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.


Help me please, professional theologians

Somehow I have got signed up to Academia, which sends me every couple of days an article on Orthodox theology published in one or the other Christian theological journal. Most are about 10 years old – a reasonable time to wait before giving for free what otherwise would cost a EUR 50 or more a year subscription.

I think I’m noticing some patterns. Confirmation or correction by more professional theologians than me would be welcome.

Over the past hundred years there have been a handful of theologians who have developed fairly complete and creative theological-philosophical systems. I’m thinking particularly of Bulgakov, Lossky, Popovic, Staniloae, Zizoulas and Yannaras. These are then picked up a generation or so later by budding young theologians, who use them to cut their theological teeth, examining them with microscopic detail, finding potential imbalances and corrigeant le tir, normally in the form of journal articles, typically consisting up to 50% of footnotes cross-referring to other theologians.

Bulgakov, Lossky, Popovich

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Bear with a sore head

Ursus is not happy.

I've just got a pretty negative critique of my book ‘Trying to be Orthodox and not quite succeeding’ from a serious RC journal to which I subscribe.

To quote (in translation): ‘To make reproaches or express criticism can be beneficial when these are addressed at persons able and appropriate [French: ‘personnes aptes à’] transform the situations described. That is love – true love. Throwing violent criticism into the public arena comes close to bad-mouthing and is in danger of blocking the construction of that Church which God and the author dream of’.

I am the first to admit that I have been harsh and could be interpreted as bad-mouthing. The critic has one pre-supposition though, that I challenge: that there exist ‘people able and appropriate to transform the situations described’. Such people may exist in the Roman Catholic Church. They do not in the Russian Orthodox Church today (as they did not in the RC Church in the 1950s). If they had, I might not have published the book.

My wife tells me the critics mangled her first book (which we on the third reprinting of). And yes the critic sort of redeems (?) himself/me in his final line: ‘Adult Christians, having a patient and long-suffering love for the Church and Churches would read this book with profit’.

On St Gregory Palamas and ‘uncreated light’

I don’t doubt for one moment that a few exceptionally spiritual people in the Orthodox world had and still have today an experience which is defined as seeing God’s uncreated light. But why, I ask, make such a big theological fuss over defining what would appear to be a one in a million experience? (OK, on Mount Athos, perhaps one in a hundred or one in a thousand, I don’t know).

But to infer from the particular form of the Orthodox experience of extreme closeness to God any superiority of Orthodoxy, seems to me to border on group prelest. Is not God is totally free to show his favour in the ways He deems fit, quite likely aligned with the mental patterns and backgrounds of the recipients? Does His giving a ring to Catherine of Siena or nail to St Teresa of Avila rank them or their churches any lower than the Orthodoxy of Athonite ascetics overpowered by visions of light?

What is surely more important for the life of the Church than this one-in-a-million is the next ‘level’ down,that is  that thin group of persons who succeed, through God’s grace, in reaching that deep transformation, where they start to become Christ-like and express Christ’s presence around them by their whole being – their love, their peace, their joy, their patience. It is these that the Church critically depends upon for its anchoring in Christ, and I am very far from sure that they are any more widespread in Orthodoxy than they are in Catholicism or Protestantism.

To continue with Palamas I ask: what in fact, is so vital about the doctrine of uncreated energies? If you talk about the love of God, with which He created the world and with which he maintains it, and took action when things went wrong, it seems to me you have 75% of it. Add wisdom if you must, though it seems to be more a template for energy than an energy per se. And what is so important in whether ‘grace’ is created or uncreated? It is the effects of grace that are important. I half suspect, but am ready to be corrected, that ‘uncreated’ may actually be clumsy shorthand for ‘not acting according to the laws of nature and communication as we know and observe them’ – which is actually the RC concept of ‘infusion’, as in ‘infused contemplation’, a concept which our Orthodox vocabulary seems to lack.

I really want to pass on the fight with Barlaam and Akyndos. It is a complex story, which can be told in different ways (and which frankly I’ve forgotten), but enough to make me wary of wanting to use it for any facile ‘supremacy of Orthodoxy’ posing.

Interestingly, and refreshingly, the liturgical texts don’t concentrate on Barlaam, but rather on the figure of St Gregory, clearly a highly spiritual man and an outstanding pastor, canonized incredibly soon after his death. I suggest that it is for his excellence as a pastor that we should remember him, rather than use him for confessional one-upmanship.


Triumph of Orthodoxy ??

