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This is meant as an informal blog.

When it comes to religious items, I would stress that these are my personal opinions, and not those of the Russian Orthodox Church which I belong to.

Russian friends: feel free to comment in your own language... I read Russian, but writing is just too difficult...

Для русских гостей -
Вы можете оставлять комментарии на русском языке, избегая слишком сложных и слэнговых оборотов.
Также в ответ на мои комментарии на английском можно отвечать по-русски.
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Working and serving last summer in a Russian village, I was struck by the way 90% of the people in church on Sunday were female This can’t be a good situation.

Look also at situations where suddenly male involvement in church life grows. I know two: the first is if there is building work to be done (I think especially of Orthodox diaspora parishes with large economic migrant populations concentrated in the building trades), the second is male voice choirs (Welsh Methodists are the classic example). I would add the observation that the male/female ratio seems less skewed in Protestant parishes that Catholic or Orthodox ones.

My hypothesis is that there are two factors involved here, which are easily overlooked here: the first is the desire of most normal males, especially perhaps of the ‘bloke’ classes, to be working alongside other men that they consider as ‘real’ males. The second, which applies perhaps more to the better educated classes, is that a man expects to have a ‘voice’ in any venture he commits to seriously. He includes his family, this work and his other social commitments, where he considers himself entitled to analyse and critique the behaviour of those around him and the effectiveness of the structures concerned.

Both the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches fall short here on ‘maleness’, the Catholics with their general celibacy, the Orthodox with the celibacy requirements for bishops. Celibacy does not per se destroy ‘manhood’ – no one would question that of either Pope Francis or Patriarch Kirill. But it can create distance, from that sort of silent understanding that exists between adult men working together, conscious of each other’s sexuality and sexual lives, and who mutually support each other’s male identity. A married priest, too, who is not felt as a fully male, is at a disadvantage here.

The Orthodox Church in particular falls badly short in its division of the right to speak. Basically, the only person who the right to speak on spiritual matters in a parish is the senior priest. Everyone else is supposed to listen. Discussion groups, chaired by junior clergy of lay people, in which people honestly discuss their reactions to the Gospel, including their doubts, do not exist. This is in crass opposition to the male need for ‘ voice’. There is a party line, and that’s that. The result is that the better educated class, male and female, has headed for the door.

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I seem to have run out of German books to read, and have turned to French. Much of it read on the tram to and from carpentry classes

Three late 19th century authors deal with sex in very different ways:

-          - Maupassant, whose short stories I finally picked up at my wife’s insistence (an author considered too lightweight for the syllabus when I did French literature at Cambridge). The sexual aspect are directly but delicately handled, with considerable humour. But what would his world have been without prostitutes…? One book is enough, though.

-        -  Huysmans, whose religious trio – En Route, La Cathédrale, L’Oblat – chronicles the conversion of Durtal back to Catholicism, forsaking a mistress en route. A world in which pious cloistered nuns expiate the sins of the brothel. A celibate world which perhaps worked then, but is hardly credible today.

-          - Camille Lemonnier: Le Mâle. A love story by the Belgian Naturalist writer, set in the Walloon countryside. Animals do it, humans do it. The concern seems to be less unwanted pregnancies, but unwanted sons-in-law in a society where property and wealth depended on whom you married and if she got pregnant she married the man. Very rich language, almost too rich, as if to say ‘we Belgians are not peasants and can write French too’

 Perhaps I should add Flaubert’s ‘Bouvart et Pécuchet’, the story of two elderly bachelors from Paris who buy a farm together and make a glorious mess of it. No sex whatsoever, even if one notoriously lesbian Cambridge lecturer of mine tried to make a gay couple of them. Well written, like all Flaubert, but a bit dull. I gave up after 100 pages.

I have also reverted to André Chamson, one of the favourites of my late adolescence. His ‘Hommes de la Route’, chronicling the life of a man who leaves his farm in the Cévennes around the 1860s to work on a new road over the mountain, is a pretty convincing. Cévennes means French Protestantism, but this is not a rich Protestantism, like that of, say the German writer Franz Wiechert. The richness lies in the countryside described, but much of the human content has something poor and mean – in French étriqué – about it, the language too. Another book ‘Le Nombre de nos jours’ (The Number of our Days), basically autobiographical, based on the same family, two generations later, is just too boring, and again I quit.


May. 21st, 2015 08:09 am
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Today is the feast of the Ascension in the Orthodox Church (one week later this year than in the rest of Christianity).

