Φωνη βοωντος εν τη ερημω: ετοιμασατε την οδον κυριου

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.

Most of what I write is 'friends only' (pod zankom). This is because the informal rules governing public questioning of Church positions are considerably tighter in Russia than they are in Western Europe. There is no tradition of 'loyal dissent' as there is in the Anglo-Saxon world. Which is why I am fairly careful before opening the door.

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.

Is there a female version of the staretz in the Russian Orthodox Church?
Is there a female version of the staretz (‘startisa’) in the Russian Orthodox Church, an American friend asks in response to my previous posting?

The answer is, I think, yes, to a certain extent. There have been and are spiritually deep and wise women in the Orthodox church, whose advice has been and is sought. These include the higoumeni of certain women’s monasteries, able to guide the women in their own monasteries and pious women close to these monasteries, and also to assist senior clerics, often very discreetly, on key decisions. I have two in mind, Mother Olga, the former higoumena of the monastery of Bussy-en-Other in France, and the former higoumena of Puchitsa monastery in Estonia. (I use the qualifier ‘certain’ advisedly: the recent Maria Kikot scandal in Russia and my own observations cast doubts on the quality of leadership in a number of Russian women’s monasteries. )

Two of the three figures listed as equivalents by Malounamure (Hildegard of Bingen, and Teresa of Avila), fall into this category. (Catherine of Siena defies any neat classification!)

Outside of this there have always been women in Orthodoxy known to be persons of prayer, sometimes with healing powers. I remember travelling to visit one in a simple peasant house close to Yaroslav in 2000, said to say the Lord’s Prayer continually, and who was regularly visited by the local bishop.

There are also figures like St Xenia of St Petersburg and St Matrona of Moscow (the former more in the ‘fool for Christ’ category), both supposed to have powers of prophecy.

The latter is a complex case – not everyone accepts her sanctity, and she sits uneasy with me. Some have even called her an ‘Orthodox witch’. Which points to a fundamental problem of the borderline between holy woman and witch, which is not easy to draw. Men have always been cautious of subversive women, who undermine their (sexual) power, and Orthodox clergy, not the least macho section of society, are a case in point and may not always site this borderline correctly.

What sits particularly uneasy with Orthodox (male) clergy (which includes me) is the desire to have ‘staritsi’ (female startsi) for ‘sexual equality’ reasons. A case in point about 15 years ago was ‘Mother’ Rachel Goettman, wife of Fr Alphonse Goettman. The latter, an Orthodox priest, ran with his wife a monastery/spiritual centre in the French Vosges mountains, popular with a certain profile of Orthodox convert - intelligent, bourgeois, very often in the alternative medicine/psychology movement and a penchant to ‘New Age’. They set up Mme Goetmann as a spiritual counsellor in her own right. This did not go down well with the local Orthodox bishops and was a main reason for the monastery to be disowned by the mainstream Orthodox church.

And where is God in all this? This second ‘charismatic’ strand in my model (prophet-staretz) is essentially God-appointed, and God is sovereignly free. If God raises up staritsi, it is not for the Church to put them down. But equally, it is not for man or woman to create them for reason of sexual politics.

Lurking somewhere behind this is another question, of the very nature of the call of staretz/staritsa. It seems to me that the fundamental call, which is equal to both sexes, is not to be a ‘staretz/startisa’, nor indeed even a hermit or anchorite. It is one of deep prayer and intimacy with God, the very hiddenness of which often precludes it taking a publicly recognizable form.

That this hidden prayer, by men and women alike, exists in Orthodoxy as much as in Catholicism or Anglicanism, I am pretty much convinced. Indeed, by the very nature of the way God seems to work, I cannot conceive it being otherwise.

Ecclesiastical double helix
She was an educated woman, visiting our parish, a convert to Orthodoxy with already a couple of books to her name.  Somewhere in her conversation she mentioned ‘those holy, spirit-filled priests who guide us in Orthodoxy. ‘ The reference was clearly to the staretz/gerondas tradition.

I baulked, but said nothing.

What irritated me was the conflation of priest and staretz. For me this is wrong and dangerous. Wrong because, historically, many staretz have not been priests - the most obvious recent case being St Paisios of Mount Athos. Staretz basically happen, as a gift from God to the Church. And God is free to give His gifts where He will.

I would argue that there is an inherent logic in this. It seems to me that there are basically two strands of feeding the flock in the church.  It is the proper interaction of these two strands, in a sort of ecclesiastical double-helix which make the church work properly.

The first is that of the ordained ministry. Simply churches have to be there, services said and the Eucharist celebrated. One needs to know that the person one receives communion from, or who baptizes one’s child or buries Granny, is authorized to do so on behalf of the church. The assurance is given, in most of the church, by a man being ordained by a bishop, himself ordained in apostolic succession. The prerequisites are the ability to say the services correctly, to preach at a basic level without heresy, and a tolerably moral lifestyle.

The second strand is something much freer, looser, 'charismatic', those men whom God raises up in every generation and in whom he places a particularly strong dose of his spirit and wisdom, enabling them to ‘speak truth from the depths’  -whether as prophets, regular teachers or spiritual guides. The general prerequisites (except perhaps for ‘prophets’) seem to be to have passed through the various stage of human and spiritual development life (the very name startetz or gerondas – literally ‘old man’ points to this), and to have a deep prayer life, fed by the Scriptures.

While in certain cases the two strands merge, in particular in certain priest-monks, and from time to time also in parish priests, there is no necessity for this. Certainly, in St Paul (I Corinthians I2) there is a clear idea of a spread of gifts in every community among several people. God would appear to be an anti-monopolist. Certainly it is dangerously wrong to assume, as has too often been the case in the restoration years of our church (ROC), that the gifts of the second group are given automatically with ordination to the priesthood.


Racism and nationalism
‘Are you a racist?’ my Greek friend asked me, when I insisted on the UK’s right to decide who may or may not enter the country. The words stung. I needed to go away and think ....

‘Race’ and ‘nation’, and particularly the adjectives ‘racist’ and ‘nationalist’ have become very negatively connoted here in Europe, especially since the defeat of Nazism, where racist theories ended in mass murder, and the attempt to build a multinational Europe. A Europe which, I would add, after just about embracing multi-nationalism, is finding itself, with the recent migrant ‘invasions’ (uninvited and almost impossible to remove) forced into a multi-racialism not of its choosing.

Are ‘race’ and ‘nation’ outdated concepts?

I hesitate. There is a spiritual rule that the devil never pays his own taxi: he takes something inherently good and with a strong dynamic and redirects it away from its original destination, to the Old Kent Road instead of Mayfair (using a Monopoly image), to the red-light district instead of to church. And our immediate reaction is to over-react, we stop using taxis at all. Or, to use another image, we throw out the baby with the bathwater. Could it be that this is happening with the concepts of ‘race’ and ‘nation’?

In other words, is there a good sense of ‘race’ or ‘nation’ or ‘people’?

Certainly the concept of ‘race’ or ‘people’ seems deeply ingrained, instinctive, like the sexual drive. And just as the sexual drive can be channelled (marriage) or sublimated to another level (celibacy), but if clumsily blocked, will cause havoc and return to haunt one, so too, I suspect, race and nation.

I have no immediate and easy answer. This one is en chantier as the French say. For the time being I just state a question and a doubt.

Have one year visa - can now travel to Russia
Finally …. Three months and four days after starting the process, I now have a one-year Russian multivisa in my passport. A pile-up of delays: ‘big’ visas take a month at least in Moscow, my friend who kindly arranged it was on holiday when it arrived, the post from Moscow to Brussels took over two weeks, the friend who arranges things with the Embassy here was also away when it arrived Anyhow, I have it, and can come and go fairly freely between now and 4 May 2018.
Plans: immediate: as soon as I can after July 6 to Ioshkar Ola to do a carpentry job, possibly staying the weekend before that in Moscow.

Possibly again later in the year if wanted to help on the iconostasis project our woodworker friend from southern Russia has won with my wife’s help (she is doing the icons). Again almost certainly via Moscow.

Also to give a lecture on ‘Truth and fable on Christianity and Europe’ in Moscow sometime in the early autumn: basically an intelligent Christian’s guide to Europe, especially for those with little or no experience of Europe, i.e. the way Christians here view the political, moral and spiritual situation in Europe and their involvement in it, and to confront Christian approaches here to justice and morality with those which are current in Russia. One session is planned in Moscow, but I would be happy to repeat it in St Petersburg, Voronezh or elsewhere.

I am also keen to make contacts with the Old Believers: I sense they are an important part of the Russian ‘jigsaw puzzle’. I reckon I have 60% of the Russian jigsaw puzzle in place, but that the Old Believers could give me some important additional pieces ….

A messy week ......
It’s been a messy sort of week, going a bit in all directions:

- I have finished the 14th century English religious classic ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’.
Read more...Collapse )

- Inevitably I get asked about the British political scene, post-Brexit and after the surprise of a snap election going the wrong way. Read more...Collapse )

- My older son has just announced that he is staying on in Australia with his female partner. Read more...Collapse )

Pentecost has left me a little foxed .....

(to be foxed: (slighly colloquial) = to be confused)

Having just gone through the (nearly) full cycle of the Pentecost liturgy (in Orthodoxy we run Pentecost Sunday and Trinity Sunday together on the Sunday and Monday) I remain a little foxed.  Basically, taking the main liturgical texts (the Bible readings and the special ‘kneeling prayers’ of the Vesper service tacked onto the Sunday liturgy) the reference to the Holy Spirit, which is what Pentecost is all about, appears seems, prima facie, distinctly understated and one-sided.

Read more...Collapse )

Two very English religious books
Two books have accompanied me in spare hours during the past two weeks.

Julian of Norwich. The statue is, if my memory serves me well,
next to the great west door of Norwich cathedral

The first is ‘Revelations of Divine Love’, written in the opening years of the 15th century by English anchorite and mystic Julian of Norwich. Read more...Collapse )

The second book, which I finished in a single sitting, is the biography of medieval historian and exclaustrated Benedictine monk Dom David Knowles (1896-1974) by his near-contemporary Dom Adrian Moray. Read more...Collapse )

Cistercian musings
I have just finished with much pleasure Louis Bouyer’s ‘The Cistercian Heritage’. Written in the mid-1950s by this eminent French theologian, it presents briefly the lives and writings of five 5 leading twelfth century Cistercians, starting with St Bernard himself.

Rievaulx Abbey - a haunting reminder of the heyday of
Cistercian monasticism in northern England

Bouyer describes succinctly how the Cistercian order, in first decades of the twelfth century, offers a new form of monasticism which moves forward from that Cluny, the great spiritual and humanizing force of the previous century and a half. Read more...Collapse )
The Cistercians’ founders, Robert, Alberic and above all Bernard, want something more than this. Read more...Collapse )
Bouyer concentrates on five main figures: Read more...Collapse )
For conservative Orthodox, this period and these writers are off-limits. Read more...Collapse )

Humility and glory
This is very much an ‘essay’: an attempt to put my ideas together. If anyone thinks I’m going off-course, please tell me.

‘Glory’ is a word we are a little reticent about.  Yet it is clearly fundamental to our Christian vocation. The writer of the Hebrews speaks of God ‘bringing many sons to glory’ (Heb. 2.10). St Paul to the Corinthians talks of God’s hidden purpose of our coming to glory (1. Cor. 2.7). And indeed, Christ speaks in the High Priestly prayer in John 17 of having already given the glory to his disciples: ‘The glory that thou gavest me I have given to them’ (δέδωκα αὐτοῖς – perfect tense)’.

This why I feel uneasy with a constant breast-beating ‘I’m a sinner, I’m a pig’ attitude, which I find for example in ‘andrej­_2006’’s part of the dialogue in http://marygrove.livejournal.com/448229.html#comments.

Yes, we may certainly have behaved sinfully, ‘swinefully’, in our lives. And further on in our spiritual development we may be acutely aware both the sinfulness around us and of the structures of sin which remain deep inside us. But we must not define ourselves by sin, but rather by glory. Sin is by essence a stranger to the human race, an intrusion from outside. It is something we are not made for, whereas for glory we are made.

St Paul tells his Roman readers in Romans 12:3 ‘not to be conceited or think too highly of themselves, but to come to a sober estimate of themselves’. I wonder whether ‘to think too lowly of oneself’ is not an equal sin, and indeed may be rooted rather perversely in the same pride: both can be ways of setting oneself aside from humanity, making oneself someone ‘special’. Not to mention, in the latter case, as an excuse for not pulling one’s weight in the Christian and wider community. It can also be an excuse for not opening ourselves up to the painfulness of conversion and inner cleansing. Sin can be mediocre, but it can be perversely comfortable.

Someone will bring up here the argument of the importance of humility, often closely connected in the Russian mind with sense of sin and need for repentance. Dare I suggest humility is ultimately not about sin at all, but about our absolute dependency on God, a dependency not predicated on our sinfulness (‘we need God because we are sinners’), but simply because God made us to be ‘partakers of the divine nature’ (2 Peter 1.4).

And when repentance is necessary, it is not grovelling pokayanie, ‘I’m a swine, I’m a swine’, that God wants, but truth, and the courage to look honestly at what we are, to accept the fullness, the ‘glory’ that God wants for us, to say ‘no, in fact, with Your help, I am not a swine’, and saying this to take up our beds and walk.


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