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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.

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.

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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.

Pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest ......

....that he will send forth labourers into the harvest  (Matthew 9: 38).

I note two things: first that it is for us to pray God to send labourers into the harvest, with the inference that unless we do, i.e. unless we positively want the harvest to be gathered, God is not going to act. Second, that the original Greek word to ‘send out’ (ἐκβάλῃ) is pretty strong, literally ‘throw out’, the same word as is used for casting out devils. i.e. if we ask God to, He will take pretty strong action.

All of which begs the question why we do not, at least not in my church community, pray God to send out labourers into the harvest. I suggest two basic reasons:

1) We are comfortable as we are. The way we do things and our core group of about twenty with another thirty or so loosely around it, whom we meet most Sundays provide an adequate does of spiritual and human comfort. Catechumens, especially in any quantity, are messy. Like awkward adolescents they demand a lot of time, and spoil the peace. And God save us from the Orthodox neophyte who has just ‘fallen in love’ with a ‘staretz’, follows him blindly, obeying every injunction, and loudly expects all the rest of us to do the same.

2) Yes, we believe in the Christian gospel: we believe that we live better for our faith and that the Christian faith could provide the same from those around us. But it has been a fight, in particular we have banged and bruised our heads on the structure: avoiding becoming ‘pew fodder’, questioning, and at times going against the official (sexual) morality and rules (confession, diet…), learning new ‘languages’ (King James English, Old Church Slavonic, Church Greek) and social codes. Did it really have to take fifty years for me to be where I am now?

Do I really want to drag my best friend through all this? Not really.

And they began to speak in other tongues ..... the wonderful works of God

“…. And they began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance (…) we hear them speak in our tongues the wonderful works of God.”

Perhaps we've got it wrong in seeing these 'tongues' is primarily in terms of different languages like French, German, Greek or Russian. Perhaps we should see them more in terms of speaking to different mentalities, speaking (and being) the gospel in the words that bring it closest to our own and other people’s hearts, words that vary greatly even within a single language group.

Which makes me question the way the Orthodox Church (and to a certain extent the RCs too) wraps the Gospel in a single ‘language’ – one particular form of service, one particular ritual form, one (half-dead) language per patriarchate, one particular form of building (expensive to build, run and heat, and easy to blow up in a revolution) and a single (paternalistic, oligarchic) power structure.

Perhaps the multiplicity of forms of Christianity that Orthodoxy rails at (‘Protestantism divided into a thousand sects’) is in fact a blessing, providing different ‘languages’ in which each can hear the Gospel as best suits him or her.

On bad days I’m tempted at times to compare the Orthodox Church to an IBM 360 mainframe, long outdated and replaced by PCs (and indeed the very concept rejected now by its maker, which is right out of computer-building). And perhaps the Christianity of the future has nothing to do with large church buildings at all. A string of home churches, and people sharing God via internet, could do most of the job equally well.

Voting in Belgium
Today was polling day in Belgium: for the national Parliament, for the regional Parliament and for the European Parliament.

Voting is mandatory and non-attendance punishable with a fine. This time the obligatory nature has been extended to EU citizens who are required to vote for the European Parliament. And with my home country still hanging by two fingers in Europe, I had to do my democratic duty.

The whole exercise felt quintessentially Belgian. A very informal, almost festive atmosphere. A whiff of the absurd and not totally serious, with the proportional representation system resulting in voting lists of two or three hundred names. Everyone talks to everyone else, including the police, with an easy formality. You sort of expect Tintin and Snowy to come out of the booth next to yours. You cast your vote electronically: the machine in the booth prints out a slip which you scan outside the booth and then drop in a box. Mine wouldn’t scan: a young lady ‘scrutatrice’ (polling assistant) blew on it and it worked.

My mind went back thirty years: just married to my first wife. With no kids, she was an obvious choice to be commandeered as a scrutatrice. In those pre-computer days, voting was on green A3 sized forms, each with perhaps two hundred names. Counting was by hand. At ten at night, six hours after polling had closed, I walked into the schoolroom where they were finishing up the count, unstopped by any policeman. The same slight sense of the absurd. The numbers would not add up, three votes too many, and finally the head counter with a ‘D’accord tout le monde?’ (Nobody objects, do they?) and a bemused smile, distributed them among the obvious losers, and everyone could go home for the night. Very Belgian.

