Personal


As noted previously, this blog has been on something of a back burner and I’m afraid that in recent weeks I’ve really been neglecting it, even to not responding to comments. All sorts of things came together to make life rather pressured and that lasted for longer than it was supposed to.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, I finished my job at the end of September, moved to Robertson permanently on Monday, and have been busy settling and trying to catch up on life. That will all take a while, and I must still update my bookbinding site and the Life-Giving Spring site, but I hope to get back to some serious blogging before too long. Suffice it to say for now that I am very grateful to be here, am realising once more the importance of place and space for me, am looking forward to establishing a more regular life, and would appreciate your prayers!

In the meantime, however, I wanted to draw people’s attention to our revamped Archbishopric website, which is one of the things that has been keeping me rather busy. It took longer than expected to get together, but can now be found here.

I’ve done an news update on the Life-Giving Spring site here. The progress feels slow, but there are encouraging things happening.

 

I don’t have definite answers to those questions, although I hope the answer is no (except, possibly, to the last one). I have been aware in recent months that various bloggers, or former bloggers, or sleeping, or semi-sleeping bloggers, have been making noises on Facebook about regretting the demise of blogging, and the fact that we are poorer for this, and hoping to return to it. People posted links to some pretty good analysis on the superiority of blogging over Facebook, but because of the transitory and inferior nature of Facebook I have lost the reference to it. It was a theme that resonated with me, having only recently tentatively ventured into Facebook, and it made me aware that I have at times found blogging a valuable spiritual discipline, as well as valuing the contacts that it brought, and that I missed it.

However, while I have rejoiced in the (former) bloggers who have been making noises about getting back to blogging, and wished that I could join them, the reality is probably not so simple. My posts on St Irenaeus have ground to a halt it and it is probably unrealistic to expect that I will pick up any sustained blogging for a while. And that does have to do with the situation in my life at present which I hope will not last forever.

In December I wrote about moving to Robertson and developing Life Giving Spring as a place of prayer and retreat. That has been a great blessing, but it has also happened rather slowly and demanded quite a lot of energy. Plus I have been involved in producing a weekly bulletin for our Archbishopric that is actually rather time-consuming (it can be seen here if anyone is interested). I have also discovered that I really do not cope very well with living in two places at once, and have been frustrated that I am simply not at Robertson enough and that I really need a more regular life!

I have been employed on a two-year contract that ends in October, and my employers had been talking about creating a new post for me to set up a small-scale conservation studio which could have included the possibility of working part-time. At one point I thought that this could have been ideal, but I began to increasingly feel that I needed to be in Robertson full-time. I had also begun to get a lot of inquiries for private bookbinding work (to the extent that I have recently put up a note on my bookbinding site saying that I have a long waiting list) and it seemed likely that I would be able to support myself in that way. However, the thought of turning down a permanent post for the insecurity of being self-employed (and I’m not really sure that I’m the entrepreneurial type!) was rather frightening.

And then the decision was taken out of my hands when I heard a month or two ago that my employers are not going to be in a position to offer me a post when my contract expires. My reaction was one of real gratitude as it just made me aware that that was really not what I wanted. And my whole experience since coming back to South Africa is one of God opening (and perhaps shutting) doors in a most remarkable and providential way. So, while I’m aware that there are quite a lot of hurdles to be jumped through and challenges to be met, I am really very gratified and excited by the developments.  I long for “a dwelling in one place,” as St Nil Sorsky puts it, and for the context to do what it seems I am called to do.

So, to get back to blogging, it is unlikely that I will do much regular blogging until things get more settled sometime after November. I have been taking on more private binding work as I do need to built that up, and between that, Church related things and my job, I don’t have time or energy for much serious reading, writing and reflection. But at least I know that it won’t last forever. And one of the things that I need to think through is what form of online presence I might develop in the future. Blogging can go in various directions, and be directed at various audiences. This blog started simply as a way of processing my own reading. It has also occasionally allowed me to think through things and process ideas. Both of those are valuable and in many ways I’d like to continue them. But I also find myself in a rather different situation to when I began this blog, and part of that is being an Orthodox presence in an overwhelmingly non-Orthodox context, and being part of a wonderful but rather fragile Church community. And I find myself wondering how we can use the internet to both reach out to others and to form and nurture the local community of believers. This are questions that are still floating around in my head, and I won’t be able to do much about them for a while, but they are perhaps worth mentioning.

In any case, this is probably just to say that this blog is probably sleeping, although it may occasionally stir, for the next few months.

As I mentioned previously, I have been working on a new site for Life-Giving Spring and it has just gone public. I was originally just going to make a page on this blog for those who may want to contribute to what we are doing, but realized that making a separate site allows one more freedom for putting up material that one will need to have somewhere in the long term anyway. I will hopefully develop it more before too long once things are more organized.

