Cheshire Kelsey

Facing  Reality

The theme of this conference is Facing Reality. For Bishop Anthony of course reality was the Lord Jesus Christ : “I am the Truth, the Way, and the Life.” Not an idea, not a philosophical outlook, but a Person.

Most of you probably know the story of his life-changing encounter with Christ at age 14 and how it transformed his vision of other people. In his own words: “I remember how the next morning I went out into the street, looking at the crowd of people who like me were hurrying towards the station. And I thought: ‘God loves all these people! I want to be like God and love all these people. Even if they want to tear me to shreds I will love them nonetheless.’

To love God, to be able to be with him, meant to love all whom He loved. It was disarmingly simple. But it is no small thing, indeed it is a lifetime’s struggle, to love without possession or self-interest. And to love as God loves, fully alive, aflame with God’s love is another thing all-together. How is it even possible?

For Bishop Anthony, even to begin to do this meant to dare, with all one’s being, to stand face to face with the reality of Christ, – in personal encounter – and to know Him not as master but as friend. And it meant at all times to stand face to face with the reality of ourselves, discovering who we really are, learning to be real, to be true. Because – as he said so often – an encounter is true only when the two persons meeting are true.

He spent his life trying to do this, within the sovereign freedom of the Gospel. And the intensity of his determination and longing gave him the courage to stand face to face with a reality few of us are able either to glimpse or to endure. For me, and for many, the greatest part of his teaching was what he conveyed simply through what he was as a result of that struggle. So I would like to share a few examples from my own experience of the determination and longing with which he faced – and taught us to face – his God, his flock, despair, surrender and joy.

Facing God

When I started coming to the Cathedral in 1978 Bishop Anthony was living there in a tiny flat beside the altar. In the small vestry on the other side of the altar he gave weekly talks, and met with his parishioners. In those days he was still celebrating most of the services himself.

He had a great love for the Liturgy. Just before he died he said to Father John Lee: “The thing I will most miss when I die is celebrating the Liturgy.”

This love was combined with a deep sense of unworthiness and awe, even of dread.

To celebrate the Liturgy meant to stand face to face with divine love in the person of Christ, to stand in a place where only Christ can stand. How could this possibly be done? Only at great cost. His own words are these:

‘ When we pray it is a matter of opening ourselves to such a communion with God that our thoughts should become the thoughts of God, that we should, to use a phrase of St. Paul’s, acquire the mind of Christ, that our feeling, our attitude to all things should be those of God in Christ, that the risks we take or are prepared to take should be those which God took when His Only-Begotten Son became one of us to save the world which means, each of us singly and all the world. That is where the Kingdom of God begins.’

He tried with all the strength and conviction he possessed to do this. I remember in particular one Sunday morning in 1982. I arrived early at the Cathedral not long after Anna Garrett had opened up. It was before the Liturgy on a Feast of the Mother of God, I don’t remember which one.

The Church was silent, cold, filled with the thin grey light of an early winter morning. Few people were there. From the altar one could just hear the subdued voice of Bishop Anthony celebrating the Proskomedia and the long prayers that followed it. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary.

Towards the end of these prayers he came out of the altar with the censor, vested in the blue robes of the Mother of God. His face was shining, filled with an indescribable quietness and freedom. As he came down from the Amvon, speaking the remaining prayers and censing us and the church, his whole bearing, and the words he spoke, were directed outward, beyond himself, to an invisible presence: someone. Someone whose presence changed him, shone through him and filled his voice with a love, a certainty, and a purity of conviction so strong, so deeply and totally pervading him, that there could be no doubt that the person addressed was real and present and of a beauty surpassing human thought or knowledge.

The whole space of the Church was suddenly transformed, filled with a stillness, a living silence. We were standing in what seemed the rarefied air at the top of a snow covered mountain. He was fully alive and we were changed.

Facing his flock

But what was really remarkable about him was the way in which he came down from the sanctuary and brought that encounter with God into the market place of the Church – just as Christ had insisted on bringing the apostles down from the Mount of Transfiguration ‘into the heart of human grief.’

In his patched black cassock and worn leather belt he joined his flock as a simple monk, as one of them, not as master but as friend. More often than not he came down from that mountain top radiant, glowing with divine love. But whether it was joy or sorrow that filled him he faced us as he was: vulnerable, human, open and real.

Here on the bench along the north aisle people would wait to speak to him, and as far as he was able to he would sit with each of them, and each at that moment was the only person in the world who mattered. More than that, he had eyes to see in each person the image of God within, an image hidden more often than not even from themselves. And simply by recognising it he awakened in them the knowledge of the beauty they had not been able to see, and gave them courage to live.

