Thursday, 15 October 2009

Discovering the Saints

When I started to read Fr John's book "The Living Tradition of the Saints", I realised at once that it was going to take some time.  I had already read Fr John's booklet that explains the fundamental elements of Orthodox Tradition. And I was familiar from the works of Fr John Main OSB and Fr Laurence Freeman OSB with their ideas, derived in part from Saint John Cassian's documentation of the ascetic tradition of the Desert Fathers, and their modern rediscovery of Benedictine Christian Meditation.  Fr John had also explained the concept of Theosis to me in conversation.

Now to my simple mind (ha!) the ideas seemed very similar, and also struck chords with Zen and other mystic eastern ideas. Calm the ego, focus the mind on a simple idea, and then wait for the change to happen.  But walking this path with Our Lord, his Holy Apostles, and the Saints discovers a completely different perspective.  The issue is not the method, the issue is the objective.  It is the fundamental question: "Do you want to be eternally in the closest possible relationship with God?"

I say "do you want" because the concept of Free Will comes across as the single greatest respect that the Creator has for his creation.  God never forces anything on us, and if it seems like He is, then you have misunderstood.  This is Love, love is Respect, respect taken to the ultimate level.

I say "eternally", because once embarked on, this journey leads beyond the grave and "forever and ever" or, as the orthodox prayers have it "to the ages of ages".  And a wonderful idea is developed in this concept of eternity, that the relationship can get closer even after death.

I say "closest possible" because when we start on this journey we have no concept at all of how close the relationship can be.  The best guess we have comes from Our Lord's references to the first person of the Trinity as Father, we may be lucky and understand that a little, but maybe not.  What heights can this relationship reach?

And "relationship" is what it's all about.  All the stories of the Saints tell us this, a Saint is one who demonstrably achieves a close relationship with God.  We can tell this from their demeanour, from their works, and from their effects on others.

Finally, ultimately, the most important word is "God".  God is the end of all prayer, of all worship, of all longing, indeed all living.  There must be acceptance that the relationship is of creature to Creator.  The wonder is in discovering that this surrender is victory - if you doubt this look at the story of The Cross.

Fr John's book describes his journey through the scriptures, and by meeting the Saints in their stories.  He draws out the little nuggets of great wisdom from all this.  It is not an easy comfortable read.

So I started, I found I could read maybe half a page at a time, perhaps two pages a day.  There are 375 pages, and it took about nine months.  I did stop on occasion and read other things.  I also started, for the first time in my life, to really pray.

I found that I now had a method of prayer that works for me.  I'm not decrying others their methods, but for me I need a deep sanctity and a peace that I find now both in public and private prayer.

In private prayer, I sit alone, preferably in the quiet dark. I say the Jesus Prayer a few times, then try to concentrate all my attention on God, it's a sense of will, focus, striving, longing.  I have to remember to breathe.  I can't do it for long, so I say the Jesus Prayer again for a while and concentrate on that.  Then back to the focus on God.  At the moment I think of Him as a kind of Bright Darkness all about me - I expect this will change.  This goes on for as long as it does, sometimes just a few minutes.

I also like to stand and say the Hours, or the Rule of Saint Pachomius.  These are for when there is a lot going on in the head. Just the discipline of singing a Psalm or two, and the the ancient prayers as they have been said for almost two millennia, makes worries float away, and grounds me in the importance of my relationship with God.

In public prayer, whether in the local Anglican Churches, or at Matins, Vespers, or even The Liturgy with Fr John, I pray the set prayers with as much ardour as I can muster.  I get so much more from the formal prayer now that I have a proper prayer-life away from the church and the congregation.

And what has this achieved?  Well maybe nothing.  Maybe I would have become more calm, less aggressive, more loving, less critical, and all the other things if I had just prayed like my Anglican brothers.  I don't know.  This is certainly harder work.

I have not made the step of becoming Orthodox, I'm not able to cut myself off from communion with my beloved friends, and I may never do that.  I may never be able to take a full part in the Orthodox Mysteries, at least not here on earth.  At the moment this is a tension, so I'll let The Lord handle it.

