Monday, May 14, 2012

Stavropegic Monastery of St John the Baptist

A reader from across the globe invites me to share further memories of my visit to the Orthodox community of monks and nuns in rural Essex in January.

I dismounted from the green country bus after its labyrinthine journey through freezing English country lanes with hedgerows partially clothed allowing the fine wintry wind to course through woven branches with a feeling of anticipation.  I set off on foot down the narrow muddy lane pointed out by the friendly driver. This monastery has no web page and no email but a telephone enquiry had resulted in an invitation for me to come and see the monastery established by Father Sophrony a Russian born monk who after leaving a career as an artist in Moscow and then after the revolution in Paris had travelled to Mount Athos between the wars and had met his own geron or elder, the Russian born Silouen. Silouen was canonised in 1987 by the Ecumenical Patriarch. The famous Cistercian monk, author, hermit and prophet of the 20th century Thomas Merton says that Silouen was the most authenitic monk of the 20th century. I would like to write later on Sophrony who I see as one of the most interesting people of our time, a seeker after truth and beauty who like many of us struggle to reconcile the big questions of life. He is a truly a teacher and philosopher of silence who invites us to reflect on the silence of beauty in the Holy One to which all are called alongside the empty silence of the abyss which we have created in the West, allowing knowledge to fragment and reifying the single dimension of having and doing over value and connection, the loss of the Platonic and Neo Platonic vision.

Deeply unwell after years in solitude on Athos and now ordained priest Sophrony tells in one of his books of his return to France and of disciples gathering around him in the nursing home to practice the prayer of the heart after an experience of rejection by the Orthodox Academy over allegiance to the Church in Russia.

The Prayer of the Heart is a prayer that moves away from mental images, bringing mind into the heart, the place of life and imagination, of emotion, the very centre of the human person. In the Abrahamic religions the heart is the very epicentre the place of meeting between the Holy and the Seeker. Sophrony with friends came to the United Kingdom and the monastery was established in an old Anglican rectory and the ancient church building was used for worship. This was established in the year of my birth 1959.  Here the ancient ways stretching back beyond the desert fathers and mothers into the vibrant life of the early Christian movement met modern Britain on its own journey into secularism.

Walking down this lane with winter fields and the restless calling of blackbirds I came to the monastery which is bisected by the lane and outside tall iron gates was a nun in full black Orthodox robes showing just her face walking with a small group of young people who I discovered were Cypriot students studying in Britain. I was expected although I had not been able to forecast my time of arrival and outside the tall black gates I was warmly invited to lunch with the community.

This leads me to the sense I know is right although I can't seem to find the words that here is a community moving in several dimensions of experience. Outwardly there is the passing of clock time and space is measured in the world of the material. Inwardly there is a greater dimension where time and space and materiality are transcended and there is an inner knowing and awareness, an experience of interconnectedness.  I too move between these dimensions and am grateful for this passport although its a gift and not an achievement.  Intuition or spirituality does not do this justice but the concept of the music of silence seems to resonate deeply with this sense of flow. The graceful monastic robes are a symbol of gracious moving between dimensions and like icons those who wear such robes, as I do myself from time to time are framed in a tradition that does not obliterate or suppress our sense of individuality but enclose it in a place of invitation of depth and purpose.

Lunch was shared in the Refectory which is on the nun's side of the monastery and Sister pointed out the award given to the best conversion of hen houses into dwelling places granted by some bureaucrat from the Essex Country Council.  I wondered if the creator of such an award nurtured a sense of the ironic.  That said its hard to build in areas such as rural Essex as cities continue to sprawl outwards into rich irreplaceable land cultivated for centuries. Our group viewed the winter fields farmed by the community. Every member of the community obviously had to work hard to sustain this simple ascetic way of life.

The Refectory was decorated by iconic depictions of saints in the desert and hesychast tradition. All the chapels and the other refectory were decorated in the same way. My guide the gracious and hospitable Sister S explained that in the hesychast tradition icons were written that way (painted) to preserve the sense of the hidden way, the movement through images into the silence of the whole person in the presence of the holy whereas 'normal' icons are brightly written.

I stood among the monks dressed in my own black clerical uniform with white collar that I wore for most of my stay in the UK as an indication of pilgrimage and of discovery and also as a way of honouring my own tradition ordained within the Church of England the 'seed' Church of the Anglican Communion. It was of course a delicious, healthy sustaining lunch and afterwards I briefly greeted the Hegumen with the other guests.  It was a brief greeting but I felt very warmly accepted and affirmed, the true expression of hospitality where words were few but the experience was rich and gracious. All day I felt deeply grateful, not a gratefulness based on dependence or guilt but a sense of receiving and of hospitality.

Sister S then came to be my guide for the afternoon and slowly we toured the buildings, stopping to pray in the chapel in the old rectory, going down concrete steps to the underground mausoleum - the only way said Sister that the dead of the community was permitted to be buried by the Country Council. I was moved to stand beside the tomb of Father Sophrony and Sister Elizabeth and I placed my own Chotki on the tomb as a symbol of connection and of honouring this beautiful and trans formative way of prayer. Since visiting the UK I have carried this with me each day as a reminder and an encouragement to the silence of the heart.

There was no sense of hurry in this visit.  I was concerned about taking away this nun from her work but it was clear that I was her focus that afternoon and we finished with an agape of biscuits and tea in the other refectory. I experienced from Sister S what I hope to bring to this sense of call as a priest and philosopher of silence which is silence as availability and presence to be the frame for activity and speech.

'May I come and put the lights on for you' she asked when it was time for her to take her leave and I indicated some time for prayer and meditation in the chapel where Sophrony prayed each day. I responded that I like to pray in the darkness.  'Of course, the hesychast way' she responded as we parted. So after some time in the chapel and a visit to the shop to buy some icon reproductions of Saint Silouan of the Holy Mountain it was time for me to complete the circle and travel back to London.

I am deeply grateful for the hospitality I received at Tollshunt Knights and the experience will remain with me of abiding in a great silence where the world of the senses and the material world, of time and space are taken up, transformed and renewed in the greater silence of the unity of the holy God, the ground and origin of all being.

As always such encounters take me back to the sense that I am always a beginner in the adventure of the spiritual journey and that my many mistakes have their origin of failing to live and work from an inner sense of being at home and of inner connection.  My constant unwisdom originates in a desire to live from the expectations of others and this always lacks this sense of holistic hospitality experienced at Tollshunt Knights.

Thanks to those who asked me to write on this theme.

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