It ‘normal’ times, as many of us as could be spared from parish duty would have gathered at the Ecumenical Patriarchate cathedral to celebrate the triumph of Orthodoxy, more precisely the end of iconoclasm – destruction of icons as being idolatrous ­­– and their reintroduction into church life, between the Seventh Ecumenical Council in 787 which provided the theological justification and 843, when attacks on icons were terminated once and for good.

Yes, I am happy to celebrate this triumph of icons (and not just because my wife is a professional iconographer). It is difficult to imagine my prayer life without the figure of Christ, and of the Mother of God above it, that my wife painted for me twenty years back. I’ll forget for now the sloppy ‘Theology of the Icon’ I hear too often and the fact that many of the icons we are given to carry round the church are so bad they should be burned.

Triumph of Orthodoxy though, I’m less sure. As I wrote to a friend last week: ‘We Orthodox have some very good liturgical texts, once they are in a language you understand, our basic theology is solid, but our priests are badly trained, we do not know how to communicate as Christians among ourselves, and our structures of authority are oppressive and despotic.’

I am right now half way through a theological conference to which Catholic friends have very kindly invited me. A lot of our talk is on the Carmelite tradition (St John of the Cross, St Teresa of Avila) and the French School of the Theology (Bérulle, Vincent de Paul, Olier & co). Basically, a pretty much continuous tradition, with its inevitable ups and downs, continuing through to the present day. One could narrate a similar story of German or English Protestantism.

On the Orthodox side, nothing. Was there a single book published of any real spiritual value, between 1500 and the 1850s, based on first-hand, personal experience of God? As far as I can work out, the first writer of any spiritual worth in Russian was Brianchaninov from 1860 onwards. For Greece or Romania I know of none. Yes, there is the Philokalia, published in Greek in 1783, in Slavonic in 1793 and in Russian in 1857, but this is a reheating of texts that are almost all at least 500 years old.

So what are we so proud of in our Orthodoxy? Yes, there is Mount Athos, though even there it is very difficult to work out how and whether a real tradition of spiritual value continued, and for some its continued existence is a near-miracle (I still remember the accounts of it in the first Sunday colour newspaper supplements of the 1960s as a crumbling ruin). Elsewhere, in Russia and Greece, one gets the impression that monasticism was for centuries largely ritualism, and parish life at best semi-pagan. Certainly it is hard to speak of a living tradition of any spiritual value. Ultimately the ‘return to the Fathers’, trumpeted by Florovsky, was a pis-aller faute de mieux. Of course there are some gems in the Fathers, but you have to wade through reams of texts to find them.

And don’t talk to me about the Russian post-1990 revival, which is juddering to a halt as the senior clergy sells out to the Russian state in a failed attempt at symphony, alienating both the intelligentsia and the younger generation.

And simply, comparing on the ground in Belgium the priests and people I know, Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant, I find nothing little to commend us Orthodox above the rest of Christianity, and certainly not in the Russian Church. Do we really have anything special to offer to the rest of the world around us?

My impression is ultimately of relative poverty. We are no better than the others, and in many ways a lot worse. There is nothing wrong in being poor: spiritually it can be good. But please let’s have the courage to recognize it. And leave any triumphalism until there is something to be triumphant about – if indeed one should ever be triumphant anywhere in the Christian church.


Proust et moi (Proust and me)

Left: Marcel Proust, Right: C.K. Scott Moncrieff, his English translator

Goaded partly by the praise it received from a godly man of letters whom I much respect, I picked up the first volume of Marcel Proust’s ‘A la Recherche du Temps Perdu’. Purchased in summer 1968, for the 20th century French literature paper for the Cambridge Modern Languages Tripos. Both defeated me, Proust and the literature course: apart from being emotionally far too inexperienced to appreciate this sort of writing, the criteria of 1960s literary criticism, other than perhaps their Marxist variant, baffled  - and still largely baffle – me. I dropped literature and gained my degree with the history of language papers.

Will I get further this time? Proust’s French style irritates: I have excellent French, but how often have I had to reread a sentence three times to piece it together again? (Most people who praise Proust to me have, I suspect, read it in translation). I am highly sensitive to the inner honesty of a writer. I am yet to be sure that Proust is honest either with himself or the author: the first forty pages have a distinctive narcissistic style to them. I am not sure Proust would have been a nice may to live with. I ask, perhaps unkindly, whether a big series like A la Recherche – which at my reckoning is 400 sessions of 10 pages a time – is not like a TV soap or royalty magazines – a way of enlarging one’s otherwise narrow scope of experience. Will I be somehow a better person for having read Proust, as I perhaps am from Balzac or Fontane or Wiechert? I am far from certain.

