A Westerner Looks East for the Truth

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Stanley ( Barnabas) Dickinson

+ Memory Eternal!

Kalo Paradeiso! Kali Synandisi! [Greek wishes on a funeral]
May you enter Paradise! May we meet again there!

October 10, 2017
Acts 11:22-24
22 Then news of these things came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent out Barnabas to go as far as Antioch. 23 When he came and had seen the grace of God, he was glad, and encouraged them all that with purpose of heart they should continue with the Lord. 24 For he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were added to the Lord.

It is with gladdening sorrow that we have composed and dedicated this issue of the Stavronian to our beloved elder Barnabas, founder of the Parish of Holy and Life-Giving Cross and Normandy veteran. Our brother Barnabas peacefully fell asleep in the Lord at 21:40, October 10, three days before his 94th birthday. He was not alone when he passed into God’s keeping. Apart from the angels that attended his repose, members of the Parish, his spiritual family, were there as well as his own family were at his bedside. He was holding my hand when he breathed his last breath. He received Holy Unction the same morning. He even drew energy to make the sign of the cross. We asked him for a word from the Lord and he said “Love”! It was a holy repose with the faithful holding lighted candles. I thank God that he entrusted to me the unworthy priest this holy soul and brave soldier of Christ as an example of the Christian life. As a founder of the Orthodox Community of the Holy Cross he will remain forever inour prayers. May angels take him to his just reward in the Heavenly Kingdom of Our Lord Jesus Christ. May his memory be eternal. Christ is Risen!”

Fr. Jonathan
*
HEAVEN: FROM PROTESTANTISM TO ORTHODOXY 
A Westerner Looks East for the Truth
By Barnabas Dickinson
 
“When God the Holy Spirit says ‘Dsomething, you jolly well do it, or else…’,but what? Our loving Saviour had some stern words about lukewarmness, about turning back, having put one’s hand to the plough. … During the years of strife in the Church of England over this matter, pressure groups formed on both sides of the divide, and I attended rallies of the opposition in the Blackburn diocese. …What happens next? What do we do? Where do we go? What is our place in the Church? Speeches and discussion led nowhere… People were bewildered, defeated, hurt. Then, for me, God the Holy Spirit took a hand. Right at the end, in the question and answer session, a priest I did not know [ie. Father Jonathan Hem-mings] said very simply, ‘If anyone is wondering where to go’, they should be aware that Orthodox Church services in English are becoming available’, or words to that effect. Option (7) had come out of the blue, completely unexpected, and when the rally broke up for a cup of tea, I approached him. …
… One Saturday in the Spring of 1995, Fr Jonathan took me to the railway station for my train back to Chorley. He said to me, ‘It’s decision time’. The Patriarch of Antioch, who had taken personal oversight of this English group in May 1995, and the Holy Synod, had decided to accept us into membership of the Orthodox Church. ‘Are you coming, or are you not?’ Father Jonathan said. I said that I would …Grass did not grow under our feet, and quite soon, on Wednesday of Bright Week I was received into the Church, along with half a dozen others, including Fr Jonathan, now a lay member of the Church, having resigned his Anglican priesthood after Easter Day; eastern and western coincided that year. Our baptism in the Church of England was accepted as valid, having been in the threefold Name, and we were chrismated at the hands of Father Alexey, with Holy Oil consecrated by the Patriarch. For the first time I received the true Body and Blood of our Saviour. Now, twenty six years later I would not be anywhere else.

Thanks be to God for bringing Fr Jonathan into my life, and for all things. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”

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Barnabas’ icons have been bequeathed to our parish. Barnabas’ legacy of icons by the hand of Dimitrios Hakim perfectly compliment the parish icons by the same artist.

To find out more about Barnabas, a most dear father to this poor little city hermit, please have a look at the November Stavronian which this month is dedicated to our beloved elder and co founder of the Church of the Holy Cross, Stanley ( Barnabas) Dickinson at
http://www.orthodox-lancaster.org.uk/newsletter

 

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The Little Orphan

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The Little Orphan

an autobiographical poem

by St. John Jacob (the Romanian)

Blessed John (Jacob) of Neamts, the New Chozebite

“the child of zero” who “followed the One”*

 

Resurrection Day!

