For the life and salvation of this paralysed world

This story of a paralysed man it hard to talk about. I’ve wanted to write something about it since last Sunday, when we read it in Church, but I keep postponing. Like always, I suppose it is difficult because it is so personal and it reflects so well my own spiritual life.

And yet, this is not a pessimistic story. If anything, this is one of the most inspiring moments in the Scripture. Despite the pain it hides, the story of this paralysed man is ultimately proof of Christ’s endless love for mankind, and that love is the foundation for all our hope.

That man could say no words. He could make no movement. No gesture. He could not express his faith in Christ, he could not reach out and touch Him. His body did not allow him to throw himself at Christ’s feet, as we see others do. His arms could not pour oil over Christ’s head.

This man is me (and most probably, you) – a metaphor for our own spiritual death, for the paralysis that makes our voices silent and our bodies inert. And yet, we need not despair, because – like the paralysed man – we have the Saints, we have our holy friends who found their way to Christ before us and who constantly pray for us.

Even more, we have reason to hold on to our hope concerning the entire world. Weak and sinful as the world may be, entirely paralysed by sin, unable to see the Light, unable to walk to the Light, unable to utter a word of repentance – even so, there is hope. Because we can join the Saints in their prayers and we can bring this world before Christ. And Christ never changes – He will do today what He did then, for His love never changes; He will forgive the sins of this paralysed world for the faith of those who hold on to their hope and pray for the world.

The world may be silent, but the prayers of the Church for the world should never grow silent. Because of its sins, the world may be unable to walk towards Christ, but the Church should never stop bringing it before Christ in its prayer. That is who we are, this is what we do, this is what makes us Christ-like: to die to ourselves (to the limits of our tribalism, our culture and selfishness) so we may offer ourselves for the life and salvation of the world.

Asking for forgiveness

We are failing the homeless on our streets. We are failing the hungry and the thirsty in our cities. We are failing those whom we scandalise through our falseness and our hypocrisy. We are failing those to feel the need to separate from the Church because of the ways in which we deform it. We are failing those who fear the Church and fear Christ because we suffocate the life-giving depths of our Tradition and we promote a God of fear, a God of authority and punishment, only to mask our own fears and lack of love. Every single day, we are failing the world for which Christ has died on the Cross.

Why are we not on the streets, asking forgiveness from the world we constantly fail? This is our chance, our opportunity to ask for forgiveness in a way that may (God willing) just have the power to change our lives. This is our chance to literally touch the world and be touched by Christ’s love for the world.

We, who are supposed to be the salt of the earth, the light of the world in the image of Christ; we, who should love so intensly, so sacrificially, so selflessly that the name of the Father should be glorified in us before the eyes of the world – we, the followers of Christ, we are failing the world.

Who asks forgiveness from those who sleep on the street? Who asks forgiveness from those who go hungry, unwashed and consumed by sickness and disease? Who asks forgiveness from those who are left prey to abuse, violence and inhuman humilities? Who asks forgiveness for our indiference, hypocrisy and ready-made answers for the real pain of the world?

Why do we look at the world and see an enemy, instead of our brothers and sisters who suffer and are lost? Why do we allow the devil to break our unity? What shall we answer when Christ will ask us about the suffering to which we closed our hearts? Has Christ not died for all of us? Is Christ not the maker of all of us? Has He not created us all out of the same Burning Love, in the hope of the same Salvation?

Please forgive me. This is about you just as much as it is about me. I just worry. I worry and I wonder what is happening to our hearts.

The stags

The stags heard me as I approached. They all looked up, straight into my face, as if measuring me. There was no fear in those eyes, no movement; just a heavy sort of silence, as if they belonged to some strange world from very far away. The silence of someone taken away by illness, and the silence of someone taken away by grief. The silence of homeless people who no longer look you in the eyes when they beg in the street. The silence of bereaved people who feel that their time for mourning has finished, and the world around them moves on as they sink deeper.

