To answer this simple question means telling a story. This is a ridiculously long story, and to tell the whole truth would mean telling a story encompassing my life to this point, an entire family history, the history of a country, the history of the world, and the universe. I’m not going to do that here. But when I think about my relationship with God, these are the things which come to mind.
And, who cares, anyway? Not many people, I am sure. But I have not sufficiently explained to anyone else why I formally asked to be received into the Orthodox Church in February, 2019. First, despite there being only a couple of people who are interested, I tell the story because it might be of purely anecdotal interest to somebody – like reading a short story for enjoyment. And, second, because the story of God in a person’s life is sometimes a true story, and, to quote a phrase, the truth will set you free. Finally, I do so because a Christian should not keep his mouth shut forever about this subject: a Christian has been called by God to step outside the world and the preoccupations of the mass of other people, or the people in a natural condition. And, more often than not, the voice of God is in some book, or some word from another person. I don’t particularly want to be that person, but I am, in this little essay.
I intend to keep my style of writing to that tone of voice which resembles a report, a scientific account. This is not a hymn, or a sermon to those who share my presuppositions. I write as if I were one of you, in the world, and looking objectively at this man who, in 2018 was a man of the world, and in 2019 became something else.
From the age of seventeen I began studying every kind of subject which is available to Western people. European poetry, and literature, languages ancient and modern, physics and biological science, ancient and modern history, music and various instruments; particularly, I studied philosophy. I read all of the works of the great philosophical tradition in the West. For around ten years, if I was not earning a living as a TA and regular soldier, I was reading some book, or writing one of my own. Sure, I learned many things, and learned how to feel and see in many different ways, but adhering to the spirit of brevity, I found myself heading more and more toward some central position which seemed to be missing from it all. I wrote a book about Martin Heidegger’s philosophy in 2006/7 during my PhD studies at Liverpool which expresses just this sense that something drastically powerful and important is simply absent from philosophy, science, and culture in general. By the age of thirty-five I was exhausted by the search. I never had much luck in making a profession or a living from teaching the stuff I had learned. And so my life consisted during these years of breadwinning as a soldier, or an engineer and businessman.
I can’t deny that I swim in the contrary direction to the majority of people. I do incline to being alone, solitary, meditative, inner, by nature. But when I was a child I had wanted to serve my country as a heroic soldier. As a young man of twenty-three I applied myself to getting into what I saw as my Army, and would not let anybody stop me. Various people inside the British Army tried to stop me, but I got in. So, with the rank of Corporal in the Reserves, I found myself in Iraq in 2007, on a six month tour with the Royal Welsh 2nd Battalion.
1 Platoon, A Company, to be exact; and it is important to mention the exact unit because you are never alone when you are part of a big operationally deployed unit. I earned a commendation for an event involving combat, and contact with Iraqi insurgents. I think I did my part in my Company. But I did find myself alone some time toward the end of the tour, in absolute solitude and in an unbearable fear. It was a moment of fear, shame, and mental pain so great that my only recourse to was to verbally pray to a force in life which could bring about a miracle. For the first time in my life, and I hope the last, I asked for God and particularly the human God, Christ, to help me. In return for that miracle, I told God that I would become a Christian, and, at least, never follow any other kind of God.
As a poet and writer, I had more than dabbled with mythical and ancient Greek pagan gods, and metaphysical forces of nature before that moment; but never afterwards. It seemed to me that an atheist or a pagan sort of person should have submitted to the worst, most terrifying nightmare as something which the atheist or pagan life-situation actually encourages. That is, an atheist or mere philosopher should be ready to accept as fate a great explosion and great amount of bloodshed as something which is okay and natural in life; and that an atheist or pagan should feel happy to take responsibility for it. I couldn’t do that, and I couldn’t accept it; so I recognised the importance of a human and suffering God.
The first reason why I am Christian now is this: around 2011, aged about 35 years old, I took up the practice of meditation, spiritual yoga, Buddhism, or whatever you want to call it in English. I mean the Indian or Tibetan or Japanese practice of ‘mindfulness’ or Transcendental Meditation, popularised by a few Indian mystics in the USA in the 1960s, and latterly by some eminent popular culture figures such as David Lynch or George Harrison.
