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Tuesday, August 30, 2005

St. Aidan's Legacy

St. Aidan of Lindisfarne Posted by Picasa

The 31st August sees the celebration of the Feast of St. Aidan, the patron saint of our community in Manchester. The facts of St. Aidan’s life and work are well known but there are three aspects that often escape attention.

First, St. Aidan was not the first monk from Iona to land in the northeast. The first returned post haste with lurid stories of the barbarism of the inhabitants and their resistance to the gospel. St. Aidan was wisely sent as a successor on the grounds that he was able to distinguish capacity for “spiritual milk” rather than “spiritual meat.”

“For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the first principles of the oracles of God; and you have come to need milk and not solid food.” (Hebrews 5:12)

We do not know much more about this as a practical methodology but we do know of St. Aidan’s great humility and his commitment to education of the young, witness his establishment of a school for local youngsters on the Holy Isle of Lindisfarne which later produced both saints and bishops of the Church. Perhaps we should say that the saint knew what to share with the condition and temperament of each person according to the local culture.

In the conditions of Church and Society today we must follow this same pattern. We must not simply expect those who know next to nothing about Christianity to embrace the fullness and richness of Orthodoxy “in one go.” Those who have barely tasted and known that “the Lord is good,” (1 Peter 2:2) can hardly be expected to understand the nuances of the “filioque” or the Orthodox sacramental theology … but they can be Orthodox Christians! Working out what that means is the Orthodox mission task for today.

St. Aidan did not do any of this alone though as, initially, he did not even know the local language … which brings me to my second point.

St. Aidan enlisted the help of others in his great task, no less than the king (later himself to be a saint, Oswald) who became his interpreter on his evangelistic journeys through the northeast. He also had the foresight to know that the Church had to be built through both sanctity and community … something, in a sense, that would be second nature to him as a monk of Iona.

Similarly today, our mission task is a collaborative effort, a community based initiative, enlisting gifts and skills, sometimes from the most unusual quarters. There exist a plethora of voluntary activities and organisations today for various charitable causes but the Church cannot nor should not simply compete with these. Our missionary rationale is quite different. We serve because He served, we lay down our lives because He lay down his life, we preach the words of life because we have been given life. Orthodox missionary work is wholly about God the Life-Giver and bringing others to know Him and the gift of the gospel, each according to his own capacity and need.

Finally, and curiously perhaps for our purpose here, the Lindisfarne monastic community did not survive St. Aidan for more than two centuries, which is a short time of course in the life of the Church. In 875 AD the monks hurriedly left as the Viking raids along the east coast became more persistent and dangerous. They fled with St. Cuthbert’s body, arguably, Lindisfarne’s greatest son. St. Aidan’s legacy, however, did not die with these terrible events. His witness is not limited to temporal constraints and human empires and therein lies his greatness and significance for the Church today.

Our churches may well not survive in their present form. Historically, they have been closed by Muslims, atheists, communists, fascists. They have been plundered by invading armies. Their people have been persecuted, killed, scattered across the globe … just like the scattered children of Lindisfarne although on a much, much bigger scale. Orthodox Christianity, however, is not quenched by such attacks, such impermanence in its earthly foundations. Our life is hid in Christ and no one can touch that. This is what has preserved St. Aidan’s witness to this day. Against this faith and life the gates of hell itself can never prevail. Be of good courage, therefore, Christ has overcome … and so shall we!

Friday, August 19, 2005

"I'll Find My Way Home"

"Seek and ye shall find ... " Posted by Picasa

Here I am sitting at my computer listening to a compilation album from Vangelis and exulting once more in a track ("I'll find my way home") from "The Friends of Mr. Cairo," an album Vangelis co-produced with Jon from those old (now) rockers from "Yes." It struck me once again just how Orthodox the lyrics are. Let's check them out ...