But beyond this he tried to live the Gospel to an extant that few would be prepared to do. Here are his own words:

“I remember asking God a question while waiting for a patient. I opened the bible, and my eyes fell on a passage from the prophecy of Isaiah, where he speaks of the nature of true fasting. And I read then words which not only amazed me, they bowled me over: ‘Give your soul as food for many.’ I read the passage three times and read the same words three times. What the passage actually says is: ‘Feed the soul of the hungry one’ which means ‘Feed everyone who is hungry’. But my understanding was different, I read it differently. Maybe God shut my eyes to the actual text and revealed to me some depth. I don’t know. But this determined my fate.”

How could such a thing be done? He prayed for his flock in such depth, with such total gift of self, that he entered profoundly into their experience, their joy and darkness, and allowed this to reach his soul, to open his soul. But how could what filled his soul be food for many? One answer he gave was the words of St. John the Baptist: “I must decrease that He may increase.” He spent much of his life trying to ‘decrease’, to empty himself, to be nothing more than a voice crying in the wilderness, so that not he but Christ could shine through his soul as food for many, and lead them to the source of life. And sometimes this happened, as at the Vigil for the Feast of the Entry of the Mother of God into the Temple, in December 1990 :

It was a cold wet winter evening. Inside the Cathedral the windows were dark. People had arrived tired from the day’s work, bringing with them their preoccupations and their sorrows. In the browns, blacks and greys of their winter coats they seemed sombre, heavy, as though visible only in their outward forms, like the crowd in a painting. While we waited for the service to begin we were filled with a heaviness we could not shake off.

At the beginning of the Service Bishop Anthony came out of the Royal Doors clothed in his Bishop’s Mantle, to give the opening blessing and cense the church and the people. As he pronounced the words of the blessing he spoke as though listening to something far beyond him. His countenance, his gaze, his whole presence, was filled with a deep silence, a total absence of self. He seemed held in a vast life that was not his own, an inner spaciousness and freedom, a profound peace.

As he descended the amvon steps and turned towards the south aisle to cense the church and the people there was something timeless in his movements, as though the motion of his limbs was not their own, but set in motion by a greater life flowing from the deep stillness within. Nothing seemed left of him but listening: listening to the invisible depths unfolding within him and to the invisible depths of the people gathered there.

As he continued around the church he censed us with a deep concentrated attention.

His gaze had a warmth, a burning tenderness and reverence that was almost worshipful, that saw within each of us a beauty, an eternity we ourselves could not see. It called us to listen, but left us free. At first it seemed the heaviness in our hearts could not respond to this beauty.

The service was long. In the festal icon in the center of the Church the young Mother of God, a tiny child, stood like a beacon, every particle of herself as though dusted with listening, open, ready to respond. Around her the service unfolded like a dance. During Matins, following the reading of the Gospel, Bishop Anthony stood by her icon to anoint each of us with the oil that had been blessed earlier at the Litya. His gaze as he traced the cross on our foreheads was glowing, alive, so deep one seemed to be looking into unending depths, kingdoms not yet known. Things beyond understanding flowed from those depths: compassion, tears for all the world, and a love that was burning, pure, timeless, at once transcendent and intimate, crushing and transforming in its beauty. And the peace in his gaze was so deep that it seemed it could pour itself into our frailty without end.

By the time he had anointed everyone and was able to return, now weak and tired, to the sanctuary, one could see that something of every soul present had come to rest within the vast spaciousness and peace of the life within him.

At the end of Matins he came out of the Royal Doors to give the final blessing. Holding the cross to his breast he stood for a moment in silence. Out of that silence the words of the blessing flowed as though they were only the continuation of a melody begun long ago, outside of time, eternally unfolding.

The sound that came through his voice was indescribable, a sound so deep, so vast that it seemed to contain the joys and sorrows of all the world; the sound of longing, of things promised and things lost; the sound of repentance, tremulous and full of hope. Above all, the sound of love, a love beyond anything most of us had ever known, filled with the infinite life of God. It poured through his voice with the convincing power of truth, breaking through our darkness, our burdens, our fears, lifting the veils from our hearts, calling us out of exile, and restoring us to ourselves. And in the glowing darkness of the Cathedral at the beginning of the First Hour we were given eyes to see that people were shining with the water of which Christ spoke to the samaritan woman at the well, and that what had been a dark and sombre crowd was now a luminous sea of flames.

