back to their spiritual roots, that is to Orthodoxy.”  

In total these take up no more than 5 minutes of a 44 minute film: two bishops, four priests and just one layman. The latter is a very well-introduced member of the London upper set, close to the British court, now a trustee of the Russian cathedral and filmed In his London club, a charming man (I know him personally) but hardly a ‘simple parishioner’.

If I was had to subtitle the film it would be either ‘England through Russian spectacles’, or less kindly, the ‘history of our British cocoon’.

History because the film looks backwards rather than forwards. Two out of the three ‘great’ figures are dead, the third just celebrated his 80th birthday (though I of course wish him many more).  One of the big temptations of Orthodoxy outside its home countries is to live too long on its past, re-editing books and talks spiritual giants of twenty, thirty, fifty years ago, rather than encouraging a new generation of spiritual men. ‘Paris Orthodoxy’ made this fatal mistake, so, I suspect did the Russian Church outside Russia. Orthodoxy in Britain is in danger of going the same way. Certainly, of the three ‘greats’ mentioned, only one, to my knowledge (Sophrony) has produced a worthy successor, who is continuing the tradition (Archimandite Zacharias).

Cocoon, because the film gives the impression of a very closed and separate world, very much outside the mainstream of both English church life and, despite all the very ‘British’ shots (Queen, Prince Charles, Tower Bridge, horses in Hyde Park), of English life in general. Much of the comment on existing English Christianity, and in particular the Church of England, is the eternal Russian lament against gay marriage and female priests and bishops. Yes, I understand this, but somehow I feel that if someone in England is going to have again the effect that either Metropolitan Antony or Archimandrite Sophrony had, they have got to come at things from another angle. For me these are symptoms of a malaise, not their root causes. And good spirituality, by its very definition, goes for root causes.




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‘Gilding and age are no criteria for quality’ is what I didn’t write in the book for comments after the much-touted  exhibition ‘Paintings from Siena’ (basically 14th and 15th century) at the Centre for Fine Arts (BOZAR) in Central Brussels. It would have stood out too much from the general flow of thanks and adulation.

On past performance I was, to be honest, not surprised, and had only bought tickets because a Russian business contact was to be in town. He was late (the pilot’s window in their plane cracked and they turned back to Moscow), so I went alone. BOZAR does not have its own permanent collection and is reliant on travelling exhibitions. Basically the pattern seems to be to do a series of good wall texts and fill in between with anything they are ready to give you. We had the same thing with a Zurbarán exhibition two years back. The text was excellent (I translated the English) but the choice of pictures was miserable.

I do sometimes wonder how closely people look at these pictures. Yes, some were good (I had no pencil with me to write down the names), and one of two were very good, but a good half of them were below the standard of our own icon-painting studio. I think of the scene of the Last Judgement by Giovanni di Paolo which nicely filled a wall, but none of the apostles in it I would have given a lift to if they had been hitch-hiking, a scruffy, ugly lot. Strikingly, by 1300 the sense of the iconic, brought in a century before by Greek painters fleeing Constantinople, has gone: by iconic I mean faces or figures you look at and they take you through to something beyond yourself, where you ought to be rather than where you are. A remarkable face of Christ in Sano di Pietro's Death of the Virgin was an exception, along with a couple of other male figures by (?) Martino di Bartolemmeo. Some of the other depiction was technically masterful, but it went no further than that.

I had an hour to waste, so I visited the sister exhibition: 'Focus on Rubens': Sensation and Sensuality’ in the other part of BOZAR. What they had done was to take 6 different themes out of Rubens, including ‘Force’, ‘Lust’, ‘Poetry’, include one Rubens work on the subject, and throw in any paintings they could find on these subjects. Sensational, no (specially not a 16.30 on Sunday afternoon), sensual occasionally. More an ignominious hotchpotch and an attempt to make an exhibition on the cheap. Yes, some painters I was happy to see, including fellow-countrymen Landseer, Sir Joshua Reynolds and Sir Thomas Lawrence. But really a mix and a muddle.

And for EUR 21 for the two exhibitions together, just too expensive.

