It is only thanks to an annual break in a remote place in France, without the internet, that I have time to write up a week’s diary. In this place, called ‘Daybreak’ in French, that you will not find on any map, where the old people speak ‘gallo’ and not French, there is still a sense of the old saints, one of whom lived here as a hermit over a millennium ago. Since, in modern France, Catholicism has been dead once the 1960s and the country is wholly given over to the new consumerist paganism from the USA that has replaced it, the sense of the old saints is the only alternative.
Here is one week in my life, not typical in its details, because every week is different and unexpected, but typical in terms of its fullness.
A new month begins and I reflect that today is the 25th anniversary of the death of a man who lived under the pseudonym of Mavr Stepanich. He was a Red Army soldier, who in 1944 was trapped by the Germans in the western Ukraine. Facing certain death in capture (there was no mercy on the Eastern Front), he rook the identity papers from a dead body, that of a soldier called Mavr Stepanovich, who was a Polish Ukrainian fighting on the German side, and dressed himself in his uniform. When he got captured by the Germans, they sent him to Germany as a Ukrainian slave-worker.
After the War, pretending to be a Polish citizen who had been sent to Germany, he managed to get sent to France as a Polish refugee. Here he worked as a nightwatchman until his retirement in 1980. He told me his story in 1993, more or less as a deathbed confession and told me his real name. Most of his life he had lived under a dead man’s name, frightened that he would be found out. His gravestone bore his assumed name, not his real one: even in death he bore another man’s name. So were people caught up in the cruel history of the twentieth century.
There are only two baptisms this afternoon, Moldovan and Latvian. At the Latvian baptism, the young godfather’s wife is Peruvian. Quite the most striking woman I have ever seen, like some Inca princess, certainly not of European blood. The fall of the Soviet Union meant that this Latvian Russian had met her in England and married her. What a destiny…..From Peru to Latvia…What will their children look like?
Latvia was ravaged by the EU. Their factories closed, two thirds of Lithuanians and one half of Latvians have to live abroad. They have been cut off from their parents, except by skype (symbolically for the Baltics, an Estonian invention) and their children grow up speaking German, English, Spanish, French or Italian, relatively ignorant of their parents’ culture and language. The minority cultures and languages that the Soviet Union failed to extinguish are being extinguished by the European Union’s MacDonaldization. I have one Latvian parishioner, whose six children live in six different EU countries. Her family has been broken and scattered by history, her grandchildren scarcely know one another. Little wonder that she reckons that she was better off under the Soviet Union.
Two confessions. One enquiry. Two men lighting candles – they are working tomorrow. The Vigil service.
I arrive at church at 8.00, there are things to get ready and a proskomidia that would take all night, if I had the time. There are about forty people for confession, some come to me, some, mainly Romanians, go to the second priest, who arrives a little after me. There is a huge crisis in Romania, as in the Baltics: 3.8 million, mainly the young people, have left Romania since the country was forced to join the EU just a few years ago. They do not want to be here, but there is no alternative: starve or emigrate. Here is the wonderful European Union.
At church there used to be a prostitute. She has been radiantly happy ever since I married her to her husband and had children. She was deeply ashamed of what she fell into in the past. I am the only person in the world who knows her secret. Now she lives in X. in her new life, but has come today.
A man I have never seen before comes to confession with a secret that he has kept for ten years. He cries as he confesses. He is thankful for confession. At last he has said what he had to repent for.
There are only about 130 at church today. As usual a good twenty are people I have never seen before. As there are so many children and about half the adults take communion, we use two chalices. After the liturgy I have the usual queue of people. Two want a moleben, others want to make appointments for baptisms and house blessings, one wants me to fill in a form, one is asking about weddings. About average.
In the morning I catch up with e-mails after the weekend. I get about fifteen a day which need answering. Another fifteen are spam or can be deleted. Most are from England, but a good minority come from Russia, the USA or elsewhere. The phone does not stop ringing.
In the afternoon I have a funeral in an east Norfolk village. The countryside is lovely. What a good place to die. Aged 89, the woman I am burying was born on the other side of the world in Sakhalin, by the Sea of Japan. The village Church of England church is opened to me by the churchwarden. He is well into his sixties, but he tells me that he is the youngest member of the congregation.
Now, as we sing ‘Eternal Memory’, she who is on her last journey is being buried not far from the sound of the waves of the North Sea. She lived through Stalin, the Second World War, the trauma of Gorbachov and then emigration aged 78 to England. She made a deathbed confession to me and I gave her communion two weeks ago. It was a wonderful confession. Another destiny. From the Sea of Japan to the North Sea, half way round the world.
