Compromise and Betrayal

As time goes by and the fire of the first week of Lent gradually dies out, things concerning our life in the world regain their strength and take over our days once again, while things concerning our life in Christ become increasingly less clear and muddy. It’s like a dark cloud which has showed up of nowhere and has covered something that was – for that one glorious week – so very obvious and precious to our hearts.

For me, the first week of Lent is so utterly abnormal, so completely out of this world, as if another form of life has taken over the planet and it has imposed its own rhythm and laws and values. My usual sense of time is replaced by the time of this alien world; my perception of my own physical needs – food, sleep, tiredness – adjusts itself to the different criteria of this alien life.

I abandon myself to this new life, and I feel almost enslaved by this new world. I lose control over my life and my habits; my small comforts disappear; the poles of my life – those things that identify time as MY time, MY life – are taken down. When one fully sinks into the first week of Lent, one abandons everything and joins in this new life.

It’s as if an alien aircraft has landed and we all just decided to drop our lives and embark this flying object, letting it take us wherever it goes, because we have faith that its final destination is the Resurrection. This fire is easier for me to accept than the slow burn of the following weeks. This sort of open madness makes more sense to me than having to intertwine my usual life and the life on this alien flying object.

After the first week of Lent, things get gradually diluted, my ability to hold on to the wonderfully strange new world of the first week dies out and I risk to end up compromising. And compromise is just a beautiful word for betrayal.

There is nothing to fear

Staring into the Grand Canyon, looking straight into that extraordinary beauty, it becomes perfectly clear that there is absolutely nothing we can possibly add to God’s creation. In these rare, blessed moments, it is obvious to one’s heart that we already have in front of us the fulfillment of God’s creation; and that includes us, as well.

In these rare, blessed moments, I know God expects nothing of me – when one is out there, overcome by God’s presence, that is perfectly clear. God is just waiting for me to realise who He created me to be, He is just waiting for me to recognise in myself the beauty of His creation. It is such an alien (not of this world, not having me as its source) state to feel oneself as Nothingness and All at the same time, and to be perfectly at peace with everything. Silence is the only way I can describe this state; silence and a sort of tension, as if the muscles of one’s spirit were perfectly stretched, just ready to spring forth.

In these rare, blessed moments, I know nothing I have built myself into matters. Nothing I am, nothing I do, can add or alter in any way the perfection of God’s creation. Neither my virtues, nor my sins are relevant in any way before God’s beauty – my virtues cannot add anything to it; my sins cannot alter in any way. There is nothing I can add to what God has already created: there is nothing to add to my own self, there is nothing to add to the world around. All I need to do is rejoice in God’s creation, and learn to recognize in my own being the alien (not of this world, not having me as its source) beauty of His creation.

I suppose this is all I wanted to say. Beauty, just like love, takes away any fear. God’s presence reduces everything to silence, and it suddenly becomes clear that there is nothing to fear. God is all; in all. And He is Love.

I could not deal with so much beauty

This is a difficult post for me to write – I don’t really know how to approach this, and I’m sure the topic will return many times from now on in my talks. I feel God has offered me a rare gift at the end of a very tough year, and I need to give myself time to allow it to sink in before I fully understand what I was given.

This only happened to me once before in my life, when I first went to the Hebrides. On Friday, before the very last stop of this fundraising trip, I was on a day-tour of the Grand Canyon. Those of you who have heard me speak know how much I talk about art and nature as two ways to make your prayer come to life, two ways leading you ‘into’ knowing God.

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The sense of unmanageable Beauty one has before the wilderness of the Grand Canyon is just that: a true revelation of God, a true revelation of the correct relationship we are to have with Him. When I was there, facing this extraordinary demonstration of what authentic creativity is, all I felt was silence: a thick blanket of silence that covered my heart, my brain, my body… Before God’s presence, one goes numb, afraid to even breathe, afraid to approach it or draw near in any way. My eye-sight is not worthy to touch such beauty, my voice is not real, authentic enough to even whisper a prayer; all of one’s senses go silent, paralysed before such overwhelming power.

