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.


German writing in the wake of war

Within a few weeks I have read three pieces of German writing each published almost immediately after World War II: ‘Missa Sine Nomine’ by Ernst Wiechert (my favourite German author- English translation as ‘Tidings’) published posthumously in 1952 after the author’s death in 1950, is the story of three brothers of an aristocratic family putting their lives back together after wartime traumas. ‘Der Untergang’ (translation: The End: Hamburg 1943) by Hans-Erich Nossack, written during the last years of the war, is a memoire chronicling the carpet bombing of Hamburg in 1943, as seen from the country cabin where he was vacationing at the time. ‘Der Ausflug der toten Mädchen’ (translation: The Outing of the Dead Girls), written by Anna Seghers in 1946 when still in political exile in Mexico, describes a boat trip of teenage schoolchildren from Mainz just before World War I, and then fast forwards to their individual fates just before and during World War II.

These were years, I suspect in which, exiled or bombed out, people could be more honest than in more structured times. And more human and sensitive, before everything got smothered – especially in Western Germany - in the race to rebuild. Missa sine Nomine has a depth and spirituality which I have rarely met anywhere. This, and Wiechert's other war-related writing, also leads me to hypothesize that the most honest and penetrating war-writing comes from the losing side.

There is a strong physical side to each piece. The atmosphere is not yet that of the ‘why on earth did we let ourselves me carried away by the Nazis’?’ dirge, still in the air when I first came into contact with Germany in the mid-1960s. Rather it is people still trying to work through the sheer brutality of war: Nossack and Seghers the mass bombing of Hamburg and Mainz, Wiechert with the Russian invasion of Eastern Prussia and Nazi concentration camps.

A brutality which, three generations later, one can admit that no one side was exempt from: the Germans with the Jews and concentration camps, English with the carpet-bombing of Hamburg and Dresden, the Russians with Katyn and the misbehaviour of their troops in occupied countries, the Americans with Hiroshima.

Tough biscuit

They were about twelve people in the congregation whom I censed towards the end of last night’s vigil service. More than half of them men, some of whom had stood stock still in silence for over an hour already (you sit during an Orthodox service only if you are old and frail, and in the vigil service there is no spoken part for the congregation, though a few mutter along the familiar parts under their breath). In their forties, I suspect most probably Ukrainian and working here with their wives and children at home. I spoke to a couple of them at coffee after the liturgy on 25 December (St Spyridon in our Julian 13 days late calendar) when we were nearly 20 people in church: probably many had come to be warm with other people when the local Belgians were all with their families.

Honest, decent people I am sure. People I would have no hesitation to employ for building work in my house. I suspect that their faith and practice is limited to generally trying to behave well, and going to confession when they slip up, saying a few prayers in the morning and evening and standing once or twice a week in church in a half-understood, half-digested mass of Slavonic at speed.

Are we short-changing them, I ask myself.
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The French connection

I have never particularly loved France. I am fluent in its language more out of practical necessity than love of its people or its culture. For all the beauty of both its monuments and its countryside, I find the country deeply divided, with social peace more an uneasy truce between opposing factions than in any profound sense of common purpose and identity.

And yet, I mused to myself on my way back from there ten days ago, much of my own spiritual history has taken place there, over more than 50 years, certainly more than in Germany, the country of my preference as a young man.

An excellent monastic library

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My French library

A burst water pipe a month back forced me take down some 600 assorted books, a relatively small portion of the (I guess) 4000+ scattered across a large house. Half of the 600 were my collection of French non-fiction, purchased at different times over the past more than fifty years in England, France and Belgium.

It was a curious feeling as I put them back into the shelves. Truth to tell, there are few French authors I have really liked, and even fewer of them mainline.Collapse )

Nineteenth-century Russian musings

Vasily Perov - Easter Procession in a Village (1861).

