02 October 2016

A summer retreat in
a unique monastery in
the Essex countryside

A stroll through the Essex countryside in late summer … or was it early autumn (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

Over the past decade, I have spent a day almost each summer on a retreat in the Monastery of Saint John the Evangelist in Tolleshunt Knights in Essex.

The monastery is about 75 km south-east of Cambridge, and these annual visits have been organised by the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies as part of the patristics summer school held each year in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge.

Enjoying the footpaths and country lanes of Essex in the summer sunshine (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The journey from Cambridge brings us through the East Anglian countryside and through pretty towns and villages with names such as Saffron Walden and Bishop’s Stortford Braintree, Coggeshall and Tiptree. The area is well-known for fruit farming and jam making, and Tolleshunt Knights is close to Tiptree, which grew up around the Wilkins Jam Factory, built in 1885.

Tiptree is known today because of the jam factory established in 1885 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Three neighbouring villages with the name Tolleshunt emerged in early Norman England – Tolleshunt D’Arcy was acquired by the D’Arcy family, Tolleshunt Major came to the Le Majeur family, and Tolleshunt Knights belonged to the Le Chevallier family, although it may once have belonged to the Knights Templar, who had considerable holdings in Essex.

Mediaeval parish church

All Saints’ Church, the former parish church of Tolleshunt Knights, is a mile or two from the present village (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The old Church of England parish church, All Saints’ Church stands a mile or two from the heart of the present village of Tolleshunt Knights, which suggests the village shifted with changing farming practices over the centuries, or moved to escape the shifting coastal marshes to the south.

There is no evidence of an earlier Saxon church, and All Saints’ Church dates back to the 1140s. One of the tombs in the church is reputedly that of Sir John atte Lee, dated from 1380, and has connections with the legends of Robin Hood.

The south porch of the church dates from the 15th or early 16th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

With increasing affluence brought to the area by the wool trade, the church was enlarged in the 14th and 15th centuries. Inside the church there is a 13th century piscina and a 15th century chancel arch. The 15th century south doorway, with partly restored moulded jambs and a two-centred arch, has a moulded label with head-stops of two bishops, one of which is defaced. The south porch dates from the 15th or early 16th century.

In 1768, the church had a timber belfry with two bells and a shingled spire. However, the bell dated 1575 has been stolen, and the other bell has been removed to safe-keeping in the monastery, which also keeps the now-broken font.

All Saints’ Church was altered and repaired in the 19th century. But by the 1920s, it had fallen into disrepair, and by the 1930s it was no longer in use as the parishioners attended the newly-built Saint Luke’s Church in neighbouring Tiptree. The closure of the village school followed in 1935. Tolleshunt Knights gradually lost its other services too, including the railway station, the post office, the village shop and its own local garage. Even the number of pubs has been reduced from five or four to one.

Although funds were raised to repair the church in the late 1930s, with the outbreak of World War II this money was donated to the Spitfire Fund in 1940. By the early 1950s, All Saints’ Church was almost derelict. The final blow came with the great gale in 1953, which brought down a section of the roof. It was clear the restoration of the church was beyond the means of the local community.

Founding a monastery

The Old Rectory and monastic buildings at the Monastery of Saint John the Baptist in Tolleshunt Knights (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

In 1958, the Church of England agreed to sell All Saints’ Church and the rectory to the Orthodox Church. Since then the church has been carefully restored and is now attached to the Monastery of Saint John the Baptist, which is built around the former rectory in Tolleshunt Knights.

The mixed community of monks and nuns and is the oldest Orthodox religious community in Britain. It was founded by Elder Sophrony (Sakharov) with an initial membership of six drawn from a number of countries.

The monastery at Tolleshunt Knights was built around the old rectory (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Father Sophrony (1896-1993) was originally a painter who developed a longing to devote his art to exploring the nature of Divine reality. He was born Sergei Symeonovich Sakharov in Moscow 120 years ago on 23 September 1896, the son of Russian Orthodox parents.

As a child, he prayed daily, later recalling that he would pray for 45 minutes without stress. Even as a child, he claimed to have experienced the Uncreated Light, but thought casually that every other child had similar experiences.

He studied first at the Academy of Arts, and then at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture. But as he came to see the Christian focus on personal love as finite, he fell away from the faith of his childhood and began to explore Eastern mysticism.

A six-winged seraph in a fresco on a ceiling in the Monastery of Saint John the Baptist in Tolleshunt Knights (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

In 1921, he left Russia and moved first to Italy, then to Berlin, before arriving in Paris in 1922, where his exhibitions attracted much attention from the French media.

In Paris, he realised that ‘I’ in God’s call to Moses (‘I am who I am’) and the Gospel command to love God, were a call to personal relationship. One cannot love a concept, and he found that love is relational. He came to realise that Christ’s precept to love God totally is not psychological but ontological, and that the only way to relate to God is personal, and that the necessity of love is personal.

Following this experience, he returned to the Christianity and the Orthodoxy of his childhood at Easter 1924. He began studying at Saint Sergius Orthodox Theological Institute in Paris, where his lecturers included the theologians Sergius Bulgakov and Nicholas Berdyaev. In 1925, he left Paris for Mount Athos, where he entered the mainly Russian Monastery of Saint Panteleimon.

