Between the devil and the deep blue sea – nationalism and Orthodoxy

Relations between church and state can sometimes be fraught, but sometimes they can also be unhealthily close. I was reminded of this when I read this article on the site of Proekt.media entitled The Kremlin’s Elder – how the Russian government fell in love with mysticism. Proekt.media is an initiative of independent investigative journalists in Russian that has been publishing some remarkable stories about corruption and cronyism, particularly involving the circle around Putin. This month the Russian government has declared it a banned organisation, confiscated all its financial assets and declared all its journalists to be foreign agents.

I was drawn into reading the article because I recognised the photograph of the Elder referred to in the article’s title: I had seen him during my visit to the Orthodox monastery of Optina Pustyn back in 2002.

His name is Starets Iliy (Elder Elijah) and he struck me then as being a remarkable man. According to my friend Dima who took me to the monastery on pilgrimage, Elder Iliy, like many Elders at Optina and at other monasteries in Russia, has the spiritual gifts of insight and foresight. I have written about my visit to Optina Pustyna at length in the following older posts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

The article depicts him as a spiritual adviser to government officials who consult him for spiritual healing and advice about their futures. Since 2009 he has also been the spiritual adviser to Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church. He is very anti-Communist and brands non-believers as Satanists.

I recall from my visit to Optina Pustyn that the monastery shop sold leaflets about the dangers of non-belief, including one called Meditation – the route to hell. However possibly a more serious reason for this is the terrible event at Easter 1993 when three monks were killed by a “satanist” who broke into the grounds. He attacked and killed one monk outright with a large knife and then attacked a second who managed to give the alarm by ringing the bells. A third monk, alerted by the bells, came out to see what was happening and was also attacked and killed. All three monks are now buried next to each other in the monastery’s grounds and celebrated as ‘new martyrs of the faith’. So, you can see that for the monks who experienced this attack, unbelief can literally be a matter of life or death.

The article points out that Putin has met the Elder on several occasions and that the Elder is a big supporter, attacking opponents of the regime and asking people who visit him whether they pray for the President. It points out that this closeness to Putin is probably why other government officials frequent the Elder, as it provides another means of accessing ultimate power.

The original Russian article gives some interesting biographical information about Elder Iliy that is not translated into the English version. Born Aleksey Nozdrin, on his mother’s side of the family they were not poor, but under Stalin they were branded as kulaks and driven out of their home. His grandfather later died of hunger.

In 1941, at the start of the Second World War in Russia, his family was living in a tent. He came to Christianity through hearing a Tatar praying. There are various ‘miracles associated with his younger years. For example, in 1943 returning home from staying with his godmother, he was passed by a German vehicle that went over a bump causing a door to open and a map case to fall out. The occupants of the vehicle were so drunk they didn’t notice. The future Elder took the map case home and showed them to a Russian prisoner who looked after the Germans’ horses. This prisoner somehow passed the maps to the Russian army where they ended up in the hands of the Russian Commander, General Rokossovsky, and helped him take out Germain fortified areas during the Battle of Kursk.

Another miracle dates back to the late 1940s when he and his brother worked as hired workers and were paid in bread. At the station on the way back home the bread was stolen from them, so they returned home empty-handed. Aleksey cried and prayed for a long time in front of the Kazan icon of the Mother of God. He then went out into the street and saw on a white cloth a piping hot loaf of white bread.

After leaving school he served in the army before going to a technical college and then on to the seminary at the Church Academy in Leningrad. It was here that he got to know the future Patriarch Kirill. In the picture below, taken with fellow students at his technical college, the future Elder Iliy is standing in the back row on the right hand side:

Алексей (Илий) Ноздрин в техникуме (первый справа в верхнем ряду).

