Weakness at the beginning of Lent

I am tired. I feel tired and afraid, with no control over anything. At my best moments, I realise that this is a gift – the gift of awareness, of truth. Because the truth is we are never in control over anything. We invent little worlds (our group of friends; our family; our parish; our monastery) over which we may claim some sort of dominion. We invent silly games (our careers, the rules of our society) which we can win. We upgrade or downgrade these games carefully, so that we are never pushed beyond what we feel we can control.

But look up, look beyond the borders of these silly little kingdoms where we rule. Lent is a horrid period. Year by year, Lent is when some force within me pushes me out of my comfort zones, and I find myself in a lions’ den, face to face with the beasts, utterly unprepared to fight, totally helpless, fully aware that the only possible outcome is to be slaughtered.

This is nothing new. This happens every year. Yet, I somehow survive, because the same Force that pushes me out of my self-created kingdoms, out of my self-created games – that same Force saves me from those wild beasts at the last moment.

And this changes everything.

Perhaps I should not share this with you. Perhaps it would help the monastery more if I kept my weakness to myself and pretended to be someone I am not. This would be the proper thing to do – but I have never tried to be proper; I have never cared to replace my honest, weak self with the false image of a man who is in control. Those who play this game are one step away from a type of suicide – not to allow yourself to be seen, to cover yourself under the expectations of others, to betray the feeble, yet precious being that you are out of fear that you will not stand up to the standards of others… This is the definition of hell, the betrayal of one’s deepest, most intimate self. I don’t want to leave this world having played a respectable part, yet knowing that who-I-am was never visible. What can be worse than to go though life as someone else?  What bigger failure than to sell out your own self?

If you don’t live as yourself – weak and fallen, as you are – how can you love? Whose love is it that you feel? With whose love do you embrace the world around you? Whose good deeds and whose sins are your good deeds and your sins? When you hide yourself under an image, you basically step aside and die – all that is left is the image you created. It is this image – not yourself – who loves and hates, who lives and dies. You will never experience love – your love – until you own up to your true self. You will never experience life – not even death, ultimately – until you settle down in your own life and accept yourself as you are. I don’t mean this in the sense of ‘this is who I am and there is no reason to change’, but in the sense of ‘this is who I am, this is the real starting point of any change’.

No healing is possible. No repentance is possible. No prayer is possible, until the heart that heals, repents and prays is your sinful, fallen, yet beating heart. False images do not have hearts. False images do not love. Most painful than all, false images will never reflect Christ, because there is nothing false in Christ, nothing common between Life and void. Prayer begins with pain at one’s fallen nature; it grows out of this pain, and its flowers bloom out of it.

My ‘lesser’ versions: the ill, the weak and the mortal

I have seen people die. I have seen people suffer. I have seen the anguish in their eyes. Most times, it comes from a combination of fear of the weak beings they have become, and regret for the strong being they once were. Fear of turning into something we no longer recognise as ourselves, and regret for losing something we perceived as our ‘correct’ selves.

We only think of ourselves as ‘whole’ when we fit into a wellness norm fed by the idolatric attitude we have for the society we are part of. This society – here and now – tells me that I am all right when I am healthy; therefore, I am my ‘proper’ version, I am my ‘correct’ self, I am who I am supposed to be only when I am healthy. This society tells me that illness and sadness and all forms of weakness are wrong; therefore, I am no longer my ‘proper’ version when I am ill – my ‘correct’ self has become corrupted, infested, compromised.

But society changes its mind, because it is empty, devoid of meaning, and – like any form without substance – it takes in whatever substance fits its purpose. To be healthy once meant to be chubby and live the sort of life that gave you gout. To be your true self meant at different times to die young, to suffer from melancholia, and to kill yourself in the name of honour. Things have changed. Today (and mostly here, in the West), we worship the healthy, strong, optimist being. Anything else is not properly human.

The implications are the same, though: only when we fit these norms we think of ourselves as being ‘ourselves’. Whatever does not fit these norms is not part of us, it is us being ‘someone else’, a lesser version of myself, an amputated, decayed version of myself, which either has lost things proper to my true self (‘I cannot move anymore’) or has taken over and incorporated things that are alien to my true self, things from the outside, things that entered my true self and diseased it (illness; sadness; death).

We have this perfect version of who we are supposed to be, and we define our happiness depending on the level of conformity to that ideal. We replace the living being that we are – changing, evolving and discovering oneself from all perspectives, including the ‘negative’ ones (illness; old age) – with the immobile poster-like image of the ‘healthy young man’. There is not much difference in essence between the tyranny of this healthy young idol and other tyrannies we have seen in the recent past: the arian man of the second world war, the new man of communism, the jihad man of terrorism. They all want to eradicate what they perceive as corrupted, lesser versions of humanity.

