I’ve been tagged by The Skylding to list five people, living or dead, who influenced my spiritual path in a positive way. For The Skylding (as a Lutheran), this had to exclude Jesus Christ and Martin Luther, and so assume that for me, as an Orthodox Christian it excludes Jesus Christ and the canonised saints of the church, or it could just become an exercise in listing one’s favourite saints.
So here goes.
1. Steyn Krige — high school teacher
He taught me for most of my time in high school at St Stithians College from the age of 12 to the age of 17. For the first couple of years he taught Geography, Chemistry and Scripture. Chemistry wasn’t his field, and some of his experiments went horribly wrong, and I think he cookbooked his lessons. But he was a good teacher, and even when his experiments went wrong and the expected didn’t happen, we knew what was supposed to have happened.
The year before he came to the school I had begun to break away from my atheist/agnostic upbringing and become interested in reading the Bible, and Steyn Krige hosted voluntary Bible study groups in the housemaster’s flat where he lived with his family. He also arranged camps during the school holidays — in the Western Cape, in the mountains of Lesotho and in other places. And he it was who guided me and showed what it meant to be a follower of Jesus Christ.
2. Brother Roger, CR – Anglican monk
When I left school, I encountered the Community of the Resurrection (CR), an Anglican religious order whose members often came to preach in our parish church, St Augustine’s, Orange Grove, Johannesburg. Most of them were priests, but Brother Roger was one of the few lay brothers, and he spoke at the first conference of the Anglican Students Federation, held at at Modderpoort in the Free State in mid-winter, which is the coldest place I’ve ever been to.
He spoke on Pilgrims of the Absolute, and introduced us to people like Leon Bloy, and Beat Generation authors like Jack Kerouac, and presented the Christian faith as quite countercultural. Over the next few years I was a regular visitor to the CR priory in Rosettenville, and Brother Roger kept me supplied with books from their library. I was taking English literature courses at university, but he opened my eyes to a far wider variety of English literature than the English departments of South African universities — Samuel Beckett, the Beat Generation authors, Charles Williams and many more.
Brother Roger took great joy in the world and life and living. He once opened an art exhibition for a Jewish artist friend of his, Harold Rubin, whose works were seized by the police a couple of days later, and he was charged with blasphemy. Brother Roger was hauled off a train to Durban to give evidence at his trial, and eventually he was acquitted. There is more about Brother Roger, and the paper he read at the student conference, at my Pilgrims of the Absolute web page.
3. Revd John Davies – Anglican priest
John Davies was invited to speak at another Anglican students conference, on Religion versus God. I wasn’t there to hear it, but listened to it on tape afterwards, and published and distributed the hard copy as a kind of tract. When I was a student at the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg he led a parish mission at St Alphege’s Church, which was near the university, and shared a vision of the parish as a Christian community and didn’t just talk about it, but demonstrated it. Some of the things he introduced then, like house churches, have since become quite commonplace in Western Christianity, but then they were new and quite radical.
I got to know John Davies and his family quite well in the 1960s, and he and his wife Shirley, and children Mary, Mark and Elizabeth, became very close friends, and helped me more than they will ever know. In 1970 they returned to the UK for a visit, and were told on leaving South Africa that they would not be allowed to return, and have never been back since. I was glad to be able to travel to the UK in 2005 and see them again.
4. C.S. Lewis – Anglican author
The first three are people I met in person, but the last two are ones I only knew from their writings. But their writings have influenced me a great deal.
In the case of Lewis, it was his fiction that influenced me most; first his science fiction stories, and later his Narnia stories. I also read those of his fellow-Inkling Charles Williams, though I did not realise that they knew and influenced each other until much later, when a friend introduced me to Tolkien’s works.
I read a few of his non-fiction works, but was never very impressed with them. There is quite a bit of talk nowadays about narrative theology, and I think Lewis excelled at that, rather than at propositional theology. He was also aware of the difference in outlook between premodern and modern people, and wrote in such a way as to make it possible for the modern mind to appreciate premodern ideas.
5. Fr. Alexander Schmemann – Orthodox priest
One of the things that troubled me about Western theology was that it seemed to be divided into two camps. I called them Pietists and Social Activists, though others may have different labels for them. The activists were always wanting to do something, to change the world and make it a better place. The pietists, on the other hand, kept saying that this was too “political” and that Christianity should be more “spiritual”. I felt uncomfortable among both camps. It seemed to me that each was proclaiming a one-eyed vision of the Christian faith, and that we needed to see with two eyes to see it in all its depth.
And then I read Fr Alexander Schmemann’s The world as sacrament (an expanded edition was called For the life of the world), and he said, much more clearly and succinctly, what I had been trying to say on the subject. And eventually it became clear to me that things were not going to get better in the Western Church — that the two tendencies were getting into more pronounced conflict, and so, about fifteen years after first reading Schmemann’s book, I joined the Orthodox Church.
And now I’m supposed to tag some people.