Sunday, 24 February 2019

Book Preview: "Scriptural Basis of the Divine Liturgy" by Rany Makaryus

“The Scriptural Basis of the Divine Liturgy: Meditations on the Coptic Orthodox Liturgy of Saint Basil”
By Rany Makaryus
Price: £6.95  (Amazon UK)
ISBN: 1732891818

Today’s blog post will be slightly different to the usual. Instead of reviewing a book, we have the blessing of hearing from the author. Rany Makaryus’ book “The Scriptural Basis of the Divine Liturgy” is a wonderful introductory text to liturgical studies, exploring the scriptural links between the Liturgical prayers of the Coptic Orthodox Church and Scripture, as well as the origins of our Liturgical practice found therein.

So here is what Rany had to say:

“Do you remember the last time you focused on what was being recited in church before taking communion? It is very hard to focus on that. We always have so much on our minds as we stand there stressed out about work, conflicts with others, problems we are facing, and pending tasks we need to complete. Besides the stress, any little thing happening around us so easily distracts us¾just a small alert from our phone can send our minds off in many different directions. Worse is that it seems we have become rather immune to the many prayers that are recited on a weekly basis.

Growing up going to church on a weekly basis and being the smart aleck kid that I was, I liked to ask annoying questions such as, “If Jesus said that we should not use vain repetitions in our prayers, then why do we repeat prayers so many times during the liturgy?” Similarly, we might ask why the prayers in church are so long and drawn out. This might be the case in many different churches, but it is particularly true about the Coptic Orthodox Church. If you've ever been to one of our liturgies, you will realize just how long this could take. The shortest I’ve ever seen is at least 2 hours from when the service begins to when we heard the words “Go in peace.” Much happens in that time, and if we really care to know the answers to these questions, we should diligently try to understand what is being said and done.

The Coptic Orthodox Church presents us with many rich traditions and prayers that are meant to keep us rooted in the true faith.  In fact, as much as the liturgy is meant to prepare us for receiving Holy Communion, it is also a way for us to learn about our faith. There is so much that a believer can learn about Christianity simply by attending and paying attention during the liturgical prayers on a weekly basis.

When I started to dig deep into understanding why there are so many prayers, why they are all so important in preparation for receiving this sacrament, and how they were all put together in the form that we now have, it became very clear that these prayers have one main source, and that is the Holy Bible. I was most intrigued by the words of Saint Paul to the church in Corinth about their church gatherings saying, “For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you...” (1 Cor 11:23). This phrase indicates that this tradition of breaking the bread and sharing in communion with one another¾receiving the Body and Blood of Christ¾was instituted by Christ Himself. We can further extrapolate from this that this tradition was preserved by the church and passed down to us through the past 2 millennia. Further evidence of this is that different churches throughout the world, many of which have not maintained much communications for centuries, currently have very similar phrases used in their prayers.

How is it that these prayers can be preserved, not only through time, but also throughout many different cultures and traditions around the world? The reality is that this is mainly because these prayers have their roots in the scriptures that we all hold so dear to our faith. This was the principle inspiration for me as I put together my findings, leading to writing the book Scriptural Basis of the Divine Liturgy: Meditations on the Coptic Orthodox Liturgy of Saint Basil. Though it might be hard to focus on the prayers during the liturgy, if we really want to take our faith seriously, we should strive to understand the meaning behind these prayers that we hear on a weekly basis. Hopefully, with this new year, we can take a renewed focus on the liturgy and the depth of meaning we gain from it. “

Scriptural Basis of the Divine Liturgy is available now on Amazon UK:

For kindle version:

Thursday, 3 January 2019

Tolkien, Meekness and the Christian Message of Hope.

We must take a hard road, a road unforeseen. There lies our hope, if hope it be.”
Tolkien, Meekness and the Christian Message of Hope.

 The title of this post may be a bit confusing, so before I start I will explain. Having spent the last year agonising over what to write about, I stepped back and decided to get back into reading. One of my favourite genres is ‘High Fantasy’ and specifically the writing of JRR Tolkien, with his blending of his faith, life and interests into his writing. Having recently rekindled my love of his Lord of the Rings series, I was reminded of an important theme, the theme of having hope. Since today also lands on the Birthday of Tolkien, I thought it apt to write this short reflection.

In the Christian faith, we hear of the term hope constantly, with the emphasis on God’s great love for us in the action of the Incarnation. This is expressed well in the First Epistle of Peter, in which we are reminded that God, “was manifest in these last times for you,  who through Him believe in God, who raised Him from the dead and gave Him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God.However, unlike the traditional concept of the provision of hope in an almighty God, the Christian message of hope goes a step beyond and presents its message of hope through two unimaginable images; his birth and his eventual death. 

Interestingly, in Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” this theme of hope promised through the unimagined is often expressed in a way that is highly relatable to Christians today, as it is expressed as coming in the meekest of beings and the darkest of journeys. To me, one of the greatest expressions of this hope is found at the Council of Elrond. For those who have not read the book, this is an event in which the Free peoples of Middle Earth meet to discuss what to do upon discovering the Ring of Power, which is a weapon of pure power and evil, often symbolic of sin or corruption which gives power but ultimately destroys. Because of this, it is decided that the only possibility is to destroy it, by entering the land of Mordor, where the enemy resides. “We must take a hard road, a road unforeseen. There lies our hope, if hope it be. To walk into peril – to Mordor. We must send the Ring to the Fire.” In this we already see the resemblance to the Christian concept of Christ’s death and resurrection. 

In both cases, hope is found in the darkest of situations through something which we would not usually seek as a form of hope. In the case of Middle Earth it is found in entering the very home of Evil, in the case of our faith it is found in the Death of Christ on the cross. As John Chrysostom stated in his Paschal Sermon, Let no one fear death, for the Saviour’s death has set us free. He that was held prisoner of it has annihilated it. By descending into Hell, He made Hell captive.”  This expression of faith would seem utterly baffling to one outside of Christianity, however it is in this that we find the core of our faith as a truth. Because of this, the concept of death becomes a promise of eternal life to Christians, as the death of Christ allows us a Salvation which we were promised, in the same manner as those attending the Council of Elrond found their Salvation only through the journey into the lair of their enemy.

The message of such a hope is vital to Christians today, since we are expected to take leaps of faith and take up our struggle in all we do. Christ reminds us in the Gospels, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.This becomes even more prevalent when we witness the dedication to their faith of the many Martyrs of both the Early Church and even today. In this, the realisation of the call to the promise of eternal life becomes a reality and the hope of life after this becomes something to hold onto regardless of circumstance. It is this very fact that makes it so profound. Knowing that our salvation came through Christ’s passion and resurrection gives hope that God is there, and that even in the darkest of times there is a light and that that light is God.

In the same manner, the idea of the Incarnation itself and gift of hope through Jesus Christ was something of a scandal in the ancient world, especially in the manner of his coming; St Athanasius reminds us that, “The Lord did not come to make a display. He came to heal and to teach suffering men.” In this we see that hope came in Christ in the humblest of manners. During this time of advent this message becomes even more prevalent, and we are taught of the nativity of our Lord being born not in a Palace as a King but in a manger where animals feed from. St john Chrysostom expresses this in an emphatic manner in his nativity Sermon, stating, “What shall I say! And how shall I describe this Birth to you? For this wonder fills me with astonishment. The Ancient of Days has become an infant. He Who sits upon the sublime and heavenly Throne, now lies in a manger.” In this we see the scandal of hope coming through the meekest of means.

This theme is again taken up by Tolkien, through his main protagonist who is a Hobbit (Halfling) named Frodo. As all of the races are arguing over who will destroy the ring he volunteers to take up the quest and he expresses his meekness by stating, “'I will take the Ring,' he said, 'though I do not know the way.’ In this we see the reminder of the smallest of beings doing what none other could. This message again is emphasised when it is stated, “such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere.” This resonates with the message of the Incarnation, that the lofty and prideful will not seek Salvation in what they perceive as lesser, an attitude which we see throughout the Gospels through the Jewish authorities refusing to accept Christ due to their pride and greed.

