St. Botolph's Orthodox Church

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

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

Rejoice! Thou who dost break

the webs of the Athenians

(Akathist Hymn to the Theotokos RHO).


In late November of 2022, an Orthodox visitor to our parish sat in one of my weekly catechetical talks. In passing, I remarked that the Church authorises every Orthodox priest who performs the awe-inspiring Mystery of Baptism to cast out evil spirits. Coming from the Greek Archdiocese of Thyateira and Great Britain, the visitor was genuinely surprised. I noted that I myself have never and never would exorcise a demon-possessed person. I am too weak. Discerning how weak I am, not just physically but spiritually, the demon would enter me instead. 'But Father,' our visitor exclaimed, 'you have a PhD!'

Naive, superstitious notions about advanced university degrees abound well beyond the circles of Romanians and British Cypriots. When our visitor ascribed the authority to cast out evil spirits, i. e., demons, to the fact that I hold a PhD, I felt very tempted to remark: 'I'm the one who needs exorcising. I am a PhD!' Aware that a doctorate mystifies many who hold no more than an MBA, MPhil, or MDiv, let alone those who have never entered a university, I bit my tongue. Where do I begin? I mused. Firstly, theology is not a 'subject' studied from the outside. It is nothing more, or less, than fully-informed prayer. It is the gift (chárisma) of the Holy Spirit that enables one to speak a word (lógos) concerning God (Theòs). Of all the glorified saints, none but the Apostle and Evangelist John, Gregory from Nazianzos, and Symeon, whom envious monks nicknamed 'the New Theologian' (949-1022) bear the title ho theólogos. Saints Basil of Caesarea (330-378) or Maximos the Confessor (ca. 580-662), among similar intellectual giants, hold no such lofty titles.

'Now that you are becoming theologians… ' a Jesuit once addressed a class that I took. Raising my hand, I asked: 'How do you know?' Secondly, learning – imbibing dates, facts, and formulae based on the opinions of others – does not equate with organic insights rooted in what one has experienced firsthand that we call wisdom. No degree in the doctrines, canons, and worship of the Church can shape a man into a shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep (John 10. 11). A lifetime of searching his own heart, the centre of his being, alone empowers the frail mortal to pour himself out in the priestly offering.

'Fortunate is the man who is broken in pieces and offered to others,' testifies a renowned monk, 'who is poured out and given to others to drink'. Archimandrite Vasileios (Gontikakis), the former abbot of Stavronikita Monastery on Mount Athos, defines actual theology more eloquently than any author I know:

When his time of trial comes, he will not be afraid. He will have nothing to fear. He will already have understood that, in the celebration of love, by grace man is broken and not divided, eaten and never consumed. By grace he has become Christ, and so his life gives food and drink to his brother. That is to say, he nourishes the other's very existence and makes it grow.

No learned jargon suffices. No certificate, no diploma in the teaching of the Church can equip a priest for his unique trial: to become the Precious Body and Blood of God Incarnate that he offers from Sunday to Sunday. No bishop's hand can inscribe these qualities in his nerves and sinews. No manual of rules ever opens his eyes to the secrets of a broken heart that he discerns in confessions. No PhD thesis instructs him in holding the soul of a dying believer in the hollow of his hand, clearing away the ghosts of memory, and opening to it the gates of salvation.

What, then, is the 'spiritual' meaning of a PhD? Traditionally, a doctoral thesis contributes to scholarship in an original way. To persuade a university to employ you, this could mean counting that extra comma in a 14th century manuscript. (A Masters candidate merely counts all the commas that PhD's have counted hitherto!) Are professional scholars therefore spiritually obsolete? Far from it. A certain kind of 'Orthodox' believer consults no text save the Holy Scriptures and the writings of 'practical' Fathers, ideally ascetics who live a lifestyle as unlike his own as can be. Far be it from her to read Saint Basil's On the Holy Spirit, Saint John of Damascus's Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, or the homilies of Saint Gregory Palamas. Is this not all 'theology'? 'I'm no theologian' conveniently translates into: my faith boils down to folk dancing, elders ensconced in mountain ravines, and attending the Divine Liturgy (off and on) in a dead language, which will teach the kiddies to be nice. A step up from sola Scriptura Baptist, this type of ghetto-dox likes a simple religion that asks no questions. Ideally, a priest or layperson educated to the degrees of Master of Divinity or Doctor of Philosophy can answer those questions. The danger arises when the scholars in question answer from theory rather than practice. When the textbook substitutes for an informed heart, the Law for the free gift of grace, or the title for the man, let the MDiv or PhD beware. He is caught in the webs of the Athenians. He has become… a scribe.

