Interview: Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia

This interview originally appeared in Wessex Chronicle Volume 14, Issue 1 (Spring 2013). It follows last week's obituary for Metropolitan Kallistos

Timothy Ware was born in Bath and educated at Westminster School and at Oxford University, where he worked as a lecturer until his retirement. Raised as an Anglican, his interest in the Orthodox Church began while he was still at school. He became a priest and monk in 1966, receiving the name Kállistos. In 1982 he was appointed titular Bishop of Diokleia – the first Englishman to be made a bishop in the Orthodox Church since the
Schism of 1054 – and in 2007 was elevated to the title of Metropolitan. He has written or
translated a wide range of works on the history and theology of the Orthodox Church.

Derek Pickett and David Robins recently visited Metropolitan Kállistos at
his home in north Oxford.

DR: You have been a patron of Wessex Society almost from the beginning. How do you perceive our progress in achieving the vision we set out back in 1999?

MK: In my opinion you are doing good work to ensure recognition of local traditions, so I do consider that the Society is achieving its aims. Patriotism is a valuable quality which can and should be used in our religious life as in our other activities. It can become narrow, intolerant, be degraded into a kind of chauvinism, but in itself it is something very positive. We are not complete persons unless we have a sense of loyalty to the place where we
live. Mobility today means that people are not always clear where their loyalties lie. Patriotism means loyalty to our country, whether that’s England or Great Britain. And it means a sense of commitment, as I see it, to European unity as well, to the common civilisation which has shaped Europe. But also of vital significance is that we should have a local loyalty. A general loyalty, to be a citizen of the world, or of Europe, has little meaning if it is not supported by a knowledge of our local roots and an attempt to cultivate them.
This is exactly what the Society is doing and this is why I have always supported its work. To me the first thing is to be local and you can’t have the wider loyalties firmly based unless they’ve got a foundation that is local. Local interest can be a kind of jumping-off point for you to appreciate the world, but I think unless you love the local places where you are, it’s difficult for you to love distant places. You have to start from where you are.

DP: On a spiritual path, people often think that the door that opened seemed to find them rather than them finding the door. Did you find that Orthodoxy found you rather than you found Orthodoxy?

MK: That does fit with my own experience. I first got to know about the Orthodox Church when I was 17. I was a schoolboy in London, at Westminster School. One Saturday afternoon I was wandering through the area beyond Victoria Station and I saw a church that I’d never previously been inside. It was St Philip’s, Buckingham Palace Road, where Victoria Coach Station, or part of it, now stands. At that time this formerly Anglican church was being used by the Russian community for worship. I went inside. The church was dark. At first I thought it was empty. Then I realised a service was in progress – this was the vigil service that the Russians have on a Saturday evening – and I was immediately drawn in. I was fascinated. I felt, this is for me, though I knew very little about it and understood nothing of the service – it was all in Slavonic – however, I had a sense of coming home. So, in a sense, yes, the door found me rather than me finding the door. I did not join the Orthodox
Church for another six years. I made many enquiries about what it is that the Orthodox believe and do before I finally took the step of joining but the decision was really made that Saturday afternoon, through that apparently chance encounter, though I would think I was guided.

DP: Sometimes a little thing takes place and for some reason the heart amplifies this and it’s having the courage and the conviction to follow what has been amplified in the heart.

MK: The words courage and conviction find a resonance with me. In those days the Orthodox Church was largely for immigrants, for Russians and Greeks in particular. The reaction of the Orthodox clergy and laity with whom I talked was more or less to say, this is a Church for Greeks and Russians, for Romanians and Serbs, not for English. But I persisted and the door opened. Now many Orthodox churches in Britain are using English, as those attending are often second and third generation and do not know the languages of their
parents, and there are also many converts of purely British background. Around two years ago, for the first time, we formed in the British Isles an Assembly of the Orthodox bishops, involving all those who have parishes in this land. Most are resident here, some are living on the continent but nonetheless have pastoral responsibilities here, and this Assembly has about 14 bishops on it.

One of our first tasks has been to prepare a list of early saints in these lands, which we hope will be brought to the attention of our parishes and our people. Of course, such a list makes no claim to be exhaustive and we have singled out one key figure, who is St Alban, the proto-martyr of Britain; then we have selected about ten other prominent figures, such as St Patrick of Ireland and St Cuthbert of Lindisfarne. St Chad of Lichfield, I think, comes in, and St Augustine of Canterbury. We’ve also prepared a fuller list of about a hundred,
which includes certainly St Ealdhelm, St Birinus and our own, or my own St Frideswide of Oxford. So I hope that this will contribute to promoting a knowledge of and devotion to our pre-Schism roots. The saints form role models and the fact that they are local saints can make us feel that we belong in a more particular sense to the same family as they do.

DR: How might it be possible for St Ealdhelm to be recognised as the patron saint of Wessex, at least in the Orthodox Church if not in any other? Is there a process for this?

