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.

Eucharistic Deprivation, Methodists and Clericalism

File:Sacrifices of Abel, Melchisedec and Abraham - Sant'Apollinare in Classe - Ravenna 2016.jpg

This week, I’ve been attending the Methodist Conference on behalf of the Scottish Episcopal Church and I’ve enjoyed getting to know more about a tradition that may not have huge numbers in Scotland, but has played a very significant role in ecumenical life here for a long time. One of the themes that came to the fore in today’s discussion was the lack of access that many have to the Eucharist, both as a result of a shortage of presbyters to preside in scattered rural locations and, in a more widespread but more temporary sense, because of the lockdown to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

On the latter, the Conference was urged to seek theological clarification about what might be possible with the use of digital media, echoing debates that have taken place in many churches. On the former, Methodists already have a remedy in the form of a permission that may be given to a lay person, with suitable preparation and for a limited time, to preside at the Eucharist. Such permission is not always granted and there is a careful process to consider such requests.

I was impressed by the care taken over this debate and by the pastoral commitment to provide access to the Eucharist for as many as possible. I also find myself uncomfortable with the thought of introducing such a measure in our own tradition. I should say that there is not a move towards such a thing in the SEC and that is not because we don’t value the Eucharist – we do, very much. However, with the longstanding provision of self-supporting priestly ministry, and with the possibility of communion from the reserved sacrament (there’s another piece to be written about that!) the issue does not seem to be quite as pressing.

So I am left with the question of why it is that I feel discomfort at the practice of lay presidency at the eucharistic Liturgy. Why do most churches with the historic episcopate (Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican) reserve the presidency of the Liturgy to bishops and presbyters without exception? Is this just a case of clerical protectionism? I think I would want to defend this practice not on the basis of any kind of special ‘power’ given to bishops and priests at their ordination that makes them alone capable of effecting the consecration of the Eucharistic elements (it’s the Holy Spirit who does that!) but on the basis of our understanding of the nature of the church.

For us, ministry is not primarily a matter of competence (thank God), training, power, function, management or special holiness. It is primarily a sacramental sign of the unity of the church founded upon the apostles and a means of serving that unity. It is also a sacramental sign the priestly character of the church and, indeed, of humanity as a whole in its ‘eucharistic’ relationship to the whole creation. By that I mean our calling to offer the sacrifice of praise, the Liturgy, on behalf of the whole creation, eschatalogically proclaiming its fulfillment in Christ. Seen in this way, the Eucharist is seen as more than the dispensing of spiritual nourishment to the faithful, though it is certainly that too. The Liturgy is primarily an act of Christ through his Church, a re-presentation of the whole paschal mystery. Each Liturgy is an act of the whole church, not just one local expression of it, as it participates in the one paschal act of Christ.

In order to express that unity, churches in our traditions see the bishop as the principal priestly minister of the mysteries of the new covenant, united with the ministry of the apostles. Presbyters preside by delegation, sharing in the priestly ministry of the bishop, as do deacons through their distinctive ministry (though not presiding at the Liturgy). It is this intimate connection with the apostolic ministry founded on the paschal mystery of Christ that lies at the heart of the paradigmatic priestly act of the church – the Eucharist – and is expressed symbolically through the uniting spiritual ministry of the bishop.

Of course, every Christian participates fully in the paschal mysteries of Christ through baptism and receives from that a priestly character, restoring that character to our humanity. And as the Liturgy is an act of the whole church, it includes all the baptised. The priestly ministry of all the baptised is at the heart of the life of the church as a Paschal mystery and is expressed every day in the life of prayer and in the living of a Christian life in the world. The baptised Christian is not simply a recipient of sacraments from the hands of a priest, but one who has priestly dignity as an icon of restored humanity in Christ and as a bearer of his transfiguring presence to the world. When, in the Byzantine rite, the Cherubic hymn is sung, its declaration that ‘we’ stand as mystic symbols of the cherubim, it means that the whole Eucharistic assembly is ministering together in the heavenly realm, offering a sacrifice of praise to God, not just the ordained priest who presides. Every icon of the divine is honoured with incense at the Liturgy – those painted to represent the saints as well as those who stand in flesh and blood.

I am conscious that I present only one theological perspective on this matter – and that as yet not fully formed – and I respect fully those traditions that take a different view. Indeed, the variety of views on the presidency of the Eucharist reflects the variety of emphases of its rich character that we find in different theological traditions. I offer this work-in-progress only as a perspective, not as a full or final word!

