So what then is this journal all about?

September 22nd 2011

Saturday, Bucharest, Romania

N.B. The two little paragraphs below are lifted from my journal which I have oftentimes been happy to share with you. They were drafted on a pleasant September afternoon in Bucharest in 2011. I hope one day to publish it if I can manage to get it into some controllable order. Here I was struggling with the definition of the journal which is a commixture of various literary types ranging from: autobiography, to memoir, to confession, to a history of surveillance, to travel journal, to dream analysis, and to storytelling. But the real question then, as indeed still is now, what is its authentic purpose and what are my true motivations?

… … … … … … … … …

Truth is the correspondence between language and reality, a simple definition which probably sits well with most. Then what of truth in literature?[1] How are we to understand metaphor, myth, or even fairy tale for instance? Is there a better example of the evident stresses that this ‘correspondence’ will often elicit than the battle over the exegesis of the biblical account of creation in the Book of Genesis? What is the cognitive value of this universal ‘story’ and what kind of ‘truth’ is it meaning to convey? And what of the ‘spiritual truths’ put in the mouth of the Starets Zossima by Dostoevski in his masterpiece The Brothers Karamazov? Or how ‘true’ is Plato’s famous allegory of the cave? An autobiography, a memoir, a life-journal, for example, to what extent are they both literature and science? And how long does a text or document maintain a stable and determinant meaning before the deconstructionists get to it and challenge its structures and propositions? These questions became especially problematic for me from the moment I made reference to method and hence appealed to one of the great canons of science.

One way to arrive at some kind of practical resolution is to think in terms of context.[2] In this specific instance the style and genre framing the journal (whether the narrative as a whole or its smaller constituent parts), would determine the exegetical approach that the reader is being asked to follow in the quest to interpret the text. That would assume, of course, that we have come to some agreement as to what we mean by text in the first place![3] As a case in point, it could mean that if the author makes reference to a “dream” then it is a “dream” and not a “vision”, this might seem to be a subtle distinction for some, but in-between a dream and a vision lies another world. So when Samuel Johnson writes “[t]he value of every story depends on it being true”,[4] it all comes down to how we comprehend ‘story’ and what we expect each time we turn the first page of a book. From the moment I reference this document as a life-journal the reader comes to it with certain well founded expectations. First of all, that it is a ‘true story’ which can be tested and weighed up against its fundamental expositions and that it is not a work of fiction (though there might be elements of fiction scattered throughout, i.e. segments of ‘magical realism’).





A small note on Mount Athos

Mount Athos or the Holy Mountain as it is often referred to, is the centre of Eastern Orthodox monasticism.[1] Occupying the greater part of the Athos Peninsula in Halkidiki it is an autonomous polity in the north of Greece comprising of twenty imposing monasteries and a number of other smaller monastic settlements. There is evidence of Christian monastic life on the mount since at least the fourth century, and if not earlier.[2] Mount Athos [Athos the name of one of the Gigantes from Greek mythology] is dedicated to the All Holy Theotokos, the Mother of God, though paradoxically no woman is permitted to set foot on its grounds. This rule is strictly followed and is referred to as the ‘avaton’.[3] Young men come here to grow old mastering the art of unseen warfare to then die in anonymity and solitude. In so doing they dedicate their lives to God and pray for the salvation of the world.

“The Lord loves all people, but he loves those that seek Him even more. To His chosen ones the Lord gives such great grace that for love they forsake the whole earth, the whole world, and their souls burn with desire that all people might be saved and see the glory of the Lord.” (Saint Silouan the Athonite)

A large number of these religious are of high intellect and not few have left behind successful professional careers. They are doctors, engineers, musicians, teachers, philosophers, theologians, lawyers, scientists, artists, former police and army officers, and whatever else we might imagine. Some, it is true, are daydreamers and romantics. Others were criminals who have served their time or men who have lost everything to addiction except for hope. The monks here spend most of their day and night attending to the divine services or fulfilling their diaconate or alone in their cells with long prayer ropes made of knotted beads of wool practising the Jesus Prayer otherwise known as the prayer of the heart.[4] The day for the Athonite monk begins at sunset. To attempt to evaluate their vocation through the eyes of logic alone is to miss almost everything and to understand little. One of Aristotle’s truest revelations is that happiness is not just a feeling or sensation, but is the quality of the whole life.[5] The dumbfounding thing is the great majority of these men, for admittedly there are some sad and tragic exceptions, are profoundly joyful and possess an inner peace, a tranquillity of spirit which does radiate visibly from their presence. They are like ghosts from another world with obscure clues and tip-offs for those who journey to visit them in their spiritual ‘hide-out’. But be prepared for these angelomorphic presences are well versed in the game of ‘hide n’ seek’ and it is they who will find you. They are black clad rebels against the established order of decay and corruption who embrace the reality of death together with its promise of transfiguration…of whom the world was not worthy –wandering over deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth. (Heb. 11:38)

I would visit Athos twice and both times with the dreadful feeling that I was one of those ill-fated seeds from the parable of the sower. Sown on rocky ground and scorched. (Mat. 3:8) On the first of these occasions I was still a layperson and student at the Aristotelian, and then a few years later I would return as an ordained clergyman. We go on pilgrimages and visit monasteries for different reasons. Some of us go looking for spiritual counsel; for redemption and for a fresh start; to confess our sins; to escape from our past; to re-new old promises or to make new ones; to learn the fundamentals of prayer. In the end it is simple enough, the ongoing quest for “meaningfulness”.

