Sunday, March 13, 2011

Clearing the Decks

To know oneself is a miracle greater than raising the dead.
 - St Isaac the Syrian

Only Christ is the End; everything else is a means. If we approach Orthodoxy looking for anything but Christ - well, we might find it; more likely we won't, but it won't satisfy in any case.  If, on the other hand, it's Christ we're seeking, we'll certainly find Him, and we'll certainly suffer. So, first of all, we have to be honest about what it is we're really looking for, and then we have to be prepared to pay the price.

If anyone is seeking simply to exchange one system of ideas for another, possibly more coherent, less problematic system, he needn't waste any more time following these reflections.  Christianity is a Life, essentially - a life that must be lived if we're to know it for ourselves - and we have to know it for ourselves for it to save us.  Repeating second-hand formulations, acquiring a "correct" apparatus, won't suffice.  Ortho-doxy, "right-glory" is "a human being fully alive" in Christ (St. Irenaeus). It is nothing other than recovery of the "image and likeness of God" by participation in the death, resurrection and glorification of Jesus.  It's quite possible that this doesn't interest us at all, and that we'd really rather have "religion" instead...

Four years ago, a kind Anonymous commented here as follows:

 If you can live a proper Christian life within Rome, why leave? And if you can't live a proper Christian life within Rome, might the solution be found not in Byzantium, but rather by examining yourself?  I have lately stood often at that quayside, and looked out at the sea. But to sail away is merely to turn my back on the problems I have here, and now; and my greatest fear is that I'll find them on the other side.
 This is absolutely right, I think.  This is the question that must be confronted as the basic pre-condition of boarding.  Attempting to get anywhere by grappling with "big ticket" issues in theology and ecclesiology, in the absence of a ruthlessly honest engagement with this question, is insane.  But how on earth are we to get at the truth, through the thicket of vanity, ignorance, passion, misapprehension and self-deception?

The answer, I believe, is to do as follows.  It is distilled from a riveting lecture by Fr Thomas Hopko (the link to which I shall post in due course, when we've got several other issues out of the way).  I think that anyone who makes a serious attempt to follow this "Twelve Step Programme" will find the answers he needs - or, at least, the equipment he needs realistically to address the questions.  In fact,  this is nothing other than the permanent, perennial pre-condition of an authentic spirituality, which all of us are required to renew, daily and hourly, to our last breath on Earth.  This "never stops":

  1. We must really desire the Truth, and we must be willing to do whatever is necessary.
  2. We must be hungry and thirsting  - we must pray, in other words, for illumination, begging for God as He really is, and not some metaphysical construct or pious fantasy.
  3. We must be reading the New Testament, constantly; "not the Philokalia, not the Typikon, not the Canons, not The Rudder - the New Testament Scriptures." What we don't understand, we leave for the time being.  What we do understand, we put into practice.
  4. We must go to Church.  We must not, at this time, chant or serve or concern ourselves with anything other than standing there and being immersed in the Divine Liturgy.  "If you feel like you're gonna throw up if you hear one more "Lord, have mercy!", throw up! - but stand there and let it lacerate you!"
  5. We must not tell any lies. We must not harm anyone.  On the contrary, we must be kind to, and forgive, absolutely everyone, starting with those under our own roof.  We must try regularly to do something good for others, without anyone knowing.  If we have a little extra money, we should give it away. 
  6. Unless we are married we must engage in absolutely no sexual activity - "not with yourself, not with the computer - not with anything".  If we fall, we get up again immediately, say "Lord, have mercy on me" and begin again.
  7. We must not get drunk and we must abstain from bad food altogether and rich foods on a regular basis (Wednesdays and Fridays, usually) - we must begin to fast, in other words.
  8. We must practice silence for at least 15 minutes a day - not theologising or fantasising or "thinking" at all - when thoughts intrude, simply pushing them away; if they involve persons, commend them to God; and  in general we must try, as far as possible without annoying others, to be quiet - not to talk much, and certainly not to chatter.  We absolutely must not pretend at this time to teach, argue about, or formulate theological views.
  9. We must do our work, whatever it is, conscientiously and to the best of our ability, living in the present moment and not worrying about the past or the future. We must aspire to be rooted, not moving impulsively or precipitately.
  10. We must find somebody we can trust and discuss our lives frankly with them, dealing honestly with our parents, our childhood, our relationships, our religion, our culture.  We must not, however, discuss in detail sexual matters, or other people.
  11. We must be honest in confronting addictions and compulsions - alcohol, drugs, pornography, rage, "religion" (on which more subsequently) - in order to be delivered from them. 
  12. We must be ready seek help without shame or hesitation.
So there it is.  Broaching the Philokalia, or forming views on hesychasm or the filioque, or theologising in any way whatsoever, if we haven't at least embarked determinedly on this essential work of purification, is delusional and a waste of time, if not worse.  This is what we need to do before anything else - and if we do it, and keep doing it until the end, perhaps we won't have any more questions.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Crossing the Water

