Articles in the Works
Where do we go from here?
Meeting the Saints
I get excited by Saints. I don't mean that in a funny way. It is just that they have opened my eyes, well, to everything.
I met Fr Sophrony when I was 20, just after he had arrived in this country. He had an extraordinary effect on me. On my first visit he took me aside, sat me down and told me the whole Gospel in one sentence:
'The Holy Spirit comes down into the heart, cleanses it and makes us like Christ'.
I was utterly dumbfounded. I had never heard anything like it before. I have never forgotten that moment. It was the turning point in my life.
Fr Sophrony told me about Staretz Silouan, his spiritual father. The title of Fr Sophrony's book on the Staretz, 'The Undistorted Image', is a perfect description of a saint as one re-created in the likeness of Christ.
When I read it I was again bowled over. Here was a man who prayed that all would be saved before he was. He had complete humility.
My life could never be the same again.
I needed to fill a historical 'gap' in my head between St Silouan and the Gospel. Brought up as a Protestant I knew nothing about Orthodox saints and history. I read everything I could.
Being young and free I also wanted to visit holy places. I went to Mount Athos where both St Silouan and Fr Sophrony had lived. After that I went to the Holy Land. For me the instinct to go to holy places has always been valid.
When we kneel at the cave in Bethlehem we realise that the Incarnation is the basis of all sanctity. Christ the Son of God has taken our human flesh and united it to himself: through Golgotha, it is changed and sanctified.
Inside the Aedicule
Photo: Wikimedkia Commons
The 'aedicule' ('little house') is built over the place of Christ's Resurrection in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The place of the Resurrection bears witness that our human body has been transformed, - and that this transformation is the hope of us all.
Fifty years on I can still vividly remember my visit to these places.
The Saints are the perfect exemplars of the Gospel.
They are living icons of Scripture.
They show to our eyes what words mean.
Over the next 50 years I read most of the writings on the lives of the saints. I have always held dear those through whom Christ has spoke to me clearly: St Anthony, St Poemen, St Macarius, St Barsanuphius, St John Climacus, St Isaac the Syrian, St Maximus, St Hesychius, St Simeon the New Theologian, St Gregory of Sinai, and St Gregory Palamas. These I regard as my 'friends' because I have drunk of their teaching for so long. They truly make me 'sing'.
The humbling thing about saints is that they are interested in us! If, like them, are willing to hear Christ and obey him, they pray for us before the throne of God. Of all the saints we cannot say that we are not able to find one such friend.
The saints form a continual tradition of lived holiness, what I call, the 'Living Tradition of the Saints'. This tradition starts at the beginning with the apostles and martyrs and continues through every century in every place. Once I realised that, there was no option but to become Orthodox. Who would not want to 'tag on' at the end, so to speak, of such a tradition?
This is exactly what we, as the church today, are called to do. Tag on - ask for the mercy, learn the obedience, receive the cleansing of heart. This is the very raison d'etre of the church: nothing else. If the church is not about sanctity, it is not about anything. Everything else can go into the bin. Fr Schmeman said:
'The only tragedy is not to become a saint'.
Fr Sophrony and St Siloan
I have been fortunate to travel. There is a wonderful tradition of Orthodoxy in so many lands, Greece, Egypt, Syria, Persia, Armenia, Georgia, Romania, Russia and more. We can thank God that, through the input of many, including Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, Orthodox sanctity has once more come to these lands. As a result it can change the life of this country.
Father Sophrony in particular founded the Monastery at Tolleshunt Knights in Essex. I have revisited the chapel where he taught me to pray and the study where he spoke those simple and powerful words to me. We can go to his tomb and pray. This is a holy place now for Britain.
The Living Tradition of the Saints is alive in these Isles.