Pilgrimage to Mull & Iona (should we?)

The idea of an Orthodox pilgrimage to Mull, Iona and the neighbouring isles has been suggested to me in practically every parish I visited this past year. I have been initially (and still remain) rather afraid to try organising any pilgrimage before we have built our small monastic house, but I confess I’m thinking more and more about it. It all changed after I was on the pilgrimage led by the Orthodox Friends of Iona this August (I should take this opportunity to thank His Eminence Metropolitan Kallistos and Bruce Clark for inviting me to join them, and for their kindness and generosity towards me and our monastery).

Puffins, Isle of Lunga

Puffins, Isle of Lunga

There are so many beautiful places to see in the Hebrides, such powerful spiritual landscapes, such strong presence of the Saints, it would be a pity not to at least give the idea some serious thought. I’ve also been fortunate enough to see how the OFI organize their pilgrimages, and I’ve done my best to learn from their experience as much as possible. Perhaps it would be a good idea to start with a ‘trial’ pilgrimage next summer, for just a small group of people who are friendly and kind (that is, people who would not ask for my head if it all turns our badly).

Although, how could it turn our badly? The isles are so visibly blessed, the Saints are so overwhelmingly present, all we’d need to do is let ourselves melt in their grace. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be posting photos and notes I’ve taken during the OFI pilgrimage in August, as a taste of what awaits one in the isles; this week, I attach a few photos from the Isle of Lunga, the largest of the Treshnish Isles.

I’ll think about it very carefully; please let me know (at fatherseraphim@mullmonastery.com or in the comments section below) what you think of this idea and whether you would be interested to join me.

May it be God’s will.

Wild Flowers on Lunga

Wild Flowers on Lunga

View of the ocean, Lunga

View of the ocean, Lunga

Lunga, Treshnish Isles

Lunga, Treshnish Isles

Puffins on Lunga

(More) Puffins on Lunga

Back on the road

Not that it’s been any different this past year…

Dear friends, I’m back in the United States, after a very busy summer in the UK, and I thought I should bring all of you up to date with what we’ve achieved until now and what’s left to be done.

Slowly, the monastery is coming to life. We now have Kilninian, our beautiful 1755 church (dedicated to Sts Cuthbert and Ninian), and we also have the money to purchase five acres of land surrounding it. All the legal actions have been done, it’s now only a matter of time before we own the land, as well. This allows me to focus on the last main step of founding our monastery: building a small monastic house for our nuns. We’ll apply for the smallest and most humble building Health and Safety will approve!

Metropolitan Kallistos visiting the Monastery

Metropolitan Kallistos visiting the Monastery

I must thank you all for all you support. We couldn’t have raised this money without your efforts and the love that hides behind and motivates your efforts. Similarly, I myself couldn’t have survived this year without your prayers and encouragement. It’s been a tough year, but blessed beyond reason. For the first time in my life, I feel God has taken over everything; I lost all control, it’s all in His hands now, and I’ve never felt more at home than during these months of homelessness. I understand now that I am at home only in Christ; home has nothing to do with my nationality, with my family or certain walls in some part of the world. Home is Christ, and I’ve never felt that as deeply as I do now. To receive Christ’s Holy Body and Blood is to really be at home.

It’s true, there are some ‘luxuries’ I miss, such as, for instance, being ill. When you’re always a guest, one cannot afford the luxury of illness; when you are a guest in someone’s home, you are supposed to be uplifting and spiritually strong; nobody welcomes me in order to have me sweating in their sheets. I also miss being alone, although – strangely – I’ve never had such silence and loneliness in my heart as I do now, surrounded by hundreds of new people every week.

This year you’ve supported founding this monastery, and I thank you for that with all my heart. Without your knowledge, though, you’ve also supported my own personal history of salvation. You’ve contributed to founding a physical monastery, but also the flesh monastery of my own being. I must thank you for that, too.

Please remain close by. Please continue to support this monastery and the return of Orthodox Christianity in the Hebrides. Please continue to love.

