OBITUARY:Philip Sherrard

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Philip Sherrard, poet, translator, theologian and scholar, saw it as his mission to try to restore a sense of sacred cosmology to life.

Man and the natural world, according to Sherrard, were out of balance and a greater spiritual dimension to life and a greater awareness of man's place in the scheme of things was needed. These and many of his insights into what was wrong with the modern industrialised world were inspired by Greece, where he lived for many years, and the Orthodox Church.

Born in Oxford into a well-connected family, Sherrard was educated at Dauntsey's School and Peterhouse, Cambridge, where he pursued his studies in tandem with service in the Royal Artillery in Italy, Austria and Greece. The Second World War led him to witness the ferocity of man's destructiveness and to inspire his first poems; but it was also the war that first introduced him to Greece to which he became passionately attached.

His two spells as Assistant Director of the British School at Athens (1951-52 and 1957-62) were bridged by research posts at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, and St Antony's College, Oxford. During this time he completed his PhD thesis on the Greek poets Solomos, Pajamas, Cavafy, Sikelianos, and Seferis, which became his book The Marble Threshing Floor (1956). By this time he had married Anna Mavromichali and had been received into the Orthodox Church. The Marble Threshing Floor, profoundly imbued with the spiritual values of Orthodox Christianity, provided an introduction to modern Greek poetry for English-speaking readers, and, together with his translations, brought the poetry of Cavafy and Seferis, together with its cultural background, to the attention of the literary world.

Philip Sherrard had a long and productive collaboration with the American scholar Edmund Keeley, the first fruit of which was the Penguin volume Four Greek Poets (1966), an anthology of poetry by Cavafy, Seferis, Elytis and Gatsos. This was followed by translations of the collected poems of Seferis (1967) and of Cavafy (1975) and selected poems by Sikelianos (1979) and Elytis (1981). He also translated novels by Myrivilis and Prevelakis.

During his second stay at the British School, Sherrard was fortunate enough to find a disused mine for sale near Limni on the island of Evia (Euboea). The Katounia estate, comprising several houses as well as ample land, provided a holiday retreat and, after he resigned his Lectureship in the history of the Orthodox Church at King's College, London, in 1977, became his permanent home.

Not long after he settled in Greece, he met and married his second wife, the publisher Denise Harvey. At Katounia, Philip and Denise cultivated the soil and occupied their minds with study, contemplation, and writing, without feeling the need for electricity or a telephone. They also built an Orthodox chapel in their grounds, where Philip chose to be buried.

At Katounia, as free from the economic and political constraints of the modern contemporary world as it is possible to be, he was able to devote his time to the life of the mind. In his most recent books, Sherrard spoke out urgently and passionately in an attempt to avert a cosmic catastrophe caused by man's soulless exploitation of our planet's natural resources. But he saw the world ecological crisis as evidence of a spiritual crisis, in which European civilisation has deliberately blinded itself to the spiritual dimension of life: we see ourselves, and our entire planet, in an inhuman, godforsaken way and we treat nature as though it consists simply of materials for us to exploit.

Despite the fervent, categorical, and earnest tone of his books, Philip Sherrard in person was diffident, genial, gentle, and full of humour. In his own life he put into practice his conviction that human existence should be richer, more beautiful, and more spiritually rewarding than for modern urban man it is.

Peter Mackridge

It was while walking with Philip Sherrard along the deserted paths of Athos, the "Holy Mountain", that I began to understand what Greece and the Orthodox Church meant in his life, writes Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia.

Sherrard's decision to make Greece his home, and equally his decision to become an Orthodox Christian, were the expression of a conscious and deeply felt spiritual orientation.

What Greece meant to him is best stated in the brief but masterly introduction to his anthology The Pursuit of Greece (1964). Here he speaks of "the living fate of Greece . . . a process difficult, baffling, enigmatic, with its element of magic, its element of tragedy, working itself out in a landscape of bare hills and insatiable sea".

As for his commitment to Orthodoxy, this is best expressed in his seminal - and controversial - book The Greek East and The Latin West (1959), which he intended as "a kind of guide for those distressed by the state of things around them". That intention pervades all his many writings on religious topics. He never wrote simply as an academic historian of doctrine, but he sought always to emphasise the living relevance of the Orthodox spiritual tradition in a fragmented secular world.

It was typical of his outlook that he saw the Filioque question not as a minor technicality in dispute between Rome and the Orthodox churches, but as involving implicitly two world-views - one of which led directly, in his opinion, to the setting up of such organisations as the United Nations and the Common Market (institutions for which he felt little enthusiasm).

In his later years Sherrard became closely concerned with what he saw as the appalling effects of the exploitation of modern science. His standpoint was forcefully expressed in such books as The Rape Of Man And Nature (1987), and The Sacred In Life And Art (1990), as also in a lecture that he delivered in London last year, "Every Thing That Lives Is Holy".

His strictures on modern science were felt by many to be excessively negative. But the alternative vision which he upheld - of the world as sacrament, and of man as microcosm - was highly positive in character.

Witty, a subtle and persistent opponent in argument, but at the same time humble, Philip Sherrard was an entertaining companion and a generous friend.

Philip Sherrard had a wonderful gift for quietly inspiring young people and his influence extended across a range of friends and admirers beyond academia or the church, writes Michael Sheridan.

At home in Greece he would listen with gentle bemusement to visitors who brought him tales of brutality and cynicism from Moscow, the Middle East or, indeed, modern Britain. He enjoyed talking to people whose worlds were far removed from his own and he was not afraid of a good argument.

Journalists, writers, bankers or artists were all greeted with tolerant charm. Many came away conscious that their ambitions and standards had been tested by his conversation; and all of us felt our lives enriched by his serenity.

Philip Owen Arnould Sherrard, poet, translator, literary scholar, theologian, philosopher: born Oxford 23 September 1922; married Anna Mavromichali (two daughters), secondly Denise Harvey; died London 30 May 1995.