The spiritual life cannot be made suburban
“The spiritual life cannot be made suburban. It is always frontier and we who live in it must accept and even rejoice that it remains untamed.”

Suburbia - The spiritual life has to be more ..
This quote by Howard Macey starts John Eldredge’s book best-seller ‘Wild at Heart’, in which he berates Christianity for emasculating its men, making them dutiful and obedient and destroying any sense of vision or heroism or desire for adventure which, for him, is essential to maleness as God made it.

While Eldredge’s very Protestant American ‘frontier spirit’ and the constant military references tire at times, he makes for me three very good points:

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Metropolitan Alexander
We celebrated our patronal festival of St Nicolas today. The archbishop was away and we had no invited outside guests. This made the whole atmosphere much freer. The one negative was the absence of our rector: both our priests are unpaid: weekday services come out of their holiday allowance, and our rector, who has an important government job, could not be spared.

For me the liturgy was rough. Just about everything which could irk me did: the lack of oxygen, the protodeacon being playing perfectionist and treating me like a sixteen-year old, the reader swanning in late with that insouciance typical of early twenty-year olds who think themselves indispensable, and it beneath their dignity to go out in procession holding a candle. This sort of thing hurts, and I find it incredibly wearing, but I’m slowly learning to go praying when I’m cut up inside – there’s no shame in it before God - without going onto automatic pilot.

And somehow, I suspect, it has to hurt, me and others – especially clergy, if we are ever to get out of a rather bourgeois self-centredness and be any use in the kingdom of God. No parish really takes off without some sweat, blood and tears somewhere. And people-wise we have the best potential I have seen in the last 20 years.

Recently an old parishioner told me about the last archbishop but two, Metropolitan Alexander, who died in 1960. He gave sweat and blood – could be found praying at the altar in the night, walked 25 km to serve liturgy in Leuven when there were no trains (? or he had no money for them) during the war. The result: a strong parish where people found meaning.

There is a lesson and example here somewhere…

The third ball - church - fell to the ground with a thud......
Thud. Immediately I come into our little cathedral-church on a Saturday evening my spirit drops several degrees. It’s something very physical, my immediate reaction to the church interior. Yes, we have some lovely individual pieces of pre-Revolutionary church art, including an excellent stained glass window in the east end. Yes, we banished most of the horrible interbellum ‘emergency’ icons a dozen years back. But we have put nothing new in their place. The place is bare, cold. The message it gives is of penny-pinching, meanness, lack of generosity. Our main resurrection icon, painted at least 30 years ago, I suspect by a Uspensky follower, and now knocked and battered, is a disgrace for a cathedral (see below) and should be burned, along with the peeling St Nicholas in the sanctuary.

My wife is a top flight icon painter, and we could give one far better than the present one, or else if I felt really generous I could put my hand in my pocket to find 500 euros or more towards the 10000 or so we need to spend to lift the general pictorial gloom.

But I don’t feel generous. It’s like there is something in the walls which deadens natural generosity. I was generous ten years ago, but then gave up, as did many others. So like everyone else, I put in just as much as I should, in time and money, and no more and live most of my Christian life outside of the parish. Many blame the archbishop, here for nearly 30 years and not a natural encourager of men or manager, but something tells me it’s not him. His predecessor for over 20 years was, from what I hear, a cold fish and a social snob, basically using the church as a place where he could continue his theological work with a roof over his head and some sort of salary. I suspect he started a tradition which has stuck: we all come here to do our own thing, but with very little sense of communality or common purpose in carrying forward the Kingdom of God. A physical result of which is that the place continues to feel like another of the second-rate antique cum-bric-à-brac shops of which Brussels is full.

Pray, they will say. Yes, but the prayer you need to shift this one is not of the ‘please be nice to us, God’ – it is hard prayer, a prayer which somehow includes admitting to and accepting tears and real suffering (reparation ?) for our shortcomings and mis-usings of the past years. And should we should go running to God as long as we are not ready to take vital and long overdue managerial decisions, decisions which need, not grace, but basic common-sense, starting with ending our ridiculous cathedral status, a ball and chain which badly hampers our style?

Three balls in the air: no. 2: woodworking
My major woodworking project, to get my joiner's certificate, in the form of producing a pair of royal doors (the central doors on an iconostasis) is dragging to an end. I've been at it for a year now, and it's time to finish it and move on.

The original plan (apologies for photo quality) - the shaded area is for the icons - and transferring it full-size onto boards (essential for measuring and checking the individual pieces). This was already a year ago.

Right now, I'm in a bit of a hassle with the school because I have hand-carved some of the mouldings instead of doing them mechanically with a router and bit. I’m getting to the stage of saying: I’m doing it for God, who will judge it, and damn the school if they don’t like it and refuse me my certificate. The problem is that as soon as you start doing too much mechanically in church woodwork, you sense it at once. Yes, I do believe that there is a sense of ‘prayer’ in woodwork done with God in mind, which is missing when it is done from a computer program. Witness all those horrible iconostases with elaborate carved woodwork, which if really done by hand would have taken years, but where there is no prayer but just ‘a sullen Kazakh pressing wood blocks into a machine’, as a friend put it graphically.