On becoming a monk he took the name Iliyan and claimed to see devils flying through the air. In the mid 1970s he was sent to the monastery of St Pantaleimon (then a run down monastery with a few Russian monks) on Mt Athos, where he served as a confessor until the late 1980s. On his return to Russian he ‘took the great schema’, in other words he took a vow to observe the most extreme ascetic practices (the highest level of monkhood), assumed the name Iliy and became a confessor at Optina Pustyn. Many ordinary people started going to him then to ask for help and also a lot of politicians and people from the underworld. I remember seeing him at Optina Pustyn in 2002 being asailed by people seeking advice wherever he went. I thought he looked ill and very tired.

In 2009 he moved to Peredelkino to become Patriarch Kirill’s confessor / spiritual advisor. That’s when he started to attract visits from government officials. The Elder can apparently take a lighter view of his reputation as a miracle worker. One evening, popping into the church he saw several people standing around and announced in a loud voice ‘Let there be light!” To the astonishment of those standing around suddenly there was light. The Elder was standing next to the light switch.

What is it that brings together church and state in these rather unhealthy relationships? I think this is particularly the case in Orthodox countries where often religion and nationalism go hand in hand. I am sure there are many reasons for this, but two stand out for me. The first goes back to Byzantine times when the Emperor was identified as God’s representative on earth and worked in close cooperation with the head of the church, the Patriarch. The interests of church and state largely coincided. That relationship was also transmitted to Russia and lasted really up to the eve of the Revolution, though probably during the last 20 years or so of that period the Church was showing signs of wanting to reform and modernise.

In the Soviet period, the Church survived on the ground partly ‘thanks to the babushkas’ as Solzhenitsyn said, but as an institution largely through endless tortuous accommodations, and at great cost to lives and faith. In the post Soviet area, there was a thaw: churches opened up, it was no longer a stigma to go to church. The state became a great patron to the Church, giving it back some of its old privileges, building new churches, increasing the number of seminaries and monasteries. In gratitude, the Church reverted to type and supported the state, encouraging people to vote for the government.

In Greece and other Balkan countries the church is associated with national identity. All through the long years of the Ottoman occupation, it was the church in Greece that kept alive the language and culture, becoming a focus for the development of a national identity when the new Greek state emerged after the 1821 Revolution.

Although we have a Church of England, established as a deliberate act of separation by a sulking monarch, it has never become the standard bearer for English identity. Perhaps because the monarch made themselves Supreme Governor (a heavily qualified form of Head of the Church), the national identification is with the monarchy, not with the established church. Not better, just different.

Reflections on my pilgrimage to the Holy Mountain

To close the series of posts on my recent pilgrimage to My Athos here are my reflections on the trip and what it meant to me.

It is a beautiful, unspoilt place, covered in trees and surrounded by clear water in all shades of blue. Even before I set foot on shore and entered a monastery I was struck by its wild landscape, mountains, steep cliffs and odd shaped rocks. Unlike many parts of Greece it is very green and overgrown: nature has been left to its own devices. With few inhabitants, no industry, few roads and even fewer vehicles, there is no pollution. The air is bright and clear and everywhere there is a deep silence.

Its remoteness is of course what attracted monks and ascetics to come here in the first place to pursue a contemplative life. But its isolation made it vulnerable to attack from marauders looking to plunder the monasteries’ wealth. Many of the older monasteries are build like fortresses, with a steep approach from the coast, thick walls and huge wooden, iron-clad doors to withstand the pirate assaults. I remember the rifles I saw in Fr Prodromos’s museum at Iviron from a time not so long ago when the monks had to defend themselves.

Today the monasteries may be cash poor, but they are very rich in artefacts, many the gift of Byzantine Emperors and other Orthodox rulers. Some of their greatest treasures are the books and manuscripts in their libraries, though these are hard to access. Neither Nikolaos or Argyrios seem to have been into any of the libraries. I could not work out whether this was because they were not allowed or because they were not interested. I was slightly disappointed that I was not offered the opportunity of a visit – perhaps in hindsight I should have taken the initiative and just asked. In the absence of the real artefacts, I can recommend an excellent site hosting digital versions of some of the more than 300,000 of the Holy Mountain’s books, parchments and manuscripts. Next time I will do my research on this site  in advance and identify which libraries I would like to visit, seek permission to visit their monasteries and see what happens.