Up until that point, I had suffered what I then and now thought of as mental disorders: I was often incredibly ambitious and proud; I was self-centred or selfish and self-obsessed to a high degree. I was also dissatisfied with myself. I had other more personal problems: I had been terrified of sleeping alone in a dark room for all of my life up to that point; and I was painfully self-conscious when with other people. There was a profound weakness inside me, a vulnerability about what other people were thinking about me. And, in earlier years, I had suffered the most excessive and chronic episodes of depression. Depression makes it sound commonplace: I mean something like what there is no English word for: just despair, like being dead and yet forced to pretend to live, constantly in pain. There had always been that in the back of my mind. Now, when I began to meditate daily, I gradually stripped these problems away. I have found that what I now call Prayer to God, which is the higher and truer form of Transcendental Meditation, is a very powerful medicine for the mind and body. I now consider that what characterises a saint, and what can perform actual miracles for the health of others, and what can allow God to alter the course of nature, is that the saint lives constantly in this exact condition of praying continuously.
The one praying must follow a discipline. The discipline as I understood it from a study of eastern yoga over a few years worked. And, to make it work, it was necessary to do the following: to sit in a particular cross legged posture for a certain period, and regularly, daily. To let the mind pay attention to either or both of the following: the in and out of your natural breathing rhythm, and to a mantra or short prayer or saying. As a result of this simple instruction, and with practice day after day, those purifications of the mind take place which, in my case at least, I had been looking for ever since becoming a youth.
In later years I have found that the same practice is acknowleged, and has been expounded, by a certain Eastern Orthodox Christian saint, who is considered a Pillar of Orthodoxy.
This prayerful state is that thing which was missing from Western culture, and which I had sought after for nearly twenty years, and traces of which I had not found in the literature, science, or general culture and education of the philosophy, or even in the religion of England and the West generally. For instance, the great and recently canonised Cardinal Newman belonged to both the Anglican and Catholic Church, and represents a highest religious instinct in Victorian England. And yet, in his three foundational principles for his view of the Church of England, he lists: the importance of dogma, the importance of the sacraments in Church life, and finally, his anti-Roman instincts. He does not seem to have recognised the importance of prayer or meditation in any way. It is as if what can be found in the Fathers (with whose work he was very familiar) relating to the relationship to God directly through the Holy Spirit in prayer made no sense to him.
And another example: Soren Kierkegaard had been the only writer to ever force me to take Christianity seriously, by virtue of his prose and his incomparable intellect; and above all by his attention to the deepest problems of existence, which he treats at length, with sustained attention, and with focus. His work is simple in its focus, and usually appealing to the reader directly in his unique individuality. And yet, though he does insist on self-relation and winning your self and your eternal soul, he cannot explain how to do it, how to achieve it, other than by thinking your way through to this objective. But, you cannot think your way to complete being, I found. You must rather, ask for God to come to you, in prayer. How to do this, I had not found in Kierkegaard, because he seemed not to know the sublime simplicity and importance of this kind of prayer.
Broadly, two things happen to that person who will begin to meditate as I did. First, a feeling of terror as you willingly submit your mind to observation; and, what is terrifying about it is that you begin to watch your own vicious thoughts circle, fight back, then die. You are left, if you can meditate with sufficient devotion, with a mind completely empty, at peace. But if you have watched your own mind disappear, then whose mind do you now have in your head, so to speak? And, how can you live when your personality, your dreams, your vices, and pleasures have gone? Over months, I somehow lost all of my stupid and annoying self-importance. I confronted a set of real demons, devils, whatever you want to call them (you may call them fantasies, if you want), real devils which had been with me in my life, and saw them physically; and, after a fight which truly scared me a great deal, I felt them lose their control over me.
I have no time to discuss whether the devil or demons are real, here. I have always been sceptical. But that is what happened. Furthermore, I also at that moment, or during those months referred myself for help to an absolute good, a personality, or God, for help.
