Yesterday was the Nativity of the Theotokos (usually translated as ‘birthgiver of God’ or ‘God-bearer’) and it was a hot day. Too hot, by the end, though if you live in the west of Ireland you should probably never complain about the rare experience of heat. At my local holy well, which is dedicated to Mary, chairs had been laid out for a patron day mass. If I had been a Catholic I would have gone along. Instead I was on a boat with my wife, heading out to Holy Island.
This plan wasn’t based on what day it was. To be honest, important days in the church calendar often creep up on me. The Orthodox calendar is literally Byzantine, and sometimes I forget to check what is coming up. But here we were, on this significant day, heading out across the startlingly still surface of Lough Derg towards what was once one of the most important pilgrimage sites in the country.
If I’m honest, I have been struggling with words for a while. I have been becalmed here all week and I haven’t known why. My summer break has probably not helped, but what I want to write about here has been blocking, or perhaps intimidating, me.
Always in my life I have written about the world. I’m good at that. I am especially good at writing about what is wrong with it (there is always something wrong) and what, in my Terribly Important Opinion, should be done about the wrongness. I’ve been at this game for a long time and I can do it with my eyes shut now. I can organise an argument over two whole years, and make a case and back it up. For a certain type of writer, this can make a good career. I was one of them once. But it seems like a long time ago now.
Now here I am, called to do something else. Here I am, surprisingly and yet not suprisingly, a Christian. It is on the one hand not surprising, because I have never been a materialist; I have always had some intuition of God or gods or spirits, usuually experienced for me through the natural world, and I have always been searching for the truth of that, always scanning the horizon for the true harbour. Yet it is surprising too, because I never imagined that, in the words of Seraphim Rose, patron saint of Lost Western People, the truth was ‘a person, not an idea.'
But I find myself wrestling today with that truth, and being a writer it is impossible for me not to write about the wrestling. The vast challenge, the fearful one, is how to do that well. I would quite like, if I am honest, to be released from the call. I am an old seeker and a weathered writer, but a new Christian. A new Christian with a platform who wants to write about his Christian journey is sailing on a sea which could sink him any time. I have prayed about this consistently, of course, and I’ve asked advice of everyone I know. Friends, family, teachers, my spiritual father, wise heads both Christian and not. I’ve even sought - and been given - answers from monks on Mount Athos. Should I really be writing about this? I have asked, over and over. I don’t know anything.
The answer has always been the same, and it has always been: yes, you should. Sometimes that has excited me, and at other times it has felt like a millstone around my neck. Of course, the ‘yes’ always comes with important caveats. If I start writing as if I were a teacher or a leader or some kind of wise or accomplished Public Christian, or somebody who knows much at all of any depth, I will fall on my face. Probably some people would enjoy that, and perhaps it would be a good lesson in humility, but still, I am going to try and avoid it.
I have noticed in the last few years a constant temptation to systematise Christianity; to bend it into a shape that fits a pre-existing pattern in people’s heads. This is hardly just a Christian problem, of course: it is universal. We want our faith to justify our worldview. We want a me-shaped God. We see this especially when it comes to politics in divided times like these, as ‘progressive’ and ‘conservative’ Christians cherry-pick from the Bible to support whatever they imagine Jesus can help them justify, be it abortion on demand or the death penalty.