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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.

Five days in France

Last week we took a break in the Champagne region of France. We had travelled through numerous times on the way to and from Southern France and Italy, and it was time to take a closer look. Highlights:


Abbaye de Fontenay. Former Cistercian abbey, dissolved like all monasteries at the French Revolution, and which had the good fortune not to be knocked about too much after that. Around 1900 it was bought by a wealthy banker, whose family still run it, and, I suspect, live nicely off the tourism proceeds. Beautifully tended lawns and gardens, but curiously difficult to get a real smell of the spiritual purpose for which it was built. No altar in the bare Cistercian church, just piped plainsong (Rorate caeli desuper etc etc.) on a permanent loop, sung in that tedious sex-less counter-tenor voice frequently affected for medieval plainsong. Bookshop touristic and not religious. No picnic facilities.

Abbaye de Clairvaux. Visit not originally planned. Twenty years ago when I passed by, it was still all a prison, which it had been since the abbey was dissolved at the French Revolution. Our guesthouse keepers told us part had recently been reopened. Curiously impressive. Most of the 18th century monastic complex apart from the church – destroyed to provide building material to convert into a prison – is still standing, though just. The picture above, of the main prison entrance, belies what lies behind: acres of just-about standing and more or less still waterproof buildings, maintained for two centuries on an après-moi le déluge basis. Heaven knows how they will go on from here: the prison department is moving out and the place needs millions of euros to keep it standing. And for what use? Far too big for even the most flourishing and well-funded religious community. Guided tours only, no photos (part is still a prison). French prisons were clearly squalid places until well after World War II. Most visitors seemed to be interested more in the history of French prisons than that of monasticism. And indeed you can smell very little of the latter.

“Large religious building, mainly 14th century, in good shape after recent renovations, seats 1500, seeks new owner and new vocation.” I saw in my mind’s eye a real estate agent’s advertisement for the Cathedral at Châlons en Champagne. We twice hit locked doors. Finally, in the late afternoon, we found an open entrance. I sensed at once an unloved, un-needed building. No flowers, votive candles blown out, bookstand nearly empty. The reasons is simple to find in the church of Notre-Dame en Vaux, nearer to what is now the centre of town, which is where clearly the city’s Christian community is centred. The cathedral is a historical monument, so you can’t pull it down. But it remains an unneeded white elephant.

‘Dingy’ was the word that came onto my lips on entering Reims cathedral, with its façade a look-alike of Notre-Dame in Paris. The place that tourists will visit and mill round however badly lit and scruffy. Yes, they try to tell you its history and what Christianity is on scrolls on the walls, but like Notre-Dame in Paris, it is more a museum that a church. The dark glass and a huge organ covering most of a transept window make the altar end distinctly drear. Perhaps also, large Gothic churches no longer match our sense of the sacred, we prefer something less awesome and more intimate.

Regional art museums: Troyes, Châlons en Champagne and Reims. A genre in themselves. Mixtures of paintings seized during the French Revolution from disbanded religious communities and departed or guillotined nobility and of bequests by wealthy 19th century citizens, plus a few prehistoric remains, and in two cases, large collections of stuffed animals, one excellent, the other – mainly birds - excruciating. Inevitably unbalanced and disparate: at Châlons they had the good sense to group the large paintings by subject area – religious, landscape, etc. – without too much attention to dating. Essentially not quite class one artists, and quite a few possible fakes: rich merchants and industrialists would have been easy game for not-too-honest dealers.  Housed in representative buildings, they speak as much the civic pride of earlier generations as of the history of art.  Almost certainly heavily loss-making.

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Pig's breakfast

I remember back in 1980 reading the obsequious one-page adds in the good newspapers from one my country’s main colonial banks wishing newly independent Zimbabwe everything good. I had visited the country – a beautiful place – three years earlier, travelling everywhere by plane and with armed escorts because of the danger of rebel attack.

I commented then that independence would not work, that Mugabe would quickly, like his African neighbours, make a pig’s breakfast of the economy, though I was not prepared for the murder and savagery that ensued and was largely kept out of the newspapers. His obituary shows my judgement to have been totally right.