In the culture of ancient Israel, where elders passed on wisdom orally down generations, those who not only read but wrote clearly and accurately formed an elite. Record-keepers and writers of letters, called soferim, easily commanded the ear of kings. Flourishing from the reign of Omri (885 BC-874 BC), king of Northern Israel, scribes formed schools with high literary standards. Among the rules that governed them were a limit of between 48 to 66 characters per column, pronouncing every word aloud, and washing the body before printing the Holy Name of God. Closely allied with a popular movement called the Pərūšīm, or Pharisees (literally, separate ones), the scribes were similarly meticulous and attentive to detail. In itself, like learning, this is an admirable trait. By the time of the prophet Jeremiah (560-570), theory had overtaken practice. 'How can you say, "We are wise and the Law of the Lord is with us?" Look, the false pen of the scribe certainly works falsehood' (Jeremiah 8. 8). While Ezra the scribe is well-versed in the Law (Ezra 7. 6), his more prosaic successors try to trap Our Lord in dispute about which commandment is greatest (Matthew 22. 35, Mark 12. 28). They stir up the mob against the protomartyr Stephen (Acts 6. 12), precisely when he exalts the Person of Christ over the written text. 'Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!' Our Lord himself assails them no fewer than eight times. 'For you shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for you neither go in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in' (Matthew 23. 13). The text, it appears, has replaced the content. In the learned culture that counts the number of angels who can dance on the head of a pin, there are no dancing angels at all.

The 'scribes' in our day are not invariably the heirs of Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), John Locke (1632-1704), or David Hume (1711-1776), let alone French philosophes and Russian Marxists. Equally, they are the intellectual heirs of Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109), William of Ockham (1285-1347), and, above all, Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). They are those who habitually infer from an often arbitrary, speculative premise; who propose, debate, and conclude based on the stance of a detached observer; and who subordinate both ideas and persons to a system. The broad stroke of the Scholastic meets the narrow nib of the scribe's pen to form the tacit basis of most modern universities. As for us, 'backward' Orthodox that we are, we enter this area at our peril. We need not hide in the strands of a wonder-working elder's beard. We need not kow-tow to priests who refuse to teach the faith and thereby abandon the sheep to the wolf (John 10. 12). We need only keep our eyes on THE ICON more than the text. He who is 'the express image' (Hebrews 1. 3) is no premise from which to infer. He is a person, that is, the Person.

In his deceptively direct, paradoxical Sermon on the Mount, the Incarnate Logos blesses those who value heart over head: the poor in spirit, the mournful and meek, who hunger and thirst for justice, who show mercy and seek peace, and whose pure hearts cast off syllogism in favour of the living God. Persecuted on every side (Matthew 5. 12), they take no refuge in theory. The tear that falls, falls from a living eye. Hearing these paradoxes, the shepherds and fisherfolk of Israel grasp what few career academics ever shall…

This Man teaches with authority and not as the scribes (Matthew 7. 29).


Any member or friend of our far-flung family who wishes to worship with us in our new venue has only to email me at alexander. tefft1@gmail. com. I shall send you details.

COMING HOME: the Prodigal Son

The most meaningful truths in life are not found in a critical edition. You cannot reduce them to Microsoft Word or format them into a pdf. No researcher will find them in any archives. They are not written on any parchment or printer paper. They are not inscribed in ink but in tears.

According to the law of Deuteronomy 21. 17, the elder of two sons inherits two-thirds of his late father's estate. One-third goes to the younger upon his father's repose. When the younger son of a wealthy man demands his third now, the old man forks it over. He asks no questions. The wayward brat spends it all on parties and prostitutes, then has no food when a famine hits. This Jewish boy finds himself tending pigs and fumbling for the scraps. When at last he comes home starving, his father does not hesitate. He runs to hug him. 'I'm not worthy to be called your son', bitter tears confess. No questions asked, his father calls for a feast.

The son who spends 'prodigally' does not learn from reading a text. He learns from his rumbling belly, his aching legs, and possibly the taint of some venereal disease lower down. Unlike those custodians of morals called clergy, or his elder brother, his father never interrogates him. He is too 'learned' in loss. He too has been to a far country and eaten the pods thrown to swine. He is grateful to hold his child in his arms.

Come LEARN how God loves you on Sunday 3 March

On this favourite pre-Lenten Sunday, we plan to receive our longstanding catechumens Dominic and Catherine, who now live in Malta, into the Church. Lo, the prodigals come home.

