Suzana Monastery Retreat I

 

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Part A: How the little city hermit became a bird, a fountain, a tree and a pearl!

 

Deep peace of Christ, silence, hesychia, these are the words that come to my mind when I remember Suzana monastery and my three-day retreat there this summer. Also, self-emptying, kenosis. But above all, silence!

 

Only through poetry can such silence be conveyed, so I will paraphrase a favourite poet of mine, Rumi, to convey to you what I experienced here.

 

I had begged the Wise One to tell me
 the secret of my existence, my calling in this world.
 Gently, gently, He whispered at Suzana monastery “Be quiet,
the secret cannot be spoken,
 It is wrapped in silence.”

 

I ground myself, strip myself down, to this overpowering Silence. I feel spiraling into a void of silence where a hundred voices thundered messages I longed to hear.

 

At its unfathomable bottom I encounter a vast fullness, the Spark of LIFE and LOVE, a secret passage to the WAY which wandering talk blocks, a dimension where HE was waiting for me, for my soul to shake.

 

I was carrying so much baggage while seeking the signs of the Way.

 

But at Suzana* monastery, I am ‘forced’ to stop, open up, surrender to this thundering silence, be invaded by ‘It’, and 
stay there until I Saw, until I looked at this blinding Light 
with infinite eyes.

 

This overpowering Silence kidnaps me to the core of Life. There is a sacredness in it. Silence is indeed the language of God, and all else is poor translation.

 

This is exactly what I experience when I am trying to write a poem, how I feel especially when I finish a poem. A great silence overcomes me and I wonder why I ever thought to use language.

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Silence is indeed the sea, and speech is like the river. The sea is seeking you: don’t seek or walk into the river. Don’t turn your head away from the signs offered by the sea. Listen to the ocean.

 

The sound of Waters and the sound of Silence is a motif in Suzana monastery. At least for me. Everywhere the sound of waters reaches you, so overwhelmingly that I often feel the need to stay in my ‘cell’ and not even venture out.

 

Just listening to that sound was so overwhelming! The very moment I set my foot on this monastery, the sound of Living waters immobilized me, an ocean wave, a mighty river in flood, a cascading waterfall, a fountain of benediction, a Life- Giving spring, welling up to Eternity.

 

Isaiah 43:19

19 Behold, I will do a new thing,
Now it shall spring forth;
Shall you not know it?
I will even make a road in the wilderness
And rivers in the desert.

 

John 7:38

38 He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.”

 

 

 

Kenosis is also another state I suffered there:

“And they shall build the old wastes,

they shall raise up the former desolations,

and they shall repair the waste cities,

the desolations of many generations.” (Isaiah 61:4)

 

I needed so desperately such ‘Decluttering’ in my life, a Relentless Focus, a Subtraction, Becoming ‘poor’, an Unburdening, a Curtail, a Reduction and Emptying, Until my rebellious bones sore.

 

 

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This silence, this moment, every moment, this silence brought all what I needed. I sat quietly, and listened for a voice which told me ‘Be more silent.’ ‘Die’ and be quiet. Maybe quietness is the surest sign that you’ve ‘died’. My old life was such a frantic running from silence. Suzana monastery moved me, even for a little, outside the tangle of fear-thinking.

 

In the end, I became a pearl!

 

“And since I have wandered in thee, pearl,

I will gather up my mind

And by having contemplated thee,

Would become like thee,

In that thou art all gathered up into thyself;

And as thou in all times art one,

One let me become by thee!” (St Ephraim, The Pearl)

 

This very old, poor, secluded, fairy-tale monastery, surrounded by forests, mountains and springs, and steeped in holiness, is most certainly God’s special Providence for my tired, exhausted self.

 

I feels like coiling in a virginal womb, unwinding time, beholding

 

“The memory of the glory that I had when I was entirely with You and entirely in You, before time and temporal illusions.

 

When I, too, was a harmonious trinity in holy unity, just as You are from eternity to eternity.

 

When the soul within me was also in friendship with consciousness and life.

 

When my soul also was a virginal womb, and my consciousness was wisdom in virginity, and my life was spiritual power and holiness.

 

 

When I, too, was all light, and when there was no darkness within me.

 

When I, too, was bliss and peace, and when there were no torments of imbalance within me.

 

When I also knew You, even as You know me, and when I was not mingled with darkness.

 

When I, too, had no boundaries, no neighbors, no partitions between “me” and “you.” (St. Nikolai Velimirovich, Memories – Prayers By the Lake XXX)

 

Even the very fact that I cannot not speak Romanian, just barely understand it, is an added blessing, an extra ‘precaution’, a ‘just in case’ … Speaking all too often impoverishes, drenches us. As St. Seraphim of Sarov wisely urges us, “Keep away from the spilling of speech”.

 

Hesychia, Deep peace of Christ wrapped me in green leaves like a tree;

I breathed like a tree in the quiet light!

 

* Suzana Monastery is a Romanian monastery about 5.5 to 6 hours away from Rasca monastery in Bucovine, North Moldavia, where Fr. Seraphim Aldea was tonsured as a monk in 2005. After my retreat here I have a slightly better, more ‘intimate’ understanding of ‘Romanian’ Orthodoxy and Fr. Seraphim’s calling to found the first Orthodox monastery, Mull monastery, in the Hebrides in over a millennium. In a sense only a Romanian hieromonk would be really equipped, spiritually, emotionally, as well as intellectually, to undertake such a huge task! Glory to God for everything!