The bells are ringing!

Old men sit at their verandas,

Others are at their doorsteps.

 

The young and the children

Go out in their best clothes

To meet their friends at the church

Of the cemetery.

 

This mystical fragrance

Of the Holy Feast!

They take it in … like incense,

From herbs and flowers.

 

The Fields are robed

In a beautiful dress

And everything looks now

Renewed on the earth.

 

Near the Holy Altar

Of the wooden church

A little child offers

Candles and oil.

 

He kisses the Holy Cross

In front of the fresh tomb

And kneels crying

With sighs.

 

When the bells are ringing

In a jubilant tone

Near the Cross the little orphan

Sheds tears with pain.

 

Suddenly, while absorbed in his tears

And his deep sighs,

At the ringing of the bells

A sweet voice he hears :

 

“Cry Not, my child, today

Feel not sad, because, look!

By your side am I

Christ is Risen!”

 

Was this his mother’s voice

Coming from the tomb

His sadness to dispel

From his broken bosom?

 

Immediately the orphan

Rises and ecstatically looks up,

Searching to find

Who was speaking to him.

 

Then, from the Altar most Holy

By the smoked wall

He sees the Risen Christ

Sweetly smiling to him.

 

His little heart is lit

His face calms

His pain leaves him

And such is his mind:

 

“If I see here

The Risen Lord

Then my mother too

Is risen with Him.”

 

Speaking thus to his mind

Humbly he bows

And kissing the tomb

Returns to his ‘home’!

 

Alone, lonely, he lives

At his earthly lodgings,

His poor father

Died at the war.

 

Often at nights he sleeps

By the tomb with them.

Crying in the morning he returns

Back to the deserted house.

 

But the bells ring!

Again at the cemetery

His mother’s voice

Is heard to say:

 

“Cry not, my child, today

Do not be sad,

Because, lo, I am with you

Christ is Risen!”

 

Since then our little orphan

Stopped sighing.

And whenever the bells ring

His heart is consoled!

 

* A Hermit from the Holy Land with complete Incorruptible Relics at the monastery of St. George Choziba! He was a great ascetic and a poet. He called himself “the child of zero” who “followed the One”. After his all night- vigils, he would briefly rest in the verandah of the monastery and write his so moving poetry, sadly not translated yet in English.
* The painting is by the Serbian artist Uroš Predić, Siroče (Orphan), oil on canvas, 1888. National Museum

A Holy Man’s Christmas Card

nativity-icon-5Paraskevi, who out of sheer humility does not wish to reveal her full name, was among the first spiritual children of Elder Sophrony, during the time of her studies in England. She sent us a copy of two handwritten scripts by the blessed Elder.

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A good wish card which the blessed Elder sent during Christmas 1967, when Paraskevi was going through some difficult times because of the illness of a close relative.

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 The outside of the card

The Christmas wish card (handwritten):

Archimandrite Sophrony

The Old Rectroy,Tolleshent Knight

by Maldon, Essex

Christmass 1967,

+

Dear beloved in Christ, Sister Paraskevi.

May the Lord’s grace and peace be abundant in you. Let me first wish you Merry Christmas and a blessed New Year!

Paraskevi, has it ever happened to do something according to my blessing and it turned out harmful? Or has it happened that you did something according to your mind and not according to my humble advice that it was successful and in accordance with God’s providence? Therefore, now you must listen to me, the old fool, and do as I give you the blessing to do. The only beneficial way for you and your relatives is to finish your studies and work at the same time, as my monks do from morning till the evening. Get rid of any worry for X and your family.

The unworthy Arch. Sophrony.

You have the love of all who are at out monastery.