The doors as they are right now. I still have to fit the icon frames and the icons inside. We did the upper segments in one piece. The school insisted on my doing a 'lighting flash' joint: I was not and still am not convinced: the joint cracked during assembly and I had to reinforce by inserting a false tenon inside. To the right the upper icon frames.

And then there is the problem of access: the school says the work should be done on the school premises: but you can only access when one of the two teachers has a class, leaving month-long gaps, and if there are free work-benches (and they have just put in a super-modern computer do-everything machine into one classroom, which severely reduces the available space). And the tools are not wonderful: either you bring your own router and extension cable, or you can sit twiddling your thumbs until the school one is free. And it’s an hour and a half tram journey there and back.  So finally I have brought the doors home and will do them in my own workshop, and again tough if the school doesn’t like it.

One of the four frames for the lower icons. Luc insisted that I carve these by hand instead of using a router and bit. It has been a valuable introduction to woodcarving, though I am still far from certain that the wood used (yellowpine) is ideal carving wood: the heavy grain makes it very uneven to carve and visually confusing. Against all the rules, I put a coat of white primer on it, and also used a slightly gouge (curved chisel) to clean up the outer outline of the moulding.

The good thing is that Luc, the second teacher, is supporting me: I also go and work with him in his workshop once a week, and am picking up many of the little tricks of the trade, just simply by being alongside a really competent woodworker.

The icons for the iconostasis - in the preparatory stage. For the actual woodworking, I will use blanks and insert these icons only just before presenting the work.

But as said, it is time to move on. This has been my major ‘spiritual exercise’ for the past year and it’s time to move on and see what the next one will be. My wife is also hinting at less ‘spiritual’ woodworking jobs to be done in the house ….

Three balls in the air: no. 1: translation

It’s being a mixed-bag sort of end to the year.

Basically it’s down to juggling three balls in the air: translation, woodworking and religious/church life, without dropping any one.

We’ll take them one at a time, starting with translation: I have perhaps slightly more than I would want, almost all of it from Dutch.

The main job right now is a PhD thesis on violence in Antwerp in the first half of the twentieth century,.

It’s the old story: the thesis is done, summa cum laude, they want to publish it in book form. Like many theses it is two things: the actual facts and conclusions drawn from them, and then showing everyone that one knows one's stuff, that one has read the right books, including in particular those of one's professors. Unnecessary in fact in the book, but no no one really has the time and inclination to strip it out and boil the original 350 pages to the 200 that suffice to to put across the essential points.

Half way through, I really want to get it finished. Based on reports of incidents of violence in various Antwerp police districts and for various years between 1912 and 1949, it is well researched and well written. But it is not uplifting. Inevitably most material is from the lower social classes, who still saw the need to settle quarrels with fights and insults in the street, and who ended up in the police records. And while the writer is clearly intelligent and creative, I sense the cold hand of a modern sociological approach. This includes a gender reference framework which smells of the 2010s than the 1920s and 1930s, a failure (common to the younger generation) to sense just how different the behaviour of young adults was in a pre-contraception, pre-abortion society, and a  total absence of any religious reference, despite interbellum Flanders being probably the most Catholic society in Europe except perhaps Ireland. I cannot quite believe that the Catholic church did not also play somehow a regulating role in that society, even if priests did not put confessions to paper like police commissioners did. Ultimately – and perhaps this is inevitable in sociology – it’s like I’m plunged into a cold, loveless world, where human beings become just another animal species, and sociology an extension of zoology.

To add a bit of spice, there's a pasta cookbook to do, a long article on the Belgian supreme court during the Nazi occupation, and a long text on Van Dyck for the big international Van Dyck project. Written in the late 19th century in Flemish Dutch, it seeks to glorify Van Dyck (along with Rubens and other Flemish painters) as part of the effort of the day to create a Belgian national identity. I'm not quite convinced. A third of the way through the text, our young Antoon has already ridden off to Italy on Rubens' best stallion leaving behind a lover and illegitimate child, and has disdained the Flemish artistic community in Rome as beneath him .... A vain, conceited, nasty job of work? I'll tell you when I've finished the article.

Cheap shot (by me)

(Why were you not in church on Sunday?)

My wife drew my attention to this poster, posted by a Belorussian doctor of divinity on Live Journal. (
My reply (below) is a bit of a cheap shot, I know: I was angry. But if someone styling himself as a doctor of divinity posts this, he deserves what he gets.

"I say to him: sorry, the people there failed to convince me that I will be any better a person, any closer to what I believe I should be, by going there.
And look, you are in my house and are sitting down and we are talking between each other: in 'your house' I am expected to stand for two hours and not dialogue, but be talked at."