What is a ‘pilgrimage’? It usually means a journey to a place that has some religious significance, eg a connection with the life of Christ or a saint. The journey is a physical one to reach a particular destination to meet a religious obligation and it can also involve an inward journey towards some form of self discovery. In many western languages, the word pilgrimage derives from the Latin peregrinus, meaning a foreigner or stranger; possibly because this is how the first ‘pilgrims’ were described by the people whose lands they passed through. In Greek the word for pilgrimage is proskynima which comes from proskynisi which means prostration, veneration or worship. Maybe it’s tenuous but the emphasis in Orthodoxy seems to be more on the veneration or worship aspects of the journey. That, at least, is how I experienced this particular pilgrimage with my companions.

My band of pilgrims came to venerate monasteries’ relics, not their treasures. I found initially a deep Protestant scepticisim surfacing when I witnessed my companions crossing themselves and kissing the reliquaries containing the hand of St George or the finger of St Basil. So different from the inert, white-walled churches of the C of E, purged of relics and a whole visual and aesthetic dimension by a politically inspired reformation. As I watched them, these pilgrims venerated the relics with such respect, humility and almost love. I was given the opportunity to join the back of the queue and moved along the line of relics, bowing to each with my right hand over my heart. Even without a Christian belief and the Greek Orthodox background I found it moving.

I enjoyed the services and the Byzantine chant which was particularly good at Iviron, less so at Dionysiou. Nikolaos and Argyrios though were less than impressed when I expressed a preference for Russian chant. Byzantine chant is much harder to attune your ears to. It does not have the immediate emotional appeal of its Russian equivalent and requires more intense listening. Although I had read the liturgy in Greek before I went to Athos, it was much harder to establish where we were in the service than it is for me when I am listening to the Russian Orthodox liturgy.  And that, apart from lack of faith, does create a barrier to full participation in what’s going on.

Watching the service, hearing the chanting in the darkness lit only by candles and in the company of all the saints on the frescoes and icons, I wondered how many men had stood here over the centuries doing exactly the same. There was only one point when I forgot one of Nikolaos’s initial instructions and found him next to me at Vespers, with a smile on his face politely but firmly removing my right hand from my trouser pocket.

The monasteries preserve the old (Julian) calendar, keeping Byzantine time where sunset is midnight and following the same pattern of services they have followed since their foundation in the 10th century. I felt that strong link and continuity with the Byzantine empire.

Despite its beautiful setting, its old buildings, stunning icons and frescoes, the Holy Mountain is not a museum. It is a home to the monks who try to live in continual communion with God. That’s why taking photographs must seem to them such an intrusion. I was struck by how open, welcoming and hospitable the monks are to the endless stream of visitors pouring through the monasteries every day, feeding them, accommodating them and letting them take part in their services. All, whether they have no faith or little faith, whether they go to church or not, whether they are Orthodox or not, are welcomed as pilgrims.

Argyrios told me that there are two types of monks: those who are refugees from the world, because they don’t fit in for whatever reason, and those with a calling. Life on Athos is so harsh and demanding that in general the former do not last long and leave.

There is something about submitting to the monastic routine that is calming. It slows life right down and gives it a completely different rhythm. I thought I would find the two meals a day hardship, but actually I did not feel hungry at all between meals. Considering their hard life the monks did not seem tired, on the contrary they looked bright and alert. Argyrios told me he once spent 30 days on the Holy Mountain and was exhausted at the end of it. I cam imagine that if you walk between monasteries and keep the monastic routine, it must be very tiring.

One aspect of our pilgrimage though remained completely invisible to me and that was the conversations that went on between the pilgrims and the monks. Argyrios told me he continues to be in dialogue with the monks. In particular he had been having a discussion with Fr Prodromos at Iviron that keeps going deeper and deeper: ‘It never comes to an end, after each visit it is like we put a comma or semi-colon’, he told me. Curious as to the nature of this dialogue I asked him what they talked about. Everything!’, he tells me, ‘and it’s been going on for 30 years’.

