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.

100 years on, and then .....?

Yesterday’s annual parish meeting was very much that of the ‘old guard’, that is the children and very occasional grandchildren of the Russian émigrés who found their way to Belgium after the 1917 revolution.

The average age is well past 70, but they were there in force, wanting the sacrifices of their parents duly recognized with special liturgies in this centenary year of the October revolution, the rehanging on the church walls of the badly-painted icons of the 1920 and 1930s removed 15 years ago by episcopal order, and large sums of money spent on restoring service books and old furniture (‘our heritage’).

I do not want to run them down: if their Russian is sometimes halting, they are for the most part God-fearing and faithful people. And I half sympathize: the motley bric-à-brac of indifferent icons felt ‘warmer’ and perhaps more ‘prayed in’ than the current rather cold and colourless collection which was allowed to stay. And the re-silvered candle-stands and the pre-revolutionary chalice are nicer than the cheap and nasty (and increasingly expensive) standard churchware from Russia.

But to have the icons back and spend phenomenal sums on rebinding old gospel books is to be trapped in a past. The world has moved on. We will no doubt remember the 100 years of the October revolution with dignity. But what then? What when, in say, ten years, most of the ‘old guard’ has passed on to eternal mansions? Their ‘myth’ has not survived in their children, who come to church very rarely.

We need a new myth, a new story, a new something that binds us together as brothers and sisters in Christ as part of a wider church. This perhaps is our real task in 2017: as the Revolution and émigré Russianness fade into history, to work out our new future as a parish, hopefully one which is recognized by the Old Guard as something worth handing over to.

A race of upright men ....

This engraving by Russian artist Viktor Vatnetsov (1848-1926) hit me strongly when I saw it at a lecture last week.

Soon after the verse came to me from the Psalms: ‘a race of upright men who will be blessed’ (Psalm 112 – (Anglican) Liturgical Psalter).

There is something attractive for me in these faces and figures: a beauty born of constant contact with God, in the depth of their hearts, expressed outwardly in erect figures, watchful eyes and a strong gentleness. Not the ephemeral beauty of youth, but something deeper. A beauty which also makes sense of chastity, for those called to it.

An image, I suspect, of what Russian spirituality aims for somehow, and too rarely attains.

Zacchaeus, Matthew and the rich young man

I come back and again in my meditations to the episode of Christ’s response to the rich young man (or ruler), as related in all three synoptic gospels (Matt. 19, Mark 10, Luke 18).

Christ’s answer to his interlocutor’s ‘which commandments shall I keep?’ is the standard trope I have heard in any number of of sermons: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honour your father and mother,’ and ‘love your neighbour as yourself.’

But the young man knows instinctively that there is more to it than that: ‘All these I have kept, What do I still lack?’ Christ pushes him further: to come out of the comfort of bourgeois respectability and the relative safety of possessions, and trust only on Him.

I note the little addition in St Mark’s version (10.21): ‘and Jesus beholding him loved him’.

Jesus loves people who ask this question: for me it is the start of Christianity, or rather where Christianity moves beyond Judaism, or pretty much any gospel preached to keep society together.

Christ loves people who have seen through this Judaism gospel: it is not bad in itself (‘not a jot or tittle shall pass from the law’) but it is not enough, and is easily be perverted into an instrument of social respectability or control. This is I suspect why Christ rather enjoyed being with ‘tax-gatherers and harlots’,  a bunch which have no time for social respectability and realize that there is something more than the gospel it preaches. This is how he gets both Matthew and Zacchaeus (with Matthew’s dislike of Pharisaism coming across strong in his gospel !)

But this move to real Christianity from a ‘keep (good) society together’ gospel is a messy process, but individually and in a group. The Matthews and Zacchaeus of this world, or the Mary Magdalens, are all sharpies, who know how people work. They are not going to sit down and let the dynamics of the gospel be braked by people wanting to use it as social glue, or for personal respectability and advantage, especially when these people lay claim to a monopoly right to speak in God’s name in the process.

It also throws up the difficult question of how to provide for the Matthews and Zacchaeus of this world (and I meet them constantly) in a church concerned largely with its role as social glue.

Parish versus monastery
Something that was swishing round my mind whilst walking across Mount Athos: the relationship between parish and Christian community. In a monastery or religious order or well-run seminary you know pretty clearly the basic motivation of those alongside you. The very fact of their being there, after a well-defined selection process, tells you that they have felt a call similar to your own. This, and the fact of common educational and cultural backgrounds, allows quality human relations to develop, including sharing our spiritual lives and aspirations. A dynamic evolves. Not without conflict of course: we all have our sins and wounds, but we are tolerant, realizing our need for each other in order to reach our goals of coming close to God.