Nature hides such wisdom in it, so many precious lessons, and it is so easy to not even take notice, to waste or even destroy it – for money, out of greed, out of lack of love for anything that does not translate into more power, more property, more dust to quench our desperate thirst for a fake immortality. It is overwhelming to suddenly feel with such strength and clarity that one is made by the same God Who made such beauty. It is overwhelming to suddenly become aware that we share our Maker with these stags, with these mountains, with the ocean and its winds.

I was driving from Iona to Kilninian when I saw them and stopped. The island is so beautiful in the winter, brushed by the ocean wind and covered with snow. There is so much knowledge hidden here, a treasure of self-understanding and faith waiting to be unearthed. I am beginning to wonder whether we should start organising one or two week-long prayer retreats in the future – either during Advent, or during Lent. A small group of people leaving together for a week, praying together, cooking together. Short walks by the shore, meditating on a theme and practising the Jesus prayer. Praying together at midnight. Waiting together in silence in the middle of the night for Christ to open a gate within us to His Kingdom. Evening talks in the living room, by the fire, well hidden in the warmth of the house as the storm rages outside. ‘Two or three’ gathered in His Name.

If something like this would interest you, let me know. If you feel you could benefit from such prayer retreats, I shall do my best to make them available.

Until then, pray for me, and may God bless all of us.

Those who suffer alone at Christmas

I feel the need to write this, despite it not being in the ‘Christmas spirit’ of the world these days. I fear it may be sad, or slightly painful, and I honestly wish nothing but the happiest Feast for all of us. But then, sadness and pain are realities of our lives, and there is something violent in the way in which we reject them during our moments of joy, for by banishing pain we do violence against those who are crippled by it. We force them into silence and condemn them to the deep loneliness of their suffering. There is something essentially not Christian, even anti-Christian, in the distance we impose between our joy and the pain of others.

I write this thinking about very specific (and, unfortunately, very many) people I know who are carrying heavy crosses on their shoulders, alone and in silence. I write this thinking of you, who are alone on hospital beds; you, who are trapped in your homes caring for your elderly parents; you, who have lost a loved one and feel the pain slowly suffocating you as Christmas draws closer; you, who look at your loved ones as they are stolen away by debilitating diseases, dementia or Alzheimer’s; you, who are abandoned by all in prisons; you, who are abandoned by all because you have lost one too many battles with alcohol or drugs; you, who could never recover from abuse, and for whom no one cared enough to really listen to you and help you get up and start again.

Christmas belongs to you, not to the world – have no doubt in your heart about that. Christmas is not about making merry with wine and gifts, putting our feet up and relaxing. Christmas is not ‘time off’, but the otherworldly joy of a Saviour who comes precisely for you. For you, who suffer. For you, who are alone. You are the reason for the Feast. Your pain is the reason for Christ’s Incarnation. Christ does not come to put His feet up and rest for a week – He comes precisely to start His Work of Salvation, His Ministry in the world.

He comes not for the merry-makers (although His love always includes and never excludes), but for those who labour and are heavy laden – heavy laden with sin, with pain, with sadness, with loneliness, with abandonment, with not being seen because your pain spoils the bubbly empty joy around you, with being silenced because what you need to express is ‘too sad’ for the Christmas period. How far have we fallen from Christ’s love when to express the pain of a human heart is judged as insensitive behaviour because it affects the lazy celebrations of the world’s ‘X-mas’? How far have we fallen when we deem it ‘insensitive’ to express pain and to reach out for the human interaction that could offer our neighbour a moment of freedom from the loneliness of the cross they bear in silence day by day, hour by hour?

But do not worry, and have no doubt. Christ is not of this world, and He comes precisely to transform (that is, to change) this world. Christ does hear. Christ does see. Christ does not even need you to reach out and beg for help, for He reaches out first and He begs you first to give Him your pain. Christ begs us to pile all our filth, all our sins, all our suffering on His Divine shoulders.