Translator's bright spots

Landing at Boma (?) Congo Free State, circa 1900

Translation can be a fairly tedious profession, even if it pays well for lesser combinations like Dutch to English. Too often I find myself translating the efforts of paid copywriters, who think you sell a company by constant references to ‘sustainability’, ‘excellence’ and ‘team spirit’. Perversely you rewrite in your mind the reality of the constant success stories, with all the delays, screw-ups and bad words of real life. Or you submit alternative texts, cleaned of the copywriter’s bad logic and prolixity (for they think they shall be heard for their many words…)

But occasionally you get assignments with real meat, which are a pleasure to work on. I’ve had a couple recently.

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Chapter 2

This is a first shot at another chapter of the new book (see posting of 8 February). Comments welcome. No hurry, and pls be patient if I don't reply at once. This sort of exercise does not lend itself to repartee.

Sooner or later, for most people who want to be serious with God, there will be the vital step of passing through a church door.

This is where, in my opinion, things can go wrong, desperately wrong.

The doctrine you will be served, providing this is a main-line confession, will almost certainly be correct enough to get you to heaven. It is the wrappings where things can go wrong. A church, like any organization, has its hidden rules, its particular way of doing things and, above all, its power structures.

Put at its crudest, not every priest or pastor is ‘clean’. Not dirty like stealing money or playing with choirboys, but with agendas of their own, basically, authority, and controlling the right to speak. Plus taking enough money home to pay the bills. Too many churches still function on the basis of ‘pray, pay and obey’, the accusative of the two latter verbs being the priest or pastor. Some men seem to get a huge kick out of being the boss, of having the last say. This can get particularly pernicious when these persons (mainly men) are less well educated and cultured. Too often they compensate their educational deficits with throwing their weight around. This applies especially in situations where priesthood/pastorship gives them a social status which, at their educational-cultural level, they would not otherwise enjoy.

My own belief is that a key point in the process towards Christian community, at least for better educated people, is finding their own voice, sensing what the Gospel means for them and being able to express it. For this there has to be room to do so, and the right to do so with different words and emphases than the priest/pastor.

Where the priest/pastor is in it in order to be the boss, and demands either the monopoly of the word, or restricts it to those who follow his tune, people will not be able to find their own voice.

Simply they will be unable ever to reach Christian maturity (nor, for that matter, will the priest/pastor in question).

Too often Christians find themselves in cleft stick: they sense the need for a Christian community and often simply some emotional-spiritual stability.  But the price is having to run a double discourse: the party line to the pastor and other leaders and your own words to God and a few close friends. And publicly you will be expected to leave the stage to the leader.

This game can become particularly dangerous when the entry point into Christianity is an emergency: marriage on the rocks, unemployment, depression …. A pastor wanting to grow his church will be tempted to take advantage of such people and use them to build a power (and money) base. His immediate first aid will be sufficient to get the people up and running again, his group may provide a base until the storms subside. But many times he is unable to provide long-term growth, which includes allowing people to speak their own language. I have been there myself, when my first marriage went onto to the rocks. I remain eternally grateful to the pastor of an evangelical charismatic outfit who held my hand over twelve rocky months. But once back on my feet I had to find my way into a ‘liturgical’ church, as did, incidentally, one of the pastor’s key helpers in getting me back on my feet, me into Orthodoxy, he into Roman Catholicism.

It is also a dangerous game in countries where a particular church enjoys a quasi-monopoly and alternative confessions are unwelcome. Generally these are undemocratic countries where people having one’s own opinion is unwanted. Several traditionally Orthodox countries fall into this category. As in any dictatorship, you learn the rules of doublespeak, but it is spiritually energy-draining.

If I were to give advice here, it would be

1) to have your spiritual guide outside of the church you decide to worship in.

2) If you sense that the pastor is intellectually or socially inferior, and will not give you space, go somewhere else. Don’t let a false sense of ‘Christian humility’ keep you where you don’t belong. You will almost certainly vortex downwards intellectually and culturally, and secretly hate yourself for doing so. Leave humility till later in the journey.

3) Work out where the money comes from: where the pastor is full-time without a stipend, but with a wife, kids; a nice house and a car, the only place it can come from is your pocket.

4) And don’t drop your pagan friends – if your love-in with a particular Christian community ends, you may need them again. One of my best friends is as pagan as they come, but is one of the few people to whom I feel free to say that priest X is a shit.

The Disruption of 1843 (or the collapse of a church-state symphony)

I was struck by an episode in British church history, which I stumbled on rather accidentally the other day, and which I had not known of before.