THE LEAST OF THESE: the Last Judgment

When will they learn? On the last of all days, no lecturer shall ask you: What years did the Sixth, the Seventh Ecumenical Councils meet? How many Ákathists or Paráklēsēs did you read when preparing for Communion? Did you succumb to that sliver of cheese on Holy Friday? The Judge asks one question: Did you show mercy?

The ageing Cockney lady, clutching her stomach beside the coffee stand just outside the tube is no theory. That feverish Roma asking for a sip of water is no 14th century manuscript. The Pole, the Jamaican mum fearful that the Home Office will deport her and her kids is not found in some Cambridge bookstack. That sick baby clasping its blanket and writhing in a hospital bed is never a system of metaphysics. The syphilitic paedophile whom no one visits in Wandsworth is no thin volume concerning neuropsychology. They are Christ.

'How can you show mercy on them?' a young Muslim woman in a Cafe Nero once asked me. It seems that she took offence at the sight of a few young women of her age in miniskirts. Dressed in my virtually monastic robes, I answered: 'Because I need mercy'.

Come learn mercy from the face of Christ on Sunday 10 March

LETTING GO: Sunday of Forgiveness

Never ask a calm, collected, phlegmatic type what it means to forgive. When injuries roll off like water on a duck's back, what is there to forgive? The cliché 'Forgive and forget' assumes that an absent mind easily buries its pain. If you would learn what it is to forgive, ask an irate soul that is quick to take offence and slow to relinquish a grudge. Ask an unhealed wound.

On a bus in lower Vancouver, I once witnessed a massive, purple-faced man with broad cheeks and a dusky brow board and sit beside a timid blonde. He was obviously a Native Indian, a First Nations fellow as we call them in Canada. Possibly a Coast Salish, he inclined his drunken lips: 'Welcome!' he shouted cheerfully. 'Welcome to my country!' The suburban blonde clutched her shopping bag tighter than her child. Ironically, of course, British Columbia was his country. That woman of Northern European stock was the stranger. But who knew it?

From the fumes and the ragged, red plaid coat, this was obviously just a drunken 'Red Injun'. In calling him that epithet, his whole tragedy becomes evident. He was not from India. He spent no cash on sprucing himself up. Why bother? No one off the reservation spoke his language. White settlers from Europe erased his culture, then recorded it in history textbooks as if it were a myth. Having lost everything, who had more of a reason to hold a grudge? Nonetheless, he did not. If he had learned one lesson from history, it was this: we forgive in order to set ourselves free.

When we queue up and bow, asking each other 'Forgive me, a sinner', we do not conjure up an emotion. To forgive does not mean to 'feel', to pretend, or to condone. We call to mind neither how we have injured our neighbour or how he has injured us. We reply briefly 'God forgives and I forgive'. In that instant when we embrace, even if merely kissing the air beside our neighbour's cheek, we let go. The love of God is what we call to heart.

Come let GOD forgive you on Sunday 17 March

The season called Great Lent begins at sunset on the Sunday of Forgiveness. It is not a diet. It is a journey inward. We begin by letting go.

RIGHT WORSHIP: the Sunday of Orthodoxy

Enquirers into the Orthodox 'faith' contact me weekly. Some actually enquire into the Orthodox Church. From the tone of the email, it is easy to tell the difference. Church tourists, Orthodox or heterodox, ask where our temple is and usually never show up. A certain type of Protestant (plus a few Latins) use the term 'Orthodoxy' to designate a branch, name ('denomination'), or even concept, the equivalent of Anglican-ism, Lutheran-ism, or Method-ism. Why not Marx-ism and Existential-ism? We are not an '-ism', an ideology or tendency to analyse – literally, break down into parts. We are a tangible organism called the Orthodox Church.

When you see a holy icon, how do you react? 'Hm', hums the scholar, 'a typical example of the 15th century Cretan school with a few traits borrowed from Rublev'. No lips kiss the icon, which might as well reside in an art catalogue. A hardcore Muslim or Baptist recoils in horror, in mortal dread of the demon residing inside. A true Orthodox believer senses the muscle of his right arm lifting his right hand and forming the Sign of the Cross. His lips press against the foot of Christ, the hand of Our Lady or a glorified saint. 'Ortho-doxía' is not 'Ortho-pístēs', correct belief. It is not 'Ortho-didaskalía', correct teaching. It is not 'Ortho-práxis', correct action – though of these options, this comes close. 'Doxía' derives from doxázo, I glorify – in brief, I worship. Orthodoxy means correct worship.

