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It is Christmas Day today everywhere except Russia, Mount Athos and perhaps one or two smaller Orthodox countries.  Even if you are supposed to wait another 13 days, Christmas is in the air today and you sense it (including, right now, the delicious silence of Christmas morning).

Last night, rather on instinct I decided to go to a Latin midnight mass. Something to do with acknowledging that, even if Russian Orthodox, I belong to Christianity in this part of the world and to its traditions. Something to do with a need for quiet decency and anonymity, a service I could quietly relax into, rather than my usual nerve-taughtening and tiring participant role as a deacon, and perhaps a reaction to the inner coldness of the musically exquisite Christmas Carol service from Kings College, Cambridge that I had heard a few hours before on the radio.

Whatever. I ended up at the Society of Puis X (Catholic schismatic) church in the centre of Brussels (the only ‘legal’ midnight mass in Latin was at the other end of town, and an expensive taxi ride back home).

I am not a great friend of the old Roman mass : the way the priest does the consecration in a huddle with the deacon and servers at the far end of the church, with only a couple of ‘in saecula saeculorum’ and hand-bells to tell you where he is at (though to be fair in many Orthodox churches it is no better). I sense also with Pius X the need to do everything ‘by the book’, with no space for real creativity.

What I like though is the space and the pace. A large church, built in what in the 1860s was the chic quarter of Brussels, demolished in the 50s and 60s and replaced by concrete and glass office buildings.  With those old-fashioned chairs-cum-kneelers which are a bit low to sit on and a bit high to kneel on. A service taken slowly and with discipline. Servers male only, in cassocks, cotta, lace over-cotta and proper black shoes, (no pre-pubescent girls in oversized albs and trainers), well-behaved at the altar and with a sense of dignity and what they were doing. A good choir, not too large, singing from the organ loft, mostly Gregorian. Priest’s vestments of the old variety, of good quality. The service progressed slowly – what a relief from our ‘if there’s a five-second gap, something has gone wrong’. Properly prepared and delivered sermon.

I was surprised by the large male presence, over 60%, including many in their twenties. Maybe because it was midnight and women were at home with kids. Maybe also schismatic churches tend to attract a certain type of male which needs a ‘harder’ and sharper-edged religion than what the ‘regular’ RCs offer.

The Society of Pius X is a thorn in the side of the official RC church. I am rather glad they are there. While their anti-modernism can be a bit extreme, they preserve certain values, decency, decorum, and simply good behaviour , as well as a certain sharp edge, which need to be preserved somewhere. And yes, a place where an exhausted Orthodox deacon can just flunk out anonymously and let someone else do the work…..

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I fell in love with the place. I’m talking of Orval, a Cistercian monastery in the far south of Belgium. I had been recommended to the abbot by a Catholic theology student I had taken to Mount Athos this year. I was only just out of the shower, after trekking 12 km from the nearest railway station, when the abbot appeared at my door to say welcome, in a French accent that still betrayed his Flemish roots.



Sorry, these are not my photos..... I stole them from the Abbey site....

The present monastery, built in the 1920s, follows two earlier monasteries, the second of which fell victim, like all other abbeys in Belgium (Aulne, Villers-la-Ville, Lobbes and others) to the French Revolution. The original purpose of the 1920s rebuild was to provide a refuge for the monks of two French Cistercian monasteries if, as it then looked likely, the French government was going to ban monastic life in France. Finally the law did not pass (one vote short!), but the monastery was well on the way to completion and was filled with monks from the Brazilian foundation of one of the two monasteries which had not proved a success. With a maximum of 65 monks at the end of the war (with no heating – an old monk many years ago told me of singing in choir at – 10° C), it steadily declined down to 8 or 9, but with 12 seems to be pulling round. Like other Belgian abbeys, (Maradesous, Chimay, Leffe, ….) it has a brewery attached, with one bottle at lunch and supper for those who wished.

The church in particular ‘grew’ on me. It is very simple, in stone and concrete, but the architect has managed to get right the spirit of early Gothic, the time of the founders of the Cistercian movement in the late 12th and 13th centuries. I am not a great fan of (mock) Gothic, normally preferring Romanesque, but this time it worked. There is also, behind the scenes, quite a bit of reasonable good Art Nouveau – even if Thomas Merton unkindly referred to the chapter house as like the saloon on a transatlantic liner. They have solved well the fact of grouping 12 monks in a church made for 80, by grouping them in two facing arcs of individual stalls, and the acoustics and lighting are good. The psalms, in French, had the same text as when I was a monk 30 years ago in France.