MK: I consider it very important that we in the Orthodox Church honour the local saints from the first millennium. At that time there was full unity between the Christian East and the Christian West, and therefore the ancient saints of the undivided Church here in the British Isles should be considered Orthodox saints. And we also ought to know about them and to remember them. In my opinion we don’t need any formal procedure for recognising these early saints. If there is evidence that they lived before the Schism, that they were honoured as saints in that period, that there was already a devotion to them, then
automatically we can consider them Orthodox saints. So we already recognise St Ealdhelm as a saint, to be commemorated in our Church. I go on pilgrimage each year to the Saxon church at Bradford-on-Avon, which is associated with him, and we celebrate the Orthodox Liturgy there. This has gone on for 20 years or more.

For St Ealdhelm to be acclaimed as the patron of Wessex, again perhaps no formal -procedure is necessary. We can just start giving him that title and hope that it will catch on among our Orthodox people. And perhaps when I next go on pilgrimage, as I shall do this
coming July, to Bradford-on-Avon, I will use that title.

Metropolitan Kállistos conducts a service at Bradford-on-Avon’s Saxon church of St Laurence

DP: I understand that you don’t normally speak in public without bringing an icon with you. The icon of the angel of silence. Would you like to say more about that?

MK: What do we mean by silence? Is it just negative? Is it simply a pause between words, an absence of speech? Surely we should go much further than that. Silence, understood in a deeper sense, is something positive. Silence in a creative sense is making space within ourselves so that we can listen and making space within ourselves so that we can relate, so that we are open to the other, whoever the other is. Whether it is a friend, or whether it is God. So in this way the ability to be silent means also the ability to relate to others and to listen to them. In this way silence is not an absence but a presence, not emptiness but fullness. And without this kind of creative silence, the ability to listen, we are not fully human. Therefore silence is one of the deep characteristics of our personhood.
Unfortunately, in our contemporary society, silence is less and less easy to discover. Wherever we go we are assailed by noises, whether intrusive music in a restaurant or mobile phones on the train. I am often shocked that people in their homes in the evening seem to have the television on all the time even if they are not listening to it. Perhaps there is a fear of silence in many people because they are not really in contact with their inner depths, and so if the outer noise stopped they might not know what to do. Silence helps us to be in contact with the deep levels within ourselves and in this way silence helps to make us genuinely personal. Without silence, we become superficial. One of the phrases applied to Jesus Christ is ‘the Word that came out of silence’. That is a phrase found in an author of the early 2nd century, St Ignatius of Antioch. It is a very suggestive phrase. Unless our
words come out of silence, they will lack a depth of meaning. But if we have within ourselves the dimension of silence, then we shall be able to use words not just as chatter, not just as a way of filling in a gap, but as a means of communicating with others. If the word comes out of silence then it will have depth. It will be effective. It will communicate. Most of our words don’t come from silence and therefore there is within our speech a great deal of triviality. Words are easier to produce today than ever before through all the modern
means of technology, but this doesn’t make our words more filled with meaning.

DP: Does St Ignatius relate in any way to the Desert Fathers?

MK: The people whom we usually describe as the Desert Fathers were the early Christian monks in the Egyptian desert in the 4th century. Ignatius is earlier; we really know very little about his life, except that he was Bishop of Antioch – therefore we associate him with an urban centre – and that he died as a martyr in Rome. I’m glad you mentioned the Desert Fathers, because they played a key part in my life when I was about 16, before I’d made my first visit to an Orthodox church. I bought a book on impulse. It was The Desert Fathers, by Helen Waddell. There are a few books in our lives, perhaps only two or three, that have really changed our outlook, and for me this was one such book. What I loved were the so-called sayings or apophthegmata of the Desert Fathers, short anecdotes, pithy remarks, that immediately caught my imagination. In my research and teaching at Oxford I’ve continued to have a deep interest in the desert of Egypt and the early monks. But deserts can come in many different forms. They don’t necessarily have to be full of sand and it’s worth thinking that here in the north, here in Britain, in Wessex, there were indeed deserts, but very often they would have been forests. Also, many of the early British saints lived on islands just off the coast. So the desert exists in a land like Britain in a much greener form. But in all these cases, whether it is a sandy desert, a forest or a deserted offshore island, a desert is a place of silence, of stillness, a place exactly where people can learn to listen to God and that gives them the power to listen to one another as well. From the desert, the early fathers, whether in Egypt or in Britain, often went out from their solitude into the cities, into the royal court, and their experience of silence gave them an ability to speak to others in a way to which others would listen. It gave them the power to speak words of healing and hope, sometimes words of judgement. But they could not have done this if
they had not learnt to live at a depth in their own inner silence.

St Laurence, Bradford-on-Avon

DP: Your Grace, could you speak on how to access this inner silence through meditation?