There are some downsides to this programme of prayer too.  God shows me quite often how much evil I still have inside me.  I wake from sleep with terrible dreams still echoing in my mind on occasion.  The Fathers say that this is not unusual, God has a lot of unpacking of sins to do before I can move forward.  I have to see these things and, with my free will, throw them away, to forgive myself, if you will.

And sometimes I have to stop and take a rest, not a rest from the relationship with God, but a rest from getting closer.  He is so wonderful that I need time to contemplate Him from this vast distance.

I find having read what I've written here that I didn't say much about Fr John's book after all.  The orthodox insights into the scriptures, the lives of the early Saints, how the schism between the Greek and Latin church evolved, the Saints of the modern era especially St John of the Cross with Saint Teresa of Ávila, and later still Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, Saint Silouan of Athos and Archimandrite Sophrony Sakharov.  Maybe we can get to that later.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Three years searching

This second post to my new blog is intended to bring my journey of faith a bit further forward.

Following that midnight conversion experience, I didn't throw myself into things.  I waited and prayed.  I read a lot, and in particular started to listen hard to the Vicar's sermons.  Most people around here are evangelical Anglican or Methodist, maybe not Sola Scriptura, but pretty close, and I couldn't see that - after all the first Christians only had the Hebrew Scriptures.  The local church is low Anglican (The Church of England is a broad church, as they say), quite a long way from my Catholic heritage.  Services are fairly predictable from the Common Worship style, although there are still Churches where only the 1662 Common Prayer Book is used.

However, the Vicar led prayer meetings too, and I soon started going to these, and also to some of the Bible Studies that he ran.  The prevailing prayer style appears as Chatting to God.  I'm  not really inclined to this, as it seems to me that the important thing is to foster the relationship with God, yes by confessing our cares and yes, by being open to him, but in some way no one was telling me how to do that.  And in Bible study groups the pace is governed by the level at which the group can go - and many people can't go further than a very literal interpretation.  I end up in such groups either dominating or silent and unsatisfied. In short, this way lies anger, despair, and sin.

Still, I met some wonderful people, they are all dearly loved friends now, and I could not be without them.

I had the opportunity to represent the parish at the local Churches Together group, and that has helped me a lot.  It's given me a better view of what others believe, and how others do things.  Boy, the Catholic Church has changed since I knew it in the 1970's; and the Society of Friends have wonderful meetings that I love. Even the local Charismatic church has a lot to offer, but for me it isn't right.

Then one day, Ros came home from a History Society meeting, they had been addressed by a local clergyman about the Local Celtic Saints.  After the meeting she had met an Orthodox Deacon who had retired with his wife to the area, and was setting up a Community - Saint Herbert, Saint Mungo, and Saint Bega - the local Celtic Saints!

Well, of course, we had to invite him to the next Churches Together meeting, and there I met him.  Fr John's approach is to hug everyone, I think it's Russian, although he is very British.  He expects a full kiss too, no chaste cheek touching.  He rather impressed me.  We got talking, he told me that he had a Chapel in his attic, with full frescos on all the walls.  I invited him for tea (well, I'm English, it's what you do) and we have become firm friends.

About this time our local vicar resigned from the church - the pressures of the job had given him what was close to a nervous breakdown.  It's completely understandable, we have two priests for nine parishes.  We were lucky, we got a new man in just six months, but they were a long six months for me.

Just about then too, Fr John asked me if I knew how he could ask the Church of England for the loan of St Bega's Church for his ordination to the priesthood - he wanted an ancient place that was big enough for his bishop and all those who would want to come.  St Bega's certainly pre-dates the Great Schism, it was built in stone about 950, but there was probably a wooden church there before that.

Saint Bega is one of the patrons of his community too, and it would be the first time in over 1000 years that an Orthodox Bishop ordained a priest to serve in Cumbria.  In due course we managed that difficult introduction between Bishop Basil of Amphipolis, and my lord Bishop Graham of Carlisle which resulted in special permission being given, and a year ago this weekend Deacon John was dragged to a little travelling altar I made in the crossing of St Bega's and ordained a priest.  It was my first Orthodox Liturgy.

