09 September 2008

Sipping spiritual cocktails by the spiritual swimming pool

The chapel at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, where we worshipped throughout the summer school

Patrick Comerford

During the summer, I spent a week at Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge, where I took part in the Ninth Cambridge Summer School organised by the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies.

The institute is based around the corner from Sidney Sussex at Wesley House on Jesus Lane and is part of the Cambridge Theological Federation. The theme of this year’s summer school was “The Ascent to Holiness,” and my participation was possible because of a generous grant from the Oulton Fund. The theme, “The Ascent to Holiness,” was inspired by The Ladder of Divine Ascent, a devotional work by an important Church Father, Saint John Climakos of Mount Sinai, who died in the year 606.

If anyone doubts the potential for humour among the Early Fathers, the wisdom of taking part in a summer school on Patristic studies or whether humour and relevance can be found in these subjects, then the opening day of the summer school would have dispelled those misgivings.

Dr George Bebabwi only barely managed to stick to his script as he spoke about “Discernment” with great style and humour. An Egyptian scholar now living in Indianapolis, he is a former director of the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, has lectured on Islam and Judaism in Cambridge, and was a tutor at Saint John’s College Nottingham while Bishop Richard Henderson was a student there.

At an early stage in his presentation he warned us against any “method” being applied to discernment and the search for holiness. “Christian life is not controlled by methods or guided by techniques. We have a fellowship with the persons of the divine and Holy Trinity,” he told us. “So, to participate in the life of God denies for us a method or a technique. We cannot be part of the life of a person – any person – by learning a method or a technique.”

He told the story of a monk in Egypt who wanted to be martyr. His abbot warned him against false heroism and told him it was easy to be unusual. True heroism, the abbot said, is found in daily life, looking for reality and finding God’s will there.

And he reminded us of an old priest who once told him: “You live the cross when you make the sign of the cross – accepting the harsh times when they come.” It was a serious treatment of discerning between good and evil, right and false doctrine, the intentions of the heart and its secret movements, and holy angels and evil ones, drawing on the writings of the Desert Fathers.

But throughout the discussion, there were moments of great compassion and humour. But then, as he quoted Saint Anthony, the founder of monasticism: “Joy and not fear are the signs of the holy.”

Playful holiness

Later, Dr Bebabwi also looked at “Holiness in the Eastern and Western Churches.” Holiness is not a virtue, he told us, but is “a participation in the holiness of God, period.” Humility, silence and ascetism are virtues in the practice of holiness. But holiness is not a virtue – it is a participation in God’s holiness. We can protect holiness by ascetism, but we cannot acquire holiness.

He told the story of a rabbi who once suggested to God: “Let’s play.”

“Play what?” asked God.

“Let’s play hide and seek,” suggested the rabbi.

“But I’ve been doing it all along in Old Testament,” said God.

“Then hide in the human heart,” the rabbi prompted.


“Because that’s the last place humans will look into and search.”

The beauty of holiness

Other speakers included Metropolitan Kallistos Ware of Pembroke College, Oxford, who introduced many people to Orthodoxy through his popular book, The Orthodox Church. For 35 years he taught Eastern Orthodox Studies at Oxford. I first heard him as a visiting lecturer when I was a student at the Irish School of Ecumenics 25 years ago.

In that book, Metropolitan Ware tells the story of Prince Vladimir of Kiev, who was still a pagan when he felt the need to know what the true religion was. He sent his followers to visit different countries in turn.

They first visited the Muslim Bulgars of the Volga, but reported back: “There is no joy among them, but mournfulness and a great smell; and there is nothing good about them.”

The envoys next visited Germany and Rome. In both places, they found the worship more satisfactory, but complained too that the worship was without beauty.

Finally, they travelled on to Constantinople, where they attended the Divine Liturgy in the Great Church of Aghia Sophia, and discovered what they desired. They reported back to Kiev: “We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. We cannot describe it to you: only this we know, that God dwells there among humans, and that their service surpasses the worship of all other places. For we cannot forget that beauty.”

The Monastery of Saint John the Baptist in Tolleshunt Knights in Essex (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

On the feast day of Saint Vladimir of Kiev, the participants in the summer school experienced some of that beauty and holiness when we visited the monks and nuns at the Stavropegic Monastery of Saint John the Baptist in Tolleshunt Knights, near Maldon in Essex.

The envoys from Kiev would have agreed that the early morning Divine Liturgy in the monastery church was one of unforgettable beauty.

After breakfast, Sister Magdalen spoke about “Monastic Holiness” and “Monastic Spirituality.” For her, “holiness is the divine life lived in human life, made possible in the incarnation, which shows us it is possible to live as the sons or daughters of God.”