***

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Handwritten inscription by the Elder on the 15th August 1975, when he sent her his book, St Silouan the Athonite

On the book St Silouan the Athonite (handwritten):

To my beloved in Christ sister Paraskevi with warm wishes and love

Arch. Sophrony

15th August 1975

Printed in Caps:

Hailing from various countries

And retreating to the Mountain,

Among the holy fathers of Mount Athos,

Escaping the unnatural

And safeguarding the natural

Rising to that which is beyond nature

Again, by hand of Elder Sophrony:

From the Holy Spirit gashes out love, and without it no one is able to know God ‘as He must be known’.

E.S. p. 443

(Note: E.S. refer to Elder Silouan, not yet recognized as a Saint at the time)

Belonging to Neither and Both

Belonging to Neither and Both In the Middle Between the World and Monasticism From the Letters of St. Ambrose of Optina

An Elder’s Correspondence to his Spiritual Daughter Caught Between the World and the Monastery (*)

January 3, 1879

In our last letter of December 14, you wrote that you cannot find any books applicable to your situation. You say that all books discuss monasticism, and that you are not a nun but are simply living near a monastery. In response I would say this to you: the Gospel teaching is given to everyone in common, and everyone is obliged to fulfill it. Monasticism stemmed from the desire to live exactly according to the Gospel teaching. This is terribly difficult amidst the noise of the city and the cares of life in the world, which hinder such a precise fulfillment of the Gospel teaching, even though everyone is called to this. Monastics are distinguished from laymen in that the latter are permitted to live in a state of matrimony, while the former choose to remain unmarried. Read more often the Gospel of Matthew, from the beginning of the fifth chapter to the end of the tenth, and try to live according to what is written there. Then your life will be marked by harmony, and you will find peace of soul.

January 11, 1879

Peace to you and God’s blessing, and a strengthening towards good. On January 3 I briefly wrote to you that monastic life by no means differs from the Gospel teaching, and that those living in the world differ from monastics only as concerns their married state. About married people, however, St. John of the Ladder writes that they are like those whose hands and feet are bound with fetters. Although even these can walk the path of righteousness, it is only with difficulty; they often stumble and fall and become sorely wounded as a result. The unmarried–and particularly monastic–state offers greater facility in the fulfillment of the Gospel teaching. It is for this reason that monasticism was established by the Holy Fathers.

You are now in the middle, between the world and monasticism (*). The middle path is everywhere approved, and for you–both on account of your upbringing and your weak constitution–it is in many ways appropriate. Only try to live according to the Gospel commandments. Above all, judge no one about anything, so that you yourself will not be judged …..

In my letters I’ve always had one aim –to dispel your misconceptions about monasticism and spiritual life in general, which you formed while still living in the world. You have perhaps heard it said that even apparently correct theory does not always coincide with practice. One’s own experience, when it follows the experience of spiritual people in the past, is a good instructor, provided we check our life against the Biblical and patristic teaching.

You laid for yourself and your life a rather strange foundation: I wanted so, I thought so, I intended so… You are not the only one; many desire a good spiritual life in the simplest form. Few, however, (they are rare, in fact) fulfill their good desires in actuality; they are those who hold tightly the words of Holy Scripture: “We must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22), and who, entreating the help of God, try to bear the griefs and illnesses and various discomforts visited upon them without murmuring, always keeping in remembrance the words of the Lord Himself: If thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments. (Matt. 19:17)

And the most important of these commandments are: “Judge not and ye shall not be judged; condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned: forgive, and ye shall be forgiven” (Luke 6:17). Besides this, those who want to be saved must bear in mind the words of St. Peter Damascene, that salvation is accomplished between fear and hope…

To live in a simple hut without humbling oneself will not lead to any good. It is better for someone who is weak in soul and body to live in a comfortable cell and to humble himself, blaming and reproaching himself for such comfortable and spacious quarters. Only few, and those possessing a strong constitution, can without harm lead an austere life, and endure cold and hunger and dampness and sleeping on the ground. According to the words of St. John Damascene, those who are weak in body derive more profit from humility and thanksgiving than from physical labors and podvigs to which they are unequal.

You are adversely affected by the harsh words of such people who, in your opinion, should speak differently. St. John Climacus writes that God providentially leaves some flaws even in spiritual people so as to bring them to humility.