This message again is a vital and important practical message for Christians, since God has condescended and became man for us, offering up himself as man that we may come to know him and receive Salvation. St Paul expresses this, stating how he, “did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men.” This can again link to the message of the Resurrection that he died to defeat death, in the same way he came to us to help us come to him. In living out this in our lives we are given a living example of how to live meekly and in humility. Even beyond this we are offered a promise of Salvation, reminded that the meekest and lowest of us can be the bearer of hope to others.  
Overall, we are offered two key images of hope, neither of which would traditionally inspire in us the idea of a promise of Salvation or Hope. However, we know that it was through the birth of the Child in the Manger and his harrowing Death on the Cross that hope was returned to us with the promise of Salvation.  At this Advent time this is a stunning image and one which is at the centre of our prayers.

To quote Tolkien one more time, “This is the hour of the Shire-folk, when they arise from their quiet fields to shake the towers and counsels of the Great. Who of all the Wise could have foreseen it? Or, if they are wise, why should they expect to know it, until the hour has struck?” Or to put it simply, Hope is found in the most surprising of places but it is always hidden in plain sight.

Thursday, 2 August 2018

The Camino de Santiago: My Reflections

“The goal is a perfect peacefulness even in the middle of the raging storm.” – St John Climacus.

In the busy modern world, the concept of escaping the world to spend time alone with God is utterly alien. We will often spend twelve hours a day working and barely achieve twenty minutes in prayer to thank God for the things which he has provided for us.  Because of this struggle, this year myself and a close friend decided to take some time this year to restore our ‘spiritual compasses’ and dedicate some time to God through walking the Camino Ingles, one of the less walked northern routes of the Camino De Santiago. 

The Camino De Santiago is the name given to a medieval pilgrimage, originating in the 9th Century, to the Tomb of St James in Santiago de Compostela. In my case, the route which I walked was the Camino Ingles, which travels 119km between the northern Spanish cities of Ferrol and Santiago de Compostela. This route was originally used by Northern European pilgrims who travelled by sea to Ferrol from England.

After discussing this with His Eminence, Archbishop Angaelos I received his blessing to go on this pilgrimage and following further thought I decided to add an additional motivation to this walk and seek sponsorships for the St Kyrel Trust, a Coptic charity which works to provide for vulnerable youths who lack the means to go to work towards improving their situation. As someone who works in the education system, this charity and its work mean a lot for me, and as someone who has spent a significant part of his life working within the Church I felt the need to work to combine these two and work to promote a charity which cares for both those within the Coptic community and the importance of education and social mobility amongst the youth. To donate to their cause you can use the link provided HERE

With these in mind, I prepared both physically and spiritually for the journey, knowing I would be walking over 20km per day through areas of solitude, meeting very few people apart from in the hotels and hostels we stayed in. This was a difficult thing to prepare for, especially living in a city and a society which values social interaction above all else. One extremely beneficial source of this guidance was HH Pope Kyrillos, whose guidance through his monastic life has guided many young Orthodox Christians to work closer in their relationship with God through both choosing to enter the monasteries or working on their prayer life within their daily life outside of the monastery. Armed with this guidance and an 8kg backpack we started our journey to Ferrol.

Day one: Ferrol to Pontedeume

“And if one were to ask, what road is this? I say that it is the soul of each one of us, and the intelligence which resides there. For by it alone can God be contemplated and perceived." – St John Chrysostom

After a two day drive through France and Spain, stopping off in Loudes overnight, we reached Ferrol. The City itself is a small naval city and is currently struggling with economic issues following the departure of most industries to other parts of the country. After finding the first mile marker, we began our journey to the town on Pontedueme where we would complete the first stage of the walk. The road was a difficult one, especially because of it being the first day of travel. Around half way through the day we reached the town of Fene where we met two more pilgrims at a pilgrim café. This was a great reminder that we were on a journey with others.

Following this meeting, we continued to Pontedeume and travelled through some of the beautiful country lanes of Galicia, across a number of hills and through villages before walking across the Eume and into the town itself. Reaching this first town was a strange experience, since we both celebrated the achievement and realised the immensity of what was to come. After a short break in the town we visited St James (Santiago) Church in the town and headed to our Hotel (Pension). The owners were wonderfully accommodating to our lack of Spanish. The running of this small family run Pension was an interesting reflection of family values, with the whole family helping run the establishment and other family members visiting in the evening to relax together. This is a change from the family life I have experienced in other places where interactions are often short and the presence of the other person is enjoyed less than the motive for the discussion. After rest and a quick breakfast the next day we moved on to our next destination.