Yours in Christ,

fr seraphim

1714 – 2014. Love and Hate: Not Much Has Changed

Sfintii Brancoveni

In 1714, just before Easter, Constantin Brancoveanu – the Christian ruler of the Romanian Kingdom for 26 years – was taken to Istanbul and imprisoned. His four sons were imprisoned with him. In a typical gesture, the Muslim rulers of the Ottoman Empire gave them the well-known choice: convert to Islam or die. Because they refused to deny Christ, on August 15th (the Dormition Feast), they were all decapitated – first the Christian king’s councillor was beheaded, then all his sons (Matthew, the youngest of them, was 11 years old). The King, his wife and daughters, were forced to witness the public executions. Western diplomats were present; the official representatives of France, England and Russia (among others) felt they could not refuse the Muslim ruler’s invitation. In the end, after the killing of all his sons, the King himself was publicly executed – it was his 60th birthday. Their heads were carried and displayed through Istanbul; their bodies were thrown in the Bosphorus. Today, they are all commemorated as Martyrs.

We are now in 2014, three centuries later; we see Muslim children carrying the heads of the people their fundamentalist parents have murdered. We hear these children calling for more executions. The only difference is that, this time, Western journalists are also killed.

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The West may be in shock, but Eastern Europe isn’t. For us, this is just the return of a very recent nightmare. Less than a century ago, the Ottoman Empire was still present here, in our countries. Think about that!

We all – West and East – have so much to learn from each other. The world needs to look at its past – its common past. The West needs to understand that what happens in other parts of the world will one day (very soon, it seems) happen at home, in its own back-yard.

When one visits the thousands of Orthodox monasteries in Greece, Bulgaria and Romania, one must learn how to see beyond their exterior beauty and exoticism. All these places are built on harrowing pain and horror, yet they remain living prayers for the peace and salvation of the whole world; for centuries, they’ve held on to a holy stubbornness to not let go of hope, to not let go of love, to not allow hate to win and take over our hearts.

If that happened, if we let go of love and embraced the hatred, we’d be denying Christ; we’d be losing the real battle, the battle these old and new Christian martyrs died for.

Iona Pilgrimage (August 2 – 9)

I want to thank Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) and the organisers of the pilgrimage to Iona for inviting me to join them this year. I’m not sure of the exact schedule of the pilgrimage, but I know it will include a visit to our monastery, as well. It will be a great chance for me to find out even more about St Columba’s life on Iona, and to learn how to organise such a pilgrimage. I find the best way to learn something is to see someone else doing it!

Anyway, I shall be away for over a week. I’m leaving in a few hours, and it will take three trains, two boats and a bus to get me to Iona! But that’s all right – I’ll have some wonderful photographs when I’m back, and (I’m sure) a lot of great stories to tell.

St Columba

In the meantime, please remember that August is the last month for us to raise the money we need to buy the monastery land in September. We are very close, but new expenses seem to just fly in (only yesterday I found out that the lawyers will cost us 3,000 pounds plus VAT and outlays).

If you can, this is a very good moment to support the Monastery.

To make a donation, please use the following links:

UK Donations

US Donations

The rest of the world

May God bless all of us. I shall take you all with me to Iona – in my heart and in my prayer.

Monastery of All Celtic Saints

Much thought was put into deciding the Feast-Day of the Monastery. The Church was originally dedicated to St Ninian; as you know, we’ve decided to also add St Cuthbert, as a sign of unity between Christians in the British Isles.

All Saints of the British IslesSome time ago, I met with our Metropolitan Joseph, and I finally made the suggestion (which His Eminence gladly accepted) that the Monastery should be placed under the protection of the local saints, the Celtic saints who lived and found their salvation in these places. This is a recognition of the extraordinary Christian heritage of the Hebrides. We also want to honour the local traditions and local people, by placing our Monastery under the protection of the saints we have in common.

The Feast of All Celtic Saints will be celebrated on the Second Sunday after the Pentecost, the Sunday dedicated to the local saints of each Orthodox Church. Please pray that these forgotten giants of Christianity will bless our Monastery now and long after we are gone. And may this be a sign of their enduring love and prayer for the world.

