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Mme Kordukova came in beaming as I ended my post-liturgy siesta. “I have a present for you.” Surprise. And she put into my hands this rather superb pre-Vatican II Catholic Missal. She had picked it up in the flea-market, for free, in a box of old books they were giving away. The cover is worn, but otherwise it is in excellent condition.

Like all Missals, there were little cards in it, which helped piece together its story. It was printed in 1958 or 1959 in Belgium (which had, and still has, an excellent reputation for religious printing), in Dutch and Latin (still then the main liturgical language). It is quite likely the last Flemish edition of the Missal, which was superseded when the Roman Church switched to the local language and changed the form of the mass with Vatican II (1962-65).

It belonged originally to a certain Josef Peeters, a common Flemish family name, from Merksem, a suburb to the north of Antwerp, and was given to him at his solemn communion, probably at age 12, in 1959. An earlier hand-written card telling us that ‘he received Jesus into his heart for the first time’ in 1954 (i.e. first communion, normally at age 7), bears this out. The fact that the solemn communion card mentions Josef and Remi suggests that he was one of twins or that two brothers followed closely in age. It has been used, but not heavily, suggesting that perhaps Josef’s family were more occasional churchgoers.  Another card, signed by a Franciscan priest, tells us that he made a retreat in 1963, at age 16. The absence of cards after that suggests that Josef may have dropped out of church circles. I presume that the Mr Peeters in question is now deceased or has simply cleared out his bookshelves.

Some of the cards are touching. On the back of the card with a child saint and a watering can is a text from a Missionary College headed ‘Can I become a missionary?’ and telling how: to become a PRIEST-MISSIONARY you must study well, to become a MISSIONARY BROTHER you must learn a trade - a type of social distinction went out of fashion fast after Vatican II.  The tight-cropped young man in white announces the first departure of a missionary brother to Africa with the White Fathers, well-known missionary order (even today there are as many Roman Catholic priests outside Belgium as inside). The Russian-looking card bears the lapidary inscription: ‘Mother of God, rescue Russia’.  The rather card ‘Vincit, Imperat, Regnat’ (He conquers, rules, reigns) reflects a certain Flemish, and dare I say, slightly Fascist, piety of the time.

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Victor­­_vlad, in response to yesterday’s posting, asked the question: “Why not a united Orthodox parishes in Namur" (and by extension, elsewhere in the Orthodox diaspora)”

Let me make a couple of quick and rather disjointed comments:

1)      A church has to be cognate with the society it lives in. It does not have to agree with it (“in the world, but not of it”), but it does have to live in reference to it, as does any individual Christian, in order to have any relevant witness. I fear that much of the Russian Church in Belgium lives in a sort of no-man’s land, neither in Russia (whom most of its current population chose to leave, and yes, Europe, unless you are a particularly strong character, is simply a more comfortable place to live than Russia), nor in Europe (whose language its flock has been slow to learn – but whose generous social security it has been quick to grasp …).

2)      A ‘united Orthodoxy’, presumably more or less in the local language, is a step in the right direction and forces people out of the ghetto. But once you have made this jump, horror horrorum, there is the question of why not make the one extra jump and join up with the Roman Catholics, who are the traditional church of this country (‘Forget also thine own people and thy father’s house’ Psalm 44). I do ask at times whether this is not the more honest solution for second generation refugees. It is certainly better than leaving the Church altogether, which is generally what happens – not helped by a certain ‘Orthodoxy or die’ attitude in certain Orthodox parishes.

3)      This forces of course the real question of the ‘Orthodox particularity’. Where does it lie (and, pace Professors Koslov and Vasechko) I am pretty sure it lies elsewhere than in the traditional doctrinal differences trapsed out in comparative theology lessons in every seminary)?  If it lies, as I believe, in a particular type of spirituality, are we effectively expressing it in Europe? And does it not effectively already exist, perhaps with rather different vocabulary and mutated forms, in other Christian confessions, or at least parts of them?