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Somehow, though perhaps I shouldn’t say so, the Pope’s message to the European Parliament yesterday (  left me a bit cold. It fails to provide the momentum we need to get Europe really meaning something. While the founders of the European Union – Schumann, Gaspari, Adenauer and De Gaulle, were deeply Christian men, the idea of the European Union as a spiritual force – and perhaps the idea of ‘spiritual force’ at all in Europe, petered out somewhere in the late 70s. Jacques Delors, President of the European Commission from 1985 to 1995,  a Christian if ever there was one, basically threw in the towel on uniting Europe on any spiritual basis, and realized the only way to do it was on a basis of mutual economic advantage, in particular of a shared currency.

If you asked me to draw in picture form what the Europe the Pope seems to be aiming at, it looks rather like a big, lower-class barbecue party, or street festival (the Notting Hill Carnival more decently clad and without the gays). Sorry, but that does not spark me.

One of the things we dare not say too loud in Europe is that the leaders who ‘sparked’ people most and got things moving in the last 100 years, were the fascists, not the democrats. In the best of the movements (Germany, Italy, Spain, Hungary) there was a sense of pride, of nationhood, or readiness to prefer common cause to individual advantage, a sense of something higher, something greater.  And a certain sense of élite. Yes, it went too far, but in our desperation to avoid any trace of it, we have become flat and mundane. It is this lost sense, incidentally, that Russian propaganda towards Europe is playing to, dangerously and well.

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This poster caught my eye in a Belgian church this afternoon, where I went to photograph some woodwork. The picture is typical Belgian village street. The heading is 'Maybe there's a saint living in my street'.

My first rather grumpy comment was, I confess, 'OK,  so what?'  But I am still trying to work out in my mind what the precise message really is.

What do you think it is?

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For the past year or more I have been either translating or correcting some fifty or so texts for a ‘World Book of Faith’ to be published next year in English by a Belgian editor. It follows on an earlier World Book of Happiness and a World Book of Love. In my view it is better than either.

The texts come from Christian, Islam as well as Hindu and Buddhist and Confucian sources, with the odd Wicca thrown in for good measure, and include both big names (for Christianity: Metropolitan Hilarion Alfayev and Prior Enzo Bianchi) and smaller fry.

The great majority of texts express for me an honest attempt to come to terms with the ‘mysterium tremendum’ of that which is greater than ourselves and exercises a call on our lives. Most of the writing comes from the edge, rather than the centre of organized religion, which is probably a good thing. The two or three which gave me trouble were the Christian ones where I sense the Christian message of ‘love God and love your brother’ has elided into ‘love God in your brother’. The standing naked before one’s creator, and the readiness to be turned inside out by him have gone by the board. Instead of this deep conversion we have a ‘reframing’ of Christianity as ‘do good to your neighbour and feel guilty about living in a society that is richer than others’. I am not saying that Christianity does not command us to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, but if it no more than that, it is no more than enlightened humanism, and there is no need to go to church or fight with God. Which is indeed what has happened, particular in northern European Protestantism. Put at its harshest: if you cannot feed people’s souls, and give them something to live for beyond themselves and their neighbours, it probably makes precious little sense feeding their stomachs.

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Yes, I do actually read the fathers of the Church. Not always with pleasure, I admit: most of the time it is the same message put in different ways: the need for the purification of the heart and the constant struggle against a devil who wants to do everything possible to prevent you getting there. Most of it, I suspect, has survived because readable in a monastic refectory, which means slow and repetitive. Compared with later mystical theologies, especially Carmelite, there is no always much idea of forward progress, except when a small number so to speak pierce the clouds into ‘uncreated light’, nor is there much talk of the opening of the heart, the awakening of love and the deepening of compassion. Nor is there always much joy.

