Spirit of the Age: Between silence and words

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IT WAS dark, and I was lost somewhere in the Essex marshes in a lane, off a lane, off a road, through a village, off the dual carriageway. The instructions had been explicit enough. But there are lanes and lanes. I set off down another one in the cold, inky darkness. And then, at the end of the muddy track, there it was, looming out of the night, a large building topped by a single unilluminated white Orthodox Cross, with its distinctive upward-slanting second horizontal bar.

There had been no signposts anywhere at all. But then, I had been warned about that. It is a "hidden work", I was informed when the monks at the monastery passed on the message that they were not interested in talking about their faith. It was not what I had expected. For the Russian Orthodox Church is one of the few established religions whose numbers of adherents are, against all trends, growing in Britain today.

The rain dripped in unsteady rhythms through the long-fingered leaves of the silent trees. Everything was locked. There was only one light in the complex of buildings. I opened the door to discover a refectory where a tall, black-swathed monk with a huge grey beard was finishing laying the table. His heavy-browed gaze seemed fierce. His speaking voice was heavy with Slavic intonation as he directed me to the church. "No trouble at all," he said, with ambiguous deliberation, when I thanked him.

The light inside the church was dim but sufficient to for me to see the row of large icons that covered the screen in front of the sanctuary and altar. There were no pews, only a bench around the walls. The icons were thin-nosed images of Christ, his Mother, a wild man I took to be John the Baptist, and some elderly Athenite monk. The ceiling was a painted swirl of wings and angels. I caught just a glimpse before the lights dimmed to almost nothing, leaving the church illuminated by six bulbs no brighter than candles.

I had been directed here by Richard Law, a former Anglican vicar who seven years ago resigned his living and, with his wife Christine, converted to Orthodoxy. They have since turned their home in rural Suffolk into an retreat filled with icons, crucifixes and books where a small group can join them in the daily recitation of matins and vespers in the Russian tradition.

It is a gentle introduction to the other side of Christianity, which severed from the Western branch in the Great Schism of 1054, ostensibly over some arcane point of theology, but in reality in rebellion against the autocratic nature of the papacy. Some things never change.

Its liturgy is almost all sung, harking back to the temple-style religion of early Christian times. That was partly what attracted Richard and Christine Law, now in their sixties but conditioned still by the "smells and bells" of their Anglo-Catholic childhoods. "It appeals not just to the intellect but to all the faculties - sight, sound and smell," said Richard. "And singing takes away the individuality of the voice and focuses on the words," said Christine. "It's more holistic, and involves more self-giving," added Richard. "As St Augustine said, he who sings, prays twice."

It also adds to the sense of out-of-the-ordinary that is central to Orthodoxy. "It is not anthropocentric," said Richard. "It does not begin with man and then work up to God; it starts with God and then works backwards." Instead of making religion "relevant" to today, it insists that people have to bend their lives to some greater purpose. "It's harder work," said Christine. "Everything is not explained to you. You live with mystery."

The accommodations which Western Christianity has made to post-Enlightenment rationalism are absent here. Evil continues to be personified in Satan. The dead live on, in daily discourse with a more vivid reality. Christ is celebrated as much as Creator as Saviour. Orthodox theology insists that icons are not merely pictures we look at, but rather living things that look at us.

"The old High Church Anglican in me misses the power of being up there on the altar," said Richard, for he is just a layman now. "But instead of me being centre-stage, Christ is." His job now, he adds, is to get out of the light so that others can see the cross.

Living with mystery means accepting paradox rather than striving to resolve it. This, perhaps, is the secret of Orthodoxy's growing attraction. It is in so many ways a counterpoint to modern living. In a time of scientific empiricism, it holds out the unexplored recesses of the soul. In an age of directness, it is tangential. Instead of reason, it offers a spirituality of sensation. In place of speed, it offers unhurried languor. "Don't try to follow the service in a book," Christine Law had told me. "Just be there, and let it happen around you."

In the event there were no books in the monastery church. And had there been it would have been too dark to read them. A dozen or so dark figures, monks and nuns clad in black, shuffled in around me and stood in silence. Then one of them struck up a prayer. It was a single line, repeated over and over. "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us," iterated a voice in the darkness. The phrase was said a hundred times before someone else took it up, in Greek, then someone else in English again, and so on.

That was it. One phrase. Over and over. Thousands of times, in a slow, steady, seductive rhythm. For two hours it went on, enfolded in the blue velvet, beeswax darkness. Somewhere, in the gaps between the words and the silences, the light and the darkness, something of the numinous glimmered. Then the words stopped, and the lights came up. But for hours the rhythm continued.