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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.


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FOUR HERMITS

If somehow I have managed to stay more or less on the Christian straight and narrow over the past few years, I suspect I owe it in good part to the prayers of four women hermits, one of whom I had a long conversation with last week.
But first a story: a number of years ago, in England, I was at an event in a church from the Catholic end of the Anglican confession. Over tea and biscuits I got talking with a priest who told me that he had for a number of years been confessor to an anchoress (very enclosed female hermit) at the shrine of Walsingham in Norfolk. His problem, he told me, was that the anchoress in question had a sharp, sly of humour, fuelled by the foibles of the overly pious, and every confession session ended in peals of laughter. From his description I suspect it was Sister Mary Phillida (https://www.walsinghamanglicanarchives.org.uk/anchoresses.htm).
Clearly a no-nonsense lady who knew her own mind and was, I suspect, more obedient to Christ than to any ecclesiastic superior.
Which is pretty much how I would describe my own hermit friends. Three Roman Catholic and one Orthodox, in Russia, the UK, America and Belgium. Of different levels of experience and of psycho-spiritual nous. But all women with whom I can be absolutely straight, where I don’t have to wear fig-leaves over the more dubious bits of my past or character, and whose advice I listen to carefully. And who can be pretty forthright from their sides too. And with whom I can laugh heartily.
No names, no photos, obviously.
I thank God for them.



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On holy (wo)men and unity




Out in my ‘desert’, a hard-to-access square kilometre of Belgium, I ask myself what shape the ‘holy man’ or ‘holy woman’ (in Orthodox language staretz/staritsa [RU] or gerondas/gerondissa [GR]) should take today.



I suspect increasingly that his/her skills need to go beyond any particular Christian confession, and perhaps indeed beyond Christianity itself.

His/her task, it seems to me,
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This line of thinking crosses with the whole question of ‘unity’. How do we attain this unity which, we are told, is God’s dearest wish for us? Collapse )

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A wretched week

It has been a wretched sort of week.
On Saturday, a text I was completing from Danish to English, ready for Monday morning, turned out to have another 50 pages. Not difficult, but just a lot of it. I obtained a 48-hour reprieve, but the weekend was shot.

This left me with two days less than planned to translate a text from the head of the Brussels Museum of Fine Arts, who is notoriously difficult to translate: his theorizing in rich, high-flying French, sends even me, who reckon to read French as well as any educated native, running for the dictionary. It is a style which allows a writer to conceal approximations and dubious logic behind a finely worked façade, which English readers hate and the English translator inevitably smashes in trying to extract the root ideas. The deadline this time, was imperative, they are already late with printing for a major upcoming exhibition. Panic for three days, everything else, apart from mid-week trip to the country, on hold to make sure it will be completed on time. It will be.

Like a doctor,
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RELIGIOUS FORMATS - DEATH AND RESURRECTION

(Again, this is very much your friend trying to get his thoughts into order. It’s not a quick read. Grab a coffee, or leave it till later or to others. This is not a 'likes'-gathering exercise)
Taking my lead from C.G. Jung, I toy with the idea that religion as we know and practice it is an expression of something deeper – call it ‘general religious subconscious’, ‘fundamental spiritual current’, peopled with archetypes and energies we struggle to intuit and understand – and that this something is not static, but changing over time. Where a particular form of religious expression moves too far from this lame de fond and is no longer able to tap into its energies, it disintegrates and dies. But this something seeks expression, and will do so in new formats.
It seems to me that these new formats are becoming increasingly clear. They include a strong emphasis on sustainability and responsibility for the planet, a rebalancing of male-female relationships and the related questioning of gender-related moral boundaries, empowerment, and a move away from racism.

All this begs the question of whether Christianity as we know it will be able to espouse this underlying current, accepting to die to certain no longer viable formats, and to resurrect in new ones. For the spiritually sensitive, this of course begs the question of whether this reformatting is ‘of God’ or not. I am increasingly prepared to wager that much of it is, and that standing, bible or cross in hand, trying to halt a rising tide, is an exercise in futility.

Actually I suspect that we are already a long way down the road here, ‘we’ being here what I call ‘kitchen Christianity’, displayed in how people react to particular situations, rather than what their priests tell them to believe or what their hierarchies proclaim in fora like the European Institutions.

A more complex question for me – and here I admit to being at my own boundaries and operating more at the level of intuition right now – is that I sense this substrate to be full of very powerful energy – a bit like the magma which swirls under the earth’s crust and can break out in volcanoes –itself morally neutral, which it is mankind’s task to harness for good or bad, for weal or woe. It is the energy that demagogues from Napoleon to Hitler to Trump instinctively tap into, but which we ‘good boys’ feel rather helpless to direct. Is there, I ask, a form of very deep prayer – symbolized for me by Mount Athos, hermit prayer and the lone priest saying daily mass – which feeds into this underlying current, and which is essential to keep this energy flowing in a positive way for the world?
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KRISTIN LAVRANSDATTER



Christin and Erlend in Liv Ullman's 1995 film version
I finished last week, in a mammoth three-hour reading session, the Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy of historical novels by Norwegian laureate Sigrid Undset. Set in 14th century Norway, it traces the story of a fictitious Norwegian woman, from her early childhood in a well-respected farming family, through her passionate romance and subsequent marriage, to her father’s chagrin, with Erlend Nikulaussøn a nobleman of difficult character who has blotted his copybook in his early years, her life with him and her seven growing sons through to her death in the Great Plague of 1349.