This was, of course, not what a ‘good Christian’ was/is supposed to say. Forty years on I am still doubtful of the ability of black Africans to run economies without massive graft and waste. South Africa is about the only country which has not fallen apart or had a civil war, and even there presidential power has teetered at times out of control. Nor am I ready to blacken the collective memory of British, French or Belgian colonists as seems to be politically correct in most quarters. True, it was not always done right, and there are some horror stories there as well, and the claims to ‘civilize’ do not always bear up. But what has followed them, as in Zimbabwe, or in Congo, can hardly be deemed any more ‘right’ in anyone’s eyes. 

The long shadow of history
Maybe they don’t teach history correctly in British schools, but I am surprised that, with the Prime Minister Boris Johnson proroguing Parliament, and Parliament now fighting back, no one has drawn the parallel with the fight, in the 1640s, between King Charles I, who found Parliaments a nuisance, and Parliament, which believed it should be the real authority in the land. I don’t wish BJ to lose his head, and I am not too sure of Cromwell-in-the-wings in the form of Jeremy Corbyn, but a re- assertion of Parliament’s central role in the British constitution seems to me to be urgent. 

The American Pilgrim

The Russian Pilgrim, the story of a simple wandering peasant learning and practising the Jesus Prayer from an elder (staretz), is known to hundreds of thousands. For me at least as authentic, probably more [I, and others, suspect the Russian Pilgrim of being a literary fake] is a much less known figure, the American  peace activist Mildred Norman (1908-1981) who for nearly 30 years walked up and down the United States, known simply as the Peace Pilgrim, owning nothing more than the clothes she wore, eating the food given to her and often sleeping rough, and proclaiming the need for world peace.

I came across her by accident a couple of weeks back – she was quoted in a ‘Daily Dig’ by the Plough Magazine – and picked up her biography second-hand [Peace Pilgrim – Santa Fe 1994]. It is the story of woman who, brought up pretty much outside the church and refusing to commit to any one Christian confession, developed a faith in God and a sense of vocation and a spiritual wisdom that are second to none.

I don’t quite buy into her peace message – myself the son of a pacifist conscientious objector I find it a tad simplistic. And yes, the background is now outdated: hers is a pre-personal computer, pre-AIDs world – very much that of her contemporary Thomas Merton ­–, and she is very American, including a good dose of ‘God helps those who help themselves’, occasionally coming close to Apple Pie and Motherhood.

But her own insistence on the place of man in the universe, on finding one’s own vocational place in it, the importance of dispossession, spiritual and physical, and in particular, her insistence on finding the good in everyone and aimed at that and nothing else, are for me spot-on. Her spiritual insights are profound and In terms of personal spiritual development she ended up, including constant prayer, certainly at eldress (staritsa) level and close to sainthood.

The book is a light read, but a good way to spend a couple of evenings or a long train ride. If I had to choose between the Russian Pilgrim and his U.S. counterpart, I would definitely opt for the latter.

Christianity versus the religious instinct?
If I remember the story right, the proclamation of the Virgin Mary as Theotokos, bearer or mother of God at the Council of Ephesus in 431 was followed by a spontaneous outburst of joy, with processions and dancing in the street, especially of women.Read more...Collapse )

This discomfort I feel here reflects what I suspect to be a difficult marriage: Read more...Collapse )
Where does this take me as a practising Christian and minor cleric? Read more...Collapse )

A secondary concern
I hesitate to enter into the fray with regard to the future of the former Russian-tradition Exarchate which the Patriarch of Constantinople has disavowed. The more so as I entered Orthodoxy in this Exarchate and did my theological studies at its seminary (Saint Sergius in Paris).

But reading the message of several of its key figures in the latest issue of The Wheel (https://www.wheeljournal.com/blog/2019/5/25/letter-from-the-europe), I feel queasy. Underlying it is the presupposition that it is God’s will for there to exist an Orthodoxy in western Europe in the mould of the former exarchate, essentially more democratic and less clerically dominated than any national church in the Orthodox homelands, and resourcing itself largely from the university-educated (upper) middle class.

Is it God’s will? I don’t pretend to read the mind of God, but I sort of hesitate. Yes, I see the need for an Orthodoxy in western Europe for temporary residents or first general immigrants from Orthodox countries, in the same way as you will find English, German or Swedish-speaking churches across Europe. And yes, it provides a bolt-hole for misfits like me who seem unable to fit into more ‘natural’ structures (for me either English-speaking Anglicanism or French or Latin-speaking Roman Catholicism). But is it not logical to suggest that perhaps God’s primary concern in each country is the particular confession (or confessions) which have been the primary carriers of His presence down the centuries, and which have shaped the Christian cultures of these countries: whether Roman Catholic in France, Italy, Spain and Portugal, Orthodoxy in Russia, Ukraine, Greece and Romania, or Protestantism in Scandinavia, and with more complex situations in the UK and Germany? And that really Orthodoxy in Western Europe - something of a fish out of water - is of rather secondary concern to Him?