It is one of my favourite feasts.

For me it is Christ saying: ‘I’m getting out of the picture, it’s over to you. You can no longer hide behind my tunic, like a timorous child behind his mother’s skirts. You have to take onto yourselves the risks of confronting both God’s fullness and the fullness of what God made man to be. The Father is giving you the kingdom (Luke 12.32) Don’t be cowards (2 Tim. 1.17). Be strong and courageous(1 Cor. 16.13)."

Luke 12.32: Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom / Μὴ φοβοῦ, τὸ μικρὸν ποίμνιον, ὅτι εὐδόκησεν ὁ πατὴρ ὑμῶν δοῦναι ὑμῖν τὴν βασιλείαν.

2. Tim. 1.7: but For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind / οὐ γὰρ ἔδωκεν ἡμῖν ὁ θεὸς πνεῦμα δειλίας, ἀλλὰ δυνάμεως καὶ ἀγάπης καὶ σωφρονισμοῦ  

1 Cor. 16:13: stand fast in the faith; acquit yourselves like men; be strong / στηκετε εν τη πιστει ανδριζεσθε κραταιουσθε (The motto of my Cambridge college!)

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(This is something else I wrote just before Easter, but it was wrong to post then. I'm not totally sure it is right now, but anyway, here goes....)

Orthodoxy gets many things right, but one thing it gets wrong, IMHO, is its liturgical handling of the Friday and Saturday before Easter. That is in monasteries and cathedral churches (which includes ours), which do the full range of services 'out of the book'.

Instead of stopping everything the commemoration of Christ’s death and burial early on Friday afternoon and re-assembling some time on Saturday night for the Resurrection Service, Orthodoxy adds in an additional two services. On the Friday evening there is a long meditation/lament on Christ’s death, wound round the Mattins service (yes, at liturgically dense times of year like Holy Week you end up saying Mattins is in the evening and Vespers in the morning!) followed by a burial procession round the church. On the Saturday morning there is a sort of Easter-in-advance service, consisting of Vespers with is a long slew of Old Testament readings (about an hour and a half if you do the full lot, including the entire book of Jonah) which then expands into a liturgy (communion service) with the first Easter Gospel from St Matthew already read. The logic is, I guess, ‘we know what the disciples did not know, that Christ is already risen’.

I suppose the reason for these two services is that in monasteries you have to do something with the monks for the 30 hours interval, the more so as the strict rule is for total fasting on Friday and minimal food on Saturday. But the result is that the full impact of Christ’s death is lost: that vital period of ‘nada’ which the deep psyche needs to handle Christ’s death goes to the wind.

Yes, the Saturday service has some useful side-benefits: it provides an Easter of sorts for people who are too old or infirm or have kids who cannot handle the midnight services, or who cannot afford a long taxi ride home – the Orthodox have not Sunday daytime Easter liturgy like Catholics or Anglicans: everyone is too exhausted after a midnight service lasting till 2 and then eating and drinking till the early hours. It also enables us to do a service for outlying parishes where we serve once a month (for me a 60 km drive down the motorway to Namur) and cannot do the Easter night. It also provides an Easter for the altar party, who at the midnight service are on liturgical automatic pilot, battling through the hordes who come this one time in the year, clutching baskets of Easter cake and painted eggs and (if you have a Polish parishioners, large hams) to have blessed.

But the Friday evening service, no. I went only because as the second cathedral deacon my absence would be too obvious, and I needed to be decent to the first deacon, who has taken the brunt of the Lent services, especially the uninspiring weekday ones which I missed (OK’s he has a free apartment and a small salary, and I don’t, but even so). The lament which takes up most of the evening, in the form of the 176 verses of Psalm 118/119 with a response to each verse, is far from inspiring, even if you understand the Slavonic. I image a Greek monk sometime in the fifth of sixth century writing it to order and running out of imagination. For most people it boils down to standing for an hour in a poorly understood noise, broken by occasional censings. The footwork is complex, and you can easily get it wrong, and if the service is led by an ecclesiastic for whom the key to salvation, and perhaps the whole purpose of his ecclesiastic existence, seems to be to get liturgy right, it is a tense and unhappy exercise.  When after two and a half hours, he finally went out of the sanctuary to bless the people, the other deacon and I looked at each other across the sanctuary, crossed ourselves, and gave each other that ‘Thank God it’s over’ half-smile which every cathedral deacon knows.