On the boat back to Ouranoupoli I fell into conversation with a young Frenchman who was visiting Mt Athos with a Greek friend. Amongst other things we talked about the services and agreed that the Hesychastic practice of repeating the Jesus Prayer (Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner) was a form of meditation, anchoring the individual in the present moment and creating a mindful state. I recalled a story that the Elder at Dionysiou told about St Basil that is very similar to one I have heard in Zen. Two monks met a pretty girl on the road. A bit later the monk said to St Basil: ‘Did you see that girl we met?’, and St Basil replied: ‘I saw but I didn’t look. That was then, this is here and now’. The services also function as a form of consciousness-altering mechanism similar to meditation. In some ways, despite their different frames of reference and structures of meaning I see similarities between Hesychastic and Buddhist practice. I do not think may monks would agree with me on this though. I remember seeing a leaflet in the shop at the Orthodox monastery of Optina Pustyn in Russian that was entitled ‘Meditation – the route to hell’.

So what does a pilgrimage mean to someone who is not Orthodox, does not even believe in God, and is actually a Buddhist? Clearly I was not able to take part fully in the services and did not share the beliefs of my fellow pilgrims. I did not share their joy in venerating relics. Equally I did not have the opportunity to have conversations with the monks and Elders. So in many ways my experience of the pilgrimage was of its outer forms. Despite that, it was an opportunity to encounter silence in a beautiful place, to experience in a little more depth a religious tradition with which I feel much affinity and to observe at first hand the faith of my companions. More importantly it allowed me to experience a simple way of life and feel the power of the monks concentrated prayer life and their compassion arising from a life dedicated to God.

It was an honour and a privilege to make this pilgrimage and I am very grateful to my Greek tutor Sofia who set this visit up for me; to Nikolaos and Argyrios for their great patience and kindness in leading me though it; and to my fellow pilgrims for accepting me into their band. Finally, I am eternally grateful to my wife for letting me fulfil this ambition.

A Pilgrimage to the Holy Mountain 6 – end of my stay at Iviron

I took this shot of the daily monastic service programme displayed on the notice board of the Guest House at Iviron. Here’s my translation:

Programme of services
Monday-Saturday                              Time      Sundays / feast days                    Time
(excluding feast days)

a. Midnight service (main church)           3.30    a. Midnight service (main church)         3.30
b. Matins (main church)                          4.00    b. Matins (main church)                       4.00
c. Divine Liturgy (Chapel)                        5.30    c. Hours (main church)                        6.00
d. Tea (in the refectory after the Divine Liturgy)   d. Divine Liturgy (main church)            6.30  e. Meal (refectory)                                 10.30    e. Meal (in the refectory after the                                                                                             Divine Liturgy)
f. Vespers (main church)                         5.00     f. Vespers (main church)                     5.00
g.
Prayers (Virgin Portaitissa)                  6.00     g. Prayers (Virgin Portaitissa)              5.45
h. Dinner (refectory)                                6.30     h. Dinner (refectory)                            6.15
i. Compline (Virgin Portaitissa)                7.00     i. Compline (Virgin Portaitissa)             6.45
On Saturdays dinner and Compline take place immediately after Great Vespers.

It is amazing to think that this daily programme of worship has been followed for hundreds of years, perhaps since Byzantine times. In fact Athos feels like a Byzantine time capsule: not just in terms of the liturgical progamme, but the buildings, the unspoilt landscape unmarked for the most part by signs of modernity, and the fact that Athos still follows the Byzantine Calendar and measurement of time. It also makes you aware of how much you are intruding on their daily programme and in some ways how much of a burden it is for the monasteries to have to provide accommodation and food to a constant flow of pilgrims.