At Orthodox diaspora parish level, things are far less clear. Does Vladimir or Masha or Anton feel the same tug (‘the love of God constraineth us’) as I do? Or are they there more because they enjoy singing? Or because church gives them a status the wider world does not give them? Or, or ….  How do I know? There is no selection process as in a monastery or seminary. Also the social and cultural (or lack of it) spread is much wider. But yes, it is important to answer these questions, not in any judgemental way, not out of any spiritual one-upmanship, but simply to know who I am with and how far I can commit to the group, how far I can live out my Christian calling within in.

OK, over time I have pretty much sussed out most of our regular flock. Most are in fact a pretty decent bunch, especially a handful of simpler men whom I sense to be genuine and the women who run the kitchen.  Yes, there are a few rogues, huskies with slack traces.

But I still feel that we need to be a more ‘confessing’ church, that the more articulate of us should be encouraged ‘to give an account of the faith that is in us’. Not least, because for many of us, God becomes real only when we start to put Him in our own words.

Back from Athos 14
Ursus is back now from Athos14.

A good trip, with two Roman Catholic seminarians for company.

The sparkle and ‘wow’-factor of initial visits are of course long gone. The welcome remained very good, though by now I can spot both strengths and weaknesses, and was uneasy at a couple of situations I encountered.  The one monastery where we stayed that I had never visited before, Pantokrator, impressed me. The early morning Matins services remain for me the best, when physically I can make it out of bed for 2 am.

This was the third time I had taken seminarians. This time they were both older and more advanced in their studies. We had good discussions both with monks and among ourselves. They held their ground well in the ‘Orthodoxy is the only true way’ type of discourse, and I learned a lot about the Roman Catholic Church in Belgium where I live. Noticeably the level of training (6 or 7 years on top of a university degree) to become a priest is far beyond that of our own priests, and raises questions: do they overdo it, do we underdo it?

We walked from one monastery to the other (around 10 km a time), not without difficulty as heavy snow the previous week had brought down a lot of small trees across the paths, which we struggled through, under, over or around. On our last day, disdaining the bus which we could have taken, we walked the last 12 km stretch along the dirt road through the hills to the boat in light snow. It ended the trip on the right note.

Athos 14
Nearly ready. God willing, I start my 14th pilgrimage to Mount Athos on Friday.

(Me last year outside Xenofondas monastery)

It will be the usual drill: Ryanair flight to Thessaloniki (I’m not a lover of ‘the flying Paddywagon’ – and they managed to whip me another EUR 24 in extras this morning - but it’s direct), then two hour drive to Ouranopoli, get visa, 90 minute boat ride to Daphne, bus to Karyes, and then we start walking.

This time I am with two Roman Catholic seminarians, Bruno and Marc. We will be doing the ‘northern tour’ – Pantokrator, Vatopedi, Zograf, Xenofondas, possibly adding Hilandar. Pantokrator is the only monastery I’ve not been to before.

Two things I still want to do on Athos before I get too old and infirm: the first is to visit to hermit cave area around Karoulia, the second is to walk across the hills area to the south of the peninsula. But that's for Athos 15….

It had to be done one day
Until last week I had religiously preserved all the major documents I had translated over the past 25 years:  IPO (initial public offering) prospectuses, annual reports, books. But with the latest furniture movements and the loss of nearly 15 metres of shelving in the process, the time had come to say goodbye.Read more...Collapse )

(Almost) chaos
So we bought two pieces of second-hand furniture – and liked them so much we purchased another four pieces in two further visits to the thrift shop.  Well made, one piece definitely 18th century, a second piece probably. Another a pre-WWI art deco-like designer piece in mahogoni. Excellent for reducing the percentage of IKEA furnishing in the house.

Where the rub comes is that fitting it in involves sacrificing some 18 metres of bookshelving in my office and the library. So there are books everywhere, on sofas, floors and tables, their fate in question: some to the thrift shop, others to the attic or guest bedroom, and others - mainly reference books overtaken by Wikipedia - to the trash.

Also the thrift shop delivers only to the ground floor. And as I’m the only reasonably strong back in the house, we have to wait until Friday for a friend to come and help shift it - and other bits it replaces - upstairs, one, two or three floors. Till then my office and the library/sewing room look like lumber rooms.

Woodworking and sin

Woodwork repairs come in two types: in the first something is broken or loose. A well-made replacement piece or proper use of glue, pins and clamps, and the chair or table is good for another 10 years. In the second type (normally more complex pieces) there is a mixture of wordworm, damp distortion, a broken drawer, a missing pane of glass, and a couple of insecure joints, often hasty repaired with a clumsy nail or misapplied sander. Here you have either to throw the piece out or carefully take it apart and rebuild. The first course is a pity, as with patience and skill, you can end up with something really beautiful and valuable.

Sin too comes in two very similar categories.
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The illustration combines woodworking and sin in a single picture: incredibly beautifully made 18th century confessionals in Rouen, France. Each one probably two months' work.


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