Whether God was looking or listening, I don’t know. I think he was busy with other things, like a preaching trip to the lost souls in hell. I dreamed the night after that the curtain that closes off the sanctuary from the nave was torn in two, but no, in the morning, it was still intact. Pity, perhaps….

En route

Apr. 5th, 2015 09:26 pm
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For the past couple of week I have been reading for the past couple of weeks with considerable pleasure J-K Huysman’s novel ‘En route’ (its title in both English and French). It is thinly veiled description of this French author’s own conversion to practising Catholicism at the end of the 19th century

Most of the religious experience recounted is convincing, though equally fascinating are the descriptions of late 19th century Parisian Catholicism, and the insights it gives into the religious mind of the time. In the process of his conversion, Huysman’s hero Durtal, a middle-aged man of means of aesthetic bent, spends long hours in various well-known Paris churches, and produces sharp descriptions of their choirs, congregations and clergy. To all three he can be merciless. Perhaps not surprisingly, Fr Gévresin, the aged priest who gives Durtal the decisive push back into practising faith, sidesteps the mainline structures, sending him out of Paris to a run-down Trappist monastery, where he makes his confession and takes communion.

Huysmans’ exaltation of the priesthood and of monasticism, with the attendant theology of reparation sound extreme to modern ears, and I have difficulty in working out how much this is specific Huysmans religious romanticism, how much this was mainline discourse them, or whether it was, as I suspect, already rather peripheral (it is certainly so today).  Take his view on priesthood (the context is a funeral mass):

‘Never, in any religion, has a more charitable part, a more august mission, been assigned to man. Lifted, by his consecration, wholly above humanity, almost deified by the sacerdotal office; the priest, while earth laments or is silent, can advance to the brink of the abyss, and intercede for the being whom the Church has baptized as an infant, who has no doubt forgotten her since that day…’

Or his line on the substitutionary/reparatory role of enclosed religious, especially women. This time it is Gévresin speaking:

“You are aware, sir, that in all ages, nuns have offered themselves to heaven as expiatory victims. The lives of saints, both men and women, who desired these sacrifices abound, of those who atoned for the sins of others by sufferings eagerly demanded and patiently borne. But there is a task still more arduous and more painful that was desired by these admirable souls. It is not now that of purging the faults of others, but of preventing them, hindering their commission, by taking the place of who are too weak to bear the shock.”

The ‘spiritual image’ Huysmans gives of Paris is that of a lots of religious hidden away in arduous conditions in out-of-sight cloisters, hoping by their prayers to make good the evil living of many of the city’s inhabitants, if you want a tug of war nuns vs. prostitutes.

Theologically, I believe that some people can ‘advance to the brink of the abyss’, but do not see this as specific to the priesthood. Nor do it want to throw out of the window the idea of redemptive prayer, or of ‘expiatory victimhood’, or the idea that people of deep prayer can indeed preserve the world from much worse. I pretty much believe in all three, in some form or another, but I am uneasy when they are systematized, or (intentionally or otherwise) romanticized.

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I’m not a great bar-drinker. Sitting for 2 hours sipping beer and battling with other people’s noise and possibly piped music is not my idea of fun. But since it was the last woodworking class before the Easter holidays, I joined the others down into a cellar not far from the city centre, where there is good beer on tap. 

As the bar filled up later, I was struck by the profile of the drinkers. 90% male, the vast majority in the 25-35 age group, relatively well-heeled (the beer was not cheap), and almost entirely white European (their age cohort in Brussels is at most 70% white).

No, the body language told me that this was not a gay bar.

This is the age group which forty years ago (when I was their age) would mostly have been at home putting the first children to bed. Or which twenty years ago would have sought out female company.

Rather what we had here was a large group of men, in the key breeding age-group, who in their free time seem happiest in their own company, well away from the other sex.

While I hesitate to generalize, I start to put together the following story: this is an age group which has been brought up in a mixed-sex environment ever since they started nursery school (age 2 ½ in Belgium), including right through adolescence. General sexual mores and ready contraception will mean that they started their sex lives at an average age of 17. Most of them will be working in mixed office environments where they are in competition with very competent women. Compulsory conscription – a major binging-into-manhood exercise - went 20 years ago.

I am far from convinced that this is an environment which breeds either proper manhood, and its extension, good fatherhood. No wonder the Muslim population is heading for 40% in Belgium.

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We are exhorted as Christians to follow Christ’s example in saying to God: ‘not my will, but your will be done’.