 

 

 

 

 

Continue to Part II

Drop Your Baggage

 

Reflections on Pilgrimages by three fellow ‘Pilgrims

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“No one descends from the Cross, but they take him down” Christ to Elder Sophrony (Sakharov)

[My interposed or ‘highlighted’ comments  are in brackets and in blue] 

“I had made grand plans [Oh yes! Sooo me!! Throw caution to the wind!]  this past summer. My goal was to retrace Paul’s first missionary journey. I would start in Antalya, shoot past Perge up north through the Taurus Mountains until I was just north of Yalvac (Antioch of Pisidia). From there I would swing west to Konya (Iconium) and do a quick circle hitting the ruins that were Lystra and Derbe before finishing back up at Konya. Unfortunately, just three days into this journey I ended up spraining my ankle. Even though that random injury shortened my planned 500+ mile journey down to seventy, it was still the longest I had ever walked in one setting and it was a great experience.

From start to finish I did that walk with this big black bag. In this bag I carried a tent and small blanket, some clothes, a Bible and a notebook, some food, and water. I carried lots of water. I would much rather not have the need, but I was going through some uninhabited mountains and near desert in weather that was in the nineties and sunny every single day. You might not think of it but water is heavy. Very heavy. As I was walking this bag gave me bruises on my shoulders. When I tried to loosen the straps to relieve them, it would end up chafing my lower ribs and back. [And blisters, corns and callouses on my feet]

[I have moved to the UK since May 20, ‘moved’ by a ‘similar’ missionary impulse. Little did I know that I would spend so much of my day walking from place to place, since I am not in possession of  a car (yet?) and my lodgings appropriately ‘primitive’ and remote, often getting lost in unfamiliar surroundings, carrying, more often than I would have liked, heavy objects in my backpack and bags. Never would I have grasped how spoilt and what a creature of comfort I am if I had not been restricted to such old, poorly maintained, cramped, uncomfortable, poor lodgings!]

There was no escaping the pain. This thing hurt and it was preventing me from being able to walk the walk I wanted to. It was a beautiful moment when I was able to hobble into my hotel in Isparta, drop my bag, and say, “I am done with you.” Like me dropping that bag, there are some things we will need to let go of if we are to chose to walk the life Jesus has called us to. 

 Mark 10:46 – Then they reached Jericho, and as Jesus and his disciples left town, a large crowd followed them. A blind beggar named Bartimaeus (son of Timaeus) was sitting beside the road.

The first set of baggage Bartimaeus need to drop is the Baggage of his background.What is your background? What is your cultural heritage? One of the popular memes floating around on the internet are those “Keep calm and _______” Keep calm and pray. Keep calm and drink starbucks. Keep calm and eat a cookie. Keep calm and kill zombies. Keep calm and watch gossip girl. You name it, they’ve “keep calmed” it. One of my favorite “Keep calm’s” is a T-shirt I have seen a few times: “I can’t keep calm. I’m Turkish.” Every culture has it’s own distinctions, some would say stereotypes, and there will always be some who will use one of those cultural distinctions, or their family upbringing, as an excuse for their behavior. “I cant help being an alcoholic, I’m…” Or, “I can’t control my temper. It is the ______ in me coming out.” Or “You think I’m rude? I’m _____. We’re all rude. Deal with it.”

Although our cultural background and family background might make us more likely to act in certain ways, ultimately we are all responsible for our own behavior. [I would have never been made so intensely aware of my own cultural/ family background, had I not moved to a ‘foreign’ country and being ‘forced’ to communicate all the time, in writing and in speaking, in a language which is not my mother tongue. Can you imagine? Two conferences in just two weeks! Most fascinating but forcing me to struggle as they were not in my mother tongue. We never realise how deeply rooted we are in an ‘environment’ until we are completely removed from it] Bartimaeus could have said his background was a blessing or a curse. On the one hand since Timaeus means “highly favored”, Bartimaeus would mean “highly favored son”. He was not born blind and so the name “favorite son” was probably not an ironic misnomer. On the other hand, Timaeus is a Greek name. Those who like philosophy might recognize that it was Timaeus who debated Socrates in Plato’s dialogues. Bartimaeus was a mixed blood in a very racist society. Whether you come from a home of abuse, shame, and poverty or whether you had an incredibly blessed and very loving background, there comes a point when you just need to let go. Leave it behind you. Walk your own walk.

 Mark 10:46 – Then they reached Jericho, and as Jesus and his disciples left town, a large crowd followed them. A blind beggar named Bartimaeus (son of Timaeus) was sitting beside the road.

In addition to the baggage of his background, Bartimaeus needed to drop the baggage of his disability. Bartimaeus was a blind beggar. In modern society being blind is not as crippling as it was in his day. We have books in braille. I have even been through a drive through for McDonalds where a sign says that they have braille menus available. I really hope no blind driver is ever pulling up to ask for one while I am anywhere near. We also have audio books and a program that will read any PDF file in a reasonably normal voice. We also have medical advances where many who would once have gone blind can now get surgery and see perfectly fine. Bartimaeus had none of that. He had no hope.