If you wish to set yourself on a firm path toward salvation, try above all to pay heed to yourself alone, and leave everyone else to God’s Providence and their own will, and don’t concern yourself with instructing anyone. Not in vain is it said: Each man begetteth himself shame or glory according to his deeds. This will be most beneficial, meat conducive to salvation, and, what’s more, more peaceful.

From the Letters of St. Ambrose of Optina

(*)  *Sigh* It is so me …

See also Marriage or Monasticism? and Sanctifying the Single Life

If I Perish

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Esther Ahn Kim

If I Perish

Korea 1929

Esther Ahn Kim walked slowly up the hill to the shrine, with her students following silently behind her. The young teacher knew that when she arrived at the place of worship she would be forced to make a life-altering choice. The Japanese, who had taken control of Korea, were forcing everyone to bow at the shrine of their “sun god.” The punishment for refusing was imprisonment, torture and possibly even death. Fearing for their lives, many Christians had already given in to the Japanese soldier’s demands. And now it was Esther’s turn to make her decision. She fixed her eyes on the vast sky beyond the hills and thought of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego, when they were commanded to bow to the statue of the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar. The three young men had decided that even if God did not choose to save them from the burning fire, they would die honoring Him.

At that moment, Esther knew what she would do. Even though so many other Christians had decided that outwardly bowing to the idol was acceptable as long as they continued to worship Christ in their hearts, Esther could make no such compromise. She would not bow to any other but the one true God. Defying the Japanese warlords would most likely mean torture and imprisonment, but Esther decided that she would not live her youthful life for herself. She would offer it fully to her Prince, Jesus Christ. She said a silent prayer to Him. Today on the mountain, before the large crowd, I will proclaim that there is no other god but You, she declared.

christian persecution orthodox city hermit

Esther’s group was the last to arrive at the shrine. A huge crowd had gathered, standing in straight, respectful lines, afraid to move because of the cruel gazes of the Japanese policemen. A few of the authorities eyed Esther and her students with disapproval as they joined the rest of the worshipers. Esther’s heart began to pound with dread for what she was about to do. A sense of uneasiness swept over her, and she silently repeated the Lord’s Prayer over and over. Lord, she prayed, I am so weak! Please help me do this— watch over me as I stand for You.

“Attention!” came the commanding voice of one of the officials. The crowd stood in silence and submission. “Our profoundest bow to Amaterasu Omikami!” As he shouted the words, the entire group bent the upper half of their bodies, bowing solemnly before the shrine. Esther was the only one who remained standing, looking up at the sky. The fear and uncertainty that had gripped her just moments before had vanished. Calmness and peace flooded her. She had done what she knew God wanted her to do. On the long walk back to the school, Esther continued her dialogue with God. I have done what I should have done, she told Him. Now, I commit the rest to You. I died today on that mountain—now it is only You who lives through me. I leave everything in Your hands.

For several months, Esther lived in hiding. She knew it was only a matter of time before she was found and imprisoned for the stand that she had taken against the Japanese. But instead of cowering in fear and worry about what her future held, she decided to prepare her heart and her body to suffer for Christ. Just as Paul said, “I buffet my body and make it my servant,” (1 Cor 9:27) Esther decided to train for prison life, just as an athlete might train for competitive sports. She counted it a great honor to suffer for Christ, but she also knew she was weak and unready for all that lay ahead.

If I Perish

“I knew it would be impossible for me to keep my faith in my own power,” Esther wrote later. “God would have to work through me if I was to stand firm. I decided to fast.” Many times before, Esther had fasted for three days without difficulty. Now, she was determined to go without food or drink while she prayed for an entire week. The fast was extremely difficult. By the sixth and seventh day Esther’s lips were dry and her chest was in an iron vise, causing her to fight to breathe. But when the fast was finally over and water was poured into her mouth, she raised her hands in victory, thanking God for being with her.

“Although I had not expected it, after the fast I was able to understand the Scriptures better and I felt a new power in my prayer. Now I felt I could leave the fear of torture in the Lord’s hands.”