In a melancholy mood, on the way back I think about B., the Russian prince who lived in a council house in C.. He died twenty years ago. He was a brilliant man who came to England in 1946. He had suffered collectivization, seen the deaths of all the members of his family at the hands of Stalin’s thugs and then been kidnapped to Germany by the Nazis. He came to England, worked hard, made all the furniture in his house himself, sang in the Church choir. He was a clean soul.
Then my thoughts shift to my great-aunt Madge, who was a sales girl at Harrod’s who died in the Blitz in October 1940. I never knew her, but have a photo of her. There is no-one to pray for her, except me. What a tragedy. Recently married to my great-uncle, she had hardly lived. Why did she die under a German bomb? Her husband, my great-uncle Albert, died in 1948. They say of a broken heart. He never recovered from losing her.
Fifty miles from home I take communion to L., who is ill and lives here in sheltered accommodation. She is aged 84 and knew Fr Ambrose (Pogodin) in London. He was a wonderful priest, who translated works of the Fathers from Latin. A very gifted man, he went to America, but nothing worked out for him, as he was a man of integrity who found any sort of compromise very difficult. How much talent has been lost to the Church as a result of the politicking and narcissism of some bishops. There is only one person in the diocese for them – themselves. May God rest his gentle soul.
In this town where I am near Cambridge, we need a church. I tried to buy one here three years ago, but could not raise the money. I discover that it is still available. I can see no other suitable premises. We are so desperately short of money to buy suitable premises and provide priests. Now there are at last three of us priests here in the east of England, but I still need another nine.
On the way back, I stop to see the M. family, who are parishioners. We talk. There is much to say.
In the evening there are many phone calls.
Today I leave at 7.00 am to get to O.. It is fifty miles away and I need to see eleven people in all. One of these young men is there because he killed a man in a car accident. The story is sad. He had an argument with his girl-friend, drove away very angry and killed a young pedestrian through dangerous driving and negligence. He admits his guilt and says he deserved a longer sentence. I know that he is haunted by the life that he cut short. And he will be haunted by it for the rest of his life. Can he pray himself out of his fault? What a burden on his conscience.
Afterwards I stop over to talk to F., who has phoned me, saying that she has marital difficulties. Then I call in on T.. She is Russian, aged 28, and has had health problems. I confess her. She lives with a Catholic man, also from Eastern Europe. I meet him. He is a very kind man, who is deeply in love with her, just the right man for her. He is ready to join the Church for her. I encourage them to think about getting married and starting a family.
Today I head for Lincolnshire, 100 miles away. Thirty-five years ago I used to live near here. I have two baptisms in the kitchen of a family here. They have two children. They had not had them baptised yet as there was no priest. I bless her house with the baptismal water. Then I meet a woman in a small town. She is from a town on the Volga. Now she works as a cashier in a supermarket in a small town in England. She is Orthodox, but used to go to the local Church of England church, as there is no Orthodox church here, but ‘when they played drums at Easter’, she left and has not returned. She says she wants the real Church. Her 16-year old daughter has conquered cancer, and the mother wants to get married. We fix a date. I bless her house. Nearby is a town with a Methodist church for sale for £250,000. It would be ideal for us. There are a lot of Orthodox here, I could spend a week here.
I open my e-mails. From my old parish in Portugal, I hear that V. has died. A former KGB operative in Prague, he repented and in 1993 I baptised him and then married him to his Czech wife. He came to church last Sunday in Lisbon and everyone noticed that he looked very pale and very tired, not well at all. He went to sit on a shady bench outside the church. Suddenly he had a heart attack and within seconds he had died. He was aged 68. I will serve a panikhida for him in Colchester today. I already have a moleben to serve today for two people, ordered last Sunday.
In the news I read that a group of Russians have been found in Siberia. Orthodox refugees, they had been living in isolation for decades and had not yet heard that the atheist Soviet Union had fallen. What must their lives have been like?
I go to church. I serve the moleben and panikhida. I help clean the church, with the help of parishioners: they do most of the work. I get ready for a liturgy in Kent tomorrow.
Many phone-calls again.
It has been a full week, with many thoughts about death, which is very unusual, as I have very few funerals. But every week is different, as any priest will tell you.
Why aren’t you a priest? It is the only satisfying job left.