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It was a dreadful meeting at the big religious bookstore at the end of the tramline. A solid phalanx of the Brussels bourgeoisie, average age close to 70, mostly retired on good pensions, listening to a popular writer on the position of the Roman Catholic church. There were some good ideas for the future, some of which the Orthodox Church could usefully hear. But it was shallow, much about organization, little spiritual depth, no sense of real spiritual battle.

Very Belgian. Belgium is essentially a country created by the bourgeoisie for the bourgeoisie. This meeting showed the bourgeoisie wanting to do with the Church what they did with the monarchy: cut it down to their size and fit it to their horizon.

I am pretty tolerant with Roman Catholicism – it is after all the traditional Christian confession in Belgium – but this evening it was definitely not at its best (more accurately: this was not the most appealing of the many sub-groups of which Roman Catholicism is made up). I left very fast after the meeting.

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There were about a hundred of us last night, in the Jesuit church just across the road from the main European Commission building in Brussels, listening to a lecture on St Catherine of Siena, by the Master of Novices of the French Province of the Dominican order.  For me, such lectures are also good places to maintain informal contacts with leading members of the other Christian confessions in Brussels.  Which is my job in the ROC here.

I was impressed and, at least from the hour-long lecture, would have said nihil obstat to her being revered in the Orthodox Church.

Where I did feel uncomfortable, though, was in the short Vespers of St Catherine afterwards. My toes repeatedly curled up in my shoes at the music by André Gouze, considered the leading light of RC modern music. Maybe it was the voice of the main singer and conductor – this rather high, dominant and pushy voice that female singers frequently adopt nowadays, especially it seems in music related to medieval women mystics. Fortunately I was not in clerical dress, as I am not good at hiding my reactions.

Two things, though, I did like in the service: first was the use of the censer (an RC censer is larger and heavier than an Orthodox one, with longer chains and, except in big processions where you have lots of space to swing it, is used with two hands). There is a particular way of slowly censing the altar – or during the liturgy, the gifts immediately after the consecration – which the Catholics do and which I find very effective, and I see no reason why Orthodox should not imitate. The other was the space of about 5 minutes left for prayers by the people. These were brief, relevant and reverent.

This also told me something about the audience. In the Roman Church in Belgium there is quite a network of people who lead an intense and unseen prayer life. Often they are oblates of one of the religious orders, sometimes consecrated virgins, many are older people on pensions. There were quite a lot of them there last night. Which is important and is reason for hope, despite the outward difficulties of the RC Church in this country.

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This notice caught my eye in the Beguinage church in Mechelen (30 km north of Brussels) the other week.

It describes the indulgences attached to certain prayers said at certain times in front of a Mission Cross. Mission Crosses used to be set up to record a mission preached in a parish, normally by a preaching order like the Redemptorist or Passionist fathers. The Redemptorists, whose mission in 1882 this notice records, had a reputation as hell-fire preachers, and drew large crowds in the days before radio, television and the cinema. Most of the crosses themselves were temporary affairs, and have long disappeared.

As a good Protestant boy fifty years ago, I was taught that indulgences were a bad Catholic invention, which Luther rightly condemned, leading to the Reformation.  

And while I may, as an Orthodox today, find purgatory and indulgences to be rather mechanical ways of putting across the need for serious purification in order to come into God's presence, and while they went out of fashion with Vatican II, one nevertheless senses an honest piety:

“Indulgence of three hundred days whenever piously and with a penitent heart, one prays five times Our Father, five times Hail Maries and five times Glory be, in honour of Christ's five wounds, in front of the Mission Cross”, or again:

"To enjoy a full indulgence one must first go to confession, take communion and visit the Mission Cross in a church or public chapel and pray there for the intentions of His Holiness (the Pope).”

Can one really argue with that?

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More from last Sunday’s visit to Leuven.


This lovely old medieval church near the centre of Leuven has been mothballed since 1968 – in other words, closed to the public and given just enough attention – keeping the roofs intact against rain and the doors against tramps ­– so as to be reusable at same unspecified time in the future.


Later I found this touching plaque near the main hospital, "in thankful memory of the Hospital Sisters, who between 1184 and 1999 took responsibility for the sick and travellers", that is until they shut for lack of vocations.