As one can see on the news page, I am making slow progress and have had to accept that it will take time to settle. And I am having to get used to living in two places at once – the biggest disaster so far happened this week when I forgot my laptop’s cord in Robertson, when I had been planning to do serious computer week on the weekday evenings! But overall, I have been delighted with the way things are coming together there and with the space that is emerging… and I am very grateful to God for the people who are supporting this venture!

Life-Giving Spring
Orthodox House of Prayer

It’s about time to share something of what is going on around here, even though things are still very much in process. As some readers of this blog know, I have been going out to Robertson regularly for the Liturgy (I posted some photos here) and during the course of the year the possibility has emerged of moving there and developing a place of prayer and retreat not far from the church. A building on the neighbour’s farm has become available to rent and I am in the midst of moving there, although exactly how it must develop must still become clear. I am – slowly! – learning that God makes these things clear one step at a time.

View of the house from the farm road

The Orthodox Church around here is still small and fragile and we have limited resources. Yet we are also immensely privileged and have a heritage that is largely unknown in this country. While the tasks ahead of us are great, we need to create the space to nurture an inner life, enter into a rhythm of prayer, and allow ourselves to be formed by the tradition of the Church. This new venture is a small and tentative initiative to establish a place of silence, prayer and spiritual formation, in order to make the riches of the Christian tradition available to those who seek God in our context. Although informed by the monastic tradition, it does not claim to be a monastery but is simply a small step whose future will become clear with time.

Front entrance of the house. We plan to paint it and replace the security doors, and also get some burglar bars put on.

The project has the blessing our His Emminence ArchbishopSergios who is encouraging me to take things one step at a time and to see where God leads us. It will also work closely with Bedehuis Bethanië although it will have its own identity and maintain a certain separation. Father Zacharias and I are hoping to offer some weekend retreats or study days together. But how things develop depends very much on who God sends and what is asked of us.

View from the Church property. The sheds in the foreground are not part of what we will be using.

At least in the beginning, I will be keeping my job in Cape Town and just going there for the weekends – in fact in the last week I have had very positive news about work which should hopefully lead to a more part-time post in more conservation orientated binding work. If things work out according to plan, I hope to be able to work perhaps three days a week and go out to Robertson for long weekends. However, being in Cape Town is not only a practical necessity for work, but is also related to the needs of the Church here where I am being asked to contribute – and the thought of having more time freed up for this feels a great relief. His Emminence has very kindly offered me a room close to the Metropolis in Rondebosch for when I am in Cape Town which will not only save on rent, but will also make it easier to be involved with the local Church.

The building in Robertson is very basic and, because it is rented, we won’t plan any major alterations at this point. However we do hope to put up some dry walls to make simple rooms for guests. If funds permit, we also hope to have a wooden hut for more solitary retreatants. And we hope to have another wooden hut for a small chapel.

There is a very nice enclosed courtyard - and one of the parishioners has offered to come and help with setting up a garden.

 One of the Archbishop’s concerns is whether it is best to rent property and whether this will be sustainable in the longer term. There are a few plots of land available for sale in the vicinity. One of these is just behind the Church and Father Zacharias would very much like us to get it in order to prevent someone buying it and building a casino or something there. It has a wonderful view and could be ideal for a house of prayer, but we don’t have any money!  If we were to do serious fundraising for that we would have to look carefully at setting up a trust and getting advice from people who know about these things. (Of course if anyone reading this either has money to buy land, or knows of sources for funding, they are welcome to get in touch!) In the more short term, however, if there are people who would like to contribute to the present project, I am planning to set up a site for the new house which will give details on how to contribute and also include a wish list for books as building up a library is something that seems an important priority.

The view from the land we would like to get our hands on. Unfortunately one can't see the mountains properly due to the clouds.

Anyway, that gives some brief news. Please do pray for this new project. It is really amazing how things have opened up – some of it has really just been very providential – but at the moment it is also a little stressful as I am in the midst of moving to two places at once! By Christmas I should have everything in Robertson and I can then use the week between Christmas and new year to settle in. There is a lot that needs to be done on the house and that will take time so things really will develop slowly and will also depend on the available funds. I had hoped that we might be able to do a weekend retreat at the beginning of Great Lent, but am now beginning to think that it’s more realistic to have it ready to use for overflow accommodation at Pascha. But I will post news once it is available!

I haven’t really been able to get myself to post here recently as the past weeks have been somewhat disrupted, traumatic and draining. On 14 November my mother phoned me to say that my father had had a heart attack and that the doctor thought that he was dying. He revived while I was booking a flight and I arrived in Pietermaritzburg to see him that evening. The next morning he seemed much better but then had another attack and died with us present. It was all quite unexpected although he had been increasingly week and tired. Please pray for him: his name was David.

There is of course a lot more that I could say about the thoughts that have been going through my mind at this time, but I’d better not for the time being. I have been traversing the country a bit as I came back to Cape Town for work and then returned to see my mother last weekend. I am also in the middle of moving and trying to sort some things out and will write more about that again soon as there are some quite exciting things going on. I would also like to get back to some serious blogging, but whether that will happen remains to be seen!