I am beginning to suspect a hidden trap here. Let me explain:

Basically that the concept of ‘will’ in fact has two fairly separate components

a)      What I want or do not want to do

b)      Strength of purpose, will-power (nicely rendered in French by ‘force de l’âme’).

The correct Christian marriage of the two parts is, it seems to me: ‘willing what God wants to me do’ + the full strength my innate, God-given will-power (force de l’âme).

Almost certainly the correct marriage is only possible when ‘God’s will’ really is God’s will, perceived as such and consented to in the depths of the heart, and not imposed from outside. Yes, outside help may be required with the discernment, but the final yes/no must be a free movement of the individual soul. There is one possible exception; in the specific situation of religious obedience under a really professional elder, concerned to bring the disciple to real spiritual maturity. But for that’s the only exception, and then both the decision of obedience and the choice of elder must be free choices.

In any other combination of the two parts - which one sees too often, and I include myself in this for large chunks of my Christian life - and we chug along in a rather miserable third-gear.

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At this time of year, with annual reports due to be published, copywriters are desperately trying to come up with nice things to say about their corporate customers.

From my cover note returning a set of annual report translations to an agency:

"I suspect XXX is revealing a less nice part of my character: a somewhat sadistic delight in highlighting the logical inconsistences and general inanities (in plainer English: "waffle") of this type of copy! See several notes.

Could someone please tell someone in particular that the magic word 'sustainable' does not improve every soup, and that 'realise' ("se rendre compte") is a poor translation of "réaliser" (build, construct, complete)."

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It has been a rather incredible ten days, in France and Belgium, in terms of spiritual encounters.

During this time I spent 5 days at Notre Dame de Vie at Venasque, near Avignon, an Institut Séculier of the Roman Catholic Church of Carmelite inspiration. The prospect of translating a major book for them required me to clearly understand certain key Carmelite concepts. In the process I crossed tracks with people of a deep spiritual life bearing the print of years of steady spiritual discipline. There was an extraordinary simplicity in our encounters, out of a common concern to plumb the truth and then express it across a major linguistic/cultural divide.

On my return I immediately had two very deep and open exchanges, with two senior members of the Orthodox and Protestant communities here in Brussels.

Apart from a confirmation of my own being on track (useful as the community I am part of is far from on track right now), these conversations enabled me to put words on something I sense to be increasingly important (in Protestant-talk: something I am “burdened with”): the urgent need to teach a more advanced Christian spirituality. ‘Entry-car’ spirituality is everywhere: well-structured, more or less intellectually coherent, with masses of teaching material. But somewhere, ten, twenty or thirty years along the line, God kicks out a couple of lynch-pins or supporting columns, the nice structure collapses, leaving you searching for something else to rely on. In fact leaving you having to rely more and more directly on Him, rather than any organizational or mental structure.

It is vitally important to recognize this stage, often accompanied by a lot of unease. It is a juncture at which many people leave the church, sensing that what they have had so far is not enough, but unable to find it in the weekly church round. But it is a critical passage towards really mature Christianity.

Each confessional group seems to have its own problems with this passage:

-          Protestantism often lacks language for it, and has nowhere theologically to put it. People hit against a sort of spiritual glass ceiling, accuse themselves of backsliding, redouble traditional prayer and bible-reading and group bible study routines, but still it does not work, and after iterating two or three times, and banging their heads every time, retire discouraged.

-          Orthodoxy has a sort of language for it, if you are looking for it, especially in the Philokalia. That being said, the references are all i) monastic and ii) male. The language tends to concentrate on the early stages, with great stress on all the ways the evil one will try and trip you up, and on the final stages (with a distinct danger of voyeurism – delighting second-hand in other people’s ecstatic experiences). There is little sense of gradual maturation: notably specific instructions for those two-thirds of the way down the road (in Teresian language, at the fifth and sixth mansions) are almost non-existent. Also a real problem in Orthodoxy is that people moving on to real spiritual maturity can be seen as a threat to those guarding ecclesiastical power bases. And for those in established ministries, it is very difficult to obtain the necessary free time and space (ideally several months’ sabbatical or lightening of duties) that such a passage requires.

-          Roman Catholicism has the most developed approach (St Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle with its seven mansions being the classical example). Perhaps too developed at times, with the spiritual temptation of measuring oneself (‘have I finally passed from the fourth to the fifth mansion’?) and forgetting God’s sovereign liberty to take people down any route He wants. I suspect also that accessing this more advanced spirituality requires people to quit parish structures for the churches of the teaching orders (Jesuits, Dominicans, Carmelites etc.), producing a sort of two-tier Catholicism.