And yet, my heart continued to pray in a different way. Deep down, my being seems to hide a different kind of worship, a different kind of relating to Christ. I don’t know when and how I learnt it; it just exists, the way instincts simply exist. Before such beauty, one discovers how different we are from what we’ve learnt to think we are – we are so much deeper, so much more beautiful, so much more able to worship and truly pray. It’s as if we were created with a set of spiritual senses and abilities, which we later – for some painful reason – fail to recognise in ourselves and fail to develop. We waste so much of our own being, we are so removed, so distant from our real selves… We learn to adapt to this world, and we end up replacing our spiritual senses with material ones.

Then, in moments like these, we find ourselves face to face with His presence, and a sort of engine just starts working again in our hearts – all by itself, with no input, no doing of our own.

I was simply present; I was in awe at the presence of my true self as much as I rejoiced in God’s presence. There was nothing but silence in me; yet, this silence was as alive, as ‘eloquent’ in its worship as the most grace-filled moments I’ve been blessed with the Holy Altar.

This was such a gift – glory be to God for His love, and thank you all for your prayers. This is your doing, this is the effect of all the love you’re pouring over me and this monastery. May we all be blessed.

Talk on Monasticism

This is a talk on monasticism (and other things) I gave at St Paul’s Orthodox Church in Lynnwood, WA. Many thanks to Fr James Bernstein and Khouria Martha for having convinced me to go through this ordeal, and for opening their home to everyone for this. Their hospitality and love made all of us feel very comfortable, as if we’d known each other for years. Many thanks to Subdeacon Patrick, as well, for helping me overcome (partially) my horror of the camera.

Please pray for me and the monastery. I’ve got two more weeks of fundraising in the US (one in Phoenix, the other one in Denver), then it’s time to fly back to Britain.

Coming full circle: Back at St Anthony’s Monastery, Arizona

God has such a strange, wonderful way of making sense of our experiences as we approach their end! As we go through our lives, nothing makes much sense, does it? In my case, as least, moving forward with my life always feels like a blind man finding his way in the dark, trying hard to understand something (my life!) that lacks any sense of order or purpose. And then, now and again, God steps in and lifts up this cloud covering my eyes; and, suddenly, the chaos that used to be my life reveals itself as a perfectly controlled intention – the problems seems to be that the intention is never my own, but that of God. I’m not complaining, don’t get me wrong – may it always be like this! – but it always takes me by surprise.

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This is a quick note, just to say that I’m back at St Anthony’s monastery, in Arizona. It was not my intention to come here in February, at the very beginning of my fundraising trips, and I definitely didn’t plan to return here at the very end. And yet, my first stop in February was in Fr Ephraim’s cell, getting this holy man’s blessing before starting my travels; and, by God’s grace, my last stop is back here, in the monastery he brought to life in the middle of the desert.

May his blessing, along with the prayers of all of us, bring spiritual fruit in the Hebrides, too. It’s been a long period of draught in the Celtic isles, more than a thousand years of no monastic presence. By God’s grace, and with your help, we are slowly getting closer to changing that. May the Holy Spirit pour over these isles again. May each drop of rain (and we have billions every day!) be a touch of His life-creating love.

Notes on Salvation from an Athonite Elder

This Saturday I was blessed to meet and hear a talk by Fr Nikon of New Skete (Athos), during a lovely event organised by ‘The Life-Giving Spring Bookstore’ in Glendale, California.

Out of all the wonderful things Fr Nikon talked about, my heart rejoiced especially at his idea that salvation comes from within – salvation of all those around you, salvation of the whole world is founded on my own fight for my own salvation. Those of you who have met me during my fundraising travels will know that this is also one of the central and recurrent thoughts I have myself, but it meant so much for me to have it confirmed by a real ascetic.

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Elder Nikon of the New Skete, Athos

I’ve seen this connection many times in confession – my own and of other people, as well. For most of us, the easiest ‘solution’ to one’s sins is to focus on the weakness of someone else. Rather than fight with my own self, rather than put myself through the spiritual pain of healing my own soul, it is so much easier to turn to someone else and judge them for not doing precisely the things I myself am refusing to do.

Fr Nikon had something else to say which is connected with this. While addressing a question asked by a parent, the Elder said: ‘if you want your children to be saints, be holy yourselves.’ Most parents suffer from a sort of spiritual laziness; they expect their children to do all the things they themselves find too difficult to do. In fact, it’s more that laziness – it’s also hypocrisy and even a touch of lack of love. The same principle applies here too: you can contribute to the salvation of your children by fighting your own sins. The salvation of your children begins with your own salvation.