I was delighted this week when The Kathisma Psalter with Nine Canticles arrived from Holy Myrrhbearers Monastery. It has taken me a long time to get to ordering a Septuagint Psalter – and switching translations of psalms or prayers that one is familiar with is not so simple – but I have been using their little Manual of the Hours and appreciating it, so thought that this was a good step forward. It is also the first time that I have actually prayed the Septuagint Psalms (at least privately) and I have actually been quite surprised at things that suddenly appear out of nowhere!

The only trouble is that I will have to do something about the binding!

In recent weeks, on the weekends before and after the feast of the Elevation of the Cross, my priest has made a point of noting that Orthodox devotion to the Cross of Christ can jar somewhat for those of us who grew up in western, and more particularly Protestant, contexts. If we were brought up to see the Cross as the punishment meted out on Christ by the Father for our sins, then we may have an instinctive aversion to the Cross, seeing it as something terrible and offensive and hardly as something to be venerated.

His words reminded me of the Bible I had as a child and at the revulsion that I had felt at the image of the crucifixion that was in it. I did everything I could to avoid looking at it, for it was a depressing, dark painting, totally devoid of hope. As a child I felt rather guilty that I always turned the pages on it as quickly as possible, but it was an image of dread and certainly not one that spoke to me of a loving God.

Now, a lot of water has gone under the bridge since then and I have discovered that what was then presented to me as the Gospel was rather a distorted version of it. And I have discovered that it is not for nothing that we refer to the Feast of the Cross as the “Universal Exaltation of the Precious and Life-giving Cross.”

But I was reminded of that picture again yesterday. I have been restoring a Dutch Statenbijbel which was the official Dutch Calvinist translation. I’m really enjoying the work although it is a huge and heavy book. I discovered that part of the reason it is so thick is that it has fairly substantial Psalms, hymns, prayers and a catechism at the back. And, glancing at the catechism and hymns, I was reminded of what a miserable and depressing vision such a theological context portrays of the human person.

That in itself was nothing new, although it is something I try not to focus on. But yesterday I came across a picture of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise which is placed opposite the beginning of Genesis. That this is the image chosen to mark the beginning of the Bible could perhaps be seen as making a theological statement – and no doubt the likes of Matthew Fox would have something to say about its prioritising of sin and redemption over the goodness of creation, but I do not really want to give credence to such simplistic polarities. And I suspect that the differences go deeper than simply the acceptance or rejection of certain imagery, but lie rather in the understanding of such images.

Indeed, I have become increasingly aware in recent months just how central the imagery of the loss of Paradise and of our identification with the fall of Adam and Eve is in Orthodox theology. Indeed, the more I read the liturgical texts of the Church, the more central this seems to become. But the point of such texts is not to remind us of our hopeless situation and to foster gloom and doom. It is rather that God goes in search of fallen Adam, that Adam (i.e. all humanity) is made new again in Christ who Himself descends into hell to conquer death.

In this context, then, the Cross of Christ is not about God meting out death but it is about God in Christ destroying death and the power of death in order to bring life. On the Cross, God “hast raised up Adam and the whole of fallen nature” (Small Vespers for the Feast). This is why we venerate the Cross, not as a symbol of torture or punishment, but as a symbol of victory.

Some time ago Joe asked me in a comment if I would post some photos from Robertson, where I go to Church as much as I can. It’s taken me a while to do so, but I finally remembered to take my camera this last weekend, so here are some photos of the Church of Saint Mary of Egypt and its surroundings outside Robertson. It is about 150 km from Cape Town and on the edge of the Karoo. There is more information on the Afrikaans Orthodox website, but, well, it’s all in Afrikaans.

There are more photos on Facebook which, luddite that I am, I’m still trying to find my way around with some hesitation. But I think that they are available to view.

It’s probably obvious by now that I’m not doing much posting on this blog. I keep hoping that that will change as I would at least like to finish off some posts I was busy with, but, well, we’ll have to see as I am simply trying to do too much at the moment.

I mentioned previously that we were planning to run The Way, the course developed by the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies in Cambridge, in Cape Town. I also mentioned that this blog was hibernating, not only because I had been preparing to sell books at a craft market (which went reasonably well for the first time), but also because I was involved in another project. That has taken much longer and been more time consuming than I had expected, but it is now completed – or, probably more accurately, ready to begin.

As part of our preparation for the Way, our Archbishop, His Eminence Archbishop Sergios, had suggested a blog. This was originally envisaged as a page on the Archbishopric’s web site, but that proved to be technically problematic and so I suggested starting a separate blog which would enable us to give more information – but little envisaging how much time it would take! Anyway, I have just made it public and it can be found here. If you are by any chance in Cape Town, and interested, we would love to hear from you. And, if not, please do remember us in your prayers.

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