Christ does not come into the world at Christmas expecting to rest, but to act. Christ does not come to be pampered, but to start His journey to the Cross. The gifts He wants from you and I are precisely our sins, our loneliness, and our pain. He wants to take it all away from us, for He alone is Love.

I don’t want to write more, although my heart overflows right now. I started writing this post apologising, in case someone should be offended. I now realise that the very need to apologise is the result of the same pressure which is put on all of us to hide the pain we witness and experience, and to accept as normal the walls of indifference society builds against anything not ‘Christmasy’ enough. We should not apologise, for Christmas is ours, not theirs. We should not apologise, for the Coming of our Saviour is the real meaning of Christmas. Hopefully, if anyone is offended, they will find the grace to be troubled by, and to question the reasons behind feeling that way.

I just want you, the ones burdened with pain, to know that you are not alone for Christmas. In the silence of your loneliness, in the emptiness of your homes, in the abandonment of all people, in the stories you are not allowed to tell and the images of pain you are not allowed to share – in all of it, you have Christ within you. At Christmas, the world will have Christmas trees, rich dinners and gifts, but you will have Christ as the Divine Guest of your heart. You will have the Source of Life in the cave of your being. I am in awe of you, I bless you, and I ask for your prayers that miraculous night.

Come follow Me

Have you noticed that when the world suffocates you, when you barely have enough energy to keep breathing, when all is lost – those are the moments when Christ’s presence becomes tangible to us? When we are pushed against the wall and all is indeed lost – only those are the moments when we truly open up to Christ. It is as if we need to reach the point when we are dead to the world (dead to our selves, to our identity in the world) in order to find the spiritual resources to finally open up; as if we need that pain, that desperation to cut our hearts open and allow Christ to enter.

The world will always reject that which it does not recognise as its own. Christ has warned us about it, and He has shown us – through the example of His life – that one becomes fully human only on the Cross. It is painful to understand that the world rejecting Christ is the daily reality of our own ‘selves-in-the-world’ rejecting our ‘selves-in-Christ’. The world is hidden in us, and so is Christ – when Christ tells us we are not of this world, His word cuts deep into our being. We become ourselves only when we break free from our worldly selves on the Cross. We find our true voice, we find the voice of our true prayer, only when we lose our worldly voice on the Cross. What a painful paradox, that we only find Life when we lose our worldly life on the Cross.

Come follow me, Christ says. This is His call to perfection to all of us, but none of us – myself less than anyone – answers His call. We all hear His words but none of us allows them to enter our heart and grow roots there. Deep down, I think we all fear that, should we allow that call to grow roots in our hearts, the fruit of that seed may threaten our life as we know it. Christ’s words are dangerous because they have the power to erase the attraction of our earthly life, they have the power to take over our intellect, the power to overcome the limitations of our culture, society, heritage and all the rules and regulations with which we have surrounded ourselves like in a heavy blanket of death.

Externally, we look down upon these rules and regulations, but secretly we are paralysed with fear at the thought that they may crumble one day, and we may be left open before this dangerous Christ who knows our hearts so well. We fear He will take over and we shall lose control over our hearts. We fear we shall love Him, and that this Love will change us beyond recognition. The real danger, the thing that fills us with fear, is that our hearts may one day disobey these self-made rules and regulations, and they may open up and indeed follow Christ.

And yet, how much hope is hidden in this fear! What joy to understand that our deepest fear is to lose the world in us when we finally find Christ in us. Once this veil of darkness is finally broken, once the pain of the Cross cuts through the countless layers of worldliness with which we covered ourselves, we shall find nothing but Light, nothing but Love. There is immense comfort, inexhaustible hope in this knowledge, in this Good News: God is not our enemy, and death is not His will for us. At the end of it all, when the Cross makes us one with Christ, we shall find Life; and in that Life, we shall find ourselves.

Come follow me is a call to such perfection that no human can reach it on its own. But the things which are impossible with men are possible with God. In Christ, there is nothing to fear. What is there left to fear when God has loved us to His Death?