Facing Darkness

 One of the most essential things about Bishop Anthony was the determination and courage with which he faced, and counselled us to face, darkness in its many forms, in the world, in our neighbour, in ourselves. Because he had faced doubt and despair ruthlessly in himself, in his struggle to break through them into the light, he had great compassion for anyone who wrestled with these, and insisted we should have compassion for ourselves in our own struggles. He reminded us thatWe are part of a fallen world, and it is in and through this turmoil that we must find our way. We are walking on the sea on which St Peter walked, and we meet Christ at the very centre of the storm, the point of equipoise of all its violence.”

One of his earliest experiences of darkness came not long after his encounter with Christ as a teenager, when he decided he must try to pray for the first time. He once described the scene to me vividly: a young boy on his knees crouching over a prayer and suddenly feeling behind him the fearful presence of a demonic figure hovering, wings outspread about to envelop him. He was afraid. He knew he could stop, in order to escape that presence, but he also sensed he could choose to risk everything and continue with the whole of his being to penetrate that prayer. He made the choice to continue, to break through his fear and risk losing himself, in the attempt to reach out to the God beyond. And he broke through. This was only the beginning of a lifelong journey.

He knew well the inner condition when there seems to be nothing but darkness, when you feel you can no longer distinguish between good and evil, light and darkness. And he knew that the great danger in despair is that it fills the mind and soul with bitterness and defeat, and stops us from receiving and accepting love: love that is always waiting to be given to us if we don’t push it away. He said to me and to again and again : “Realise that you could not see the darkness, or recognise it as darkness, if you were not already in the light. You needn’t be afraid of what you see within yourself, however dark.” And he insisted that facing the reality of darkness with courage throws light on it, gives it meaning, and sets us free. And about that darkness he said the following words to me:

“You are part of your genealogy, of the generations and generations who came before you. The darkness, the desolation, the desperate search for wholeness, for love, for happiness, all of these things which were theirs, which were never resolved, are pouring, flooding, into you. This darkness is not you, it is what pours into you from your ancestry. It falls at some point to one person to take on this darkness, be in its midst, to bring it into the light.

You have opened yourself to the light. Part of your destiny is to carry this flood of darkness, all of those who were part of it, to fight your way through it, to bring it into the light, to do for them what they were unable to do.

If you can see only darkness, if you perceive no light, that does not mean it is not there. It is for them that the battle is waged. It is they who will be brought into the light, who will feel its effects. And you are given this, allowed this, because God knows you will be strong enough to bear it.

Do not confuse the darkness with yourself. It pours into you from your ancestry. Your struggle works retroactively, as it were, accomplishes in them what you cannot see happening because you are in the midst of the darkness. You cannot see or know how this happens. But something is being worked out through you.”

Facing the Cross

He was insistent that no one can carry the Cross unless they have first seen, or at least glimpsed, the Divine Love, a love that loves unto death: He would say: “You are loved, He loves you, He trusts you to the extant of His life and death on the Cross”. Only with that love could one bear the cross.

Watching him celebrate the Elevation of the Cross at an evening Vigil in 1984 revealed the reality behind these words more than the words themselves ever could. There, standing in the middle of the Church, he raised the cross above his head with an iron grip of such dread intensity that he seemed to be raising up not an icon of the crucified Christ, but the crucified Christ himself, and with it the whole creation, bent and bleeding, pierced as Christ was pierced.

And each time he brought the cross down, inch by inch until his strength could take it no lower, while the choir sing the Gospodi po milui’s, it was with an almost superhuman effort that he offered himself to the burden of a sorrow more dreadful than could be comprehended by the human heart.

But at the same time something else shone through him, and one was given eyes to see that love was also streaming from that Cross., unfolding and flowing, rushing into the darkness with a final unconquerable beauty. Then it was clear that to lift all of that up in human hands, to carry it, to carry Christ, not only all of His love but all of His death, was to carry not only dereliction but joy.

Facing Hope

And he told me this story about hope:

“We can’t see things clearly, as they are, when we are inside them. I remember once when I was still a doctor I had to find a hospital. I was tired, I had a heavy suitcase, it was raining, I walked and walked through the mud and rain. I was covered with mud, I was exhausted. I walked on and on and I could not find the place I was going.