The description of the plot in Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kristin_Lavransdatter) makes them sound like pretty nasty characters. But even so, I found the book enormously attractive, perhaps as much in the supporting characters as in the central ones. One senses Undset to be remarkably accurate in portraying the mindset of medieval society, the interplay of formal and informal morality, of law and custom, of religion and superstition, and at its best, a redeeming humanity and goodness. The book moves quickly, especially if you skip some of the nature descriptions, with memorable scenes which you replay in your mind. The ‘feel’ of the book in not unsimilar to Ken Follett’s ‘Pillars of the Earth’, but, for me, richer and more powerful. It comes as no surprise to learn that Undset was received into the Catholic Church (in a staunchly Protestant country), shortly after completing the trilogy. Simply it is a book that I feel better for having read.

I read the first two volumes in the Archer and Scott translation done in the 1920s and the third in the new Penguin Classics translation by Tina Nunnally released in 2005. I definitely prefer the latter, with Archer-Scott’s scattered archaicism which cloud Undset’s clear (so I am told) prose. The first translators also omitted or edited some sexually explicit passages which could have given trouble in their day – an area in which Undset was remarkably forward for her day.

And yes, thankyou for Bishop Seraphim for introducing me to the book.
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Precious metal mining

Right now in my spiritual reading and thinking, like a precious metal miner, I am following three veins, centred around three authors. In each case following an intuition, which has become a near-certainty since Covid, that there is more to Christianity, or in religious experience starting out from Christianity, than what I have been taught or have experienced until now.
First author is St John of the Cross, whose Noche Oscura (Dark Night) I have just finished, and where I am starting on the Cántico spiritual. For my money one of the persons who, at least in the Western tradition, who came closer to God than almost anyone I know.
Second,
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Only Allah is perfect ....


I muttered to myself on putting the final correct touches to the new bookshelf.



It all came about a bit unexpectedly: my wife saw the workers who are restoring the next-door house throwing out lots of floorboards. We grabbed them. Once I had pulled out all the nails, we then asked ourselves what to do with them. A bookcase was the obvious solution – we accumulate books, and the existing shelves are bursting. Importantly the wood was dry and straight, and with a bookcase you don’t need to worry about knots, nail holes and other imperfections.
What you do have to reckon with when working with un-presized wood is the sheer amount of wood waste, up to 30% of the original volume. The cats gambol in the shavings and sawdust thrown onto the garden.

   .

I’m looking forward to re-arranging our books, putting our pretty full collections of French, German and Russian literature all together, and also the Classics texts (Latin and Greek) which we have picked over the years, many off the floor of the flea-market in old French school editions. Makes me feel civilized

I just hope the floor can stand the weight: 24 metres of bookshelves is between 1200 and 1800 books, or around 500 to 800 kilos. Yes, there are a few carpentry mistakes, but I hope that the wow-factor will cover them.
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My workshop


This is me in my woodworking shop in the basement of our house. A controlled chaos in which you can just about swing a 6-foot plank. It started as a makeshift arrangement seven or eight years ago, when I purchased my first workbench and circular saw, and has remained so ever since. Since then I have put together an almost complete range of tools, both hand (many of them from the flea market) and machine.

In fact, joinery is my only occupation that I am officially trained and certified for. I have no degree in translation nor in theology, with which I have earned my living and (perhaps) my salvation over the past half-century.

I’m in the middle of a major project, which I will hopefully complete next week. More pictures then.

  

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No one to write for

“No one to write for. People have either found their own answers or stopped the search”, a fairly well-known Russian religious writer/blogger recently wrote, surveying with dismay the potential market for another book by himself.
Perhaps he should try it the other way round: certain people have for a long time assumed in the church that they have a right to teach, from pulpit or printed page, by dint of specialist knowledge, ordination or otherwise, and that others can be expected to listen or read. The ‘others’ have revolted, questioned this assumed right to teach (‘and art confident that thou are a guide of the blind, a light of them that are in darkness’ (Romans 2:19) and the ‘hierarchy’ that this presupposes, left the church and/or no longer visit church bookstores. They have also started to write themselves.

I suspect that we have, at least among the educated part of the population once beyond the neophyte stage, to move from ‘teach’ and ‘preach’ to ‘exchange' and 'dialogue’.

Perhaps some divine power should insist that you or I be required to read a book by someone else that for every book of yours or mine that someone reads. My publisher has told me that my one and only book has sold 300 copies so far. Have I read 300 books by other people over the past 10 years?