But do not go anywhere looking specifically for God, or for that once in a life-time ‘religious experience’. It is one of the great mistakes and most of us will make it, just like when we routinely connect beauty to goodness. The psalmist’s counsel is not without its good reason, “Be still, and know that I am God.” (Ps. 46:10) However, it is the doctrine of Creation that we cannot escape from. Depending on how we understand this teaching and respond to its far-reaching implications, it will largely determine what we learn of the Creator and ourselves when we set out on the journey which might very well lead to Athos or to other places where prayer fills the night skies as if pieces of flickering diamond.

…as I go walkabout the invigorating salt air mixed with the aroma of wild unpicked flowers refreshes my body and spirit. To my right a mythical landscape of undulating peaks and steep ravines which threaten at any moment to spill into the brooding Aegean Sea below. An hour earlier in a distant skete… “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love” (Ps.51:1)… I was awash in the scents of exotic Arabian incense and burning beeswax…

Good Lord, how desperately I have missed these wonderful worlds.


[1] Timothy (Kallistos) Ware, The Orthodox Church, (Penguin Books: England), 1993, pp. 129-132.

[2] Graham Speake, Mount Athos: Renewal in Paradise, (Yale University Press: New Haven), 2002.




Eastern Orthodox Liturgical Chant

Music has been a part of my life ever since I was a little child, a significant witness to the passing of the years. I can still remember. Whether it was listening to the Divine Liturgy, which Mother would play on her treasured vinyl records (LPs), or to the easy listening stations at the Reno Café, where the old Philips radio was forever on. And later by choice, when I was older, music would accompany me everywhere from the city across the ocean and into the desert. Whatever the condition of the heart, as King David one of the authors of the Psalms well knew, there is consolation in music. But I have even from my childhood noted a difference between what we might call sacred and secular music.[1] It seemed the natural distinction to make. And the manifest difference between the two? In very simple terms, sacred music relates to God, to ‘the divine’, whereas secular music will typically relate to the human, ‘to the earthly’. Sacred music as well, has a tradition of being accepted as a music genre set apart for worship by a large group of a believing community. It is conventionally in the form of a chant (“a rhythmic speaking or singing”).[2] Another difference between the sacred and the secular is that the former is text confirmed in scripture and liturgical texts, and does not stimulate or arouse violence or wickedness,[3] which secular music can do.

This is a tremendous topic and one which can stimulate much discussion, especially when it comes to definitions and to people’s biases of what actually constitutes the sacred.[4] It could be as difficult as trying to get behind Dostoyevsky’s enigmatic “[b]eauty will save the world” spoken by the Christ-like figure the epileptic Prince Myshkin. But technically, at least, chant, is one of the signature characteristics of sacred music together with its connection to ritual and cultic practices. I can be moved to tears, for example, when I listen to Kris Kristofferson’s country gospel “Why Me, Lord?”[5] Or Barbara Streisand’s haunting rendition of “Avinu Malkeinu”.[6] Where would musicologists place these songs in a canon of religious music? I know they swell up an enduring gratitude in my own heart. The spine-tingling Christos Anesti sung by Irene Papas [7] which was adapted by Vangelis from the traditional hymn is another piece of music which can test the boundaries for the definition of a music style or form. Nor as a Christian, is the magnificent Azan from Sheikh Abdul majeed,[8] or listening to Cantor Moishe Oysher,[9] something which does not deeply touch and act upon my spirit. Gregorian chant synonymous with the Roman Catholic Church plays a part in my devotions, as do the inspiring chants of the Taizé community. From the masters of classical music there is an impressive list of great requiems in the dramatic tradition of the concert oratorio. The purpose behind sacred music, or at least that music which is specifically set aside for worship, is to lead to interior reflection and spiritual growth.

“Nothing elevates the soul,” writes Saint John Chrysostom, “nothing gives it wings as a liturgical hymn does.” In modern terms this could be transliterated into Hunter S. Thompson’s poetics on music as “energy” and “fuel”.

The intention behind this little introduction was to share some paragons of the sacred music from my own community of worship, the Eastern Orthodox Church. Outwardly traceable to the classical age of the Greeks but strongly influenced by the “Jewish Synagogue chant and psalmody”, eastern liturgical chant in its present recognizable form was developed in the earliest years of the Byzantine Empire.[10] Below are samples of the chant which is not to be confused with the Byzantine music of the courtly ceremonials.[11]  If you do not have time to listen to all the pieces, then might I suggest the cantor who is considered the principal of his generation, Theodoros Vasilikos, and the angelic Cherubic Hymn from the Novospassky Monastery Choir: