Hagia Sophia and the Stoudios Monastery

Hagia Sophia Mars 2013.jpg

It’s impossible to forget your first encounter with the vast and numinous interior of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. It is quite literally breath-taking. Even the scaffolding that was in place when I visited a decade ago could not detract from the sheer sense of space and the magical weightlessness of the dome. Then there is the rich detail of marble capitals and vivid mosaic icons to savour. But I cannot be alone in trying, above all, to imagine in my mind’s eye what it would have been like to witness the building being put to its intended use – the celebration of the Divine Liturgy. There is no altar in the apse any more but it’s easy enough to imagine it. A recent recording of chant from the Byzantine period with the addition of the acoustics of Hagia Sophia helps to give a sense of how the liturgy would have sounded.

But the visitor to Hagia Sophia is also struck immediately by the presence of other reminders of past prayer. The vast roundels bearing Arabic texts point to the building’s more recent use as a mosque, a use to which President Erdogan is determined to restore the building. It is hard to hear this news without a deep sadness at a move which is designed to assert a victor’s view of history and a clear religious nationalism. One passerby interviewed by the BBC claimed that it was obvious to anyone looking at the building that it was a mosque. I think he primarily meant the dome, an architectural form that was presumably borrowed by Islam from Christianity. A little historical awareness wouldn’t go amiss here. The Ecumenical Patriarch’s comments about this move have been irenic and measured. He wants the building to be a place of meeting and mutual respect rather than partisan identity, and its current status as a museum allows this. The World Council of Churches has echoed this position.

There is a part of me that welcomes the use of a sacred space for prayer in any faith tradition, but in the case of a building that held such an important place in the Christian world for most of its history, it would surely be more appropriate for the Christian Liturgy to be allowed there in addition to Islamic prayer. But given the complexities and politics of this situation, surely the wisest course is to allow the building to continue to speak of its histories as a museum open to all on an equal basis.

Hagia Sophia is not alone in telling the story of a significant and flourishing Christian past in Istanbul. The remains of the Monastery of Stoudios are far less well-known than Hagia Sophia, but they represent many vital centuries of monastic and intellectual life. The monastery that gave birth to the Athonite movement and nurtured many of the greatest spiritual teachers, including St Symeon the New Theologian, is physically present now only in a ghostly fragment. It would surely be appropriate for the civic authorities to celebrate and preserve remains like these as a visible reminder of a history worth cherishing.

Whatever happens to these buildings, however, is ultimately less important than the continuation of what they represent: the celebration of the Divine Liturgy in which heaven and earth are joined; and the prayer of the heart, in which the same mystery is enacted within us.

Embodied Reading – Sermon for Pentecost 6


It’s often very interesting and revealing to ask people what they’re reading at any given moment. Some will be focussing on one particular book, some will have a pile by their bedside that long ago exhausted the supply of nice bookmarks and now brandish an assortment of old rail tickets and the receipts that clog up one’s wallet. Some will always have a novel on the go, others a biography, still others an anthology of poems or spiritual writings. Some will re-read a cherished text many times, others will readily give up on a book that doesn’t grab their attention quickly. And it’s interesting, with that in mind, to ask alongside the question of what someone is reading, the less frequently asked question of how someone reads. Quickly, to get in step with the pace of a fast-moving plot; slowly, to savour the well-honed phrases of a stylish writer; critically, to interrogate the opinions of a political commentator; reflectively, to ponder the insights of a spiritual master.

But what about the words of scripture? Do we find a variety of ways of reading these words that sometimes puzzle us with a world-view that feels remote but also grab us with a timelessness that constantly draws us back? I think it is a matter of some importance that Christians reflect carefully on how we read holy scripture because it is a delicate and vital art, a spiritual skill that requires patience and care rather than the simple redeployment of the same skills that we use to digest the contents of the back of a cereal box or an ill-tempered tweet.

Help is at hand, because Jesus himself recognised that he was asking a lot of those who were prepared to engage with his own distinctive teaching style – the parable – and gave us an entire parable whose whole purpose is to suggest to us ways to read parables! The parable of the sower is intended to give some hints, but even this parable, which untypically comes with an exposition, still leaves us a whole lot of work for us to do ourselves. Parables don’t yield simple answers quickly and scripture is not a step-by-step instruction book. I’ll go further. Scripture is not there to give us answers but to invite us into a way of living, a way of seeing. It is there to offer life-giving words, words to wake us up and coax us into fruitfulness, not moral diktats that relieve us of the tiresome business of having to think for ourselves, despite what some of religion’s less intelligent detractors might suggest.