New martyrs. New mob.

Christians in Mosul

I’ve learnt something important from the horrors of the last few weeks. As I pray for the Christians in Mosul, it becomes clear to me that I need their prayers more than they need mine. I do my best to pray for them, and my heart is filled with a sort of wonder at the strength of their faith. Their faith overwhelms me, their sacrifice and love for Christ is beyond anything I have ever done, and there is something in me that says ‘be silent, look and learn’.

My prayer for them has now changed. I just look at these people, and I thank God for the humbling gift of allowing me to witness these new martyrs walking on their way to salvation before my very eyes. I think about the martyrs of the early centuries, how they were dragged to be tortured and killed before the eyes of the mob around them. These people are the new martyrs – we are the new mob. These people are the ones on whose heads Christ places crowns of martyrdom, we are the ones witnessing it.

I know things are always complicated in this world; I am aware there are endless nuances to these problems, and that perhaps very few of these people had lived a saintly life prior to this persecution. But that is their past – their present is Christ. These tired, dirty, hungry people have left everything for Him; I think of that and I’m ashamed to be praying for them.

We are just people in the crowd, watching their martyrdom. We are witnessing the birth of holiness; we are part of a miracle.

PS: Please forgive me for disappearing for a week; with everything happening in the world, with so much much violence and horror, nothing else seems worthy of much attention. Life just freezes somehow.

Inner Farne: St Cuthbert’s hermitage

Despite the December look, this is actually July: the great British summer we know and love…

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The most striking thing about visiting the Farne Islands is how unaware people seem of the Christian history of the area. I simply cannot understand this; regardless of one’s own personal faith, we should be able to recognize and appreciate the extraordinary value of this heritage. I never could understand what hides behind this hurried willingness to erase one’s own past, and to get rid of one’s own history.

And yet, in some ways, this is a useful (though painful) lesson about how culture cannot preserve faith. The Orthodox have always had a strange relationship with culture; especially over the last few centuries, we’ve had a strong tendency to make an idol out of our ethnicity and our national culture at the expense of the living, true faith. I cannot recall how many times I’ve been told that nationality and culture preserve our faith. Well, a pilgrimage to the Farne Isles should cure anybody of this disease.

When you face these lonely and deserted isles, when find yourself surrounded by these huge, dark cliffs, when the harsh, unwelcome character of these seas hits you, you realise what sort of strength and faith St Cuthbert must have had. We all idealise the lives of the early Celtic saints; it’s unavoidable. We imagine these romantic characters, washed in light and supported by grace; pain, fear and disease never seem very real in relation to them. It’s almost as if they’re faking it, we image they go through these temptations untouched by weakness, unaffected by suffering.

And then, you come here. And all you see are bare rocks coming out of the sea; not one tree, not one place of shelter; no detail to catch one’s eyes. There’s nothing frail, nothing delicate about these small isles. To live here must have been hell. Pure hell. The only thing I could think of was Christ descending into Hell; my thoughts could not let go of this image. These saints came here to confront hell, and to wait for their Saviour.

And THIS sort of faith, THIS sort of life is lost to most of the people you meet. Culture could not even preserve something as monumental as St Cuthbert’s heritage. Because, in reality, faith is not something which can be preserved. Faith is a living being, it has to breathe, it has to find a human heart in order to remain alive. Once we lock it up in a museum of any kind, it dies away.

At the end of this pilgrimage, I remain even more convinced that faith is God’s gift to a living human being. It has nothing to do with nationalism, nothing to do with culture, nothing to do with any of these created ‘selves’ of our society. Faith is always personal, and always alive: here and now, in this human heart.

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Father Sophrony from Essex: two gifts from a saint

On Friday I went to the Monastery of St John the Baptist in Essex for Fr Sophrony Sakharov’s memorial service. What a beautiful place the monastery is! This is the first time I’ve returned to Essex in over two years, and I’d almost forgotten how gentle and loving everybody is. Beyond the buildings of the monastery, beyond the thousands of pilgrims who find their peace there every year, this welcoming love on every monastic’s face is perhaps Fr Sophrony’s most personal heritage.