Sister Magadlen is the author of a number of books, including Conversations with Children: Communicating our Faith. For her, the world is sustained by prayer, and every prayer is a cosmic event with cosmic dimensions and cosmic consequences. We shared a meal again with the monks and nuns at lunchtime, before returning to Cambridge that afternoon. But in spiritual terms I had spent a summer’s day sipping spiritual cocktails by the spiritual swimming pool.

An icon of the Ladder of Divine Ascent, illustrating the themes at the heart of the book by Saint John Climakos

‘To love is not just to be nice’

At Sidney Sussex, one of the monks of the monastery, Dr Nikolai Sakharov, looked at “Holiness in the Old and New Testaments,” tracing the movement from early ideas that saw holiness as the holiness of God to the New Testament concept of holiness that comes with living the word and following Christ in loving others. “For us Orthodox Christians, to love is not just to be nice,” he said. “To love is no longer an ethical or moral category, but an ontological category.”

The Revd Dr Fraser Watts spoke about “True and False Holiness,” looking at holiness and the personal transformation of the person on the pathway to holiness. Dr Watts is an Anglican priest and Starbridge Lecturer in Theology and the Natural Sciences at the University of Cambridge, a post that owes its origins and inspiration to the author Susan Howatch.

Referring to the developments in forgiveness therapy in psychology in the past decade or so, he said psychology is now better at giving helpful advice about forgiveness. But forgiveness should not be just because of the benefits, but because it is right and proper, he said. “God has forgiven humanity, so we should forgive.”

Professor Andrew Louth, one of the leading patristic scholars in Britain, has been Professor of Patristic and Byzantine Studies at University of Durham since 1996. In a paper on “The holy man in Late Antiquity,” he looked at the difference between the saint and the martyr, the holy man and the saint, the holy man and the wise woman, and the holy man and the holy place.

The liturgy of the heart

Professor Sebastian Brock of Wolfson College, Oxford, was introduced by the Principal of the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, Professor David Frost, who described Dr Brock as the world’s foremost Syriac scholar. The two worked together on the translations of the Psalms used in the Alternative Service Book of the Church of England (1980) and the Alternative Prayer Book of the Church of Ireland (1984).

Dr Brock spoke of the interior liturgy of the heart which is required as a response to the outward liturgy of the Church, and spoke of the three churches that need each other and need to function together: the heavenly church with the heavenly liturgy; the church of the altar and the liturgy on earth; and the church of the human heart with its interior liturgy.

Dr Marcus Plested, Vice-Principal and Academic Director of the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, and author of The Macarian Legacy, explored the Homilies of Saint Macarius when he spoke on “Experiencing Holiness: Saint Macarius.”

Professor David Frost, who has a particular expertise in Shakespeare, spoke about “Shakespeare and Nous: Holy Fools in King Lear.”

Great artists are the prophets and seers of their age, with enduring relevance and the power to influence beliefs and change lives, he told us. King Lear, while apparently the most agnostic and despairing of Shakespeare’s works, in essence is both compatible with Christian belief and fundamentally Christian in its message, which is matched only by great Russian writers such as Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, he said.

The purpose of the Liturgy

Archimandrite Ephrem Lash spoke about the Liturgy in his paper, “Sober Drunkenness: Holiness in the Liturgy.” Father Ephrem comes from an interesting family: his uncle, a Downside monk, was Bishop of Bombay, his brother is the theologian Nicholas Lash, while he is a monk of Mount Athos who works in a mainly Greek-Cypriot parish in London.

He said the Liturgy is a communal act, not private devotions. “We do not go to church to pray as individuals, we go to make a joyful noise unto God.” Everything about the Liturgy is holy, and the object of the liturgy is to make us partakers of God’s holiness, to have communion. He said the purpose of the Liturgy is not to produce the “real presence” but is communion, with the holy gifts transformed so that we may eat and drink them.

On our final evening, some of us – Anglicans, Lutherans and Orthodox, from Ireland, England, Iceland, and Canada, the Church of Ireland, the Church of England, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Iceland, the Antiochan Orthodox Church and the Russian Orthodox Church – adjourned to the Mitre, near Magdalene College.

Later as we sipped port in the Cloisters back at Sidney Sussex, we agreed the Mitre was appropriately named. Were we indulging in sober drunkenness or was it drunken sobriety? We may not have been holy fools, but we certainly came close communion with one another during that summer week in Cambridge.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological College. This essay first appeared in the September editions of the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough), the Diocesan Magazine (Cashel, Ossory and Ferns) and Newslink (Limerick and Killaloe).

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