Finally I felt I could not go on, and I said to myself: “Why not just give up and lie down here in the mud and rain and go to sleep.” Then the thought came to me: ‘When Christ was carrying the cross and fell down He didn’t lie there, He got up and went on.’ And do you know, I went another block and a half and turned a corner and right there was the hospital! So imagine if I had spent the night in the mud with the hospital only 1 1/2 blocks away!”

Surrender and self abandonment: the blessing of breads

 When Bishop Anthony as a 14 year old boy went out into the street the day after his encounter with Christ, looked at the crowd of people there and said to himself with such beautiful simplicity ‘God loves all these people! I want to be with God and love all these people!’ he could not have known what that would ask of him, and how seemingly impossible it was.

How was it possible to be united with Christ in such a way, aflame with His love and able to love with His love? Years later he gave his own answer: “No human effort, no spiritual endeavour, can achieve this, but grace can achieve everything. The power of God is truly accomplished in weakness, transparency, the weakness into which God can pour His strength, as a sail can be filled with wind and drive the boat forward to wherever the spirit takes it”….And as the young child learning to write freely allows his mother to take his hand in hers and guide it.”

Bishop Anthony spent his life trying to learn this surrender and self abandonment, to become supple in God’s hands. Many times he could not find it, but often he could. One such time was at the Vigil of a feast in 1982 during the blessing of the breads at the Litya.

In those days this took place in the center of the Church on a small table which held the silver candlestick and a tray with the five breads, and on this occasion, Bishop Anthony stood silent before the Litya table while the long prayers of the Litya were said by the deacon and priests behind him. He stood absolutely motionless, in deep inner concentration, looking ahead into a distance far beyond him. His concentration was so intense that one felt it almost had physical substance: one sensed an overwhelming effort to wait, to listen for something with every ounce of strength he possessed.

Then almost imperceptibly something changed. Something absolutely frail appeared in

his gaze and in his whole bearing, a frailty such as one rarely sees: not the frailty of moral weakness but the frailty of a very young child, pure, without guile. When the moment arrived to bless the breads and he lifted his hand to begin the blessing, immediately it was as though every gesture was infused with something beyond it. He rested his hand for an instant on the top bread with a burning, concentrated delicacy that seemed to sense that bread as the most precious of all things and desired not to crush or overpower it. At the same time there was fire in that touch, as though to ignite in the bread all that it incipiently could be. Then, as he spoke the words of the blessing, and lifted up this bread and made the sign of the cross over the other four, the gesture again of his hand was made with an invisible grace that seemed to be by another hand than his. And through the blessing visible to the outer eye something that could be seen by the inner eye happened, and all of truth in material form, like a burning coal, a living flame, was falling through his hand, through the words of the blessing, into the breads, a pure, burning love. In the delicacy and fire of that single touch the whole of the creation seemed for an instant to tremble and burn.

So, it was in this way that he taught us something about surrender.

The hunchback Ivan, Last Rite of Forgiveness 1979

I want to end with something that happened in 1979 to a very old Russian parishioner, the hunchback Ivan, who had sat quietly, patiently, for years at the front of the Church.

It was the Day of the Holy Spirit, in the twilight of the Cathedral, after the Vigil had ended. Ivan had been sitting immobile on the bench along the north wall. Suddenly it was clear something was seriously wrong. People gathered round. Father Michael went and sat beside him, attentive, questioning.

One by one people stopped talking, froze into an intent stillness to listen, or moved forward, encircling him. Bishop Anthony joined Father Michael, and crouched down in front of Ivan, very quiet, sure, speaking to him, listening. Then he very quickly got up, went into the sanctuary, returned with his confessor’s mantle, knelt in front of Ivan and began the last rites.

Twilight still filled the windows of the Cathedral, but the Church itself was in a deeper dusk, broken only by candlelight. The dark hunched figure of Ivan was larger than life. His face, as though set into his breast like a flower, was innocent, pale, unsuspecting. Father Michael held him as in a caress.

Bishop Anthony was a black kneeling figure at their feet, the intensity and inner silence of his presence making him seem an archetypal form, filled out with something indestructible, with a deep purpose, an intent far beyond him.

He read the office as I had never heard anything read before, in a deep unfathomable voice which was breaking through something, directed towards an invisible presence, with a certainty and sense of purpose that never faltered.

The sound, the life in that voice both came from and appealed to something, someone, beyond. It was like a river flowing over, around and through the dying man, through the Bishop himself, and through all of us. All in that instant were revealed in the very essence of their being, cast into relief, into the blinding clarity of reality, by their relation to death. Ivan’s life waited there in these hallowed minutes for its final form to reveal itself. And in these minutes we were all one.