A parable, like any of scripture’s enduring words of life, is like a seed. It grows in us and, if we let it, breaks open our conventional thinking so that we see something new, some fresh, green shoot of insight, reassurance or challenge. The Jesuit William Johnston, who spent his entire ministry in Japan, suggested that we learn to read parables in the same way as Zen practitioners read koans, that distinctive teaching tool that has its origins in medieval Chinese Ch’an Buddhism. The koan does not transmit information but invites awakening. Contrary to some Western assumptions, it is not some kind of absurd puzzle that is intended to break down conventional thinking as much as a word that provokes response from the disciple. Johnston suggested that we learn from the embodied practice of koan study, where students don’t so much analyse the texts as internalise them – they sit and breathe with them in meditation, turning them over in their hearts until they yield fruit. This is a practice of reading with our bodies, of letting seeds settle and germinate. Reading scripture can be like this. It’s not an IQ test but a life skill.

Here’s an example of how that might work in a Christian context. The mothers and fathers of the desert monastic movement developed a practice of using short scriptural texts to counteract unsettling thoughts that came to them in the silence of the wilderness. Evagrius of Pontus offered an entire compendium of such short phrases to respond to some of life’s turbulences that most frequently threaten to overwhelm us and it is based on the words of scripture spoken by Jesus in the wilderness to the tempter. As one example, he suggests, for those facing the kind of listlessness that saps our hope, a repetition of words from Psalm 26: ‘I believe that I will see the good things of the Lord in the land of the living’. Many of us will have a store of similar short phrases, often from the Psalms, which we can sit and breathe with, repeat gently, take into ourselves and allow to germinate when we face moments of challenge or even just the regular flow of the day. ‘Into thy hands I commend my Spirit’; ‘The Lord is my light and my salvation’; ‘The darkness is not dark to you’; ‘As the deer longs for running streams, so longs my soul for you’; ‘O God make speed to save me’; ‘Have mercy on me Lord, according to your abundant kindness’; ‘Bless the Lord O my soul’. To turn these phrases over and over in our hearts can be an act of recentring ourselves on the source of our life, a regular reacquaintance with our deeper spirit, and gentle energy to push back against the darker insinuations that can invade our minds and hearts.

And for the parables, we might similarly turn over in our hearts the image of a mustard seed or priceless pearl, or the emotions stirred by the prodigal son, or words like ‘give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. It’s never a question of coming up with the right answer and always a question of allowing an authentic response to grow within us as we come to these awakening words again and again.

I think this is something like the kind of practice that Jesus was suggesting in today’s parable. We take the seed of the word deep into ourselves so that it becomes much more than a piece of advice, much more than an instruction, much more, even, than an inspiring thought. It becomes a fruitful expression of divine life in us, a well of living water – refreshing, consoling, forgiving, protecting, energising, enlightening.

Vain Repetitions?

Elder Sophrony (Sakharov) of Essex (+ 1993) | MYSTAGOGY RESOURCE ...

Having mentioned the Jesus Prayer in my sermon on Sunday, I am conscious that some Christians find this way of prayer to be puzzling, not least in the light of some words of Jesus that might appear to challenge the practice of regular repetition of a phrase. In the King James version of Matthew 6:7, Jesus condemns ‘vain repetitions’ in prayer (‘heaping up empty phrases’ in RSV/NRSV). I think it would be very easy to deny that a phrase like ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me’ is vain or empty but it is still the case that some Christians find the repetition of a phrase – however prayerfully done – to be uncomfortable or just plain odd. I found a lovely response to this in some words reported to have been spoken by St Sophrony:

We were visited once by a Catholic priest, and he saw how we prayed the Jesus Prayer continually at the monastery, and he said to Fr Sophrony, “I cannot understand why you have to repeat the same prayer for so long.” Fr Sophrony, in a very friendly way, answered, “We repeat because we are slow to understand it, and once we have understood it, we do not want to abandon it,”

And how do we understand it? By praying it!