It was a deeply moving service for me, because there, in his Crypt, is where it all started, where our monastery was born. Four years ago, in 2010, I was in the same Crypt, asking Fr Sophrony to help me understand what is God’s will for my life. Less than five minutes after coming out of the Crypt, I received a phone call from the parish priest in Glasgow, telling me about Kilninian – and this is how it all began, with Fr Sophrony’s first gift to me.

The second gift came a few weeks ago, when I celebrated in Oxford (one of the most beautiful Orthodox churches I have seen in the UK, with some amazing icons). While there, I found out from Fr Stephen that Fr Sophrony’s initial plan when he came to the UK had been to found his monastery on one of the Scottish isles. He eventually had to give up that idea and came closer to London, most probably because he felt there was a greater need to minister to the Orthodox people living in the capital.

And here I am, with his terrifyingly beautiful thought in my heart, that Fr Sophrony has given us what he himself could not have. It is such a beautiful gift, such a personal gesture of love, the sort only a saint can offer.

A post about nothing

This is just to get me started again – for over a month now, I imagine this beautiful post, which would do a lot of things at the same time:

1. it would tell you how difficult these silent weeks have been, and how terribly swamped I’ve been in all sorts of things concerning the monastery;

2. it would have this wonderful power to magically express all the love and gratitude I feel for your generous support of the monastery;

3. it would also be able to summarise (in a highly efficient manner, of course) all the main things that have happened since I left the US at the end of May.

And so on, and so forth.

Thank God, it has become painfully clear to me that I shall never write such a post. Instead, I should just write anything, to let you know that I’m still alive (yes, I’ve survived the Vikings, the sharks around the islands and my very bad back) and that we’re getting very close to having raised all the money we need to buy the land this September.

I cannot promise anything (because I have hardly any control over my life anymore), but I shall do my very best to write as often as I can, no matter how brief these posts may get. You deserve to know what’s going on, because you are a part of this monastery as much as I am. Thank you to all who’ve kept me in your prayers; I need your support more that I can say.

 

St Nicholas and his enduring love

Today we celebrate the summer feast of St Nicholas. This is a special day for me: ten years ago, as I was preparing to leave my old life behind and join a monastery, I went in Bari for four days, to pray to St Nicholas. Every day, I was in front of the Cathedral before it opened, and I prayed until closing time in the small Chapel where the Saint’s relics are kept. I remember eating a lot of strawberries those days – they were cheap, delicious and easy to sneak into the church. I also remember the cool air and semi-darkness of the underground Chapel; when I got outside, in the afternoon, the whole world looked different: it was hot, and violently light.

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I received my blessing to become a monastic there, and I also received a blessing to make a pilgrimage St Seraphim’s monastery in Diveievo, Russia. This was to be my last pilgrimage before I entered the monastery in Bucovine. St Nicholas has helped me like no-one else: he is the protector of my father confessor’s church, he is the protector of my first monastery, and he is also the protector of the small Orthodox mission we founded in Newcastle during my PhD years at Durham University.

St Nicholas has taught me to ignore mistakes (my own and others’), to forgive (myself and others) and to continue to love. He has shown me so many times that all it takes is a heart-felt cry for help and forgiveness, and God’s Kingdom is ready to come into one’s heart. Above all, St Nicholas has taught me that I should love people for the Christ within them, not for who they are (or are not) now, in this life; not for what they do (or do not) now, on this Earth. He has always ignored the earth in me, and the horrible mistakes of this earthly man, and he has continued to love me for the Christ-like man I shall be (by God’d enduring Grace and never-changing love) after Christ’s Judgement.

There is something God-like in St Nicholas, which is mostly visible in the way he loves: his love knows no limit, no condition, no change. May God grant all of us the blessing of  being loved, and being able to love like this.

On this Feast-day, I should tell you that we’ve reached 60% of the money we need for the land. With God’s help and your support, we have a real chance to raise the money we need to buy our land: please consider making a donation, and please tell everyone you know of our monastery. You never know what God tells people in their hearts.