Be that as it may: it is vital to have people who have made the jump into this ‘Book 2’ Christianity, living much more through faith than outer structure. Also who are able to guide other people as they struggle into this new stage of Christian life, including importantly being able to pick up God’s working in the soul when expressed in non-standard language (in fact a sure marker of deepening spirituality) or happening in non-standard life situations. And people who simply, being more Christ-like, ‘speak the Gospel with their lives’.

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Not the best photo, but the only one I found in a hurry from the school site. Both female/male and the white/non-white ratio are distinctly skewed here.

The joinery class swung into its final (long) straight yesterday evening: four evenings a week through to June on making window frames and staircases. Non-opening window frames only: opening ones nobody builds by hand any more, though I hope to learn how to fit double-glazing into existing frames.

We are third-year (my lot) and second-year students together, which means a lot of new faces and names. Together we are more multinational (adding Spanish, Greek, Italian), less Muslim, more white and more female (one out of 15 – joinery not being traditionally female occupation).

The course per se is easy to follow. My only problems are linguistic: apart from the beginnings of deafness, I find African French, with its high speed and heavy accent hard to follow, and the Spaniard who interprets for the Greek (who has poor French) does so loudly in a heavy (and excuse my snobbishness, low-class) American accent which grates on my English ear. Also, by 20.00 on a day in which I have been professionally in and out of at least four languages, my fluency in technical French leaves me and I start searching for words.

What I also like is being plunged into Belgian 'normalcy' - out of the educated bourgeoisie ghetto I otherwise inhabit.

I don’t know whether there are Christians in the new group: I will not proselytise, neither will I hide my own convictions (outward religious signs are forbidden by the school). Would I invite any of them to our church if they were interested? Yes, there are a couple of our priests I would be ready to put someone into contact with (others I would definitely not), though I suspect that they, like me, would refer the enquirer either to a Catholic church more in line with his cultural background or to another branch of Orthodoxy which is more open to the outer world.

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I am finishing André Vauchez’s ‘La spiritualité du Moyen Age occidental’, which gives an account of the development of western spirituality from the 8th to the 13th century (There is an English translation, which like the original French edition, covers only till the 12th century, the part on the 13th – perhaps the most interesting –being a later addition.)

For me, Vauchez documents well the move from a church essentially rooted in the liturgy, with heavily decorated churches, with rites attended by people who had very little idea of what was really happening and a spirituality which bordered on the magic, to the starts of a ‘modern’ spiritual consciousness, with the laity beginning to demand to understand what was going on, to have a genuine religious experience and express it their own language, often to the horror of the church authorities.

No prizes for guessing the parallel going through my mind….

Two other points:

The more I read about the spirituality of this time, the more I sense that it is very similar to what was happening in the Eastern church, an strengthens my suspicion that the idea of two separate spiritual worlds, East and Western Christianity, from 1054 onwards is a figment of an Orthodox purist’s imagination.

Vauchez also writes well on female (semi-) monastic spirituality of this period: I have read nothing about this on the Orthodox side: were there any Orthodox equivalents of Hildegard of Bingen, Hadewych of Antwerp, Marie of Oignies, Margaret Porete or (later) Julian of Norwich and Teresa of Avila?

A pet hate

Mar. 7th, 2015 02:47 pm
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A pet hate is in colloquial English something one particularly dislikes.

No, it is not our Archbishop (centre), even if relations have sometimes been strained.

No, it these CAD/CAM (computer-aided design/computer aided manufacturing) iconostases, which seem to be sprouting up all over the place like mushrooms after rain. Gone is the witness of the crafsman who spends weeks and months working the wood for months to God's glory, to be replaced by a machine costing a hundred thousand euros or more which does the same job in a number of hours.

OK, they are better than the jigsaw-cut plywood screens they generally replace. But is there not an in-between: a decent screen made in seasoned wood by the best woodworker the parish can get hold of. And unless you can afford to plaster it with gold leaf, wood that is native to the country where is screen is being put up.

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I learned yesterday that I am being bad-mouthed in one of our diocesan parishes as a кляузник or a ‘denouncer’ or ‘tale-bearer’. I assume the reference is the article published in 2013 in Russia’s premier Orthodox journal where I criticized the triumphalistic tone and the praise-singing that accompanied our diocese’s 150th anniversary in 2012. I am sure the bad-mouthers have not read the article. I do not rule out a clerical source.

