30 August 2016

‘If evil is bottomless, so
goodness too is boundless’

The Gledhill Sundial in Cloister Court in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

‘If evil is bottomless, so goodness too is boundless,’ the Romanian writer and theologian Nicolae Steinhardt wrote while he was in prison. This afternoon, Dr Razvan Porumb introduced the writings and thoughts of ‘Father Nicolae Steinhardt’ at the summer conference in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, organised by the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies.

This year’s conference is looking at ‘Contemporary Fathers and Mothers of the Church. Dr Porumb, who is Vice-Principal of the IOCS, where he is a postdoctoral fellow and a lecturer sketched out the life of the Romanian theologian, hermit, confessor and dissident writer, Dr Nicolae Steinhardt (1912-1989).

Nicolae Steinhardt is one of the great writers in Romanian literature, and is studied nation-wide. His great work, The Diary of Happiness, or The Journal of Happiness, is his literary testament and stands between literature and theology, culture and faith, but has not yet been translated into English.

He was born Aurelian Nicolae Steinhardt in Bucharest into a Jewish family and completed his PhD in constitutional law. On a holiday in Switzerland in 1937 or 1938, he met an Irishman who first stirred his interests in Christianity, although later he could not recall his name.

He was a writer and journalist, and was imprisoned in 1958 and was held in harsh conditions for 14 years. In jail, he taught English literature to other prisoners. There too he converted to Orthodox Christianity while he was a prisoner, and was baptised in prison in 1960.

He was fascinated by the paradox of faith, but he sought ambiguity rather than clarity: ‘Never have more astounding words been uttered than “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” [see Mark 9: 24] I tell myself that if, of all words on the entire Bible we would only retain these, they would be enough to prove the divine essence of Christianity … They are paradoxical, they represent the very mystery of the act of faith …’

His baptism took place hurriedly in extraordinary circumstances, with is fellow prisoner, Father Mina Dobzeu, a Romanian Orthodox priest using chipped enamel mug filled with wormy water from the water tank, and witnessed by two Greek Catholic (Uniate) priests, two Roman Catholic priest and a Protestant pastor. He would rejoice that his baptism had an ‘ecumenical character.’

He noted in his diary: ‘Those baptised as infants cannot know, nor can they suspect what baptism means. I find myself assaulted, second after second, by ever-stronger attacks of joy … I am a new man.’

He later had an Epiphany moment in a dream in his cold cell in the winter of 1962: ‘I do not see the incarnated Christ, but only an enormous light – white and bright – and I feel unspeakably happy. This light envelops me from all sides, it is complete happiness, and it ousts everything else. I am submersed in the blinding light, I float inside the light, I am in light and I exult. I know it is going to last forever, it is perpetuum immobile. The light speaks to: I am, not through words – but through thoughts. I understand it is the Lord and that I am inside the light of Tabor, and I don’t just see it, but I am living inside of it.’

He continued: ‘More than anything, I am happy, happy, happy. I am happy and I recognise that I am, and tell myself that. The light seems to be brighter than light and it seems to talk to me and tells me who it is. The dream seems to go on for long, very long. Happiness not only lasts forever, but increases constantly. If evil is bottomless, so goodness too is boundless.’

On his release in 1964, he remained a dissident and continued to write and publish. Late in life, he entered Rohia Monastery in 1978, where he worked as the monastery’s librarian and continued to write. There, his growing reputation as a counsellor and father-confessor attracted many visitors to Rohia. He died on 29 March 1989.

Sunshine this morning on King’s Parade, Cambridge, at the corner with Bene’t Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Later this afternoon, the Romanian theologian and priest, the Revd Dr Liviu Barbu, spoke on: ‘What it takes to be a saint today? A tentative sketch of a profile.’

Dr Barbu, who has a PhD from King’s College London on Orthodox pastoral theology, is a parish priest in Norwich. He has written extensively on Metropolitan John Zizioulas, Saint Gregory Palamas, spiritual direction and fatherhood, and on ascetism.

In our lives, we all have glimpses of the Kingdom. The unavoidable vocation of the Christian is sainthood, and holiness is our destination. Indeed, in the Apostolic times, all Christians were called saints.

He too drew on the work of Father Dumitru St─âniloae, the Romanian Orthodox priest, theologian and professor we heard about yesterday [29 August 2016].

The journey from faith to the full stature of Christ is a life-long, never-ending journey. He spoke of his own journey and his relationship with his spiritual father or mother. A true spiritual father or mother is a mystagogue who helps us to see our true selves, so that the teachings of the Church can be lived in the life of the Christian and the life of the Church. The great spiritual fathers were great because first they were faithful disciples.

Here and now, God calls us all to holiness, and he concluded. ‘The greatest joy of my life is that I am called to be a saint.’