It’s Sunday today and I wake at about 5.20am and can’t get back to sleep. I hear people getting up in the other dorms between 5.30-600 to prepare for the Liturgy at 6.30. I eventually manage to get up at about 6.00 and by the time I’m back from my ablutions my room mates are up and dressed with their bags packed. As I’m in the loo I hear the bells ringing to mark the imminent start of the service: once again I’m too late to record them.

Much of the service is conducted in the dark with minimal candles for the choirs, of which there are two singing antiphonally on either side of the nave, one often acting as the drone while the other chants the words. The choir leader cross and recrosses the nave as he moves from one choir to the other to conduct them. Nikolaos points out that the arrangement is cross shaped:

Altar

Choir 1                                             Choir 2

Congregation

I manage to record most of the service though I keep thinking that at any moment I will be stopped. At one point a twinkly-eyed monk stands next to me looking at my recorder and pulls out a small torch to examine it. I wait anxiously for his reaction, but he just smiles and nods once he understands what it is.

Photography is forbidden in the church, but there is one shot I wish I could have taken. It is of a seated monk with a white flowing beard chanting, seen in three quarter profile and beautifully lit by a candle that is hidden by the music stand.

There is much censing of the icons and the faithful and there’s a lot of coming and going all the time. After a while it has a very hypnotic quality to it. Argyrios tells me that he had a remarkable experience once during the morning Liturgy at Dionysiou (the next monastery we are due to visit) and he promises to tell me what happened when we’re there.

I find one of the most moving moments of the service occurs when the monks take it in turns to stand in the middle of the church, crossing themselves and bowing to the altar and then continuing to make the sign of the cross and bow as they turn clockwise in all directions and then back round to the altar again. As they do so they ask all present to forgive them. Those in the congregation who are so moved go up and do the same thing.

Sunday is joyful, like a feast day. In the refectory I have managed to get a seat at the top of one of the long tables. With my back to the wall I have an excellent view of the whole refectory and the senior monks’ top table. As we pilgrims stand waiting for prayers a group of 6-8 monks process in to a joyful chant. Breakfast is a bowl of thin noodles topped with small pieces of flaked tuna in a tomato sauce, with feta, boiled egg, bread, an apple and a glass of red wine.

Today I can see the reader very clearly, as he seems to hang half way up the wall like a static talking icon. I watch the Abbot who seems to be taking in everything that’s going on in the Refectory. At the end of the meal a monk comes round to all the tables putting into our outstretched palms a small teaspoon of ‘kolyva’ ( a mixture of wheat grains pine nuts and sultanas).Traditionally this is something that is eaten at funerals. I am intrigued by the monk doing this as he is quite young and active (he’s been around shusshing us at various points during the meal when the volume of noise rose too much) and even more by the fact that he is Japanese. I wonder what journey he has been on to fetch up on the Holy Mountain. At the end of the meal, the monks process out again chanting. The Abbot to our right blesses us we emerge, while the cooks to our left bow deeply, and the remaining monks form a short tunnel to greet us.

Time for us to collect our things from the guest house and make our way down to the arsenas for the next stage of our trip. I feel quite sad to be leaving Iviron this morning.

 

 

Paris in the autumn – La Sainte Chappelle

La Sainte Chappelle_

La Sainte Chappelle on the Ile de la Cite is hemmed in by buildings on all sides which adds to the sense of a pinched structure that is being forced upwards. Its external appearance however gives no clue to the magnificence of its internal decoration.

It was built in 1248 by Louis IX (Saint Louis) to house two relics that he had bought from the Emperor of Byzantium, the Crown of Thorns and fragments of the True Cross.

La Sainte Chappelle 1

The 15 recently restored, soaring Gothic stained glass windows depict over 1,000 religious scenes and the light filtering through the rich colours in the glass creates an atmosphere of enchantment.