Rest for your Souls – Sermon for Pentecost 5

There are so many things we could say about how this strange time has felt for us, and for those of us who have not been exposed to the most acute experience disease there are still some troubling symptoms that many have reported. Among the most common are fatigue and strange dreams. It’s easy to dismiss these as relatively trivial but I think it’s really important to acknowledge that many have found these last few months to be deeply wearisome. Confinement, anxiety about a real threat of harm, the dislocations caused by things just not being in their normal place, troubling thoughts, broken sleep, strained relationships, loss of purpose, financial worries, lack of proper human contact; all these things are real and demanding.

‘Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.’ These words of Jesus, then, come like a healing balm in a time of widespread anxiety. Even just to hear them from the lips of the one we follow, the one in whom we find ourselves, is to hear a word of comfort and restoration, to know oneself to have been noticed, and loved, and relieved. And even to have this place open once more gives us an opportunity to allow ourselves to be drawn into a peaceful space at the invitation of Jesus who says ‘come to me’. The cancer hospital where I was chaplain in London had a spacious modern chapel and many would go to sit there, in the one place where there was none of the busyness of hospital life, none of the paraphernalia of the clinic, and rest. To offer a place of quiet is a very precious thing.

But there is even more on offer from the lips of Jesus this morning. He goes on to invite us to take the yoke of his teaching upon us and learn from one who is gentle and humble in heart so that we may find rest for our souls, deep, inner repose, a quietness of heart-mind that is even more restorative than a well-needed break from the daily toil. What does he mean by this?

There is a long and steady strain of unobtrusive Christian spiritual practice that would readily identify this ‘rest for our souls’ as the gift of contemplative prayer. The Latin version of the sayings of the desert monastics from the 4th century onwards called it ‘quies’, or quiet, in Greek, ‘hesychia’, or stillness. The Greek word became the term that we associate with the prayer of the heart, with the practice of hesychasm flourishing in mediaeval Constantinople and 19th century Russia. Slightly nearer to home, it’s the prayer of quiet that St Teresa of Avila described so carefully in her ‘Way of Perfection’ in 16th century Spain.

Theophan the Recluse - Wikipedia

As I said, there’s a steady witness to a simple way of prayer that really does bear fruit in the gift of inner stillness and I mention some of its history not to suggest that it’s a thing of the past, but to emphasise that it belongs right in the heart of Christian life. Contemplative stillness is not an elite activity for the spiritually adept, but an easy yoke, a light burden, a wisdom of simplicity hidden from the wise and intelligent and revealed to infants. The path of contemplative stillness, of inner rest, is a way of humility and gentleness – unspectacular, uncomplicated, and freely given to any who are prepared to receive it. The only work we have to put in is precisely this work of preparation to receive, the first step of which is the desire for it.

St Theophan the Recluse, a major figure in that Russian renaissance of hesychasm in the 19th century, described this desire as a ‘warmth of heart’. He says, ‘As soon as this warmth is kindled, your thoughts will settle, the inner atmosphere will become clear, the first emergence of both good and bad movements in the soul will become plainly apparent to you, and you will acquire power to drive away the bad.’ I can think of no better description of inner rest than that – thoughts settle, inner atmosphere becomes clear. Most of what makes us unsettled comes from within – anxiety, fear, low self-esteem and what Theophan describes is the kind of internal quiet that allows us to see these troubling thoughts for what they are; insubstantial and impermanent. What abides is the unfailing goodness of God, and that brings me to Theophan’s second step, which accompanies warmth of heart, and that is the remembrance of God.

For most of those involved in the Hesychast movement, this remembrance was achieved through the repeated, gentle recitation of the name of Jesus in the Jesus Prayer. This simple practice also has the effect of stilling our minds and bodies as we breathe slowly and regularly and set aside the exhausting mental activity of reacting to every passing thought that enters our minds. St Symeon the New Theologian, an earlier teacher of this way of prayer, describes how this restoration of our minds to their natural state does not exempt us from troubling thoughts, but they no longer ‘disturb the depths but only ruffle the surface.’

The prayer of inner quiet is a gift from God, a gift given through the one who today invites us to come to him and rest. As a church, we offer a beautiful space, a holy temple in which we can rest from the busy streets. Let’s also be confident in encouraging access to that inner temple where we may find rest for our souls. We may enter at any time and learn from the one who is gentle and humble of heart.