Now, this is significant, because the strict Buddhist view is that there is no God, and that meditation is meant as purely a kind of cleaning up, a hygienic washing away or burning away of sins, until there is emptiness. I however, gradually recognised a force waiting for me, a voice or a power, or energy which was aware of me. But I do not wish to write about the meditation too much in these kinds of intimate and long-winded detail. I do not aim to enlarge this essay beyond what is acceptable in a blog post. So I will keep quiet about other details of prayer, meditation, and the cleansing of the mind and body.
Permit me to extend this part of the essay with the following apposite and irremediable problems. Namely, that I found that meditation also both demands and encourages a new approach to ethical behaviour. That is, when you come from meditation, and then proceed to live life as before, you find a new regenerative vitality in your life; you feel more confident, and yet more gentle; happier and less preoccupied with your own advantage, less angry and confused by things. For instance, I have always had a physical readiness to defend myself physically against people or things; it is one of my inner compulsions, a genetic inheritance maybe. As a child, my code of conduct consisted of measuring up other boys for their physical usefulness in a fight, and frequently testing them out with punches and wrestling. This continued into adulthood, but more as a nervous attitude toward people than as an actual approach to people. I stopped making reasons to hurt people like this when I was 16 years old; and yet, the attitude was still there. Gradually, and due to meditation, I no longer have this kind of fear, or defensive attitude; the power of God is my help, as it were; and, I am purely God’s instrument.
But note that, true ethical being only came to me when I had become a Christian. At this time, I was simply a person who meditates. And so, I had found God, and so from around my 35th year, I had no doubt in my mind about the existence of God. God the Father, so to speak. In addition, I overcame a serious preoccupation which had hobbled me, and made me a spiritual cripple for most of my life. I had kept more or less secret throughout my life that I wanted immortal fame, and everlasting memory as a poet, or writer: I wanted with all my heart to be remembered after my death. A stupid desire, no doubt; but it was beyond me to deal with it. When once I had entered the path of meditation, this desire left me; I watched its influence on me simply die on a few nights of prayer and watching. I woke up the subsequent days and almost smiled at my old self, which had seen the point of such a mad desire. In its place, I found the certainty that I would be immortal because, during prayer we simply are immortal, and we leave the world of time and space behind. I found myself facing with absolute certainty the eternity of life both in the here and now, and after any death. In my prayers, which were utterly silent, peaceful, and immovable or ‘impassive’, I let myself die every night; I die when I pray. I am immolated as a body, and even as a person my characteristics fall away. It is joyful (a word I never use), expansive, and without a time, space, or personality, you become all things and nothing. Gradually, the mind wanders, and I began to see visions, to hear a comforting very dim voice, far away amidst the visions of out of body flights and other events.
After a year or so of this discipline (and, it is a discipline because, even though I know it is where my strength comes from, and my happiness, I still find it hard to go to ‘meet God’) I started to wonder about the philosophical and metaphysical underpinnings of this activity and this meditation. Why is it necessary to do it, and why were we simply not born doing it, and living in this way? Why had it taken me forty years of life to discover it? And, why did God offer to human beings this fulfilment of life if he himself did not somehow understand what it means to be human?
Questions like these were resolved finally only when I became a Christian. But I should point out now that I began to see that God can become man, and did become a man in a very dramatic way, as Christ. And, that we are somehow faulty, but that we can become perfect. And so, I understand the doctrine of original sin.
This is a very controversial subject, and I have hesitated about revealing it at all, to anyone. I stress that again, I did not learn about God speaking to people in literature, or from others. I found it by personal experience alone. But I do not feel completely isolated in my relationship to God, which is entirely personal; I am comforted because, in his Triads, Saint Gregory Palamas refers to Saint Gregory, thus:
‘As for the desire for God, by purifying all the faculties and powers of the soul and body, and by gaining for the mind a purification that endures, it makes man receptive to deifying grace.
‘”This is why the Divine One purifies the man who desires Him: by this purification, He creates men of divine character, conversing as with friends with those who have attained this state; and (to use a daring expression) uniting Himself as God with gods, and making Himself known to them perhaps to the same extent that He knows those who are known to Him.”’ (The Triads, III, iii, 12).