What is your disability? Most people would say I am average height, but in my family my shortness is a disability. All of my cousins and siblings, even most of the girls, are taller than me. Our family loves basketball. I love basketball, but I have a permanent unfixable disability against others in my family.  No matter how hard I try, I will never grow taller. It just won’t happen. But then I think of pros like Spud Webb and Mugsy Bogues. These guys were much shorter than I was and yet they played well against others who were far taller and better than anyone in my family. Just like our background, we need to drop the baggage of our supposed disabilities if we are to experience our miracle. If God calls us, He will enable us. [I have repeatedly felt so incompetent, weak, discouraged, vulnerable, frustrated, inadequate, struggling, the last three weeks, even while trying to accomplish such basic tasks, as moving, unpacking, struggling to have a reliable Wi-Fi connection–still a struggle!–registering at NHS, opening bank accounts, securing a variety of official documents …] 

Mark 10:47 – When Bartimaeus heard that Jesus of Nazareth was nearby, he began to shout, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

In addition to his background and disability, Bartimaeus needed to drop the baggage of his respectability. [Oh yes! Can you imagine what friends, relatives back in Greece think of me when they ask about what on earth I am doing here at the UK? Re-discovering Orthodoxy in a ‘secular’, ‘pagan’, ‘depraved’ country?! Certainly a country that is not God’s ‘chosen nation’ such as Greece!!??] In Mark 10:47 it says that Bartimaeus began to shout. There are two different Greek words that are both translated “shout” in the New Testament. One of those shouts is the cry of joy or greeting. When I am watching Real Madrid in football and Cristiano Ronaldo scores again, I am shouting right along with that announcer, “GOOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAAAAALLLLLLLLL!!!!!!!” When I spot an unexpected friend walking along at the far end of Sultanahmet Square, I will be shouting out their name. This type of shout is very different from the type of shout I would be proclaiming if I was in a car that just crashed off the side of a bridge. As that sinking car started to fill up with water and I was still trapped inside, my shout would become louder and louder as I grew more and more desperate.

The truth is, the more joyful or desperate we become, the less concerned we are with those around us. Joy and desperation both expose the fear of respectability as the shadow it really is. The rest of the time, most of us are far too concerned with our respectability. “What would they think if…” is a thought we all think much too often. Think about it. Ninety percent of the time we think about someone else, we are really only wondering what they are thinking about us. On the flip side, those same people, if they think of us at all,  are spending ninety percent of those thoughts wondering what we think of them. We are all trapped in a web of false respectability and we need to drop that baggage off and come to Jesus.

Mark 10:48 – “Be quiet!” Many of the people yelled at him. But he only shouted louder, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”

Very similar to that baggage of respectability that Bartimaeus had to drop was the baggage of others expectations of him. As much as I just said people don’t often think about you, on those rare moments when they do, they are sure to let you know just exactly what they think. When I first told a certain friends that I was moving to Turkey, they told me I was being stupid. [Likewise] They said I was doing a lot of good work right where I was and that I had no business giving all that up, and leaving my family and friends to go to the other side of the world. It hurt. I knew that I was doing the right thing, and others who I trust their voice in my life agreed, but to hear this person say those things even though I knew they were wrong really hurt.

Everybody around Bartimaeus told him to shut up. They wanted to silence him, but he wasn’t screaming for the crowd. His voice was aimed only at Jesus and he would not be quiet until he received his answer. Sometimes, pursuing our miracle means those around us might end up getting angry or confused. They might not understand what God has called us to or they might become disappointed because we are not following their dreams for our life. Oh well. We need to drop the baggage of other’s expectations if we are going to walk the life Jesus has called us to.[Precisely, ‘crazy’ though that ‘calling’ may appear]

Mark 10:49-50 – When Jesus heard him, he stopped and said, “Tell him to come here.” So they called the blind man. “Cheer up,” they said. “Come on. He’s calling you!” Bartimaeus threw aside his coat, jumped up, and came to Jesus.

The next thing Bartimaeus had to throw off was the baggage of his security.[Oh yes! To be sure, Jesus has blessed my every single day here with new friends, new ‘signposts’, caring, clairvoyant elders, miracles, Sants’ relics, you name it, but every single day I had also to learn the hard lesson to rely only on Him] Bartimaeus threw aside his coat. We hear that and think, “so what?” What we do not realize is how much of a big deal this would be for a poor person at that time. Bartimaeus was most likely homeless and, if so, that coat was his most prized possession. The poor man’s coat was also his blanket. In the hot summer days, it was his only protection from the sun. During the cloudless chilly nights, it was his shelter from the cold.

Following Jesus is not safe. [No ‘plans’ or comfortable old habits will do here] I am currently reading a book that is a collection of stories about people who have left their former religion to become followers of Christ. Every single one of them is using a fake name for the book. Most of them had to leave their homes and even their countries to become God followers. I have a friend who is in Bible college now who still has not told his family that he has become a follower of Jesus. He fears that when his father finds out, he will hire someone to forcefully bring him back to his home country or, failing that, just kill him.

I cannot imagine that but I can imagine giving away a thousand book library. For me those books were my security. They were my prized possession. But when Jesus said, “come here” they did not matter. Those things we hold dear, those things that make us feel safe, can be very good or decent things. There was nothing evil about Bartimaeus’s coat but when it weighed him down from coming to Jesus, it had to go. If there is anything in my life that I trust or value more than following Christ, it is baggage that needs to be dropped.

Mark 10:51-52 – “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked him. The blind man said, “Rabbi, I want to see.” “Go,” said Jesus, “your faith has healed you.” Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus along the road.

He received his sight and followed Jesus. His eyes were opened and his path was set.

So what is our baggage? Jesus is calling us today. He is asking us to come, follow him. What baggage do we need to leave by the roadside in order to obey? For some reading this, it might be the first time you have ever seriously considered following Him. What is holding you back? Is it a fear of losing your respectability? Do the expectations of your family and friends hold you back? Maybe there is something you have done in your past, or something that was done to you, which makes you believe you are not worthy. Drop the baggage.

Others reading this have been following after Jesus for a while now. He is asking you to come a little higher. What would that take? Do you fear you are unfit because of some disability or struggle? Are you unwilling to just let loose and scream? Does the next step that you already know he is calling you to take seem just a little too unsafe?

When Bartimaeus met Jesus, the Messiah was on His way to the cross. This was the last time he would ever pass through Jericho. He did not know it at the time but if Bartimaeus passed up this opportunity, he would never have another. We might think there is all the time in the world to let go of that painful baggage which we consider so dear. We think that, but we certainly do not know it. This might be the last such opportunity you will ever have to grab hold of your miracle. This could be your final opportunity. Will you drop the baggage and step out? Will you be willing to lay everything down at the roadside and begin walking in the footsteps of Jesus?”

Source: Between Two Seas

“It is later than you think. Hasten, therefore, to do the work of God”.” as my spiritual great-grandfather Blessed Seraphim Rose would say.

Weakness at the Beginning of Lent

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I am tired. I feel tired and afraid, with no control over anything. At my best moments, I realise that this is a gift – the gift of awareness, of truth. Because the truth is we are never in control over anything. We invent little worlds (our group of friends; our family; our parish; our monastery) over which we may claim some sort of dominion. We invent silly games (our careers, the rules of our society) which we can win. We upgrade or downgrade these games carefully, so that we are never pushed beyond what we feel we can control.

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But look up, look beyond the borders of these silly little kingdoms where we rule. Lent is a horrid period. Year by year, Lent is when some force within me pushes me out of my comfort zones, and I find myself in a lions’ den, face to face with the beasts, utterly unprepared to fight, totally helpless, fully aware that the only possible outcome is to be slaughtered.

This is nothing new. This happens every year. Yet, I somehow survive, because the same Force that pushes me out of my self-created kingdoms, out of my self-created games – that same Force saves me from those wild beasts at the last moment.

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And this changes everything.

Perhaps I should not share this with you. Perhaps it would help the monastery more if I kept my weakness to myself and pretended to be someone I am not. This would be the proper thing to do – but I have never tried to be proper; I have never cared to replace my honest, weak self with the false image of a man who is in control. Those who play this game are one step away from a type of suicide – not to allow yourself to be seen, to cover yourself under the expectations of others, to betray the feeble, yet precious being that you are out of fear that you will not stand up to the standards of others… This is the definition of hell, the betrayal of one’s deepest, most intimate self. I don’t want to leave this world having played a respectable part, yet knowing that who-I-am was never visible. What can be worse than to go though life as someone else?  What bigger failure than to sell out your own self?

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If you don’t live as yourself – weak and fallen, as you are – how can you love? Whose love is it that you feel? With whose love do you embrace the world around you? Whose good deeds and whose sins are your good deeds and your sins? When you hide yourself under an image, you basically step aside and die – all that is left is the image you created. It is this image – not yourself – who loves and hates, who lives and dies. You will never experience love – your love – until you own up to your true self. You will never experience life – not even death, ultimately – until you settle down in your own life and accept yourself as you are. I don’t mean this in the sense of ‘this is who I am and there is no reason to change’, but in the sense of ‘this is who I am, this is the real starting point of any change’.

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No healing is possible. No repentance is possible. No prayer is possible, until the heart that heals, repents and prays is your sinful, fallen, yet beating heart. False images do not have hearts. False images do not love. Most painful than all, false images will never reflect Christ, because there is nothing false in Christ, nothing common between Life and void. Prayer begins with pain at one’s fallen nature; it grows out of this pain, and its flowers bloom out of it.

By Father Seraphim Aldea

 

Thin Places, Where Heaven Reveals Its Violence

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Christ Pantocrator 6th St. Catherine’s Monastery Mount Sinai Egypt 

Two weeks of no posting … Please forgive me for this ‘break’ but things have been so hectic here, with my father seriously ill, in hospital. Taking the wrong medication can cause serious side effects and even result in death, especially if the patient is 86 years old! Thanks be to God, the doctors saved my father’s life the very last minute! It was such a heart-rending experience watching him collapse …

This whole experience, as was to be expected, shook us deeply and intensified our prayer life. We were literally (and figuratively) all the time on our knees before Him.This is why I have decided to resume my posts with Father Seraphim Aldea‘s,  Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh, and Lev Gillet‘s reflections on Meeting the Living God, Entering Into a  Relationship With Him in Prayer.

These meditations strangely match a recent experience of mine with an Icon of the Saviour I was offered as a blessing. What an icon! I cannot even begin to stare at His Eyes! As if the icon ‘itself’ ought to be “tamed” … Just staring at this ‘Icon’ feels like a Meeting face to face with Him, a moment of Judgment for me … to be either saved or condemned …

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“People are right, Iona truly is ‘a thin place’, a great Celtic expression, describing special places where Heaven and earth are drawn together. What I didn’t know before I came for this week (and perhaps, what many of us do not feel) is how dreadfully frightening Heaven is. Perhaps frightening is not the right word: awe-some, full of awe, entirely alien to us and frightening because of its alien nature – these are all weak descriptions, but they are as good as I’m able to make.

Iona is a thin place, but through the thin veil one can see a frightening revelation. It is precisely because these are thin places that they are frightening, too. What we see through them, what we see through their transparence is the real Face of God: not a tame God, a domesticated God; not a God taken to pieces and rebuilt to fit our sinfulness and weakness; not a God shaped against our emotions and cheap piety; not a God of human traditions and cult; not a God of political correctness or incorrectness – but the LIVING God. The Being beyond being, the Uncreated Creator of everything that is, the untouchable One, indescribable by any of our created words, philosophies and concepts. The frightening God, the crushing God, the God Who utters His voice and the earth melts; the God Who commands: Be still, and know that I am God.

