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.

Pilgrimages: painful and dangerous deserts

Pilgrimages are like crossing a desert. They can be painful if taken seriously, and can even be dangerous. They are painful because they crack the shield of one’s comfortable certainty that things can only be done one way. In truth, nothing is one, except Faith itself; by comparison, the manners in which this faith ‘becomes flesh’ are countless. There are as many shapes and nuances of the faith as there are human beings. This is a painful lesson to learn, but it is absolutely necessary. Without this understanding, one loses sight of the personal nature of any spiritual experience. There are as many prayers as there are sighs, and there are as many sighs as there are human hearts. There is no rule on Heaven or earth to regulate the outpouring of love or pain of one’s heart.

Suddenly, ‘The’ traditions of your local region become just that: local traditions, creations of a certain historical and cultural context which reflect the faith. As a pilgrim, you unavoidably find yourself immersed in a different context, a different embodiment of the same faith – other customs, other ways to pray, other saints and prayers, all embraced by the faithful in that region with the same absolute conviction that these local expressions of faith are ‘The’ only expressions of faith.

Pilgrimages can also be dangerous and may lead (paradoxically) to a weakening of one’s faith. To some extend, this is a natural progression – when you grow in your faith, there is a moment when it becomes clear that what you previously held to be absolute truths are actually not. There are always other ways to express one’s faith. If you are weak of heart, this process of leaving your past behind may be a dangerous moment, and you risk losing your path while crossing the desert. However, if you take courage and press forward, the Spirit will lead you to a new understanding – a higher one, a more loving one, embracing the endless diversity of the personal ways in which we manifest our One Faith. When you leave behind the comfort of your home, prepare yourself for the dangers of the desert, but don’t lose heart: at the end of it all, God has already prepared a better, higher, more spiritual home for you.

Founding places for holiness

These last days I’m visiting two wonderful countries – Georgia and Armenia – hoping that Christ would allow me to pray in some of their holy places. This will be a brief post. I just want to note how much it helps me to see these ancient monasteries, which have survived long centuries of wars, invasions and heresies. The Ottomans, the Persians, the Communist regime, a seemingly endless row of religious controversies and wars, destruction of their holy places and slaughter of their holy people: NOTHING stops God from fulfilling His saving work in the world.

St Nino came to Georgia in the 4th century and her relics are still there, in her monastery. St David Carejeli’s monastery in the terribly arid Iori mountain plateau is still standing, one thousand and five hundred years after the saint founded the community. And here I am, moaning and crying for the help of these holy founders, asking them to send me the people who would help me build a humble wooden monastic house for our nuns.

But this is not MY worry. This is God’s work, and He is reminding me these days that my bones will one day fall to the ground and they will be dust. I shall whiten the stones of a mountain somewhere, or melt into the sea – this is entirely irrelevant; His work will survive me.

This monastery is His work, as is everything in this world. I simply have to trust and wait. It is such an extraordinary feeling of freedom, of being lifted up above all my worries and my fears and my doubts. I am Christ’s creation, and I am endlessly grateful to Him for having loved me enough to bring me into being.

Everything else will follow at the right time – the right people, the right founders, they will all come. The construction of this monastery, its fall and its lifting up again, they will all take their course. None of these matters. I look at these walls, wounded by time and hatred, and I am filled with certainty and love: when God creates, His creation stands.

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.

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