St. Botolph's Orthodox Church

St. Botolph's Newsletter, April 2024 (GREAT LENT)

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

'Tho' much is taken, much abides'

Alfred Lord Tennyson, 'Ulysses' (1933)


Around 12 centuries before the birth of Christ, a war-weary king left a foreign city in ruins and set off on a voyage home. Little could he guess that it would last a full ten years. Lost at sea, he would wander the shores of Thrace (modern Bulgaria), Sicily, North Africa, and many uncharted islands in between. His crew would succumb to delicious food and wine, opioid fruit that caused them to forget where they were heading, and sorceresses who would transform them into pigs! Fierce winds and fiercer cannibals would leave a small fraction of that crew alive. The homesick warrior himself would succumb to a magical island nymph but never forget the faithful wife that he had not seen for twenty years. Angering the gods of the sea and the sun, he would suffer his exile patiently, never forgetting the homeland that he well might never see again. By the time he reached his native land, he would contend with no fewer than 108 rivals for his wife's favour and his rightful throne. Exile? Torment? No, adventure.

The warrior-king returning from the Trojan War (ca. 1194-1184 BC) is Odysseús, better known in Latin as Ulysses. Eight centuries before Our Lord, the blind poet Homer composed his tale in dactylic hexameter and called it Odýsseia, the Odyssey. This epic of the long voyage homeward to Ithaca, his wife Penelope, and his only son Telemachus has coined a term 'odyssey' to mean any long, eventful, usually arduous journey. Translated into English as late as 1614, the tale of Odysseus focuses on one theme: nóstos, the longing to return home, from which we derive the word nostalgia, the pain of missing home. THIS is the theme of Great Lent. Are we not weary of war in a city more foreign than Troy? Do we not wander to and fro, driven by the fierce winds of our thoughts and the fiercer cannibals of consumerism? Do we not succumb easily to the fine food of the Cicones, the milk, cheese, and roast lamb of Polyphemus the Cyclops, the spells of Circe the witch who turns us into pigs, and the charm of Calypso the nymph who locks us inside her cave a full seven years? Do we not heed the Sirens of the internet, luring us onto the rocks? Do we not squeeze past Scylla the six-fanged monster and Charybdis the whirlpool, the graves of ships crossing the Straits of Messina between Sicily and Calabria? How often, like Odysseus, must we sacrifice part of our crew so that the rest can survive? Most of all, do we not gobble up the fruits of the lotus-eaters that make the mind and heart forget? Lent is our odyssey. So is life in the 21st century.

Great Lent is not a diet. Abstaining from animal fats, wine, and olive oil, if only on weekdays, is at best a means of sensitising the body and thereby making the mind alert. Masochists who fast in order to 'punish' themselves keep the fast of the demons, as the late Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia (1934-2022) would say. Pharisees who 'fast' in order to despise those who do not (Luke 18. 12) become the Lastrygonian cannibals or the one-eyed Polyphemus — in short, demons. 'Do you fast from fleshmeat', asks Saint John Chrysostom, 'but eat the flesh of your brother?' Great Lent is a journey inward. It is the cunning of Odysseus, who calls himself 'Nobody', blinds the Cyclops, and leaves him to say 'Nobody blinded me!' It is the cunning of Odysseus, who ties his men to the bellies of rams and thus escapes the monster's cave. It is the cunning of Odysseus, who blocks his crew's ears with wax until they cannot hear the Sirens' bewitching song. It is the strength to persevere that resists Calypso's promise that Odysseus shall become an immortal. Instead, Odysseus the mortal finds his way home to Ithaca and shoots an arrow through twelve holes to prove who he really is. We shoot our arrow of the Twelve Apostles through forty days of the fast. Our Ithaca is called Holy Pascha, the Resurrection of the Lord.