Father Sophrony was ordained a deacon in 1930, and soon became a disciple of Saint Silouan the Athonite, although the saint had no formal theological education and was never ordained a priest. When Saint Silouan died in 1938, he entrusted his papers to Father Sophrony. On his instructions, Father Sophrony left the monastery to live first at Karoulia, then at a cave near Saint Paul’s Monastery on Mount Athos. There he came to realise the interdependence of all humanity. In 1941, he was ordained priest, and he soon became a spiritual father to many monks on Mount Athos.

The end of World War II and the catastrophe of the Greek Civil War left Father Sophrony in a difficult position as a non-Greek on Mount Athos. In 1947, he returned to Paris, where he moved into a Russian old people’s home in St Genevieve-des-Bois as the assistant chaplain and a father confessor. There his work led to the formation of a small community that centred its prayer life on the Jesus Prayer.

In 1948, he produced his first edition of Staretz Silouan outlining Saint Silouan’s principles, including prayer for the whole world, God-forsakenness and the idea of all humanity being connected. In Paris, he also worked from 1950 to 1957 with Vladimir Lossky who influenced his thinking on many contemporary issues, and his Trinitarian thought and its application to the Church and humanity.

Inside the original monastic chapel in the former Rectory in Tolleshunt Knights (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In 1952, Father Sophrony produced a second edition of Staretz Silouan, which brought Saint Silouan to the attention of a wider public. Meanwhile, the small community he had gathered around wanted to explore the monastic life. With the help of Rosemary Edmunds, they bought the Old Rectory at Tolleshunt Knights in 1958, and the Community of Saint John the Baptist was formed within a year.

From the beginning, this was a mixed community, and the first six members were both monks and nuns. Father Sophrony continued to publish extensively and his books included a translation of Monk of Mount Athos (1973), Wisdom of Mount Athos (1975), His Life is Mine (1977), and We Shall See Him As He Is (1985).

The tomb of Father Sophrony in the crypt in Saint John’s Monastery in Tolleshunt Knights (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Meanwhile, a problem emerged for the community when the monastery was told that it could only bury its members there if an underground crypt was built. Father Sophrony said he would not die until the crypt was ready. When he died on 11 July 1993, he was buried in the crypt.

Icons in the monastery

The iconstasis and doors in the original chapel in Tolleshunt Knights are the work of Leonid Ouspensky and Father Gregory Ivanovich Krug (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The original chapel was laid out in the Old Rectory by Father Sophrony. The iconostasis or icon screen in this chapel is the work of two of the most important Russian émigré icon writers of the last century, Leonid Alexandrovich Ouspensky (1902-1987) and his friend and colleague, Father Gregory Ivanovich Krug (1908-1969).

The doors of the iconstasis are the work of Leonid Ouspensky (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Ouspensky, who painted the royal doors in the iconostasis, is known as an important artist and iconographer of the 20th century, and for his seminal books on the theology of icons, written with Vladimir Lossky, including The Meaning of Icons and The Theology of the Icon. These books introduced Western readers to the spiritual and theological understanding of icons.

The monastery refectory has frescoes in the style of Ouspensky (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The influence of Ouspensky and Father Gregory is also seen on the walls of the refectory in the monastery. These are decorated with frescoes and murals using oil and turpentine on plaster, to look like Byzantine frescoes, under the direction of Sister Maria, who had studied iconography in Paris with Ouspensky.

The monastic community today

The Visitation of Abraham ... a fresco on a wall in the Monastery of Saint John the Baptist in Tolleshunt Knights (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

The Monastery of Saint John the Baptist has been under the authority of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople since 1965. The main spiritual practices are the repetition of the Jesus Prayer for about four hours a day and the serving of the Divine Liturgy three or four times a week, practices that were inspired by Father Sophrony’s experiences on Mount Athos.

The Hegumen or Abbot, Archimandrite Kyrill, is originally from Australia. The community consists of about 40 men and women – the majority are nuns, with a smaller number of monks, and they come from about 14 nations. In the words of one nun, it is ‘a melting pot.’

Patrick Comerford with Father Nikolai Sakharov, a monk of the monastery

Father Nikolai Sakharov, who was a student of Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, has a doctorate from Oxford for his thesis, which was published as I Love Therefore I am: The Theological Legacy of Archimandrite Sophrony (2003).

Sister Magdalen, a member of the community, is known throughout the Orthodox world for her work with children and for her books, including Conversations with Children: Communicating our Faith and Children in the Church Today.

During each visit, there has been time for walks in the monastery orchards and gardens, which look out onto the sea and across to Bradwell, or through some of the beautiful countryside surrounding the monastery.

August was turning to September when I went for a walk during this year’s visit, from the monastery to All Saints’ Church and through the green and golden Essex countryside. As I walked back to the monastery, the blackberries were already ripening in the brambles along the side of the road. It was a taste of summer, and it was a taste of autumn, a memory or summer and a promise of autumn.

Memories of summer and promises of autumn in the Essex countryside (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Canon Patrick Comerford lectures in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This feature was first published in the ‘Church Review’ (Dublin and Glendalough) and the ‘Diocesan Magazine’ (Cashel, Ferns and Ossory) in October 2016.

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