Notes from underground

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Archive for the tag “monasteries”

The financial journalist and the monk

Some years ago the author Arthur Koestler wrote a book called The Yogi and the Commissar, about two very different worldviews. This article could be called “The financial journalist and the monk”.

What makes a rather worldly financial journalist visit a monastery, not as a break form the rat race, but to find out the story of what’s going on in the world where he earns his bread an butter. And it seems that Vatopedi Monastery has had quite a big influence in worldly affairs.

Read the story to find out.

Beware of Greeks Bearing Bonds | Business | Vanity Fair:

After an hour on a plane, two in a taxi, three on a decrepit ferry, and then four more on buses driven madly along the tops of sheer cliffs by Greeks on cell phones, I rolled up to the front door of the vast and remote monastery. The spit of land poking into the Aegean Sea felt like the end of the earth, and just as silent. It was late afternoon, and the monks were either praying or napping, but one remained on duty at the guard booth, to greet visitors. He guided me along with seven Greek pilgrims to an ancient dormitory, beautifully restored, where two more solicitous monks offered ouzo, pastries, and keys to cells. I sensed something missing, and then realized: no one had asked for a credit card. The monastery was not merely efficient but free. One of the monks then said the next event would be the church service: Vespers. The next event, it will emerge, will almost always be a church service.

Read the rest of the story here. It’s long, but quite illuminating.

Antioch Abouna: The Monastic Call

Antioch Abouna writes about the place of monasticism in an age of secularisation:

Antioch Abouna: The Monastic Call: “In this new setting for monasticism the call of the angelic life has a profound opportunity and challenge. By its very distinctiveness and isolation from worldliness monasticism is presented with a renewed prophetic vocation by its ability to present a transformation of the common life in God. The city is now the desert where the spiritual meadow must bloom.

In short I think that monasticism will help to restore the credibility of Christianity again in the west. Familiarity with innocuous, adaptive heterodoxy, the bourgeoisification of the Christian tradition has bred a certain contempt and hardness of heart toward the gospel in our culture. Only an Orthodox Christian witness that is both radically obedient to God and warm in its love for Him will now make a difference.”

Antioch Abouna: The Monastic Call

Antioch Abouna writes about the place of monasticism in an age of secularisation:

Antioch Abouna: The Monastic Call: “In this new setting for monasticism the call of the angelic life has a profound opportunity and challenge. By its very distinctiveness and isolation from worldliness monasticism is presented with a renewed prophetic vocation by its ability to present a transformation of the common life in God. The city is now the desert where the spiritual meadow must bloom.

In short I think that monasticism will help to restore the credibility of Christianity again in the west. Familiarity with innocuous, adaptive heterodoxy, the bourgeoisification of the Christian tradition has bred a certain contempt and hardness of heart toward the gospel in our culture. Only an Orthodox Christian witness that is both radically obedient to God and warm in its love for Him will now make a difference.”

Abandoned places of empire

In the Emergent Africa blog Carl Brook wonders about one of the twelve marks of a new monasticism, which is relocation to the abandoned places of empire.

What does it mean, and what does “empire” mean in that context?

I suppose the simplest thing might be to ask the people who created the “new monasticism” web site what they meant by it, and how they understood the phrase. But it might be more fun to let one’s imagination run loose, because it evokes all kinds of romantic images, for all sorts of people. For example, some people have a fascination with the abandoned places of the Soviet empire. I saw many such places in Albania a few years ago, most notably the abandoned steel works at Elbasan, and the hundreds of abandoned concrete bunkers on the hillsides, monuments to the war psychosis of Enver Hoxha, where it could be said that the Orthodox Church has indeed relocated to the abandoned places of empire.

HolyMtCovAnother image that it evokes is the book From the Holy Mountain: a journey in the shadow of Byzantium by William Dalrymple. Dalrymple is a journalist and travel writer, and his journey follows in the footsteps of two monastic pilgrims centuries earlier. Western Christians are fond of talking about “The Constantinian Era”, but often fail to realise that for many Christians the “Constantinian era” lasted less than 300 years, and ended in the 7th century. In AD 578 John Moschos and a companion set off on a similar journey, to monasteries of the Near and Middle East. Dalrymple follows them, but few of the monasteries they visited still exist. They are among the “abandoned places of empire”.