MK: I have been very much impressed by John Main’s approach to meditation and one
of his key points is that in our meditation it will help us to use a word that will act as a focus.
The word that he chooses is maranatha, the ancient Aramaic word meaning ‘come, Lord’, or
‘the Lord comes’. In my case I have found great help in a prayer not of a single word but a short phrase, the prayer that in the Orthodox Church we know as the Jesus Prayer

In its most common form, this runs, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me’. It can be said in a variety of languages. It originated in Greek and was then passed to Slavonic. I myself say it in English. The central point of the prayer is the name ‘Jesus’: there is a feeling that within this name, the name given to Christ at his incarnation, is a special power. It’s not a magic talisman but names do have meaning. To address somebody by their personal name can be a very powerful thing to do. It can be an expression of love and
of closeness, and in the same way this is true of the name of Jesus. So this short phrase, the Jesus Prayer, is frequently repeated in Orthodox usage. A mere mechanical repetition will achieve very little, but if it is said with faith and with attentiveness then it can prove very forceful in our own inner life. So there’s a real parallel here between John Main’s use of maranatha and our use of the Jesus Prayer. In both cases we are using a form of words, carefully chosen, words with a special meaning which will act as a focus, a point of
concentration in our prayer.

DP: And the unusual thing about this is that it is used in the same way that meditation is used in the East, that is, attentive repetition and correct posture.

MK: There are very significant parallels in non-Christian religions. Yoga uses short phrases, mantras, and emphasises particular postures. There are close similarities particularly in the tradition of Muslim mysticism, among the Sufis. There may have been mutual influences at work. That’s not very clear. But perhaps there was no direct influence. Perhaps humans, being similar in their make up and structure, come to similar conclusions and adopt parallel
practices without any direct interaction.

In the Orthodox tradition of the Jesus Prayer, the recitation can be regulated so as to co-incide with the rhythm of the breathing, and this on the whole is something where it’s good to have personal guidance. Control of the breathing is not essential. You can say the Jesus Prayer without any attention to the breathing, but this is an immediate parallel with both the Sufis and the Yogis. The difference would be that, in the case of the short phrases that the Sufis or the Yogis are using, there is no reference to Jesus Christ, whereas for us in the
Orthodox Christian tradition the prayer is specifically addressed to Jesus. There are parallels in the West as well among the saints of these islands. Particularly during the 14th century there was great devotion to the name of Jesus, so this is a form of praying, repeated use of the holy name, that is also found in our own lands. For example, it’s much emphasised by Richard Rolle of Hampole in Yorkshire and so it is not simply something characteristic of the Christian East. It belongs to our own local tradition as well.

A modern icon of St Ealdhelm

DP: Walking in here I see some absolutely beautiful icons. I have a few also in my own home. There is some power that draws you into the icon.

MK: Icons, if we are to understand their true nature, are part of an act of prayer and worship. The icon at its best is also a thing of beauty. Many people collect icons and keep them in their homes because they find them aesthetically attractive. That is not wrong, it can indeed be a beginning that will lead on to many other things. The first thing that attracts people to the icon is its beauty, but there is more to it than an attractive object designed to make our home or the church look nice.

I would say the icon is a door into the communion of saints. Through the icon we can enter into communion with the person depicted in the icon. The icon is a place of meeting with the person depicted, a point of encounter. Or if the icon depicts a scene, like the birth of Christ or the Transfiguration, it is a way for the person who prays before the icon to enter into the mystery depicted. So in this way there is power in the icon. Putting it in a more theological way, we say the icon communicates divine grace. And we can certainly talk of
venerating icons. We don’t worship the icon – it is wood and paint – but it is wood and paint that have been used to reveal the glory of God and it is wood and paint that can enable us to enter into relation with the communion of saints, with the departed members of the Church.

So one important part of our Orthodox efforts to come to know the early saints of these lands is to paint their icons. Usually there’s no existing tradition of how to paint the early saints of Britain, because at that time probably the use of icons had not been widely established in these lands. So we have to build up a new iconographic tradition, though in some Anglo-Saxon art we do have specific portraits of the saints which can be a starting point.

DP: It’s understood that an icon can be a portal to the saints. People can still attain communion with those great teachers who have passed. It just happens.

MK: In our worship we reach out beyond space and time. A Buddhist could say that he knew Buddha personally. A Mohammedan could say the same about the Prophet. And we Christians say that of Jesus Christ. We do not simply know facts about Christ and the saints. We know them. And a picture can help to establish a link. This is evident in secular society. It doesn’t have to be explicitly religious – people today value photographs of their relatives and friends, and put them on the mantelpiece. So photography is a form of
iconography if you like, which establishes communion with persons. The icon is expressing a deeply rooted instinct among human beings. Of course there are traditions that teach the renunciation of images, and that you’ll find in Islam and in Buddhism and also in Christianity. We have in Christianity two approaches, the positive which works with icons, pictures, words, and then the negative approach which says that God is greater than all our images and words, and therefore we can approach Him not only through words and pictures but through silence.

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