In the 12th century BC, Egypt was already in its decline. Pharaoh Ramses III (r. 1186-1155 BC) was busy repelling the Sea Peoples plundering his northern shores. Phonenician traders were venturing as far west as the coast of Spain. Rome's empire lay centuries ahead. This Lent, are we too complacent and conventional to leave Troy behind? Are we content to gorge ourselves on the lambs and goats of the one-eyed Cyclops until we are fat enough that he gorges himself on us? Instead, let us trick the devil into letting us blind him. Becoming a 'Nobody', existing only in our prayer, we escape from his cave by clinging to the bellies of rams. All that he feels is fluff, not men and women of living faith. By the end of the month, we shall begin our journey down into the underworld. Like Odysseus, we shall consult the seer Tiresias who shall warn us not to steal the oxen of Helios, the sun god. Why should we?

By Pascha, the Son himself shall steal everlasting life.

SKELETON KEY: the Veneration of the Cross

A skeleton key, or passkey, is a type of key whose serrated edge is missing. It is crafted in the most bare-bones way (a 'skeleton') in order to fit a variety of locks. Held upright, the vertical and horizontal bars could resemble a cross. Using this passkey, he who crafted the heavens and the earth unlocks life by inserting it into the keyhole of death.

By the middle Sunday of Great Lent, we are weary. Whether or not we have abstained from the quick proteins that animal foods provide, our souls thirsting after God wonder: Is Anyone there? In the storm of our thoughts, we yearn to lay down the crossed-bars of agony. Is not the Cross that most painful, ignoble of deaths that pagan Rome reserved for barbarian rebels and slaves? The Cross, an 'adventure'? If our eyes only discern the skeleton key, we would recognise taking up our own cross in the light of Christ's conquest. Like Odysseus, Our Lord God and Saviour tricks death into swallowing a mortal man. He descends into the underworld and breaks it open from within. Here is no tribute for a bloodthirsty tyrant, as though God the Father held us in bondage. Here is no death sentence befitting a criminal. Here is the unseen passkey that opens the gates and lets the prisoners 'pass'through. Taking up our own cross — the weight of struggles, doubts, and all-consuming hunger for the Kingdom — we insert our own passkey into the lock and realise that it opens of its own accord.

Come take up YOUR cross on Sunday 7 April

FALLING OFF THE RUNGS: Saint John of The Ladder

'A monk has an abyss of humility into which he has plunged and suffocated every evil spirit' (St. John of Sinai, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step. 23. 27). In order to 'suffocate' these evil spirits effectively, the monk must embark on an adventure. He must journey deeper into his own soul, his own inner universe, than Odysseus when he enters Hades. He must be his own Tiresias the seer. If the manual for monks called The Ladder (ca. 600) sheds light on the struggle to come to know oneself, the icon sheds more.

Abbot Joannēs of Sinai (ca. 579-649), called Klímakos from the Greek for ladder, was keenly aware that few can handle the journey. In the icon depicting monks climbing up to the Kingdom, devils are pulling off three monks in black robes, two in coloured phelónia (i. e.,priest vestments), and one wearing a bishop's mitre. The bishop is roughly ten rungs from the bottom. What these falls warn us is obvious: no one is immune. A bishop who lives in pomp like an Ottoman pasha or boasts like a Russian boyar not only fails to ascend even midway. Demons drag him down. In refusing to enter the abyss, priests invite the demons to suffocate them. Like monks who never dare to go inward, they ascend all in vain. Humility, says St. John, is the only virtue that the devils cannot imitate. They are too afraid.

'For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required' (Luke 12. 48). At this late juncture of Lent, it is helpful to remember that no bishop, no priest is infallible. We who carry the heaviest burdens need the prayers of the laity more than they need ours.

Come climb the ladder on Sunday 14 March — but beware lest you fall

BRIDE OF THE DESERT: Saint Mary of Egypt

An infant, a goat, a corpse… what did she not ravish between her sheets? To call an insatiable sex predator a prostitute is to downgrade the market. Calling her an 'adventuress',euphemism for a slut or slag, is to understate. Maryām of Alexandria toyed with human hearts and bodies. In her hand, sex was a tool of power. The loss of her power would be the most soul-wrenching, the most soul-taxing adventure of all.

Disembarking from a boat where she 'paid' her way in sexual favours, she heads directly to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Her plan: to ravish a virgin on the holy table, where a rabbi risen from the dead offers his Body and Blood. Standing on the threshold, she finds that she cannot enter. She lifts her eyes to the icon of another Mary. 'Go into the desert', the Virgin prescribes, 'and you shall find glorious rest'. Baptised, communed, Maryām obeys.