I stand by that article, which, I remind my detractors, passed through the church censors in Moscow. Three years after writing it I remain deeply worried at the danger that one the main functions of our Russian-speaking church communities in Belgium, that of providing a meeting space for Russian-speakers living in a foreign country, is subverting the primary purpose of any Christian community, which is to be a place out of which the Christian gospel can be lived to the full.

I am not saying that the ROC should not provide a social function, nor that religion should not be a component of group identity. But when this social and identity function distort the Christian gospel, than I object.

Distort is perhaps the wrong word: better, prevent it from ever flowering to the full. My reading of the ROC in Belgium is that we are stuck in what, for lack of a better term, I would call improved Judaism – with our religion defined too much by rites and rules and insufficiently informed by direct experience of the living God, and unable to express to the outside world what experience we do have. It is this full Christianity, what I sometimes call ‘Book 2 Christianity’ which I am concerned about, because I believe it is the only Christianity that is of any real use outside the four walls of the church. For some it is probably scary: it demands much greater pastoral skills, real spiritual discernment, and inevitably questions established patterns of power and authority. It calls for a certain pruning (John 15), but without this pruning, the tree will wither and die.

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Following on last week's posting, here are some photos of the Athos trip, thanks to Slava and Anton, and with permission:

Read more... )Read more... )

Athos 12

Feb. 22nd, 2015 02:39 pm
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We arrived back from Mount Athos at midnight on Friday. We, that is Slava, his two sons Stas and Anton, and myself. Their first visit, my 12th. Five monasteries, Dionysios, Xenofondas, Zoograf, Vatopedi and Hilandar. Three of them with services in Greek, two in Slavonic (old Russian). Friends at 4 of them, met 3. The younger men, more athletic, did all five days on foot, I used the privilege of age to use the boat on 2 of them. Key bits:

-         *  For me the ‘core’ is in the first morning service, in the near-dark, starting between 1 and 4 in the morning depending on monastery, with perhaps no more than 10 monks and a few guests. Having a cassock and overcassock with me, I sat with the monks in the choir, putting me close enough to be able to catch some words of the service.

-         *  The incredible decoration of the churches, especially the woodwork, even in the poorest of the monasteries. Elsewhere rich decoration shocks me, here somehow it works.

-        * Ditto for many of the refectories, with their wall paintings going back hundreds of years.

-        *   Permission obtained from one abbot to return and stay longer at his monastery. While I can still manage the rougher tracks with a backpack, there will be time soon when this will no longer be possible, and I want to be able to stay several days at one monastery.

-        *  Some incredible views, especially over the sea on the north-east side of the peninsula.

-         *  And as always, the Byzantine Museum in Thessaloniki, very well arranged, with descriptions in perfect English, and a valuable source of information for newcomers, who normally know zero about the Eastern Roman Empire.

True, I would have liked to have spent a bit more time in spiritual conversation with experienced monks, but that can be for a next time.

Slava and Anton were manipulating a pretty sophisticated camera between them, and we look forward to the results.

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I am just back from three days in Germany with an old student friend. We were both students at an international business school near Paris in the 1970s, he the son of a German wartime pilot, me the son of an English pacifist. We went parachuting together, and he broke his foot on his first jump. The friendship started at his hospital bed. After school, we both lived in Frankfurt, he in advertising; me in banking. I l pulled to the side of the business world after ten years, he dived in deep, brilliantly selling products that feature low on my essentials list: cigarettes, beauty products and high quality lavatory paper, ending up running a thousand-man business. Now retired, his main occupation is investing his gains from that period and his main toy a large Mercedes driven at great speed.

To do me a pleasure, we visited, in the bitter cold, two religious sites, Kloster Eberbach and the Russian Orthodox Church in Darmstadt.

Kloster Eberbach is an old Cisterican monastery, founded in the 12th century and disbanded in 1805. It now doubles as a wine centre, including cellars with huge wooden vats where they shot parts of the Name of the Rose. Monasteries are always difficult to visit, as I am constantly trying to feel my way through beyond the tourist version of the story to what life really was like there, and the spirituality of the place. For a few fleeting seconds, looking across the cloister to the church entrance, I ‘got’ it.