More time went by and more fearful news of prison life reached Esther’s ears. As anxiety crept back in, she fasted once more – this time for ten days.

“Again I found a peace I had never known before,” she wrote. “I read the Bible earnestly and had a new concern to memorize important chapters against the day when I would be in prison without my Bible.”

Esther also began sleeping on the floor, learning to live in a state of poverty, and going without all the comforts she had grown up with, so that she would be prepared for the harsh conditions of prison. When she went to the market to buy produce, she bought ripe fruit for her family members but rotten fruit for herself. When her mother and sister saw the decaying food she selected for herself, they cried, but soon they understood. This was the kind of food Esther would be forced to eat in prison.

Months of faithful, diligent preparation—fasting, memorizing Scripture, tirelessly praying, and training to endure harsh conditions – transformed Esther from a weak, frail, faltering young woman to a bold and confident ambassador for Christ. Instead of fearing torture, she now faced it boldly in the power and grace of God.

Esther felt God calling her to come out of hiding and boldly proclaim the truth of the Gospel among the Japanese. She knew that this would likely lead to her death, but she was determined to follow the Lamb wherever He led her.

Her courageous stand for Christ led to six harrowing years in Japanese prisons. During that time, though her body grew week with suffering, she shone with supernatural love toward her persecutors and fellow prisoners. Even through torture, she refused to deny the name of Christ. Her astounding example of “suffering hardship as a good solider for Christ” brought many into the Kingdom who would never have heard the Gospel otherwise. After she was released, the story of her imprisonment and unwavering faith became the all-time religious bestseller in Korea, inspiring countless thousands to stand strong in their faith.

If I perish Taking up our Cross orthodox city hermit

Gleaning From Esther’s Example

Modern Christianity often encourages us to chase after achievements and accolades; to develop skills and pursue accomplishments that will be applauded and esteemed by this world. Some even go so far as to say that the more impressive we are to pop-culture, the greater our witness for Christ will be. The hip, trendy, pop-culture style of many modern worship services illustrate how far we have come from the days of the apostles, when Paul proclaimed, “If I must boast, I will boast in the things which concern my infirmity.” (2 Cor. 11:20)

Though Paul had plenty of human skills and achievements he could have emphasized or built upon, he chose to treat those things as “rubbish.” (Phil 3:8) His greatest accomplishments; his most powerful witness, came from the incredible suffering he endured for Christ’s sake: “Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness…” (2 Cor. 11:27-29).

And so it was in the life of Esther Ahn Kim. It wasn’t her accomplishments, personality, money, or skills that caused the nation of Korea to be forever changed. It was her shining example of suffering for Christ’s sake.

One time in prison, her arms were handcuffed behind her back for days until she passed out from the relentless pain. The intent was to torture her until she finally denied Christ. But even though her mind and body were broken, her spirit remained strong, rooted and grounded in Truth. She would not relent, no matter how horrible the pain became. She emerged from the torture victorious in her faith.

Another time, she gave up her meager prison food for several days to a woman who was filthy, insane, and sentenced to death for murdering her husband. Instead of being repulsed by the woman as all the other prisoners were, Esther prayed relentlessly for her, sacrificing her own comforts to reach the woman’s heart. The woman died in her right mind, knowing Jesus Christ, with a hope and a future.

Such sacrifice and personal suffering for Christ’s sake is only possible through the supernatural grace of God. Only one who has truly given up everything to follow Jesus can exude such grace in the face of such hardship.

Esther’s story challenges me to ask the question – am I prepared to suffer for Jesus Christ? In the midst of our comfortable … lifestyles, it’s easy to think, “Of course, if persecution came, I would never deny the name of Christ. Of course if I were thrown into prison, I’d remain strong in my faith.”

But we must ask ourselves – are we truly “dying to self” daily, as Esther did, or are we more concerned with protecting our own comforts and interests than in consecrating our lives fully to Jesus Christ? The only way to be a true follower of Christ is to willingly give up everything; to take up our cross and follow Him (Matt. 10:38, Lk. 9:23).