I began to hear God speak to me in a simple but direct way when I was around forty years old. When working exceptionally long hours over electrical problems, alone night after night, working on a circuit board and with computer coding problems, I would find myself without a way forward. And a voice or sense of comfort which I interpreted as a voice in English, came to me, and told me that He would help. The help then came. This was how it began, and I do not ask for more. I do not wish to do what might in this age look like madness, and tell you of the voice of God in too great detail.
But I have found that prayer deifies us, and can make us gods. This, as a result of disciplined prayer, emptying out of our own self, abandonment of earthly hopes, and by the sincere declaration that we wish to be the instrument of God here. And, when we have found what happiness it is to throw aside our own personality, what is left but to ask for the blessing that God himself will come with us, and become our new personality? Again, I only refer to St Gregory Palamas to make myself look less isolated and insane to other people. In my own mind, I am certain; but St Gregory held that the Christian who can pray to God becomes a true son of God, and his friend; and that they speak to one another as friends; and that this is because the Paraclete or the Holy Spirit derives from God as His energy, and can truly communicate with people.
Since becoming a Christian of the Orthodox Church, when I meditate, I go to meet God; and speak with Him, and listen. I stress, though it may not be my place to do so, that this is after nine or ten years of this practice.
And don’t doubt that I am not a perfect listener; maybe I don’t hear or want to listen to God; and there is the chance that it is my own desire speaking to me, instead of the Holy Spirit, at times. But I am certain that God does speak to me. Even about the details of my choices and what I should say to others, or what decision I should make. This is the new life which I accepted when I became a Christian; from a worldly perspective, you might say that I have lost my mind. And, yes, that is truly the case. It may not be for others to do the same, but I have said to myself and to the Father every day since, that: it is not my will, but Thy Will be Done. That God speaks to his saints, and to his lower creatures, such as I am, is furthermore integral to the third reason why I am a Christian. See below.
I say nothing about my marriage. I am divorced, and divorced when I joined the Church. That becoming a Christian should involve the end of a fifteen year marriage is a paradox on the outside. On the inside, and if you knew what I do, it would make sense. But I do not want to discuss here these personal things, not for my own sake, but for the sake of others involved.
However, I have a son with whom, after coming home from Iraq and in fulfilment of my promise to the human God, I used to attend a Church of England service in Chester. I fell away from it after a year, not finding any home there. Many years later, on a rare visit to my boy, I found that he had grown yet more intellectually able (if it were possible) and that he had determined to find and start going to a local Orthodox Christian church in Chester. He did not want to go alone, and so I went with him each Sunday, and some other days in the week. In between these attendances, we would dispute about the history of the Church, the councils, and the meaning of the Trinity. He used to browse the internet, learning about these things in great detail, and put me to shame on many counts about the Fathers, Roman and Greek history, and theology. I used to attend the church with him and stood for the service, as we used to the Army. I would make the sign of the cross, stand, and bow my head; I would venerate the icons at the church, just for form’s sake, and because other people thought that this was holy ground.
I was at first subtly moved by the prominent place of the twelve Apostles of Christ mounted on the iconostasis, and their naïve and human faces staring at me, as if they were asking me to join them. They seemed to ask me to stand with them in my time, 2000 years down the road, as alive now as they were then. The priest in his gorgeous robes would cense the small clean and beautiful place and I along with the others, men and women, and some children, would move aside for him and the children bearing the cross and other items. The formal liturgy went on, each week, almost exactly the same, and I got used to it. In my heart was an immovable scepticism. For me, it was not more than the ceremony which was observed at a briefing on the parade square, or some formal ceremony of the corps of drums when I used to wear Scarlets and bulled boots, when the flag was lowered for the evening.
Around six months later we were invited as a family to join the Church as catechists, with a view to becoming Orthodox Christians. For the sake of my son, and for Christ, whose icon and whose story this ancient ceremony of remembrance instilled in my heart (all symbolic to me only at that time), I agreed to start learning. My catechism consisted of weekly meetings at the priest’s house, and my own reading of a four volume work by Father Thomas Hopko, and other works by Timothy Ware. Many of the members of the Church were Romanian, Russian, Bulgarian, Cypriot, or Greek, with some English people holding established offices.