"You ask me where to begin
Am I so lost in my sin
You ask me where did I fall
I'll say I can't tell you when
But if my spirit is lost
How will I find what is near
Don't question I'm not alone
Somehow I'll find my way home

My sun shall rise in the east
So shall my heart be at peace
And if you're asking me when
I'll say it starts at the end
You know your will to be free
Is matched with love secretly
And talk will alter your prayer
Somehow you'll find you are there.

Your friend is close by your side
And speaks in far ancient tongue
A seasons wish will come true
All seasons begin with you
One world we all come from
One world we melt into one

Just hold my hand and we're there
Somehow we're going somewhere
Somehow we're going somewhere


You ask me where to begin
Am I so lost in my sin
You ask me where did I fall
I'll say I can't tell you when
But if my spirit is strong
I know it can't be long
No questions i'm not alone
Somehow I'll find my way home
Somehow I'll find my way home
Somehow I'll find my way home
Somehow I'll find my way home"

Do you hear what I hear?

Everything is in there .... grace, an Orthodox understanding of sin, the companionship of Christ, the presence of brothers and sisters on the journey (the Church) and the goal / home which is union with God.

Perhaps we should listen more to what is being said in the culture; the heartfelt cry of those who, with us, are seeking. May we all find our way home. Amen.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Holy Russia

Holy Trinity Lavra, Sergei Possad, North of Moscow Posted by Picasa

My two weeks pilgrimage in Russia in from 25 July to 8 August 2005 came just ten years after my first visit to that great country shortly after my ordination. Ten years ago I had just one week available to me; this time I was blest with a two week stay. My "minder," guide and translator then as now was a good friend from the early days of St. Aidan's (when we worshipped in Stockport in rented rooms), Julia Kuznetsova. This time I was also ably assisted in Moscow by her sister Polina and her brother in law, Ilya. I also had opportunity this year to revisit some of the holy sites of Moscow, (Sergei Possad), new ones in Nizhniy Novgorod, Diveyevo for St. Seraphim of Sarov and the church in Nikolo Pogost where my hosts again were my friends Fr. Vladimir (Chegunov), his wife Galina and their lovely family. Many other new friendships were made on this trip of course, Fr. Nikolai and family, Arseniy, Mikhail, Dimitri, Yuri, Nina, Oksana ... too many too mention. Truly, Russia is a land of great spirit and hospitality.

Much has changed of course in Russia over the last 10 years since my first trip. This is most noticeable in the urban centres and especially Moscow where a certain commercial vitality has emerged. Although many have benefited from economic liberalisation, it has come at a price. Some of the more tawdry aspects of western capitalism (from this writer's point of view), such as profiteering taxi drivers, in-your-face advertising, individualism and consumerism are less welcome developments in Russian urban life. In the countryside I suspect that less has changed, aside from the collapse of statist centralism, which is no bad thing. A certain bureaucratic spirit and deference to authority remains, but I speak as a westerner of course and less inclined to stand in long queues and keep my "trap shut." It will get me into trouble one day I'm sure!

However, there is another older and (in my view) more authentic Russia, indicative of her "soul" and this is Christian Russia, Orthodox Christian Russia, a good deal MORE radical than any human ideology and which guides her still. The Kingdom of God is alive and well in Russia and it was my great privilege and blessing to witness at first hand once more the wonderful renewal of the Church in this land, this "holy Russia." This indeed was why I made my return trip ... to worship Christ in the services and to venerate him in his living images, the People of God ... so warm and accepting, as our Lord Himself.