To be in a thin place like Iona is frightening because of the Frightening Being Who suddenly becomes visible and Whom you must now face. I’ve learnt that to face God is frightening, because every meeting with God is a moment of total exposure and Judgement: exposure and judgement of ourselves, of our carefully assembled idols and our horrid manipulations of the Divine realities. God is an alien Being to us, because we have turned ourselves in alien beings to Him. Thin places are dangerous places; approach them with fear, as you approach the Face of God. You are in a moment of Judgement.”

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Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh adds to a similar vein: “a Meeting face to face with God is always a moment of Judgment for us. We cannot meet God in prayer or in meditation or in contemplation and not be either saved or condemned. I do not mean this in major terms of eternal damnation or eternal salvation already given and received, but it is always a critical moment, a crisis. ‘Crisis’ comes from the Greek and means ‘judgment.’ To meet God face to face in prayer is a critical moment in our lives, and thanks be to Him that He does not always present Himself to us when we wish to meet Him, because we might not be able to endure such a meeting. Remember the many passages in Scripture in which we are told how bad it is to find oneself face to face with God, because God is power, God is truth, God is purity.”

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Turn to me,
In your good favor, all praise-worthy Theotokos;

Yet, Lev Gillet adds a different dimension, encouraging if I may add, to this discussion: “What does this manifestation [the solemn manifestation of Christ in His baptism in the Jordan] consist of? It is made up of two aspects. On the one hand, there is the aspect of humility represented by the baptism to which our Lord submits: on the other hand, there is the aspect of glory represented by the human witness that the Precursor bears to Jesus, and, on an infinitely higher plane, the divine witness which the Father and the Spirit bear to the Son. We shall look at these aspects more closely. But first of all, let us bear this in mind: every manifestation of Jesus Christ, both in history and in the inner life of each man, is simultaneously a manifestation of humility and of glory.Whoever tries to separate these two aspects of Christ commits an error which falsifies the whole of spiritual life. I cannot approach the glorified Christ without, at the same time, approaching the humiliated Christ, nor the humiliated Christ without approaching the glorified Christ. If I desire Christ to be manifested in me, in my life, this cannot come about except through embracing Him whom Augustine delighted to call Christus humilis, and, in the same upsurge, worshipping Him who is also God, King, and Conqueror.

*

13 And ye shall seek me, and find me, when ye shall search for me with all your heart.

Jeremiah 29:13 (KJV)

 

  • Thin Places: “Thin Places,” comes from a Celtic Christian concept. The Celts believed that physical locations existed in which God’s presence was more accessible than elsewhere, places where heaven and earth seemed to touch, where the line between holy and human met for a moment, “the places in the world where the walls are weak”, “those rare locales where the distance between heaven and Earth collapses”, as Eric Weiner puts it in his spirituality travelogue, Man Seeks God. For such a ‘thin place’ for me visit my blog post on the Holy and Life-Giving Cross Orthodox parish at Lancaster.

 

 

 

 

 

Confessing to Grow Closer to God

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“Confessing to Grow Closer to God” Fr. Seraphim reflects on his experiences confessing, the role of a spiritual father, and he gives three recommendations to help get the most out of each confession. Podcast here

“Continuing in Confessional Growth”Fr. Seraphim continues his discussion from last week on how to get more out of each confession, by recommending three more exercises to help grow closer to both the spiritual father and Christ. Podcast here

“Confessing to Grow Closer to God”
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
While I have done my best to record these podcasts in silence and moments of the day, or rather moments of the night, when there is silence, enough silence for me to focus on the things I want to talk to you about and also enough silence for you to be able to hear me, I do live in England, so it is almost always impossible to hide from rain. We’ll just have to live with that.I have mentioned in some of the previous podcasts that the monastery has started writing and publishing a series of booklets on various subjects. We have one booklet published on the topic of prayer, and it will be followed by a second one on the subject. There is one which we have published on the island of Iona, including a small guide, a sort of spiritual guide, to St. Columba’s isle. And I’m now working on a booklet on confession and the role of the father-confessor in monastery life.I have decided to write this particular booklet because the questions surrounding a monastic father-confessor and the way one relates to a spiritual father are very frequent. Everywhere I go and meet people to talk to them about the monastery, this is one of the central questions I get asked. So as I am preparing this booklet, I would like to discuss with you some of the topics and some of the ideas I am considering to include into the final form of the booklet. If you feel that there are other aspects you would like covered, if you feel I have not properly addressed or have not addressed at large some of the aspects I am discussing, please feel free to send me an email, and I shall do my best to either reply to you personally or in future podcasts.What I would like to tell you today is just a tiny bit of my own experience with confession. I remember when I started confessing that I was quite puzzled about the whole ritual. I didn’t quite understand what I was supposed to talk about. I didn’t quite understand to whom I was confessing—if it was the priest, if it was Christ, if I was actually simply there to acknowledge things in front of my own conscience. Then I went through a series of more or less difficult experiences with my father-confessor. I had to change my spiritual father when I went to the monastery, and that was a nightmare. Other times I felt that my spiritual father did not have enough time or he didn’t pay enough attention to what I was saying. There were instances when he felt rushed or even almost annoyed and upset for the things I was telling him.But through it all, I kept going. I kept confessing. And as a general attitude, I often thought that the more difficult it feels, the more distant my father-confessor seems, the more useless, pointless the whole experience may feel—the more it is worth doing it, almost like hitting a wild animal when you are attacked. You’re not supposed to simply lie down and be eaten alive because you are attacked. If you are under attack, you fight back. So the more difficult confession felt to me, the more determined, almost stubborn I was to make it work.