… We will never gain Esther Ahn Kim’s version of supernatural boldness and sacrificial love by coddling our own self interests and protecting our own comforts. … We are not walking the narrow way of the cross anymore. We are merely living selfish lives with a “Christian label” over them.

Esther Ahn Kim counted the cost of following Jesus – not only on the day when she refused to bow at the shrine, but every day thereafter. She counted the cost when she willingly and gladly gave up comforts and trained her body to endure hardship for the sake of Christ. She counted the cost when she came out of hiding and boldly proclaimed the Gospel among the Japanese who had the power to torture and kill her. She counted the cost when, in prison, she endured horrible misery rather than deny her faith in Christ. She counted the cost when she sacficially loved a filthy, repulsive woman and gave of what little she had in order to win her to Christ. Esther’s life was no longer her own—and every outward decision she made reflected that inner reality. If you desire to do “big things” for God—ask yourself today whether you have truly counted the cost of following Christ.

Many of us think that in order to prepare for an effective ministry, we must gain a large following, write a book, gain worldly accolades, or make a lot of money. But the best way to prepare for a world-changing ministry is to ‘die’ – so that Christ may live through us. Remember that Paul had every reason to boast in his earthly accomplishments, and yet he threw them aside as worthless and counted his suffering for Christ’s sake as his greatest, most important acheivments. (See 2 Cor. 11:30 and Phil. 3:8.)

When self is at the center of our lives, the only impact we will have on this world will be shallow and human-scripted rather than eternal and God-scripted. We may make a temporary splash, but if we do not take up our cross and truly follow Him, we will never reflect the supernatural radiance and grace of Heaven.

If I perish Taking up our Cross orthodox city hermit

Taking up our Cross

… It may take a few days, weeks, or months for those old habits to fully die. But if you allow Him to re-train your daily decisions and enable you to “deny yourself, pick up your Cross, and follow Him” you will soon understand from firsthand experience what Paul meant when he said, “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” (Gal 2:20)

This world needs more young women like Esther Ahn Kim—young women who unreservedly take up their cross and follow Him, no matter what the cost. May it be our greatest desire to follow such a path, and joyfully suffer any hardship for the One who gave everything to us. The world will never be the same when they encounter such a life.

*Story of Esther Ahn Kim taken from If I Perish by Esther Ahn Kim

The Mystery of Tomorrow

A dear sister in Christ, a nun in a Greek monastery, recommended Mother Gavrilia’s book to me a month ago, to study again, and draw inspiration and courage and faith in my poor, little missionary endeavours, by that Missionary and Unmercenary Giant. I am so grateful for this Holy Mother and her book. I have had it for many years and read it many times. Each time it goes deeper, deeper. I am reading this again after many years of traveling and the book was packed away. She always, through the message of the Holy Spirit-alive in her, has a word or two about my/your struggles. Especially now. I feel her so close to my side. Mother Gavrilia is such a role model in her fearlessness, her humility and obedience to God’s Will, her dedication to the service of all mankind, her Faith! May we have her blessing!

 

A poem in the book touched my heart so deeply: 

 

THOU HAST made me known to friends

whom I knew not.

Thou hast given me seats in homes not my own.

 

Thou hast brought the distant near

and made a brother of the stranger.

I am uneasy at heart

when I have to leave my accustomed shelter;

I forget that there abides the old in the new,

and that there also thou abidest.

 

Through birth and death,

in this world or in others,

wherever thou leadest me, it is thou the same,

the one companion of my endless life,

who ever linkest my heart

with bonds of joy to the unfamiliar.

 

When one knows thee,

then alien there is none,

then no door is shut.

 

Oh, grant me my prayer

that I may never lose the bliss

of the touch of the one

in the play of the many.