The Hermit Cell in the Russian North

The Solovetsky Archipelago is less than 200 miles from the North Circle. To the North-East of the main Solovetsky island, silent and beaten by rabid winds, is Anzer – the isle of the Solovets hermits. Here, on a small peninsula, merely a few metres narrow and completely open to the sea is the small Cell of St Kirill of the New Lake. The storms have wiped all trees from this strip of land – nothing survives here, except small tundra bushes, mushrooms and wild berries. And one hermit, who is not even a monk, because he does not think himself worthy to wear the monastic habit.

I don’t know why I am beginning this series of posts from my current pilgrimage to Russia with this small Cell, almost entirely unknown even to the experienced Russian pilgrims. This has been a difficult year for me, consumed with finishing the repairs to our church, buying the monastery house and six weeks of leading pilgrimages to the Isles of Scotland. Slowly but visibly, as the summer lost its strength, so did I – forgive me for disappearing for a while, but this is the only way to keep going.

We met Anatoly, the hermit fisherman, at the end of a long day hiking on Anzer. It took close to twelve hours to cross the isle and pray in some of its sketes and hermit cells. There is nothing here, at the Cell – no golden domes, no beautiful lakes, no trees to shelter and soothe. Bare earth, bare sea, bare sky – the skeleton of God’s creation, the naked bones against which all else seem un-necesary details.

In fact, the Solovetsly Archipelago is very much like the Celtic Isles. They share the same rough nakedness of nature that almost forces one to see one’s own spiritual ‘skeleton’. The bones of one’s spiritual life become perfectly visible in these places, as do the un-necesary details.

Anatoly lives here alone. He welcomes us with hardly any words and lets us go and pray in the small wooden chapel of the Cell. By the time we get back to his hut, there is tea and cloud-berry jam on the table, but he does not stay with us as we eat. When we leave, he brings us gifts: fresh fish for Mother Nikona, our guide from the Monastery, and wild mushrooms for the rest of us. There is love in Anatoly’s heart, and there is also deep silence. I understand his fight to balance the two. I know that they feed one from the other: love feeds silence, and silence feeds love, because they both spring from the same source: a human heart’s longing for Christ.

Survival in these places is carried on a thin edge between Life and Death. All things – material and spiritual – are clearly divided between those which have real substance (those which are vital, alive, life-giving) and those which exist only to hide our compromises. There can be no grey area if one is to survive – physically and spiritually – in such a place. There can be no compromise, no game to play with one’s conscience. Life is Life, and Death is Death. There is nothing in between. This becomes painfully obvious here – if there seems to be something in between, it is only a delusion, a temptation, a void.

Survival in these places is carried on a thin edge between Life and Death, but my heart craves to stay put on this thin edge because here all things are simple. Here, all things are crystal clear. Here, Christ is as close to me as the skin of my own heart.

The Feast Day of the Saints we were called to become

Happy Feast Day, everyone!

This is a brief note, to wish all of you the strength and the faith to open up to God’s presence in our lives, so we may be transformed into the holy beings He has called us to become.

This Sunday is the Feast Day of the Monastery and we are purposely running a pilgrimage this week each year, so we may celebrate the Divine Liturgy on the island. Every year, we face temptations at the beginning of this particular pilgrimage. Last year, I was involved in an accident driving to Mull, so I ended up not being able to cross to the island that evening. The group made it to Mull, but not me. We had to wait and fast until 2 pm that Sunday in order to be reunited, but we did eventually celebrate the Divine Liturgy.

This year, just before the pilgrimage, I was struck with a few days of back pain and a series of horrid migraines that have not yet gone away. Five of our pilgrims joining us from the US had their flights cancelled and arrived very late, only a few hours before we started driving towards the Isles. The drivers were so tired we made it to Mull only through God’s mercy and loving care. But we are here. And we have celebrated once again.

Every year, we face temptations, but temptations are only reminders that what we are doing actually matters. Struggle and pain, loneliness and abandonment – all difficulties and dangers, visible to all or deeply personal, are the clear sign that what we are doing matters, that we are approaching something valuable, that we are getting close to the line beyond which Christ is waiting for us.