The Russian church in Darmstadt, dedicated to St Maria Magdalena, is tiny: like similar churches in Wiesbaden and Weimar it marks a German-Russian aristocratic marriage, this time of Tsar Nicolas II to Alix of Hesse (Empress Alexandra Feoderovna). The church is small, but it was warm, clean and had a cared-for feeling. The mosaics above the altar are not bad, the icons on the iconostasis pure late 19th century ‘standard issue’, the other icons, apart from a passable modern Maria Magdalena, pretty frightful.

And we talked, and talked, and talked. Of business of which he knows a lot, of politics, where he has strong views, and religion, where his confirmation class Protestantism left him nothing serious to hold onto. He darkens church doors only with me and for funerals.I don't try to convert him, just to give adult, sensible answers from experience when I can.

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In answer to a question elsewhere in LJ, and because of my incompetence in placing pictures in a reply: here is an icon in which I see, or better, sense, holiness:


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I am right now travelling back on the high speed train from Paris, where I have been attending the management conference of a major division of a major Franco-Belgian multinational. My role is to write the message of the conference so that it can be passed down the line, or ‘cascaded’ in  the company’s internal jargon.

Listening to these senior executives brought home to me just how much a large multinational has taken over for many people the role of key place of meaning, a role previously taken by a mixture of local community, family and church. Or if you like, the physical village has been replaced by the corporate one. Certainly the language is distinctly religious:  ‘values’, ‘beliefs’ and (for me a new one this time round, but it is clearly coming into the corporate vocabulary) the virtue of ‘humility’.

Where I see a clash coming (or to use their terminology ‘mis-alignment’) is between those (mainly at the executive level) for whom the business is the main thing that gets them out of bed in the morning, and those for whom it is just one of many (getting up in the morning for the thing one does not do until the evening, when you’ve finished work.) Or, for those of us with strong religious values, not wanting to give the corporation the role of value-definer in one’s own life.

But yes, as a clergyman, I will admit that I rather like business. I like its crisp, no nonsense approach. If a person performs below par, he is told very clearly that he is, remedial action is tried, and if it does not work, he is fired. To a considerable extent, promotion is by competence, and you are expected to take calculated risks and to have the courage to say if you disagree, and then fight your corner. This does not bode me well in the church, where the dominant mentality is much closer to that of the civil service or academia, with the mentality of keep your nose clean, minimize personal risk and slowly work up through the ranks, and once someone is tenured, it is almost impossible to get rid of them other than for crass misconduct (and then not always…). 

Is this, incidentally, why the present Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, goes down so well: he is at heart much more a businessman than his predecessors, nearly all of them from the academic stable?

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It’s like I’m trying to get two forms of Orthodoxy to meet:

- The first is that of a popular and ‘national’ Orthodoxy. The ‘faces’ it takes are of big ceremonies at major religious locations (Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Moscow, major monasteries like St Sergius at Serguei Posad or the Monastery of the Caves in Pskov) with senior hierarchs in gaudy vestments, surrounded by candle-bearers and acolytes, long religious marches (Krestni khodi), and pictures of ‘spiritual-looking’ priests, with flowing beards and gaunt faces in bright-coloured vestments, the sort of pictures that illustrate popular religious magazines. I would add, currently and less fortunately, that of priests performing burials in the Ukraine war-zone, surrounded by men in battledress, who clearly do not understand the ceremony, but sense the rite is important and to whom it gives some sort of meaning and closure to their comrades’ deaths. It is a simple, folk religion, into which you enter by being essentially part of a crowd, without asking too many questions. It’s what in bad moments I can ‘priest and peasant’ Orthodoxy.

- The second is the Orthodoxy of the spiritual writers that Orthodox read: the Church Fathers, the Philokalia, and that of Mount Athos.

Right now, it would seem, it is the first type of Orthodoxy that seems to have the wind in its sails, at least in the Russian Church. Orthodoxy as part of a popular culture that the hierarchy seems to be pushing, largely in step with the Russian political machine, which seems to be wanting to paint western culture as disunited and morally depraved.  

This causes a problem in the diaspora, especially its more intellectual, non-Russian part, whose natural proclivity is very much towards the second type. This diaspora also lives within a wider Christian environment (Roman Catholic and Protestant) which has largely lost the first type, even if hankerings remain at the more ‘integrist’ end of the scale, and where the emphasis, especially in Catholicism, is very far from nationalist.

My instincts tell me not to jettison the first type of Orthodoxy. I admit as much as a ‘sociologist’ than as a theologian. Societies need some sort of glue to hold them together, and religion has traditionally provided it, including, paradoxically, giving identity to the liberal anti-clerical group in countries like France, who defined themselves as being ‘not’-Church. My big worry with Europe, as it forgets Christianity, and with a Muslim population in cities of 25%+, is that the glue may not be strong enough. Therefore if, in countries like Russia, Christianity, or religion more generally, can indeed still provide part of the glue that holds societies together, so be it.

