Sisters and Brothers,
RTD would have agreed with me when, in an earlier reflection, I described myself as a ‘troublesome’ schoolboy. Mind you, RTD was just as troublesome, and I had the excuse of being a pupil; he was the Latin master. Last week I heard he died; I was very fond of him.
Thinking of RTD, took me back to the hours I spent outside the headmaster’s office. Wood panelling, trophies in a glass-fronted cabinet, the unsympathetic clattering of a secretary’s typewriter.
At ordination and on being licensed to a parish, a priest swears oaths to obey the Bishop, the Queen, and promises to abide by the canons of the Church of England and the Thirty-Nine Articles. I don’t have a problem with any of this. The Bishop is close by and kind. The Queen is far away and can’t chop off my head. And I love the Church, warts and all.
But the schoolboy lurks in the background still. And if I’m honest, the passages in scripture that continue to give me pause always relate to obedience and submission.
Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.Hebrews 13:17
And you won’t be surprised to learn Psalm 119 isn’t a personal favourite: statutes, ordinances, commandments, laws – and on and on ad infinitum.
Many years ago, I spent time in the Greek Orthodox monasteries of Mount Athos in Greece. I was travelling with several companions, one of whom was my brother-in-law, Johnny. I don’t think Johnny would mind me saying he was there less for himself as pilgrim, more as chaperone for his father. Johnny’s father, George had served in Greece during World War II, brave beyond belief, fighting behind enemy lines and alongside the ferocious Greek resistance, the Sacred Squadron. He was the first British officer to enter Athens – on a bicycle – as the Germans retreated. For George, towards the end of his life, visiting Athos represented a final crown, a hallowed farewell to a country which honoured him as liberator and hero.
The Holy Mountain, as the Greeks think of Athos, is closer to Heaven than Earth. You leave for the mountain by ferry from a village called Ouranopolis: sky town. This is space travel.
And life in the monasteries – particularly during Lent when we were visiting – is austere, tough. Simple at the best of times, the food dwindles to meagre. Olives, bread, water. And the round of prayer is gruelling. We would be woken at 3am for liturgy. George, in his eighties, was always perfectly turned out, standing for three hours of worship in the candlelit katholikon. For Johnny on the other hand, monastic life quickly palled. I remember him describing the affluent Vatopedi monastery as a gilded cage; the less well-off establishments, they were just cages.
Half-starved, Johnny would lead some of us on trips to the one taverna on the peninsula. We’d always order spanakopita and Heinekens. Brother John’s Little Treats, we called them. Unfairly, because we all appreciated those post-trapeza trips to the ‘pub,’ walking an hour or more along rough tracks in search of beer and food.
At silent mealtimes in the monasteries a bell would ring and you could sit. Another bell and you could begin eating. But after a few minutes a third bell would signal you had to stop eating and stand. I remember one meal – thin broth, a tasteless bean stew, and a baklava. Knowing I didn’t have long to eat between bells, I bypassed the unappetising savouries and went straight for the baklava. It was as delicious as it looked, dripping with honey. Johnny politely ploughed his way through broth and beans, and was just coming to the baklava, first mouthful poised between plate and lips, when the bell rung and he had to drop his mouthful back on the plate. Everyone stood. Appalled, he stared down at the pastry.
A closing prayer, during which I signalled Johnny to drop his paper napkin over the baklava and surreptitiously pocket it for later. As the Abbot began to march down the room, Johnny made his move, grabbed the baklava under the napkin. But it was honey-stuck fast to the thin metal plate underneath; he couldn’t pocket pudding and plate. Terrified, he dropped it all. An awful clatter of metal on marble in the silence.
The abbot stops, turns, gives Johnny the full Psalm 119 stare.
After that, he’d had enough. While I adored my time on the Holy Mountain, Johnny couldn’t wait to get away, fed up with the ritual and the rules. And the truth is, there’s Christ’s example in Johnny’s loving committment to his father; we can learn as much from Johnny as any abbot. Little treats and transgressions: often these are as expressive of God’s love in the world as adherence to rules and regulations. And Johnny’s sense of freedom is pure Paul:
Now we are discharged from the law, dead to that which held us captive, so that we are slaves not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit.Romans 7:6
In a vital sense, Christ’s message, His life, death and resurrection are a radical freeing from the cage, gilded or otherwise.
If the Son sets you free, you are free indeed.John 8:36
In the Sixth Form, RTD would occasionally break all the rules and sneak a few of us off to the pub. God bless him. Heineken anyone?
This is Psalm 135 chanted by the monks of Simonopetra, one of the most spectacular monasteries on the Holy Mountain; one of the most spectacular and prayerful places on Earth; or Heaven, I should say.
Praise the Lord!
Praise the name of the Lord;
give praise, O servants of the Lord
you that stand in the house of the Lord,
in the courts of the house of our God.
Ancient of Days,
by your Word
release us from the old law,
that which holds us captive.
by the Lamb
redeem us from the debt of sin
which binds us and breaks us.
by your Son
renew us through faith in Him who died for us,
that we might rise to new life in the Spirit.
Word, Lamb, Son,
in Him our Saviour, Jesus Christ.