Sermon for Ss Peter and Paul

It’s tempting to make much of the differences of Ss Peter and Paul and it’s almost become the accepted wisdom to contrast the impetuous, flawed, human, big-hearted Peter with the less attractive preachy, high-ground-snatching, censorious and deeply prejudiced Paul. Like all caricatures, there may be a grain of truth in this, but I suspect it’s only a very small grain and not one that’s likely to sprout into something that truly nourishes or delights. So I intend today to mount a sort of charm offensive on behalf of our parish’s patron, not at the expense of Peter, but only to remind ourselves of the spiritual genius of that equally flawed and human, and equally compassionate (bear with me) apostle Paul.

St. Paul the Simple Greek Orthodox Icon

Now there are two good reasons to do this today. The first I’ve already mentioned, and that is that we are named after St Paul and I think that compels us to find in him, and to ask through his intercession some rich insights into this faith of ours that will stand us in good stead for this time of challenge and opportunity. The second is that our dear Father in Christ, Paul Burrows, who also shares his name, celebrates today the 40th anniversary of his ordination as a priest and this is a chance for us to cherish in him those charisms that reflect much of the same insights and gifts that we see in St Paul.

But first, I want to take a brief side-step and address some of the issues that often make people suspicious of St Paul. We just need to find a way of setting these aside in a reasonable way for now, so that we can get to the heart of his spiritual genius. The first thing I would want to say is that, as people with discernment, we have the necessary gifts and skills to know how to separate what is essential from what is conditional. In many cases, we can see from a mile off those issues that properly belong in a culturally conditioned context and need to be reinterpreted in the light of our own very different context, from those issues that express something timeless. Most notable in these culturally conditioned contexts might be St Paul’s apparent attitude to women in the church and to slavery. On both, I would simply say that St Paul adequately provides us with the seeds of a necessary reinterpretation of his own writings when he tells us that in Christ, there is neither male and female, Jew nor Greek, slave nor free. On the first, I would also point out the ease with which he gives precedence in the verse that follows today’s epistle to the teacher Prisca, whose husband Aquila is mentioned after her. [I urge postcard-writers from holding back on pointing out that the pastoral epistles are deutero-Pauline. I know that, but they speak from his tradition in some way and it suits my rhetorical purposes, so please give me the benefit of the doubt!] On more than one occasion, St Paul honours the women who led the church in many places in those early decades. Nonetheless, his writings which point in a contrary direction must be read in the context of a patriarchal society. Like the rest of us, he is conditioned by his times. On slavery, I would simply invite you to read Philemon with a supposition that St Paul writes with the arm of his correspondent twisted metaphorically a long way up his back. I truly believe that this is a letter designed to undermine the suppositions of a slave-master relationship and not uphold them.

The debate goes on about these matters, but please let’s not let them cloud our appreciation of the depths of St Paul’s teaching. I want to mention just two less appreciated aspects of his apostolic insight that are worth bringing to the fore today. The first is that St Paul is the father of Christian mysticism. It is he who gives us the sense of our identity as being hidden with God in Christ, he who speaks of being taken in spirit to the heavens, he who presents a compelling picture of the whole cosmos as awaiting its fulfilment in Christ. His is a universal vision, a vision that breaks down the dividing barriers of human invention, barriers of race and religion, of sex and education. And it is St Paul who points us to a wisdom that appears to be folly if we look superficially. The wisdom he presents to us is a wisdom born in humility and in love, a wisdom that sees beyond the surface to the heart. It is the wisdom of the cross, the wisdom of self-abandonment in love. It is the loving wisdom that is expressed in 2 Timothy as ‘being poured out as a libation’. This is sacrifice, not a maudlin wallowing in pain but a joyful act of self-abandonment in thanksgiving for the sheer delight of the life that is given to us.

The second flows from the first, and it is the life of loving compassion that characterises the Christian. This love is rhapsodised in that famous chapter of 1 Cor 13 – patient, kind, forgetful of wrong – but is also, and less famously, expressed in St Paul’s hard work of ensuring that those who are poor are not forgotten or left to fend for themselves. His long and difficult journeys to secure a collection for the poor in Jerusalem was both an act of practical compassion and a reminder to the church that we all belong together. There is only one body, and it is the Body of Christ.