 

 [R. Tagore, Gitanjali, LXIII]

This poem, dated March 24, 1964, exactly ten years after she was “reborn”, was found among her papers. On the top of that page, she made the sign of the Cross

ic xc ni ka

and added:

24-3-1954

Athens-Israel-Cyprus-Lebanon-Jordan-Syria-Iraq-Iran-Pakistan-INDIA

24-3-1964

Jordan-Greece-Turkey-France-Switzerland-USA-France-Belgium-Danemark-Sweden-Germany-Greece-Lebanon-INDIA

 

Arvo Pärt – And then came the evening and the morning (1990)

 

 Mother gavrilia orthodox pilgrim missionary

“God is Love” … and Mother Gavrilia‘s entire life, which was a hymn to the Lord, became thanks to Him, a burnt offering, a holocaust to His Love.

 

mother-gavrilia orthodox pilgrim missionary

 

“Only one thing do I know that I have always, and it is not pride, nor fantasy, but that which I have day and night, wherever I find myself–three things: first, Faith; second, Faith; third, Faith. That’s all! Nothing else can I say to you. It has directed all my life.”

 

 

Keep Your Mind in Hell and Despair Not

Not for the faint of heart!

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“No one on this earth can avoid affliction; and although the afflictions which the Lord sends are not great men imagine them beyond their strength and are crushed by them. This is because they will not humble their souls and commit themselves to the will of God.”

 

These words seem to sum up soberingly D. Balfour’s tumultuous life, and indeed in so many respects ours…

 

SPEECHLESS! “It seems ludicrous to rate a book like this according to a certain amount of stars…I searched for it after reading the book I Know a Man in Christ — a great book about our holy and blessed Elder Sophrony, which mentions this correspondence with the amazing Englishman David Balfour. I imagine that the only reason why anyone would be interested in this book would be to learn about this incredible spiritual friendship. (No! There are so many more reasons to want to study this book) And this book does allow for that — and much more besides. I’ve read letters of spiritual direction before. These letters go way beyond that. They give insights to the Elder and to St. Silouan which are simply impossible to convey otherwise. And this David Balfour — he went from Catholic hieromonk to Orthodox hieromonk to British Army major and intelligence officer to diplomatic interpreter to midlife husband and father to Oxford Byzantine scholar in old age. A biography of him wouldn’t go amiss, although I don’t think we’ll see one. And underlying his whole life is the gaining and the losing and the eventual regaining of that inestimable treasure, the Holy Orthodox Christian faith and Holy Grace. Not for the faint of heart.” (D. Kovacs )

 

 

Not for the faint of heart.” Most certainly!

 

What an intense book which can be read on so many levels! A heart-rending spiritual biography of a brother in Christ struggling for his faith and the salvation of his soul amidst staggering trials, temptations and tribulations! A sobering warning too to all of us to be deadly serious with our faith and never forsake our obedience to our spiritual father at any cost! Hell indeed broke loose when Balfour decided to disobey St. Silouan and use his own mind instead for his life-decisions! To give you just one example: After converting to Orthodoxy and becoming an Orthodox hieromonk, Balfour disobeyed St Silouan’s ‘suggestion’ to move to France, and then to England, and went to Greece instead. Things went well at first, but with the outbreak of the Second World War, Balfour was forced to flee Greece and started wandering all over Europe, while undergoing a very dark period of disobedience, disillusionment, doubt and eventual loss of his faith, to the extent that he decided to shave his beard and defrock himself in Cairo, Egypt! I cannot even begin to imagine how traumatic all this experiences must have been for him!

elder-sophrony

 

What a most sobering book! “For Whom the Bells Toll” indeed. How often have I betrayed the Lord and disobeyed my spiritual father in the past! How dire the consequences of my disobedience have always been! Indeed, how fragile our faith is, how precarious our decision to follow the Lord at any cost like a true disciple, how unpredictable our falls and how uncertain our salvation until the very last moment of our life!

 

Striving for Knowledge of God: Correspondence with David Balfour is a treasury of wisdom distilled from Fr. Sophrony’s reading of the Fathers of the Church, from his conversations with St. Silouan, and from his own experience. Since most of these letters were written to someone new to the Orthodox Church and to Orthodox monasticism, they are of greatest interest to anyone contemplating converting to Orthodoxy.

