Why I am not 'Western Orthodox'
intellibear
ursusanglicanus
An Orthodox convert friend of mine, Belgian, wrote elsewhere in reply to my ‘Welsh interlude’ posting: ‘Here are my roots - Western Orthodoxy, from Alps to Scotland... Not Romanian Orthodox, Greek, Russian, certainly not the lately arrived Roman Catholicism of course.’ (English slightly corrected)

My question to him – and without wanting to impugn in any way his sincerity or godliness –: ‘can one have “roots” in ‘Western Orthodoxy’?

I admit I have my doubts on at least five counts:
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Welsh interlude
intellibear
ursusanglicanus


My first holiday in Wales, on a sheep farm at age 6, I spent sick in bed, recovering in time for the sheep-shearing and dipping. The second it rained thirteen days out of fourteen. My first Scout camp at age 12 was spent scrounging for rare firewood and half the tents (not ours mercifully) came down in a heavy rainstorm. Four years later, at a Bible class camp, during another rainy night, the boundary of the local bog extended to under our tent, soaking me and my bible, though the walk off the mountain the next morning, with the stream rain-swollen running beside the track is a rare exulting memory of my pubescent years.

Why then be interested in Wales, apart perhaps for the scenery?Read more...Collapse )
 

Bless those Cypriots
intellibear
ursusanglicanus
Christ ordered his disciples to ‘go, teach all nations’ (Matt 28.19).

They seem to have been pretty slow at it.

It needed Peter to have a special vision and the Holy Spirit to zap centurion Cornelius’ prayer group to get the message across. This put the theology in place, but no concerted action appears to have taken on it. What loosed the floodwaters was when (as we read in today’s first lesson in the Orthodox liturgy) those fleeing persecution in Jerusalem preached in Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, but to Jews only, and then some of these  - Cypriot and Cyrenians - jumped the fence and started preaching to local Greek-speaking pagans. And, as we read: ‘The hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number became believers and turned to the Lord’ (v. 21).

In other words, the Jerusalem ‘core group’ had been none to hasty in doing its duty, and God had to place it before a fait accompli with the help of some Cypriots and Cyrenians from well outside its reference group.

I don’t want to draw facile conclusions, but I suspect there is a lesson in this somewhere….

Who wants monasteries? - or a cultural difference between Russia and Belgium
intellibear
ursusanglicanus
In Russia,Read more...Collapse )
In Belgium,Read more...Collapse )
And linking the two:Read more...Collapse )

20 YEARS ON - or how I have survived in the Russian Church
intellibear
ursusanglicanus
I can’t quite believe it, but it is now 20 years since I came into the Russian Orthodox Church, Moscow Patriarchate. How did I get there, and how have I survived?

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Over-Easter, under-Pentecost
intellibear
ursusanglicanus
‘Christ is risen... Heaven and earth rejoice’ is the liturgical message of Easter. The ‘joy of Easter’ is what my bishop constantly talks of.


I admit to being a little unsure. Perhaps simply Easter has yet to catch up with me, as my body rhythms and sleep patterns re-establish themselves after the exhausting liturgical marathon of Orthodox Easter.

But it’s I think not just that.
Easter is not the consummation, but the penultimate step in the Christian process (or anti-penultimate if you separate out the Ascension). For me we over-stress Easter and under-stress Pentecost.

The biblical account is interesting here. Following Christ’s resurrection and the first critical meetings (Mary Magdalene, Peter, the Emmaus supper, the other disciples and finally Thomas) it’s near silence until the Ascension. We know that they are frequently with Christ (‘being seen of them forty days and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God’ – Acts 1:3) but with no other details except for a fishing expedition. With the Ascension there is again outward movement, with Matthias elected to replace Judas Iscariot. But only with Pentecost does the whole thing come together with coming of the Holy Spirit and the launch of the church.

Until we have Pentecost, the celebration of Resurrection is hopelessly intertwined with the whole concept of the ‘resurrection’ of spring, which had found religious expression elsewhere well before Christ’s death, including most notably in the Egyptian Osiris legend. I’m not saying that Christ did not rise again, nor does the fact of the resurrection linking into a primeval pattern invalidate it. But I suspect that deep down, and awful lot of ‘Easter joy’ is really ‘springtime joy’. Notably, in my part of the world, the popular symbol of it is not an icon of the Resurrection (whether Catholic or Protestant), but eggs, bunnies and gambolling lambs.

Theologically, an overstressing of Easter leads possibly to a too-close linkage of Christ to the Pascal sacrifice, and Jewish atonement theology, leading to the ‘penal substitution’ theory of Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo and my boyhood bible class (Christ paying to God the Father the debt for my sins). Not only is it theologically dubious by splitting the Trinity, it is horribly distant. So what? Until Easter impacts me personally, until I sense myself on my way to a personal resurrection to something closer to what God made me to be, it is no more than history. At best, if you believe in God anyway, it provides a basis for a ‘morality gospel’ of ‘be good because Christ saved you from your sins’ or ‘don’t crucify Christ again by your sins’.

For me Easter only starts to make sense when it starts to happen in me: with the realization that I am baptized into Christ’s death, in order to be resurrected with him to walk in newness of life’ (Romans 6, 3-4). However, to get there, I first need to open myself to the Pentecost experience of the Holy Spirit in me, cleaning and enlightening me in a series of iterative deaths and resurrections. Only then can ‘love, joy, peace, patience…’ (the fruits of the Spirit) come about.

For me the ‘proof’ of the resurrection lies in not the women finding the empty tomb on 9 April AD 29, but on its happening in me and many others, my Christian brother and sisters – and I suspect sotto voce ­­– in quite a few others outside the church.

