It’s been quite a while since I’ve posted. For sometime, my Orthodox life and writing have been called elsewhere. Those tasks remain, and the context of blogging calls for a new direction here as well. That will come over the next year, God willing, if I can seize the opportunity to drive content here consistent with my commitments – both wider, within the church and more personal… though anything along personal lines is merely a self-indulgent possibility of little interest. What this means among other things is that I will shortly dismantle the archival pieces here that are inconsistent with the new direction so that a fresh start can be made.
In the meantime, I’ve been reading (and have read) Gillian Crow’s “This Holy Man” on the life of Metropolitan Anthony Bloom. I’d read most of his books, so a biography seemed a good “next” although more than a few suggested the book would have a deleterious affect on my opinion of the man (not!). I’d think this would be the case if one’s formation tends toward dealing with others as abstractions, but that’s not my bent, nor did it seem to be the Metropolitan’s. Thus, I find in this work much to like and my esteem for him expanded rather than lessened.
Crow makes no secret of Met. Anthony’s mercurial temper, his prickliness, or his neglect of certain niceties. People can be like this. She acknowledges also that many separated themselves from the community he led as a result, but others stuck it out… and as she quotes, just forgave him and loved him anyway. That’s what we do in this life. There’s a friend who’s aunt is up for canonization in the Roman Catholic Church… but “the family says her sisters were the real saints… they had to live with her!”
All of which attests to the ground we might gain in mustering the courage to reveal the whole of the person in our hagiographies rather than hide the warts. The warts are there… they may not be beautiful, but more damage is done to the image of what it is that is a saint and how to become one… by pretending otherwise. A fuller revelation… might yield more, not fewer saints! (Just sayin’ btw).
And with that, here are a few of the gems Gillian Crow uncovers:
On Selecting a spiritual father:
“So and so is a monk first and then a Christian; Father Afanasy is a Christian first and then a monk.” p 45
Crow explains this further:
“There were two encounters in particular that influenced his thoughts. The first was with one of the hermits there, who illustrated for him the severity of the monastic life by colorful example, in the manner of the Desert Fathers of Egypt. The second was another old man, still a novice after fifty years in the monastery. He explained his indecision: a monk was a man who wept out of compassion and who prayed for the whole world, yet after half a century, he still felt he had a heart of stone. He could not make his vows until he had learnt to be compassionate.
This was a revelation. To become a monk did not mean leaving the world after all, but continuing to bring it to God through the mystery of prayer.” p. 46
On Accepting Spiritual Advice – even unwanted
“You are surrounded by so many sins and weaknesses that you cannot possibly conquer them all at once. If you tried you would be defeated before you had hardly begun. Instead you must learn to be like a little mouse and nibble away at them bit by bit.” p. 50
Crow continues that as a Reader, he inquired of Fr. Georges Florovsky regarding pursuit of ordination:
“Go away and read the lives of the saints and the Fathers – and come back in fifteen years’ time.” However, despite his pain he accepted Fr. Goerges’ judgment, and came to consider him someone for whom he could have the greatest respect both as a person and as a theologian. With the doors of St. Sergius closed against him Andre’ had to reassess his position. He talked it over with his father. In what he described in the sermon he gave on the fortieth anniversary of his consecration as a bishop as a sad moment, Boris asked him: ‘What is the dream of your life?’ Andre’ had no hesitation in replying, ‘To be with God alone.’ Then his father looked at him with sadness in his eyes and said, ‘You have not even begun to be a Christian.’
As he later came to realize, to love God did not mean retreating into a private realm away from society, but sharing with him all his concerns for the world and for each person. It was not enough to have in one’s heart a warmth for God. The test of one’s love was to share God’s own love for one’s neighbors.” pp 53-54.
On Exile – a common sense at conversion:
“For exile had taught the Russian community in Paris one important thing. Just as Christ on earth had himself been an exile, born as an outcast in a stable and dying outside the walls of Jerusalem, so the vocation of every Christian was nothing less than understanding life as exile from the Kingdom of God, which could only be regained by treading the Way of the Cross.” p. 47
Speaking of the Brotherhood of St. Photius’s (recovered) theology:
“They (Fr. Gregory Krug and Leonid Ouspensky) understood the icon to be a witness of theosis – deification of the human person – and an expression of how humanity in a state of prayer is sanctified by grace.” p. 49
“…knowing nothing of theology and aware, albeit in hitherto negative terms, of the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches around him, he was anxious to discover which church was the most faithful to the Gospel message that he had discovered.
Over a period of time he investigated the differences between the churches, and his study confirmed Orthodoxy as the one whose teaching and experience accorded most closely with the truth and beauty of the Gospel as he understood it. Divine love, totally self-offering, limitless unwavering, was something Andre’ had experienced irrefutably in his personal encounter with Christ. He was to go experiencing it in the faith and expression of Orthodoxy for the rest of his life. ‘I am passionate about Orthodoxy’ was one of the phrases that readily fell from his lips.” p.44
Orthodoxy’s Visual impact:
“The Liturgy was in Slavonic, and at its close Andre’ went up to the old lady and said, ‘Oh Gran, it must have been very boring for you, you couldn’t have understood one word!’ The old lady replied scornfully, ‘How can anyone who is as big as you be so stupid? Of course I understood. I have eyes.’ She went on to give an account of the service to him, explaining how, although she couldn’t understand the language she had been able, through all the visual symbolism of the Russian Eucharist, to relate it to her familiar Roman Mass and so follow everything that was happening.
This visual impact of Orthodox services was something Metropolitan Anthony came to recognize as very important. During his ministry in London he was to come across another striking example when a deaf man, previously used only to the undemonstrative and word-focused services of Methodism, discovered in the Liturgy a form of worship where, to his delight, words were not essential to his participation and meaning was conveyed through actions and visual symbolism.
In his work as a youth leader Andre’ discovered that words could sometimes do more harm than good. One day a renowned preacher was invited to give a lesson to the Sunday school pupils. Andre’ and the other leaders arranged themselves around the walls, listening with admiration to this man who spoke so magnificently. However, when the lesson was over one of the teachers asked a seven-year-old what he thought of the talk and the child replied, ‘It was good entertainment, but what a pity Father doesn’t believe what he says.’
Andre’ realized that the child had reacted negatively because the priest’s words had come from the intellect – and the children were left cold by his reasoned arguments, when they would have responded to a message from the heart. This was point he was to keep in mind when he began to preach. He always spoke ‘from the heart’, because he knew that what convinced people of the truth of the Gospel was not a matter of words but of life.’
He knew, too that there was a need for believers, even children, to have their own experience of the things of God, as another anecdote from the camps showed. A little boy came out of the chapel tent, his face shining with joy, and the leader said, ‘What’s up with you?’
‘Oh, I went into the chapel and suddenly there was an angel there,’ replied the boy. He was not a mystical child and he did not develop into a mystic, but he had perceived something. Metropolitan Anthony was quick to explain the boy’s experience to people to whom he told this story, ‘When he said an angel was there he did not mean, ‘I saw it with my eyes,’ but ‘I knew that it was present,’ which is very different, because what you see with your eyes may call for an interrogation mark. What you know for sure, without any kind of visual or auditory or other phenomenon, is another thing.’ It was reminiscent of his own conversion experience.” pp. 52-53
I encourage you to read the book, to read Met. Anthony’s works, to take them in, and enjoy what they offer. You’ll be well rewarded.