La Sainte Chappelle

La Sainte Chappelle 2

The strong colours and detail of the individual images is very impressive, but there are so many images and most of them not easily seen, that it almost discourages looking at the detail. Again and again you are forced back to try and absorb the cumulative effect of this extravagant decoration:

La Sainte Chappelle - stained glass La Sainte Chappelle - stained glass 2

 

The rose window over the main royal entrance, for example, is quite breathtaking, but it’s impossible to see the detail:

La Sainte Chappelle - rose window

La Sainte Chappelle is very beautiful but all a bit overwhelming to take in at one go. I liked focusing in on some of the detail:

La Sainte Chappelle -angel La Sainte Chappelle - crown of thorns 2

La Sainte Chappelle - crown of thorns

My favourite detail is these two angels on the central column between the royal entrance doors. Why are they smiling?

La Sainte Chappelle - angels on main doors

Finally, right next door to La Sainte Chappelle is a site familiar to fans of the French TV series Les Engrenages (Spiral), the Palais de Justice.

Palais de Justice

Islamic art and the mosques of Istanbul

Istanbul was my first introduction to Islam and the world of Islamic art. The most obvious sign of being in an Islamic culture was the call to pray five times a day. Initially this was quite a culture shock, particularly at 5.30am. But it soon became a familiar punctuation point in the day and, when in an area where we were surrounded by mosques, a thrilling and beautiful sound.

The main mosques in Istanbul are of course popular with tourists, but we were struck by how calm and peaceful even the Blue Mosque was inside and how reverently the mosques are treated. They are living buildings, with people constantly coming and going, dropping in to pray as part of their day, as naturally as they might go and do their shopping. Removing shoes at the door and walking on beautifully patterned carpets certainly contributes to the creation of this calm atmosphere.

But perhaps the most overwhelming aspect of the mosques is the extraordinary beauty of the decoration. Islam forbids the depiction of the human form and so Islamic art focuses on geometric designs, designs based on natural forms such as plants and flowers and quotations from the Quran in elaborate Arabic calligraphy. The combination of the peacefulness of the mosques and the richness of the decor is unique.

Here are some examples of Islamic art from the mosque interiors:

Mosque doors are often very old and made of wood with beautiful carved panels on them. This is usually not evident when you go in because they are frequently obscured by a leather cover to protect them from the elements. The mosque attendants are usually happy to let you look underneath to admire the decoration.

Probably one of the most distinctive features of Islamic religious art are the tiles used to decorate the interiors of the mosques. These often use floral patterns, particularly in arabesquse (repeating designs of interlacing or scrolling floral and foliage patterns) in distinctive colours, particularly deep blues and rich reds. Many of the finest tiles in the mosques of Istanbul were made at Iznik (Nicaea) – a major centre of porcelain and tile manufacture from the seventeenth century onwards.

Looking at these tiles close up I was reminded of the floral patterns on William Morris wallpaper and wonder whether he was actually influenced by Ottoman designs. Clearly Ottoman design in turn is influenced by Chinese vegetal and floral design that came into this part of Europe from the sixteenth century onwards.

Here is the cemetery to the side of the Little Aya Sofia. The original church on this site was built as a smallscale model of the main Haghia Sofia in Byzantine times, but converted into a mosque at the fall of Byzantium.

Cemetery at Little Aya Sofia

One essential element of worship in Islam is the preparatory ritual ablutions required

Worshippers gathered inside the New Mosque for Friday prayers:

In preparation for Friday prayer a mosque official puts out carpets in the courtyard for the faithful:

Domes of the Blue Mosque

The interior of the domes though are among my favourite decorated items in the mosques. Added to the peaceful atmosphere and the soft light filtering through stained glass windows, the richness of the colours and variety of the repeating patterns on the domes and walls have an almost hypnotic and calming effect.

Interior view of the Blue Mosque

Dome in the Blue Mosque

Arches in the Blue Mosque

Dome in the Blue Mosque

Domes in the Blue Mosque

Domes in the Blue Mosque

Dome in the Blue Mosque

I was impressed in one mosque how even the underside of a balcony was richly decorated;

Arch, balcony and dome

Domes of the Blue Mosque