Why the closed church, the death of the nursing community? The reasons are many and complex. But one of the biggest and simplest is, very prosaically, contraception.

Without it, the norm in a Catholic family was between four and six kids. And in a reasonable pious household, you could expect at least one, if not two, to go into the Church as a celibate priest or nun, often abroad, in Belgium’s African colonies or to South America. Add to this infant mortality and the odd war, it kept the population kept pretty constant without condoms or the pill. 

I’m not saying the level of piety or education was that high. In particular among the women’s communities it could be pretty basic, the more so because, with a shortage of men after World War I, for a woman to enter a convent was often the only socially acceptable alternative to being 'left on the shelf'. And for working class boys, too, seminary was often the only way to get a decent education.

And if you have six kids, and not much else to do on a Sunday morning, it does not take many families to fill a church building.

Much was wrong with this Western European Catholicism - the dying days of which I remember as a teenager in the 1960s -, but there remains a regret for certain things that were good in it: especially a sense of decency, intact families, and an understanding that there were other things more important in life than wealth or pleasure.

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I drove out today to the annual conference of the National Catholic Commission for Ecumenism out in Ciney, south of Namur, as the ROC representative.

 The conference venue was the huge Belgian centre of the Brothers of the Christian Schools, the world-wide RC teaching order. Like so many RC orders in Belgium it has shrunk rapidly, the victim of secularization and contraception (until the 1970s, most vocations came from large families of five or more children). Today it serves as a conference and retreat centre, and a retirement home for the last surviving Belgian brothers. The church, dating from between the wars, is not bad inside, in particular with a good Stations of the Cross.

 The main conference was by an Orthodox professor, very much of the Paris school. Intelligent, well-structured and with some good ideas, especially on modern culture, though oblivious, it seemed to me, of the problems faced by Orthodox hierarchies whose Fussvolk are desperately afraid of being ‘sold out to Rome’ and losing the sense of identity that comes with confessional difference. The responses, by Anglican, Roman Catholic and Protestant representatives, all of university graduate/ postgraduate level, were of equally high standard.

 Such a conference may be an everyday occurrence in Moscow, but here in Belgium, it is a rare and pleasant occurrence.  Indeed, as I remarked to my Anglican compatriot, this is not really about ecumenism at all. What this really is – and why we are here – is one of the few occasions in the year in which the Christian intellectual élite can get together and be intellectual in top gear. Indeed our confessional differences are not so much a problem to be thrashed out as an excuse to get together, and to breathe a bit of fresh air outside our own parish and confessional boundaries. Among ourselves we reached unity a generation ago....


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I went last night to hear a popular (lay) speaker on the situation of the Roman Catholic Church today. The venue was the new Dominican parish in Leuven-la-Neuve, the country’s largest French-speaking university, of Christian (rather than free-thinking) tradition.

 Average age around 60. Socially very homogenous: largely university or free professions, almost entirely white. The Dominican leading it was dressed in civil clothing, no one else recognizable as a priest.

 This is a group where you feel a ‘silent tradition’, a shared set of references, a way of speaking. Very Belgian. This tradition recognizes itself as Christian, even I am not sure that the Christian faith is the primary momentum.  Like any bourgeoisie, they are people who are confident of their place in society, who know who they are and where they are going and defensive against anyone who challenges this. Which is perhaps why they are pretty critical of the Church hierarchy, which you feel for them to be very much 'out there'.  The more authoritarian parts of the Catholic Church, like Opus Dei, would have been very unwelcome yesterday evening.

Somehow I found the discourse curiously shallow and immature for people of their age, like fifty-year olds whose sex life has not got beyond that of their twenties. Many of them sensed it and are looking for something else. I almost wanted to say: stop your amateurish bible studies and prayer groups and plunge into a much deeper spirituality: do the Ignatian exercises, go on a serious pilgrimage, or learn the Jesus prayer.