In some way, the tyranny of our idol is even more violent, because we not only enforce it upon others, but we internalise it and we end up inflicting it upon ourselves. A Nazi criminal could never become a Jew himself; his idol never reflected its hatred against himself. We, on the other hand, we all shall as some point feel weak, we all shall get sick, we all shall become old and face the reality of our mortality. To shy away from these ‘lesser’ versions of ourselves, to reject and to fight against them is to reject and fight against ourselves. To run away from them is to run away from myself. To fear and hate them is to fear and hate myself.

The hollow gaze of a beast

I am beginning to think that I am secretly a bear. I definitely have the social skills of one. I am as voluble as a bear during hibernation, and as attached to my room as a bear to its cave. In all honesty, I am continuously amazed anyone still wants to talk to me given how bad I am at keeping in touch. The simple reality is that I function in a state of amazement. I have rewritten this paragraph so many times; I can find no better way to describe this. I function like a stunned being. I go through the motions I see in other people; I do what it takes to be functional in this world. But deep down, I am paralysed.

I once saw a huge bull being taken to the slaughterhouse. I was in my monastery in Moldavia at the time. The animals know. The know perfectly well that behind that big door there is death. Many of them go wild, and desperation takes over. Some times, their hearts fail and they collapse, so they have to be dragged inside. I remember this bull: a huge, beautiful animal. I remember its stare. Its muscles had completely frozen; there was no movement at all – not a blink, not a sound. At the centre of that heard of bellowing animals, fighting to escape death, I remember that hollow, frozen gaze as the bull was pushed by three men towards the gate, inside the slaughterhouse.

I function very much like that stunned animal. When I look in the mirror (which I purposely try not to do) I recognise that gaze. There is something of that in everyone. Often times, I switch off as people talk to me about their holidays and homes and plans. I switch off and I try to recognise that frozen gaze in their eyes: beyond the noise, beyond the superficial glitter of life, that hollowness is always there. It is imprinted in us. It is part of what makes us who we are, part of what makes us human.

I suppose this is my apology for failing to always keep ‘on schedule’ with posting here, recording our podcasts and so on. I am sorry. I am aware I should be doing more, especially as many of you continue to support the monastery even through these periods of silence. Perhaps you feel something. Perhaps you yourselves recognise something in this silence.

I have prayed to make sense of this desperation. I live with a perfect hope that we shall all survive the slaughterhouse, but this hope comes with an equally perfect awareness of the hollowness of this life. I have prayed to make sense of this. I have also prayed that I loose neither the hope, nor the desperation; living with both creates an intense tension, and that tension feeds my heart. I have an intuition that this tension will lead me to Life.

If I have learned something so far, it is that I must protect and treasure this life, because the seed of Life is buried in it. The hollowness of this life, its senselessness, its pain have taught me that I myself can only get as far as the gate of the slaughterhouse. If there is any hope to make it beyond that gate, if there is any hope to survive it, it does not come from me. I cannot be my own saviour. I cannot be anyone’s saviour. This is a tough lesson to learn and impossible to fully accept without the grace of God. I am nothing without a Saviour. It is a tough lesson, but we cannot run away from it. Horrid as it feels, this is the foundation of all our hope.

Just think how different things could have been, had Adam stared into his own hollowness and accepted it, instead of collapsing at the feet of the devil. Had Adam accepted this truth, had he accepted that he cannot be his own saviour, has he reached out for a Saviour, this world would have known a different history. Perhaps this is the point of it all: to learn the lesson Adam has not; to stare into the hollowness of our being and not despair, to not collapse as he did, because we know that a Saviour has taken on the form of this hollowness and lifted it up to Life.

Someone’s asked in an email from where I get the strength to keep going

People are so beautiful it hurts. We all have this beauty in us, this otherworldly potential to be so much more than what we settle for. At times, this awareness is the only thing that makes sense of this senseless existence, its very foundation, the star calling us forward, the purpose of this flesh. Most of the times, though, it makes life ever more painful, because it throws light upon the dark truths we have spent a lifetime learning to ignore.

Someone’s asked in an email from where I get the strength to keep going. The raw answer is: fear. Fear and desperation and the knife-like breath of death I see slowly and implacably eating me from the inside, consuming the beauty within myself, the beauty within you. I look in the mirror and I see a caged animal, waiting in line to be sacrificed. I live with the awareness that none of the breaths I’ve taken, none of the things I’ve felt and done have life within themselves.