We recently gave an unpublished article on Fr Aleksandr Rosanov’s “Notes of a Village Priest” [Записки сельского священника] to an English Roman Catholic friend. She described it as ‘fascinating and sad reading’, noting in particular what struck her as a horrific lack of spiritual maturity by today’s standards.

Here are some of my comments back to her.

It is extraordinarily difficult to get a good feel for the spiritual history of Russia over time. Occasionally bright lights (Tikhon of Zadonsk – 1724-1783, St Serafim of Sarov – 1754-1833) emerge out of what otherwise seems like a very dark and unlit background. While they were admired during their lifetimes and are held up as examples today, they are exceptions.  At what level your ‘average’ nineteenth century peasant, priest or monk lived his or her spiritual life is extraordinarily difficult to gauge. I suspect that by our present standards it was miserably low, but that this miserability was, for lack of comparison, not felt as such.

Let me try and give my own take on the situation as it was in the mid-19th century, just before and just after the ending of serfdom (1861).Collapse )

Vasily Perov - Sermon in Church 1861

To a devout Roman Catholic friend

I certainly count myself fortunate to have, like you, started my Christian life in Protestantism. It is easier to start from a bare-bones gospel, and then bolt on and integrate the valuable additions of Catholicism and Orthodoxy, than to start in Catholicism or Orthodoxy - especially when enveloped in the paraphernalia of popular piety and distorted by their appropriation to guard public morality as dictated by the powers that be - and then try to sort out what is primary and what is secondary.

Carthusians – When Silence Speaks

The Entrance to the Grande Chartreuse in Southern France

I have always been fascinated by the Carthusians, the semi-eremitic Roman Catholic monastic order, ever since reading Thomas Merton’s ‘The Silent Life’ at age 17. At the time I was straining to move beyond my Protestant Anglicanism and its penal substitution theology, like clothes that had become too small for me, and flirting with Roman Catholicism. The pictures of hooded monks in the snow gripped me and marked the start of a journey which led me eventually in and out of a Catholic monastery in my early thirties, and to annual visits to Mount Athos for the past fifteen years.

But there has always been something special for me about the Carthusians, whose early writers I read when a monk in France. Twenty years ago I drove to the Grande Chartreuse, closed to visitors, but with an excellent museum close by. That special ‘being grabbed by the heart’ was there again, as it was on a couple of visits to the Certosa di Pavia in Italy and again to the Cartuja (church only) in Granada, both of them also with superb woodwork, which I love.

The Certosa di Pavia in Italy

I have never spoken directly to a Carthusian, and hope I am not loading my fantasies onto them. But that facing off naked against God fascinates and inspires me. It is clearly a life which demands both rugged courage and great level-headedness, has a long time frame and shies the excesses of temporary enthusiasms. It is the ‘unum necesse est’ in its pure form.

The Cartuja de Granada - Unfortunately I could not find close-ups of the woodwork

I therefore bought immediately the new ‘When Silence Speaks – The Spiritual Way of the Carthusian Order’ by Belgian writer Tim Peeters, just published in English by Darton, Longman and Todd in English. It is a good introduction. I flipped through much I knew already, but little new bits, especially interviews with recent priors, were inspiring. DLT have published quite a bit of Carthusian literature over the years. I have on my bookshelves ‘The Prayer of Love and Silence’, ‘The Way of Silent Love’, ‘Interior Prayer’ and ‘The Wound of Love’ (republished by Gracewing). ‘The Way of Silent Love’, a series of Novice Conferences, is particularly good and I have read it several times.

At this depth of spirituality one is in unmarked borderland between Orthodox and Roman Catholic. When St Bruno started his eremitic life in 1076 it was probably a common experience, well before the Palamite controversy started building a spiritual wall between Eastern and Western monasticism (or perhaps better: when twentieth century theologians and church politicians started using Palamas as an excuse to erect a wall in order to mark off a specific Orthodox spiritual identity). An Athonite monk friend of mine commented that on reading the Carthusian writings he felt very much at home.