 Despite this gap they do not know how to fill, Orthodoxy is not a reference here. Why? In part at least because connecting with, and feeding into, this group, this ‘silent tradition’, is very difficult for us Orthodox here in Belgium. We lack the language, the educational level, the social background, the ability to sense how traditions like this one operate. In many cases we simply cannot behave socially. We are not what the Germans call 'salonfähig', people you would invite to your salon.

Yes, they did mention one Orthodox to me: a Belgian priest who has wandered in and out of the various little groups on the fringe of Orthodoxy, and now runs a church in the 'western Orthodox' tradition. I am not enthusiastic about his church, but he has one enormous advantage on the rest of us who try as Orthodox to connect into the local Belgian scene: he is from their tradition, from a ‘better’ bourgeois family (including a bit of spare inherited family money with which to buy a church building). He is salonfähig.  


The only other way in is to attract by a quality of holiness (like what Metropolitan Antony of Sourozh did in England). None of us unfortunately are anywhere near this.

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In response to yesterday's post, a friend asked "does this mean that for 25 years everyone knew about this illness?"

 I think the answer is at three levels:

 Level one: When exactly the former Archbishop knew exactly the story about Vangheluwe is very difficult to know. The factor of 'don't want to know' may have played a large role here. It fits with what poeople closer to him have told we about Danneels. I have had it suggested to me that the story broke precisely because of the change of archbishop – that the victim thought that he would finally get himself heard.

 Level two: About pederasty in the R.C. Church, everyone knew that it was going on, if you like, everyone had a few bits of a big jigsaw. But this is probably the first time someone has put the jigsaw together.  Three comments here:

 - First that most of the cases which have come to light are 30 or more years old. It may just be that a 50-year old is more prepared to speak than a 30-year old. My own suspicion, and frankly it is a suspicion only, is that sexual misbehaviour has gone in waves: that in the 1960s it was pederasty, in the 1980s it was priests having mistresses (the present new archbishop made himself very unpopular as a new bishop 20 years ago by cleaning this out of his diocese). In the 2000s the scandal is probably the sexual mores of the black clergy from the former colonies who have come in the depleting numbers of native priests...

 - Importantly, the Vangheluwe scandal is untypical: this is a boy with his uncle: it is as much ‘family rape’ as the traditional priest-altarboy pattern.

 - It would be unfair to say that all pederasty in Belgium at the time happened in the Church. All the psychologists are telling us that the majority of abuse of minors of both sexes is in the family.

 Level three: Understanding the wider malaise. This is quite complex – I have spent two years trying to work it out. The malaise of the Church and the social and political malaise in Belgium are hopelessly intertwined. In the Flemish north of the country (where 90% of the cases the commission saw were reported) and which was solidly Catholic till the 1970s, there is an underlying ‘light Fascism’, which was acceptable in the Church till Hitler came and invaded the country (and would be perfectly tolerated in the Orthodox Church in Russia). Since then it has been pushed underground and is not accepted in polite circles. I suspect that this has created a big void and that space has to be made for it.

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North-East Belgium


North-East Belgium

I was out walking today in the north-east of Belgium. It is flat farmland and forest, with nature reserves containing the last remains of fenland (marsh). Very quiet and empty. Not breathtakingly beautiful, but a good place to meditate.

I walked into the local church and got talking with the local Catholic priest. An intelligent man in his early 40s. He said that what took him into the priesthood was his dislike of the way the faith was taught in school in the 1980s by priests who had taken on the revolutionary spirit of 1968.

 I have encountered this many times before. There is in Belgium a whole gaggle of poor-quality priests aged between 50 and 70, anti-authoritarian, cynical of hierarchy, celibacy and social order, with no ascetic discipline, who interpret the gospel through revolutionary-sociological spectacles. The largest remaining concentration of them is as religion teachers in school: vaguely supervised by the church, paid for by the state, almost impossible to remove.  Fortunately this génération maudite is reaching retirement age and often not continuing as serving priests.  


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My official task in the ROC in Belgium is to represent Orthodoxy to the non-Orthodox here in Belgium.

Unofficially, it is becoming to defend the local RC and Protestant churches from attack from Orthodox, quick to draw sweeping conclusions with very little knowledge of the local territory.