These two charisms, mystical, loving wisdom, and untiring compassion, might well serve as a kind of manifesto for this church that bears the name of St Paul. What else does this world of ours – and the world on our doorstep – need but a deep sense of our connection to the Holy One and a whole lot of compassion? And at the risk of embarrassing him, I would also want to celebrate today these gifts in Fr Paul. Over 40 years of priesthood, he has remained close to these mysteries of Christ: the mystery of contemplative union with our loving creator in Christ, especially as expressed in the Carmelite mystics; and the mystery of self-giving compassion, love for God’s people, both those who gather at the altar and those who gather in the alleyways and soup kitchens. St Paul reminds us that God calls us to a joyful life of self-abandonment in Christ which, in the words of Thomas Merton, requires only that we ‘cast our awful solemnity to the winds and join in the general dance.’ Fr Paul, dance on!

On the Holiness of Church Buildings

We have a problem in normal English usage in having only one word – church – to describe both the holy people of God and the building in which they gather to offer the Eucharist. If, however, you are a French Protestant or a Greek Orthodox, you have another word for that building: it’s a temple. As we prepare to open up our churches once more for prayer, it’s not a bad time to think about why we are drawn to these holy places and whether we regard them as holy at all. What are they for and how do we describe them theologically? Does the language of the temple help?

File:Mosaic of Christ in Karye Museum (Chora Church), Istanbul.jpg

I have heard some familiar concerns being raised about identifying a church building as ‘holy’ by those who fear that, in doing so, we make a separation between that space and all others, between sacred and profane. Many would argue that the primary purpose of the church building is as a place of assembly, a convenient means of allowing the holy people of God to be in one place as they worship together, but that it does not in itself possess any special significance except, perhaps, as a place of memories and associations. But I suspect that more people have an intuition that there is something particular about the church building, something that invites a sense of the numinous, an apprehension of something of ultimate rather than simply utilitarian value.

In writing about the understanding of the temple in Orthodox thinking, John Chryssavgis writes;

Whether a small community chapel in Greece, or a tiny rock-cave church in Cappadocia, or an enormous imperial cathedral in Constantinople, the focus and function always has a single purpose: to reveal the fullness of divine glory and heavenly splendour in this world as God’s creation and abolish the man-made distinction between sacred and profane.

p.20, Light Through Darkness, DLT 2004

In other words, the temple is ‘an epiphany, an essential link between the heavenly and terrestrial, the the spiritual and material, soul and body.’ (ibid.) I recall one simple image of how this works in practice at Vespers in a church in Cyprus, with the faithful bringing food made at home to be blessed and shared in crumpled plastic bags underneath the great dome of the church bearing the image of the Patokrator. Heaven and earth are joined. In a similar way, the Royal Doors in the iconostasis become not a barrier but a portal, a place of entrance through which God comes among us in bread and wine.

The temple as a dwelling place of divine glory is not, then, an exception from the world but an indication of the coming fulfillment of the world which is already realised in the transfigurations we experience there. It is not that God’s presence is limited to that place, but that it is revealed there in a particular way, and what is revealed there is true for every place. We know God is everywhere because we experience God here. Architecture can help us out here, especially with the use of the dome as an icon of the sky and, in its circularity, of eternity. The temple is a microcosm. It is a place both of familiarity and awe, conviviality and reverence, luminosity and mystery. And I will be delighted to be able to open its doors once more!

Christian Mindfulness

Love of wisdom means always to be watchfully attentive in small, even the smallest actions. Such a person gains the treasure of great peace; he is unsleeping so that nothing adverse may befall him, and cuts off its causes beforehand; he suffers a little in small things, thus averting great suffering.

Dobrotolubiye page

These words, quoted from St Isaac, are in the edited Russian version of the Philokalia, the Dobrotolubiye. It was compiled in the 18th century by St Paissy Velichkovsky and translated into Russian by St Theophan the Recluse in the 19th. These words occur in a section of the ‘Directions to Hesychasts’ by the monks Callistus and Ignatius, from 14th century Constantinople, just after the Hesychast cause was so powerfully championed by St Gregory Palamas. I give these bits of background simply to make the point that this rich tradition of spirituality has a long pedigree, even if it was little known in the West until the 20th century. Indeed, the English translation from which I’ve quoted by Kadloubovsky and Palmer from 1951 did much to bring this fine tradition to the attention of the English speaking world. But to the substance!

Full of Grace and Truth: St. Paisius Velichkovsky the Righteous

Hesychasm, of course, means stillness and stillness means an inner as well as an outer disposition. Attentiveness, watchfulness, wakefulness, sobriety are all synonyms for what we now know as ‘mindfulness’ and it’s important for Christians to know that we have our own deep sources for this practice. The acquisition of inner peace is a wonderful thing in itself and needs no justification, but it is also both a sign of the indwelling Spirit of God and a preparation for a fuller apprehension of divine beauty: ‘What is more joyful than the thought of the splendour of God?’ ask Callistus and Ignatius.

Attention to small things allows for a fuller awareness of the arising of thoughts in our minds so that they may be ‘cut off’ as they arise. This is core teaching in the desert tradition of Christian monasticism and has very close similarities with some Buddhist teachings. These ‘thoughts’ – logismoi – are the first stirrings that lead to anger, anxiety, distraction or greed, all the poisons that threaten our inner peace. That inner peace does not need to be created – it is our natural state – but it can easily be disturbed by these thoughts when they spiral out of control. But how do we first spot their arising and how do we then cut them off?

The practice of giving our full attention to small things is cultivated through patient effort in concentrating on the thing we are doing and by setting aside times of quiet prayer or meditation where we focus on a single point – usually a word or short phrase and/or our breathing. In hesychast prayer, this is not simply a mind-body exercise (though it is also that) but a loving attention towards the God who is the source of all life. In this way, our attention is not on our own immediate concerns but on that which is ultimate, and yet is also more intimate than we could imagine. This cultivation of attentiveness allows us to be more alert to the arising thoughts. Cutting them off simply means refusing to entertain them or allow them to develop. It may also mean replacing those thoughts with an appropriate word or phrase to counter its intent – ‘peace’, ‘love’, ‘mercy’. Evagrius of Pontus developed a whole range of such counter-words in his AntirrhetikosBut the main tool in this practice is ‘attention’ itself, something like a spiritual muscle that we can train through repeated and simple actions. For many, the constant repetition of the Jesus Prayer is the greatest tool we have in this journey towards a restoration of the inner peace that is our divinely created nature.

Sermon for Pentecost 2

BLM Protest : Edinburgh

‘When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them.’

After many weeks of quiet streets and social distancing, the recent sight of many thousands of people gathering together to protest against the brutal death of George Floyd 3 weeks ago, and against the unjust structures that maintain discrimination on the grounds of race, has been all the more powerful. As people of faith, we cannot fail to be moved by a global call for a conversion of heart to overcome racial injustice in response to this most appalling act of violence which showed how such injustice is both personal and systemic. The crowds that gathered to protest, and continue to do so, offer a picture of the determination, anger, fear, and solidarity provoked by this one act of brutality that stands for so many other acts of violence experienced by people of colour across the world. ‘When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them.’

Jesus’ compassion for the crowds has so many resonances for the historical events we are witnessing. His compassion is evoked because they are people who have suffered harassment and because they are vulnerable. But it is also a compassion born of the awareness that they are like sheep in search of a shepherd. We should not hear these words as suggesting a desire for any kind of infantile dependency but with the echoes of prophetic speech which have a very specific target. When the prophets used this image, the shepherd they had in mind was a just and merciful leader. The absence of such a ruler was what made the people vulnerable to abuse and those who were already poor were, in the absence of justice, all the more susceptible to violence, illness and exploitation. Jesus’ compassionate response to these crowds was to send out labourers who would tend their wounds, gather in the excluded and proclaim that a new kind of kingdom was at hand, one founded on the very compassion and justice they lacked, a kingdom that was built on the foundation of renewed relationships, not executive orders. These labourers were to go into those situations that might well leave them vulnerable to abuse themselves, for this new kingdom undermines the lust for power that corrupts too many. They were to use every ounce of cunning they could muster, but always in the service of dove-like peace, always without guile, without violence, without clinging to possessions or power.

So what does Jesus’ compassionate response to a shepherdless crowd suggest to us as we seek to respond to the issues raised in our own day by so many crowds seeking justice? Well it seems to me that, for a start, the only kind of moral leadership that could be credible for the church today would be one based on people willing to ‘go out’ from the place of familiarity into the places where the wounded seek healing and the oppressed seek justice. It could only be credible if it begins with the rolling up of sleeves and the feeding of hungry bellies. In addition, Jesus’ instructions to those he sends out suggest some very specific characteristics.

Firstly, all the details about no bag, no cash, no spare clothes may seem unworkable and extreme to us, but what they are saying is that those who go out must do so with an attitude of complete openness. When we rely on the hospitality of others, we open ourselves to them in trust and with an open ear. This is surely the most important characteristic we must adopt if we have been born into a position of privilege in our society – the willingness to hear the voices of those who have not shared that privilege. Firstly, the voices of those with whom we share a community, but also the voices of those from our history, whose story is not proclaimed in stone on the top of plinths and pillars.

If this radical act of listening requires a kind of self-forgetfulness, a kind of dove-like innocence, then the next characteristic requires a full self-awareness, a serpent-like wisdom. The second characteristic required by those Jesus sends out is discernment. He tells his sent-out ones to be discerning about which houses they should stay in on their journeys. I think what this means is that the disciples should seek out those who share their values and are hospitable to the vision of the kingdom – fellow-travellers, allies. The reason this needs discernment is that these partners in the vision of the kingdom may not be that obvious, not necessarily those who might naturally be in their circle of friends and associates. That’s why self-knowledge is essential and superficial judgements dangerous. In practical terms, for those of us responding the call to racial justice in our societies, this means a prior commitment to understanding our own prejudices and preferences so that we do not simply end up reinforcing what we’ve always done and how we’ve always thought. The Christian spiritual life has plenty of resources for this kind of self-examination.

Finally, Jesus urges a revolutionary patience in those who would allow themselves to be sent out – the one who endures to the end will be saved. True changes of heart and mind take time and the willingness to carry on through setbacks and disappointments. For the life of the disciple is a whole life lived in the footsteps of Jesus.

Merton on St. Columba

Old Saint Paul's Church, Edinburgh - Tripadvisor

It may surprise you to learn that Thomas Merton had a bit of an interest in St Columba, though anyone who reads Merton will not be surprised that he might have picked up a copy of Adomnan’s Life of the saint (in Latin, of course) and will be even less surprised that he committed his thoughts to paper. Here’s the entry in his journal in full. It’s from the 12th of July 1964 (Dancing in the Water of Life p. 126):

Deeply moved by Adamnan’s life of St. Columba. A poetic work, full of powerful symbols, indescribably rich. Through the Latin (which is deceptive – and strange too) appears a completely non-Latin genius, and the prophecies and miracles are not signs of authority but signs of life, i.e., not signs of power conferred on a designated representative (juridically) – a “delegated” power from outside nature, but a sacramental power of a man of God who sees the divine in God’s creation. Then the miracles etc. are words of life spoken in the midst of life, not words breaking into life and silencing it, making it irrelevant, by the decree of absolute authority (replacing the authority of life which life has from its Creator).

Merton offers a really interesting take on sacramentality here, not as something external to creation but intrinsic to it, brought to light by those who have the purity of heart to see it. The miracles in the Life are truly fascinating and many are are deeply practical – a misplaced staff finds its way to its owner, the wind helpfully blows in two different directions to speed two monks on their separate ways, inedible fruit made sweet, protection from plague in places where his monasteries were founded. His intimate relationship with the creation was not all peaceful – he was happy for a charging wild boar to be struck dead, killed ‘by the power of his terrible word’ – but on the whole, the miracles associated with the saint are harmonious. I particularly like the story of a knife blessed by the saint which could do no harm to human or beast.

The other feature of Adomnan’s Life that particularly catches my attention is that holiness is indicated by luminosity, with light shining from the saint as a child, later as a priest ‘consecrating the holy oblation’ at the altar and shortly before his death. In this respect, as in many others in this account, we are reminded of the closeness of Columba’s mystical experiences with those of the desert monastics in Egypt (Admonan’s Life has a few deliberate echoes of Evagrius’ Latin version of St. Athanasius’ Life of St. Anthony).

Without trying to say too much about a supposed ‘Celtic’ nature-mysticism, and certainly avoiding any Celtic exceptionalism, I think Merton is right in identifying a more integrated view of how human beings are located in God’s creation than we often assume to be present in Christian theology. Holy lives are marked by the radiant transfiguration that is God’s telos for all creation, not by ‘dominion’ over that creation.