My friend TTony, in a very kind "welcome back" post, describes me having "blogged all the way through [my] conversion to Orthodoxy".  This is true, but it isn't what I thought I was doing at the time - and in fact I wrote very little about it explicitly, even after I understood that "conversion to Orthodoxy" was what was, in fact, going on.  I had no inkling when I started to blog, or through the greater number of posts, that I would ever leave Roman Catholicism for Orthodoxy.  Most of the posts on here are by a Catholic Traditionalist - a very "Ortho-friendly" one, certainly (one could say the same of Fr Ray Blake) but with no intention of relinquishing his hard-won position "nor thought of the levelling wind".  The wind came nevertheless, the seas rose, and in due course every deck fitting and every bit of luggage was swept overboard.

Anyway, it occurred to me following a recent conversation with a friend on the brink of Orthodoxy, himself suffering the seasickness and loss of bearings that must always attend the voyage, that there's something useful I could do here during Great Lent: offer a few modest observations from my own experience that might be helpful to the lonely traveller East - lonely, because in this country at least there is no "convert culture" (such as one sees in the US, for example) to help the sufferer understand what's happening to him.  Only after he's made port, it seems, does he run into all sorts of experienced mariners!

These reflections will NOT involve apologetics or polemics.  I have no intention of attempting to argue you out of your Catholicism/Anglicanism/Atheism/Buddhism.  I'm addressing especially those who have already reached some kind of point of departure, whether they've burned their bridges or are keeping the return ticket safe, just in case.  Perhaps at some juncture someone will be able to say, "Aha - I see.  That guy warned me about this..." , and I'll have done what I set out to do.

To clear the ground I mean to start this weekend with Fr. Thomas Hopkos's  "Twelve Step Programme", which I earnestly recommend to absolutely everyone, Orthodox, Ortho-friendly, Ortho-phobic, or Ortho-couldn't-care-less.  Pack the Avomine.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Crisistianity Revisited

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.

Bless├Ęd sister, holy mother, spirit of the fountain, spirit of the
Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks,
Our peace in His will
And even among these rocks
Sister, mother
And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,
Suffer me not to be separated

And let my cry come unto Thee.
- TS Eliot, Ash Wednesday

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Loss & Gain

hithersoever thou shalt go, I will go: and where thou shalt dwell, I also will dwell. Thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God. The land that shall receive thee dying, in the same will I die: and there will I be buried. May the Lord cause this to happen to me, and add more also, if aught but death part me and thee. Then Naomi, seeing that Ruth was steadfastly determined to go with her, she ended her conversation with her: So they went together and came to Bethlehem...
Ruth 1:16-19

The icon is of the Seven Ecumenical Councils, courtesy of Fr Stephen -
The Consequence of a Full Faith

Monday, June 23, 2008

Ars celebrandi

Father Blake has a post today about liturgical silence, from which I've borrowed the image above. He writes:
I think there is a real problem many people have with integration of personal and liturgical prayer. It is perhaps easier with the use of the Missal of John XXIII and its silent Canon or the Byzantine rites when the Canon is in silence, the Royal doors closed and the veil drawn, and prayerful hush descends on the congregation.
I smiled, thinking of something that occurred in my delightful Greek parish a few weeks ago. In the course of twenty-five years of attending Orthodox services, in England and in Greece, what has always fascinated and beguiled me is that almost miraculous conjunction of high solemnity with an easiness and geniality that somehow never descends to irreverence. Well - I say "never"...