Like a friend who linked the retreat of German Protestantism to moral laxity (gay marriages, female clergy, and the rest...).

 I quote my reply:

 “I hesitate in seeing a direct relationship between women priests, gay marriages and abortion and reduced Protestant church attendance. (…)

I suspect that the problem lies not in a loss of a sense of morality among Protestants (moral debate among Protestants on issues like euthanasia and homosexuality can be excruciatingly intense). Rather it is that Protestantism has been largely based on morality, and very little else, (...) with very little sense of beauty or mystery, except if you are keen on organ music.

Once I decide that as an adult (cf. Bonhoeffer’s ‘man come of age’) that I can make my own moral judgements, outside of the church, and without the need of its pastors, there is really very little reason to go to church.  

Nor am I really sure that the Catholic ‘Fussvolk’ (Catholicism in Germany is holding its ground) is really that anti-gay, anti-woman priest, anti- all abortions. I rather suspect that many do not really follow the official Church line in their hearts, but have learned to keep their mouths shut - at least so long as they are not directly affected.”

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Vatican II


I have been wading through a pile of material a Russian friend gave me on the Lefèbvrist movement round the Society of Pius X.

I do not share the conviction of the Pius X movement that Vatican II or the new rite of the Roman mass are the sole source of all ills in the Roman Catholic church in Europe today. I certainly do not like the very authoritarian world which Lefèbvre hankered after, which seems to deprive me of much of my fundamental liberty as an adult (I hope!) child of God. And I fear that that the heavy emphasis of the Pius X group on discipline and dogmatics, and its fear of conscience and personal experience, continue the rift between mind and heart which weakened Catholic spiritual life for three centuries.  

That being said, it is clear from a lot of things that I am hearing that there is a considerable sympathy in the Russian Orthodox church with the Pius X movement, and in particular the more traditional liturgical style.

Let me throw up four ideas and see where they land:

1) That if Rome could come to some sort of understanding with the greater part of the Pius X movement, this would enormously smooth the path for closer relations between the MP and Rome (if not inter-communion, at least an 'alliance' of the type that Metr. Hilarion is angling for). In other words, a Rome-Pius X and a Rome-Moscow reconciliation may be inter-linked.

 2) If I read things correctly, the real hate of the Lefèbvrist group is the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes (the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World), which has also drawn serious criticism from the Orthodox world. Is it just sheer nonsense to suggest that it is time for a revised document, ideally on a joint RC-Orthodox basis? If I understand things correctly, the Vatican II documents are seen in the RC Church as authoritative, but not infallible.

3) That the idea of a Pan-Orthodox council is really totally out of date. What is really needed now is a pan-Christian (i.e. R.C. + Orthodox) council, with clear support from Rome, Constantinople, Moscow and Bucharest.

4) That the Moscow Patriarchate should perhaps publicly state (if it has not already), that the pre-Vatican II mass is liturgically valid (if I understand correctly, it already existed, in something very close to its Council of Trent form, in around the 6th century).

As I said, these are just ideas I am throwing up. So don’t prepare yet to burn me at the stake, or whatever other nasty equivalent was used for heretics in Russia….

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Last night, too tired to do much else, I wondered a bit aimlessly through Friendland. Live Journal on one side of my screen and Google Translator Russian-English  on the other.

Two films caught my eye (I tried to find them again just now, but couldn’t). The first was the Patriarch's sermon for the Feast of the Donskaya Icon of the Mother of God, the second a film on priest-murders in Russian, starting with Fr Alexander Men and ending with Fr Daniel Sisoes.

  - I like the Patriarch’s sermons: he speaks well in a relatively uncomplex Russian which I understand nearly completely. With the Kazakh audience, he seemed in his stride. Perhaps if he had not been a priest, he would now be an army general...  Two words stood out: mudjeskvo (virility) and dukovnaya sila (spiritual strength).  They are not words you hear much around here, either in a Catholic or an Orthodox setting. Religion has gone rather unisex in my part of the world, and the idea of specifically ‘male’ virtues pretty much out of the window. Too much ‘strength’ is not welcome either. Not just in the church, but increasingly in business life. A pity, and a very real danger.  