Day Two: Pontedeume to Betanzos

"When you see your brother, you see the Lord your God." - Abba Apollo

The journey to Betanzos the next day was a pleasant one, stopping half way in the seaside town of Miño. The journey consisted of mostly forest and countryside which left us with some wonderful views and reminders of the glory of God. One of the most enjoyable moments was during our stop in Miño where we met a man from the USA who was visiting family in Spain and was overjoyed to see English pilgrims on the route.

Following this, we continued to walk through the countryside and found such a welcome as pilgrims that it put other areas of charity to shame, and made us really reflect on our mindset to wards visitors. As we passed through hamlets and small villages we were greeted often with “Buen Camino,” meaning “Good Camino” and found cold boxes containing drinks, attached to donation boxes, for pilgrims to take as they pass in exchange for a small amount of money. Looking back at this, I could never see such a thing working in London as there is not a degree of trust or trustworthiness. In warm days, such a gracious act was extremely appreciated, and I wonder how many other cities or businesses act in this way to the benefit of humanity and impact of such a thing becoming widespread.

On arrival in Betanzos we visited the main Church in the city and had the blessing to attend the pilgrims mass in which prayers were said for all those pilgrims who were heading to Santiago de Compostela and the Tomb of St James. In was here that we had the blessing to meet more pilgrims, including a protestant minister and some Spanish students. Following a nice talk with some of these were reminded of the diversity of this pilgrimage and diversity of motivations. Of all the pilgrims met, there were very few who were travelling for religious reasons, with most travelling for a sense of challenge or for personal reasons. Regardless of this there was a sense of unity in that all were on the same path, experiencing the same challenges and having to overcome theme together. This sense of unity on the pilgrimage was a strong bond which brought everyone together. This would be important the next day as we were to travel 27km uphill to Hospital de Bruma.

Day three: Betanzos to Hospital de Bruma

"Do not attempt to explain something difficult with contentiousness, but with patience, prayer and unwavering hope." – St Mark the Ascetic

The next morning we awoke early at 6am, to begin what was expected to be a 10-12 hour day uphill to the hamlet of Hospital de Bruma. Most of the guide books had warned that this would be the most difficult of days, and so we had decided to have an early start to miss the midday heat. The journey started with some difficult uphill sections, leading to the small down of Presedo. In the town of Presedo we discovered a small pilgrim café which, being the last pilgrim café before Bruma, had everyone we had previous met there. In this café we were able to relax and hear more of the stories of our fellow travellers and their motivation with a few people asking about our religious motivation for taking the pilgrimage (my travelling partner being a Catholic lay-chaplain.) Here we again felt the kinship from before, meeting many of these people for the second time and sharing our journeys before separating for the next stage.

The second half of the trip to Bruma was more difficult, with more slopes and more road walking than before, which had a major impact on my feet after hours of walking on dirt paths and country roads. The long stretches gave us a chance to reflect on the journey so far, and chances to stop for water and often prayer which should be the first call in such times. Fortunately the weather was more generous and so we were treated to clouds and mild warmth as opposed to the boiling heat from the first two days. We arrived in Bruma at around 3pm, with painful feet, and were treated to lunch at a small village café before heading to our hotel to freshen up and rest for the evening, spending another evening with some fellow pilgrims.

Hospital de Bruma - Sigüeiro

"Think nothing and do nothing without a purpose directed to God. For to journey without direction is wasted effort." - St Mark the Ascetic

Following the challenge of getting to Hospital de Bruma we had another long day, with 25km to Sigüeiro. The day began as the others, with long stretches down country roads and more steep slopes leading through towns and villages. This penultimate day of our pilgrimage led us through various farms however it was different in that we walked a large amount of the journey with people we had met on the way. Our walking partners were a couple from the Netherlands and Belgium who worked as hiking guides and were preparing to write about the Ingles route after travelling most of the other Camino de Santiago paths. We spent a large amount of the journey speaking to them about our experience of the way so far, and discussing the religious aspect. From their perspective, it had very little meaning to those walking it today however they felt positive seeking myself and James representing this link to the faith on the journey.