It’s a bit like panning for gold: there is an awful lot of mud, but just occasionally a nugget of gold. Like one I glimpsed last night in St Makarios of Egypt, in the (reworked) Philokalia version:

“Whenever those who possess in themselves the divine riches of the Spirit take part in spiritual discussions, they draw as it were on their inner treasure house and share their wealth with their hearers. Those, however, who do not have stored in the sanctuary of their heart the treasures from which springs forth the bounty of divine thoughts, mysteries and inspired words, but who cull what they say from the Scriptures, speak merely from the tip of the tongue, or if they have listened to spiritual men, they preen themselves with what others have said, putting it forward as though it were their own and claiming interest on someone else’s capital. Their listeners can enjoy what they say without great effort, but they themselves, when they have finished speaking, prove to be like paupers. For they have simply repeated what they have taken from others, without acquiring treasures of their own from which they could first derive pleasure themselves and which they could then communicate profitably to others. For this reason we must first ask God that these true riches may dwell within us, and then we can readily benefit others and speak to them of spiritual matters and divine mysteries.”  (Philokalia, vol. 3, pp 323-4).

How many times have I heard people spouting (or writing) borrowed riches, and how few times do they draw from ‘inner treasure houses’. If one lacks a treasure house, then at least one can acknowledge one’s poverty, which is probably a key step towards later riches.

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At the opening session of the Worldwide Russian National Council last Tuesday ( Patriarch Kirill of Moscow defined how he would like to synthesize Russian identity out of his country’s Russian history and carry it forward, with the formula ‘faith, justice, solidarity, dignity, great power’ "вера, справедливость, солидарность, достоинство, державность".

I have two questions:

One: Is it right for a religious leader to be using the term ‘great power’? I have to be careful not to throw stones: Archbishops of Canterbury used similar language during the British Empire (1), and Churchill’s relation to God was , I suspect, rather similar to Vladimir Putin’s looks to me to be, as a useful part of the country’s psychological armoury. And it seems to me theologically acceptable to suggest that the way one nation runs its affairs, the ‘mores’ by which the body of its people, starting with its ruling and political class, can be superior or inferior to that of another. Most of us would place Germany or England – or indeed Russia - ‘higher’ than Colombia or Tajikistan. Indeed am not against saying that a particular nation or faith may have a ‘high calling’ to set an example to the world: but by moral persuasion, not by force and certainly not by dirty behaviour away from the cameras. National pride has, though, taken some countries down some dreadfully negative paths, externally and internally: Germany and Japan being the most obvious examples, and the record of the USA is more than ambiguous here. And yes, ‘power’ does not fit very well with the Gospel, as least as we interpret it here in the west.

Two: What place does the concept of ‘freedom’ take in the identity that Patriarch Kirill is looking for? This concept is central to Western politico-religious thought – indeed it is on this search for ‘freedom’, so the myth goes, that the United States was founded, largely by deeply believing people. While as a Christian I can do without a lot of what is actually very superficial and ‘unfree’ freedom, true freedom (“whose service is perfect freedom”) remains for me a deep God-implanted longing, and an essential part of the Christian message. When it comes to Russia I sense a deep ambiguity and paradox: no one is going to tell me that organized Christianity in Russia is ‘free’; from what I have seen of it it is miserably unfree: and yet on the same hand many Russians I know (especially lay people) reach a spiritual depth and inner freedom which I have rarely found elsewhere. It may be that ‘freedom’ passes first through ‘unfreedom’ (certainly in mystical theology it does) and we are wrong in the west to leave our young people too early with too many options and no sense of meaning. But I would still prefer to reduce Kirill’s pentatych to a triptych ‘justice, solidarity, dignity’, leave ‘faith’ to the individual and put ‘great power’ on the shelf.

(1)    See the YouTube Clip of like Archbishop Temple in 1944 ( – jump to minutes 17, or the language of the newsreel presenter in the last minute of

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I have just finished Monique Hébrard’s new book ‘Pour une Eglise au visage de l’Evangile’ (For a Church that reflects the Gospel). Hébrard is France’s leading French religious journalists. 35 years ago, an early book of hers ‘Les nouveaux disciples’ on the (then) new religious communities, was one of the books that led to my own monastic experience (1982-84). While the context is very French Roman Catholicism, and this is journalism more than theology, the new book has some good ideas.


Read more... )



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