One Sunday towards the end of Great Lent, our priest appeared as usual in front of the Royal Doors as the deacon was opening them. "Excuse me!" he scowled, "Does that curtain have a notice on it saying "Now you may talk"?". A certain amount of congregational shrugging ensued. I suspect the phenomenon is peculiarly Greek, judging by the uniformly austere demeanour of the Slavs in our congregation; in any case, the level of chatter (mostly, you understand, from the north side of the nave) following the closing of the doors had on this occasion risen to a pitch sufficient to have launched the present reflection, as well as the paternal tirade...

My friend Arturo Vasquez has somewhere identified as a quality of "true liturgy" that it always "tells the story". I was thinking about Pascha and Pentecost (although it was still Lent) and the crowds milling in the street below that upper room, where "the doors being closed" the Glorious One appeared in the midst of his Apostles, or the tongues of fire descended upon them. Soon the doors of that hidden room would open, and emerging, they'd reveal to the street "He whom the world could not contain".

It's said that one knows an institution is in decline when its occupants have to be competent; conversely it's another quality of "true liturgy" that it works - it "tells the story" - even when it ought not to work.

Sunday, May 18, 2008


In the juvescence of the year
Came Christ the tiger…

I’m at the end now. Dust and ashes everywhere I turn; life reduced to mere movement persisted in for its own sake, because without it there is nothing distinguishable from death. It’s time to be gone from here. Why can’t I go? Why isn’t it enough?

Here one can neither stand nor lie nor sit
There is not even silence in the mountains
But dry sterile thunder without rain…

- You’ve thought very long and hard about it…

Well, yes – you’ve seen it all.

And I pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain
Because I do not hope to turn again…

- I’ve seen a lot of strutting and fretting. I’ve seen a distracted, inattentive father and a difficult husband; a negligent worker, an introverted and inconstant friend…

Yes. I’m sorry.

- Others have paid for your high-minded conclusions.

I know. And the conclusions – they’re still not enough.

- Quite so.

Empty shuttles weave the wind

I’m sorry for the cost.

- I see that you are; but as for these “conclusions” themselves - they concern ideas and attitudes you once made your own. Do your conclusions touch your heart, or only your head? To take a man out of TradWorld is easy, but useless if TradWorld remains in the man…

I see. Metanoia.

- Yes. You know the word. You know lots of words.


It’s still not enough, is it Father?

- No.

Because I do not hope to turn
What more must I do?

- You must die. Go down to the place of blind, unarticulating silence. Lie there in the hands you cannot see or feel, of one whose voice you can no longer hear.

I am already dead.

These tears are shaken from the wrath-bearing tree.
- Yes – and for some time now. Enough. Nunc hiems transiit.


Christ has risen from the dead,
By death He has trampled on death
And to those in the graves
Given life.

What seas what shores what grey rocks and what islands
What water lapping the bow
And scent of pine and the woodthrush singing through the fog
What images return
O my daughter…

Quotations: TS Eliot - Gerontion, The Waste Land, Ash Wednesday, Marina

Saturday, November 10, 2007


Ideology warps the mind and suffocates the conscience.

People who have become accustomed to viewing everything through ideological lenses are often genuinely incapable of recognising or telling the truth. Up is down for them and black, white. War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery. Collapse is Renewal.

Such people seek affirmation in one another's company as a matter of necessity, and are at the same time overwhelmingly anxious to exclude or suppress whatever has the potential to expose or undermine their immaculate falsifications. If they think of themselves as liberals they remain untroubled by the fundamental illiberalism of this mentality, because it is taken for granted that their outlook is co-extensive with rational discourse itself.

It is this more than anything which accounts for the grotesque, topsy-turvy, parallel-universe quality of TabletWorld (whose Rome correspondent recently sneered that the Pope was not, after all, "a trained liturgist"). What looks like comical, mind-bending hypocrisy and intellectual perversity is merely an indication of people struggling desperately to make reality fit their theories and foundational myths: it's cognitive dissonance on public display. They need our prayers, but they will also benefit enormously in the long run from unrelenting ridicule.