I alone was chrismated in February 2019; family problems had interfered with my son being there with me. Over the one or two years, my views on meditation, the presence of the Holy Spirit, and finally the human presence of Christ – and each of these as a unified Being – had coalesced into an acceptance of the Orthodox creed and the Orthodox view of the Trinity. I no longer had any philosophical problems, so to speak. At the same time, my view of how to live in an ethical way took a surprising turn, as I found myself no longer willing to contemplate some of the bad things I had once thought manly and completely okay – things such as lying, stealing, or harming other people. Not that I did these before hand, but if I had had to, then I would not have had any compunction. You simply cannot be a Christian or engage in private or liturgical prayer without also, as an absolute necessity, being a good man: that is to say, unless you can also maintain a truly ethical conduct of life. We have developed an eternal soul which cannot be compromised.
The Orthodox Church’s attitude toward the Bible, God, and tradition is something which swept away the lingering doubts I had had as a Westerner. The greatest assault on Christianity and the main reason why the United Kingdom as a state is not a Christian state any more is that scholars in the West have torn to shreds the Bible as a historical document, and put to question the existence, or at least the truthfulness othe Gospel account of his life. Today, in the West, popular books about religion are written by agnostics, or just as often, by atheists. Even books by Christians express a half- hearted belief in Christ. This is owing entirely to the tradition in Germany, France, and Britain, of a tradition of critical scholarship and examination of manuscripts. This is a difficult work, and involves high levels of intellectual integrity. When we have learned that the Old Testament is flawed in this way or that, we have listened, and agreed. So, we conclude, God did not speak to the prophets, and the Gospel writers can’t be relied on. Therefore, there is nothing truthful about the Gospels.
Let us be brief about this; somebody will think I am a fool to be Christian, for precisely the reason above. But, and again, I have no time to be too precise about this: this objection simply does not matter to an Orthodox Christian, and never has mattered to the Church. From the first, we understand that Christ did not leave any document for guidance. He gave his message and his acts and suffering to a small number of people who were, being human, fallible. They wrote the Gospels, or passed on the stories for others to write. And these in turn failed, and made mistakes in the message. Some of the early gospels, some of the early Christians, some of the Church coucils made mistakes, or were wrong. Christianity as an organised religion has taken time to build, with the active help of the Holy Spirit.
In a recent book, ‘Heaven and Hell’, a popular writer on Christianity who is also an atheist (Bart D. Ehrman) tells us of his fall from belief because the texts which he continues to study, despite not having any faith in them, show signs of having been tampered with, having been edited by the writers who transcribed them; and he mentions that the Church councils of Nicea and Constantinople had an effect on framing the beliefs which Christians thereafter had.
Now these facts may have a negative effect on the belief of an Evangelical, and particularly one who is not particularly patriotic; and they may have an effect on the Church of England (again, an Erastian Church, whose faith was always based on the success of the state); but the Orthodox know that the Holy Spirit guided the composition of the Gospels, and the outcome of the Councils, and the Spirit was heard not entirely clearly by either of them. The Church can and must therefore, as I myself do, listen and wait for guidance to come over many years, over centuries. It is not commonly spoken of but it is obvious: Christ never wrote anything; it is for us to hold on to the little we know; and also to respect the councils of bishops and Fathers where they struggled to find out a path forward in agreement with the Holy Spirit, the Apostles, and each other.
The Orthodox belief does not change very much, although it did change slowly, and has taken twenty centuries to get where it is: and where is it? More or less exactly where it was when in the first centuries after Christ’s death and resurrection. But the Holy Spirit comes to the Church, because it is God’s Church. And in summary, I have seen and can recall from all of my studies, no valid intellectual refutation of the Church’s creed, its position on history, or the study of Christ’s life and his Creation of the world. In effect, of course, I don’t think that there can be an such refutation, because the statements of the Creed are true.
As a minimum, speaking for myself only, I derive from the change in my life which began in Iraq, and continued through my Chrismation and regeneration into a new life, the sense of absolute certainty that all will be well; because God is with me. And with His Church, which effectively answers the question 'Why am I a Christian,' QED.