Once you have decided, once you have chosen your father-confessor, your spiritual father, my advice is to trust him more than you trust yourself, at least for the first years. When I say “the first years,” I do not mean one or two years; I mean the first ten years at least. Trust him more than you trust yourself. After these ten, fifteen years, there may be the case that you should start placing your trust more in Christ than in yourself. With that general rule, you should be right.

Now let us turn back to confession. Confession can simply be a listing of your sins or your weaknesses, but it can be a lot more. It is entirely up to you to make it more, to make it better. Confession can indeed simply be an encounter between you and your spiritual father during which you tell him of your weaknesses and your sins and the ways in which you have failed God and yourself and your neighbors, but it can be much more if you put a bit of work into it. I am going to list a few exercises for you to consider trying out during your confession. These are things I have discovered simply through experience, and I have learned that, as a general rule, anything can be useful, anything can be turned into a useful experience from which you can learn something. I will give you only one example of what I mean by this, and then we’ll turn to the exercises.

The best thing to do when you prepare for confession, the best practical thing you can do, is to allow your father-confessor time. Never go for confession at the end of Lent or at the end of the fasting period before Christmas or Dormition. Never go and confess at the end of a long queue of 20 or 30 people. If your father-confessor has the time to hear you, if you allow him the time to hear you, he will be paying much more attention to you than if he feels pressed to hear 20 more confessions after you or if he feels exhausted for having heard 50 confessions prior to yours.

And that does happen. I remember in the monastery in Moldavia that we would be for hours, every day, especially during long periods of fasting, hearing the confession of people coming from the villages and the towns nearby. After five or six hours of hearing confessions, all you wanted to do is hide somewhere, find some sort of hole and crawl into it and never come out again, because the confessor is also a human being, and you take all that negativity, all those negative experiences, all the pain, all the failure, all the things that weigh so heavily on the shoulders of all those people whose confessions you’re hearing—it all ends up weighing down on your own shoulder. If you plan your time, if you plan your confession properly, you will be the one who benefits from it.

Now, this is the general rule. That being said, I have once noticed that if I went to my father-confessor when he was absolutely exhausted, the experience of confession felt entirely different. Yes, he as a human being was clearly not paying as much attention as he could have. He simply wasn’t able to any more. He wasn’t there any more. His attention wasn’t there any more. He was simply exhausted. But somehow, from that hollow being, from that exhausted person, came the most extraordinary advice I could possibly hope for, and these were not things my father-confessor would have normally said. After 15 years of confessing to the same person, you end up eventually knowing more or less what to expect. But I have noticed that if I want to hear not my father-confessor’s voice but somehow the voice of his conscience or his heart—I wouldn’t say God’s voice through him, but that is what I’m thinking—if I wanted a clearer view of that, then I should approach him when he, as a human being, is exhausted, when he has reached his limits.

All I wanted to say by giving you this example is that if you want to hear God, if you want to grow, anything can be turned into a positive, useful tool. If you allow the time for your father-confessor to hear your confession properly, you will definitely benefit from it, because your father-confessor understand the context, and he has the ability to think through all possible implications, and he will give you the best possible advice. So take that and use it for your salvation and rejoice in this gift.

On the other hand, though, if you ended up confessing at the end of a long period of fasting or when your father-confessor is simply tired or just not there, for any reason, known or unknown to you, then even that can be turned into a positive experience. The golden rule is that if you tell Christ in your heart, “I want to hear you. Please speak to me,” Christ will speak to you, regardless whether your father-confessor is tired or not, whether he is paying attention or not, whether he’s wholly entirely there or not. The sacrament—you must remember this—the sacrament is between you and Christ. The confessor, the spiritual father, is merely a tool. If there are problems in confession, they are never because of the spiritual father; they are always because something is not working between you and Christ, something is not working, something is not right in the way you have approached confession.

That being said, I just want to list a few exercises for you, and feel free to pick and choose which of these you think may benefit your confession. But I do encourage you to try them at least once. The first and most useful one is to try to reduce your confession as much as possible. Try to keep it under three minutes, for example. The way to do that is to look for the source of evil. I mean, do not make philosophy. Do not be expanding your confession. Do not give any sort of context. Be as simple and plain as you possibly can. Just list the things you need to confess: “I lied.” Full stop. “I am lazy and waste time.” Full stop. “I am proud and yet envious.” Full stop. And so on.

When you cut away the context, there is no way for you to use that context to justify your sinfulness. If you keep it very simple and try to go back to the source of evilness, things become very clear to you. It is the first step you must take. You must understand that there is evilness in you, or that you are fighting evilness. This is not about you selling an image to your father-confessor. This is not about you playing a game or putting on a show: the pious Christian show or the rebel Christian show or whatever else attracts you. This is simply about you being as naked as possible before Christ. Try to limit your confession under three minutes. Try to list, for instance, all your sins on a piece of paper before you go to confession, and then group them into categories, and try to see what is the source of each category. What is that initial mistake, that initial thing that generates all the visible outcomes, so to say? You may have yelled at your brother and your sister, and that is a sin, but what lies underneath that reaction? You may have wasted time, and that is a sin, but what lies underneath that behavior? And so on and so forth.

Really, this simply helps you to understand the depths of our sinfulness and not focus merely on the surface of it. If you simply list the mistakes you’ve made, you are really just focusing on the visible side of your sinfulness, but the depth of it, the heaviness of it lies hidden.