Forty years of nightmares among the adders and scorpions, forty years of screams ricocheting in hideous echoes off the rocks, forty years of the past pursuing her… scour Maryām clean. The monk Zosimas returns at the end of her life in order to impart the Precious Body and Blood. On the scorching sands, he watches a lion digging her grave. She is now fully wedded to the desert sands. She is fully wedded to God.

Had Mary of Egypt kept the rules like the monks falling off the ladder of divine ascent, she never would have ascended so far. Had she lacked her insatiable passion for sex, would her skeletal body have sought God so passionately? On the last Sunday of Lent, we honour the one that we call 'Holy Mother Mary' — not a Virgin but a nymphomaniac, truly baptised in her own tears.

Come see what REPENTANCE means on Sunday 21 April

THE FINAL SHOWDOWN: Entry of Our Lord into Jerusalem

A cavalryman rides into battle. Adventure? This is not God in a human disguise. This is the Son of Man — 100% God, 100% man — whose anger whipped the money-changers from the Temple, whose grief over his friend Lazarus lacerated his cheeks. A man of powerful passions, he enters the Holy City on the colt of an ass with one purpose: to kill death. Holy icons restored in homes and churches, the energies of God pervading human souls, the skeleton key of the Cross, rung upon rung of the tallest ladder, and the tears of one sex fiend from Alexandria are only shadows of this final showdown.

Palm Sunday stands outside Lent. We offer the festal Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom, not Saint Basil, for the first time since we bowed and asked our neighbours to forgive us. It also is one of the Twelve Great Feasts. Why? By the end of the ensuing Week of the Passion, Christ our commander shall meet the enemy face to face. The enemy of our souls shall torment him in the word of the rule-keepers: 'If you are the Son of God, come down from the Cross!' (Matthew 27. 40). The enemy's henchman, death, shall swallow him like a glass of water. Then like an ice-cold glass that receives boiling water, death shall break.

Come see the showdown on Sunday 28 April

Passion Week, often called Holy Week, begins at sunset on 28 April. Pascha, the passing over from death into life, begins on the night of 4 May.

VICTORY-CLAD: Saint George the Wonderworker

Saint George of Lydda in Cappadocia (+ 303) was not born in Tunbridge Wells. As far as any of our modern scholars know he never played football. Norman warriors in the east Mediterranean brought the icon of this mounted knight back to England in the 11th century and adopted him. In fact, he is just as truly the patron of Aragon, Bosnia-Hercegovina, Catalonia, Ethiopia, Georgia, Malta, Moscow, and Ukraine. Parallel to the fiery red horse of Saint Demetrios, the snowy white horse in his icon signifies purity of heart.

Quite significantly, the feast of Saint George falls precisely five days before Our Lord enters the Holy City this year on his colt. Five days shall transpire between this entry and his victory on the life-giving Cross.


As those who attended the Divine Liturgy with us on the Sunday of Orthodoxy will know, I shall be on leave of absence from serving until Pascha, 4 May. My old altar server, Fr. Boniface, will offer the Liturgy of Saint Basil in place. As time and health permit, you shall see me from time to time among the congregation.

Apart from three (3) Sundays, two of them in lockdown, I have not failed to celebrate the Divine Liturgy on a Sunday since 2008. The loss of our homes on Bishopsgate Street and Westbourne Road have taken a toll on my health. Winding my way home to Ithaca, however, I am not about to surrender the helm of the ship. Far from it!

Four years before Queen Victoria came to the throne, Alfred Lord Tennyson pictured a sea-worn, travel-weary Ulysses (Odysseus) pondering his final days in Ithaca. Having set his heir upon his throne, the old man resolves to go to sea once again. 'Old age has yet his honour and his toil' is now his motto. This Great and Holy Lent, let it be mine.

Though much is taken, much abides; and though

We are not now that strength which in old days

Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;

One equal temper of heroic hearts,

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

No compromise. No surrender. Never. Never. Never. So the adventure goes on.

Yours faithfully in Christ,

Fr. Alexander.

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