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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Painting Exhibition about the Monastery

Cockenzie House and Gardens are hosting an Exhibition of paintings and drawings, which includes a section on the Monastery of Saints Ninian and Cuthbert. The Exhibition will be open until Sunday, 25th of May. The overall title of the Exhibition is ‘Inspired by Nature’, and the section dedicated to the monastery is titled ‘From East to West, and West to East’.
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The works in the Monastery section are signed by Sister Marina, and 50% of sales will go to the monastery. The only exception is the painting of Kilninian Church – 100% of the price for that painting will go to the monastery, and the price is to be negotiated. I pray that the buyer will negotiate in the sense of offering more, rather than less :)
The Exhibition ‘From East to west, and West to East’
‘Bless the Lord, all works of the Lord, sing praise to Him and highly exalt Him for ever’
(Prayer of Azariah 1:35,36)

The artist, Marina Carrier after some time in Edinburgh, and Kintyre, spent nearly 2 years on the Isle of Mull, most of the time focussed on daily life at Kilninian Church.  This was in 2011/12, at the beginning phase of Kilninian Church becoming the church of a new monastery. Catholic monks, had donated the church to the Orthodox Church via the artist.  During this time she was living either in a caravan at Killiechronan, or over-wintering with generous friends at Kilbrennan farmhouse.

Mull is inordinately beautiful, and at the same time challenging to live with – see the painting of Kilninian Church with the autumn trees in June due to the devastating wind in May (2011).  Other trees were stripped of all leaves and twigs, and when the warm weather of July invited growth, the leaves were coming out of the trunks.  A visitor to the church from Australia said the same thing happened after bush fires when the trees had appeared to be dead.

The winter was exceedingly wet, and wellington’s were everyday, all day, footwear.  It certainly gave a new perspective on ‘wet-weather’ gear!  Vanity disappeared completely under at least 3 or 4 layers of clothing, in order to keep warm!

But all of the above was made nothing by the wonder of both the beauty of the landscape and flowers, and the spiritual history of the place.  Iona in particular has been called a ‘thin’ place, and Kilninian’s Christian history certainly goes back a 1000 years, and probably to St Columba’s times.

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Although the artist is now off the island, the plans for the monastery are evolving. Funds are being raised for the purchase of the land behind the church to build the monastery living quarters, the Building Regulations costs, and the foundational work of establishing a water supply and septic tank.  50% of all proceeds of the exhibition will be going to the monastery funds.  100% of the purchase price of the painting of Kilninian Church will go to the monastery.

For those of you who are interested, here is more information:
Dates:        Sat 13th April  to Sunday 25th of May
At:              Cockenzie House and Gardens (Reg charity)
Address:   22 Edinburgh Road,
                    Cockenzie.  EH 32 0HY
                    E Lothian
Tel:             01875 819456
Opening Times:   11- 4pm daily.
Chairwoman : Marietta Diciaca
Events co-ordinator: Pauline Brown. Mob. 07599355614

The toilet

A few days ago, a good friend sent me this link to a brief article by Terry Mattingly (to whom I am very grateful) about our Monastery:

http://easternchristianinsights.blogspot.ro/2014/04/building-orthodox-monastery-on-isle-of.html

I read it, and I was amazed (again!) by the madness of the whole situation – the author is perfectly right, it’s all down to building a toilet. If we are to return Orthodox monasticism to these ancient Christian isles, all we need to do is build a toilet, so it is legal for us to live on the premises. The problem (of course there is a problem!) is that in order to build that toilet we need to buy some land first, and that land costs 65,000 pounds (approximately 100,000 dollars). This makes our toilet one of the most expensive toilets in the entire world history! Just our luck!…

Right now, we own Kilninian (the church itself), but no land at all – not even a square metre. It feels as if God has kept His part of the ‘deal’ (offering us the church), and it is now up to us to provide for the land. Thanks to the generosity of many of you, we have raised half of the money we need to buy the land; if you can, please help us raise the other half:

http://mullmonastery.com/donate/

Christ is risen!

I finally have some internet access! Mother Cassiana has ‘descended’ from the mountains into Colorado Springs to do some shopping, so I can use the internet for a few hours in a cafe (quite a beautiful place, Agia Sophia Cafe, full of icons and great books).
Holy Week and Easter have been wonderful – this is the first time in my (almost) nine years as a priest, when I celebrated alone (that is, as the only priest) all the services in Holy Week, from Monday to Easter Night. In my monastery in Bucovine, this honour was reserved to the elderly Fathers, while we (the young & the restless) had to deal with pilgrims, tourists, and do all the preparations for the Big Night – to be honest, it would have been too much for us to do all this work, celebrate at the Altar AND keep the particularly strict fast of the Holy Week.
Holy Week was especially beautiful: just myself, Mother Cassiana (who has lived here for over 18 years now) and a visitor. Each day was a succession of services, meals (or lack of meals in the fasting days!), and long, wonderful walks in the mountains. I attach some photos – we had so much snow, I found myself singing Christmas carols! I felt as if, after all these mad weeks of running from parish to parish, fundraising for the monastery, God has given me this gift as a wonderful sign of His love and encouragement. You know, the way you give a candy to a child after he’s done something (relatively) good.
Well, this break into Heaven will end this week’end, when I return to visiting some of the parishes in area, to fundraise for the land we need to buy for the monastery. Thanks to some of you (you know who you are, and God definitely knows as well!), we’ve managed to raise slightly over half the money we need to have by September. I pray for you with all my strength; may God reward you both here, and (especially so) in His Kingdom.
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Before Pascha

In a few minutes, I shall leave New York and return to Mother Cassiana’s monastery in Lake George, Colorado. Glory be to God, I am SO happy to be in a monastery during Holy Week and Pascha!

Until the end of May I’ll stay in the area (Denver – Colorado), visiting some of the parishes there, and fundraising for the monastery. I shan’t have access to the internet, so it will be more difficult to post updates on the website and on the Monastery Facebook account. However, I hope to be able to keep in touch at least once a week.

In the meantime, I want to thank everyone who has supported the monastery so far. We still haven’t got to that miraculous 50%, but we are wonderfully close to getting there! If you want to help, especially now, before Pascha, please see the links above: http://mullmonastery.com/donate/

Have a blessed Holy Week, and a real, bright Resurrection! You are all in my prayers, unworthy as they are. Please pray for me, too.