Earlier this morning, Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia spoke on ‘Elder Amphilochios of Patmos,’ and Dr Christine Mangala Frost presented a paper on ‘Signs and Wonders: a Comparative Study of Spiritual Elders in Orthodox Christian and Hindu Traditions.’

Again, the day concludes with Evening Prayer and dinner. After breakfast tomorrow morning [31 August], we leave for our visit to the Monastery of Saint John the Baptist, near Tolleshunt Knights in Essex. The programme there includes a tour of the monastery and a lecture by Sister Magdalen on ‘Mother Elisabeth (1893-1993).’

‘I was born to love people … I see in
the face of each person the image of God’

Flowers in Hall Court, Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

‘The more a person loves God, the more he loves other people. He loves them with holiness, respect and refinement, as images of God.’ So said Elder Amphilochios of Patmos.

Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia told the story of Father Amphilochios this morning at the summer conference in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, organised by the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies.

Metropolitan Kallistos, who is the President of the IOCS and a monk of Patmos, was speaking on: ‘Elder Amphilochios of Patmos.’ They first met on Patmos in 1961, when there was only a boat once a week from Athens to the island, three taxis and a car belonging to the doctor.

Father Amphilochios said: ‘We must have Love, even if they do us the greatest harm, we must love them. We will be able to enter Paradise only with love.’

Metropolitan Kallistos said elders have a variety of gifts and charisms from the Holy Spirit. But they were often harsh and remote, and he gave the example of Saint Arsenios, a fifth century tutor to imperial children who withdrew to the Egyptian Desert. When he was asked by his former friends why he avoided him, he replied: ‘I cannot leave God to be with men.’

But Father Amphilochios was not like that, he said. He was an icon of the love of Christ, and did not force people’s free will.

The true elder appeals to people’s free will. He is not a substitute figure for the presence of the Holy Spirit in our hearts, but frees us to listen to the voice of God in our hearts and consciences. The spiritual father does not replace God, but acts as God’s usher, ushering us into the presence of God, so that we can listen to God in our own conscience.

Father Amphilochios (1889-1970) was a priest and monk who was born on Patmos when it was part of the Ottoman Empire. This was the island where Saint John the Divine received the Revelation in the Cave of the Apocalypse. The Monastery of the Apocalypse, founded by Saint Christodoulos in 1088, sits like a citadel on the top of the mountain, and Metropolitan Kallistos has many memories of celebrating the Liturgy in the cave in the monastery.

Father Amphilochios lived on Patmos, and after basic schooling he became a monk in the Monastery of the Apocalypse. He had a hearty sense of humour and lived a life of prayer. He taught the value of frequent Communion, regular Confession, and the practice of the Jesus Prayer, which he learned from a hermit who lived in a cave on the island and which he taught to all, giving prayer ropes to children.

Father Amphilochios wrote: ‘Cultivate the Jesus Prayer and a time will come when your heart will leap with joy, just as it does when you are about to see a person who you love very much.’

After a short time on Mount Athos, he was sent to be ordained deacon on the neighbouring island of Kos in 1913. But instead he travelled to Alexandria and on to Jerusalem to visit the holy sites and in search of a cenobitic monastery.

He was sent back to Patmos, where he was sent to a remote hermitage. There he learned inner prayer, based on the Jesus prayer in the Hesachyst tradition. He was ordained deacon and priest in 1919.

He was the Abbot of the Monastery of the Apocalypse (1935-1937) until the occupying Italians forced him into internal exile in Greece. He received hospitality from the Zoe brotherhood in Athens, and then travelled throughout Greece; first in Athens and later on Crete, where he became the spiritual father of many people on the island.

He returned to Patmos in 1939, but did not become abbot again. Instead, he was the spiritual father to the women’s community in the Monastery of the Annunciation. He died on 16 April 1970.

The Master’s Garden in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Earlier this morning, Elder Amphilochios was also referred to by Dr Christine Mangala Frost, who quoted him saying: ‘I was born to love people. It doesn’t concern me if he is a Turk, black, or white. I see in the face of each person the image of God. And for this image of God I am willing to sacrifice everything.’

Dr Frost is a research associate at the IOCS, a published novelist and a leading voice in the area of interfaith dialogue, particularly in Hinduism and Orthodoxy. She was speaking on ‘Signs and Wonders: a Comparative Study of Spiritual Elders in Orthodox Christian and Hindu Traditions.’

We live in an apparently enlightened age, free of superstition and informed by scientific insights. Yet, she pointed out, people seek after holy men and holy women, who are often associated with signs and wonders.

In her paper, she asked what are the hallmarks of the Orthodox elders, what do the Hindu gurus offer, what have they in common, and where do they differ.

She began by looking at signs and wonders in the Bible.