The most painful thing I live with, the heaviest weight I carry is the total, perfect knowledge that there is no memory here to preserve even the slightest trace of our sparks of life.

I look in the mirror and I see nothing that will survive death. I stare at this nothingness and life becomes a desperate attempt to outrun death. At times, this turns into pure isolation, and no island can be far enough; no darkness thick enough to cover me. Other times, for very few and rare moments, this turns into white silence. A bright blanket of silence that covers my mind like rarefied air. Up there, in those rarefied clouds, floating high above death, there is Rest, there is Peacefulness.

One photograph

This is we, the pilgrims of last summer, praying on the beach of St Columba’s Bay on Iona. When I close my eyes and think back to 2015, this is the image that captures it best: a handful of people, travelling huge distances to be here and pray for a while. I love the silence of it, the strangeness of it, I love how absorbed by prayer we were and how completely unaware of being photographed.

We took the difficult path to the Bay that morning. We had woken up very early and celebrated the Liturgy in the small chapel we improvised in the dining room. We crossed by ferry from Mull to Iona, and set out on a three hour-walk through the harsh, unpopulated heights of the island. We stopped several times to rest and take in the wild beauty of this tiny piece of earth surrounded by water. There was time to pray together, and there was time to pray alone.

We must have spent an hour or even more at the Bay. We had carried an icon of the Celtic Saints with us, which we placed it on a stone and prayed. None of us knew we were being photographed. We were simply praying, each of us trying to bring light into the story of our own life, yet somehow together.

Thank you all who have joined me last summer, and thank you all who have joined me for the longer, still ongoing pilgrimage of founding this monastery. It is not an easy walk. It sometimes gets too difficult, and we must stop for a while and pray. We are all coming from our own separate stories, yet this pilgrimage somehow connects us and makes us one.

And, as we struggle and we fall, as we take one step forward and one backwards, as we intertwine our life stories with the story of this monastery – unknown to us, it all enters God’s eternal memory, like a large, silent photograph which captures it all, so that nothing is lost and nothing is wasted.

Waiting for Christ

This has been such a tough year – not only for so many of us, but for the world as a whole. Like never before, I long for Christ to come and turn this dust we are made of into Divine Flesh once again. The Nativity Fast never felt so difficult for me, I went through it with such a heavy heart. Everywhere you look, you see war and terror, bombings, torture, extremism of all sorts.

This is why, for over a month now, I have not posted anything on the website, nor have I recorded any new podcasts for Ancient Faith Radio. I apologise for that. I needed to wait until I could see something bright again, something beautiful and full of love in the world.

I was wrong, of course, as I often am. I was wrong because I focused on our dust, instead of looking up to Christ, instead of lifting up my heart to the only Spring of beauty, the only Source of love.

Now, Christmas is almost here. Christ will descend again upon the world, and the world will once again open up to His presence. Deep down, the earth changes. Deep down, we all change. I have never longed for Him as I do now. I have never felt as thirsty for His presence as I am now. The world itself never felt so dry and empty and lost without Him.

Thank you all for being close to me and the Monastery this year. I pray for you. I pray for all of us. May Christ’s Incarnation bless us all. May His Birth change the world into a place of salvation – for you, for us, for the generations to come.

On the Feast Day of St Oran of Iona

I would have liked to write one more post about St Brendan’s Isle, mostly to show you the ruins of the sixth century church and monastery which we shall visit during our pilgrimages next summer. Since today we celebrate St Oran, I’ll postpone that for a while, so we may focus on this little known, but wonderful saint and the amazing church on Iona dedicated to him. The two – the saint and his church – are perfect examples of humility and dedication to Christ. St Oran’s life has always been in the shadow of St Columba, his much better known abbot. Similarly, St Oran’s chapel is rarely given much thought; the Abbey attracts everyone’s attention, while St Oran’s stands by, almost invisible to most people.

You no doubt know the story of St Columba’s arrival to Iona in 563. For a long while, the saint and his companions tried in vain to build a church. For no reason, what they built one day would be reduced to ruins by the next morning. This happened several times, until eventually St Columba was told in a vision that the land required a human sacrifice for the building to stand up. This human sacrifice was St Oran, who offered himself to be buried alive so he may consecrate the land.

This sacrifice had nothing to do with this world and the demonic gods of pre-Christian Iona. Instead, it had everything to do with St Oran’s monastic brothers and the heritage these first monks were called to leave to the world by establishing the monasteries in the Scottish Isles. St Oran’s sacrifice was not meant to please some pagan spirits, but to firmly imprint on his companions’ hearts the otherworldliness of their faith. They needed to be free from the world (the world outside and the world inside) to the most extreme extent if their mission from God were to be successful.