Moscow afforded the first opportunity to behold the flowering of the Russian Church in the light of freedom, never having died in the Soviet period but awaiting her time to bloom again. From Trinity - St. Sergius Monastery in the north to the Church of Christ the Saviour in Moscow (where I concelebrated the Liturgy on my last day) and indeed in the many churches and monasteries that are being restored both in the capital and across the country, one sees a great beacon of hope and strength for the Russian people in God. My stay in Sergei Possad (Holy Trinity Lavra) was astonishing in the contrast between 1995 and 2005. Today, most of the churches in the great monastery complex are repaired and functioning and thousands of pilgrims pass through all the time. Here there used to be the famous Andre Rublev icon of the Hospitality of Abraham / Holy Trinity which is now housed in the Tretyakov Gallery in the city. In respect of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, I should perhaps mention that Stalin raised it to the ground and built a swimming pool over its foundations. The Church today is an exact replica of the original. It's often said but true ... Stalin is dead. Christ is risen!

From Moscow I travelled overnight on a sleeper train to Nizhniy Novgorod (Gorky in Soviet times) which is the third largest city in Russia, nestling by the banks of the mighty Volga and home to the great St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, commemorating the great soldier saint who defended Russia against the Swedes and the Tartar horde. I stayed twice in the city, the first before going to Diveyevo in Julia's parents' flat and then at their dacha and then before returning to Moscow with Dimitri Kiryuhin and his mother graciously showing me round this historic city. Perhaps most memorable from my stay in Nizhniy Novgorod was my visit to the Cathedral where a magnificent spiritual labour of restoring the holy icons and iconostasis is under way. Dimitri, his family and the workers in the icon workshop made us most welcome and inspired us all. Here is their website (in Russian) with icon illustrations of their work.

From Nizhniy Novgorod I travelled by coach to Diveyevo, (history), the great convent cared for by St. Seraphim of Sarov. I arrived on 31st July in the afternoon prior to 1st August which is the feast of the uncovering of the saint's relics, (Julian Calendar). Diveyevo has grown enormously over the last 10 years ... it is now a little pilgrim town and the convent has over 500 nuns! Over the years there have been many saints in this monastic community. Signs of such growth are appearing again now.

The Vigil followed by the open air Liturgy on the feast day was one of the high spots of my visit to Russia, a wonderful spiritual experience. Thousands of believers were present of all ages and both genders, (I say this because the western stereotype of the Russian Church is babushkas in shawls. It would be a bit of an eye opener for a western Christian to see so many young men!) There were so many people present in the lavra square that soldiers had to maintain a cordon against the (orderly) crush. The worship was simply divine, a real presence of the Holy Spirit. The saint still walks the grounds. You can feel his presence .. but you can only appreciate that by being there. If you ever have an opportunity to visit Diveyevo, always accept without delay. You will never regret the decision; indeed it could change your life. Regrettably, I had to leave of course but more blessings awaited me in Nikolo Pogost after my second visit to Nizhniy Novgorod, transported there by Fr. Nikolai and briefly meeting his family before the onward journey by taxi and ferry.

The little rural church at Nikolo Pogost, dedicated to St. Nicholas, was closed by the communists in the 30's. 10 years ago I had the great privilege of witnessing the Church's restoration of this holy site and the coming together again of the local believers, served by Fr. Vladimir (Chegunov) with his wonderful family. My visit this time was a warm and blessed renewal of my own spiritual path and a reacquaintance with old friends ... and a much expanded family. I spent a happy two days in the countryside by the River Volga with the family, also visiting Gorodets and its wonderful folk and historical museums, before returning to Nizhniy Novgorod. After a final party with Julia's family in the flat, a time of enjoyment and a little sorrow at the time of our parting, I returned to Moscow for my final weekend.

In Moscow, Julia's sister Polina and brother-in-law Ilya looked after me again, showing me some of the sites and taking me to the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour for my final Sunday Liturgy in Russia. What a wonderful experience that was, concelebrating in the restored Church on the Sunday morning and an amazing yet brief tour of the Cathedral complex by a friendly guide, Sasha. It only remained me for to return to the airport for my journey home on Monday with Polina in her car. I looked back on Russia as my flight took off from the airport that day with a light heart and a grateful prayer. May it indeed be God's will for me one day to return to Holy Russia!

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