Fr John arrived on our doorstep a few days later with a copy of his great book: "The Living Tradition of the Saints, and the significance of their teaching for us".  That book, and the man that goes with it, changed everything again.

And I think that will do for today.

First Post

Well, at last, a Blog!

I'm not quite sure where this is going, but it seems that I usually have a lot to say, so we shall see if I also have a lot to write.

A little bit of history to start with seems appropriate, although I don't plan to start at the beginning, if you want that go to my CV on my webpage.

I started writing about my faith a couple of years ago, and then as it developed, so did my writing.  I am a bit of mixed-up-kid when it comes to faith, but I am trying to sort that out, as you'll see.

My father was brought up in a staunch Roman Catholic family in England's county Durham.  We suspect that, at least on his mother's side, there was a strong dose of Irish genes.  Father's mother wanted him to become a priest, and sent him to a Marist School, which he hated.  In rebellion, he became an Industrial Chemist, and in due course met my mother.

Mother's family were green-grocers from Hatfield, about 20 miles north of London, and she was an Anglican, who sang in the local church choir.  As was necessary in those days, she formally converted to Catholicism to marry father, and in due course when I was born early in 1950, I was baptised by the Catholic priest at St Bonaventure's Church in Welwyn Garden City.

Soon after this my father took the next step in his revolution and stopped all contact with the Catholic Church.  Since that day, he is 89 as I write, he has professed himself an atheist.  Mother brought my younger brother and me up as Anglicans, and in about 1958 she was formally received back into the Church of England.

In the fullness of time, in about 1965, I went to confirmation classes, and was duly confirmed by the Bishop of St Albans in the Parish Church at Baldock in Hertfordshire.  It didn't take!

Soon after I left home in 1968 to go to University (Kent at Canterbury), I met and became close friends (platonic) with a catholic girl, and became quite interested in Catholicism.  One of the local churches was on my way to college from my digs, and I would drop in to hear the 8am Mass (Tridentine - in Latin).  Eventually I asked the University Catholic Chaplain, Fr Francis Moncrieff, for instruction, and formally converted later that year, being re-confirmed at Westminster Cathedral by the then Archbishop.

Then I met the Franciscan friars who had a house on campus, and was very enamoured of their simple life and easy-going manner.  This seemed to be what God was calling me to, and I made preliminary steps with a view to joining the Order of Friars Minor when I graduated.

But then I met Rosalinde, and suddenly the celibate life of a Poor Friar didn't seem at all the right direction.  Ros was, and is, an Anglican - firm and unshakable in her faith.  A couple of years after graduation we were married.  I didn't even ask her if she would mind a Catholic wedding, we were married in the Parish Church of St James, Weybridge, by Canon Buckley.  It was as Anglican as it gets.

My faith faded away.  I have to say in retrospect that I did very little to foster it.  At first I'd go to Mass on my own, and then I'd go to Church with Ros, and eventually I became agnostic and stopped going all together.  I read a lot, and found myself in what today would be the Dawkins camp.  A proselytising atheist.

This history has reached about 1976.  From then until about 2004 - 28 years - not one little glimmer of religious zeal was to be seen.  Oh, I did flirt with Buddhism, but that was never religious, it was much more philosophical, and I did read the Koran, well, I read everything - I still do!

When we retired to Cumbria we worried that we wouldn't know anyone, so we decided that we would go to the local village church as a way to meet people and get involved.  I have to say I was complete fraud - I'd sit through the service, maybe mumble the hymns a bit, but I was there for Ros really.  But the people were open, loving, and friendly, the sermons were good, very very good.  And gradually I noticed that I was listening with interest.  God bless the Reverend Ian, a gifted preacher, teacher, and learned biblical scholar - and a troubled soul.

One night, as I lay awake in the depths of the dark, I just felt I had to ask the question: "Do you really exist?", and as clearly as if it had been shouted in my ear, I knew the answer was "YES".  There was not, in fact, any sound, no loud voice, no Pauline flash of light.  I wasn't blinded, but I was convinced.

I told Ros at breakfast.  Next Sunday I took communion.  Everything changed.