Back from Russia
Back from Russia this week from a 14-day tour that took me to four cities: Moscow, Voronezh, Tutayev and St Petersburg.

On returning I drew up a list of no less than 40 people who made me welcome and whom I need to remember in my prayers. Most I already knew personally. Only two people I wanted to meet and was unable to, both in St Petersburg. It would be incorrect to mention any one person of family in particular. A big thank you to everyone equally

A lot of kids this time, which is always fun, generally very well-behaved, several of them hitting adolescence, leading me to wish parents strength and patience. Two people who were unwell last time I visited now seem a lot better, a couple of new ones are going through the mill health-wise and psychologically and need to go on my special needs diptychs.

The big surprise successRead more...Collapse )

Paganism and Russian Orthodoxy
I looked out of my bedroom window last week in the Russian city where I was staying. In front of me was a large, square building, recognizable as a church by its union cupola and some traditional ornamentation, and the people going in and out on for radonitsa, celebrating the first time prayers for the dead are permitted liturgically after Easter, and including visits to cemeteries. On this occasion, and on other occasions during my stay in Russia, the dividing line between Christianity and pre-Christian paganism, seemed particularly thin. The Slavs, like many ancient peoples, had a tradition of visiting family members' graves during the springtime and feasting together with them, and I sensed that this was a direct follow-on.

There is a lot of the ‘pagan’ in Russian Orthodoxy,
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Battering God ?
A couple of days ago my priest host in a small Russian town and I were invited at the last minute by the local bishop to serve liturgy with him the next morning. Normally in Russia, to take communion at the liturgy one is supposed to be present at Vespers the previous night. It was too late. My host asked the bishop how we should prepare.  Just read the usual evening prayers, triple akathist and the usual preparation prayers. My friend read the lot in Slavonic: it lasted nearly an hour as we asked forgiveness and help variously from God the Father, Christ, the Mother of God, and our guardian angels, presenting ourselves as wretched, worthless sinners perhaps twenty times.

The liturgy we prepared for ... I'm on the far left.

Parallel with this I am reading Catherine De Bar, one of the great French Catholic mystics in the 17th century flowering of French Catholicism before Louis XIV heavy-handedly put down ‘Quietists’ and Protestants. Her idea is of being aware, in silence and trustingly, of the presence of God, already in us. Minimum words.

I recently read Norwegian Protestant pastor Ole Hallesby’s classic ‘Prayer’. His line is that we simply
tell God what we need, and then leave our requests in trust with him, not anxiously presenting them to Him over and over again.

Which is the right approach – the Orthodox, Catholic or Protestant one? If I am a member of the household of God (Ephesians 2:19) and a brother of Christ (Matt. 28.10), is it really necessary for me to batter God, and His mother and my guardian angel like this for an hour? For me, this is essentially the language of someone ‘outside’, whereas I hope that I am, by now, ‘inside’.

Russian woodworking et al.
Ursus is in Moscow, catching up with Russian friends, redelivering books which got lost in the post and tins of varnish to finish icons painted in Brussels. I am sure that the path to hell is paved with the dirty grey or dark red flecked marble slabs which pave the interminable underground passages of the Moscow metro.

To treat myself I went into the Russian North exhibition in an annexe of the State Historical Museum just off Red Square.  I have twice been to the Russian North and both times fell in love with it. They showed a film of a group that is rescuing wooden churches in the North: I’d love to go again, as I did 4 years ago, but it involves rough camping, which I don’t like, and most of the woodwork is chainsaw stuff, and Russian rough scaffolding gives me vertigo.

No, Russia is not the place to go for superb woodwork. There is none of the oak panelling you find in Belgian or French churches and marquetry à l’italienne.There are  no confessionals for woodcarvers to display their art. In Russia you may find some good carving in churches which survived the 1917 revolution, but then mostly heavily painted or gilded. A lot of the new stuff looks like it’s been done by computer.

In the north, in particular, the furniture is quite crude. You could not pass a joiner’s or cabinet maker’s exam with it. Clearly done with a limited set of tools. But it is tastefully decorated.

The real beauty is in the woodcarving: again painted, with a simple, but moving refinement.
The exhibition also has some marvellous metal and enamel working and decorative jewellery.  but that’s for another time. It ia also very tastefully arranged - though a little more explanation in English would have been nice.