This first Orthodoxy reminds me more and more of the Old Testament, and particularly of later Judaism, very much the scene in which Christ himself operated: the popular rites which hold a people together and give identity, both in a physical country and in a wide diaspora. It is the religion of the big gatherings in Jerusalem to which people travelled long distances – remember Christ’s repeated going up from Galilee to the feasts, first with his family, later with his disciples. There the people stood around for long periods, while priests performed rites in a language (classical Hebrew) poorly understood by the people. Religion was deeply woven into the political power structure – and the Gospels, particularly Luke, portraying Christ’s death as his being removed for threatening the ‘symphony’ between the Jewish powers that be (‘the high priests and chief citizens’) and the Roman occupants.

I am very attempted to label this as ‘Pre-Christianity’ – basically one form of what Fritjof Schuon calls ‘religio perennis’, a ‘religiöses Gemeingut’. I have also heard the term, unkind but not far off the mark, of ‘updated Judaism’.

It is religion, it is socially necessary, but it is not full Christianity. My concern right now, both in Russia and the diaspora, is that ‘full Christianity’ is being drowned in it.

A hundred years ago the situation was simple: ‘full Christianity’, was largely the preserve of the more educated part of monasticism, the people (‘narod’) lived pre-Christianity, and the secular priesthood hovered somewhere in between. This situation no longer holds, in particular the more educated laity is no longer ready to accept this pre-Christianity and is demanding ‘full Christianity’. One senses the religious powers-that-be uneasy at this: one way round it (at least in the Orthodox diaspora) being to ‘clergify’ any more intelligent and pious male by putting him in a cassock and vestment and giving him a place in the liturgical dance. (This leaves open the question of intelligent women ….).

How do you hold the two together theologically and practically?

I am very tempted to borrow a solution from both Orthodoxy and Catholicism in talking of Christianity as a series of stages. I think of the ‘Stages of Contemplation’ of St Peter of Damaskos, one of authors with the most pages in the Philokalia, and obviously of St Teresa of Avila, with her Interior Castle. Both make a sharp distinction between a first level: basically ‘keeping of the commandments and try to be good’ and a second level, where one is much more individually grasped by Christ, and, normally in a long process of spiritual struggle, comes into a deep personal relationship with the Trinity. For Peter of Damaskos, the switch point lies between the fourth and fifth of his eight stages of contemplation, for Teresa, after the third of the seven mansions. The two  stages bear a striking resemblance to what I have called ‘pre-Christianity’

Basically, what we are saying is that we are going to have to learn to cater for people at both stages: pre-switch and post-switch. For (Russian) Orthodoxy the big, and very big problem here, is that we have little experience (and sometimes, I fear, little interest) in handling post-switch Christianity at parish level. The Roman Catholics have got better at it, willy-nilly, since the 1970s, basically because, with the five-fold increase in university education in the 1950s and 1960s, it found itself with an educated Fussvolk which could think for itself, and wanted much more say in their own religious practice.

Both sides need each other. I am very far from use that we can run a Church in basically ‘post-switch’ or ‘full Christianity’ mode, even if full Christianity must be both the locomotive and the goal. But we need to allow for a significant part of our more intelligent members, to go ‘post-switch’, on to full Christianity.

The distinction may also offer a theological way out of the present impasse on certain moral issues which are going to bedevil Christianity for the next generation. Pre-switch morality can only differ so far from the general consensus of society: put at its crudest, in a society (Russia, Uganda) where homosexual activity is taboo, pre-switch Christianity will condemn it. In societies like the UK and the USA, where social consensus seems more tolerant, pre-switch morality, those churches offering ‘pre-Christianity’, especially the ‘national’ churches, can be more tolerant. At the post-switch stage of full Christianity, one can allow oneself to stand much more strongly against general social trends.

This distinction, incidentally, offers an interesting alternative take on the parable of the Pharisee and the tax-gatherer, with which we started the long liturgical march to Easter today. In many ways, Pharisee is pre-switch Christianity, a religion which centres on behaving in the right or wrong way. The tax-gatherer is post-switch, having reached that realization of his non-worth and the beginning of tears that start the long ascent (mostly a descent in fact) towards the living God.


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October 2015

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