The abbot took me behind the scenes – including the icon workshop and the bookbindery. For me the workshops of any monastery are the most ‘fun’ place. It’s here you get the best informal contact.  Having tried my hand at bookbinding this in my teens, I hit it off immediately with their bookbinder.

Talking with the abbot confirmed to me what I realize more and more, that above a certain level of spiritual experience, confessional barriers become wafer-thin. It was not ‘you Catholics, we Orthodox’, but the ‘we’ of two men of nearly identical age (I didn’t ask, but from what he says, he must nearly be my twin) with the same concerns for Christianity in Belgium.

God willing, I will be back.

anglomedved: (Default)

 From an Orthodox perspective (but in a private capacity)


 Comparative theology in the Russian academic mould has traditionally consisted of mapping out one’s theology in certain critical areas of dogmatics - Trinitarian theology, soteriology, Mariology, ecclesiology and others - and comparing it with that of the other main Christian families.  For those who see it as important to restore visible communion between these families the task is to narrow or fill in the gap between them, on the premise that once this theological gap has been bridged, Christian unity is achievable. (1)  

I have my doubts as to this method. Can I suggest that, there is another way, as we say in English 'to skin the cat'.

Let me try and explain... )

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15 June 2010

We hear a lot about the ‘mystery of the female’, which the male of the species encounters as he comes into adulthood.

Where we may be doing ourselves an injustice is forgetting that there is also a ‘mystery of the male’. Just as a woman coming into adulthood who has been properly educated knows, there is something very precious in her, which she must not deface (symbolized but not entirely reducible to her virginity), so I would argue there is a male mystery, something which a male has to guard equally, and which, too, can be trampled underfoot.

These mysteries are defined largely, but not completely, in terms of the other gender. They meet, and their mutual interdependence is expressed, in good sexual encounter.

But not only: but also on the spiritual level, if we take care to differentiate (which we rarely do, the differences between male and female spirituality).

Paradoxically, despite the male’s greater natural strength, the male mystery is probably more fragile and at risk, not helped by the weakening of the role of fatherhood.

It is something that used to be taught in a good Catholic education –not least because a clear sense of male mystery, of the vocation of maleness, makes possible the sacrifice of celibacy.

It is also something which has to be passed on from male to male, from one generation to another, a process seriously impeded by a situation in which pubescent males are taught with girls and not separately from them, also when pubescent males are deprived of large swathes of traditional male symbolism, in particular the warrior symbolism. And excuse me, kicking footballs into goals is symbolically very inferior to fencing or kendo. 

It is something which men can destroy themselves, but yes, dare I say it, it is something that woman can also damage, just as men can, and often do, trample over the mystery of the female. One often encounters an at times quite vicious 'I can get by without a male' mentality. Yes a woman can, and has always been able to, often of necessity in post-war situations. But I do ask whether she doesn’t lose something very valuable en cours de route.  

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8 June 2010

Spent a valuable half-hour with the Fr Pierre, an RC rural dean who knows our Russian Church in Belgium well, talking about the Belgian situation.

He brought to my attention the enormous role that the Belgian Catholic church played in foreign missions during most of the last century, incommensurate with the country’s small size. If I understood him right, there are still more Belgian priests outside the country in the mission field than in the country itself. And they have no wish to return to minister to their native country…..

He made another very apposite remark, which is that increasingly today people in the RC Church in Belgium people are either deeply involved or not at all. There is little or no Fussvolk.

This, linked with my reading of Vincent  Donovan’s ‘Christianity Rediscovered’, is suggesting that mass Christianity is largely a matter of evangelizing an existing ‘tribe’ – in the sense of a group which people fully mutually obliged towards. Interestingly enough there are in fact a number of fairly ‘tribal’ formations around in Belgium. I can think of five:
- the new right in Flanders
- the traditional left in Wallonia
- the upper bourgeoisie/aristocracy
- the business élite
- certain major corporations.

I sometimes wonder whether we should not be trying rather to Christianize the new right – much of which I suspect has a consciousness not dissimilar to that of Russian Christianity -, rather than to demonize it and try and contain it politically. Movements like this point to a dangerous spiritual-social void, which the evil one can get into if we do not beat him to it.

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