In 1843, approximately 40% of the clergy of the Church of Scotland, which is the established church in Scotland (known to Scots simply as ‘The Kirk’) along with up to 50 % of the laity, walked out to form the Free Church of Scotland.

The walk out was in reaction to what was felt to be an encroachment by the powers-that-be (the Courts and ultimately Parliament) in the church’s spiritual autonomy. The actual point of issue was the right of patrons (normally local landowners) to appoint ministers against the will of the local church community: the Kirk upheld the right of the local community to refuse to install one such a minister. This minister took the matter to court and won, the church appealed to the House of Lords in London and lost.

It was the final straw. At the opening of the General Assembly in 1843, the retiring Moderator read out a prepared protest, bowed to the Queen's Commissioner, and immediately walked out. He was followed by 200 other ministers and elders.

The walk-out was a courageous step by the ministers involved, who lost their salaries, church housing and churches. At the same time, it appears to have released a considerable fresh energy: a new church was created within a very short time, and its seminary was rapidly full. A ‘sustention fund’ was set up, with every member of the new church asked to give a penny a week, which was enough to give ministers in income of £150 a year (which is just under 700 pennies a week). With a few years, the new organization had built several hundred churches and accompanying manses (ministers’ houses) along with hundreds of schools. Mission and teaching work flourished. Neglected children were cared for in so-called Ragged Schools. Each congregation was allowed to choose its own ministers. Clearly a church that people believed in, and prepared to commit to and pay for.

Popular print based on Sir George Harvey's painting: 'Quitting the Manse'
(A manse in Scotland is the minster's house tied to the church)

The story has a happy ending. In the 1920s, Parliament loosened its control over the Church of Scotland, including resolving the issue of patronage. The Free Church reunited with the Kirk in 1929.

Starting out

(This is a draft early chapter of a book I am trying to put together on how I see church - any comments, especially from those longer in the tooth, are very welcome. Take your time).

I want to start out away from any standard church building. With two situations:

My friend Joël pastors an outfit called Redefined Church.  Very much at the Protestant end of the scale: meeting hall, guitar and electronic piano and bible-based preaching. Central to his ‘plant’ is a large table. ‘This is where it happens’, he tells me. ‘This is where people get serious with themselves and with God.’ In a dialogue which allows them to open up and own, in their own words, who they are.

Most people, I surmise, need a place and people to talk God, where they can honestly say how He impacts them and discuss how best to react to Him. And at times people – not necessarily ordained clergy or religious – whom they sense to be further down the road and have some of the answers.

Inevitably many of them come when something goes wrong: a close relative dies, they lose their job, their marriage is in trouble. Where they need some sort of framework in which to makes sense of their lives, a framework that somehow includes God, whom Joel is there to ‘sell’.  The onus on the pastor in such situations is to sell God and not himself (especially if he is not funded and has a family to feed).

The second situation is the Quaker meeting, where people sit in silence for an hour on Sunday, waiting for the Spirit to come out of that silence, into their hearts, and perhaps into one or the other members’ mouths. No priest of special ‘guru’, even if some longer-standing members are seen as more “weighty” than others. I know them through my father, a pacifist in the Methodist tradition, who spent most of World War II with a Quaker ambulance unit in China. He took me to meeting a couple of times in my teens. Twenty years later, having just been asked to leave a monastery I had hoped to spend my life in, and just too sore for more organized religion, they provided a precious refuge for six months. They demanded no creed, did not set down any line of moral teaching, just a genuine searching for God and profound honesty.

It is this seeking for God in profound honesty that is what for me ‘church’ exists to facilitate. People may enter the doors for other reasons: a need to belong somewhere, a love of ritual or good music, but ultimately, if church is doing its job, it is where we are invited to be honest to ourselves and in front of God, and allow Him to strip us of what we need to lose (pride, illusions, cowardice, coldness) if we are to gain and maintain His presence.

For me the key person in any grouping of Christians is the man or woman who is able and available to assist people with this encounter. (Whoever presides the liturgy, where there is one, is a bit secondary.) The guide person has to have passed through at least the main stages of Christian development. Most will have been hurt somewhere in the process, and the better ones will know the dark nights. He or she will be light-handed with moral teaching, eventually warning people that certain actions and attitudes can be spiritually negative, but otherwise leaving people with their own consciences. Unless very well trained by a highly competent guide, few people can do this job competently at much under age 50.

Guides like this will not be out to ‘grow’ any church: how many people they set on the way is irrelevant.