Her book, my book
I have just signed off on my most difficult translation job of the year: getting my wife’s new book on the Human Body in Icon Painting from Russian into English. Our excellent layouter has it and, God willing, it will be available some time this autumn.

Without being an icon painter myself, I think it is a good book. Hopefully I have done it justice. Apart from the straight technical instruction, it has valuable insights into the mind and responsibility of a professional, mature icon painter. There are the inevitable couple of paragraphs denouncing Leonid Uspensky’s ‘Theology of the Icon’, but this time more precise and percutants.

Now it’s my turn: to see whether I can get a small book out of my blog postings (mainly on Live Journal) of the last 10 years, plus three or four ‘landmark’ (for me) texts I have written during this period.  My wife is very keen for me to do so. I will need to tread carefully: there are limits which I sense I may not pass publicly. I am a bit scared that, if I go through a regular publisher (I have one in mind), they may want to paint me as a rebel Orthodox in order to sell me. I am also aware that it will not be quite the full truth, but as much as I can tell without doing damage at this juncture.

Gathering the Christian harvest

My last-but-one previous posting (Pray ye therefore the Lord of the Harvest) quickly morphed into the question: if find yourself in the position of ‘harvesting’ someone considering a Christian commitment, what are the key messages you would want to get across? These are my suggestions. Comments from serving clergy particularly welcome.

Read more...Collapse )

News from the field
I pick up on yesterday’s posting Βести с поле (News from the field) by protonko (https://protonko.livejournal.com/) about the church situation in a ‘typical’ Russian village. I spent 10 days there four years back, so let me add my bit:

The priest in question, now in his early fifties, came into the church in the post-1988 wave as a young man, ordained like many of his day without full-time seminary (not necessarily a disadvantage!). He plunged into the task, which in those days meant working one’s butt off getting church buildings and parishes in various stages of disrepair into working order again. Typically for that time, doing his duty and setting a good example by having had several children (5 I think).

A decent, honest man. Somewhere, I suspect, twenty years later, he ran out of steam, in the constant battles against bureaucracy (state and church), wheedling money out of people, with never enough to live comfortably, rebuilding a house owned by himself in the local town to have some sort of security. He’s a rough diamond of a character, not a ‘smoothie’, which means that he did not get one of the choice parishes in the local town, but always in the slightly outlying districts. I didn’t get the impression he had close friends to confide in.

About six years ago he gets sent to look after a string of parishes about 20 km out of the local town, which Protonko describes well.  This would have been enough to tax a man in perfect health and vigour. But with twenty-five years rough slog behind him, it is really more than he can handle. He quickly got himself a bad name with the men who counted in the village for not keeping appointments. Inevitably he falls ill, and the parish situation is near-collapsed.

Major church is a barn of a place, with three altars, already far too large when built in the late 19th century far too large. It passed through Soviet times from 1937 onwards, when the last priest was shot dead by the Bolsheviks outside the front door of the church, in relatively good condition. It is waterproof and wind-proof inside. In winter they shift into one aisle, which is more or less boarded off and more or less heatable. They are not doing the ongoing repairs (like weeding shrubs out of the roof) they should be doing. There is a parish house – the village library during Soviet times – but not the place any priest’s wife would want to raise a family in.

They kept me away from the Muslim part of the village complex. I ended up more with the pious datchniki, for whom having a pretty church in a tolerably pretty village is part of their ‘being ideal Orthodox’ picture. I still remember one of them telling me how one should not use contraception, but let things come as God lets them. From her own family situation (two kids?) I suspect she became pious well past menopause. The sort of people most village priests would secretly like to shoot.

It feels to me a ‘no way out’ situation, too typical of too many Russian villages, and their church communities.

Of course, there is no ‘no way out’ situation with God. But it would require a rethink that the present priest is now totally physically and mentally incapable of. The new bishop (they subdivided the big archbishopric recently, and there is now a mpew, young bishop in hgis early thirties, in the local town), theoretically is. He is energetic and no fool. But whether he wants to give the situation the amount of attention it needs, and to be radical enough I am not certain.