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.

At the end of a tough week

These last few weeks have been so beautiful; I’ve had my ups (which I have shared with you) and my downs (which I shall share with you in time), but – overall – it’s been a wonderful period. I finally had some rest, and I am thankful for every day I spend at Protection Monastery. In some ways, watching Mother Cassiana managing this monastery and doing all the church services is great preparation for me for the years to come.

About a week ago I’ve had the revelation (one of the downs I mentioned) that this monastery will not be founded in a year; it will take much longer, and I shall have to work much harder than I initially thought. Most probably, I have a few good years of fundraising before me, years of travels and worries, far away from the silence and solitude I was looking for when I answered to God’s calling to found this monastery.

On the other hand, all this travel, and the hundreds of wonderful-wonderful people I’ve met are slowly changing me, too. I’ve understood that, if I am to survive this calling, I must begin to see and treat every day as a ‘valid’ day for my salvation, as one of those days that ‘count’, rather than part of a strange void prior to my real monastic life. I must stop postponing the history of my salvation: this is it, here and now, surrounded by all of you. Each day is part of my story in Christ, each day contributes (one way or another) to my salvation – it really makes no difference if I’m in an airport or in a monastery, if I’m fundraising in a parish of hundreds of people or I’m by myself in the woods near Protection Monastery.

God is always with me, and whatever happens to me, whoever I meet, whatever I must do that day – I must relate to all these aspects of my life as valid means for my salvation. I must trust that God knows better than I do what I need to do, who I need to meet and so on. From time to time, I manage to do this, and suddenly everything and everyone has a meaning, there is a point to me being present in each particular situation. To postpone praying, to postpone loving – that is not waiting for a better future, it is wasting a wonderful present.

If God decided that I should meet you, then this meeting must be important, this meeting must somehow contribute to my own salvation – you, each one of the people I meet each Sunday, you are the means God uses to save me: here and now. If I fail you, I’ve failed myself; if I manage to get through to you and feel love for you, then I’ve fulfilled my monastic calling – there’s nothing else to wait for, no ‘other place and other time’. Once I get this in my heart, once I settle myself in this way of relating to you and the world, everything is fine; there’s peace and there’s hope in everything and everywhere.

I’ve started this mad fundraising adventure worrying that I wouldn’t know how to do it. As I’m approaching the end of these four months (which seem to be merely the first of many), I’m beginning to understand that fundraising (at least for this monastery and this monk) has very little to do with convincing you to donate money: my duty is to learn to love you. The more I love you, the more I pray for you and ask God to give me the heart to love you, the easier everything becomes. It’s almost as if God is saying to me: you worry about training your heart to love the people I bring before you, and I Myself shall worry about building the monastery.

Thank you all for everything you’ve given to this monastery and to me, personally. What started as a sprint, seems to have become a marathon – we’ll probably be together (here, via email, or face to face) for many years; please continue to support this monastery, and please do it with love, so that our monastery may last and it may be a place of prayer for the whole world long after we are gone.

St Laurence Monastery

Well, there’s a first time for everything – last week, I visited St Laurence Monastery, a Western Rite Orthodox Monastery about two hours away from Protection Monastery. The drive was absolutely stunning! The Rockies are so shamelessly beautiful, especially at sun-set: typical teenagers (which is precisely what they are, compared to Scotland’s Hebridean Heights, some of the world’s oldest mountains), boasting with pride and beauty. I’ve seen herds of elk, hundreds and hundreds of deer, even wild turkeys (I confess I didn’t spend much time near them, as Mother Cassiana told me that mountain lions follow the turkey; I don’t know if that’s true, but I’d rather not find out!).

 

The Monastery itself is in a wonderful location, right in the centre of a small canyon and surrounded by mountains. They have a splendid wooden cabin (I absolutely loved it), and a large (newer) building for the church and additional accommodation. The fathers were very hospitable, we had a good dinner and a nice walk along the creek. Before we left, we went in the church for Vespers and a tour of the building.

 

Vespers felt very familiar to me, despite being celebrated according to the Western rite. It reminded me of the beautiful four months I spent last year at the Community of the Resurrection in Mirfield, England, while serving as the parish priest for the Romanian Orthodox Church in Leeds.

 

I attach some photos, although they really don’t do justice to the wild beauty of the place.

 

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