Day 40, rain, scones & St Maximus
[Friday, 24 June] Following directly on my last post from yesterday afternoon, I didn’t stop by the parish church to see if it was old on the inside, because a storm was building up on the outside and rain was imminent. I decided to skip fish ‘n’ chips once I found out that the jam factory had a restaurant that wasn’t simply a tea house. So, I headed to Watkin & Sons but didn’t make it before a fierce wind and driving rain started. I arrived there to discover a rather proper English restaurant, patronized mostly by rather proper elderly folk, and although I was cold, wet, wind-blown, tired and hungry, and looked anything but rather proper, they took me in anyway and gave me a table.
I discovered that whole baked potatoes are called “jacketed” potatoes in England, and the English do not fill them sour cream and chives as we do, but with baked beans and rashers of bacon, among other things. They eat mackerel both hot and cold (I don’t eat it either way). Instead, I had a toasted (“grilled”) cheese sandwich with tomatoes and onions (very good, and cut corner to corner, and without crust; children everywhere would approve), a side of cole slaw (too much mayo), and finished it off with the house specialty: tea/coffee with a couple of scones, clotted cream, and my choice of jam (black currant!). Being cold, wet, etc., I opted for the very comfy cup coffee and skipped the tea.
I’m not sure how they come by “clotted cream,” but it seems to be plain old fresh cream, somehow rendered a little stiff, kind of like cream cheese at room temperature. In order to avoid scandalizing the local clientele with my barbarous ignorance, I asked the waitress how one properly went about eating one’s scone with clotted cream and jam. Upon instruction, I did a very neat job of it. There was one small miscommunication during the meal: I asked the waitress if she would warm up my coffee, and, God bless her, that’s exactly what she did: she took the dregs away, warmed them up in the microwave, and brought them back to me. I expressed myself in more direct English and got a full, fresh cup. All in all it was a fine meal, but a bit pricey at 12 pounds (roughly $23).
The front and the rain had passed through by the time lunch was over, so I finished the walk back to the monastery no longer wet, wind-blown, tired or hungry, but definitely cold.
Because Friday the 24th was the Nativity of John the Baptist, there was Vigil that evening. I was asked to read the three Old Testament prophecies. Vigil lasted only 3 hours. At dinner, I told Fr Melchizedek that I knew who he was, and we took a walk after dinner and talked about life, vocations (priestly and monastic), various Patristic scholars we had read, and much about current scholarship on St Maximus the Confessor.
I also learned from him something about “public footpaths,” because we took one on our walk. I had seen several small signs for public footpaths (“foot” nearly rhymes with “boot” and “path” must be pronounced “paah-th”) while walking into Tiptree to the library, and they seemed to be simply unmaintained dirt paths either along the edge of somebody’s wheat field or between a pair of houses, leading Lord only knows where, because the signs certainly don’t say. It seems public footpaths are an ancient, venerable and well-protected institution. It is probably easier to change the English Constitution than it is to move a public footpath. Many of them are there by long-established custom going back centuries. They seem to be maintained exclusively by foot traffic trampling down the grass, and from the poor condition of a couple of them I saw, I’d have to know exactly where it went before I wandered very far onto one and got lost or shot for trespassing.
This morning we had Liturgy for the Nativity of John the Baptist. Several of the Priests of the monastery, as well as myself and a visiting Romanian hieromonk, were invited to concelebrate with Fr Kyrill the Abbot and Fr Zacharias. Altogether there were 6 Priests and 2 Deacons. A lot of visitors, too, for the feast. At lunch afterwards, Fr Kyrill said that Elder Sophrony always considered this feast to be one of the major days for the monastery—the monastery being dedicated to St John the Baptist—because it was the first feast of St John that they celebrated when they moved to this property in 1959.
Being a feast day, we were allowed fish, wine and oil at lunch. There was chocolate cake, too.
By the way, I don’t think I’ve mentioned that the community here eats very well, even during fasting seasons. Breakfast is informal, after morning prayers or Liturgy, and is a typical continental breakfast with a variety of breads, margarine, jam, and coffee or tea. Afternoon tea is also informal, and offers pretty much the same fare as breakfast. Oh, yeah, I need to mention that the English eat something at breakfast called “Marmite,” which the Australians call “Vegemite,” a noxious, abominable concoction made from cast off yeast from the brewery. There seems to be no middle ground on Marmite; you either love it or hate it, and you can probably tell how much I smeared on my bread…
Lunch and dinner are more formal affairs, take place in the large refectory, and are eaten in silence, accompanied by spiritual reading. At these meals we’ve had mashed and curried potatoes; peas, creamed and plain; steamed carrots and broccoli; stewed celery, eggplant, and zucchini; various pastas with and without sauce; rice dishes; fresh salad from the garden; various kinds of beans; baskets full of bread; and bowls of fresh fruit. Like the food in every monastery I’ve ever been in, the quality is excellent—probably because it’s all made with Psalms.
There’s also that peculiar European herbal tea that is served this time of year (I remember having it at Holy Dormition Monastery in Rives Junction, too). Americans don’t seem to know anything about it, but it’s made from the leaves and flowers of the linden tree, which is blooming now. It’s very light and pleasant—many of the monks drink it with sugar—and, being caffeine free, they serve it in the evening.
I’m finishing this post on Friday evening and will quit now because it’s late, and I want to go to bed. Saturday Liturgy starts at 7 am. Fr Kyrillos, the elderly Priest from Istanbul has left; I’m sorry I didn’t get to hear any more stories about Elder Porphyrios from him. A Bulgarian Archimandrite showed up for dinner, but he speaks no English, I speak no Bulgarian, and we haven’t yet worked out what third language we may have in common.
[Saturday morning, 25 June] It rained last night and somehow it’s even colder this morning than I thought possible for a summer day. We had Liturgy, and at breakfast afterwards, I worked out that, no, the Bulgarian Archimandrite and I do not share a third language in common, so instead I talked with an older couple who had come in by car, and they very kindly gave me a lift to the library into Tiptree so I can post this. I’ll have to walk back, but I have an umbrella this time, not that it’ll do much good in the wind, but at least I am as prepared this time as I can be.
I’ll not have internet access again until Tuesday evening, when I leave the monastery and stay the night in hotel in London. On Wednesday morning I have a very early flight to Thessaloniki, on my way to Mt Athos. Y’all be well, rest assured of my prayers, and please pray for me. I’m a little apprehensive about the Greek leg of this trip, since language will be much more of an issue and could result it more serious misunderstandings than getting a cup of microwaved coffee dregs.