St Oran’s faith and the decisions he made based on his faith cannot be in any way reconciled with the values of this world. They betray a way of thinking in which this life and its fulfilment (whatever one may understand by that) are not ultimate aims. St Columba and the other monks needed to build their monastery on the foundation of St Oran’s faith, as a sign over time that Christianity is not of this world and neither is their monastery.

St Oran was the first Christian to be buried on Iona. His body was the first Christian body to enter this land. The first Christian church on that pagan isle was built over his grave. St Oran’s holy madness, his willing foolishness for Christ, his otherworldliness: these are the true foundations of the monastery. They are the true foundations of Christianity itself.

The Irish Cells on St Brendan’s Isle

There is something unique about St Brendan’s island, something I find very difficult to put into words, because I have no term of comparison. These Celtic Pilgrimages are filled with places of such spiritual strength that they can be overwhelming. About Iona, there is a saying that no pilgrim will ever come here just once. You will always return because you need to hear once more the things you’ve heard in your heart the first time. This is true of all the isles; in some ways, it is even stronger on the smaller, more secluded ones, precisely because of their very remoteness and silence.

Let me tell you a secret. Of all the amazing places we see during our pilgrimages, my heart aches for four in particular: St Brendan’s beehive cell; the hermit caves on St Kenneth’s Isle; St Columba’s Bay on Iona; and the Nuns’s Cave on Mull. It is revealing to me, as the leader of these pilgrimages, that people tend to wander alone here. After we pray together, each of us instinctively looks for solitude to pray alone. It is as if we all answer a personal silent call from the cliffs, the hills or the coast of the ocean.

There is something deeply unsettling about these sites, something that immediately throws you out of your spiritual comfort zone. The things we learn to avoid, the aspects of our faith we gradually learn to ignore somehow become the essential, central themes here. These are un compromising places, dangerous places for anyone except uncompromising characters of dangerous, uncompromising faith. I hope to tell you about all these places over time, but let’s start with few words about St Brendan’s cell.

The ‘data’ concerning the cell is itself impressive beyond belief. Dating back to the very early 500s, it is stunningly well-preserved. Fifteen centuries later, its unmistakably Irish character is perfectly obvious, building a direct link with St Brendan’s first monastic community. All the original monastics were Irish, and they built their first cells as they did in their own country. The beehive cell on St Brendan’s are identical with those you find on the Skellig Islands, for instance.

What makes this cell even more remarkable is that it is an extremely rare example of a double beehive cell. From what I know – please tell me if this is not true – the cell on St Brendan’s is the only example of a double beehive cell in Scotland. We don’t really know why the Christian Celts built these double cells, just as we don’t know why they are so rare. The most likely explanation is that they were intended for the use of the Abbot of the monastery, who would have needed the second space to hear the brothers’ confessions and to offer them private guidance.

It is a unique experience to kneel in this cell and to pray for St Brendan’s guidance. Just kneel down and ask him to accept you as one of his community, and to cover you with his protection after your return home; just ask for the unspeakable, ask with boldness, ask with the positive desperation of the one who feels lost but refuses to give up the fight. Hope against hope. ‘Christ beside me, Christ within me.’ – these words come from the heart of a tradition that knew this feeling very well.

The Story of St Brendan’s Monastery

Praying in St Brendan’s monastery is one of the most spiritual experiences of our pilgrimages. To get to the isle is itself an adventure. We wake up very early in the morning, then we find our way to a small loch on Mull, where we are met by two local fishermen and their boat. They will take us to the isle, although they themselves have never been there. It takes a group of American and British Orthodox pilgrims to get these local men to the site of St Brendan’s Monastery.

After about three hours in cars, motor boats and inflatable dinghies (yes, indeed!) we finally get to the island. A sign tells us that ‘you stand amid the ruins of the most complete early Christian monastery in Scotland.’ Most of us associate the Celtic Isles of Scotland with St Columba’s monastery on Iona. And yet, two decades before St Columba landed on Iona, in the very early 500s, St Brendan had already founded a monastery here.

Unlike St Columba, though, St Brendan’s presence seems to have had less impact on the local history. My instinct is that the two saints had very different callings. St Columba was clearly a missionary monk, and the tales regarding the hundreds of monasteries and churches he founded testify to that. St Brendan also founded many communities all over the British Isles. His heart, though, seems to have been elsewhere, more focused on the transformation of one’s own being.