The evening of this long and extremely tiring day was spent in the pilgrim hostel. Whilst there we met other pilgrims including a Belgian man who had walked 30 day pilgrim walks every year and was a fountain of knowledge on the topic. After this, we had the blessing to attend a Catholic Mass in the city, and to take a talk with the priest about the pilgrimage and its importance, he seemed again happy to see pilgrims taking this religious journey. Having later shared dinner with other pilgrims, we were able to gain further insight into the mindset behind many people they had met on the way and listened as others reminisced in their journeys through some of the longer pilgrim ways. In was great to see the impact which walking the Camino has on others even when their motives are not outwardly religious in nature, since all seemed to have a call to the journey.

Sigüeiro – Santiago De Compostela

"If we are not willing to sacrifice this temporal life, or perhaps even the life to come, for the sake of our neighbour, as were Moses and St. Paul, how can we say that we love him?” – St Peter of Damascus

The final day started strangely, with the strange feeling that the Pilgrimage was coming to an end, since despite its brevity, its impact was significant. On a personal note, I can only wonder as to the feelings of whose walking larger routes which can take a month or longer. Though the walk was shorter, it again contained numerous slopes and challenging parts through forest paths. However, by the middle of the day we were within a few kilometres of the Cathedral. As we entered the city we visited a small Church and were able to pray and thank God for bringing us this far, preparing ourselves emotionally and spiritually to enter the old city and reach the cathedral.

Reaching the main square was a daunting thing to experience. Though the journey had been a short one, the realisation that it was over and that we had achieved our goal left me speechless. There, standing next to the Cathedral and only a few hundred meters from the tomb of St James, it seemed like a dream. Before entering the Cathedral we visited a small café and rested, meeting some other pilgrims there, and reflected on how we felt. We had shared a similar journey and a similar emotional state upon completion of the pilgrimage, one of “not feeling like I have arrived” and unpreparedness for it to finish. It was with this state of mind that we entered the Cathedral.

The Cathedral was beautiful and fascinating, keeping most of its medieval architecture alongside some modern features. The centrepiece of the Cathedral was its golden altar, along with the world’s largest censer. This censer was only used in services where a donation had been made, and so wasn’t used each service. After viewing this, we queued up to venerate the Saint at the end of the Pilgrimage and pray at his tomb. This was emotionally charged for all of the Pilgrims, since they had travelled here to venerate the Saint, and so myself and James spent a few minutes in prayer there before moving on and attending the Pilgrims mass at which we were happy to see many people we had travelled with.

The next day we began our drive home. As with the way there, we took the time to visit Lourdes as it was the half way mark. It was good to spend the start and end of our journey at this wonderful town. The domain there, with the grotto and basilica, was a perfect place to pray and reflect due to its silence and prayerful atmosphere. Whilst there we took the time to say our prayers and light candles for friends and family before resting up for the drive home.   

Tips for Travellers

Though my reflections do not quite emphasise it, the Camino de Santiago is physically, spiritually and emotionally demanding. Even the short routes such as the Camino Ingles (which I walked) involve hours of walking on hillsides a day and a willingness to accept that there is little room for stopping or giving up once the day has begun. A key piece of advice I would give to travellers is to pack lightly and ensure that you are committed to its completion.

By packing lightly, I mean not to pack for a holiday. The Camino is a pilgrimage and by its nature a path. Because of this you carry your pack with you between towns. This means that the more you bring, the more you carry. When I walked, I only took a small amount of clothes (My cassock and 3 sets to be precise) and little else, I had planned to bring a book to read however this became impossible due to weight, time and tiredness. Because of this, a small pamphlet text alongside your prayer book and Bible suffices, or even just having them on your phone could be preferable.

Overall the journey is a great blessing and I would advise everyone to undergo it or a similar one at least once in their life, embracing the spirit of the pilgrim. It is a chance to become one with others and forget the secular life which drags us from others and from God. You will meet many people of different motivations and they will become a lifeline and you will often lose track of the real world outside of this pilgrims life, thus truly becoming the Christians which the Apostle called “Pilgrims and sojourners” as we were called to be.