In the half-century between 726 and 775 and little over a half-century between 787 and 843, the emperors of East Rome (Constantinople) banned holy icons from churches and homes. Parallel to Henry VIII's break with his Latin overlords, the Popes of Rome, this was no popular upsurge. It was a governmental elite. Bound on chairs, icon-writers had beards burnt off, eyes gouged out for daring to depict the face of God Incarnate. By 843, a century of sacrilege was over. The holy Empress Theodora (r. 842-856), widow of an icon-smasher, officially restored the holy images. The first Sunday of Lent is titled he kyriakē tēs Orthodoxías, the Sunday of the 'true worship'. No ideology, no -ism replaces the worship of Christ our true God.

Come learn what 'ORTHODOXY' means on Sunday 24 March

BREAKING WEBS: the Annunciation

Entering the city of Socrates (ca. 470-399 BC) and cradle of Greek philosophía, love of wisdom, a certain rabbi Šāʾūl of Tarsus, i. e., the Apostle Paul, notices the altar To the unknown god. 'The One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you' (Acts 17. 23). Trained in debate under the famed Rabbi Gamaliel, Paul offers no premise, no syllogism, no formulae of any kind. Instead, he invites the philosophers to worship. Some lovers of that abstract wisdom succeed, some fail. It all depends on your webs.

When a Jewish virgin of twelve, brought up in the Temple until a widowed carpenter asks for her hand, hears a voice in the light, she uses no logic. What is 'logical' about an archangel calling you by name? She asks how, not why or what. When she submits in love to what no mortal will ever grasp, the webs of the Athenian spiders crumble into pieces. She flies upward on the wings of hope.

This Lent, the Triumph of Orthodoxy overshadows Our Lady's 'Yes' to the bodiless angel who tells her that she shall give birth to her own Creator. Then again, is not her Annunciation the source, root, and stem of all Christian icons? Is not the icon our 'Yes' to God?

THEOSIS: Saint Gregory Palamas (1296-1357)

The Orthodox Church does not argue. She prays. When one who picks and chooses the ideas, the notions that happen to tickle his fancy (hairéomai, I pick and choose, hence haíresis, heresy or false choice) blasphemes against that prayer, learned believers take up the weapon on hand. Saint Athanasius (ca. 286-373) did not seek a 'synthesis'with Arius when the latter called Christ a noble creature. He attacked him. When a scholar from Calabria called Barlaam (1290-1348) suggested that monastic prayer was a kind of self-hypnosis, could Archbishop Gregory from the house of Palamás do less?

Theósis breaks the webs of the Atheians and confounds the Balaams of our day. Years ago, at lunch after the Divine Liturgy, a seemingly 'learned' young visitor said: 'Oh, yes. Definitely, The word theósis must mean becoming God-like, that is, having certain traits or qualities that seem to resemble God. But it cannot mean becoming God. No, impossible'. A parishioner asked her: 'Does the metamorph-osis of a caterpillar make it "like" a butterfly or turn it into a butterfly?' Did Athanasius not write 'God became man so that man could become God'? The debate proved as fruitless as Gregory Palamas versus Barlaam. You cannot grasp the energies of God unless the shield of logic yields to the rays of the sun.

The essence of God is as unknowable as the sun is impenetrable to naked eyes. The energies or energy of God is as vibrant, visible, and fully tangible as the rays of sunlight. What is a ray of sunlight, however, but the sun itself? Just so, the energies are the essence… experienced. An ordinary ray of sun stroking your skin proves Gregory Palamas right. The sun shines from above and beyond you, not from within your mind. If you imagine that it shines only within your mind, it is likely that you are mad.

Returning to Italy after the councils of 1341, 1347, and 1351 upheld Saint Gregory, Bernardo Massari, called Barlaam, taught Greek to Petrarch and thus promoted that rebirth of Aristotelian categories called the Renaissance. What is left, then, to us illogical, icon-kissing Orthodox? The real holy icon: us.

REFLECTIONS from a half-blind priest

When God planted Adam and Eve in the garden of paradise, he invited them to eat freely of the trees – all, that is, but one. 'Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for on the day you eat of it you shall surely die' (Genesis 21. 17). To 'know' good is to detach it from the Three Persons of the life-giving Trinity. It is to posit the abstract 'good' that rides roughshod, casually ignoring that persons are only persons when relating to each other. Likewise, to 'know' evil is to make it into a mental reality apart from the absence of God. The dark is not a 'thing'. It requires but a ray of sun to scatter it.

The fruit of the tree of knowing good and evil is therefore abstraction.

My half-blind eyes, shaky hand, arthritic limbs, or asthmatic lungs are not abstract. Straining to recognise faces in the shadows, I reflect what one BA, three MA or MDiv, and two PhD studies taught me. It is not the body or mind that sees. It is the heart.

Yours faithfully in Christ,
Fr. Alexander.

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