Look at Christ – to grant US salvation, He didn’t come to crucify us; instead, He Himself got up on the Cross on our behalf. And His Sacrifice opened the doors of the Kingdom for all of us.

Forgive me and pray for me.

Sin: a hard lesson from experience

My frustration with sin (my own and of those around me) is rooted in my PERFECT awareness that sin has nothing to do with me, with the real me. Not that I know who or how the real me looks like – that is something I shall discover, through God’s grace, only standing face to Face with Him at the Last Judgement – but I have a perfect, unshakeable intuition that I shall not find this true self in sin.

Nistor Coita - fragment

Nistor Coita – fragment

I experience sin like abandonment, like turning away from myself. Sin is suspended time, a manner of suspended living, a bubble of non-being, non-involvement, not-participation into anything: God, myself, the world around. Like closing one’s eyes during a car crash and wanting to believe (yet never fully believing) that the whole world is suspended with me in this bubble of silence.

Because sin is silence. too. Sin is when I stop relating to God and I become silent. I look at Him and I have no more words to use. I look at Him and I then I look away, because I can no longer find myself in His Face. This silence, this turning away from God, this spiritual suicide has nothing to do with me. Or with you. Or with anyone else, any being created by God.

Sin is never creative. Sin suffocates, that’s all it does. Temptations are never creative, never original, never personal, because their source is not the Personal and Creative God. Temptations are always repetitive, boring and common to all of us. Only the fight against them shapes us, only the fight against sin (not sin itself) is creative, deeply related to who I truly am, and has the power to help me grow into this real self.

We are never original in the ways in which we sin. My father confessor told me once that there are only a few basic sins, but infinite ways in which to fight against them – one unique, personal fight for each unique, personal being. These ways, this fight is what makes us who we shall ultimately become, who we’ve always been in God’s eyes.

I am not my sin. It is my fight against sin that makes me who I am.

Pray for me and forgive me. I pray for you.

Killer prayer

Have you ever looked at your prayer book with the distinct feeling of ‘I hate you, I hate you, I hate you?’ Have you felt totally useless spiritually,  unable to move forward for one tiny step? Do you, in fact, feel that you are going backwards, rather than advancing in any way; that your prayer life is worse today than yesterday, and definitely worse than a year ago? Well, in that case, rejoice, for this is the sure sign that your prayer is working.

I’ve met so many people this weekend… each with their personal story, personal challenges, personal sources of happyness and pain. Everywhere though, questions and worries concerning prayer take over the conversation in a matter of minutes. The basic thing people seem not to understand is that the point of prayer is not happiness – the reason we pray is not so that we feel happy and fulfilled.

By prayer, our saints say, we get closer to God; unfortunately, getting closer to God means we have to get closer to ourselves first, closer to our own hearts, because that is where Christ reveals Himself – and getting to know one’s own heart is nasty business; getting to know who you really are is never fun, never a fulfilling or comforting experience.

When your prayer kills you on the inside, let it. And give thanks. When your prayer exposes the small person that you are in front of your own conscience, let it. And give thanks. These years of pain, these years of staring at one’s prayer book and wondering how did one get so low and miserable, so utterly unable to control one’s thoughts, one’s feelings, one’s attention, one’s passions, these years when you go down in your own personal hell and you discover that this is where you belong, that there is nothing alive in you, nothing holy in you – these years are the years your prayer IS working. This is the time you’re keeping yourself open for God to strat re-creating you, re-shaping you into who you really are.

These are painful years, when nothing good seems to live in us, but these years will teach you so many things about yourself, things you would never learn otherwise. You learn your limitations, you learn humility, you learn repentance, you learn obedience, you learn not to judge, not to condemn – for, how could you judge and condemn anyone, when you yourself are spiritually dead and surviving only out of God’s love and mercy?

These years are the foundation for all your future years. I think about these years as the foundation to a house – my life. Make sure, make absolutely sure that you have a strong, healthy foundation; otherwise, no matter what you build on top of it, it will crumble sooner or later.