Christ accepts that signs and wonders are expected of the Messiah. He often performs these out of compassion to make people whole so that they may turn towards God. But, as in the case of the feeding of the multitude and the miracle at Cana, these signs and wonders also prefigure the Eucharist, showing that Christ is the true bread and the true wine. His signs and wonders related to the whole message of the Gospel, and the core message of salvation.

He often refuses to be a mere wonder worker, and instead points people to his central messages of repentance, God’s forgiving love, and resurrection, and he warns of false signs and wonders.

In looking at the criteria for holiness in the Orthodox tradition, and asked whether these are shared by Hindu ‘holy men and women.’

She pointed out that all Christians are called to be saints, but some live lives that show how the Holy Spirit can transform sinful human life in the here and now.

Many are monastics, and not all are priests. They share a common spiritual bond and share the same goal of acquisition of the Holy Spirit. They talk in parables, paradox and poetic language, and their lives show deification by grace and the promise of spiritual transformation.

Elder Amphilochios Makris of Patmos once said: ‘I was born to love people. It doesn’t concern me if he is a Turk, black, or white. I see in the face of each person the image of God. And for this image of God I am willing to sacrifice everything.’

She looked at the place of self-abasement or self-effacement, playing the holy fool, holy idiosyncrasies and humility in the lives of the Orthodox elders, and then compared this with the lives of holy men and women in the Hindu tradition. She suggested the mystery of repentance and the mystery of love come together in their lives.

Discernment is seen by Orthodox writers as the ability to perceive the secrets of another’s heart, often concealed even from that person’s own heart. It is not like telepathy, clairvoyance, or psychic gifts, but is a gift of the Holy Spirit for healing the wounded and scarred.

They live in the atmosphere of heaven, in the here and now. Spiritual practices are not ways of earning merit but of keeping Christ’s commandment of love.

Turning to Hindu holy men and women, she distinguished traditional gurus, who tend to be monastics, who have ascetic lives, traditional teachings, and are low-profile are self-effacing from the cultic gurus she described as ‘export gurus’ and ‘a curious tourist phenomenon.’

She compared the traditional gurus to the righteous figures in the Bible who may not know God, but God knows them, such as Cornelius. They are full of compassion and love, they deflect attention from themselves, they have a strong yearning for the love of God, and they want people to know of this love of God.

On the other hand, the cultic gurus emphasise self-realisation and often are not ascetic. She referred to Jaggi Vasudev or Sadhguru, who founded the Isha Foundation, and Swami Prabhavananda, who introduced Christopher Isherwood to Hinduism.

They emphasise positive thinking and self-help, while belief in God is marginal or dispensed with, so that belief in self is important, with the promise of continuous bliss in the here and now. The motto of the Isha Foundation is: ‘Be, breathe, blossom.’

These gurus offer ‘technologies of inner well-being’ and a message of total self-reliance and cosmic consciousness. They do not demand any explicit faith commitment, but instead offer an ‘easy, download-free message.’

They engage in a psychic feat to be obtained through yogic meditation, with Christ as an accessory who is recast as an avatar. All the old heresies are well and truly alive in the language of these gurus. Many of them deny the reality of evil, and the demonic is not a category they recognise.

This afternoon, Dr Razvan Porumb, Vice-Principal of the IOCS and a postdoctoral fellow and lecturer, speaks on ‘Father Nicolae Steinhardt,’ and the Romanian theologian and priest, the Revd Dr Liviu Barbu, presents a paper on: ‘What it takes to be a saint today? A tentative sketch of a profile.’

Metropolitan Kallistos Ware (right) and Dr Christoph Schneider at the IOCS summer conference in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

An Irish bishop in Sidney Sussex College
who opposed war and ‘infantile theology’

The portrait of John Garnett, Bishop of Ferns and later Bishop of Clogher, on the stairs leading to the Old Library in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

I am staying in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, this week while I take part in the annual conference of the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies. Earlier this week [28 August 2016], I wrote about the portrait that hangs in the Old Library of John Bramhall, Bishop of Derry and later Archbishop of Ireland. But their is a second painting of a Church of Ireland bishop in Sidney Sussex. The portrait of John Garnett (ca 1709–1782), Bishop of Ferns and Leighlin and later Bishop of Clogher, can be seen on the stairs leading up to the Old library, where Archbishop Bramhall’s portrait hangs.

John Garnett, who was born in Lambeth ca 1709, was the third successive generation in his family to be ordained. His father, the Revd John Garnett, was the Rector of Sigglesthorne, in East Yorkshire, his grandfather, the Revd John Garnett, was the Vicar of Kilham, and his great-grandfather a merchant in Newcastle. His brothers, Canon Barnard Garnett and the Revd Henry Garnett, were also priests of the Church of England, and all three brothers were educated at Cambridge.

