During the three years since I last sat down in this abandoned cellar, I've been troubled from time to time over what to do with it - whether to wall up The Undercroft, leaving its odd assortment of slight essays and occasional jokes to the spider, the woodlouse and the occasional Googler for a half-remembered poem or random image - or to refurbish and re-occupy it.
Insofar as there is a shape and a history to the place, it's a story with a middle, an end and a beginning - the record of a middle-aged Catholic's determined bid, before his children got any older, to shake out a stone from his shoe - one which had chaffed and distracted him for most of his adult life. As a consequence of the shaking-out - a far more painful and protracted business than the metaphor will support without gratuitous extension - the unhappy Catholic is now happily Orthodox, and a stranger to the lugubrious lair in which he once spent so many hours strutting, fretting and cudgelling his brains.
And that's the problem: contrary to appearances, perhaps, I do not write without enormous effort. Fluency and facility desert me the instant I sit down before a blank screen. Blood, sweat and tears therefore mark every part of the fabric of this place, and in the absence of very much else to show for half a century's occupation of space on the planet, I'm loathe to bury these few etiolated fruits, however insubstantial or unappetising incompetence or the passage of time may have rendered them. More - my own contribution was frequently the least interesting part of the conversations that developed here, for which I must thank very sincerely all those who read and contributed to The Undercroft. If the record of your thoughts here should ever disappear, it won't be my doing.
Of course, many of the themes and ideas I struggled so hard to articulate have since become commonplace, to the extent that I would probably not nowadays have felt compelled to blog them myself. Nevertheless, with all their inadequacies, mistakes and misapprehensions, these little pieces are part of the history of a movement (or a minority strand of it, at any rate) during one of its most significant, defining periods - the earlier part of the present pontificate, up to and in the immediate wake of Summorum Pontificum; at a more intimate level, they're also a record of individual pain and confusion, exaltation and dismay.
I felt, and still feel, that simply continuing here in Orthodoxy, assumed "like new store clothes", seems frivolous and impertinent. Far better to keep decently quiet for an interval, suckling as an infant the "rational milk without guile" - practising silence in order eventually, perhaps, to have something to say. As it turns out the silence has been imperfect at best, as many of you with comboxes are aware. Whether or not I have punctured it with anything worth saying (as opposed to sterile polemic) is less certain. What prompts me in any event is articulated in the following passage, gleaned from beloved Father Stephen Freeman's blog (begun around the same time as The Undercroft - I grew up under his gentle tutelage):
"Orthodoxy is summoned to witness. Now more than ever the Christian West stands before divergent prospects, a living question addressed also to the Orthodox world… The ‘old polemical theology’ has long ago lost its inner connection with any reality. Such theology was an academic discipline, and was always elaborated according to the same western ‘textbooks.’ A historiosophical exegesis of the western religious tragedy must become the new ‘polemical theology.’ But this tragedy must be reendured and relived, precisely as one’s own, and its potential catharsis must be demonstrated in the fullness of the experience of the Church and patristic tradition. In this newly sought Orthodox synthesis, the centuries-old experience of the Catholic West must be studied and diagnosed by Orthodox theology with greater care and sympathy than has been the case up to now… The Orthodox (...) must also offer his own testimony to this world — a testimony arising from the inner memory of the Church — and resolve the question with his historical findings.”- Georges Florovsky, Ways of Russian Theology II, pp. 302-304
It is obvious that one does not walk away from one's friends, simply because the difficulties and questions that continue to beset them have been resolved in one's own mind, heart and experience. One does not refuse to bear their burdens because those burdens no longer bear heavily on oneself. Today, at the entry to Great Lent, where I stood three years ago on the threshold of Orthodoxy, on the Sunday of Forgiveness, I ask forgiveness of friend and foe. May we pass through the gates of repentance together to a happy and holy Pascha.
Blessèd sister, holy mother, spirit of the fountain, spirit of thegarden,Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehoodTeach us to care and not to careTeach us to sit stillEven among these rocks,Our peace in His willAnd even among these rocksSister, motherAnd spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,Suffer me not to be separatedAnd let my cry come unto Thee.- TS Eliot, Ash Wednesday