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.


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.



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?

Saint Peter, something of a mystery

As I read through the liturgical texts for yesterday, the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul, and today, the Synaxis of the 12 Apostles, I stumble at the figure of St Peter.

Today we are used to drawing ‘psycho-spiritual portraits’ of Christian leaders, from what we know of their personal backgrounds, their writings and what others have recorded. We use them as yardsticks against which to measure ourselves or examples to follow. With Paul, we have just about enough to have a feel for the man: with Peter we largely draw a blank.

How educated or not was he? His two letters are well-composed in good, literary Greek: how much is this of Peter’s own hand and how much the work of an amenuensis/ translator, especially noting that there is much less ‘I’-language than in Paul. How ‘humble’ a fisherman was he: a one-boat show or a head of a largish fishing combine, with enough ready cash to spend much of the year with Christ without beggaring his family? While the liturgical texts make much of Peter’s ‘steadfastness’, Paul suggests he had a hard time withstanding the circumcision party. Should we read into the fact that at some stage James, the brother of the Lord, comes, with John, into the central Church management in Jerusalem, that his leadership was essentially spiritual?

Simply, we little information to use him as yardstick or example. And while the writers of the canons would no doubt have liked more material to work with, in order to maintain a balance with Paul, perhaps this lack is not a bad thing. I suspect that for the first two or three centuries of the church, history and historical figures were less important than what was going on right then, in AD 140, 220 or 270. The spirit was moving mightily and they were tracking it and moving with it, and had little need to look back at past glory days or to hide behind figures of earlier generations. A temptation that is still with us, as we constantly quote, re-edit and conference on Bonhoeffer, Merton, Staniloe and Schmemann.


Atheistic spirituality

It was my good friend Joost who put me onto Leo Apostel (1925-1995) (, a Dutch-speaking Belgian philosopher in the atheist tradition (quite strong here in Belgium) as someone trying to devise a spirituality without God. Whereupon I bought his ‘Atheïstische Spiritualiteit’, a posthumous collection of essays which an early death prevented him from publishing. (Unfortunately, only one of the four essays, ‘Mysticism, Ritual and Atheism’ is available in English.)

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A theology of difficult glory

Am reading in parallel Lutheran philosopher John Caputo’s recent (2019) book, “Cross and Cosmos, A theology of Difficult Glory” at the same time as Etienne Gilson’s 1934 work “La théologie mystique de Saint Bernard”.

Two very different worlds, Bernard’s is that of early (12th century) Western mysticism. Caputo’s is modern Lutheranism, with its heavy emphasis on seeking justice in the present world and on immediate expressions of care for one’s neighbour (Inasmuch as you did it to the least of one of these…). Opposing worlds, indeed. As Gilson remarks in a footnote: “il faut être bien aveugle pour ne pas voir que la mystique cistercienne et le luthéranisme sont comme le feu et l’eau” (p. 59).

I need both of them. Mysticism because I sense that my relationship with God is to express itself in more than acts of love to my neighbour and to the community, and also, pace Orthodoxy, in more than liturgical ritual, at least in the ways I am expected to do it. At the same time I love Caputo’s brutal deconstruction, under the influence of Derrida (whom I have not read) and his reason for it: ‘a destabilization of the present order … in order to remain open to the promise, to the coming of the unforeseen event, which calls on us like a stranger knocking on our door in the night requiring our response.’ (p. 32) And his hard questions, which force me to think and be creative, something I lack in an Orthodoxy which seems to have exchanged Augustine’s ‘you would not seek me unless you have already found me’ becomes ‘you do not seek me because you have already found me.’

How do I get the two together? In the concept of call, of κλησις, something that Caputo makes much of, what I would describe as this sense of a very deep and fundamental calling, a claim on me that I have to fulfil. It is in this calling that I recognize God, and indeed, according to Caputo ‘That call … is what is meant by “God” [….] God does not exist; God calls. God does not subsist; God insists. God is not an absolute being but an unconditional call’.(p. 33). A κλησις which it seems to me, phenomenologically may not be specifically Christian at all but allgemeinreligiös. Which is where I pick up with Caputo ‘The call calls in or under the name of God – but also under other names, which is why not everyone who is in the spirit signs on to Christianity or to what is called in Christian Latin “religion”.’ (p. 34).

A ma limite, a genuine modern theology is one of the call: providing a framework for the exercise of phenomenological discernment as to what is and what is not a genuine call which has a claim on one’s very life, and what is fantasy, and answering the question: how far does this call have to fall within, and be lived out within, the confines of traditional confessional and confessing Christianity.