Another level of thelogy
Since returning from Mount Athos, I have been reading a certain amount of material by and about St Paisios of Mount Athos.

What I note with him, as I do, for example with his Russian counterpart Ioann Krestyankin, are frequent references to situations where God is unable to work. There are the obvious ones such as pride and certain unconfessed sins, or involvement in spiritism.

But there seem to be wider circles of spiritual ‘contagion’ – a woman who cannot be healed of cancer because of her husband’s sins, or a person whose spiritual life is harmed by her mother’s divorce, and the like. In reading this material I feel at times as if tipped into a much more primitive world of ‘spirits and demons’, rather far from the more ‘sanitized’ theology of Orthodox seminary and even further from the Protestant 'individual responsibility' assumptions on which I was nurtured. It suggests a sort of corpus of practical ‘spiritual rules’, developed out of experience, and passed verbally from one generation of startsti/gerondes to another, rather in the way that formerly practices and wisdom were handed down – and the comparison is perhaps not totally co-incidental - among pagan village sorcerers and wise man (and women). And somewhat parallel to and separate from standard academic theology.

My question: has anyone tried to examine this particular level of knowledge and practice and draw general theological/anthropological conclusions from it?

Paisios and Souroti

I may have got things wrong, but when Elder Paisios from Mount Athos (now Saint Paisios) helped a handful of nuns who nursed him back to health to start a monastery at Souroti ( some 25 kilometres outside of Thessaloniki, I can hardly believe that he could have foreseen what was to become of it.

He is buried here because he died here, being too sick to return to Mount Athos. Where visitors to a tomb would have been limited to perhaps 30 or 40 a day. And not the thousand or more that passed by on the Sunday morning two weeks back when we visited. And whose gifts have permitted the building of a very well-appointed monastery, a far cry from the hut in which the saint spent most of his life. (For more pictures, see

Leaving aside the sillinesses: the nuns insisting on women wearing skirts (see, or having the grave at ground level, making veneration a slow and clumsy process, the fact remains that hundreds of people who, from their dress and behaviour one is pretty sure rarely go to church, instinctively feel the desire to stand an hour in the queue to visit the saint’s tomb. A bit dourly, and at times a bit sheepishly. I admit that the thought went through my mind: how much it is because it is Paisios specifically: could it have been any another holy man if he had been buried within easy driving distance of a main city in a pleasant women’s monastery with a large and well-organized car park and which had an interest in promoting him?

But the fact is that they come, leaving us ‘professionals’ asking what makes them come here and not to church.


I'm on the right, trying to blend in...

I arrived back from Greece at midnight on Monday after nearly a week on Mount Athos. My fifteenth visit to the 'Holy Mountain' - and a fairly ‘standard’ one this time with a Roman Catholic priest friend, visiting Pantokrator, Iveron, Xenofondas and Panteleimon.

My companion was less of a walker than previous fellow-travellers, so we did more by bus and boat than usual. Pity for the exercise, but more conversations struck up on the way. People who know people you know, people who give you tips on new places, and a surprise meeting on the boat with the higumen of a skite in the White Sea I visited two years back.

My big and pleasant surprise was the Russian monastery of Panteleimon. When I first went in 2004, two thirds of it was in ruins; now apart from one block on the periphery, it is all beautifully restored. The services are carefully celebrated: the singing well-rehearsed and the readings clear; all at 3 in the morning in a full church. I had blacklisted it a few years ago after an incident which not have happened today and went there only to fill a hole in my plan, and am glad I did.

After dispatching my travelling companion to Athens, I stayed on at Xenofondas. My friend there was sick, so I was left to fend for myself, including the consecration of a new church, and then, almost without warning, I was invited to serve as second deacon during the Sunday liturgy, with a Russian bishop presiding. This is the second time I have served on Athos (once before at the Bulgarian monastery) and it is something quite special and – by Russian standards at least – surprisingly informal behind the iconostasis.

Not greater spiritual surprises or decisions – though it is becoming clear I need to be out of translation by my 70th birthday – more a confirmation that Athos echoes with a very deep part of who I am.

Love, not morality
Swapping notes with my Greek theologian-philosopher friend, with whom I trade English lessons for biblical Greek, I mentioned my unease when ‘morality’ starts to feature too large in church discourse, especially with the overtone of 'we (our church, our nation) are moral, you are not'.

My friend, who encountered personally several of the main Greek gerondes (elders) of recent years (Paissios, Porphyrios, Iakovos) told me that they never spoke in terms of morality, only in terms of the love of God.

Ama, et quod vis fac (St Augustine).

ὁ ἔχων [i]ὦτα ἀκουέτω. (Matt. 11.15)

I am off this afternoon to Greece (so if I don’t answer any comments you make , don’t be vexed) and then a week later to Mount Athos for a few days.


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