A second thing I try to do from time to time—and again, these are things I do on purpose—is to confess one thing that is extremely disturbing to me, even if it’s not necessarily heavy or as heavy as other things, but it is the sort of thing that, in my mind, will make my father-confessor think less of me, something that I feel horribly guilty for or disgusted. To do that is an exercise of humility, of forced humility. It is a way to empty yourself as much as you can before your spiritual father. It is a way to be as naked, spiritually naked, as you can before him and Christ.

I remember that the first time I’ve done this was after reading the Life of one of those Russian fools-for-Christ. You know who they are. They purposely commit some sort of horrible, disgusting thing in front of people, just so they feel lower and more humble than everyone else. It is useful to do that in front of your father-confessor because it is fighting your pride, and this is one of the best ways of fighting your pride. When you feel pride in your heart, always commit something stupid, on purpose, and do it in front of the people whose opinion counts most for you.

I know of monks in my monastery in Moldavia who would fast according to the strictest of rules, but then when they had guests coming over, they would always behave as if they had entirely forgotten that it was a fasting day. And this is not something that was invented by the Russian fools-for-Christ. You find this type of behavior even in the lives and the stories of the Desert Fathers, the Fathers from Egypt, the first generations of monks. There are these stories of some of the Desert Fathers going and wandering through the desert to collect leftovers or empty bowls which they would then carry to their cells and spread all around, and they did that so that the people who came to visit them would think, “Oh, what a gluttonous monk! He is good for nothing! We should move forward, as nothing good… there’s no good advice we can get from him.”

You can do the same thing in confession, and the experience of grace which you shall receive will be more than you can imagine. In a way, this will help you face your own emptiness, your own nothingness. It is a way to crush these idols we all construct of ourselves. It is also a way to test the love of your father-confessor, because the one thing that you must look for in your father-confessor is his love for you. I remember once that my father-confessor told me, “You do realize that I shall have to stand before Christ on the Judgment Day and protect you against all those who accuse you of your sins?” And that was the day I understood that that man loved me more than anyone has ever loved me. Love is what makes a priest into a spiritual father, not the ability to apply rules, not the ability to build for himself the image of an elder, not his intellectual wisdom, but simply his love.

I think I shall stop now. I’ve listed really three things you could try out. Try to confess when your father-confessor has the time, and then try to confess when he is absolutely exhausted, but in both cases keep in mind that the conversation happens between you and Christ, and he is merely a tool, a channel. Secondly, try to reduce your confession to the absolute minimum, because that will help you see the source of your failures; that will help you move from focusing on the tip of the iceberg to the real depths of it. Once you understand, once you face the roots of your sinfulness, your healing can properly begin. And thirdly, try to systematically, almost like a ritual, crush this idol we all build of our own person, and the best way to do that is to confess something that feels horribly intimate, almost disgusting, to your father-confessor.

There are some other things, some other exercises we could talk about, and perhaps I shall mention them in a second podcast on this subject. Remember to pray for me. Remember to pray for the Monastery of the Celtic Saints in Scotland. And remember to support us if you can. May God bless you and this whole world, now and forever. Amen.”

The Ill, the Weak And The Mortal

MY ‘LESSER’ VERSIONS: The Ill, the Weak And The Mortal,

Or, In Search of True Personhood

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All my life I have been surrounded by family members, suffering with one of the forms of dementia and psychiatric disorders. Rare is the time that I meet someone who doesn’t have a loved one likewise. I hope this blogpost by Father Seraphim Aldea can be of some help, even for a brief moment. May God’s love and strength protect us all …

 

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I have seen people die. I have seen people suffer. I have seen the anguish in their eyes. Most times, it comes from a combination of fear of the weak beings they have become, and regret for the strong being they once were. Fear of turning into something we no longer recognise as ourselves, and regret for losing something we perceived as our ‘correct’ selves.

We only think of ourselves as ‘whole’ when we fit into a wellness norm fed by the idolatric attitude we have for the society we are part of. This society – here and now – tells me that I am all right when I am healthy; therefore, I am my ‘proper’ version, I am my ‘correct’ self, I am who I am supposed to be only when I am healthy. This society tells me that illness and sadness and all forms of weakness are wrong; therefore, I am no longer my ‘proper’ version when I am ill – my ‘correct’ self has become corrupted, infested, compromised.

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But society changes its mind, because it is empty, devoid of meaning, and – like any form without substance – it takes in whatever substance fits its purpose. To be healthy once meant to be chubby and live the sort of life that gave you gout. To be your true self meant at different times to die young, to suffer from melancholia, and to kill yourself in the name of honour. Things have changed. Today (and mostly here, in the West), we worship the healthy, strong, optimist being. Anything else is not properly human.

The implications are the same, though: only when we fit these norms we think of ourselves as being ‘ourselves’. Whatever does not fit these norms is not part of us, it is us being ‘someone else’, a lesser version of myself, an amputated, decayed version of myself, which either has lost things proper to my true self (‘I cannot move anymore’) or has taken over and incorporated things that are alien to my true self, things from the outside, things that entered my true self and diseased it (illness; sadness; death).

We have this perfect version of who we are supposed to be, and we define our happiness depending on the level of conformity to that ideal. We replace the living being that we are – changing, evolving and discovering oneself from all perspectives, including the ‘negative’ ones (illness; old age) – with the immobile poster-like image of the ‘healthy young man’. There is not much difference in essence between the tyranny of this healthy young idol and other tyrannies we have seen in the recent past: the arian man of the second world war, the new man of communism, the jihad man of terrorism. They all want to eradicate what they perceive as corrupted, lesser versions of humanity.