John Garnet went to school in Beverley, Yorkshire, and at the age of 16 he was admitted to Saint John’s College, Cambridge, on 21 May 1725. However, on 13 September 1728, he moved as a Scholar to Sidney Sussex College, where his father had been a student, and graduated from here (BA) in 1729.

He was ordained deacon by the Bishop of Lincoln, Richard Reynolds, on 24 May 1730, and became a fellow of Sidney Sussex that year, and curate of Barmston in the Diocese of York 1731. He proceeded MA in 1732 and was ordained priest by Reynolds of Lincoln on 8 April 1733. He was incorporated MA at Oxford University in 1738, received his BD at Cambridge in 1739, and was a Whitehall Preacher in 1739-1741 and a chaplain to the Duke of Devonshire.

From 1744 to 1752, he was Lady Margaret Preacher to the University of Cambridge. This position, now known as Lady Margaret’s Professor of Divinity, is regarded as the oldest chair in Cambridge, and previous holders of this position have included John Fisher (1502) and Desiderius Erasmus (1511). In 1745, he preached a sermon before the university at Great Saint Mary’s, the university church, during the Jacobite rebellion. Meanwhile, he was appointed Rector of Lockington in East Yorkshire in 1748.

He was still holding his academic and parochial positions in Cambridge and Yorkshire when he went to Ireland in 1751 as chaplain to the Lord Lieutenant, Lionel Sackville, 1st Duke of Dorset. He decided to remain in Ireland, resigned his Fellowship at Sidney Sussex and his chair in Cambridge, and in 1752 he was appointed Bishop of Ferns and Leighlin in succession to Robert Downes. He was incorporated at Trinity College Dublin in 1752 and received his Doctorate in Divinity (DD) from Cambridge that year.

In a sermon in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, on 5 November 1753, to mark the anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot, he condemned holy war and ‘that pious solecism in holy-church politicks,’ which for so long had nurtured the associated mythologies of holy war. Such ‘infantile rhetoric’ and ‘infantile theology’ must, he predicted, ‘be now no more.’

He was translated to Clogher in 1758, succeeding Robert Clayton who had died before he could be tried for heresy. Garnett was succeeded in Ferns by William Carmichael, who later became Archbishop of Dublin.

In 1765, Garnett was spoken of, alongside John Ryder, Archbishop of Tuam, as a possible successor to William Carmichael as Archbishop of Dublin. But the appointment went instead the Irish-born Bishop of Meath, Arthur Smyth (1706-1771), and Garnett remained Bishop of Clogher until his death. There he contributed from his personal income to rebuild the cathedral and the bishop’s palace.

John Garnett died at his townhouse in Leinster Street, Dublin, on 1 March 1782 and was succeeded as Bishop of Clogher by John Hotham. There is a mural tablet to his memory in the chancel of Saint Lawrence’s Church, Sigglesthorne, where his father was rector, and portraits of him in both Saint John’s College and Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge.

Garnett married Dorothea, the youngest daughter of Sir Thomas Molyneux, 1st Baronet. His son, the Very Revd John Garnett, became Dean of Exeter in February 1810, and died on 11 March 1813, aged 64.

The only work of Garnett, besides some occasional sermons, was his prolix Dissertation on the Book of Job (1749). On seeing it at the house of the Duke of Newcastle, to whom it was dedicated, Lord Morton remarked that it was ‘a very proper book for the ante-chamber of a prime minister.’ A second edition was published in 1752, when Garnett became a bishop. In all, 53 editions were published between 1749 and 2005.

In his book, Garnett proposed that the Book of Job refers to the period of the Babylonian captivity, and that Job represents the oppressed and exiled people. It was original thinking for an 18th century theologian.

Williamstown House, near Kells, Co Meath, was built in a Palladian style ca 1770 for the Cuffe family, was later owned by the descendants of John Garnett. The Revd George Garnett, who also owned 304 acres at Knockglass, Crossmolina, Co. Mayo, died in 1856. He left Williamstown House to his eldest son, William Stawell Garnett (born 1838). During and after the Great Famine many of the Garnett family moved to the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Fiji and England.

Garret’s later successor as Lady Margaret’s Professor of Divinity at Cambridge have included Samuel Ward (1623), William Selwyn (1855), Joseph Barber Lightfoot (1875), Dublin-born Fenton John Anthony Hort (1887), William Ralph Inge (1907), CFD Moule (1951), and Judith M Lieu (2010).

According to Philip Skelton’s biographer, Samuel Burdy, Bishop Garnett was ‘a pious, humble, good-natured man, a generous encourager of literature, kind to his domestics, and justly esteemed by all those who had an opportunity of knowing his virtues.’