So I wait eagerly for Pentecost.

On evangelism
intellibear
ursusanglicanus
I put the book down. Something in me was resisting.

It was a book on evangelization, based on the writings of Fr Marie-Eugène de l’Enfant-Jésus, a French Carmelite who died 50 years ago. It was not Fr Marie-Eugène I was blocking on. Nor was it the commentator.

Evangelization has never come easy to me. God has always been there in my life, never away long since I started Sunday school at age three in a wooden hut behind the local Methodist Church, heated with a paraffin stove in front of Holman Hunt’s ‘Light of the World’. But it has been a constant fight, since my mid-teens, to shape out of what was being preached to me a message that I really believe in, let alone might want to pass on to others.


Holman Hunt's 'Light of the World' - my first Sunday School memory.

I think I have puzzled out the Christian message, as it impacts me. It is a message of a God who remains faithful, working at a level of truth and integrity which is deeper than what the ‘world’ offers. It is of a God who, if you let Him, enters deep into the human psyche and heals and slowly turns pain into joy. It is of a God who desperately wants human beings to come to the fullness of their potential. Of a God who gives the strength to look at oneself and the world in the face. But the working out of this in my own life has been an intensely personal experience, something to be shared with people I really trust, but not to be preached Billy Graham style from a pulpit or soapbox.

It is also an experience in which church plays a very ambiguous role. In theory church or Christian community teaches us to listen to God and one another and discern and put into practice what God deep down wants for us. A place of unconditional, disinterested love out of which worship becomes possible. My church experience has too often been of a ‘love’ concerned not for what God wanted for me, but what the leaders wanted me for: whether to swell their score of conquered souls, to be an audience to their bad sermons, generous donor or a good-looking young man to try and get into bed. No, I’m being a bit harsh: the Methodist minister stepped in vitally in a serious crisis when I was a boy. A couple of Christian schoolmasters were good to me in my teens. My bible class teacher was one of the most Christian men I have met. A Protestant pastor kept me afloat when I was going through the mill 25 years ago. But they have been rare beacons in a sea of grey.

Is this the church I want to bring people into? Right now there are perhaps five or six people I know and love, for whom I think Christ, experienced deep down as I know Him, would make sense. Would make them fuller, more human people. But in which church do I place them? Perhaps I just have to try and put across the message and leave the rest to God.


Literary musings
intellibear
ursusanglicanus
I am back reading one of my favourite authors, Stefan Andres, a German writer who spans the immediate pre-war and the first generation post-war era. Andres left Germany for Italy during the war years, and much of his writing has southern Italy or Greece as its backdrop.

The attraction is curious but compelling. Part of it is the language: Andres, along with Ernst Wiechert and Siegfried Lenz, were the last generation to write a pure German, mouldable to the full range of human experience, not yet compromised by bilingualism. His is a harsh world, often of peasant life, which he experienced first-hand in wartime Italy. Its attraction lies, for me, in the search for a sort of nobility, a purity, which rises above the compromises of daily life. It is not quite Christian – the Christian background is either the popular, semi-pagan ritualism of Southern Italy or Greece – but picks up something very deep in the psyche which modern Christianity quickly lacks and smothers in a sort of religious consumerism of cheap love and Mittelmässigkeit.

It is this something deep which I sense when I pick up a copy of Sophocles – my wife found a bilingual French-Greek edition in the flea-market the other day. My Greek does not stretch to it, but the book speaks to me of a culture of classical education, of which I saw the dying years in my elite secondary school. A culture in which Classical, pre-Christian ideas wove in and out of Christianity (Dean Inge is a perfect example), to give at times a sense of nobility which again Christianity quickly loses. A culture which never recovered from the trenches of World War I and the compromises of keeping an Empire together.

It is something I pick up very strongly in Hermann Hesse’s ‘Das Glasperlenspiel’ (Glass Bead Game), my biggest surprise literary discovery of the past five years. Again a nobility, intellectual this time and again not quite Christian, that challenges.

Each of these worlds includes a certain asceticism and ἐγκράτεια as part of the route to a certain nobility. Some of it is simply the harsh living conditions, and the absence of contraception, of an earlier era. It does not always mesh easily with Christianity (and pre-Christian high Greek culture remained a serious contestant to Christianity in the more educated classes through to the end of the Eastern Roman Empire). But it is a complex I sense it is important not to lose sight of.  

Dreaming of systems so perfect .....
intellibear
ursusanglicanus
I have just finished translating a huge report for a large Belgian bank on their Internal Control mechanisms. The report, for the European Central Bank and the Belgian National Bank, is part of the ‘belts and braces’ control environment following the near-collapse of the European banking system ten years back. I’m pretty sure this bank’s systems would have been excellent, even without the report, they are that sort of people. So was it really necessary to produce a 200 page volume which, counting their time and the cost of my translation must have cost the best part of EUR 50,000, I wonder...

I suspect this is all part of this huge profession of 'assurance-giving' which has taken the place of trust, which has enriched lawyers, accountants and, yes, translators

The line of T.S. Eliot was on my lips constantly during the two-month translation task: “dreaming of systems so perfect, that no one will need to be good.”

Agrippina and wishful thinking
intellibear
ursusanglicanus
The ‘Agrippina’ story (or scandal), as related to me (see below) has caused me, and no doubt others in the Russian church, quite a bit of soul-searching. Slowly, it is looking to be part of a larger pattern: where the attraction of deep spiritual purity –something I think Russians are particularly sensitive to - has produced narratives which are either pure imaginations or conflations of real situations into what they were not. Wishful thinking, with often negative spiritual consequences.

The Agrippina story is that of Fr Pavel Troitsky, a staretz (holy man),
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