 

In particular, the correspondence touches and elaborates on the difference between Eastern Orthodox and Western thought, in both Christian and philosophical writings. Thus Fr.Sophrony mentions Schleiermacher, Spinoza and Kant, and St John of the Cross (The Dark Night of the Soul). He dedicates a few pages to the concepts of the heart and prayer. In Eastern Christianity, he argues, the spiritual heart is not an abstract notion but is linked with our material heart and has its physical location. In opposition to the Western search for some visionary mystical experience, Fr.Sophrony advocates the prayer of repentance, which is the basis of all spiritual life.

 

As a reply to Balfour’s doubt over the importance of specifically Eastern ascetic and dogmatic traditions, Fr.Sophrony asserts the organic integrity and integrality of ascetic life, dogma and the Church. Criticising Schleiermacher in connexion with this issue, he writes:

 

“There are three things I cannot take in: nondogmatic faith, nonecclesiological Christianity and nonascetic Christianity. These three – the church, dogma, and asceticism – constitute one single life for me.” – Letter to D. Balfour, August 21, 1945.

 

“If one rejects the Orthodox creed and the eastern ascetic experience of life in Christ, which has been acquired throughout the centuries, then Orthodox culture would be left with nothing but the Greek minor [key] and Russian tetraphony.” – Letter to D. Balfour.

 

Fr.Sophrony also warns against attributing to intellectual reasoning the status of being the sole basis for religious search:

 

Historical experience has demonstrated that natural intellectual reasoning, left to its own devices, fatally arrives at pantheistic mysticism with its particular perception of reality. If this takes place in the soul of the Christian who does not want to reject Christ (as in the case of Leo Tolstoy), he arrives at Protestant rationalism or at spiritualism, which stands mystically close to pantheism… I am convinced that the rejection of the Church will lead to the rejection of the Apostolic message about Сthat which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes… and our hands have handled (1Jn.1:1) [148].

 

 

On a more general level, these letters are full with profound theological and spiritual insights. What a most blessed golden ‘chain’ of Grace and Sainthood! Elder Sophrony, already under consideration for glorification, was ordained to the diaconate by St Nicolai (Velimirovic) of Zicha and became a disciple of St Silouan the Athonite. Can you imagine? All these Saints were also ‘connected’ with the greatest probably Saint of our century, St. John Maximovitch! St. Nikolai Velimirovich is often referred to as Serbia’s New Chrysostom. St. John Maximovitch, who had been a young instructor at a seminary in Bishop Nikolai’s diocese of Ohrid, called him “a great saint and Chrysostom of our day [whose] significance for Orthodoxy in our time can be compared only with that of Metropolitan Anthony (Khrapovitsky). … They were both universal teachers of the Orthodox Church.”

 

Coming back to the book, of all theological concepts touched upon in this book, the one which most interests me  is the concept of Godforsakenness, as outlined by Fr.Sophrony, who worked out a distinction between two types:The first one is when man deserts God: To the extent that we live in this world, to that same extent we are dead in God. The second one is when God hides from man: a horrific state of Godforsakenness. When man has no more life in this world, i.e. cannot live by this world, the memory of the divine world draws him there, yet despite all this darkness encompasses his soul. He explains: these fluctuations of the presence and absence of grace are our destiny until the end of our earthly life. Fr.Sophrony saw suffering as a necessary stage in ascetic development: Divine grace comes only in the soul which has undergone suffering.

 

“We must have the determination to overcome temptations comparable to the sorrows of the first Christians. All the witnesses of Christ’s Resurrection were martyred. We should be ready to endure any hardship.”

 

“The most important thing in the spiritual life is to strive to receive the grace of the Holy Spirit. It changes our lives (above all inwardly, not outwardly). We will live in the same house, in the same circumstances, and with the same people, but our life will already be different. But this is possible only under certain conditions: if we find the time to pray fervently, with tears in our eyes. From the morning to ask for God’s blessing, that a prayerful attitude may define our entire day.”

 

“Whoever gives up his cross cannot be worthy of the Lord and become His disciple. The depths of the Divine Being are revealed to the Christian when he is crucified for our Savior. The Cross is the foundation of authentic theology.”

 

Not for the faint of heart, indeed!

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