 - The second film, centred pretty much on the three murders at Optina Poustin at Easter 1993, I did not like it at all and would not show to a western audience. The atmosphere was very much that of a siege mentality, a sense of being under attack from every side. Not that I deny for one moment the existence of  'your enemy, who as a roaring lion, prowls around, seeking whom he may devour'. But there was something tense, nervous, unfulfilled about the whole film. It was very much the atmosphere of apocalypse and Armageddon. Not easy for me to rhyme with a concept of ‘perfect man, (..) the fulness of Christ’ (Ephesians 4.13). This is a strand of Russian spirituality which I find hard to handle....

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Let me come into the Bunge debate. I'll be honest: I have not read Bunge, and I have no immediate intention to (see below)  Two priest friends of mine here say he’s OK as a general introduction. My wife, an expert on the subject, says he is best avoided on iconology. I’ll take their word for it.

 Why the fuss? Why is his change of church headlined on the Mospat site? Dare I suggest that it is because the Orthodox Church is desperately, desperately short of faces in Western Europe. The sort of people you can build a story around, whom you can make an interesting half-hour documentary about, who feel ‘spiritual’, who speak well, and who to westerners like me are 'one of us', acceptable in our own culture. There is a huge, gaping void here in Western Europe, in particular since the death of Metropolitan Antony of Sourozh, who to my generation in England in the 1970s and 1980s was ‘Mr Orthodox' in person. I note that Bunge was accompanied at his first Orthodox Eucharist by Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, almost the only other 'face' which exists.

 Why not read Bunge? Because I am hesitant of authors who write about other authors, in particular lots of other authors. It is too easy to walk in other men’s shoes, wear other men’s clothes. Orthodoxy is spread direct one-to-one, not via intermediaries. Simeon the New Theologian was set seriously on the road by Simon the Pious, as a person, not by what Simon told him about St Basil, St Maximus the Confessor or whoever. The only interest in Bunge for me is Bunge himself – either in person or a good (auto)-biography.

One more Bunge-related comment: elsewhere in Friendland there was a whole conversation two days back about 'serious' and 'exalted' Roman Catholic mystics (it started when someone quoted Bunge). 'Exalted' has become a dirty word here, particularly in its French version ‘exalté’, referring to someone who is not religiously (better: religiously-sexually) stable. Where does it come from? Popular accounts of Teresa of Avila? The ‘Devils of Loudun’ film? In reading Teresa of Avila I have the feeling of a very ‘feet on the ground’ woman, very cautious indeed about what was happening to her. Yes, I have met along the way one of two pious men and women whom I would place in the 'exalté' category, but I would certainly not class them as real mystics.

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I’ll be short. I need to get away and think and write seriously, for 'Byzantium' and others, about what it is in the western experience – other than spiritual blindness or having wickedly rejected Orthodoxy in 1054 ­– that puts in its spiritual context this modern church architecture that Russians cannot get their heads round.

 My question is:

When we talk of ‘tradition’ (predanya) in the Russian sense, would it be right to say that it includes a large element of territorial/racial identity (in the sense of narod)? There is something in the your liturgy, in your whole way of going about things religious, which makes you feel at once Orthodox and Russian, there is a sort of double continuity….

I am beginning to suspect that part of the ‘problem’ of Catholicism is to have left very little space for this territorial/racial identity element. There is little or no ‘narodni' component left. Where it existed historically, it was put down. The Gallican church in France was crushed. Attempts by the German bishops to keep a separate German Catholic identity foundered in the late 18th century on lack of support from the political powers. The roots of the Old Catholics go back beyond Vatican I to when Rome imposed its own senior bishop on Dutch Catholics against local wishes in the 18th century. Anglo-Catholicism in the UK can be interpreted as people wanting Roman spirituality, but please in a form that feels part of a continuing English tradition.

There’s the same problem when carrying across Orthodoxy into a western context. But that’s another posting.


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