This Sunday is the Feast Day of All Local Saints – local to all corners of the world, known and unknown. This Sunday is the Feast Day of the Saints we can become ourselves – here and now, in the humble place and time of our own lives, surrounded by our small worries, sunk in our personal stories. This Feast Day we celebrate the fullness of Christ’s presence, the fullness of the grace of the Holy Spirit everywhere, in all places and all hearts.

May we all open up to His presence, so we may all grow into the Saints He created us to be.

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.

To Survive Death, To Stay Alive

At the end of it all, what have I achieved?… After this week in a tent, alone to face God and myself, what have I learn? The first thing that comes to heart is that I’ve learnt how close to spiritual death I am, and how profoundly unprepared I am to face God.

I’ve learnt why the desert fathers, those angelic beings living in flesh and blood, died asking for more time to repent. I’ve learnt that my outwardly gestures of life are empty, only filled with the hallow substance of death. I’ve learnt that I fake life, while being dead; and I fake it brilliantly, even in front of my own conscience. I’ve learnt, and I pray never to forget, that I am death, and that only Christ’s descent into the death that I am can bring me to life.

How empty of meaning these words sound, even to me… ‘I am death, and You are Life’. And yet, how painfully real, how true they are in the most basic, material sense. I am death, and the awareness of it cuts like a knife through the fake realities I so carefully assembled for so many years – fake realities of myself, of the world, of God Himself.

At the end of it all, I’ve learnt that a Christian’s fight is a fight for Life, and has nothing to do with anything else. My fight is not concerned with any of the social issues that consume the world today; my fight is not about political or moral questions. My fight is to stay alive; my only aim, my absolute, final, consuming goal is to survive death.

The only path I know out of the basic reality of death is Christ and His power to resurrect. I leave today with one lesson learnt. There can only be one beginning to this path: repentance; a sort of repentance that frightens me, because it threatens to transform everything that I am, everything I have grown to know and love about myself.

Repentance: the beginning and the end. Everything else is fake. Everything else is wasteful. Everything else is a distraction from the real fight and the real aim: to overcome death, to remain alive.

Please forgive me. Please pray for me.

Armenian Genocide: Learning to share the pain

1.5 million men, women and children were massacred during the Armenian genocide at the beginning of the twentieth century. A horrid start to a horrid century.

Yesterday I wrote about the effects of pilgrimages to other countries. I forgot to mention the obvious: when you meet a stranger, you can either love him or remain indifferent to his presence. Indifference is not an option during a pilgrimage. In fact, indifference is not a Christian option. Full-stop.

Christ did not remain indifferent to us. He bowed down the Heavens and descended to our humble being; He so loved us that He become one of us; He identified with our pain and suffering to the extent that He gave Himself up in order to share this pain and, if possible, to take it away from us.

I am deeply ashamed for my lack of knowledge about the Armenian genocide. I knew close to nothing until I visited this wonderful country. I knew nothing of the 1.5 million lives that were wiped away from the face of the earth. The final act of this disaster would be to allow ourselves to wipe away their memory, too.

There really isn’t much to say when you see these photographs. I looked at each face with great care, I looked in their eyes and I tried to imagine their expressions when they used to laugh, when they fell in love, when they looked at their mothers and their children. I looked at all these decaying, decomposing bodies and tried to understand how God’s memory works. It makes sense now that we pray for ‘eternal memory’ – what else can we ask for? Who will remember our smiles in a century? Who will remember the way in which we experience fear, hunger or happiness?

I look at these faces and the only consolation I find is the knowledge that each of them is entirely known to Christ, Who made them all and Who will remember them eternally.

Pilgrimages can be painful. They force you to enter the pain of others and to make a choice. You can chose to remain indifferent and safe in your comfort and coldness. Or, you can chose to open us, to love and share the pain of these people. We are one, after all; and my sins have contributed to all the horrors of the world – past, present and future. We need to remember. And we need to repent.