There is also a fictional recording of an attempt to relocate to the “abandoned places of empire” in Rose Macaulay’s novel The towers of Trebizond.

These are just a few of the images evoked by the phrase “abandoned places of empire”. And perhaps everyone will have their own images so that there can be many more.

When linked with monasticism, it might be given another twist, and it could be understood as being places outside the ekoumene — the wild and uninhabited places of the earth. The early monks left the cities and went to the deserts, and lived in caves and ruins, which could likewise be seen as abandoned places of empire. Could a neo-monastic community take root in the ruins of the steelworks at Elbasan?

But the phrase can also be seen to have a metaphorical sense. Abandoned places, not just in the sense of being uninhabited, but, from a Christian point of view, being culturally alienated from the Christian faith, and perhaps abandoned by the Church. At least one Christian writer sees it as referring to the inner city, which has often been abandoned by the Church. There is an example in Johannesburg, where the Orthodox Cathedral of SS Constantine and Helen (diagonally opposite the Roman Catholic Cathedral of Christ the King) has a congregation that has relocated to the outer suburbs, and commutes to the church on Sundays almost to a foreign country. Around the church are the inner-city suburbs of Joubert Park, Hillbrow, Doornfontein and Bertrams, cosmopolitan, with a high proportion of illegal immigrants, many of whom earn their living through crime, while others are poor and exploited. The church was built by immigrants of an earlier generation, whose grandchildren have prospered and moved to places of green lawns and swimming pools (and often gated communities, ghettoes surrounded by electric fences, like medieval castles).

Perhaps another book, written by another Orthodox priest (though before he was Orthodox), could give a hint of how to minister in such a situation. The book is A new way of living by Father Michael Harper, and describes how an Episcopalian parish in Houston, Texas developed urban Christian communities as members of the church began a reverse migration from the outer suburbs to the inner city to form urban communities. This too could be seen as relocating to the abandoned places of empire.

But if the Christian Church has physically abandoned geographical areas of cities, there is also a kind of cultural abandonment. A conservative blog for peace gives an example of reality TV shows, where sometimes the reality gets too real.

One of the first of these “reality” TV shows was Big Brother. There was a great deal of media hype about Big Brother before the first series here, and it struck me that the very concept was immoral. It was not “reality” — it was a public experiment on live human beings, encouraging manipulation of others for public entertainment.

I’d like to have seen the result of introducing a hesychast monk into that setup.

But even if one had applied they would probably have been rejected, because the producers of such shows are not looking for people who reject the values of the virtual reality they are trying to create for voyeurist entertainment. But why not?

In the ancient world, the equivalent of reality TV was the gladiatorial games, where gladiators fought wild animals or each other for the entertainment of the public. But they didn’t seem to object to having unarmed Christians facing the wild animals, on occasion.

Do reality TV shows create or reflect the values of our societies and cultures? And which aspects of culture constitute the abandoned places of empire?

The Caucasian Church is flourishing

When I think of Caucasians I think first of Stalin, who was probably the most famous Caucasian of the last century or two, the former seminarian who tried to destroy the Church and propagate atheism. Under his rule more than 200000 clergy and monastics were killed, and many more were sent to concentration camps.

But what is happening in his homeland, Georgia, today?

What is happening to the Christian faith he once tried to destroy?

The Church is flourishing, that’s what.

Read all about it in Notes from a CommonplaceBook, travellers tales, with beautiful pictures, of a recent visit to Georgia.

Utopian communities – synchroblog

Utopia has been a recurring theme in literature since Thomas More, an English lawyer and statesman, wrote his book with that title in the early 16th century. He described an island with an almost perfect society of peace, justice and freedom.

Many have had such a vision of a perfect society, but acknowledge that no actual examples can be found in the everyday world. Utopian literature was revived in the 19th century, with Samuel Butler’s Erewhon, a satire on nineteenth-century Britain, and Gilbert and Sullivan’s Utopia Limited, in which the inhabitants of a remote island believe that the best way to achieve perfection is to turn their country into a joint stock company on the British model. I don’t think it has been performed much since Margaret Thatcher came to power.

In the nineteenth century there were also a number of “utopian communities” — groups of people who, while recognising that a perfect society could be found nowhere on earth, nevertheless tried to criate a microcosm that would reflect this vision.

In this sense, the Christian Church has always been utopian.

In the Christian vision, the perfect society is the Kingdom of God, a kingdom that is “not of this world” in the sense that there are no borders, nowhere you can show your passport to get in. But the Church itself is to be an ikon, an image of the Kingdom.

This applies even to the Christian family, as Father Alexander Schmemann points out in his book For the life of the world. The crowns in the Orthodox marriage service are symbols that the husband and wife are to be king and queen to each other in a little kingdom that reflects the heavenly kingdom. The vision may be lost, perhaps even in a single night. But the fact remains that every Christian family is a utopian community, trying to reflect in this world something that is not of this world.

Immigrants to new countries often gather for celebrations to remember their distant homeland. In many parts of the world one finds Caledonian Societies to gather emigrant Scots, Hellenic Communities for the Greek diaspora and so on. In a way Christian Churches are like this, in that Christians gather to remember a distant homeland. The difference is that those who gather to remember earthly homelands remember a place they have come from. Christians gather to remember a place they are going to.

As Peter Abelard put it once in a hymn:

Now in the meanwhile, with hearts raised on high
We for that country must yearn and must sigh
Seeking Jerusalem, dear native land
Through our long exile on Babylon’s strand.

Some Christians, however, have found that the weekly gatherings of the Christian community are not enough. The “little kingdom” of the Christian family is not enough. They have looked for a more permanent expression. And so there have been monastic communities, which are, in the sense in which we are discussing it, utopian communities par excellence, trying to live the life of the heavenly kingdom on earth. As one monk put it, monasteries are the lungs of the church. In this world we breathe the polluted air of a broken and sinful world, but in the monasteries we breathe the pure air of heaven.

Christians are essentially eccentric, and Christian communities are eccentric communities. Eccentricity is another way of expressing the idea of utopia. It is having a different centre.

In his novel Perelandra C.S. Lewis conveyed the idea of eccentricity by describing eldila (angels) as appearing to people looking at them with earthly eyes as standing at a slant. When we stand, a line from our head through our feet, if extended, points to the gravitational centre of the earth. But the eldila are aligned on a different centre, and so to earth-bound mortals they appear slanted.

The “utopian” theme of this Synchroblog was inspired by an earlier post by John Morehead: Morehead’s Musings: Searching for Utopia, and it has also been discussed a little in the Christianity and society discussion forum. John’s post is a good introduction to the theme, and he includes some examples of utopian intentional communities.

Communes or intentional communities are not necessarily utopian. Many of them have quite mundane aims. To qualify as “utopian” a community needs to have an intention not merely to live together, but to create or express a way of life that is different from that of the society around them, or at least based on different values. A utopian community must be, in some sense, countercultural — in other words, eccentric.

I’ve written about this before, then, as now, inspired by something that John Morehead wrote: Notes from underground: Morehead’s Musings: Symbolic Countercultures and Rituals of Opposition, so I won’t reiterate the whole thing here. The main point then was that the so called new monasticism needs to be supported by and linked to the old monasticism.

There have been many more dreams and visions of utopian communities than there have been actual examples. We need the dreams and visions, perhaps, but there is also the danger that Dietrich Bonhoeffer warns of in his book Life together:

Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it had sprung from a wish dream… He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and ernest and sacrificial.

God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. The man who fashions the visionary ideal of a community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself. He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own law, and judges the brethren and himself accordingly. He stands adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of brethren. He acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community, as if his dream binds men together. When things do not go his way, he calls the effort a failure. When his ideal picture is destroyed, he sees the community going to smash. So he becomes, first an accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself. Because God has already laid the only foundation of our fellowship, because God has bound us together in one body with other Christians in Jesus Christ long before we entered into common life with them, we enter that common life not as demanders but as thankful recipients.

Other synchrobloggers:

From communist youth to Orthodox monks

Most of us have read in the newspapers and seen graphic images on television of the violence and destruction of the Wars of the Yugoslav succession, when Yugoslavia tore itself apart (often with outside assistance) during the 1990s.

But even in the midst of the destruction, there were signs of hope, as some, at least, pursued more preaceful ideals. Among these is a new generation of Orthodox monks. They grew up under the communist system, indoctrinated at school with atheism, and now have turned to a life of prayer and repentance.

There is much talk nowadays, especially in “emerging church” circles, about a “new monasticism”, but in the former Yugoslavia the youth have opted for a restoration of the old monasticism.

And now the man who has been at the centre of the monastic revival in Serbia, His Grace Artemije, Bishop of Raska and Prizren, will be visiting South Africa, and will speak on the topic Orthodox monasticism, and the revival of the monastic life in Serbia after communism at St Thomas’s Orthodox Church, Sunninghill Park, Gauteng on Saturday 5th May 2007 at 5:00 pm. If anyone is interested in attending, you will find more information here. Anyone who is interested in Christian monasticism, new or old, is welcome to attend.

How to get there

From Johannesburg, Pretoria, East Rand, West Rand, take the N1 freeway to the Rivonia Road offramp, then turn North towards Leeukop prison. About 2km from the freeway exit the road narrows, and just before it narrows there is a turn-off to the right, and almost immediately one turns to the left, then right again, and the entrance to the church parking is just round the corner. There will be a sign that says “Church Parking” at the gate.

If you have any questions, please use the comment form below.

Orthodoxy and premodern and postmodern thinking

Bishop Seraphim Sigrist recently posted some notes for a paper he read on Christianity and Society in the Christianity and Society discussion forum, and has now posted a report on the retreat where he read the paper. The retreat was held at a Coptic centre, and his report is illustrated with some Coptic ikons of the desert saints and led to some interesting discussion in which Bishop Seraphim referred to a piece written by William Dalrymple on the role of miracles among Coptic Christians, and especially among the monks of the desert today.

I think this piece by Dalrymple is from his book From the Holy Mountain, in which he compares Near and Middle Eastern Christianity today with what it was like shortly before the Muslim conquest in the 7th century.

What it brings out most clearly are some of the characteristics of the premodern worldview. Compared with Western Christianity Orthodoxy is generally premodern, but in Coptic monks this can be seen in a particularly pure form.

What is interesting is to compare this approach to miracles to that of Western Fundamentalism, because the latter is clearly imbued with moderniity, and even modernism. The Western Fundamentalist approach to miracles seems to be that miracles are important because they are thought to prove some doctrinal or ideological point. Miracles have been taken up into a system of rational argumentation, and this approach is characteristic of the modern worldview. Read almost any theological discussion in Usenet newsgroups, for example alt.religion.christian and you will see that even when Christian fundamentalists are arguing with atheists, both presuppose the same modernist worldview.

I became acutely aware of this in discussions with some Calvinistic Baptists in Durban some thirty years ago. It was apparent that to them the resurrection of Christ was an important “fact”, because it was in the Bible. But it did not seem to be a significant fact. It was merely a kind of adjunct to the importance of the Bible and so another matter for rational argument and prooftexting. If one said to them “Christ is risen and the angels rejoice, Christ is risen and Hell was angered for it was mocked” they saw no cause for rejoicing but went scurrying to find proof texts to show that such rejoicing was unseemly and that it wasn’t so.

Compare this view with that of the Coptic monks, for whom rational argument occupies a much lower place in the scale of priorities. Miracles are not there to “prove” anything about anything, they are just there to enjoy the commuinion of saints and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.

Urban monasticism

Someone created this forum/web meeting place for people interested in urban monasticism. It seems to be for people of any religion or tradition who are interested in different kinds of semi-monastic life.

I’ve been interested in such things for a long time, and at one time, with some friends, formed the Community of St Simon the Zealot in Windhoek, Namibia. Not true monasticism, but at a time when the idea of communes was quite popular, we hoped it might be a semi-monastic or “intentional community”.

I thought of an Orthodox example, Mother Maria Skobtsova, and wonder if there are any others.

Thinking about it a bit more, I think that if any Orthodox Christians wanted to do such a thing, they should be within range of a full “proper” monastery, which they should visit regularly.

Does anyone else have any thoughts on this suchject, or know of any examples? If so, please comment, either here or on the urban monasticism site.

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