I wonder - spiritual maturity

From a conversation last night with a dear Roman Catholic friend..
I wonder whether, for the Christian priest or minister the crunch moment - and the start of real spiritual maturity - does not come where he or she feels impelled to give spiritual advice 'against the book' - to tell a wife to leave an abusive husband, to accept an abortion as the best solution in a certain situation, to allow a life-saving machine to be cut off or to give communion to a person openly living in a gay partnership.

Memoirs of a country priest - Chap V, part 2

Continuing yesterday's episode:

After dismissing the headman, I thought: What does this boozing mean? I took upon myself the duties of the shepherd of Christ’s flock.  I must be the leader for the salvation of my parishioners. To the shepherd, it is said: "When I say to the sinner: You shall die, and you don’t announce it to him, nor try to convince him to turn from his evil ways and live: the sinner shall perish in his own sin, but I shall seek his blood from your hand." To the shepherd, it is said: "preach the word, in season and out of season, convict, prohibit, implore!" And what? I will indeed tomorrow, bow down, insist, beg the children of God, whose souls have been handed over to my care; but beg them to do what, my God! ... Not that they give up drunkenness and not anger the Lord with their ugly behaviour, but that they should drink and anger the Lord even more. I, the shepherd, will have to ask that the Christians handed into my charge drink vodka, drink at my place, from my own hands, bought with the last of my money! ... No, this is impossible! It is said to me: Woe is me, if I do not preach the gospel. How can I teach them later the rules of morality, how can I exhort them to quit drinking, when I myself will bring them to drunkenness and immorality tomorrow? How will I say to the Lord: Behold I and my children, when I myself voluntarily fall away and cause the falling of those for whom I should be the leader for salvation?! To the shepherd, it is said: "be an example to the believers". What image will I give tomorrow? Of drunkenness? ... But my God! What is all this?! And why all this? Because of what am I ruining myself and others? ... So as not to be left to rot in the watchman’s hut and not to die of hunger ... But this is both stupid and unfair! Is it possible that I have become so needy and am dying of hunger, and will the Lord feed me, if I remain an honest man, his true servant, and piously fulfil my duty?Collapse )

[1] A Russian ‘pulp novel’ of the day
[2] The book containing ‘private’ services: baptisms, weddings, etc. In Russian: trebnik

To translate or not to translate

I've recently translated into English a chapter of the book ‘Memoirs of a Country Priest – The Existence and Needs of Orthodox Clergy.’ by Protopriest Alexander I. Rozanov  (Александр Иванович Розанов : Записки сельскаго священника - Бытъ и нужды православнаго духовенства).

Published in St Petersburg in 1882, the book is the account of the life and trials of a priest, who starts his career in 1848 at age 23 in a remote Russian village in the diocese of Saratov and slowly climbs the ecclesiastical ladder, ending his life as a relatively prosperous town priest. The book spans the period from 1848 to 1882, i.e. roughly half of it before and half after the abolition of serfdom. Rozanov is an entertaining writer and his insider descriptions of church in the mid-19th century are revealing, the more so as they are relatively unique. His reasons for writing are largely to plead for a better organization of the parish system, in particular for better financial conditions to give priests the independence he believes to be essential for a proper ministry.

The question I ask myself right now is: is it a good use of my time to spend perhaps three months of my life to translate this book, for publication in either book or digital format? As far as I know there is no existing English translation. There’s no money in it for me in any case.

The chapter is too long for Live Journal. I'll publish the rest tomorrow.

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After God

I was floundering at times. I have not trained on Husserl, Heidegger, Levinas, Derrida, Ricoeur and company. But I picked up a lot from ‘After God’, a series of essays reacting to the writings of Irish philosopher-poet Richard Kearney, edited by Greek-American philosopher-theologian John Panteleimon Monoussakis. (And thank you to Frank Palmer Purcell for introducing me to Monoussakis).

Essentially confirming a sense I have increasingly of a God who refuses to be bound by boundaries, including religious-philosophical systems we set for our own comfort. That we have to break through and beyond these boundaries to move into wider and more creative spaces.

Yes, I am running into trouble with traditional Orthodox theology. I find it stale and clumsy. I ask: is the much-touted ‘return to the Fathers’ a running away from the boundaries we have to test? Is the heavy current emphasis on ecclesiology an attempt to halt a cancer of church-system-centredness that has become incurable? Does our theology have to consist of constant rereadings of the few great (or at least tolerably decent) theologians we have: Staniloe Popescu, Zizoulas, rather than trying to make sense of the world that we are moving into and engage with the figures of modern thought? Do we really have the right to insist on a separate Orthodox theology at all? Have we made – especially in the USA – far too much of the ‘Paris epiphenomen’, which we buried last summer with Fr Boris Bobrinskoy?

‘After God’, no. ‘After what we have made of God’, yes.