Secret places

For the past four months I have been playing a sort of game with myself: finding walking routes in the Belgian countryside where I am completely alone. Large scale maps and, if you don’t have a car, a good understanding of public transport are essential. I have posted several of these walks on my Facebook siten under the title 'Secret Places', where they seem to be considerably more popular than my theological speculations.

Here are some pictures of the depths of the Belgian countryside, mainly in the South-West, fanning out from the Charleroi-Couvin train line. The Belgian countryside is gentle, a bit unspectacular, but I love it.



On language in church

From an answer to a recent posting by mmekourdukova in reaction to Fr Dmitry Smirnov, on the question of language in church.

(...) I have to presuppose that an Orthodox priest is able to see meaning and spiritual food in the language in which he celebrates. And can therefore enter into the celebration fully and be sensed as doing so by his congregation, and can explain to it what is going on. If he cannot, he should not be celebrating and should not be preaching. Ditto for everyone (reader, deacon) involved in reading. The text must be going through their hearts as much as their mouths for it to have effect. Even if I do not understand fully what the reader is reading, I want to sense that he at least understands it and believes what he is saying.

(...) What we are talking about is not ‘language’ but ‘communication’ – the passing on of the sense of the divine, or perhaps better: providing a space where the divine can make itself present, and not blocking it. Comprehensibility of the liturgical language is only part of this. At least as important is a sense that the celebrants are themselves have their hearts open to communication with God, and understand and believe deeply in what they are doing and saying – and, very importantly, singing. Without this, even if you understand Slavonic perfectly, the experience is very imperfect.

Yes, of course, if you take communion, it will be spiritual food, as the validity of the sacrament is, fortunately, independent of the competence or worthiness of the priest and other celebrants, but it will be iron rations, giving you the necessary energy to continue, but probably not much joy and not leading you much further into the Kingdom.

Freedom and freedom

There is something thrilling in Christ’s words to the paralytic ‘Your sins are forgiven’ – the Greek word being the same as remission of debt. Christ pinpoints that deeply buried inner bond that ‘paralyses’ a person, and breaks it. You are no longer bound. You are free. Christ’s healing miracles are essentially this: a freeing up, a breaking of bonds, to walk , run, dance, sing, clap one’s hands, to be fully human..

I suspect the difficult bit comes later: the immediate environment. It is no use opening a person’s prison cell if he then hits an outer prison wall.  This wall also has to be broken for the freedom/healing to be really effective. This wall has many forms, internal or external, and interconnecting.

– mental: a false understanding and practice of humility and ‘knowing one’s place’, which opens one up to abuse,
– bad theology/anthropology which traps us in a castrating world of duty, with no room for desire or joy,
– physical: bodies which have overfed/badly fed, over-coffeinated, overworked, under-exercised and under-aerated in order to maintain that slight depressive state needed in order to survive in an oppressive atmosphere, bodies which cannot ‘dance and clap their hands’.

I’ve certainly hit all three types in my time. Hopefully the Spirit of God will give the wisdom and strength to get over/break down these outer wall. But be prepared also for a hard fight with some warders (including internalized ones) in the process.

Taking God back

The discomfort from Monday’s lecture (see yesterday’s posting ‘Stealing God’) went deep inside, and needed a lot of prayer time to shift. The bible verse that came to the surface was “No longer will they teach their neighbour, or say to one another, 'Know the LORD,' because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest," declares the LORD (Jeremiah 31:34).

In other words, the traditional pattern of knowledgeable priest teaching an ignorant (? and wayward) flock the rudiments of Christian life, and owing his social status (and perhaps a salary) to this superiority, is out of date. We are in a situation where lay people in a Christian community can be as knowledgeable, if not more knowledgeable than the priest, and at an equal or higher level of spiritual progress.

This demands new patterns of interaction. In most Orthodox communities, spiritual advance probably requires lay people to learn to share their spiritual lives with one another, rather than with the priest only, and the encouragement of spiritual resource people outside of the priesthood.

It demands also a new concept of priesthood – this is not easy to define – one in which ‘authority’ by virtue of office or better education has largely disappeared. This loss of clear contours may be one reason why the Catholic Church, which is two generations ahead of Orthodoxy here, is having difficulty recruiting priests.

The concept of ‘community’ changes also. With the ease of electronic communication, my real Christian community is as much those with whom I exchange on LiveJournal and Facebook than my own physical Christian community. Indeed, if it is ‘community’ I am looking for, it is a moot point whether I need to go to the local church at all.

The Changing Face of Western Christianity

It’s a book to read on the train rather than the study desk: Eric de Moulins-Beaufort’s ‘L’Eglise face à ses défis’ [The Church faced with its challenges]. EdMB is the Roman Catholic archbishop of Reims and new head of the French Roman Catholic’s bishop’s conference. Indirectly, it is a good account of where the Roman Catholic Church finds itself today in Western Europe. With minor changes, it could apply pretty well to Europe’s Protestant north.

I suspect that if he has not been a priest, EdMB would have made a good professor of sociology. His story of how the Roman Church is France has mutated over the past two generations is convincing: essentially from a church which people attended in large numbers out of a sense of duty and as an insurance policy to make sure they go through the right door if there is indeed an afterlife and taking communion often just once a year (faire son Pâques), and in which most of the really committed ended up as either priests of religious, to a church consisting largely of individually committed persons and regular communicants, but with commitment expressing itself only rarely in priestly vocations. Following wider developments in society, the earlier form had a strong element of duty (devoir) attached, the new version has a much stronger demand for ‘fulfilment’ (épanouissement). Interestingly EdMB dates the watershed dividing the two conceptions as 1965, just after Vatican II and just before May 1968. His account of changing demands on the church and on government for the provision of ‘comfort’ and of  the problems of family life in today’s society, with high expectations and little tolerance for things to go wrong, is equally convincing, as is his description of the change in priests’ role and social position.

It is his chapter on priesthood which I fought with most: He asks rightly ‘Does the Church itself know today what a priest is there to do’? (p. 149). I do not come away from this book with a clear answer. He writes:  ‘The Catholic priest is sent by the bishop in the name of the Lord to guide the faithful – not en masse, as a collective group, but one by one and all together, towards a life that his wider and more abundant because shared more, with the faithful ready to accept other people coming from outside their group and to allow themselves to the integrated into a larger unity. This is the reality of the Church, what Vatican II calls the ‘mystery of the Church’.

I blow hot and cold on this one, while being acutely aware that my reactions may be tainted by my far-from-satisfactory experience of clergy in my own church. I am very distrustful of priests sent from outside, as if by an outside force which ‘knows better’ than a local community. Simply, nowadays, a Christian community, with a reasonable constituency of well-educated people, should collectively have more religious know-how than its priest.

And yes, when push comes to shove, if it is so important that the sacrament of the Eucharist be widely available, I do not see why seven years’ training and celibacy should be vital conditions to give it, or to be allowed to pronounce absolution of sins. Nor do I really believe that priesthood is any guarantee for being the best source of spiritual council. EdMB seems to expect the basic bishop-priest-laity organizational pattern to continue. I am not convinced, and ask if God is not pushing us to much more radical alternative solutions.

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.


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.Collapse )

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