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Day 39, things and prayer

After dinner last night, I sat a moment in the refectory with Fr Zacharias. I commented on the Scripture verse on the handle of his cane, “Thy right hand upholdeth me,” that Orthodox Christians often think to make such connections between Scripture and common things.

Fr Zacharias said that we can make that kind of connection all the time. Fr Sophrony did so with many things. As he closed the door to the refectory behind us, he moved it back and forth and said, we can say, “Open to me the doors of repentance…”; when we wash our hands, we can say, “I will wash my hands in innocence…”. Everything can be accompanied by a prayer.

The prayers that accompany the gestures of the Liturgy are not inherent to the rite, but they were added later, so that no gesture is unaccompanied by a prayer.

He told me that when he used to serve as acolyte to Fr Sophrony, when they served Liturgy in the old chapel, the altar table was very small, and after the Gospel reading there wasn’t room on the Holy Table to put the Gospel book on it and unfold the antimens, so Fr Sophrony always handed him the Gospel to put on a table in the corner. And Fr Zacharias found that every time Fr Sophrony handed him the Gospel and he would lay it aside, he would say the verse from the long Psalm, “Your word burns exceedingly, and your servant loved it” [Ps 118.140 LXX]. That’s the way the prayers of the Liturgy develop.

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Day 38, Fr Zacharias

[Wednesday, 22 June] Last night the Jesus Prayer was recited in English, Romanian, Arabic and Greek. Unfortunately, I didn’t read the schedule right and missed the prayers this morning. But I may redeem myself: I have been invited to recite a prayer rope this evening. Whether or not the community can maintain its devotion while I recite in Texan remains to be seen.

The weather is very cool here. The wind blows constantly, and on a clear day, you can see the bay (or maybe it’s the Channel). Also, the Apostles’ Fast started last Monday, so there is very little fat in the diet, and I’ve gotten cold, like I always do during fasts. For the second night in a row I woke up shivering and had to rearrange the blankets, except last night, it didn’t help much, English beds remaining steadfastly cold and clammy. I had planned for a warm climate, not a cool one, and I don’t have enough clothes to keep me warm. I may have to borrow something. I’m really looking forward to a hot cup of anything this afternoon at tea.

This morning I was confronted by a stout nun who had a sack full of jelly donuts, one of which she forced upon me as a “consolation”. I didn’t want the “consolation,” but wasn’t able to refuse. Thankfully, the Scottish monk came by just then, and I was able to foist half of it onto him. He is young and thin and was going to work in the garden and could use the calories; I, of course, am none of those things.

Yesterday afternoon, at the end of lunch, Fr Zacharias invited me to come and see him. We went to his office and exchanged pleasantries until a sister brought us refreshment (coffee for me, tea for Fr Z, cookies and dark chocolate for the both of us). Then, when we were alone and uninterrupted, he answered all of the questions that I asked, and several more I didn’t ask but had been thinking about. The questions I figured would have been the hardest, he answered immediately, without thinking about them at all. He allowed me to use my digital voice recorder during our talk, so I have the whole thing, in order to transcribe it. Here is one exchange:

Me: How do I keep myself strong and guard my own heart when people come [to me] with things that are so heavy [to bear]?

Fr Z: Just what the Lord did in His day, in the days of His flesh, in His sojourn with us: “with a strong cry”. You remember in the Epistle today—Hebrews—that He offered to God petitions “with a strong cry.” And He was heard because of His reverence. Yes, I don’t think there is a rule. When you are made a Priest and a Spiritual Father, don’t think there are any more recipes for you. You just have to scream to God daily for help. It’s like being thrown in an ocean, and you have to swim, and come to the shore. There are no recipes, but surely, one thing is sure, we have to scream, constantly, for help, for God to do the impossible. Many times we scream to God to do the impossible, because it’s proper to Him. He is the one who said that what is impossible to man is possible to Him, and all this time we struggle for things which are impossible for us.

That’s the way it was, and we talked for over an hour. This was real consolation, not the jelly donut kind, and I left him with my heart settled about a lot of things.

After my talk with Fr Zachariah, I discovered medieval England still persists in pockets of Essex: the only public internet access of any kind is two villages away, beyond Tolleshunt Kinghts, at the public library in Tiptree, a two-mile walk up the lane. The library is only open on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, and that being Tuesday, I packed up my netbook and off I went. The locals, I think, found my drawl quaint as I asked for directions, because everybody tried not to smile too obviously.