In some way, the tyranny of our idol is even more violent, because we not only enforce it upon others, but we internalise it and we end up inflicting it upon ourselves. A Nazi criminal could never become a Jew himself; his idol never reflected its hatred against himself. We, on the other hand, we all shall as some point feel weak, we all shall get sick, we all shall become old and face the reality of our mortality. To shy away from these ‘lesser’ versions of ourselves, to reject and to fight against them is to reject and fight against ourselves. To run away from them is to run away from myself. To fear and hate them is to fear and hate myself.

Source: The Mull Monastery Blog

Rage, Rage At the Dying of the Light

Or, The Hollow Gaze Of a  Beast

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I am beginning to think that I am secretly a bear. I definitely have the social skills of one. I am as voluble as a bear during hibernation, and as attached to my room as a bear to its cave. In all honesty, I am continuously amazed anyone still wants to talk to me given how bad I am at keeping in touch. The simple reality is that I function in a state of amazement. I have rewritten this paragraph so many times; I can find no better way to describe this. I function like a stunned being. I go through the motions I see in other people; I do what it takes to be functional in this world. But deep down, I am paralysed.

I once saw a huge bull being taken to the slaughterhouse. I was in my monastery in Moldavia at the time. The animals know. The know perfectly well that behind that big door there is death. Many of them go wild, and desperation takes over. Some times, their hearts fail and they collapse, so they have to be dragged inside. I remember this bull: a huge, beautiful animal. I remember its stare. Its muscles had completely frozen; there was no movement at all – not a blink, not a sound. At the centre of that heard of bellowing animals, fighting to escape death, I remember that hollow, frozen gaze as the bull was pushed by three men towards the gate, inside the slaughterhouse.

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I function very much like that stunned animal. When I look in the mirror (which I purposely try not to do) I recognise that gaze. There is something of that in everyone. Often times, I switch off as people talk to me about their holidays and homes and plans. I switch off and I try to recognise that frozen gaze in their eyes: beyond the noise, beyond the superficial glitter of life, that hollowness is always there. It is imprinted in us. It is part of what makes us who we are, part of what makes us human.

I suppose this is my apology for failing to always keep ‘on schedule’ with posting here, recording our podcasts and so on. I am sorry. I am aware I should be doing more, especially as many of you continue to support the monastery even through these periods of silence. Perhaps you feel something. Perhaps you yourselves recognise something in this silence.

I have prayed to make sense of this desperation. I live with a perfect hope that we shall all survive the slaughterhouse, but this hope comes with an equally perfect awareness of the hollowness of this life. I have prayed to make sense of this. I have also prayed that I loose neither the hope, nor the desperation; living with both creates an intense tension, and that tension feeds my heart. I have an intuition that this tension will lead me to Life.

If I have learned something so far, it is that I must protect and treasure this life, because the seed of Life is buried in it. The hollowness of this life, its senselessness, its pain have taught me that I myself can only get as far as the gate of the slaughterhouse. If there is any hope to make it beyond that gate, if there is any hope to survive it, it does not come from me. I cannot be my own saviour. I cannot be anyone’s saviour. This is a tough lesson to learn and impossible to fully accept without the grace of God. I am nothing without a Saviour. It is a tough lesson, but we cannot run away from it. Horrid as it feels, this is the foundation of all our hope.

Just think how different things could have been, had Adam stared into his own hollowness and accepted it, instead of collapsing at the feet of the devil. Had Adam accepted this truth, had he accepted that he cannot be his own saviour, has he reached out for a Saviour, this world would have known a different history. Perhaps this is the point of it all: to learn the lesson Adam has not; to stare into the hollowness of our being and not despair, to not collapse as he did, because we know that a Saviour has taken on the form of this hollowness and lifted it up to Life.

http://www.mullmonastery.com/monastery-blog/the-hollow-gaze-of-a-beast/

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The Hollow Men by T.S. Eliot

Mistah Kurtz – he dead.

A penny for the Old Guy

I

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when 
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar

Shape without form, shade without colour, 
Paralysed force, gesture without motion;

Those who have crossed
With direct eyes, to death’s other kingdom 
Remember us – if at all – not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men 
The stuffed men. 

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IIEyes I dare not meet in dreams
In death’s dream kingdom
These do not appear: 
There, the eyes are
Sunlight on a broken column 
There, is a tree swinging
And voices are 
In the wind’s singing 
More distant and more solemn 
Than a fading star.Let me be no nearer
In death’s dream kingdom 
Let me also wear
Such deliberate disguises
Rat’s coat, crowskin, crossed staves
In a field
Behaving as the wind behaves
No nearer – 

Not that final meeting 
In the twilight kingdom

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III

This is the dead land
This is cactus land
Here the stone images
Are raised, here they receive
The supplication of a dead man’s hand
Under the twinkle of a fading star.

Is it like this
In death’s other kingdom 
Waking alone
At the hour when we are
Trembling with tenderness
Lips that would kiss
Form prayers to broken stone. 

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IV

The eyes are not here
There are no eyes here
In this valley of dying stars
In this hollow valley
This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms

In this last of meeting places 
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of this tumid river

Sightless, unless
The eyes reappear
As the perpetual star
Multifoliate rose
Of death’s twilight kingdom
The hope only
Of empty men. 

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V

Here we go round the prickly pear
Prickly pear prickly pear
Here we go round the prickly pear
At five o’clock in the morning. 

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion 
And the act
Falls the Shadow

For Thine is the Kingdom 

Between the conception
And the creation 
Between the emotion 
And the response
Falls the Shadow

Life is very long

Between the desire
And the spasm 
Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow

For Thine is the Kingdom 

For Thine is
Life is
For Thine is the

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but with a whimper. 

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