It is relevant that we associate St Columba with missionary monasteries, while St Brendan is directly connected with the Celtic pilgrimages for Christ. After all, St Columba is known as ‘Columba of Iona’, while St Brendan is remembered as ‘the Navigator’. One is defined through his link with a particular island, while is other is defined precisely through the lack of any such link with an earthly place. They perfectly express two different paths towards the same destination: Christ.

The two saints have certainly met during their lifetime, and St Columba returned many times to St Brendan’s Isle. Most historians agree that this is St Columba’s secret island of Hinba, the place where he would regularly come for periods of private prayer in silence and seclusion. By tradition, this is also where St Columba buried his mother.

The ruins of the sixth century church are still standing. So are the ruins of some of the original monastic cells, common rooms and a later, medieval chapel. Yet, for us, pilgrims looking for a way to enter a relationship with the saints, perhaps the most important place is the humble beehive cell close to the coast of the ocean. I shall tell you all about it in another post.

In the meantime, keep praying for the monastery, and do join us for one of our pilgrimages next summer.

Three Pilgrimages to the Celtic Isles – Summer 2016

The Monastery of All Celtic Saints is absolutely delighted to announce that we shall lead three new Pilgrimages to the Celtic Isles of Scotland over the summer of 2016.

We shall visit some of the most remote and authentic places connected with early Celtic Christianity. Some of these places have been uninhabited for centuries, with no touristic or religious routes linking them to other destinations. The pilgrimages organised by the Monastery are the only way one can visit these isles and pray to the Saints who lived here.

Our Pilgrimages are not touristic journeys to the Hebrides, but spiritual opportunities to experience the presence of God in some of the oldest and most authentic Christian places in Western Europe. As far as possible, we shall celebrate the Divine Liturgy daily. In each place we shall visit, we shall pray together to the local Celtic Saints (Saints Columba, Oren, Kenneth, Patrick, Brigid, Brendan, Ninian etc), but we shall always put time aside for private prayer, so that we may wander on our own and allow these holy places to speak to each of us personally.

The three weeks of pilgrimage are:

July 2 – 9. This will be a special occasion for us, as we shall celebrate the Feast Day of our Monastery together. The Second Sunday after Pentecost (July 3, 2016) is the Feast Day of All Celtic Saints, the Orthodox feast of all local saints.

July 16 – 23. During this pilgrimage, we shall be together for the Feast Days of St. Seraphim of Sarov (July 19) and St. Elias (July 20), two wonderful Christian saints. We shall incorporate their canons, akathists and other prayers throughout the entire week, so we may deepen our personal relationship with Sts. Elias and Seraphim.

August 13 – 20. This Pilgrimage will be under the protection of the Theotokos, as we shall celebrate together the Feast of the Dormition of the Mother of God (August 15). In Her honour, we hope to celebrate the All-Night Vigil of the Feast (during the night, as it is done in monasteries), followed immediately by the Divine Liturgy in the very early morning.

The standard cost of each pilgrimage is £900 ($1400) and includes:

Accommodation for seven nights in a beautiful house on the Atlantic coast of the Isle of Mull;

All breakfasts, dinners and packed lunches (as we shall be travelling somewhere every day);

Transport by car everywhere on the Isle of Mull (we shall have three cars available all week-long);

One motor boat to take us to St Brendan’s Isle;

One sailing boat to take us to St Kenneth’s Isle;

Two return ferry trips from Mull to Iona;

Entry tickets to all the places we visit.

We aim to make sure that, once you arrive to Mull, there is nothing else for you to worry about for the entire week. This way, we may focus on the pilgrimage itself, on personal prayer and communion with one another. If you need help with any aspect of the trip to Mull, we are here to advise and help you.

Among many other places, we shall visit Iona (Iona Abbey, Martyrs’ Bay, the Nunnery, St Oran’s Chapel, the famous Celtic High Crosses, St Columba’s Bay, the Hill of the Turning Back to Ireland, the Marble Quarry and the Machair); the ruins of St Kenneth’s monastery and the ancient hermit cells; St Brendan’s monastery on his uninhabited Isle; and some of the great Celtic Christian places on the Isle of Mull (The Nuns’ Cave, the Carsaig Arches, Kilninian etc). The schedule depends on the weather and the state of the ocean.

For those of you who worship in the parishes that have welcomed us to fundraise for the Monastery, as a sign of our gratitude and friendship, we can offer a special price of £800 ($1250) for these pilgrimages. All we need is a letter or email from your parish priest confirming that you are a member of their parishes.

All payments are made via PayPal on the Monastery website.

To check availability and book a place for one of the pilgrimages, please get in touch at ierom.serafim@yahoo.co.uk

Your place is confirmed after a deposit of 25% of the price has been paid.