I did pass one famous place along the way: Watkin & Sons, the makers of jams, jellies and marmalades, which I know I’ve bought in the States, has its factory here, and the air smelled sweetly of strawberries as I walked by it. Their 150th anniversary was just a couple of weeks ago and the Queen herself came by for tea and scones graced, no doubt, by Watkin & Sons finest preserves.

In order to gain internet access at the library, I had to get a library card. That turned out to be kind of fun. When the librarian asked what my address was, I mentioned the monastery and a great many questions about Texans-at-large-in-Tiptree were answered. Thus I was able to gain internet access and make my last blog posts. I told the librarians, when I left, that this was the first time anyone in my family had had an English identity in well over 200 years, and that I felt very proud to have gained a library card and become one of the locals.

After evening prayers and dinner, Sister M., an elderly English nun, caught my eye and we had a chance to talk a bit. She had been in the community for quite a while and knew Elder Sophrony in his last years. I asked her to tell me something about him, for the good of my soul, and she said it was just his presence that she remembered most, that he was so very humble with everybody, and gave anyone his undivided attention (of course, he could see right through you, she added). But it was such a joy just to be in his presence; that was enough to do you good. I asked her where he was buried, and she told me how to find the crypt.

So, I crossed the road back to the side where the church was, found the lamppost in the center (which I hadn’t noticed before because it’s completely covered in vines and looks to be part of the hedge), and turned right. At this point, I felt a sense of adventure, since turning at the lamppost reminded me of Narnia. I passed the mosaic Icon of St Nicholas, turned left down the next path, found the small chapel, then the door next to it, which was standing open and had a stairway going down. At the bottom was the crypt. It was chilly, dark, and damp, as is proper for crypts, and there was a nun there tending some business, who kindly turned on the lights for me. Elder Sophrony’s crypt is the one in the middle, and it has a lit lampada on it, and a mosaic crucifix on the wall behind. The nun finished her business and I was left alone. I was not surprised that, upon kneeling at the foot of his crypt, I burst into tears. I can’t tell you why. I spoke to Elder Sophrony about several things, and what consolation I had gotten from Fr Zacharias seemed to be confirmed, or strengthened, or something I can’t quite put into words. But like Sister Marina said, being in his presence was enough to do me good, and I am grateful for that. God is glorified in His Saints.

Day 37

[Tuesday, 21 June] It’s very peculiar that I woke up at my usual time, 5:30 am, right before the alarm went off, and me being 5 time zones away from home. So God provides. I had time to say my prayer rule before Liturgy at 7. Liturgy is usually served on Sundays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, with morning recitation of the Jesus Prayer on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Major feasts, like the Nativity of John the Baptist later this week, cause some re-arrangement of this schedule.

Liturgy is celebrated in the language of the Priest. This morning, we had a Finnish Priest, but since no one else here speaks Finnish, he very reasonably and charitably served in Greek instead, so the sisters sang the responses in Greek, and did a very fine job of it, too.

I should say that the community here is a mixed one, of both monks and nuns, about 40 in number, with nuns slightly outnumbering the monks. Fr Bartholomew, the guest-master, a BBC (British-born Cypriot), tells me that the average age of the community is quite young, with most of the members being in their early 30’s.

After Liturgy, breakfast is taken informally, in the same, small refectory where afternoon tea is served. We had the typical monastic/continental breakfast of bread, butter, and jam, with tea, Greek coffee or instant coffee (guess what I drank). Now this is curious: at tea yesterday afternoon, we had proper cups and saucers for the tea; but at dinner last night, and again at breakfast this morning, coffee and tea were drunk not from cups or mugs, but rather from glass bowls—what I had taken to be my salad bowl last night. This curious custom also teaches an important lesson: when travelling to a new place with potentially strange customs, never be the first person to do anything, but rather, wait until somebody else does it first, or you’ll find yourself digging lettuce out of your drink bowl.

I was able to speak to Fr Zacharias this afternoon. That will be the subject of another post. Also, I have a blessing to share pictures, so once I’ve gathered a few, I’ll build a slideshow to post. Alas, the library is a 2-mile hike from the monastery, and it isn’t open every day. If time and weather permit the walk back to the library, I’ll post again on Thursday. If I scurry back now, I might make it to tea before evening prayer at 5:30-7:30.

Peace & blessings on all.