The one thing in the Carthusian life that I could not handle is the anonymity. I need to write and share, at least in a small circle. To be buried in just a winding cloth (no casket) and without a tombstone, on the contrary, seems an excellent idea.

Oh, the diocesan website ...

Standard Russian garish yellow vestments.
Not everyone has perfect grammar, spelling and punctuation. In particular in inflected languages like German, French and Russian. I regularly pick up mistakes in French, German and Dutch texts I receive for translation. And regular readers of my blogs will have caught mistakes in my English, due mainly to bad re-reading. My wife, on the contrary, has perfect written Russian, scarcely ever a mistake, and tight style. Which entitles her to kick up a shindy when the diocesan website writes less-than-perfect Russian. Recent example:

To be fair, much of what appears on the website is writing to order: parish X had its parish festival yesterday. The bishop celebrated along with priests A,B,C and deacons X, Y and Z, then addressed everyone afterwards and awarded a gold cross to priest D or a gramota (a sort of certificate for good conduct/special effort) to parish official E. Everyone then went off for lunch (generally copiously libated, a detail omitted from the account) and the kids performed something musical (often a painful experience I try to dodge). Little room for creative writing, and someone somewhere no doubt already sells computer programmes soon which will do the job for you, without the bishop noticing.

But is it too much to demand that a diocesan website, which is inevitably an “advertising window” to the outside world, insist on correct grammar, spelling, punctuation and not-too-clumsy style? No one expects us all to be saints, but correctly writing in public documents seems to me a reasonable minimum requirement. And, as anyone in the communications industry will tell you, one of the main consumer groups of any company’s external communications is that company’s own employees. And employees hurt when they see their company let down by bad presentation. And a church is no exception: well-educated people in particular have little inclination to align themselves with any organization which cannot maintain basic standards of literacy. A failure all the more patent – and quickly picked up by critics – in a church which sees itself as co-responsible for upholding its country’s language and culture abroad.

Actually, if I want to get a feel for the quality of a church event, I go for the photos. For festive celebrations at smaller parishes: how many of those present are locals and how many are imports? Which clergy are there and which are not? How joyful do people look on a group photo (while making allowances for being on one’s feet unfed for three hours, the glum pose many older Russians strike in front of a camera lens, or the fact that few males photograph well in garish yellow dalmatics). Or for a ‘youth event’: how many of the teenagers present are priest’s kids (probably there under duress) and how many might be there more or less of their own volition.

And to be fair, for the report quoted above, the photos largely redeem the text. Certainly the kids are less wooden than the text describing them, and the atmosphere seems to have been pretty good.

Baroque initiation

Wieskirche in Steingaden - a delightful pilgrim church pretty much in the middle of nowhere.

Finally – after dealing with a collapsed heating system and a major c¨¨¨-up by BPost, which managed to send a 15kg parcel of ours to France instead of Finland and lose it there - I have time to breathe and look back on the ‘Baroque week’ we have just spent in southern Germany, visiting 20 Baroque churches plus a toy museum and a city museum to boot, both in Munich.

Baroque is a newish ‘language’ for me, and I am not sure that I have yet fully grasped it, or more exactly the spirituality that gave rise to it. I sensed in some of the finest churches we visited – Ottobeuren, Kloster Ettal, Wieskirche in Steingaden – a desire by the early-mid-18th century to venture out into new spiritual territory: in particular the feeling of sacred space changes radically, which much more light and with harsh lines rounded. A couple of guide books spoke of a ‘Catholic Enlightenment’ (katholische Aufklärung) at this time, cut short with the secularization of monasteries around 1803. And indeed one senses a great humanism in the best of the sculpture and painting. And certain communities inhabiting these new-style buildings, like Kloster Banz, were also centres of considerable learning. It is tempting to ask what would have happened had this movement continued, and not have been cut off, the more so as German Catholicism, once it recovered around 1830, feels very ‘petit bourgeois’ and morally stuffy, running for cover to Neo-Gothic.