This prayer is just a stage, of course. When God sees that the foundation is ready, you will break through, and things will be different. Don’t despair and don’t give up – for now, just rejoice because you know your prayer is working. You’re gradually learning the truth about yourself, you’re gradually leaving behind the idolatric images of your self that you or those around you have built for years. As you leave these fake images behind, you’re getting closer to your real self, you gain knowledge about who you really are and, in time, this self-knowledge will be the foundation for knowledge and love for God.

Let this prayer kill you. It’s not you who’s dying, not your real self, but the fake and prideful self you’ve learnt to mistake for who you really are. Let this prayer kill this fake self, let this prayer help you discover your real name, your real personhood. Don’t get down from the cross of this prayer. Remember that after the Cross – and only after – Christ’s Resurrection awaits you: You, the real one.

Trapped in time (about fifty years ago)

For the next three weeks, I shall have very limited access to the internet – I’m staying at the Kazan Skete in Santa Rosa as I visit parishes in Sacramento, Chico, Fairfield and Santa Rosa. I apologise for the lack of activity on the site and for all the unanswered emails. For those of you who find it difficult to believe that there are people in California today who do not have internet access (and I was one of the unbelievers), have a look at what I had to use in order to write a letter to His Eminence Gerasimos…

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When I saw it, I wanted to put on my gloves before touching it – it looks so precious, like a museum piece from fifty years ago!

In the five minutes of internet access I’ve got left, I want thank all the monasteries that welcomed me during this trip – Protection Monastery in Lake George, St John’s in Goldendale, All-Merciful Saviour on Vashon Island, St John’s in Manton, Kazan Icon of the Mother of God in Santa Rosa. Everywhere I’ve been, the brothers and sisters received me with so much love and care, and they provided me with the time to rest and prepare for the long trip ahead. I felt very much like home, although home is so far away.

In many cases, they know perfectly well what I’m going through. Most of them have been on this journey before, as founders of their own monasteries – they know what it’s like from experience, they don’t need to imagine it. May God bless them for their help and compassion, and may He keep me safe and healthy, so we may complete the work He has entrusted us.

Finally, don’t forget about the ‘Ways YOU can help’ button above – I cannot visit all your parishes, but you all may still help us by making a Donation via PayPal or by cheque; you’ll find all the information needed above. If you need to know more, just email me (and forgive me for taking a few days before I am able to get back to you). In Christ, fr seraphim.

The beggar monk

Some time ago, I’ve been told that I’m basically a beggar – which is definitely true, of course. The thought remained with me, and evolved from slight horror (after all, I’m not a saint, so my pride is still kicking), to pure delight. I’ve realised again how beautiful and exciting one’s life becomes once you place it all in Christ’s hands. Without Christ, I couldn’t have met all the wonderful-beyond-reason people I’ve talked to this last year; without Christ, I could never have seen and prayed in so many holy places. Most importantly, without Christ and without having abandoned my life to Him, I would have missed all the great gifts He’s blessed me with ever since. Everything changed; all boundaries to love have fallen. I know now that Christ is present everywhere and in everyone. I know now, with a different sort of knowledge, that the Church is the Mother of all creation. I know now that Christ is not restricted to the material walls of my monastery and my cell, nor to the immaterial walls of a set of rules and regulations. There is so much beauty in this world, there is so much holiness in each person – I had forgotten that, and Christ reminded me of it.

Home, in the Celtic isles.

Home, in the Celtic isles.

I am a beggar indeed. I am Christ’s beggar, and I’m very proud of it! If anything, this is the only thing I take pride in: I belong to Christ, and I am His beggar. Funnily enough, I’m not alone in this: I belong to a long and great tradition of beggars, going all the way back to the Lord’s Apostles.

I am also a very similar to a snail; I carry my home on my back. I carry my home, my life, my Christ on my back all the time, from one place to another. I have no home, and yet I’m at home everywhere. I’ve never felt so exposed and fragile, so unsafe and so open to hurt. And yet, I’ve never been happier, more at peace or more loved as I have since I’ve placed everything in Christ’s hands and I’ve become His beggar.

May it all be blessed. May it be that, as I work for this monastery, I also find my salvation. And may we all look back one day (from this life or the next) and rejoice seeing all the people who are working their own salvation in this monastery we are founding together: step by step, little by little, soul by soul.

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