Monday, 21 May 2012

A selected diary of a sabbatical 1

I found leaving the parish and coming away on retreat to the Orthodox monastery of St John the Baptist at Tolleshunt Knights much easier than I had expected. That was partly because I threw myself into the reading of St Maximus the Confessor. I am trying to work out what he writes about love. This first week I have read (a lot), cycled (quite a bit) and spent more than several hours in church.

The community here pray the Jesus Prayer ('Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner') most mornings between 6-8am and evenings 5:30-7:30pm, apart from those days when they celebrate the liturgy. By the Friday morning I was beginning to struggle with the prayers, so I knew things were beginning to work! I was also beginning to struggle generally. This would have been the time when I was preparing to go home if, as usual, I had been staying here for only a few days. So it was lovely to see Alison who came up on Saturday: it reminded me of parental visits and days out when I was at prep school!

Sunday was very Greek. The community here is multi-national (one of the sisters said that there are 17 different nationalities represented), and the services are mainly in English, Greek, Russian, French and Romanian. But on Sundays it seems that the entire Greek population turns up at the monastery for the divine liturgy, lunch, vespers and tea. So most of the services were in Greek. It was lovely seeing the hospitality of the monastery - a family (there are both men and women in the community) with many guests: monks playing football with the children; a 7 year old being given a birthday cake at an open teatime.

On Sunday I also attended communion at St Luke's in Tiptree. I was probably there more in body than in mind! I was welcomed at the door and it seemed a lovely community, although the extended sharing of the peace was rather embarrassing to a visitor (I just sat down after a while), and I did notice in the peace the divide between the choir, servers and clergy in the chancel and the congregation. It made me think a bit about our own situation. The vicar was about to take on several other additional churches, and I noted that she was putting on a 5 session course on helping out in services: including - reading, leading intercessions, what to do when there is no preacher (brilliant!), serving, welcoming. I think it is a great idea! I did spend some time praying beyond the Jesus prayer on Sunday evening: there was a precious sense of His presence: a peace, joy and sense of love, which I so easily lose or forget. I've also found that during the church services I have been able to pray for people as well - not systematically, but as and when they have been brought to mind.

Perhaps one of the challenges of being out of role, and out of job, is that I need to face again the question of who I am. At first, when some visitors from a bible college came to the monastery for 3 days, I wanted to talk with them and teach them what I had learnt from Orthodoxy. But that is not what God has called me to do here and now. And yet there was a god-given opportunity to share what I had learnt from the Orthodox tradition, and I mainly spoke about how the Jesus prayer had come to be at the very centre of my spiritual practice. One of the visitors spoke of her struggles with the prayer ('Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner'). I suspect she struggled with the words 'a sinner'. I couldn't answer. Later, thinking through the Lord's prayer, 'forgive us our sins', I realised that it is not much of a big deal. If I pray the Lord's prayer I acknowledge that I sin - and therefore I am a sinner! The joy of acknowledging myself as a sinner before God is that I have nothing to hide, and yet he still loves me.

I've become very aware of how often I don't say what I really think, either because I don't think clearly at the time, or because emotions ('passions' is the word that Maximus uses) get in the way. It is one of the things that I would love the Lord to change in me. Like many I suspect, I would love to be clear and eloquent, and have the ability to say the right thing at the right time! 'Dear Lord, give us, we pray, the gift of your clarity, not that people will honour or respect us, but that they might meet with and honour you. And if meeting with you means that we must be silent or stutter incomprehensibilities, then so be it. We ask that glory will come to your name through us as you have made us'].

 One of the women from the bible college also spoke of how she struggled with the fact that only the priest went into the sanctuary in the Orthodox church. Again, I needed time to think this through. There are always going to be places or experiences that are off limit to us, at least for the time being. I guess one of those is death. The sanctuary represents heaven, and the iconostasis (that board which holds the icons of the faithful departed and saints) serves as the division between the chancel, where the people are, and the sanctuary. It is the meeting place of God and people. The people receive communion standing in front of the iconostasis, by the 'royal doors' (the doors through which the priest comes and goes into the sanctuary in the liturgy, representing Christ coming from God to us, and going to God from us). Sometimes in the service the doors are closed, to symbolise the separation between the sanctuary/ God/ Paradise and us. Sometimes they are open, to symbolise that Jesus has become the door, the way to God. But the iconostasis can also be seen as a symbol of death. The icons that it holds are windows into the eternal world (in the sanctuary). In a very real sense, as a believer, I am already seated with Christ in the heavenly realm, but in my experience, when I die, it will be like going through those royal doors into the sanctuary, with Christ. I will enter a place that I have never been before, but which I have glimpsed and which I know is glorious.

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